Friday, June 8, 2018

The Beginnings of Punk Rock in London Ontario

The Beginnings of Punk Rock in London Ontario


Graffiti on a London sidewalk approx 1979

This is part of a presentation I did at the recent Rock'n'Con in London Ontario. This is my perception of the beginnings of the punk/new wave music scene/movement in London Ontario. Feel free to add your comments/corrections/feedback at the bottom of this blog.
I’ll give you a quick rundown of who I am. Started collecting records in the late 60’s, moved to London, Ontario in 1969, lost interest in music as this city seemed to be pretty boring after living in Toronto. Didn’t get involved in the punk scene until summer 1978, long after many others. And starting in 1984, my wife and I did a music fanzine called What Wave, we released cassettes, records, etc. Then the last 14 years or so, I’ve been doing a radio show on CHRW called Radio WW.
And that picture below is the west wall of the Cedar Lounge, London’s first punk/new wave club that we’re going to be talking a little about later on in this discussion. That wall went through quite a few changes as new graffiti would cover the old. And all pictures taken from What Wave Archives, unless noted.

The west wall of The Cedar Lounge circa 1980

Just so you know, London is basically a city of mediocrity. In the 60's it was the insurance capital of Canada and we still have the corporate offices here for some of the largest insurance firms in Canada.  We’re often used as a testing ground for new products, new restaurants, new menu items etc. It’s because we’re totally middle of the road, and if the people of London like your new product, chances are it will do well in the rest of Canada. A prime example of this, London was the first city in the eastern half of the country to have a MacDonalds. And we were the first city in Canada to have an enclosed mall…downtown of all places.

That picture above wasn't taken by me, but it's supposedly outside of what was known as The York Hotel back then, possibly the west wall. And those characters/young gentlemen are members of Nihilist Spasm Band and some of their friends.

To get back to the beginnings of the punk rock scene here in London, you’ve gotta go way back to 1965. There was a motley collection of visual artists who lived in the downtown area of London, as that’s where their studios were located. They would hang out at a place called The York Hotel, now known as Call The Office and share ideas over beer, and the idea for a band came up. Not a conventional bass/guitar/drums thing, but a collection of instruments that would be hand made by these artists and played at the York Hotel. The band was created and given the name Nihilist Spasm Band and they somehow convinced the owners of the York to let them have a weekly residence. Several of the artists in this band became quite famous in the art world and some of you may have heard of Greg Curnoe, him being the leader and most prolific of the group. The music, if you can even call it that, was a cacophony of what would later be known as noise music once the genre was given a name. No time signatures, no 12 bars, no beginning middle and end of a song, just a bunch of artists making noise that very few music fans could appreciate. But the band did became somewhat famous, or should I say infamous in the art scene and even managed a story in the nationally distributed Canadian Magazine back in 1967. And believe it or not, the Nihilist Spasm Band still plays to this day, have released tons of records/CD’s, traveled all across the world making noise and count among their fans Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who has even guested with the band!

For awhile, several years back, there was a yearly noise fest here in London that attracted like minded bands from around the world, all here to pay homage to the originators, Nihilist Spasm Band!
The Nihilist Spasm Band didn’t catch on overnight, it took years of weekly gigs not only at the York, but at the Forest City Gallery, an art gallery that was receptive to the musical sounds the artists made.

Then in early 1975, Roxy Music played at the London Arena for the first time. Many of the future members of the soon to be punk bands were at this show, many disappointed in the fact that Brian Eno had recently left the band.  The art rock sounds and stylistic imagery of Roxy Music definitely opened some ears and eyes and were radically different than the arena rock and disco sounds emanating from radio and downtown clubs. That show  got some people to start thinking outside the box.

A snippet of the cover of the Rough Trade Live! Direct To Disc LP, produced by Jack Richardson

Around the same time, Rough Trade, whom you may have heard of due to some of their early 80’s radio hits played here. In their beginning years, Rough Trade were more into theater, bondage and dressing up and acting the part.  Again, many of the soon to be members of the local punk bands were in attendance, many taking notes.

