PERFECT YOUTH: The Birth of Canadian Punk

BOOK: PERFECT YOUTH: The Birth of Canadian Punk
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For my grandmother Mary
and my parents, Lynn and Walt.

“Well, I guess it’s time for the slamdance contest.”

“That sounds dangerous.”

“Oh, it’s not dangerous, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

— Mel’s Rock Pile,
SCTV

INTRODUCTION

“Hi, I was wondering if Ken Chinn was there?”

“Ken Chinn . . . Is that the guy they call Chi Pig?”

“Oh, yeah. That’s him.”

“He wanders in and out, we just kind of act like his answering service. Let me see if he’s around.”

He’s not. Ken Chinn is the vocalist for one of Canada’s most infamous punk exports, that great Edmontonian monument to weirdness, SNFU. To get in touch with him, you have to call his favourite bar in Vancouver in the early afternoon. If he’s around, you might get about five minutes with him before someone else needs to use the line. It is, after all, a business. And, as legendary as Ken Chinn might be to some, to the Gastown bartenders I’ve been calling once a day for three weeks, he’s still just a barfly without a cell phone.

Canada’s punk history is a cloudy one. Bands lived and died in isolation. Recordings are sparse; listenable ones are sparser. Despite thriving music communities in cities like Ottawa and Calgary that flourished at the same time as those in London and New York, Canadian punk bands never caught the attention of international media the way their peers to the south and across the Atlantic did. Theirs was a quintessentially modest Canadian existence, just with more stories about amyl nitrate and sex in public. You won’t hear the bombastic opening chord to a Lowlife song at a baseball game in Milwaukee, and the lead singer of Electric Vomit won’t be on TV selling you butter between sports and weather on the evening news. And so it goes that Canada’s first wave of punks, alienated kids living in alienated cities, have been disappearing from our collective cultural memory, disappearing from our record stores, and, in some cases, just disappearing.

It is an unfair fate. Consider that Zoom, a precursor to both the Diodes and the Viletones, was amongst the first punk groups in the world to release their own record. Toronto’s the Curse were the first North American all-female band of punk’s first wave. D.O.A. created the continental do-it-yourself touring network still used today and were the first band to officially use the word “hardcore” to describe their sound. Pre-punk bands like the Dishes laid the conceptual groundwork for queercore groups like Pansy Division and Limp Wrist in the ’90s, while in Regina the Extroverts established the city’s first live venue to only promote bands playing original music. It stands to this day.

The list goes on. But the legacy of these bands goes far beyond the dim corners of dive bars and dusty shelves of record collectors. Punk in Canada was a transformative cultural force that challenged every sleepy, safe city from Victoria to St. John’s. It’s not Pierre Berton’s Canada, but it’s just as real and just as crucial. And it’s got way, way more vomit.

I began to piece this book together in 2006, while still studying at Ryerson University. Essentially, I convinced the school administration to let me begin work on the project in my final year as a substitute for a fully realized academic paper. Mercifully, I had landed one advisor with a weakness for the Viletones discography and another who was simply willing to follow me into the dark; the assignment I handed in at the term’s end amounted to little more than hundreds of pages of interview transcription. I graduated.

My very first interview that year, conducted over the phone from my Jarvis Street apartment, was with Bev Davies, the Vancouver-based photographer whose lens helped define the stark visual aesthetic of the early west coast scene. Her candid photos of bands like the Subhumans and D.O.A. first caught my eye in high school while flipping through the pages of
Chart.
I knew about these bands, but I had never seen visuals like this, never heard about the concept of “fuck bands” with names like “Rude Norton” and “Victorian Pork.” In an interview with iconic radio and TV personality Nardwuar the Human Serviette, Davies talked about guys like Randy Rampage in the same breath as Lemmy from Motörhead, and her photos showed musicians whipped into a frenzy, part of a culture of punk I had yet to really tap into.

Soon after uncovering Davies’ photos, I started writing for
Exclaim!
, trading my adolescent fanzine for a shot with a national music magazine and, under the scrutiny of a great no-bullshit editor, started to take my punk rock fandom more seriously. It wasn’t enough to trace my garbage-can ninth grade emo back to the basements of Washington, D.C. It was wasn’t enough to follow the roots of my tenth grade white-washed skate punk to the beaches of California. I knew that something had come before me and my record collection in suburban Etobicoke, and looking at Davies’ photos in the worn-out pages of
Chart
, it was obvious where to start.

