New Adventures in Old-Fi

Unearthing the Memphis Goons

High school Goons 1969

At first, it's impossible to resist calling "bullshit" on the tale of the Memphis Goons. What could be more Spinal Tap than a band of high school buddies who never made it out of their garage and yet, 25 years later, have released a single, full-length album, infomercial, and are currently working on a film? You see, at the heart of the Goons' legend is the fact that nearly a dozen hours of their home recordings from 1971-1973 only re-surfaced in 1995. So, is this attic full of master tapes the equivalent to finding a shoe box of Mickey Mantle rookie baseball cards, or just another rock & roll hoax meant to illustrate once again the fine lines between clever and stupid?

"Some people may find they like the Goons, and still others may be offended. But it's no hoax," says Robert Hull, the Goons's musical leader.

Indeed, the Memphis Goons are real, and are only now getting belated credit for being lo-fi before lo-fi was cool. And as with their spiritual brethren Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Guided by Voices, not everyone is convinced the Goons were a listenable outfit -- then or now. Yet few would argue with the notion that the Goons were ahead of their time. In fact, in Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama book, one critic went so far as to declare that "many who have heard the Goons' tapes can no longer listen to traditional, studio-produced rock anymore: the Beatles or the Goons' hick neighbor, Elvis Presley, sound far too tame, too contrived."

So, while Andy Warhol theorized that everybody could be a (rock) star for 15 minutes, the Memphis Goons have seemingly proved that you could not be a rock star for 25 years, and still show up to collect your due rewards anyway.

"I always followed music and obviously started reading about the success of things like Liz Phair, Guided by Voices, and the Palace Brothers," says Mark Raney, who, despite the fact that he's worked in Austin's medical community since 1981, has the distinction of having played in and managed the Goons as "Rover Rollover." "I realized lo-fi was happening and what we were doing back then is like what they're doing now. So, if there was ever a time to unleash the Goons, it looked like now...."

And while what Raney, Hull, and the others accomplished in those Memphis living rooms is certainly interesting, what separates the Goons from nearly every other garage band of that era is what they're doing right now. Teenage BBQ, a compilation of 20 Goons' tracks, came out last November on Shangri-La, a hip record store-cum-record label based out of Memphis, which first gained notoriety by launching the Grifters. Before that, however, Austin's own hip indie, Rise Records, earned what label owner Craig Koon calls "the distinction of releasing the first Goon record" by issuing "Soul Mode," a 7-inch with four tracks.

For lo-fi fans who may or may not have realized the four tunes on "Soul Mode" were vintage recordings, the single was a landmark -- remarkable simply for its lack of sophistication. And yet because Koon, like Shangri-La, operates out of a record shop (Sound Exchange), it appears the modern half of the Goons' legacy has initially grown out of the obsessive interests of audiophiles and collectors -- scavengers always on the lookout for underappreciated gems. And with boxes and boxes of recordings, the Goons could well be the mother lode.

Toys in the Attic

"I was beginning to think this conversation was going along a lot longer than I really wanted to deal with," says Koon of his first contact with Raney, who called Sound Exchange in 1994 to ask how he could market his homemade tapes Daniel Johnston-style. "We try to be helpful to customers, but after a while you're spending all day on the phone. The guy said, `Would you like to listen to the tape yourself if I brought it up?' In Austin, that's usually trouble. It's usually somebody who's making a living on the streets or singing about unicorns and the Armadillo World Headquarters. And I was hemming and hawing, trying to politely tell him to get lost, but when he says they recorded it at 17 in 1971, after sitting around listening to Beefheart and Zappa all day, I told him to bring it up. I thought it would probably be at least entertaining in a bad way."

Raney appeared a week later with tape in hand, just as the store was filling up with South by Southwest and record convention traffic. "After 30 seconds I'm thinking, `This is pretty bizarre music,'" says Koon of his first in-store play. "After two or three minutes I'm thinking, `This is great! Complete chaos.'" Before long, visiting customers began asking where they could buy the music they were hearing, and Raney began taking orders for freebie tapes right there and then. "When record collectors I knew from around the country began asking for it," says Koon, "I knew that it was not only something I liked, but also something other people might be interested in."

