TORONTO PUNK HISTORY

Pre-1976: BEFORE PUNK

Toronto has always had a vibrant music scene.  The 2011 documentary directed by Bruce McDonald, Yonge Street: Toronto Rock’n’roll Stories described Toronto’s early rock’n’roll scene of the 1950’s and 1960’s as being centred on the Yonge Street downtown strip.

In the late 1950’s Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins played Toronto.  This inspired local rock’n’roll, rythym and blues and rockabilly bands to form.  These included Little Caesar and the Consuls, Johnny Rhythm and the Suedes, Richie Knight and the Midknights.

The more notable of these was late 1950s to early 1960s bands was Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks which eventually transformed into The Band) and became Bob Dylan‘s backing band when he went electric in 1965.  That same year Neil Young was playing with Rick James in the Mynah Birds before James got arrested for being AWOL from the US navy.

Throughout the 1960’s there was a lesser known Ontario garage scene.  Toronto’s The Ugly Ducklings, Luke and the Apostles, The Paupers, Jon and Lee and The Checkmates, Mandala and Bobby Kris and the Imperials with styles ranging from garage-psychedelic to r’n’b – soul.  There was also Jackie Shane, an openly gay cross-dresser whose soulful vocals not only got him on the music charts but also on CBC television, complete with make up and all his effeminate ways.

The main clubs during the 1960’s were the Brown Derby, Blue Note, Club 888, Colonial, Devil’s Den, Edison, Le Coq d’Or, Hawk’s Nest, Friar’s Tavern, Rockpile, and Zanzibar (which is now a strip club).

In 1969 the Velvet Underground played Varsity Stadium and in the early 1970’s the New York Dolls, Mott The Hoople, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed, Iggy and the Stooges played Massey Hall or the Victory Burlesque Theatre at Spadina and Dundas St. West.  Many of the people who made up Toronto’s orginal punk scene were at those shows.

There was a bit of overflow into the early punk scene with some of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s psychedelic bands.  For instance Bob Bryden from Reign Ghost and Christmas produced the first Forgotten Rebels album.  And Simply Saucer, the Velvet Underground / Pink Floyd influenced band from Hamilton, was a key presence in the Hamilton punk scene and opened up for many a punk band in the late 1970’s.

In her 2009 book Treat Me Like Dirt, Liz Worth gives a great account of those pre-punk days of the 1970’s Toronto and Hamilton scenes.

 

1976-79: THE FIRST PUNK BANDS

In the U.K. seeing the Sex Pistols 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.

The best known of the earlier Toronto punk and/or New Wave bands were the B-Girls, Curse, Diodes, Dishes, Poles and Viletones.  Hamilton’s Teenage Head had been playing high schools since 1975 and were honourary members of that group, as they played a lot of shows in Toronto.

Early shows included the Diodes opening up for Talking Heads in January 1977 but the scene really took off when the Viletones played their first show in March at the Colonial Underground.  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.

A couple of months later the Diodes and their manager Ralph Alfonso opened the city’s first DIY punk club The Crash ‘n’ Burn, located in the basement of a building at Duncan and Pearl streets that also had an office for the federal Liberal Party of Canada.  Not surprisingly, the club stayed opend only for a couple of months.  But in addition to having touring bands like the Dead Boys and Nerves play there, it was influential on the scene, serving as a focal point for new bands just starting out.

From 1977 to 1978 Toronto had a scene that was on par with the early U.K. and New York 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 and the Ugly; art-school punk of the Diodes, Doncasters, Drastic Measures and the Poles; power pop of the Mods, Secrets, Tyranna, B-Girls, Existers; punk noise of the Curse; and straight up to oblique punk rock’n’roll of Johnny and the G-Rays, the Battered Wives, Arson, Scenics, and the Cardboard Brains.

By 1979-80, the list of punk bands grew to include the

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 in addition to Teenage Head had the Forgotten Rebels whose first two albums were produced by Bob Bryden who was in the late 1960’s psychedelic bands Reign Ghost and Christmas.

The scene was documented in the photographs of Don Pyle and his book Trouble At The Camera Club, which also gives us a thorough oral history.

Because of the violence associated with these early punk shows, it was difficult to find venues to play in.  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.

For many punks under age, this was the first time they were able to go to a “bar” and see numerous local bands plus out of town bands like the Dead Boys, the Nerves, and Teenage Head.  This included then 14 year old Don Pyle who photographed many of these bands and in 2012 published his photos in the book Trouble At The Camera Club.

The Crash’n’Burn was closed within 3 months due to complaints from the Liberal Party of Canada which had an office in the same building.  The Diodes also made up rumours that the Prime Minister’s wife Margaret Trudeau was hanging out downstairs with the punks.

