Revisiting Toronto's Forgotten 70s Punk Scene
Peer into the depths of a scene you probably didn't even know existed.
You may not know much about it, and you may not even be able to name any bands that were a part of it, but Toronto was home to a punk scene in the late 70s that looked and sounded an awful lot like its contemporaries in New York and London. These punks, wearing leather and studs, crawled on to the industrial Queen West strip from the suburbs and the halls of OCA (before it was called OCAD). They plastered the streets with handmade posters, cut themselves on stage with beer bottles, created no small shortage of controversy in the old WASP-y Toronto the Good, and turned the Horseshoe Tavern into a mecca for Southern Ontario's misfits and weirdos.
Over the past six years, Toronto filmmakers Colin Brunton and Kire Paputts have been putting together The Last Pogo Jumps Again, an epic three and a half hour documentary on Toronto's early punk scene. Together, they've made a film that is so exhaustively researched, so full of seminal music from that period, and so engaging that one could imagine a similar documentary about the CBGB's/Max's Kansas City getting a prime time slot on HBO. But this is Toronto, where it premiered at a local music festival (CMW) before playing for one week at a small repertory cinema with little publicity. Obviously, barely anyone saw it. While the 60s hippy counterculture scene of Yorkville spawned world-famous acts like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, Toronto's punk scene failed to produce any artists with that level of international recognition, but it lived on in other ways.
We sat down with filmmakers Colin and Kire to discuss some of their favourite tunes from the era.The Vilestones - Screaming Fist
Near the end of the documentary, Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham tells us “The Viletones' seven inch, when that came out, you had a band from Washington, DC called the Bad Brains and they started practicing by covering 'Screamin Fist.' When they first started, that was a huge influence on them." For Kire, it was a little alarming to find out his father, who played bass for the band under the name “Chris Hate,” was an important figure in Toronto's musical history.
Kire: Growing up, I knew about The Viletones, but I didn't really know what that meant until I was a little bit older. Like, I would hear my dad telling stories about being in a band and I was like “OK, he was in a band, whatever.” But then as I got older, people started to be like “Oh, that's actually a really cool band.” The first time I heard “Screamin Fist” on the radio I was like oh, my dad's actually a real musician. He's not just some bum. When I was young I felt like I was part of some cool club because I knew what that song was, and probably a lot of people didn't know at my age. And people now, they have no idea. But as a kid, it was like, oh man, my dad was a part of this cool thing and hear it is on the radio and they're playing it.
In 1978, Colin directed The Last Pogo, a short concert film about “the last punk concert” at the Horseshoe Tavern. At the time, he was a cab driver and a good friend of The Scenics. He also worked occasionally for “The Garys,” Gary Topp and Gary Cormier, two club promoters who brought The Ramones to Toronto for their first concert in 1976 (sometimes seen as the starting point for Toronto punk) and regularly booked local bands, first at the Roxy (now a Tim Hortons), then at the New Yorker (now the Panasonic Theatre), and eventually at the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen St West. Since then, Colin quit driving a cab and produced some seminal Canadian films, including Bruce McDonald's Roadkill and Vincenzo Natali's Cube, but he remembers smoking a lot of dope and listening to a lot of music at the time.
Colin: [The Scenics] used to rehearse four or five nights a week, for like three years, in this basement of a toy shop, and that's when I used to drive a cab. If I was in the area, I would drop by and smoke tons of dope with them and listen to them work out songs. They were just always getting high and then I would go back to driving a cab for the rest of the night. It was a good time. You think of the whole fashion of the day and you're supposed to look like that and act like this. Well, the drummer had a beard, which was unheard of back in 1976-77. You just didn't have beards, but one of the reasons he was in the band was that he could score excellent drugs, so that helped him keep his job as the drummer for a long time.
The Diodes were one of the early bands to make a splash in Toronto, and were even signed to Columbia Records in Canada, although that didn't help them make many fans internationally. In 1977, they opened Crash 'n' Burn, Toronto's first punk club, which was closed after only six months because the building's other tenants (the Liberal Party of Canada) complained about the noise. The Diodes’ have a melodic synth-enabled sound that resembles The Church or Echo & the Bunnymen more than Sex Pistols; their best known song, “Tired of Waking Up Tired,” wouldn't have sounded out of place on the soundtrack to Donnie Darko.
Kire: Everybody loves that song. Even when we were doing the sound mix, the engineer, some Swedish guy, he's just sitting there bopping along while he's mixing it. That's the one song from The Diodes. Growing up with my dad, it's not cool to like that The Diodes, but that is a good song.The Government – Hemingway (Hated Disco Music)
Several of the bands that formed Toronto's punk community were connected to Toronto's burgeoning art community, and would often play in newly founded art venues like A Space and The Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC). The Government was the brainchild of musician and songwriter Andy Paterson, who performed with an awkward David Byrne-esque demeanour and wrote catchy, surreal tunes like “Hemingway (Hated Disco Music)”
Colin: The Government came out of the art gallery A Space, which was one of two avant garde art galleries that Toronto had. That and CEAC. A Space spawned The Government, who wrote tunes for the playwright Michael Hollingsworth. He had a play called Punc Roc. Back in those days it was crazy because if you were an aspiring artist, you could have the craziest fucking idea for something to do and you could apply to the government for a grant and get this cash. So one of the reasons that The Government started was they got some money through Michael Hollingsworth. They made a bit of dough out of it. You could never do that now.