Consequently, Koon asked Raney on the spot if he could listen to some of the Goons' tapes and compile a single. When Raney agreed, the Memphis Goons became yet another SXSW discovery. "We called Robert, got some of the tapes transferred to DAT, and took their old high school yearbooks to Kinko's," says Koon. "We had ourselves a record."

But while Raney and Koon were working on the release of the Rise single, a friend of Hull's was also shopping the tapes to Shangri-La owner Sherman Wilmont in Memphis. Like Koon, Wilmont was immediately excited and offered not only to press a 7-inch, but also to proceed with a CD compilation. And with new boxes of tapes coming every six weeks or so for consideration, Wilmont says he was perfectly happy letting Rise issue the Goons' 7-inch first -- thereby laying the groundwork for later Shangri-La projects. So although the full-length project ultimately took another year to produce, in yet another SXSW twist, Wilmont says he used the time driving back and forth from Austin to make his Teenage BBQ selections. "Twenty-five hours of drive time to listen to the demos was certainly productive time," says Wilmont.

Ultimately, the resulting Teenage BBQ is a compelling mixture of oddball blues, swamp vocals, and goofy song structures. And while the recordings themselves sound like legitimate reel-to-reel jobs with some stupid magnet tricks thrown in for effect, Wilmont says Hull's recent trips into real studios to clean-up odd hisses, scratches, and age damage made a significant difference. Even then, Wilmont says he passed on a lot of the Goon's odder and more alienating, Beefheart-influenced material, choosing instead to focus on what he calls the band's "psychedelic period."

"A lot of the garage-sounding stuff is left over," says Wilmont. "I put the stuff I love on Teenage BBQ and hope other people who love other Goons stuff will do other things. But this is great for them, to be out on a Memphis label and finally get the attention they couldn't get in high school. It gives other people hope."

Children of Danger

It might not be an exaggeration to say that the only hope for many Seventies misfits like the Goons may have been music itself, particularly in a place like the Memphis suburb of Whitehaven -- a community developed, as its name suggests, to get away from the inner city's burgeoning African-American community. Amidst the uniformity of their surroundings, two outcast long-hairs joined forces: Robert Hull (aka "Xavier Tarpit") and Phil Jones (aka "Vanilla Frog"). Jones, the son of a Memphis musician/engineer, supplied the tape recorder, while Hull offered up his parent's supply of instruments, which his mother used to teach music in the local high schools. And while the duo may have ostensibly had their parent's support, neither was popular in school; in fact, the insert to the Rise single features the Whitehaven High track team with the caption of the "Memphis Goons Hate Society."

In time, the after-school sessions that Hull and Jones called the Unhatched Ostrich Egg begot the Memphis Goons, and Raney and Mike Lantrip (aka "Jackass Thompson") joined the fold. The mission was simple: record songs. "Everyone would write and then we'd record," says Raney of a band that mostly just switched out instruments. "It was never rehearsed. Everything was one take. Whereas most garage bands were about getting laid or trying to drink and drug, we were just in it to see how many songs we could put down on tape. In that sense, we were a lot more serious about it than most garage bands."

Obviously, from the diversity of the tapes, the Goons were also serious about honoring a hodgepodge of influences -- from Archie Bell and Bela Bartok to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Frank Zappa. In fact, Raney, in what he remembers as one of his few actual managerial duties, actually sent a tape and note to the latter influence, who, in an encouraging turn, requested the band send more demos to his Bizarre Records label.

