'Toxic Shock: Assassin of Mediocrity' is memoir of Tucson punk record label & store owner

Through a combination of rare photographs, gig flyers, oral history and prose, “Toxic Shock Records: Assassin of Mediocrity, A Story of Love, Loss and Loud Music” chronicles the life of Bill Sassenberger and Julianna Towns, decidedly taking the road less traveled.

Extending a stiff little finger at the mainstream, they founded a record store, mail-order enterprise and record label during the heady days of punk rock that grew to become a refuge for misfits and lovers of the underground.


Bill Sassenberger was born in Springfield, Ill.

Surrounded by rich farmland bifurcated by the Sangamon River, over the years the Flower City (as Springfield has become known) has spawned a diverse set of musical artists: Morris Day, the debonair R&B/funk singer of The Time; Christine Brewer, Grammy-winning opera singer, and others.

But Sassenberger doesn’t remember much about his life in Springfield.

“My first memories are of Phoenix,” he recalled. “Of being rescued off a giant red ant hill by my older sister. She used a garden hose to spray them off me.”

The Sassenbergers lived briefly in Phoenix before settling in California.

As a kid, it was the spirit of the radio, a companion unobtrusive, that captured his imagination. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the magical sounds transmitted over the airwaves that ran riot in his mind would advance, becoming an obsession that would forever alter the course of his life.

“My first exposure to music was listening to AM radio in 1965, 93 KHJ Baby!” Sassenberger enthused. “The Supremes, Dave Clark Five, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Rolling Stones, Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs to name a few.”

“It was a good year for pop music.”

One of Los Angeles’ oldest radio stations, KHJ (930 AM) has undergone numerous format changes — Top 40, country, “Boss Radio,” news & weather, “smokin’ oldies,” pop, and regional Mexican as “La Ranchera” — before arriving at its present format. In 2014, KHJ began broadcasting Catholic-oriented religious programming; adding new meaning to the slogan “Kindness, Happiness and Joy” that KHJ adopted at its inception in April 1922.


Intoxicated by the sounds and visions that accompanied rock ‘n’ roll, Sassenberger took a stab at being an axeman.

“I failed miserably trying to learn to play the guitar, so I would say I’m more of a fan of music,” he said, laughing.

Sassenberger’s embrace of the do-it-yourself ethos — the earliest example of this attitude was evinced in the punk music scene of the 1970s, aka “Fuck it, I’ll make it myself” — possessed him.

“The desire to work for myself, doing something that I loved is what led me to open a record store,” he told the Tucson Sentinel

In a tiny corner shop, “wedged between a hair salon and a car repair shop, across from a Wienerschnitzel hot dog stand,” Toxic Shock Records was born in the summer of 1980 on a nondescript street in suburban Pomona, Calif.

Pomona, as Sassenberger described it, was a “hick town that was the honeymoon destination choice for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who knows why. Maybe they ran out of gas on the way to Palm Springs?”

Instinctively knowing that he could not compete with the draw of the prevailing lamestream record stores in glamorous Hollywood while in lackluster Pomona “with its ugly suburban sprawl and a decaying historic district” — Sassenberger contended that by refusing to carry major labels he could “find a niche catering to the local malcontents.” A concept that he took to be a gospel.

“We specialized in underground punk records from independent labels exclusively,” he said.

Instead of carrying major label punk superstars, like The Clash — who signed to CBS Records in 1977 prior to releasing their self-titled debut — and Sex Pistols — who were so mired in scandal they were dropped by both EMI and A&M Records in the course of months — Sassenberger’s ambitions were modest.

“I tried to offer a meager selection of lesser known, local Southern California independent labels like Dangerhouse, SST, Upsetter, Slash, Frontier, and Posh Boy. West Coast labels like Subterranean, distributor Systematic from San Francisco, and Friends Records from Vancouver B.C. Plus, a few things from New York. I also stocked a few UK imports on Industrial Records, Rough Trade, 4AD, Malicious Damage, Crass, and Stiff, all on vinyl,” he reflected. “Naturally, I rounded it out with a smattering of punk and new wave related merchandise.”

“We expanded to mail-order soon after, by advertising in music magazines.”

The nascent record shop — “with the melting red and black Toxic Shock sign painted on the glass exterior” — attracted customers (and hangarounds) mainly by word of mouth.

Curiosity seekers would rifle through the record bins, peruse magazines on the couch, and help Sassenberger to “fill up the ashtray with cigarette butts.”

To help offset costs, he lived in the back of the store.