Then we finally got our first punk rock show here. It happened in March or April of 1977. You’ve gotta remember, back then, there was much more regionalism and it was tough to find out what was really happening around the world. Any media we had, were trash talking the punk scene, saying it was a bunch of crazy homicidal kids, jumping up and down, hitting each other, spewing god awful music that only the punks could like because it was so awful. Ripped clothing, safety pins, spitting and puking all over the place, and oddly some of that was true, as some tried to live up to the media created imagery. And you couldn’t turn on the radio and find out what this music was about, as all we had here was crap on the box! The record stores didn’t have the records yet and the only way to hear the music was for someone to bring the records back from the UK or NYC! It just wasn’t available for you to make your own judgement!
But getting back to the first punk show here in London, it was a Toronto band called The Diodes. And like the Nihilist Spasm Band, they came up through the art scene, as 3 of the members were still in art school in Toronto at the time they played here. The Diodes were the first punk/new wave band in Canada to release a record on a major label. Several years later they even had a Londoner in the band, as their drummer.

On the left, Diodes manager Ralph Alfonso, right Mike Niederman, first time they'd met in decades.

But the way the got to play London, their manager, Ralph Alfonso, was a comic collector, poet and writer and he had some of his work published here in London by Applegarth Follies, an art inspired printing press/group. Ralph had made friends with London resident Mike Niederman, who was involved with Applegarth Follies, and it was decided that The Diodes would play Mikes 3rd floor loft here in downtown London. Part of the deal was somehow connected with Ralph getting the basement of an artist run facility in Toronto, that he was planning on converting to a club. The club materialized for the summer of 1977 and was called the Crash’n’Burn Club and was the first punk/new wave club in Toronto, and possibly Canada. Although it had a short run, the club did attract The Dead Boys, The Nerves, Boyfriends and many others from NYC and there was even an appearance by Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy who managed to beat up one of the punks in attendance. Tubs full of beer and loud high octane music, can sometimes bring out the worst in some!

The poster used to 'advertise' The Diodes appearance at Mike's loft.

But back to the first punk rock show here in London. It wasn’t all that well attended but the 20 to 30 or so that attended, certainly had something to think about! This was the very first show here in London, where an 8 by 10 poster was made, and put up on walls and poles. It wasn’t legal to put up posters back then, and Mike was caught putting up posters by the police and reprimanded accordingly. But that was the only way to advertise for this type of event back then! That and word of mouth!! Mike was a printer by trade, and this very first poster wasn’t made on a photocopier or offset press, but some kind of thermal transfer print method. Mike would prove to be instrumental in getting the scene started here as his printing knowledge came in very, very handy for the soon to exist scene, not only for bands, but for the people that would release zines about the scene! Mike Niederman is lovingly referred to as the grandfather of the punk scene here in London Ontario. A title that is well deserved!

Uranus playing at the Blue Boot, late 1977. Picture by Robert Deibert. Notice the railing between the band and front of the stage.

There was a local rock’n’roll band that started playing around the city at this time (mid 1977) called Uranus. They were veterans of many bands and were playing a rock’n’roll sound not that dissimilar to what Dave Edmunds was doing in the UK at the time. They even covered a few of Dave’s songs, along with 50’s rock’n’roll and rockabilly, totally different from anything else around here! They were playing the odd gig at the York Hotel and were looking for a larger venue and decided that maybe The Blue Boot would be the place for them to play. It was a really rough old hotel at the time, with the usual all day drinkers that would stay for the bluegrass music in the eve as it wasn’t that loud or obtrusive. Somehow, Uranus guitar player Jack Whiteside and his buddy Cam Marshman (a member of the band before it became Uranus) convinced the owner of the Blue Boot to get the hotel out of the dark ages of bluegrass and play some rock’n’roll! This would have been the fall of  1977 and at first it was a tough sell with lots of fights and people throwing stuff at the band, but the band was able to convert the place to a great venue for rock’n’roll bands! That and selling tons of beer convinced the owners this was the right thing to do.

