Looking suspiciously like a business card, this is the only ticket that I have for a show from this period featuring a number of local acts that I would go and see live, back in the day.
005. What’s In the City: NFG’s Second Annual Halloween Bash with The Regulators and The Sinners, The Polish Hall, London, Ontario, Canada, Friday November 2, 1979, $3.
For those who have been reading my series so far, the marquee names that appear above must be engendering some serious head scratching. Who??
This gig featured 3 then-local bands and took place 7 months after The Jam‘s superb set at the Rex in April. During the intervening summer, a key development had occurred in my gig-going life, namely my first visits to the local London punk rock club. It was an appropriately destitute downtown establishment: the Cedar Lounge, formerly the Blue Boot. At that time, the legal drinking age in Ontario was 18 (changing to the current 19 shortly before my 18 th birthday—groan!! ), and so I was going in underage. Whereas my older siblings and their friends were once taking me to see Roxy Music, they were now smuggling me into punk rock bars.
I simply came in with a crowd of they and their friends, some of whom I had already gotten to know a bit independently via other downtown hangouts where the punk scenesters were congregating. At both the Cedar Lounge and this gig at the Polish Hall, the door check guys must have just assumed that if I was hanging out with this group of twentysomethings, then I must have been of legal age. Since I’ve always looked a bit younger than my years—a real pisser back then but a blessing as I get older—I highly doubt I would have gotten in if I had simply tried walking through the door alone.
In addition to my first time being in a bar, I also recall seeing my first R rated movie in October, specifically a screening of A Clockwork Orange at the New Yorker, London’s great and much-missed repertory cinema. The New Yorker provided me with an incalculable education into interesting films both past and present, as I and friends became fixtures there throughout the ’80s. But I digress.
While I will be looking back on the night of November 2, 1979 in this entry, I will be writing more about that scene in general and what it meant to me—an ode to my gloriously (somewhat) misspent youth. This gig was simply one of the earliest nights that I would spend taking in local and regional acts, increasingly often knowing various members of some of the groups (and I might just be related to somebody in one that played on this night). It just so happens that this is one of the very few tickets for a local show that I still have.
I’m pleased to both posses a memento of a night like this as well as get the chance to write about it now because, while none of these groups went on to become big stars, these kinds of evenings became central, ongoing experiences in my younger life.
When you come from a place as dull and tight-assed as London, Ontario, and you don’t fit the mould, having an alternative and an outlet becomes a lifeline to sanity. It is a very pretty town—it’s nicknamed The Forest City for its sylvan riches—but it’s extremely conservative, segmented, and suffocating. If your goal in life is to move to the ‘burbs, have lots of kids, shop 24/7, and otherwise sit home all the time, then go directly there now as it is your dream come true.
I don’t mean to knock others’ goals, desires, and life preferences. But, particularly when you are younger and the white bread suburban shopping mall trip is not necessarily what you’re about, but you are stuck there for the time being, it can be an oppressive, depressing milieu to exist in. And if you don’t conform and toe the line, you’re fucked. Expect to be fully ostracized, shunned, and/or beaten up.
The unwanted appearance of punk rock in London happened concurrently with a proliferation of similar music scenes forming in cities and towns around the world, following the shots that were fired from New York City and London, England. These mushrooming regional enclaves weren’t simply about the music but also functioned as social communities as well, providing reciprocal, peer support of a type.
It was a bit like a private club, partially because of shared interests and outsider-ness, but also because of the intense hostility aimed at the community. Many media depictions of what when on in the clubs, particularly at this time, were little more than either sensationalistic embellishments or lurid fantasies invented by some prude behind a typewriter, often completely missing most of the humour too. And the general public believed this shit.
I remember a high school classmate telling me, with complete, concerned earnestness, how she was horrified to read that people were literally slamming their heads into wood beams and throwing broken glass in each other’s faces—and how could I be involved with this?
Once I had stopped laughing, I tried to explain to her that this wasn’t the case at all. It was simply about people who liked something edgier in terms of music and life, having fun, and being creative with how they looked. People were up dancing around, but that was it. Her concerned response was along the lines of “well, if it wasn’t true, then why would people say this and the papers write about it?” (Correct answer that I didn’t give her quite so literally: “Because crap like this is specifically dreamt up as media fodder for the naive and gullible likes of you to eat up with a fork and spoon, my Farrah-haired one.”)