As a result, “the business hours were never set in stone and the door would be open until late at night,” Sassenberger noted. “People would just hang out and listen to whatever was on my turntable at the time, which could be the Fall, Blurt, D.O.A., Bauhaus, Flipper, Magazine, Minimal Man, Cabaret Voltaire, the Residents, Throbbing Gristle, the Plasmatics or Saccharine Trust, depending on my mood.”


Enter Julianna Towns.

Sassenberger met his wife-to-be on a fortuitous day in his beloved Pomona record shop.

“She walked through the doors and ended up hanging around,” he said.

Towns soon became a constant.

“Our 38 years together were unforgettable; many ups and downs,” Sassenberger said, wistfully.

A talented multi-instrumentalist (guitar, flute, keyboards, bass, mandolin, clarinet, dulcimer, percussion) and vocalist, Towns merged her unique musical vision with a beautifully haunting cabaret sound to create Skinnerbox, her solo musical project. She released three albums: “the Imaginary Heart Of…,” “the Playhouse,” and “Skinnerbox.”

Used in behavioral psychology, a Skinner box is a small chamber that is used to conduct operant conditioning research with animals.

Towns was also a member of/or contributed to recordings by Hue And Cry, Moslem Birth, Peace Corpse, Zimbo Chimps, Black Tape For A Blue Girl, and others.

In December 2011, Towns suffered a stroke.

While she was at home convalescing, a few volunteers — for whom Towns, Sassenberger, and the record store were significant — rallied, split shifts working the cash register and kept the store open.

When Toxic Ranch took root in near Tucson’s 4th Avenue in 1991, Towns ran the storefront while Sassenberger worked a day job.

Julianna Towns, born in 1961, died in 2019.

An inscription on Peace Corpse’s Bandcamp page to Bill’s beloved wife reads, “May you rest in power. I will love you forever!”

“Toxic Shock Records: Assassin of Mediocrity, A Story of Love, Loss and Loud Music” is not only the story of a scrappy punk rock record store and label, it is Julianna and Bill’s story, and how they made it all work for 34 years — that was Sassenberger’s primary reason for writing his memoir.

“I wanted to tell our story.”


“There is nothing permanent in this life except change,” as Greek philosopher Heraclitus said some 2,500 years ago.

“We were itching to start our own record label.”

In 1983, still in Pomona, Towns and Sassenberger’s dream began to manifest.

“For our first release we put together a 7″ EP, titled ‘Noise from Nowhere,’ a compilation featuring four area bands: Kent State, Modern Industry, Manson Youth, and our own band, Moslem Birth (whose name was a parody of Christian Death).”

With this release, Toxic Shock Records was born.

The cover of “Noise from Nowhere” was graced by the infamous exploding penis artwork courtesy of Brian “Pushead” Schroeder, a penpal and punk enthusiast Sassenberger had been corresponding with before email, cellphones, and Wi-Fi.

Over the years, the bands that released recordings through Toxic Shock were many.

“In California, there were locals Decry and Mad Parade. Then the Dayglo Abortions from Canada, Corrosion of Conformity from North Carolina, and Th’ Inbred from West Virginia,” Sassenberger detailed. “The most enduring band on the roster would have to be Raw Power from Italy.”

“In ’88, when we moved to Tucson, we were working with Skin Yard from Seattle and Sloppy Seconds from Indiana. As far as noteworthy local bands, there was Feast Upon Cactus Thorns (aka FUCT) and the Fells,”
Sassenberger said.

“We also worked with Calexico, but that was just printing a dozen or so of their early T-shirt designs,” he said with a laugh.

“We also started a band.”

“We had worked out a short set of songs that included a couple Flesheaters covers and some original material,” he recalled. “Julianna was on guitar, our friend Scott on bass and we borrowed the drummer from Manson Youth, with myself on vocals.”

Bedecked with “white pancake make-up, black wigs, eyeliner, plastic jack-o-lanterns and a couple styrofoam tombstones” — and as in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel who wrote about the creation of a sapient creature, brought to life in a laboratory during an unorthodox scientific experiment, rejected by society — “Moslem Birth came to life.”

And then came Peace Corpse.

“Although Moslem Birth wasn’t an active band, it did quickly morph into Peace Corpse. But not before documenting ‘Horror Snores’ in the studio,” he noted. “Julianna played guitar, I ‘sang’ (William “Warbucks” Sassenberger’s vocal stylings on the track bear some resemblance to a William S. Burroughs recitation), and Tracy Garcia (of East L.A. pre-Goth band Thee Undertakers) played the drums, with his girlfriend Angie Valencia on bass.”

In 1984, Peace Corpse went on tour with Decry.

Decry was a prominent band in the ’80s L.A. punk scene — even gigging with Guns N’ Roses in their early days — before dissolving later that year.

Peace Corpse can also lay claim to having opened up for punk legends Black Flag.