When I was still living in my parents’ house, I would take the subway downtown every weekend, heading straight for Rotate This! on Queen Street West and spending hours poring over their racks of vinyl and CDs before heading home with whatever I could afford that week on my pin monkey income. I immersed myself in the music, the art, and the knowledge that I was starting to touch on something secret, special, and forgotten. By the time I had a job and was living downtown, I would spend my Sunday afternoons with the clerks at the landmark Sam the Record Man on Yonge, listing off records I needed ordered into the store. The entire Sudden Death catalogue. Whatever Sony had kept in print from the Diodes. All the Teenage Head records. Anything Canadian, anything even tangentially punk.

There was a glaring hole in my acquisitions, though. Most of the early Toronto bands had their licensing swept up by a local archivist in the late ’90s and the albums he had produced were no longer in print. When I finally tracked him down, he invited me over to his house in the Junction. He went into his basement and came back up with an armful of records. In his living room, he spread out the complete discographies of bands like the Mods, the Curse, the Viletones, and the Ugly for me to choose from. I bought everything.

Within a few years of my university graduation, I had hundreds of hours of interviews on tape. I had a box full of fanzines, books, albums, and photocopies from the library. I had a hard drive full of movies, photos, and archived news clippings. I had bootlegged an academic copy of the 8 mm Ross McLaren film
Crash ’n’ Burn
from the back of a classroom at Ryerson, talked about car-surfing with Stiv Bators while staring at the city from the sixty-third floor of a Bay Street office tower, and watched more than one person get so drunk that they couldn’t stand. I had made more friends that I ever thought possible, been threatened with a lawsuit, and been lent records worth more than my life by people who had no reason to trust me.

This book was put together, appropriately, all over this country. It started in a lecture hall at Ryerson University and grew inside my overheated apartment above a meth lab on Ossington Avenue. It followed me when I first visited Winnipeg in 2007 and saw the majestically decrepit Royal Albert Arms with my own eyes, a dive where Hüsker Dü recorded the B-side to “Eight Miles High” and local greats Personality Crisis built their legend. On a family vacation
I looked at the site where the Smiling Buddha once
stood
on East Hastings Street in Vancouver, in the centre of
the poorest postal code in the entire country and the highest concentration of HIV-infected individuals in North
America. Parts of this book were literally written on the
road, on a laptop in the back of an RV rumbling across the
eastern seaboard of the United States during one of the worst
winters on record. Mostly, it was written in my kitchen, late into the night, an endless loop of the Dayglo Abortions, Diodes, and Dishes on my headphones.

This is a story worth telling. It’s not just a story about a few isolated communities making loud, fast music during a period of time we now know as punk’s first wave. It’s not just about the bands, and it’s not just about the music they made. It’s about the cities they lived in, and how they changed the cultural landscape of this country forever. It’s about being weird and inventing your own community when the dominant one rejects you. The decisions made by Canadian punks from 1977 to 1982 — to stage all-ages concerts in local halls, to record and release their own records, to stand up for original creative expression — changed the foundation of this nation’s creative class in a way that reverberates along the Trans-Canada Highway to this day.

In his 2007 book
The Unfinished Canadian
, noted cultural critic and Carleton University journalism prof Andrew Cohen argues that Canadians are at a loss for a cohesive national identity because, as a country, we no longer teach our history. Not only this, but we “distort it, deny it, and dismiss it.” Cohen may be speaking to more traditional national histories, but the core argument can be applied to microcultures as well.

As a country currently resting somewhere near the top of the international creative heap, Canada boasts recognized musical talent across genres and the entire spectrum of mainstream success. But rarely do we credit the innovation that kicked off when a few rowdy kids started creating their own spaces to perform weird, original music in the late ’70s. Unwelcome in traditional live music venues that preferred seasoned musicians playing popular covers, Canada’s young punks were forced to adapt and innovate, to find or create spaces that would tolerate acne-covered twerps playing freaky, out-of-tune songs written that day on instruments learned that week. They created their own venues by booking community halls. They created their own media by writing and distributing fanzines. They recorded their own singles using whatever technology was available, and then folded the photocopied record sleeves in their parents’ basements.