The first wave of bands from 1977-78 had varying styles: , 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.

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).

After the Horseshoe Tavern had it’s last punk show on December 1, 1978, the Toronto punk scene lost it’s energy and became more fragmented, with keyboard based New Wave and New Romantic groups becoming 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.  Also, the city’s first surf band, Mark Malibu and the Wasagas, emerged around this time.

Liz Worth’s book Treat Me Like Dirt gives a detailed account of Toronto’s punk scene from 1976 to 1981.  Sam Sutherland also talks about the Toronto scene in his 2012 book Perfect Youth: The Birth Of Canadian Punk.

Although 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.

In addition to the ones mentioned above, the main clubs that had punk shows were 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.

In the late 1970’s it wasn’t easy 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.

Fanzines included the Pig Papers by Gary Gold, Toranna Punks by Johnny Garbagecan (the Ugly’s roadie) and Shades Magazine, started by George Higton from the Existers.

 

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 DIY punk club.

The Androids, B-Girls, Curse, Dents, Diodes, Dishes, Doncasters, Drastic Measures, Poles, Teenage Head (from Hamilton), Toyz, Ugly, Viletones.

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), Johnny and the G-Rays, Mods, 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, Jane Siberry, 63 Monroe (from London, Ontario), Slander (from Hamilton), Stark Naked and the Fleshtones, Swollen Members, V-Necks, Wayouts, Zro4.

 

1980’s: TORONTO HARDCORE

From 1979 to the early 1980’s the Toronto punk scene was in transition.  The big break that many groups were probably hoping for never happened.  While the U.K. and New York scenes were considered the vanguards of the the punk movement, the Toronto scene was largely ignored by both the local and international media. Perhaps if there had been a hypothetical UK tour with, say, the Viletones, Teenage Head and the Ugly, it might’ve been a different story.

Only the Viletones, Teenage Head and Forgotten Rebels played continuously (more or less) in one form or another into the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s.  By the early to mid-1980’s, the first wave bands splintered and ex-members started or joined new groups such as the Jitters (ex-Mods), Wayouts (ex-Tyranna), Australia (ex-Existers) and the Wild Things (ex-Ugly). The Viletones even gave rockabilly a try.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, there was a shift to the New Wave side of the musical spectrum, where hair and fashion took precedence and the bands didn’t take themselves too seriously.  But some old school punks resisted and there were some new bands like L’Etranger, the Young Lions and Youth Youth Youth that had a political bent. (Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash from L’Etranger were actually elected to parliament in 1994 and 2010, respectively.)

As happened in the UK with the Oi bands and in California and Washington, DC, with the first wave of hardcore bands, many Toronto teens were disenchanted by the current state of punk and started doing their own thing.  A change of direction was evident as new bands began playing shorter songs, at faster speeds and with more anger and intensity.  At the same time, they were singing more about personal politics, the search for identity, police brutality, racism — although singing about beer, drugs and girls was still important.

The earliest Toronto hardcore bands in 1980 and 1981 included the Young Lions, Youth Youth Youth, A.P.B. , Direct Action, Ugly Models, Quarantine and Zeroption (from Oakville), among others.  Several of these bands came from the Scarborough suburbs and, interestingly, Quarantine played nothing but house parties until their first offical live show in 1983.  The stop-start American style hardcore was first played in Toronto by Chronic Submission whose members were 13 to 14 years old when they first started playing shows in 1981.

A.P.B., Blank Generation, Chronic Submission, Dead End, Direct Action, Hype, Lethal Playthings, Nothing In Particular, Prisoners of War, Quarantine, Sickies, Ugly Models, United State, Unknowns (St. Catharines), Young Lions, Youth Youth Youth, Zeroption (Oakville).

In 1982 Brian Taylor, singer for Youth Youth Youth, played a significant role in Toronto’s hardcore scene.  In addition to working at the Record Peddler, then located at Jarvis and Queen streets, which was the source for getting all your punk imports, Brian had his Accusonic recording studio and N.R.K. record label. He was responsible for recording many of the early hardcore bands, releasing their albums on cassette tape (vinyl was too expensive) and selling them at the Record Peddler.  He also put together the landmark compilation T.O. Hardcore ’83 which represented the very best of the Toronto hardcore scene.

Today Brian has started to re-release some of those early recordings on vinyl. A Young Lions compilation was also released in 2011 by Schizophrenic Records out of Hamilton, Ontario.

