1976-79: THE START OF IT ALL
Seeing the Sex Pistols in the U.K. for the first time inspired people to form punk bands. In Toronto it was seeing the Ramones in September 1976 at the New Yorker Theatre at Yonge and Charles streets that lit the spark and ignited the Toronto punk scene. Within weeks people who never sang or played instruments before got together and formed bands. Anyone who was in a band before and saw the Ramones pushed their band in a new direction.
Some of the bands during this transitional point in the scene included the Dishes, Rough Trade, Robbie Roxx, Daily Planet, Eels, Zoom and, from Hamilton, Teenage Head and Simply Saucer. Teenage Head had been playing high schools since 1975 with their revved up their Eddie Cochrane/rockabilly inspired riffs. Back in Toronto, Shock stopped playing MC5, Stooges and New York Dolls covers and became the Ugly.
In October 1976, thanks to Jimmy the Worm, manager of proto-punk band Zoom, the Colonial Underground was the first club to put on punk shows. By January 1977, as momentum began to build, the Diodes were opening up for the Talking Heads at the Ontario College of Arts (OCA). Because there was more of a cerebral, arty New Wave scene associated with OCA (now OCAD), it was not until the Viletones played their first show in March at the Colonial Underground that the Toronto punk scene really exploded and took off. The Viletones’ singer Steven Leckie, known as Nazi Dog back then, took on Iggy Pop’s wild stage antics and would slice himself with knives or broken bottles, swing chains and generally threaten the audience in various ways.
The Androids, Arson, Battered Wives, B-Girls, Curse, Dents, Diodes, Dishes, Doncasters, Drastic Measures, Poles, Teenage Head (from Hamilton), Toyz, Ugly, Viletones, Zoom.
Because of the violence associated with these early punk shows, it was difficult to find venues to play. In May 1977, the Diodes and their manager Ralph Alfonso saw the need and connived the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC) into letting the band use their basement as a rehearsal space, which was located at Duncan and Pearl streets. While the CEAC people were away in Europe, on weekends the space became the Crash’n’Burn, Toronto’s first punk club run by punks.
In addition to having touring bands like the Dead Boys and Nerves play there, the club served as place for under age punks to hang out and go see shows. It brought punks from across the city together and gave a focal point to new bands just starting out. This included then 14 year old Don Pyle who photographed many of these bands and published his work in the 2011 book Trouble At The Camera Club. The Crash’n’Burn stayed open only for a couple of months due to complaints from one of the building’s other tenants, the Liberal Party of Canada. The Diodes also made up rumours that the Prime Minister’s wife Margaret Trudeau was hanging out downstairs with the punks.
Cardboard Brains, Concords, Demics (London, Ontario), Existers, Fits, Forgotten Rebels (Hamilton), Hate, Johnny and the G-Rays, Mods, Nash The Slash, Oh! Those Pants, Scenics, Secrets, Sophisticatos, Swollen Members, Tyranna, Wads.
The Toronto punk scene had another period of growth in 1978 when Gary Topp and Gary Cormier — “The Garys” — began booking shows at the Horseshoe Tavern. They were responsible for bringing the most significant U.S. and U.K. punk bands to Toronto for the first time, including that first Ramones in 1976. They continued to bring influential bands to Toronto well into the 1980’s.
From 1977 to 1978 Toronto had a scene that was on par with the New York and U.K. scenes. It just didn’t get the media attention or recognition. It was quite a varied scene as well, from pure street level punk of the Viletones, the Ugly and Arson; art-school punk of the Diodes, Doncasters, Drastic Measures and Poles; power pop of the Mods, Secrets, Tyranna, B-Girls, Existers; punk noise of the Curse; straight up punk rock’n’roll of Johnny and the G-Rays and the Battered Wives; and the more oblique stylings of the Scenics and the Cardboard Brains. There was also the very unique one man band Nash The Slash, bandaged mummy-like from head to toe, playing electric violin and synths.
Concurrently, London, Ontario, had the Demics who wrote the punk classic “New York City”, voted the greatest Canadian song of all time by CHART magazine readers in 1996. Nearby Hamilton had Teenage Head and the Forgotten Rebels, whose first albums were put out by Star Records which was originally a Hamilton record store owned by Paul Kobak, Teenage Head’s first manager. Bob Bryden who was in the late 1960’s psychedelic bands Reign Ghost and Christmas produced the Forgotten Rebels’ first two albums. There was also the Pink Flyod influenced proto-punk of Simply Saucer.
After the Horseshoe Tavern had it’s last punk show on December 1, 1978 (documented in Colin Brunton’s film The Last Pogo), the Toronto punk scene lost it’s energy and became more fragmented. Keyboard based New Wave and New Romantic groups became an increasingly dominant force by the early 1980’s, although rocakabilly had a resurgence with the Bopcats and Razorbacks. Even the Viletones went through a rockabilly phase. Incidently, the city’s first surf band, Mark Malibu and the Wasagas, emerged around this time.
Some of the more notable punk bands from 1979-80 are the Raving Mojos, Swollen Members, Government, Rent Boys, Zro4, Stark Naked and the Fleshtones and, from Hamilton, the Dream Dates and Slander.
The Anemics, Babyslitters, Bopcats, Crash Kills 5, Dead Bunnys, Dick Duck and the Dorks, Dream Dates (from Hamilton), Government, L’Etranger, Jitters, Martha and the Muffins, Polkaholics, Raving Mojos, Razorbacks, Rent Boys, Rough Trade, 63 Monroe (from London, Ontario), Slander (from Hamilton), Stark Naked and the Fleshtones, V-Necks, Wayouts, Zro4.
