By now, punk is an entrenched enough musical and social movement that you don't have to look far to discover the gritty rock history of cities like New York, London or even Toronto. They're recounted on big-money walking tours, re-issued in compilations sold at Starbucks and printed on hoodies at the mall. But what about the kid in Halifax who first heard a Ramones record, sold his Yes discography, rented a basement hall and threw a punk show? What about the Regina boy who first put a safety pin in his nose and introduced punk to the Prairies?
Music journalist Sam Sutherland, current online producer of AUX, tackles that very question in his new book, Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk (ECW Press). After spending the last six years of his life conducting hundreds of interviews, collecting rare seven inches and tracking down one-off black and white fanzines, Sutherland has put together a comprehensive picture of the first wave of punk rock from Toronto to Montreal to Saskatoon.
He launches the book tonight at the Horseshoe with a conversation with Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham and a performance from a surprise "legendary Canadian punk band." We caught up with Sutherland to discuss the daunting project.
Why are you attracted to the subject of early Canadian punk?
Because it's valuable. These bands were so important to the development of culture in the cities in which we live. Toronto would not be the same if not for the Dishes. That's just demonstrably true. But there's no one there reminding you of that all the fucking time the way there is in New York. People there are all going to tell you CBGB changed music changed forever. In England, it's an important part of their culture that is acknowledged and celebrated. They played a Sex Pistols song at the Olympic opening ceremonies. They're not playing Viletones songs when Toronto has the Pan Am games.
You're 27 years old, so obviously you wouldn't have been there from '78 to '82 when punk was sweeping through Canada. And Liz Worth was also in her twenties when she wrote the Toronto punk oral history, Treat Me Like Dirt in 2010. Why is it that this history is being written by young people?
Niches draw obsessive personalities. And with punk, you can go in every little direction. You can explore the early New York punk scene, you can explore the California hardcore scene, you can explore the English punk explosion, but at the time that Liz started working on her book and I started working on this book six years ago, there was very little, really next to nothing in terms of coverage of these great Canadian bands that at the time did have substantial followings. I think it just sort of took a couple of really enthusiastic young people to just take a look around and realize there was a gap and try to fill that gap, as much for themselves as for anyone else.
But that's really started to change recently. Teenage Head have been doing stuff with a new singer. The Diodes have a new documentary. There's a Montreal punk movie called MTL Punk. They rereleased the Last Pogo on DVD and Colin Brunton, who directed that, has been working on a follow-up documentary. Chris Walter has written three band bios of punk and hardcore bands from that era. So I think there was a gap and it's being filled by a lot of really great and insightful literature and cinema.
Why focus only on the beginning of each punk scene, and where did you draw the line?
I think what's so interesting about those first bands and the kind of people that were in them is that punk is a ubiquitous part of everyday culture now. Punk is just this thing that you can find at the mall, on cable television now, but what was so interesting about it at the time is that it was real outsider culture. I mean, genuine outsider art. And the kind of people that are attracted to that are the most interesting people you can imagine. Trying to understand what would draw someone to something so fringe and would allow them to affect so much important change in the cities in which they live I think is fascinating.
And then the end point, the way that you cap that off is you say where did this start? Who was the first person to write a two-chord song, for example, in Regina? What did they do? What was important about that? For the purpose of this book it's about those stories, that sort of initial batch of freaks and weirdos that got together and got that ball rolling. In some cities you sort of have to fudge it. Toronto had an active punk scene at the same time as England and as New York. That is not true in Halifax. So you need to kind of say okay, when did it really start here? So the Toronto bands, their stories are mostly done by '78. In Halifax and the Prairies, you're talking about bands that wrapped up by maybe '82, which is a lifetime in punk rock years.
Did you discover any major differences between the way punk formed and spread in Canada as opposed to the United States?
In writing the book and approaching people about talking for it, the response I'd get quite often is that it doesn't make sense to do a book about Canadian punk holistically because there wasn't a lot of touring happening. Outside of the really big bands people were very local and they stayed very local. Especially in Canada, that's the thing that defines all of these bands is this incredible, kind of crippling cultural isolation that has changed completely over the last three decades, but at the time resulted in some of the most interesting and exciting art that this country has ever produced.
Toronto's punk beginnings have been well-documented, but there's less history written about some of the smaller scenes covered in your book. A lot of your research involved tracking down rare seven inches and photocopied fan zines. It almost seems like musical archeology.
At times putting together this book felt like writing All The President's Men. I'm used to the usual way of doing music journalism, which involves emailing a publicist and them telling you a window of time you have to call a band and then you call them and you do an interview and you write an article, the publicist sends you a photo of the band and that's the end of your relationship. Here, a lot of the time it's getting someone's phone number to get someone else's phone number to call them and leave a message, but you know that they don't call anyone back because they're very protective so you have to call three other people to get them to call them and tell them that you're not a shithead.
For instance, at the time that I was writing the book, Ken Chinn from SNFU was homeless, and the only way to get in touch with him was to call the bar that he drinks at and hope that he would be there. That is an interesting way to try to conduct an interview.