Gods of the Hammer: The Teenage Head Story is a new book coming later this month from Geoff Pevere. You might know Geoff from his movie column in the Globe and Mail or his past contributions to the Toronto Star, CBC and various book shelves. You might know Teenage Head from the radio or from history or maybe you don’t. After all, from what I can tell, Teenage Head are a bit of an anomaly in the annals of Canadian popular music. Too punk to be categorized as classic rock and yet too revivalist to be fully embraced by the punk crowd, the Teenage Head story is rooted in energy, loud guitars, interesting hair, bad management, the streets of Hamilton, a riot, a car accident and a staggeringly consistent discography that holds up (and possibly improves) as the years pass.
Geoff was kind enough to spend a little time with me on Facebook, answering questions about his book and sharing a few thoughts on why the band left such an impression on him both as a music writer and, more importantly, as a music fan.
Cam: Thanks again for taking the time. I was born in 1977 so I was a kid during the prime Teenage Head years but I’ve always thought they were really under-appreciated in the broader sense. First question: how long did it take you to write the book and when did the idea first come to you?
Geoff: The book took about a year exactly. I was approached by Jason McBride of Coach House books. He asked me to pitch an idea for their new Exploded Views series — short books by authors on subjects they’re obsessed with — and I almost instantly said ‘Teenage Head’, a band I first saw in 1978, saw more times than any other band and a band that created a noise that’s been ringing in my ears for 35 years. I too always thought they were way, way, way under-appreciated, despite the fact their underground legend persists to this day.
Cam: It always seemed like they didn’t squarely “fit” anywhere. Q107 has no issues playing “Let’s Shake” to this day but they’re not a Q107-type band. They did the whole punk Larry’s Hideaway/Last Pogo thing but they weren’t really a punk band in the textbook sense (in my opinion). Is that part of the appeal do you think? Where does your obsession stem from?
Geoff: It’s true. They didn’t really fit anything, unless you call “pure, simple, three-chord, balls-to-the-wall white-guy, blue-collar” rock a category. Which I guess it is, but not in the insanely label-driven music business, which was especially insanely label-driven in the punk and post-punk era. All I know is, when I first heard the song “Picture My Face”, which sounded to me like a bubble-gum song played by the New York Dolls, I was in for good. They came along just in time to get swept up in the whole punk thing, but really they were a glam-rock, almost proto-metal outfit of the Alice, Iggy, Slade, Mott stream. What got me instantly and totally were the hooks in the songs — eargasmic — the precision of the playing the ferocity of the performance. Canada didn’t know what to do with them, radio didn’t know what to do with them, the recording industry didn’t know what to do with them, and you had to go and see them live to fully appreciate just how original, intense and powerful they were. This just wasn’t supposed to happen in this country, and it was so fucking good the fact it happened in this country only seemed incidental: these guys were as good as rock music got. Period.
Cam: Yeah, for somebody who only discovered them in retrospect, much that’s written about the early days paints the picture of a totally different band live. When did you see them for the first time? Based on their albums at least, I always thought they were closer to Cheap Trick than the Sex Pistols.
Geoff: Cheap Trick is a totally valid comparison. But where Cheap Trick kinda tilted more toward the commercial metal side, Teenage Head tilted more toward the tighter sonic structure of punk. But in terms of a highly refined, amped-up pop sensibility, absolutely. When you consider that Alice Cooper’s Love It To Death was one of those albums that Teenage Head wouldn’t exist without, you get the idea. I think I first saw them in Ottawa, where I was going to university. And from the first night, I was committed. The songs were so good and insanely catchy, you actually left the bar with them in your head — not something you could say of a lot of so-called ‘punk’ acts of the time. And in order to hear those songs again — I’m talking before any vinyl or radio play — you had to go back to another live show. Fortunately, those guys gigged like a machine (ed: a small, small sampling).
Geoff: You know, it occurs to me that another apt comparison is The Replacements, but Teenage Head were way more consistently tight, melodic and consistent overall than the Mats.
Cam: I can see that. Kind of that bar band feel. It’s kind of a vague question but do you think as a Canadian band (from Hamilton!), they should have been bigger in a commercial sense? Especially with a track like “Something on my Mind”, that sounds like a totally multi-format hit to me. Every bit as good as the Cars or whatever else was huge power-pop-wise at the time. It seems like for Canadian “new wave” bands of that era, there was a limit. Teenage Head, the Spoons, Blue Peter,… they all seemed to get to a certain level but it’s kinda like there was a brick wall in the industry at that time.
Geoff: I don’t think there’s any question that if they had been able to get any consistent traction in the studio, working with a label and producer they were comfortable with and who knew them, they might have made a might big commercial impact. But they got bounced between labels, had no consistency in their studio experience, were poorly managed and for all that prevented from concentrating on writing and recording in a manner that would have yielded more great songs like their early ones — “Picture My Face”, “Top own”, “You’re Tearin’ Me Apart”, “Disgusteen”, “Let’s Shake”, etc. All you have to do is listen to the sessions recorded Daniel Rey and Marky Ramone with the band in 2003 to hear what might have been. That being said, it’s an incredibly legacy simply because it transcended all the shit they had heaped on them. Despite it all, we’re still talking, writing and listening to Teenage Head nearly four decades after they first roared out of the Hammer.
