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Sound and Fury

Reliv­ing Vancouver’s punk explosion

CBC Arts Online

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.”

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.”