Toronto The Bad—A By-No-Means Definitive Guide To Toronto’s First Wave Punk Rock

By Adam Bernhardt

Recently, I was at BYOV (bring your own vinyl) night at The Communist’s Daughter on Dundas Street, where I brought And now live from Toronto…The Last Pogo, a 1979 compilation of various bands that made up the Toronto scene.  A girl next to me asked me if I knew what was playing, so I told her that it was all Toronto punk bands from the 70s. Her immediate response was something along the lines of, “Really? This is actually good.”

This reaction is all but indicative of a general trend towards Toronto’s first wave punk scene.  I am almost certain that most people can recount the history of CBGBs and the Ramones over the Crash ‘n’ Burn and the Diodes, or even The Viletones. For a city that aspires to be world-class and prizes itself on its cultural achievements, Toronto tends to look elsewhere for inspiration often at the expense of our own talent.

Perhaps this is nowhere more apparent than our cultural amnesia towards Toronto’s early punk scene, without which we would not enjoy the rich diversity of independent infrastructure that we do today.  One has to take into account the fact that before the rise of punk, Toronto was “Toronto the Good”, a boring, button-down Protestant city with bars that closed early and usually employed cover bands. By offering an alternative space for underground bands and artists, Toronto’s punk scene laid the foundations for the indie world into the 1980s and beyond.

So the obvious question then becomes, where does one start? In a literary vein, there have been some serious efforts at uncovering and examining the Toronto punk scene.

Sam Sutherland’s Perfect Youth takes a broad perspective by surveying punk rock in Canada from Victoria to Cape Breton, but with considerable attention paid to Toronto.

The Curse (Dan Huziak)Liz Worth’s Treat Me Like Dirt is an excellent starting point, as it focuses primarily on Toronto and southern Ontario with most attention paid to the years between 1977-1981, but does expand on the pre-punk years and what came after. Drawing on extensive interviews with key participants, Treat Me Like Dirt gives a sense of the grit and the glory of the early years with an unflinching look at the often violent and drug-fueled rock n’roll life.  Bands from nearby Hamilton get a good word in too, with Simply Saucer, Teenage Head, and perennial arbiters of good taste the Forgotten Rebels given equal importance.

The mammoth phonebook of Canadian indie rock, Have Not Been The Same, devotes a considerable amount of time tracing the roots of Toronto’s indie scene in the 1980s to the efforts of the first wave punk bands.

As for the actual music, much of it was never properly documented which has probably contributed to its obscurity. Often paired up with clueless producers who added too much sheen or removed too much bite, many of the first wave bands left shaky recording legacies — this is supposing they ever got near a recording studio, as some live on solely through soundboard recordings and live bootlegs.

Regardless, there is a certain scrappy energy that more than makes up for it.  The Diodes’ power pop hooks and visceral spark, apparent in songs like “Tired of Waking Up Tired” and “Child Star”, made them one of the most important groups of the Toronto scene. The Viletones’ backstreet thuggery and primitive sleaze coupled with frontman Steven Leckie’s violent self-abuse brought a potent sense of danger to their proto-hardcore numbers like “Screaming Fist”.

Toronto punk, like elsewhere, incubated many female-fronted bands such as the B-Girls and The Curse. Much like the stylistic split between the Diodes and the Viletones, The B-Girls played vigorous chiming anthems while The Curse are most renowned for their menacing single “Shoeshine Boy” about underage prostitution and murder on Yonge Street.  Many queer acts also emerged during these years — bands such as the Dishes and Fifth Column examined gender and contemporary life through a critical lens adding a cerebral edge to the Toronto scene.

This is by no means the final word about Toronto’s first wave, many bands have been left out but that is no reflection of their quality. The legacy of the first wave can be hard to discern — Larry’s Hideaway, the Beverly Tavern, and the Colonial Underground have all closed — but the everlasting Horseshoe Tavern keeps that history alive.  Albums by many of these bands can sometimes be found collecting dust in the used discount section of record stores throughout the city, which is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all. However, interest is growing, as a new Colin Burton documentary, The Last Pogo Jumps Again, casts a spotlight on Toronto’s first wave punk scene, and the recent revival of fascination are all positive signs.  Maybe the day when pimply, awkward teenagers wear Teenage Head shirts instead of Ramones shirts is not too far off.

This article appeared in Demo‘s January 2014 issue.

Adam Bernhardt is a fourth-year (god willing) History specialist, writer, and completely amateur photographer. He has been spat on by Michael Gira, kicked in the head by Elias Ronnenfelt, and had a chair thrown at him by the well-kempt frontman of a completely lacklustre synth-pop band. Years of attending high volume concerts have ensured his premature deafness. He once shook hands with Michael Cera, and has yet to wash that hand. He can be found in Robarts, tenth floor men’s room, third stall, knock three times. M4anyone.


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