Ross and Toby Emery can’t decide on exactly when they started Raging Arb & the Redheads. Considering that the band played its 20th anniversary show two years ago, 1984 would probably be a good guess. Still, as they sit on Ross’ front porch in midtown Ventura, reminiscing about the local music scene of the ’80s, the brothers are having problems coming to a consensus. There are signposts that help jog their memories — ex-girlfriends, old venues, weather patterns — but after 10 minutes of deliberation, neither is able to remember concretely when it all began. Ross admits he has trouble remembering a lot of things about those days — such were the times.
A date they can both agree on, though, is the one on which everything changed: July 4, 1988. That was the day police officers, decked out in riot gear, smashed up a massive Pierpont block party the Redheads were playing. To hear the Emerys tell it, this was like Ventura’s Kent State: arms were broken, people were maced, lawsuits were filed. No one is really sure what sparked the violence, but at that moment, the clamps came down on live music in the city, and have yet to let go.
“That was a turning point, the beginning of the end,” Toby says. “There were some political ramifications. The police chief resigned, the police involved were placed on suspension. It turned around the whole way the police were going to deal with the city of Ventura.”
It’s hard to say if that perception of the Independence Day Bust-up and its aftermath is accurate, or if distance, nostalgia and blurry memories have combined to inflate its significance. Nonetheless, the general feeling amongst those who were around back then is that as the ’90s dawned and Ventura started to grow, the scene was never quite the same. Police presence at concerts increased; throwing a house party and not having it get shut down two songs into a band’s set became more and more difficult. Before, things were much looser: Ross insists you could walk down the street drinking a beer and the cops would hardly give you any shit. It was a place where, aside from booze-addled bus trips to gigs in L.A., even the Redheads — considered by some old-schoolers to be a localized version of the Rolling Stones, in terms of their longevity, popularity and affection for rough-edged American roots rock — rarely felt the desire to leave. The atmosphere was more laid-back, more small-town, and the music reflected it. Nobody had delusions of grandeur, nobody seemed to take himself very seriously, and the community, as a self-contained universe, was better off because of it.
“It was not as manipulative, not as thought-out,” Toby recalls. “Everybody was doing it on the fly. We were all sparked up by the DIY thing. Kids were just taking that ethic and going with it. You didn’t have to be this trained person. We didn’t know shit. We just kind of picked it up.”
“It was a more naïve time,” he continues. “Later we got into dealing with club owners who are only into numbers and money and how many drinks were sold. It was more natural and spontaneous. The energy was a lot better.”
Meanwhile, 10 miles down the beach in the surfer enclave of Silver Strand, Oxnard teenagers were also harnessing that sense of independence to create their own self-contained universe. And they gave theirs a name: “Nardcore.” Although the scenes that popped up in Ventura and Oxnard in the early to mid-’80s were both driven by the ethics and ideals of punk, each one approached it differently. Whereas the Redheads interpreted punk the way bands like X and the Blasters did, as a revival of the true spirit of rock’n’roll, Oxnard-based groups such as Agression and Dr. Know saw it as a means of obliterating rock’s past and reclaiming it for themselves. They drew more from the visceral, pointed aggression of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, and thus the attitude was less about partying and simply having a good time than about emotional release. Not surprisingly, the Ventura scene had wider appeal: At their height, the Redheads swear they were capable of selling out the Ventura Theatre; in the heyday of Nardcore, getting 100 people to a show was considered a major success.
“The thing young people really lose touch on is how unpopular the music was,” says Ill Repute frontman John Phaneuf. “Now, you have Blink-182 and Good Charlotte, big bands that are built on a punk presence. But back then, Michael Jackson and Thriller was No. 1; disco was still sort of going. We were so far beneath the radar, no one thought of being a star.”
Regardless, the handful of punks that did exist in Oxnard managed to build an organic, close-knit family with a legacy that persists to this day. Bonds were forged out of alienation and disillusionment, conditions that stretched across ethnic and cultural boundaries; white surfers and skaters from the beach area hung out with young Latinos from the central part of the city, two groups that may never have mingled without the music to unite them. “All the bands were so tight because we were these misfits, these outcasts,” Phaneuf says. “We clung to each other.” The scene coalesced around Casa Tropical, a small, isolated bar located near the Oxnard Airport. The owners had lost their liquor license and essentially gave the bands and promoters carte blanche to do what they could to bring in a crowd. Aside from booking locals, they’d also try to snag whatever relatively big-name punk acts happened to be passing through on tour — Suicidal Tendencies, Bad Brains, the Adicts — a tactic that expanded Oxnard’s reputation as the hidden mecca of the Southern California hardcore movement. Then, music business veteran Doug Moody founded Mystic Records and, suddenly, Oxnard bands had a forum for getting their stuff heard outside the county. (Later, several bands accused Moody of mistreating them financially, but Phaneuf denies those claims: “A lot of people talk shit about him, that he didn’t pay bands and whatever, but in my heart, I know the guy didn’t make any money. He was living in the studio, shuffling around in his slippers while the place was a disaster. It’s not like he was rolling up in a limo.”)
Despite having similar influences and esthetics, there wasn’t a whole lot of crossover between musicians in Ventura and Oxnard in the ’80s. “We didn’t come to each other’s beaches,” Ross says, inferring that the often harshly territorial nature of the surfers at Pierpont and Silver Strand kept the bands out of each other’s neighborhoods and their respective cities altogether. But Phaneuf maintains the divide had more to do with style than any extra-musical hostilities.
“Toby and his band weren’t punk,” he says. “Even though Toby is and was a good friend, the music was different. They had all the girls at their shows and we didn’t.”
Unlike what happened in Ventura, Phaneuf says the first wave of Nardcore ended not with a single cataclysmic event but with a slow, gradual implosion. As the hardcore sound gradually evolved into metal, it began to attract the kind of people who just a few years earlier would’ve beaten up any kid with a mohawk — the kind who saw slam dancing as an opportunity to kick some ass. Violence became more and more common, to the point that bands felt reduced to providing background music for fistfights. And once the skinheads started showing up, that’s when the fun really died. “People were over going to shows. They would actually scare away people, especially people of color. When that happened is more or less when the scene in Oxnard petered out.”
If the Fourth of July riot represented “the beginning of the end” for the golden era of Ventura’s music scene, the death knell didn’t truly toll until 1992, with the closure of Charlie’s, its epicenter. Throughout the preceding decade, the restaurant — now the site of the Aloha Steakhouse — was the cornerstone of downtown nightlife, for an obvious reason: It was located practically on the beach. Patrons would literally stumble in during happy hour wearing swim trunks and covered with sand, and stay for the evening entertainment. The Redheads were the dominant presence, but the club was a hotbed for names and faces long since forgotten by anyone who wasn’t there: the Bombers, the Dots, Michael On Fire, Something For Nothing, Night Diamond, the I-Rails. When the place finally went out of business, everyone migrated over to Nicholby’s, which reigned for the next 10 years, but the ambience of Charlie’s was never duplicated.
“The bands and the scene at Charlie’s, there was definitely a lot of camaraderie,” Toby says. “There were bands every day of the week. It was happening, and people came out to support.”
The Emerys don’t like to dwell on the past, though — mostly because they’re still alive in the present. Right now, Toby has two bands: the rollicking bluegrass ensemble Whiskey Chimp and surly country punks Jackass (featuring, ironically, John Phaneuf on guitar). And Raging Arb & the Redheads are not retired. Not by a longshot.
“Some people bask in the glory of their high school days, but it’s not like that with the Redheads,” Toby says. “We’re still around. We’re still doing it. And it’s still in the spirit of fun.”