Cam: Yeah, I think it speaks both the quality and timeless of their music, and the lack of infrastructure in the industry at that time. It always seems like they could’ve been pushed harder in the 1950s vein and been Canada’s straight-up answer to the Stray Cats (which would’ve been awful from a marketing perspective).
Cam: I’d also like your take on why we’re seeing this flurry of books about Canadian punk with efforts from Don Pyle, Liz Worth and Sam Sutherland in recent years. Why now? There doesn’t appear to be an obvious catalyst with the exception of a general “passage of time”. I remember there was a wave of CD re-issues for the Mods, the Diodes, etc. maybe 10-12 years ago but kinda quiet since then. It’s pretty wild how undocumented a lot of this stuff was, considering there is still clearly an audience for it.
Geoff: Why now? That’s a totally good question. One of things I’ve noticed about cultural history in this country, and especially pop cultural history, is that it always has to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the closet and held up. Traditionally, our official approach to pop cultural history is very conservative, predictable and boring: CBC, the Junos, boomer nostalgia, etc. Or, for fuck’s sake, hockey. Lots of the more raw artistic enterprise this country has excelled in — improv comedy, comic book arts, horror movie making — has gone largely ignored until a certain geek boiling point is reached. I also think that when it comes to punk especially, that younger listeners who weren’t around for the ground zero first wave have an enormous curiosity that might even outstrip those of the original participants. This is partly because rock music as a formidable cultural force — one that could actually presume to be changing the world by changing its fashion — is now gone and because of that more romantic than ever. There is nothing more romantic, idealistic and irresistibly attractive than punk, the last real rebellion rock music can lay claim to. Which brings us right to the doorstep of the twentieth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the absolute final act of mythical rock romanticism. And, as you know, he was a huge punk worshipper.
Cam: I agree that romanticism about rock music, at least, is gone. If only because everything is so densely documented these days. By sheer volume of content available online (for free!), there is no real effort to being a music fan these days so I think stuff that is devoid of all those trappings is extra appealing. I mean… half of Teenage Head’s catalogue is out of print. Curious. How much time did you spend in Hamilton when you were writing the book? I went to university there and I think that’s partially where my fondness for the band comes from–they do kind of embody a “we’re from Hamilton and we’re OK with that” spirit. I think that’s one of their greatest attributes: there really is very little pretense with their music and there is a real sense of joy and spirit that most bands can’t capture.
Geoff: One of my favourite Hamilton quotes (which I heard more than once), goes like this: ‘Toronto didn’t know shit about punk until Hamilton drove down the highway and showed it how.’ I spent quite a bit of time there doing interviews for the book and I really came to appreciate what a proud, distinct, no-bullshit kind of place it is. And Teenage Head never let anybody forget that’s where they were from. If there’s anything distinctly Hamiltonian about them, it probably has something to do with the blend of work ethic, no-nonsense approach, sense of humour and firm commitment to having a really, really good time. Yeah, their website needs work, their back catalogue needs rescuing and re-release and their legacy needs some kind of formal structure in which to be protected, promoted and developed. How I hope all of that happens, If I had a secret agenda in writing the book, it was getting more Head out there.
Cam: I haven’t seen them since Frankie passed. What are your thoughts on keeping the band going w/o him? It’s obviously a different band w/o him.
Geoff: I think Pete MacAulay, the current singer, does a really great job, and he does so by not trying to be Frank. He’s an old school glam-rocker bantam rooster type with a different voice and approach to showmanship. Plus he came to the band as a lifelong fan. I think bands should stick around as long as they want to, and as long as people want to see and hear them. But what I’d really, really love to see some old unreleased recording released, some old live stuff released, and maybe some new solo recordings from Gord Lewis, perhaps backed up by all those countless younger musicians he got hooked in the first place.
Cam: I remember there was a band called the Vapids during my McMaster campus radio days that had an EP called the Teenage Head EP or something (ed: it wasn’t an EP). And even that was 15-20 years ago. You can see the patterns of generations discovering and keeping the band afloat.
Cam: Final-ish question: what was something surprising about the band you learned while writing the book?
Geoff: I think the most suprising thing is generally how unsuccessful they think they were. Surprising to me at least, considering the fact that with very little radio support, a totally inconsistent recording and management history, and almost no acknowledgement by our official guardians of national culture, they have managed to become legendary, and only moreso as time goes on. I always suspected that my obsessive enthusiasm was shared (I didn’t know just how widely) but was surprised to realize how the band itself felt they’d failed. Like (frig) they did.
Cam: Yeah, I’ve talked to Gordie a couple of times in that past and I always got the feel that he was surprised that anyone would want to talk to him. Again, it’s all kind of endearing to (ahem) “got no sense” of what their legacy actually is. Hopefully the book will help!
Geoff: There’s no justice in rock and roll Cam but there’s always idealism and hope. So even though I should know better after all these years I still cling to them both.
Gods of the Hammer: The Teenage Head Story is available April 30, 2014. Buy some copies here or here. Follow Geoff on Twitter at @GeoffPevere.