In 1984 many of those bands made it into the film Not Dead Yet, directed by Ruth Taylor and Edward Mowbray.  In 2002, Mowbray did a follow up documentary Punk X, focused on members from the Bunchofuckingoofs.  In 2012, Jennifer Morton also told the BFGs’ story in her book Dirty, Drunk, and Punk.

A great archive of Toronto punk history is Equalizing X Distort, a University of Toronto radio show on CIUT 89.5 FM that is produced by Stephe Perry.

Afhakken, Berlin Wave, Blibber and the Ratcrushers, Bunchofuckingoofs, Creative Zero, Hype, Jolly Tamborine Man, Madhouse, Microedge, No Mind, Problem Children (Hamilton), Section 8 (Oakville), Sudden Impact, Wet Spots (Hamilton), Wrath.

In 1984 the BFG’s opened the DMZ which, like the Crash’n’Burn before it, was a punk club run by punks.  Later on the BFGs were known for their Fort Goof hangout/home/boozecan in the heart of Kensington Market.  In the 1990’s there were hardcore shows at the Greeks, which later became Planet Kensington and continued to have hardcore shows there well into the 2000’s.  Steve Goof and various versions of the BFGs stuck to their hardcore code of conduct right up to 2012 when they played their last show.

In the mid 1980’s there was an overlap of hardcore and metal.  Specifically, metal bands started playing faster and gave us speed metal which became thrash metal.  Hardcore sped up even more and the faster version became known as thrash. Some of that metal influence seeped into hardcore.  By the late 1980’s the difference between a thrash hardcore band and an old school 1977 punk band was enormous, resulting in a divide between fans of hardcore and old school punk.  Or at least in Toronto, to this day, you don’t see fans of the two genres mixing at each others’ shows too often.

By the late 1980’s most of the first wave of Toronto hardcore bands had broken up.  From the mid to late 1980’s the Toronto scene included bands from the outlying cities, such as Sons of Ishmael from Meaford, Problem Children from Dunnsville and the garage punk of UIC from Exeter.

In the 1980’s, a lot of the clubs would book shows themselves.  The Garys were still booking great shows. John Brower, who at one time co-managed Teenage Head, had the Heatwave Festival in August 1980.  In June 1980, Teenage Head played Ontario Place and caused a riot.

All ages dances with punk bands were booked at church basements, halls and the like under the event name Start Dancing.  The first all ages bar shows were put on by Pete Jones from Quarantine in 1983 at the Upper Lip.  Jill Heath (Jill Jill), Tony Meaney, Al Ridley and Don LeBeuf did a lot of the hardcore shows from early to late 1980’s.  In 1988 Elliot Leftko started booking punk shows at the Silver Dollar and later the Apocalypse Club.

The main clubs from the 1980’s were the Beverley, Bridge/Ildiko’s, Cabana Room, Concert Hall (aka Masonic Temple, Rockpile), DMZ, Edge, El Mocambo, Horseshoe, Larry’s Hideaway, Lee’s Palace, Quoc-te, Starwood, Turning Point, Upper Lip, Voodoo Club and RPM for larger shows.

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In the early 1980’s Toronto had a few rockabilly bands like the Bopcats, Sidewinders, Razorbacks and Tennessee Rockets (with Problem Children co-founder Bill Culp).  The early 1980’s also brought Toronto it’s first surf band, Mark Malibu and the Wasagas.  (Mark was involved in the above mentioned Start Dancing shows.)  In 1979-80 there was Crash Kills 5 and it’s members eventually formed Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, one of Canada’s best known instrumental bands, becoming the house band for the 1990’s TV show Kids In The Hall.

In the mid- to late-1980’s Toronto had an emerging roots country scene centred around the Cameron House and Handsome Ned‘s Saturday matinees.  Some of these bands were made of former members of the Viletones, Tyranna, Ugly and Battered Wives.  At first it might seem odd but, when you think about it, there are common themes running through both genres: women, drugs, drinking and fighting, although country has a higher percentage of songs involving murder and punk songs can be more overtly political.  But when it comes right down to it, both punk and country songs are about everyday, common people and there’s a truth and genuine honesty to the best punk and best country song.

Blue Rodeo, Bopcats, Cowboy Junkies, Dundrells, Handsome Ned, Leslie Spit Treeo, One-Eyed Jacks, Prairie Oyster, Razorbacks, Screaming Sam, Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, Sidewinders, Tennessee Rockets.