Over twenty years before the Swollen Members you know penetrated MuchMusic with their mediocre bro-raps, another Canadian band couldn't get radio play because of that same name. Like many an alternative cultural scene, Queen West attracted a lot of disaffected kids from surrounding suburbs and small towns. These Swollen Members came from a pre-multicultural Scarborough where, like many a suburb, there was nothing to do.
Colin: Scarborough back then was kind of like Toronto's New Jersey, kind of a bland wasteland. So Swollen Members talked about all the muscle cars and girls with purple make-up.
Kire: And hockey hair.The Viletones – Auschwitz Jerk
Sid Vicious wore a Swastika and so did Siouxie Sioux. For whatever reason, punk has a problematic history of incorporating Nazi iconography into its aesthetic, probably because most punks are 20-year-old white kids trying to shock people. In Toronto, Viletones frontman Steven Leckie called himself the “Nazi Dog of the Wild” and wrote a song called “Auschwitz Junkie.” Leckie had a reputation as the loose cannon of Toronto's punk community. Like Iggy Pop, he would often cut himself on stage with a beer bottle and often invoked fights between audience members he disliked (particularly people with beards). In one possibly apocryphal story, Dee Dee Ramone threw a syringe at him at a set at CBGB, which Leckie then promptly used to inject himself on stage. In another possibly apocryphal story, Leckie was lectured on the history of Nazism by none other than the future star of VH1's Rock School.
Colin: It was for shock value. It wasn't like they were all historians who studied up the Third Reich in the evenings. It was like, let's do something to shock people. I heard a story, I don't know if it's true, that when Nazi Dog went to New York, of all people on the street to see him, he's got a swastika and an iron cross [on his jacket]. The story goes that Gene Simmons [of KISS] walked up to him and said “What the fuck are you doing wearing that stuff?” and talked to him for five minutes about what it meant. And then he said he never wore it after that.
In 1977, Emmanuel Jacques, an 11-year-old shoeshiner, was kidnapped, raped repeatedly, and murdered. It was an event that shocked the city, highlighting the plight of recent immigrants in the mostly white protestant Toronto and bringing to light the underworld of vice that had accrued along Yonge Street. One of the few all-female punk groups, The Curse, stoked further controversy in the city with “Shoeshine Boys.”
Colin: That represented another big change in Toronto where at the same time Toronto was really straight and conservative and you couldn't drink on a Sunday ... At the same time there was just this ugly strip called Yonge St that had more massage parlours and strip clubs than any other place in North America per capital. One of the kids who used to shine shoes down there, Emanuel Jaques, used to hang out at the Colonial, which was also where the underground was. I met him maybe a month before he got killed, and he was 11-years old, working there at midnight. So The Curse put out this song called “Shoeshine Boy” where one of the points was, frankly, what are you doing letting your 11-year-old kid out on Yonge St at midnight? They didn't write it thinking “We're going to get some ink on this,” but there were articles in the paper about it. It was really controversial.The Demics – New York City
The Demics' “New York City” was one of the few songs of the era to gain national traction. With Keith Whittaker's gruff, drawling chorus of “IIII wanna goooo to Neeeew Yooork City / 'cause they tell me it's the place to be,” it's not hard to see why it attracted attention. As someone who once spent a lot of money moving to Brooklyn for not-very-good reasons, I attest to the anxieties this song can trigger in the minds of ambitious young Canadians.
Kire: [New York City] pretty much sums up the whole Toronto thing, the idea that you can do it right here. You don't need to go somewhere else to make it, it's right here.
Colin: The song says “I wanna go to New York City” but when you talk to the guy who wrote it, he’s saying that's not what it's about at all. It's about “You don't need to go to New York City to make it. You can do it here.” It's always rated as one of the top Canadian songs or pop singles. They never made a nickel. They think they made, collectively, over the years $300 total and we paid more than that for the rights.Teenage Head – Picture my Face
Teenage Head was the most successful band to come out of Toronto's punk community, but they were also victims of an opportunistic industry. Unlike many of their peers, they were able to continue touring and making music for several years after the original wave of punk bands had dissipated, but they never broke out in a way that was anticipated. On their one and only release by an American major label, 1983's Tornado EP, executives pressured them to add an 's' (Teenage Heads) to their name to avoid confusion between the band and any actual fellatio between adolescents.
Colin: They were the band that was so together musically and they practiced for a long time before anyone even heard of them, so when they hit town it was like “Woah, who are these guys?” They were fantastic. Frankie Venom had such a good presence on stage. I don't know if their management made a good choice or not. The guy who managed them was a pretty odd.
Kire: What did Chris Houston [of the Forgotten Rebels] call him? A slime bucket? He saw an opportunity, jumped on it, bled it for what it was and left them. With Teenage Head. Their story is a whole series of unfortunate events.
Colin: They're the Lemony Snicket of the Toronto punk scene.
If you live in Toronto, you can catch The Last Pogo Jumps Again at the Royal Cinema on February 26 and again on March 4.
Alan Jones is a writer living in Toronto. He's on Twitter @alanjonesxxxv