“God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols, probably the defining single of punk’s first wave.
While the scene could be aggressive and excessive, certainly from a drug and alcohol perspective, it wasn’t violent in the way it often got depicted. Ironically, more often the violence came from the outside, with rednecks and frat boys—generally then referred to as “wankers”—out to beat up punks and start trouble. That was the reality. People felt so threatened by it that it made you want to dig in your heels all the more. I’ll also note here that there were rednecks and closed-minded “purists” and “traditionalists” within the community too, but they weren’t the people I was drawn to.
A selection of badges that adorned my old leather jacket during the late ’70s, early ’80s.
The biggest negatives were fairly standard things that occur when scenes of any type start to get established: cliques-within-cliques, rivalries, and general bitchiness. People are people at the end of the day.
I had gone to a number of gigs at the Cedar Lounge and to a few of the related parties, but this November show took place at the Polish Hall on Ann St., in the northwest area of the core. By this point, the first and best-known band to come out of the London scene, the Demics, had released their excellent debut EP, Talk’s Cheap, the previous spring and relocated to Toronto. Ergo, I never got to see the Demics in their Cedar Lounge heyday (although they’re coming up in this series, opening for the Ramones in May 1980).
The Demics’ Talk’s Cheap EP, the first release from the London scene. In Bob Mersereau’s 2010 book surveying a large cross section of Canadian musicians and industry folk for The Top 100 Canadian Singles, “New York City” came in at No. 62.
The Polish Hall was a bit like a high school gymnasium with a stage. It was used for a number of punk gigs in the upcoming years, a few of which I attended.
On the business card-like ticket pictured above the start of this entry, it says it’s the Second Annual Halloween Bash although I don’t recall people being in costume, at least not in the pirate or Jabberwocky sense, but that is probably just down to memory hard drive erasure. I knew that the ’78 Bash was a big success but I had not attended it.
I had seen the Regulators and the Sinners before at the Lounge. The former were heavily influenced by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. They had a female keyboard player which was a little unique among the groups in the city, and their repertoire included a cover of a then bootleg-only VU track, “I’m Sticking With You,” which impressed me. They had released their debut single, “That’s Right (Nothing’s Left)” b/w “What’s In the City” during the summer of ’79.
London, Ontario’s The Regulators’ first and only 45 “That’s Right (Nothing’s Left)” (albeit with the B-side listed on the cover—I never knew why)
A Side “That’s Right (Nothing’s Left)” above; B Side “What’s In The City” below
The Sinners were a more straight ahead proposition, in the style of, say, The Jam, and released their debut 45, “No Brains Required,” the following year. Headliners NFG (No Fucking Good) had sort of become the lead band in the city following the decampment of the Demics. They had a more New York Dolls-ish style and sound and would later morph into the better known ’63 Monroe.
The Sinners 3-Track 45, “No Brains Required”
As I sat typing this, I was initially thinking about how someone else was on the bill that night because I distinctly remember another band doing an extended cover version of XTC’s just-released single, “Making Plans for Nigel” at this venue. And didn’t Crash 80s play as well? Or was that another evening at the Polish Hall shortly thereafter? Hmmm. As mentioned, I went to a few more shows there but can’t recall the details of when. Perhaps some of this remembrance contains points from other shows at the Hall, blurred into one. That’s probably the case.
It was a licensed event and, once again, I snuck in with the older crew. One thing that stands out for me now when thinking back on this period is that while punk rock was supposed to be this teenage revolution thang, most of the people who were into it on this side of the pond at that time were often well into their 20s and beyond. Because most of the shows and places to play were in bars, and also because it was such a largely unknown, underground movement as the North American mainstream media went to great lengths to completely stonewall it, it was rare that someone my age was into punk rock. Finding thirtysomethings hipsters at these gigs was not at all unusual, but teenagers were a rarity. This was about to change decisively pretty shortly, but that was how things were then.