And things were starting to happen in the background in the late summer and fall of 1977! There was a local band of youngsters starting to get their chops together and getting ready to make some noise!  The singer had just visited the UK, was blown away by what was happening there and getting these ideas and some like minds into an actual band which we'll talk about shortly.

All the records pictured were from bands that played The Cedar Lounge

The records were finally starting to arrive here in London. The local Records On Wheels (Canadian chain record store) would be the first local store to supply and actually display the new wave/punk records and have a knowledgeable staff that could help you with that kind of music! Not like the other stores where the clerk would almost openly laugh at you for buying a punk record! Records On Wheels ended up with a fairly large punk selection over the years, even purchasing records direct from the bands when they were touring through London, something almost unheard of back then. And they often had large, full window displays of punk/new wave records to help incite sales.  Later on, they let some of the local bands rehearse in their upstairs area when the store was closed.

A few Eddie and The Hot Rods Records. Haven't located any poster yet.

In early November, one of the bands from the UK finally visited London for 3 nights at Fryfogles, a downtown club known for its musical eclecticism. By that I mean bands like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Mitch Ryder, Jean Luc Ponty, Buddy Guy and so many others played there prior. The band from the UK was Eddie and the Hot Rods, more of a proto punk or pub rock combo, but with an energy level never seen in these parts! The press considered Eddie and the Hot Rods to be part of the punk scene, although the band would dispute that! They considered themselves to be a rock’n’roll band that people could get up and dance to! And when they played here, that was one of the problems as we’d never seen anything like this and didn’t know how to react! Sure you yell and cheer, but this band wanted the crowd up and dancing too, something that didn’t really happen in those days as we were all too drunk and spaced out! Took a bit of persuading from the lead singer, but by the second night things were somewhat better! Also on the bill for this show, was a band out of Toronto called Red Rider, right before Tom Cochrane joined. The rumour is that Tom was invited to the London shows and rehearsed with them here in London, but didn’t join until right after this gig. Maybe seeing Eddie and the Hot Rods influenced his decision to join the band!

Gerard Pas poster for The Curse show, courtesy of McIntosh Gallery

Then on November 25th, the Forest City Gallery had its first ever punk show! Local artist Gerard Pas arranged this one, borrowed the Nihilist Spasm’s PA, and did an actual poster for the show! The Curse and The Ugly from Toronto were supposed to play. The Ugly claimed they had transportation issues and didn’t make it, but the all female Curse did and played the show doing their short set 3 times over as they didn’t have enough material. People had heard the band liked to throw food at the audience, so there was a bit of a food fight at the show! Raw meat and whipped cream don’t mix all that well as the 50 or so in attendance learned! The show was recorded, and a song or 2 ended up on a Curse retrospective CD released by OPM Records a few years back!

Above poster is by Mike Niederman to announce the first ever Demics show!

And then as the end of 1977 quickly approached, we finally got our first local punk band out of rehearsal mode and playing in front of a live audience! The band was called The Demics, they’d been practicing in Mike Niederman’s loft for most of the fall and it was finally time to show the artists and downtown folks what they’d been up to. They didn’t have a lot of material, but what they had was loud, fast and intense as singer Keith Whittaker had the stage presence and arrogant sarcastic comments to pull it all off! At this point the band played mainly cover tunes….everything from Eddie and the Hot Rods (whom they just saw), Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, The Damned, The Clash and loads of 60’s garage punk….ie Love’s 2+2, Electric Prunes Get Me To The World On Time, Music Machines Talk Talk, Eddie Cochran and loads of other high energy rock’n’roll covers. All done loud, fast and with loads of attitude!

An alternate poster for the first Demics show.

And the crowd loved it, spilling into the street afterwards causing a bit of a scene in the downtown area!

Advertising was via word of mouth and posters (see the above posters) that were put up around the downtown area, as that was where the few that would be interested lived/worked or hung out. It appears there were at least 2 posters, as Mike more than likely would have printed them up where he was working at the time, and probably only had a bit of time to sneak in his own between real work jobs….judging by the fact the one poster came in different colours, the paper was most likely leftovers from other jobs. But it was now proven that posters downtown could attract the type of people that would go to and enjoy this kind of event!

