I used an iPhone to have a chat with Nick Smash, author of the new(ish) Toronto post-punk memorandum Alone and Gone.
Crammed with photos and accounts of GTA musical weirdness from 1979-1983, this book gives a seldom-seen peek at what New Wave and post-punk looked like for Toronto concert goers three decades ago. Don Pyle’s book covering 1976-1980 is also great BTW.
The scene birthed the Rheostatics, Fifth Column and a slew of other acts lost to history. Nick has done his best to bring them back.
Here are some words…
Cam: First question: when did you have the initial idea to write this book? What were the seeds?
Nick: The story started when my brother put on the Toronto Calling exhibition here in Toronto in 2010. I started writing some thoughts about those days and it just kind of organically snowballed.
Cam: What kind of crowds did those exhibits attract? Assume a mix of people from the original scene and “curious newcomers”?
Nick: There were great cross section of familiar faces, many I hadn’t seen in 30 years and quite a few ‘youngsters’. it was great to see an interest spanning the generations. I think Rick Winkle from the Vital Sines was at there, Dave Howard from the Dave Howard Singers was there plus the lead singer from the Curse was there.
Cam: I know the collection starts in 1978. Was that when you and your brudda Simon starting going to show or rather, when you started taking your camera to shows?
Nick: The Clash at the Rex Danforth Theatre here in Toronto that we really started taking photos. Before that, I was working at Music World on Yonge Street and was enjoying all the free tickets to gigs at Maple Leaf Gardens. Simon was still in school then. He ‘borrowed’ my ID to see the Ramones at the El Mocambo in February 1979 and that changed his life. Not sure if working at music world changed mine all that much!
Cam: Did venues have a “no cameras” policy in those days? If so, how did you sneak your camera in? What were you shooting with?
Nick: As as “no cameras” are concerned, we would just show up with the camera at the door, look a bit pathetic, sad and broke.. and hey presto! Some of the photos in the early days, we would have to sit there for two or three hours so we didn’t lose that fantastic angle. The camera itself was our father’s bashed-up old Canon. Manual focus exposure. A nightmare to use.
Cam: How may shots did you have from that initial Clash show? Assume the room couldn’t have been that large?
Nick: Actually, it was probably 2000 capacity. The Rex was an old cinema. We have the better part of 36 exposures I think from that show. The best ones are in the book. As you might imagine, it was chaos down the front so taking photos was a challenging concept.
Cam: How quickly did you get the photos developed after the show? For “the youths”, the idea of having to be choosy with your snapshots would be completely foreign. What did you initially do with the photos once you got them developed?
Nick: We processed and printed everything in the basement at home a day or two after each gig. Because film and chemicals were expensive, we would jam sometimes two or three gigs on one roll of 36 exposure film. Sometimes, we knew in advance that a band had a great live show so we would stock up with a couple of rolls of film. Once we had prints some would go into my fanzine, Smash It Up. Some we would sell at The Record Peddler. Eventually, some we nailed up on the walls of The Edge.
Cam: Who were your allies in the scene? Assume you were friendly with the Garys if you’re nailing stuff to their walls? Did you ever get special access or credentials to take photos?
Nick: All the staff at The Edge were really helpful and supportive. We never had any special passes or credentials as they weren’t needed at this point. i think the Garys and the bands were just grateful somebody was there showing an interest and wanting to take photos.
Cam: What were some of the more interesting rooms you shot at? Locations that people mightn’t even know as concert venues these days?
Nick: There is a shortlist of venues which only lasted a short while. The Exile On Main Street, 100 Bond Street, The Dash Bhagat Temple, The Beverley Tavern, The Cabana Room, Larry’s Hideaway…all gone now. they were all good places to shoot bands as the audience was always right up close to the stage. The bigger venues like The Concert Hall, The Music Hall were always really full of course and made it more of a challenge to get some good images. Sometimes you struck gold and were allowed by the Promoters (usually the Garys) complete access to the stage and the band.
Cam: Switching gears to local bands, who were some of your favourite Toronto outfits of that era? Artists we may have heard of and artists, we may have not.
Nick: I loved Tyranna, Drastic Measures, the Points. I did like Teenage Head but thought they had become more of an established rock band by this time. You can only do so many gigs at the Knob Hill Hotel before you become tired and boring. Oooh controversy!!! The Secrets album, I thought was one of the best from this time. The, of course, there was a whole new generation of bands from 1980: Diners Club, Vital Sines, Breeding Ground, Rent Boys, Youth Youth Youth, Fifth Column; all incredibly exciting and FUN!
Cam: Breeding Ground were kinda dark, gloomy, goth-y when they started out, no? one band there’s very little on the Internet about, from what i can see.
Nick Breeding Ground were very Bauhaus in the early days which yes, might have been a bit forced and self conscious. They matured really quickly though and evolved into a band that would have fit nicely between U2 and Love And Rockets…in 1985. The Canadian music business just kind of ignored them hoping they would go away. They should have come from somewhere else.
Cam: What were some of your early memories of Fifth Column? Certainly a band whose influence is still playing out today, directly or indirectly.
Nick: Fifth Column were a sparkling jab and a shot of brave boldness. I remember they threw everybody off the scent. They were punk but they weren’t; they were different and odd. Their off-kilter beats and wayward way of playing their instruments really inspired a lot of us to try different things and bring a different attitude to what we were trying to do. Their presence was huge. Caroline Azar and GB Jones’ Hide tapes sounded good then and sound even better now.
Cam: For the era you covered in the book, did bands like Teenage Head and the Diodes already seem like a different generation… that first wave of punk?
Nick: Those bands seemed to be over really as far as we were concerned. They got caught up in the major label machinery and were chewed up. We, of course, thought differently and thought we could do better.
Cam: Who was the most surprising “big band” you got access to?
Nick: Probably the Stranglers.
Cam: What kind of access did you have to the Stranglers? they seemed kinda… surly.
Nick: The Stranglers had a scary reputation and I had managed to get myself on the stage lurking behind Jet Black‘s drum kit. I was petrified that JJ would see me and beat the shit out of me. But I’m still here and the results of that night you can see in the book.
Cam: So between 1983 and the 2010 photo exhibit, what happened to these photos? Where were they stored, displayed, etc?
Nick: The photos sat around and gathered lots of dust for 30 years. Simon’s son Rudy thought they would look great as huge posters in a gallery. The result was again, our Toronto Calling show at Steam Whistle Brewery in 2010.
Cam: Did you guys continue taking photos post-1983? And do you still to go shows today? What are you listening to these days?
Nick: We both continued to take photos just not of a lot of bands. All through the 1980s and 1990s, I went to loads of gigs and ended up working for Island records in the UK. I listen to everything as it’s my job (I run my own PR company in London) but I find it’s really tough to stay loyal to any one band as the competition for my attention is overwhelming. My fave current bands? Nadine Shah, Warpaint, Godspeed You Black Emperor…and I’m sure there’s loads of other really good things but there’s just not enough time in the day.
Visit the Alone and Gone website to make arrangements to get your own copy of the book.
I had a bunch of Breeding Ground’s very coolblock print on cloth gig posters; their bass player Jonathan and I were legal beagles (court clerks/process servers) and first became pals through work. They would be great to have now…oh well!