FILMS & BOOKS
In 1977 Ross McLaren captured some of these bands in his 30 minute film Crash’n’Burn, while Peter Vronsky created a short documentary for CBC TV about the early Toronto scene called Dada’s Boys. In 1978 Suzanne Naughton made two short films at the New Rose punk store showing the Viletones and other punks hanging out. In December 1978, Colin Brunton filmed The Last Pogo, capturing the last punk show at the Horseshoe Tavern before the club reverted back to it’s country roots. Brunton went on to produce Roadkill, Highway 69, Hedwig And The Angry Inch and, in 2012, he and co-director Kire Paputts completed a feature length follow up documentary The Last Pogo Jumps Again that catches up with all the old punks. In 2010 the Diodes’ story was told by Punks And Rockers’ Aldo Erdic in the documentary short circa 1977: The Diodes, which included a return visit to the Crash’n’Burn building (now a lawyer’s office).
While Don Pyle’s book Trouble At The Camera Club provides a great visual record, Liz Worth’s book Treat Me Like Dirt gives a detailed oral history of Toronto’s punk scene from 1976 to 1981, with some amazing stories. Sam Sutherland also talks about the early Toronto punk scene in his 2012 book Perfect Youth: The Birth Of Canadian Punk.
CLUBS & PROMOTERS
In addition to the ones mentioned above, the main clubs that had punk shows were the Colonial Tavern, Club David’s, Shock Theatre, the Beverley, Edge, Turning Point, El Mocambo, Hotel Isabella and Masonic Temple (which became the Concert Hall in the 1980’s and eventually home to MTV Canada in the 2000’s). A few significant shows were also held at Seneca College in 1977 and 1978, such as Patti Smith and Iggy Pop (accompanied by David Bowie on keyboards). The Rex Theatre also had the Clash’s first Toronto show in 1979.
The main promoters were The Garys: Gary Topp and Gary Cormier. They were responsible for bringing the most significant punk bands from the U.S.A. and U.K. to Toronto for the first time, including the first Ramones in 1976. They continued to bring influential bands to Toronto well into the 1980’s.
LABELS, RECORD STORES & FANZINES
A few of the bands managed to scrounge up some money to do a demo tape or release a 7 inch single or EP, there are only a few full length albums to be found from 1977-79 such as those by the Diodes, Battered Wives, Teenage Head and Forgotten Rebels. Many of these singles, EPs and tapes were compiled by Other People’s Music and released in the mid-1990’s. Ugly Pop Records also began re-releasing some of the original 1970’s recordings on vinyl in the 2000’s.
Although the Diodes signed to CBS and the Battered Wives did eventually get a deal with Epic records, the big break most bands were looking for never happened. There was a cool weekend stint at CBGB’s in 1977 with the Viletones, Teenage Head and the Diodes and some bands did tour the US, but none of the Toronto bands made it to the UK, which might’ve made a difference in getting the Toronto scene more of an international profile.
In the late 1970’s it was hard to find punk records. The only all punk store was New Rose located at Queen and Parliament, which was owned by Margarita Passion, the girlfriend of Viletones’ guitarist Freddy Pompeii. Punk imports could also be found at the Record Peddler, Kopps Kollectables and, less frequently, at Sam The Record Man, which remained in business until the late 2000’s.
TORONTO PUNK TIME LINE
June 21, 1969 The Velvet Underground plays Varsity Stadium.
Jan. 25, 1972 Iggy and the Stooges play the Victory Burlesque Theatre.
Oct. 27, 1973 The New York Dolls play the Victory Burlesque Theatre.
Sept. 24, 1976 The Garys (Topp and Cormier) bring the Ramones to the New Yorker.
Jan. 28, 1977 Talking Heads play OCA with the Diodes opening.
Mar. 1977 The Viletones play their first show at the Colonial Underground.
May 1977 The Crash’n’Burn opens, becoming Toronto’s first band run punk club.
The Androids, B-Girls, Curse, Dents, Diodes, Dishes, Doncasters, Drastic Measures, Poles, Teenage Head (from Hamilton), Toyz, Ugly, Viletones, Zoom.
Oct. 1977 The Diodes become the first band to release a full length album.
March 1978 The Garys begin booking punk shows at the Horseshoe.
Arson, Battered Wives, Cardboard Brains, Concordes, Demics (from London, Ontario), Existers, Fits, Forgotten Rebels (from Hamilton), Hate, Johnny and the G-Rays, Mods, Nash The Slash, Scenics, Secrets, Tyranna.
Dec. 1, 1978 The Last Pogo documents the Horseshoe’s last punk show.
Jan. 1979 The Garys now booking shows at the Edge.
1979-80 Punk in transition, from old school to quirky New Wave to rockabilly.
The Anemics, Babyslitters, Bopcats, Crash Kills 5, Dick Duck and the Dorks, Dream Dates (from Hamilton), Government, L’Etranger, Mark Malibu and the Wasagas, Martha and the Muffins, Raving Mojos, Razorbacks, Rent Boys, Rough Trade, Sharks, Jane Siberry, 63 Monroe (from London, Ontario), Slander (from Hamilton), Stark Naked and the Fleshtones, Swollen Members, V-Necks, Wayouts, Zro4.