Roughly during the same time frame, Toronto developed an interesting indie scene, ranging from punk influenced (A Neon Rome), pop influenced (Rheostatics), roots rock influenced (The Lawn, Plastercine Replicas) to experimental new wave (Dave Howard Singers, Jane Siberry).  William New from Groovy Religion started his Elvis Monday series in 1983 at the Beverley Tavern which, along with the Cabana Room at the Spadina Hotel, helped nurture Toronto’s indie scene.  Elvis Monday moved to the Silver Dollar in 1986, the El Mocambo in the 1990’s and then the Drake Hotel in the 2000’s. It is a Toronto institution.

A Neon Rome, Change Of Heart, Dave Howard Singers, Dik Van Dykes (Hamilton), Fifth Column, Groovie Religion, The Lawn, Living Proof, Look People, Negro Jazz Funeral, Plasterscene Replicas, Rheostatics, Jane Siberry, Vital Sines.

The compilation series It Came From Canada, put out by Og Records from Montreal, regularly included some of these indie and roots country bands.

 

1990’s: MELODIC PUNK & GARAGE

In the mid to late 1980’s there was a blend of metal and punk which gave rise to speed metal, thrash metal and hardcore thrash. By the end of the decade most of the early hardcore bands had split up.

In the 1990’s punk became almost mainstream with the success of bands like Green Day, Bad Religion, NOFX and Rancid.  Toronto’s melodic punk bands — with or without the socially conscious lyrics – included the Blundermen, Bitter Grin, Warface, Fallout, Stiffs, Riot 99 and Marilyn’s Vitamins.  There was also the punk assault mayhem of the Sinisters and Teen Crud Combo.  But the Kensington Market area of the city still retained its crusty, drunk’n’angry hardcore bands like Bunchofuckingoofs, Armed and Hammered, Random Killing, Dirty Bird, Politikill Incorrect and Hockey Teeth, to name a few.

Other bands like Trigger Happy, One Blood, Countdown to Oblivion, Five Knuckle Chuckle and Freedom Denied were more influenced by 1980’s hardcore/thrash.  A strong sense of political activism was supported by the anarchist bookstore Who’s Emma in Kensington Market and the younger generation of punks played a lot benefits for Food Not Bombs and the Anti-Racist Action.

Meanwhile throughout the 1990’s, the city was also developing a thriving garage punk scene with bands like the Leather Uppers, Suckerpunch, Danko Jones, Stinkies, Exploders, Deadly Snakes, and the Texas Dirtfuckers, along with a mix of cow punk from the Speed Kings and Sadies.  A cool surf scene was also growing with bands like Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, Tijuana Bibles, LoFiHi, Atomic 7 and the Blue Demons.

 

2000’s: NEW HARDCORE

After everybody partied like it was 1999, remnants from some of the 1990’s bands continued with their sound, forming new groups such as the Class Assassins, G-Men, Downbelows, Sinkin’ Ships, Hostage Life, and Dead Letter Dept.  The surf, garage and rockabilly scenes also did well throughout the 2000’s, with bands like the Blue Demons, Lau or Die, Royal Crowns, Dodge Fiasco, Creepshow.

In the early 2000’s, a new wave of Toronto hardcore crashed the scene with bands like Brutal Knights, Career Suicide and Fucked Up. Continuing into the mid-2000’s, the punk scene in general was quite diversified, with post-punk noise from the Creeping Nobodies and Anagram, metallic thrash from Curse, Cancer Bats, Rammer and Death From Above 1979, power pop from the Bayonettes, Dangerloves, bluesy punk/garage from Bush League and CATL, to give a few examples.  There was also some hardcore humour from the 3tards and Mature Situations.

The international and critical success of some of these bands achieved put the Toronto scene on the map at a level that had never been attained before.  This was evident when Fucked Up put on their annual Fucked Up Weekend festival series, which drew bands and hundreds of hardcore fans from around the world.

By the mid to late 2000’s the scene was incredibly strong with lots of shows and bands, sustained by all ages DIY venues such as Siesta Nouveau, Adrift, and occasionally, Cinecycle.  Bands associated with that scene are Urban Blight, School Jerks, Hazardous Waste, Teenanger, Bad Skin, Molested Youth, to name a few.  The scene was sustained by dedicated promoters Mark Pesci and Greg Benedetto. In the 2010’s Greg brought in lots of international bands through his hugely successful Not Dead Yet music festival.

In the late 2000’s there was also a resurgent interest in the original Toronto 1970’s punks scene as the books Treat Me Like Dirt and Trouble At The Camera Club and the films Last Pogo Jumps Again and circa 1977 The Diodes were released or in production.  This brought about a lot of re-union shows with original members from the Viletones, Ugly, Mods, Diodes, B Girls, Zero 4, Existers, among others.  Tribute bands the Screwed and Sids Kids continued to sustain the class of ’77 get-togethers into the mid 2010’s.

 

 

 

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