[5 December 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Although Canada boasts a remarkably deep pool of talented independent artists today, exporting major indie buzz bands at an annual rate, it wasn’t anywhere near the same case 25 years ago. Overshadowed by their Commonwealth mates in Great Britain and the gigantic superpower to the south, Canadian rock music, like a mouse living next to an elephant (to paraphrase Pierre Trudeau), underwent a slower, quieter evolution, as anyone who eschewed the mainstream and dared to try something new were left to toil away in extreme obscurity. The infamous Canadian Content laws, which forced radio to play a high percentage of Canadian music, ironically, didn’t help develop young talent at all, as cheesy arena rock bands like Trooper and Triumph dominated in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, while more cutting-edge acts barely made a dent in the public consciousness.
When punk exploded in New York and London, the waves were also felt all over the world, including Canada, as band after band sprouted up from coast to coast, reveling in the DIY, anti-establishment glory of punk rock. The trouble for those young bands was, there was no actual scene where various artists could feed off each other. The country being so large, it was impossible for bands to hit the road and spread the word of mouth, so instead, they stuck to their respective local areas, forming small, unique little punk cliques in the Maritimes, Quebec, Southern Ontario, the prairies, and the West coast. In the late ‘70s, only a small handful of bands were able to attract the attention of those from south of the border (D.O.A., Teenage Head, The Diodes… uh, did I mention D.O.A.?), while the rest plugged away, playing everywhere from high schools, to house parties, to golf courses. Some kept going for a number of years, yielding modest discographies, while others crashed and burned, with nary a studio track under their belts, destined to be lost in the annals of Canadian music history forever. Or so they thought.
Thanks to an ambitious group of music historians calling themselves Punk History Canada, that will hopefully change, as a new series of CD compilations strives to delve deep into Canada’s rich, strange, and often fascinatingly weird punk past. Only in Canada, EH: 77-81 is the first installment, and not only does it contain an eclectic array of material (23 bands in just over an hour), but it also sets the stage for what will be a fun, not to mention revelatory, series.
Although The Diodes are not included (“Tired of Waking Up Tired” is the seminal Canadian punk tune), the other two aforementioned bands make token appearances, D.O.A. with the seething “Royal Police” (from their infamous debut Disco Sucks EP), and Teenage Head’s uproarious, rockabilly-fueled “You’re Tearing Me Apart”, but the disc’s focus is clearly on the unknowns, the best of whom display remarkable potential that was never fully realized. Victoria, British Columbia’s House of Commons plow away like the bastard sons of the Stooges on “Way Down South”, churning out the same kind of proto-grunge that The Wipers were developing further down the Pacific coast in Portland, Oregon at the same time. Ottawa’s The Action display a strong UK influence on the energetic “TV’s on the Blink” (right down to the goofy opening shout of, “Oi!”), while Hamilton, Ontario’s Slander reel off a brilliant punk cover of the theme to Petticoat Junction, complete with the clever use of the opening riff from the Yardbrids’ “Train Kept A-Rollin’”.
Meanwhile, “Hold Up”, by Montreal’s The 222s, deliver a superb, glam-infused variation on the punk pop of The Buzzcocks, and Calgary, Alberta’s Hot Nasties transcend the primitive production on “Get Away From Me”, thanks to the wiry lead guitar melody around which the song is constructed. Punk is always better when the ladies are involved, and the Poly Styrene-inspired vocals by Toronto’s Zro4 coupled with Calgary, Alberta’s surprisingly hip-sounding Animal Kingdom provide a much-needed feminine perspective to the compilation.
Especially interesting is the sound of the punk bands from more remote parts of the country who, hundreds of miles removed from larger centers, developed their own unique interpretations of the style. Hailing from all the way out in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Da Slyme go for the same rockabilly sound as The Cramps, the unusual addition of saxophones adding a fun, X-Ray Spex element to the proceedings. From the northern shore of Lake Superior, Thunder Bay, Ontario’s The Negatives sound equally influenced by both Television and David Bowie on the languid “Echos” (which clocks in at a most un-punk four minutes). Even the prairie heartland had their own idea of punk rock, thanks to Regina, Saskatchewan’s Extroverts, whose “Living in Poverty” sounds like it was produced by someone who had never heard punk before (harmonica? What the hell?), but manages to have more of a subversive quality because of the overly warm sound. Nestled in the lush, scenic orchard land of the Okanagan Valley, Kelowna, British Columbia’s Gentlemen of Horror sound surprisingly ferocious on the rough-edged “Overhead Projector”, highlighted by a dissonant riff during the bridge that shows these boys were, whether they knew it or not, pretty darn cutting-edge.
Underappreciated, but defiantly indefatigable, these bands, and many others brought a new, unique aesthetic to a generation of young music fans, and while nearly all are long gone, the passion in the songs remain. The finest example is the primitive live recording of Edmonton, Alberta’s local legends The Diefenbakers (taken from an obscure cassette recording), who chug away frantically on “Color TV” for two and a half furious minutes. Although they never got around to recording in the studio, on this song, they sound like the greatest Canadian rock band ever, and who knows, had they been given the chance, they just might have been. Today’s Canadian indie darlings all owe bands like The Diefenbakers a debt of gratitude for paving the way for the indie rock explosion, and this excellent, lovingly-assembled collection is a step in the right direction.
Only in Canada, EH: 77-81 can be ordered through the Punk History Canada website.