No Flash Please!: Underground Music in Toronto 1987-92 By Derek von Essen and Phil Saunders
Published Jun 29, 2016No Flash Please! chronicles an important half-decade in Canadian music and underground music in general. This is the buildup to "the year punk broke" and its aftermath, where all stripes of guitar-oriented bands were catapulted into the mainstream.
Riding that wave were a cadre of Can-Rockers whose influence is still felt today. They set the stage for bands like Broken Social Scene, New Pornographers and Arcade Fire to become indie heroes in the United States and Europe, erasing any notion that being from Canada was something to hide in the process.
Many of those groups — Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Change of Heart, the Pursuit of Happiness — are represented in this book of photographs from Derek von Essen, making it a crucial document of this period. Importantly, it puts local heroes next to international stars (or soon to be stars) like Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and even a young Nirvana performing at Lee's Palace, giving the Toronto scene crucial context. von Essen also captured many groups whose legend and influence never stretched past this period. Nevertheless, Rocktopus, the Lawn and the Dundrells were all part of the ecosystem that allowed those aforementioned bands to break out of the local scene.
Yet this is a collection from a single photographer whose personal tastes were driving who he shot and, one assumes, who he didn't. In that sense, it feels incomplete; while it captures a moment in the city, many key figures are missing — the Queen West country scene that produced Blue Rodeo goes unrepresented, and there's no mention of the Rheostatics, for example, while other bands feel over-represented.
Phil Saunders' text is meant to tie the shots together. More often, he's relegated to providing more biographical info about the bands — helpful in some cases, but not really necessary in the case of Iggy Pop or Soundgarden — than giving context for the photos themselves. Although his time covering Toronto's scene overlaps with von Essen's, he didn't necessarily attend all the same shows. Also frustrating is the lack of venue information; dates are provided for each pic, but rarely are we told where the show occurred.
As fascinating as it is frustrating, No Flash Please! promises a visual documentation of a scene, but is really more of a personal snapshot whose author is content to let the photos do the talking. It would have benefitted greatly from an olive branch to younger readers, or at least a more personal touch to the narrative. As it stands, there's little here to connect what happened in the city 30 years ago to what's happening now, rendering it as nothing more than a curiosity to anyone who wasn't there. (Anvil Press)