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Posts Tagged ‘The Diodes’

Ignored 63: Forever Gone

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2015 at 4:25 pm

I used an iPhone to have a chat with Nick Smash, author of the new(ish) Toronto post-punk memorandum Alone and Gone.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ignored 31: Hammer time

In Uncategorized on April 1, 2014 at 12:06 am

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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.

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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.

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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.