Kansas City's headbangers wanted bigger crowds, so they formed a more perfect union.

Rock and Enroll 

Kansas City's headbangers wanted bigger crowds, so they formed a more perfect union.

Chaos reigned at El Torreon one night last December. So many amps and guitar cases were stacked near the stage that the venue resembled a music store liquidating its inventory. Between songs, Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" played over the house speakers, and some spectators sang along by instinct while others prepared their pipes for impending Ozzy impersonations. Eager axmen, their instruments strapped on but not yet plugged in, gazed up at the action while strumming soundlessly.

Players wandered on and off the stage like wrestlers in a WWE tag-team free-for-all. By the time the evening climaxed with an anarchic rendition of Pantera's "Cowboys From Hell" that saw more people onstage than in the audience, the only missing elements were pulled punches and break-easy chairs.

Like pro wrestling itself, this whole event was phony, in a sense. Not that there were any lip synchers in attendance; every sound that came from the stage was genuine. But the event was billed as Phony Jam II, incorporating a shrouded-in-mystery term of endearment local metal heads have used for the past two years.

Though they won't divulge all the details, Kansas City's "phonies" admit that they've taken the unusual step of forming a sort of heavy-metal musicians' syndicate -- think of it as a headbangers union -- to help each other out by attending the shows of rival bands and otherwise cooperate in order to sustain their scene.

"These guys got tired of no one coming to their shows, so they set up this thing called 'phonies,' where every phony goes to every other phony's shows," said a member at the December show who asked to remain anonymous. (Apparently, sharing the phonies' philosophy is like revealing a magician's secrets.) "Then all the metal groups have the best attendance and get booked at the best clubs."

Joe Spiller, former Audio Kombat Arsenal singer and originator of the nebulous "phony" label, rejects this scenario.

"We get a bad rap," Spiller says. "People say we're a clique and that we only go to each other's shows, which is absolute bullshit. I have heard we're pushing our beliefs on others, like a cult. The last I remember, we have not sacrificed any virgins. We are just bands trying to get better shows and more radio play."

The truth falls somewhere in between these explanations. The phony movement does promote guitar rock with no strings attached, though there is some internal support for becoming a labor-unionlike force, with monthly dues and membership cards. And in some ways, "phony" seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, there's something illusory about a bunch of musicians playing shows almost exclusively for each other. But that's better, some of them say, than the cutthroat scene they're rebelling against.

"It was very competitive a few years ago, as in, 'Man, we kicked those guys' asses,' leave after you're done playing, bullshit like that," says Dave Johnson, who fronts Everybody's X. "[Boomstick vocalist Galactic] Celt and I had similar views about how to improve things, and I liked the idea that I could save some of the younger bands years of spinning their wheels if I could arm them with a little knowledge."

For his part, Spiller contributed the name "phonies," though he won't elaborate on its origin. "We have been asked numerous times and have never told," he says. He suggests that the insatiable curiosity about the name might be much ado about nothing. "We tricked everyone into believing that there was some great hidden meaning, and it is still working."

Regardless of its true definition, the name stuck. It appeared on the organization's first formal release, the 2003 compilation CD Hooked on Phonies, which included two tracks each from Everybody's X, AKA, Boomstick and six other local acts. Each participating group pitched in $50 for inclusion on the sampler, which was given away at phony shows.

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