Song of the Day: Sun City Girls “Radio Morocco”
Last night I drove up to Baltimore from DC to catch one of my absolute favorite working musicians perform: Sir Richard Bishop. Bishop is a Lebanese-American guitar genius who made his name in possibly the single craziest, most demented and storied underground rock band of all time, Sun City Girls. I’ve seen Bishop solo a number of times, but this one of the best gigs I’ve seen him play. While Bishop brought his usual blend of jazz, Indian classical and Middle Eastern inspired guitar meditations that tend to be the meat and potatoes of his live sets, he threw the Sun City Girls fans in the room a bone by playing a couple of Sun City Girls rarities. One of those rarities was “Radio Morocco”, which got me to reach for my Sun City Girls records when I got home and listen to the original. Curiously, the track comes from an unlikely source: it is a cover of the station identification theme used by Radio Tangier in the late 70’s-mid 80’s (and heard by the group during their travels in Morocco). The group dig into the melody and pull out the 70’s psych rock elements including adding elements of captured radio chatter. The track documents Sun City Girls at their best: drawing inspiration from unlikely sources, filtering those sources through their own sensibilities and spitting them out as something completely unrecognizable.
Sun City Girls are a group whose legend largely proceeds them. The group was composed of brothers Alan Bishop and Richard Bishop along with drummer Charlie Gocher and was founded in Phoenix, Arizona in 1979. Along the way, Sun City Girls eventually moved to Seattle and became a staple of the Pacific Northwest underground, which is how I first heard them. The group originally began as Paris 1942 and included former Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker. The Bishop brothers eventually split with Tucker, recruited Gocher from the Phoenix open mic scene and named themselves after the nearby Sun City Retirement community. The group sounded like nothing else on the Phoenix or any other underground scene, their music oscillating between the sublime and the farcical with everything else in between. The group traveled extensively, particularly in Asia, North Africa and the Middle East incorporated influences from the music of each, along with absurdist theater and free jazz. The Girls sang in both English as well as invented languages intended to sound like the various cultural influences that they borrowed. Sun City Girls records included everything from ear bleeding free jazz freak outs, Ennio Morricone covers, spoken word poetry, skits, beautiful Middle-Eastern music, psych rock, straight ahead jazz, gamelan music (the group actually purchased a 2 thousand pound gamelan in Indonesia and shipped it back to the US) and just about anything else you could imagine. Often several or even all of these elements would appear on the same record. The band recorded prolifically and have close to 60 official and self-released records.
The group became notorious for antagonizing audiences and retaining its artistic freedom at all costs. Antics include an intentionally self-sabotaged audition for Sub Pop records that featured the group improvising three hobos waiting for a train for 2 hours without ever playing a musical note and billing a gig as “Sun City Girls Play John Coltrane‘s Live In Seattle” only to literally have the band simply play the double LP through the venue’s PA system, including having a member of the band flip the LP at the end of each side.
While Sun City Girls were frequently difficult, they developed a cult following over the years with people increasingly willing to dig through their albums and unearth the tracks that resonated with them. For every barely listenable experimental freak out, or bad-taste sketch, there is a beautiful melody played with finesse and restraint. The group were all incredibly talented musicians, something evidenced in their more transcendent work, so the crazy material on their records wasn’t a function of them not being able to play, but of them choosing to play unusually. The music press (to say nothing of the public) is only just starting to catch-up with the band recently.
Unfortunately, Sun City Girls ceased to operate in 2007 with the tragic death by cancer of Gocher. Alan and Richard both have pursued solo careers, Richard as the aforementioned Sir Richard Bishop and with the group Rangda, while Alan has done so as Alvarius B, The Invisible Hands and under other names and projects. The brothers also occasionally re-team to play old Sun City Girls material as The Brothers Unconnected and most recently, formed a super group to play the entirety of The Beatles ‘Revolver’. There will never be another group like Sun City Girls.