London, 1977. New York, 1975. Los Angeles, 1979. Punk rock arose (and arises still) in conditions of urban alienation. The Canadian scene, as chronicled in rock journalist Sam Sutherland’s new book Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk, was no exception.
Canada is, contrary to perceptions abroad, a more urbanized country than the US, with its four largest cities accounting for a full 30% of the total population—that is, double the concentration in the States. But—and here’s where the alienation comes in—those urban areas are geographically isolated from each other. The endless miles of prairie in between population centers made cheap, speedy touring nigh-impossible. Fans and bands alike were stuck with the venues available in their area. So it’s a misnomer to speak of “Canadian punk” as a monolithic entity. As Sutherland recounts in this sprawling mosaic, pieced together from interviews with dozens of musicians and fans, punk scenes were highly localized, small-scale and generally short-lived.
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It’s a miracle that Canadian punk happened at all. The many arms of the Canadian establishment, so invested in the nation’s self-image as a bastion of decency and virtue, was hugely resistant. The very first gig by Toronto’s Viletones prompted the screaming newspaper headline “Not Them! Not Here!” The twin obstructions of the musician’s union and the Mob—which owned many of the nightclubs—worked to keep punk bands out of most venues. But happen it did, in cities large and small across the sprawling nation. From Vancouver in the west to subarctic Winnipeg, from industrial Saskatoon to tiny St. John’s in Newfoundland, every city had at least one place for punks to play, and each had its own core audience who would come to every show.
But the flame that burns briefest burns also brightest. The bands inspired both intense devotion and intense loathing, and managed to blaze all kinds of trails. Vancouver’s own DOA named (and helped invent) the hardcore genre. In Toronto, the Dishes were one of the first bands to bring a queer sensibility to punk. Without support from traditional media, bands and fans created their own underground networks to promote shows, and got around the hostility of club owners by finding alternative spaces to play. Gay bars were an important part of the punk scene in many cities, and occasionally—as with Toronto’s infamous basement bar Crash ‘n’ Burn—bands would simply take over a derelict space and transform it into a performance venue.
In between the fistfights and the amyl-fuelled public sex, the outrageous stage exploits, the police harassment and the honest-to-god political action, the punks managed to create a community—building a touring circuit from the ground up, providing a sense of affiliation for outsiders scattered across the world’s second-largest nation.
It’s a great frustration, then, to read about a scene that mattered so much to so many, but which produced virtually no recorded legacy. A few of these bands managed to get something out on vinyl, and dedicated crate-diggers may be able to scare up rare discs by commercial also-rans like the Pointed Sticks, the Subhumans or Teenage Head. But Sutherland cites scarce 45s and archival tapes that even the hardiest music-scrounger will find unattainable. That’s a gaping hole in an outsider’s understanding of Canadian punk.
Sadly, Sutherland’s prose doesn’t do much to fill it. Though meticulously researched and smartly written, Perfect Youth gives only the vaguest sense of how this music sounded. Much attention is paid to the on- and offstage action, but once the music starts Sutherland falls curiously silent, and there’s little sense of what made each band musically distinctive. And though he talks up the lyrical worldviews of many of the bands—the Curse’s scathing rant “Shoeshine Boy,” the gleeful depravity of the Dayglos’ “I Killed Mommy”—Sutherland never actually quotes a single lyric. Perhaps this limitation was forced upon him due to publishing rights issues rather than an authorial strategy, but whatever the reason it badly undercuts the case he’s trying to make for the bands he loves.
If some enterprising publisher saw fit to sort out the rights and package Perfect Youth with a couple of CDs or a DVD (or at least, given the tangled and criss-crossed histories of many of these bands, an index), it would be definitive resource. Recordings are an imperfect substitute for being there, for being young and angry and wasted on whatever drugs were available to hand, but at least they provide a context—as incomplete and unsatisfactory as that context may be.
The voices of the participants, looking back with mingled wonder and disbelief at what they once created, ring a delicate, sustained note of fond, bruised pride, and Sutherland’s prose fills in the gaps with a wholly-appropriate rock ‘n’ roll swagger. But however evocative it is, for those of us who did not live through those days, who will likely never even hear these songs, Perfect Youth in its current print form remains a magnificent tease.
These days a critic-at-large for Popdose, back in the day—with bass guitar slung low—he pogoed around the stage under the nom du punk Jack Fear. A lot of years ago, when he still had all his hair.