“It was at the July 4th Legalize Marijuana rally held in front of the federal building. Although Greg Ginn and Henry Rollins didn’t actually speak to us, or even look at us for that matter, it looked good on our punk rock resume,” Sassenberger wrote (in the blog The Punk Vault).

While on the road, despite having a promising show booked in Chicago, from where they had received fan mail, Peace Corpse’s pursuit of their punk rock dream was stymied.

“In Cleveland — after opening for the Pink Holes in a former strip club — Peace Corpse’s tour ended abruptly,” Sassenberger said, crestfallen. “We had to head back home to California due to lack of funds.”

Despite hardship, the experience was not a total wash.

“We had a lot of fun poking at the absurdities of the time, including the media’s stereotypes of punk culture.”

Inherently contrarian, punk’s political ideologies are primarily concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views.

Classic TV series du jour, such as “C.H.I.P.S.” and “Quincy,” “had vignettes that exaggerated the dangers of anarchic punk rock as a lifestyle.”

It is not a stretch to consider that being against corporations, politicians, organized religion and the nuclear family structure could pose a threat to the status quo.

Even so, in the pantheon of punk rock it is widely acknowledged that Johnny Ramone and Dee Dee Ramone, Billy Zoom (X), Joe Escalante (The Vandals), Agnostic Front and others favored conservatism.


Toxic Shock Records switched locations five times in the Pomona area before closing shop and moving to Tucson in 1988.

Before relocating, Julianna and Bill made several road trips to Arizona.

“My wife and I enjoyed the beauty of the desert,” Sassenberger said. “We were weary of the L.A. lifestyle and cost of living.”

That year — replete with everything from Johnny Rotten coffee mugs to “Bush Hates Me” T-shirts, and Misfits and Rancid posters adorning the walls — Toxic Shock morphed into Toxic Ranch. The newly chosen name for the storefront reflected their new life in the desert Southwest.

It wasn’t long before they embraced Tucson’s music scene.

“Tucson had a tight little punk scene back then, that I had heard a great deal about from both Joe E. Furno at Wrex Records and Lee Joseph from Roads to Moscow.”

“Unfortunately, bands like Conflict, U.P.S. and Blood Spasm, were broken up by the time we arrived in 1988,” he lamented.

“My first Tucson show was in someone’s living room near the University of Arizona. Government Issue (Washington D.C.) was on tour and Opinion Zero (local punks) opened.”

“The main venue at the time (that booked punk and alternative acts) was Muddbuggs,” the club that later morphed into The Rock, he said.

“I was able to get Skin Yard — an influential grunge era band from Seattle — an opening slot for the mighty Meat Puppets at Muddbuggs,” he enthused.

Towns and Sassenberger would go onto release records by FUCT (Feast Upon Cactus Thorns), The Fells, Mondo Guano, Doo Rag, Al Perry, and other Tucson bands.

A magnet for left-wing radicals, squatters, street urchins and punkers alike, Toxic Ranch hosted numerous live performances, packed in tight like sardines in a tin.

With memory a little hazy, Sassenberger offered, “The first show might have been the amazing Alice Donut from New York. Over the years, everyone from Grandaddy, Calexico, Scared of Chaka, Andrew Jackson Jihad, (L.A. punk icon) Alice Bag to R.A.M.B.O. (self-described as “Philadelphia’s crusty hardcore mercenaries that wore goofy costumes, toured a lot, and had strong feelings”) played our shop on 6th Street.”

Toxic Ranch operated at 424 E. Sixth St. (a stone’s throw from 4th Avenue) for 22 years of those 25 years, weathering numerous desert storms.

“This is just kind of a labor of love,” Sassenberger told Tucson Citizen reporter Polly Higgins in July 2008.


In fall 2013 Sassenberger received notice from his landlords.

Anicca — the Buddhist word for change — hung in the air.

“I received notice from Caruso’s that they wanted to do something different with the space we were renting,” he recalled.

“A big factor was my wife having had a stroke in December,” Sassenberger told Joshua Levine, in 2013 Tucson Weekly story. “Caruso’s made me make a decision. We’ve gotta get out and I gotta figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life with regards to the store.”

“By the mid-’90s, the store and label were thriving. We had five employees on the payroll.”

Yet, on Tuesday, December 31, 2013, Lenguas Largas, the Resonars, and Discos were the last bands to perform at Toxic Ranch before Sassenberger handed over the keys and locked the doors on what was not only a business, but on what grew to become a refuge for misfits and music lovers alike — “that came up from Sierra Vista, Nogales, and all parts of Southern Arizona” — who found solace scouring the bins and attending shows by bands that emerged from a wellspring deep underground.