Ultimately, the Zappa connection was an unfruitful alliance -- as was with the band and local radio. Raney arranged a listening session with Memphis powerhouse FM100 only to be told by the program director that the group "better quit." Nevertheless, the Goons continued recording and coming up with alternate band names, song titles, and album artwork -- all on scraps of paper Raney still has and plans to use in future album packaging. And what about playing live? The Goons simply didn't. In what's become perhaps the most enduring part of the Goons' legacy, the band reportedly played a sole gig in a carport, only to be literally stoned by neighborhood kids armed with bottlecaps and slingshots.

"And because it wasn't like we were playing gigs where we could sell product from the stage, we never saw it fit to release anything," reasons Raney.

With boxes upon boxes full of tapes, however, Hull and Raney agree that the band was an internal success from the start. Even after parting ways to attend college, the Goons managed to reunite on breaks, with those early-Seventies recordings comprising the bulk of Teenage BBQ. In 1971, Hull made the transition to the next logical haven for misfit youth -- rock criticism. At Creem, under the tutelage of legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, Hull wrote under the byline of "Robot Hull," and while covering standard rock & roll with a cautious eye, he also pitched stories about his own garage exploits.

"The Goons were always on my mind, we never broke up," says Hull, who nows live in Washington, D.C. "I would do something on it every year, trying to publish pieces about my own band. Once, I even got an advance to write a book about the ultimate garage band."

Don't Call It a Comeback

Although Hull's book was never completed, the final chapter would have to detail the inside story behind the band's best accolade yet: their Second Place showing in a list of "The Greatest Garage Recordings of the Twentieth Century." The source? Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama, of course. The author? Robot A. Hull. "It was just fortuitous," says Hull, of the timing of his article and the band's revival. "[Rolling Stone] knew I wasn't going to do a traditional piece, even if they didn't know I was in the Goons at the time. It was just another step towards giving me something to wave."

And so with the self-appointed title as one of the greatest pre-punk garage bands and the new releases to wave at interested labels and a segment of record buyers interested in lo-fi, Hull and Raney have indeed begun to display a knack for promotion they'd only hinted at with their Zappa letter-writing campaign and failed run at Memphis radio. In fact, Raney has just unveiled a new infomercial aimed at selling the Goon's releases -- a SXSW publicity stunt that will continue with Hull's upcoming film about the band's history. "It'll be tongue-in-cheek, like we do everything," says Hull of a project that sounds suspiciously like a well-known documentary about a fictitious rock band.

In yet another odd twist, Hull now maintains that the Rise single and Teenage BBQ may just be promotional items themselves, part of a careful plan aimed at bringing the Goons indie recognition prior to a major-label reissue. The Goons on a major label? Although Hull says he's reluctant to fully commit to the idea, he maintains that neither Rise nor Shangri-La have truly mined the band's catalogue for its best material.

In fact, Hull is reluctant to rule out the ideas of a full-fledged reunion with new recordings. "We do have a lot of songs we've never recorded, and we still know them," says Hull, who is now an executive producer for Time-Life Music, which repackages and direct markets vintage rock & roll. "But if we ever went into a studio again, we'd just get songs on tape and move on, keeping the same idea of spontaneity. Believe me, I know how to do a professional studio recording, but that would only take away from this."

What exactly "this" represents has perhaps yet to be defined. Are the Goons interesting because they were lo-fi pioneers, or simply because they've resurfaced 25 years later to a warm reception? Or is it just the story of how true music fans and smart revisionists with an eye for marketing somehow met in the middle? While the answers may just lie in the nearly 20 hours of tapes few but the Goons have heard -- or in new sessions, even -- Hull maintains that since the music's now out of the attic, the newest Goons' challenge is simply balancing the mystery, the legacy, and the music.

"I've run into other people, sometimes from record companies themselves, who are envious or jealous of the attention we're getting and say they're going to go find their old garage band tapes," says Hull. "But if they have anything, it's just a few songs and a `Surfin' Bird' cover. That we kept ours is a story. That people appreciate them now is a story. But it's the music that's pretty astounding.... We were young, in Memphis, and responding to the music and culture around us. It was an innocent, avant-garde reaction for high school kids to make. Even if you could do it now, it could never be like this."

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