It should come as no surprise that many of the most important innovators of Canada’s independent musical revolution of the ’80s and ’90s, documented in Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack, and Jason Schneider’s groundbreaking rock tome
Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985–1995
, sprung from the muddy waters of the first-wave punk pond. In Kelowna, B.C., hardcore upstarts the Gentlemen of Horror morphed into the Grapes of Wrath, producing a collection of folk rock records that consistently land on all-time Canuck best-of lists. Saskatoon’s tiny punk community fostered the creation of the platinum-selling roots rockers the Northern Pikes, and if it weren’t for a supportive fringe of punks in Edmonton, k.d. lang would not be an international household name today. From launching the political career of two New Democratic Party MPs (former L’Étranger members Andrew Cash and Charles Angus) to landing a 17-year-old kid from Toronto behind the kit for punk legend Stiv Bators (Mods drummer David Quinton-Steinberg), punk in Canada had a far-reaching effect on young people looking for something different. Beyond the required haircuts and the skinny jeans, punk in Canada was about taking a look at your city and realizing that you and your friends had the power to make it a better, more interesting place.

In many ways, punk was built for a country like Canada. A decidedly urban mutation of ’50s rock and roll, punk was about gutters and speed, the impersonality of tall buildings and the anonymity of dark alleys. It might play against type, but a third of Canada’s population lives in one of three major urban centres — Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver. In contrast, only 16% of Americans live in their three largest cities — New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago — and of these, only New York latched on to punk in its earliest incarnation. In Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, bands like the 222s, the Viletones, and the Furies were coalescing in one form or another at the same time that “New Rose” from the Damned, considered to be the first-ever U.K. punk single, was showing up in the import section of Her Majesty’s colonial record stores. But what helped to define the first wave of Canadian punk wasn’t just the same lonely cityscapes and roach-infested apartments of every other city in the western world. It was the isolation. The fact that a band from Winnipeg had a day’s drive in any direction before they could play a show outside of their hometown, that a band from Edmonton couldn’t even muse on the possibility of the budget of a Stateside recording contract, and that a band from St. John’s had an ocean between them and the rest of the world.

A common misconception about Canadian punk is that it was simply a carbon copy of music emanating from New York and London. It doesn’t take much digging to discover the truth; that musical change was in the air, that the bubble of ’70s prog-rock was ready to burst, that disenfranchised kids in cities all over the world were getting turned on to bands like the MC5 and the New York Dolls, preparing to tear down the bloated rock and roll that was filling stadiums and airwaves. The goal was to take it back to a purer form, and no one city holds a monopoly on that idea. Still, Canadians are often accused of playing catch-up to their American and British peers. The same kind of assumption dogs all Canadian art forms; in her groundbreaking 1972 study of Canadian literature,
Survival
, Margaret Atwood calls this the Colonial Mentality, addressing the perception that all homegrown literature is simply an inferior copy of British or American forms. Like Andrew Cohen, Atwood wasn’t speaking about punk, but she observed that many felt that “the Great Good Place was, culturally speaking, elsewhere,” an assumption that applies as much to 7" singles as to 5" chapbooks. As to the value in seeking out homegrown arts, Atwood suggests that art should not act solely as a object of aesthetic pleasure, but a mirror. And, if a culture lacks artistic mirrors with which to orient itself in the world, it must “travel blind.”

Film critic, author, and University of Calgary professor Maurice Yacowar finds the same dismissive tendencies in his studies of Canadian film. Yakowar is particularly intent on exploring the idea of the Canadian as an ethnic minority, arguing in a 1986 essay that “the Canadian film experience proves that a whole nation can feel itself a silenced, even invisible, Outsider in its own home.” Almost two decades later, it may seem that little has changed in the Canadian film industry. Yakowar’s description is just as easily ascribed to the Canadian musical landscape at the time of punk’s international explosion, but, mercifully, it is an outdated one today. Punks in this country helped to shatter our cultural reliance on the sounds of the south, and did so without emulating American trends.

BOOK: PERFECT YOUTH: The Birth of Canadian Punk
6.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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