Many of those same disaffected folks who had embraced Bowie, glam, and its early ’70s outrageousness were also the same folks getting behind punk in its initial phase. I wouldn’t mind betting that half of the people at the Polish Hall that night had also been at that 1975 Roxy gig.
The Polish Hall, 2011 (Photo by VA)
I knew absolutely no one my own age who was into any of this stuff, although that changed literally weeks after this gig as I met my first punk peers.
In fact, as All Ages shows began to happen and “kids” started to infiltrate the hallowed ground of the first wave of scenesters, these younger fans and the corresponding shows were greeted with substantial disdain by these increasingly now old new wavers. Looking back, I see this gig and a handful of others from this time as the end of the first punk era in the city.
It was a night of heavy drinking, dope smoking, and popping speed pills (“beans” or “bennies” as we called them) for my 16 year-old-self and, to be honest, I recall very little about any of the actual tunes. The one definite music-related memory of the evening is of “Gangsters” by The Specials coming on over the PA between sets. I had just bought a copy of the 45 earlier that week and was mentioning to someone how I would bring it over the next day along with a bunch of other new import purchases when it came blaring through the speakers with synchronicity.
Isn’t it strange, the little things each of us remember and how much of the big stuff we are prone to forget?
What I most recall about this evening was how it ended. While NFG were playing, the audience was bopping around wildly and I think those operating the Hall got nervous, thought that things might get increasingly out of hand, turned up the lights, pulled the plug, and that was it. People had been having a good time but when the evening was suddenly called to a halt, the mood turned nasty towards those running the Hall. It really seemed like the anger was going to boil over and that folks were not prepared to leave quietly in single file. If something bad hadn’t gone down before, it was probably just about to now.
Word spread quickly that the police had been called and were on their way to quell any real or imagined problems. Since I didn’t want my liquored-up underage ass to get arrested, I decided that now was the time to split.
I jumped in a cab and returned home, tip-toeing into the house, careful not to awake my sleeping parents, who both had to work the next morning. And thank heavens, as I awoke with a nine-point-on-the-Richter-scale hangover, spending most of the day slumped on the couch feeling like death warmed over in between trips to say “Hi” to Ralph on the Big White Telephone.
As mentioned, within short order I met some new punk pals my age and even younger, notably Lady Bump and Count Mara as I will call them. After briefly dating the former, they both became key people in my social life over the next few years, gradually swelling into an ever-growing network of friends and acquaintances where music and gig-going became one of our primary bonds.
This might have been a Big Night Out for me at this point in time but, in short order, spending time at bars seeing bands of all stripes would become just a normal weekly occurrence in my life, particularly once the ’80s really got going.
By November ’79, the first wave of the local punk scene was in its last throes. The original scenesters either decided that they’d now had their rebellion moment and wanted to retire to the ‘burbs and Bob Seger. Another segment, mostly of the “drink-first, music-second” variety, joined the younger “I missed ’77 the first time around and now want to re-create it slavishly forever” crew. A third decided to see punk simply as a re-starting point on the road to whole new realms and possibilities.
I was firmly in the third camp.
I am too much of an individualist to toe any hegemonic culture line for long plus I had too rich a musical background along with an appetite for strangeness and newness to stay stuck in 3 chord rama-lama-land for ever. While raw, basic, Ramones-ish rock will always be dear to my heart, it’s only one of the many food groups and, by this time, it had run its course for me as the be-all, end-all.
Whereas the new traditionalists in the scene were starting to champion the ultimately conservative flag-bearing of stuff like the UK Subs and the Exploited, I was being blown away by a whole new far more experimental contingent of acts which were soon to be labelled post-punk: Public Image Ltd. (PiL), the Slits, Joy Division, the Gang of Four, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and the recent developments of the Talking Heads and Wire. These acts came as an affront to the beer-and-punk-as-strictly-templated crowd as the Sex Pistols had been to the AOR masses. And I wanted the future, not the past.
Bring on the 80s!
Here is Stinkin’ Out the Joint, a 2003 documentary about the London punk rock scene. It features interviews and images of people ranging from those I knew well to those I didn’t know at all, along with mentions and footage of shows I attended or events I recall happening. It is a surreal experience for me to watch, to say the least.
© 2010-2011 VariousArtists