                                   A small sample of some of the Heart War fanzines put out by Mike Niederman

Mike Niederman started putting his print knowledge to good use as he started publishing a zine that went by various names, but all under the Heart War byline.

These zines were 8 and a half by 11 inch format, and often featured reprinted articles from some 60’s music magazines, actual music to songs that punks might appreciate, reprints from NY and UK fanzines, what could be called subversive art and later on, actual articles about some of the new local bands that were springing up here in London. The way to get this zine, was to get it from Mike, or pick it up at a store called Multimag. Multimag was a downtown store that only carried magazines.

                            A look at the insides of a few of the Heart War Fanzines put out by Mike Niederman.

They had the usual trenchcoat area at the rear, but they also carried magazines from around the world! You could get your Cream mag, Trouser Press, Rock Scene, Punk Magazine, OP mag and so many more short run music magazines here! Since we didn’t have any radio that was playing punk/new wave music yet, this was one of the few ways to learn about the music scenes around the world and many of us started mail ordering records from around the world this way.

Members of The Demics had been checking out Uranus, and the bands they were in prior, and some of them became drinking buddies, hanging out at the York Hotel. And finally, The Demics started doing their first real gigs outside the rehearsal loft and of course they were at The York. Noise complaints and smashed bottles were common place as at this point,  The York was arranged in several smaller rooms, the old methodology (due to ancient Ontario liquor laws) of separate mens and mens and escorts entrances that went to different rooms once inside) unlike Call The Office that it became, with its open areas and fairly large stage.

Back over at The Blue Boot, the downtown crowd, blue collar workers and even some students from the university/college would come down to check out and dance to Uranus. Word spread quickly and the hotel started selling lots of beer, loads of the legendary quart bottles that you rarely saw back then!

Poster by Lyndon Andrews

Since Uranus and The Demics were starting to hang around together a bit, Uranus convinced the owners of the Blue Boot to let The Demics have a show and see how they would do. almost as a dare. Took a bit of convincing, but the shitloads of beer being sold sure convinced the owners this was the way to go! Local artists like Lyndon Andrews and Mike Niederman were doing highly original, thought provoking posters for the bands around this time. They were generally put up on construction site walls and poles as few local outlets would let them be put up in their establishments due to the poster content.  

Later many others started doing poster art, among them; Joanne Harding, Nick Nygard, Tom Lodge (son of the legendary Tom Lodge who was a pirate DJ in the UK in the 60’s and was living here in London working at Fanshawe College MIA), Al Matheson, Scott Bentley and Al Cole all of whom made excellent thought provoking posters.

There is an excellent book called Graphic Underground: London 1977-1990 written by Brian Lambert (who at the time, played bass for The Enemas) which covers the posters and artwork of this era in amazing detail. Highly recommended if you have any interest, and the book was the result of a curated museum display at Forest City Gallery in late 2012. The book is available at some of the local record and book stores here in London Ontario, or via McIntosh Gallery at Western University.

This is a small corner of the poster exhibit at the Graphic Underground: London 1977-1990 exhibit at Forest City Gallery.

The project (book, museum display, website, live show) was called Graphic Underground: London 1977-1990 and there were literally hundreds of the posters of this era on display along with the zines, and many great quality pictures.  The above, and below pictures,  is one corner of a fairly large area that we ended up covering with small posters from the era! We tried not to duplicate any, but a couple of keeners found the 2 duplicates in the hundreds and hundreds of posters! It took a couple of days just to do this portion of the display. The show ran about 6 weeks, and we’ve been told it was one of the most popular exhibits they’ve had. There was even an opening night bash at Call The Office that reunited 4 bands from the era; Uranus, The Zellots, NFG and The Enemas. 

By summer 1978 and Uranus and The Demics would often alternate weeks at the Blue Boot (renamed The Cedar Lounge in August 1978)….ie back then bands would play for full weeks, or at least Wednesday to Saturday and quite often an afternoon set on Saturdays. 

To be continued in Part 2: The Beginnings of Punk/New Wave in London Ontario.