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Sound and Fury

Reliving Vancouver’s punk explosion

By Greg Buium
April 15, 2005
Dave Gregg of Vancouver punk band DOA in 1981. Photo by Bev Davies.
Dave Gregg of Vancouver punk band DOA in 1981. Photo by Bev Davies.

When Joe Keithley – aka Joey Shithead, longtime leader of DOA, founder of Sudden Death Records and arguably the father of Canadian punk rock – reissued Vancouver Complication, a CD anthology of his hometown's musical underground earlier this year, it might have seemed a bizarre bit of business. Had anyone really been looking for an album with 15 obscure, obsolete or superannuated British Columbia bands from the late-1970s? Was anyone hankering for a record that when it was first released in 1979 never appeared on the radio, never went beyond 4,000 pressings and after all these years seemed more a memory than a concrete musical document?

But when Complication arrived again this year, all buffed up, remastered and annotated to commemorate (somewhat belatedly) its 25th anniversary, it seemed an inspired act of cultural anthropology – equal parts musical ephemera, archival gold dust and long-lost anecdote. The names may now seem quaint (Jade Blade, Zippy Pinhead, Wimpy), the lyrics a hoot ("Kill, Kill, Kill, this is pop," "I've got a wire in my brain…and it feels so real and it turns me on") but the music is still so wild, so raw that even now, Complication digs deep down to the bone.

But it's more than just a time capsule, this compilation that's often called one of the punk era's finest. Today, in an era when the newest indie "It" bands are immediately co-opted into the mainstream, Complication might serve as a kind of crude, prickly industry parable. When the Vancouver underground hit its peak – perhaps between 1978 and 1980 – Canadian music had never seen something as brash, as authentic, as genuinely unattached to the bottom line as this.

"People would say, 'Oh my god, these guys are so weird,' because it was new and it threatened the mainstream," Keithley explained recently in a telephone interview from his Burnaby home. "That's what the record was all about: we weren't in with the music biz at all. We were out in the boonies and there was no chance in hell we were going to get a record contract from anybody – so we just created our own thing."

Sure, other Canadian cities had their punks, but no one matched Vancouver's stylistic range. Just listen as Complication bounds joyously from one subgenre to the next: there’s pure punk (DOA, Subhumans), catchy pop (Pointed Sticks, K-Tels), new wave (Exxotone), crazy electronica ({e}), even schoolboy sleaze (Rude Norton).

The weirdest group, U-J3RK5 – pronounced "you jerk"; the 5 was silent – sounded like a cross between Devo and Cheech and Chong and provided Complication with some of its most famous alumni, including future CBC radio announcer David Wisdom and three of the most prominent visual artists of their generation: Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham and Jeff Wall.

"It was an incredibly eclectic, advanced scene," Steve Macklam, Complication’s original producer, remembers. "I knew something was going on at a street level, but was able to look at it all as a bit of an outsider, because I wasn't as hormonally into it."

Macklam, then in his late-20s — compared to the assorted teens and early-20-somethings around him would later prove his musical prescience: he's now one of the most successful Canadian managers in history, with a client list that includes Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Elvis Costello and Joni Mitchell.

The original idea for a Vancouver punk compilation actually came from 15-year-old Grant McDonagh, then co-editor of Snotrag, the scene's fanzine, and a student at Kitsilano Secondary School. Snotrag, he thought, would be the perfect place for a Mad magazine-style flexi-disc. Macklam thought the idea charming, but a "less than complete way to go about things." The scene was still small – most say it numbered about 100, including both fans and musicians – and Macklam saw an opportunity to create something more permanent. Then a producer at the CBC, Macklam had the contacts – CBC engineer Chris Cutress recorded most of the album in an eight-track studio in his parents' Burnaby basement – and the experience to produce a long-playing vinyl record.

McDonagh, now the owner of Zulu Records, a music shop on Vancouver's west side, remembers nearly every session at Cutress's place. "It wasn't a punk scene per se. It was all about ethics, it really was," McDonagh says, explaining that oddities like U-J3RK5 or Active Dog were accepted because music fans saw real integrity in their work. "Sometimes people couldn't agree whether a band was punk or punk-pop or this or that, but everybody agreed on what they hated."

Remember, these were the years of disco and classic rock 'n' roll. Saturday Night Fever appeared in the summer of 1977. Even now, Keithley still rages about the "turgid stuff" on the radio: ELO, Fleetwood Mac, Styx and, his favourite target, Vancouver's Prism.

"The truth is that the industry wasn't into the music," Macklam observes. "They weren't into the most successful parts of it: the Sex Pistols, the Clash. Those bands weren't selling, they weren't on the radio and as big as they were in hindsight, at the time they just weren't big bands."

Courtesy Sudden Death Records. Courtesy Sudden Death Records.

While the making of the compilation caused the usual bickering – who's in and who's out, whose songs should open and close each side of the record – the cover art came in for some of the most heated debate. Macklam and McDonagh both agree: their greatest regret is the shot that wasn't used, a Jeff Wall photograph of the Cutress bungalow. Politics just didn't allow Macklam to favour one aesthetic over another. His solution? A plain cover, a new title (the Vancouver Compilation became Vancouver Complication) and the absence of credits of any kind.

And as with most punk scenes around the world, the bickering soon turned to open warfare. A 1979 benefit designed to pay for the record became the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, with fights breaking out between the biker bouncers and the crowd.

Very soon, groups started to disband and the core audience broke into factions. Pointed Sticks, some say, jumpstarted the schism by signing a deal with London's fabled Stiff Records in 1980. DOA even arranged a meeting with manager Bruce Allen (Bryan Adams, Loverboy). Keithley recalls: "He said, 'OK, I want to know how much money you guys can make me.'….[We] all looked aghast. I guess we'd thought about making money from music, but we never really put the two together. We just made a bunch of noise, 'cause as far as we were concerned, that's what you were supposed to do."

You wonder if anyone's ever had this reaction to a big-name manager's interest since. That combination of purity and naïveté is something the Vancouver underground sure hasn't handed down to its local descendants. The city's indie darlings are now some of the most coveted in popular music, and they're making the most of it. Hot Hot Heat jumped from a small Seattle label to Warner Brothers, while the New Pornographers and the Organ have been highly praised in, of all places, the New York Times.

"Now, when anything remotely new comes up, the record companies want to grab it and get it into the mainstream as quickly as possible," Macklam says. "In those days, they wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible. There was enormous resistance to change."

You wonder how the record industry today would have taken to the Pointed Sticks or U-J3RK5 or the Subhumans. DOA is still chugging along - marginal, but still alive. In the accelerated world of contemporary pop culture, you wonder if a scene could ever again coalesce the way Vancouver punk did, or whether the pressure of record scouts might have ruptured it sooner. Back then, even a shrewd weatherman like Steve Macklam seemed happy to see a blur between personal and professional matters.

"When I saw the movement, I saw it as an essential and important change for music and art and culture. That experience was so enjoyable for me as a listener, as an observer. I was a life participant then. I lived that life. I ran away with the circus."

Greg Buium is a Vancouver writer.

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Reliving Vancouver's punk explosion
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