A Canadian Punk Revival
As Punk Turns 30, Canadian Pioneers Reunite
A bubbling crowd bounces at the front of the stage as the first raw, pop-addled lick chokes out across Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. Fists rise up in time to the beat and panting shouts are heard as fans add their voices to the chorus. It could be any punk gig in the country, but this isn’t just another show. It’s part of an onslaught of concerts the recently resurrected Pointed Sticks have played since calling it quits in 1981, and only the second time the Pointed Sticks performed in Toronto ever.
Before the show, front-man Nick Jones speaks excitedly about playing Toronto; Canadian geography being notoriously unfriendly to touring, the Sticks’ previous road adventures stuck close to their Vancouver home, up and down the West coast. But it wasn’t just distance working against them, there was a distinct hostility towards punk when it emerged on the late ‘70s Canadian music landscape. While Toronto’s Viletones grabbed headlines like "Not Them, Not Here,” the Pointed Sticks just felt invisible.
"It was more like ‘If we ignore them, they’ll go away,’” Jones says. "We never even got the ‘Not Them, Not Here’ to even stir that kind of controversy. They thought that if they just ignored us, they could force us to go away. They didn’t.” Well, actually, they did, for a couple of decades anyway. But now, as punk celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, Canadian punk is returning with a vengeance.
"There seems to be something in the air that a lot of these people are getting back together,” says drummer John Hamilton of the Diodes. "It’s like you’ve been summoned, like a genie. Someone’s rubbed the magic lamp and you’ve been brought back.”
On the West coast, the Modernettes and Van City’s first punk band the Furies both reclaimed the stage this year. In Toronto, the clashing sounds of the Viletones and Diodes are being reissued, and former members of the B-Girls, Johnny and the G-Rays and Zro4 have been seen on stage. In Montreal, indie label Sonik’s Chicken Shrimp is releasing its own local punk and hardcore legacies.
Yet there is a bittersweet undertone to these second-time-around celebrations. Perpetual disappointment plagued many Canadian punk bands, and despite the fact that this home-grown movement spawned the first three all-female punk acts in North America (the Curse, the B-Girls, and the Dishrags); opened doors for future generations of musicians; and bred seminal acts like D.O.A. and the Forgotten Rebels, there was an unapologetic hostility to the punk ethos and Canadian pioneers have almost never received their due. That hostility emanated from the music scene, the industry and media, and early punk circles remained powerful but small, with little hope of finding strength in numbers. Each of Canada’s punk scenes developed in virtual isolation from one another. "We always assumed people would have forgotten,” according to Ralph Alfonso, who started managing the Diodes in 1977.
Although labels like Other People’s Music and Zulu Records unearthed and reissued some Canadian punk in ’90s, there seems to be more momentum this time. Historically minded archivists are keen to chronicle this lost history. Colin Brunton’s documentary The Last Pogo Jumps Again, Chacha Cha Cha, a sequel to his cult film on what was then billed as the last punk show at the Horseshoe, is currently in production, as is Kebec Punk, a doc that will chronicle the Montreal scene.
Even in the late ‘70s, Toronto was a major tour destination; the city played host to the likes of the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, but it was in September 1976, when the Ramones played Toronto’s New Yorker Theatre, that the burgeoning punk influence took hold. In just 20 minutes of three-chord vehemence, they lit a spark for Canadian punks.
Talking to seminal members of the scene, there is an unbridled enthusiasm for that musical period, tempered by a serious sense of loss — the landscape of our country’s contributions are littered with abandoned artefacts. Take the Viletones, for example. Their first single, "Screamin’ Fist,” was a direct influence on Washington, DC hardcore band Bad Brains, and is referenced continuously in William Gibson’s seminal novel Neuromancer. Their unforgettable live shows — where singer Steven Leckie, then known as Nazi Dog, could mesmerise the crowd without singing a note as he carved deep gashes into his body — caused quite a stir in Toronto the Good. Their grating noise and self-destructive performances got them that "Not Them, Not Here” headline the morning after their debut.
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