How Teenage Head Paved the way for Canadian Indie Rock

Teenage Beer Drinking Party: How Teenage Head paved the way for Canadian indie rock

They were never as big as the Ramones, but every Canadian touring band owes something to Teenage Head.

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- May 22, 2014

It's June 2, 1980, and 13,000 fans crush into Ontario Place Forum to catch Hamilton's Teenage Head. The band is buzzing coast-to-coast off a pair of singles from their sophomore album, bolstered by significant radio play and a cross-country tour that hasn't let up in the three years since they've set out. Ticket-takers have to stop admitting people. Hundreds of disappointed hopefuls stand locked outside the park fences. A few die-hards bypass the blockade by jumping into Lake Ontario (still freezing in early June) and swimming across to the stage. Police are on standby.

Teenage Head's set, nothing but high-octane rave-ups, doesn't help to cool things off. By the time the whole shit show's through, 30-some-odd concertgoers are arrested and a cop cruiser lies upside down on Lake Shore Boulevard. The riot makes national headlines. Rock concerts are outlawed at Ontario Place for years to come. It's the biggest show Teenage Head — for the moment, the hottest band in Canada — have ever played. And despite the monstrous momentum, it's also the biggest show they'll ever play, period. Though they'll never reach that fever pitch again, their legacy was cemented there: they showed Canada that independent rock could be huge, it could start riots.


Teenage Head - Picture My Face

Geoff Pevere begins his new book, Gods of the Hammer, with this anecdote, as does most any biographical piece on Teenage Head. It's a major plot point in their story, illustrative of the incredible heights the four Hamilton boys had reached in what's long been something of a lost period in our nation's music history. What makes their story all the more vital is that the band achieved their lot without a major label or heaps of international support. Though theirs was tireless work, Teenage Head taught Canadian musicians what a viable model for professional indie rock looked like.

Pevere's is an on-the-ground fan's account of how the band enamoured a country and how if just that one last, special piece fell into place — if they were managed better, if an American record deal came sooner, if guitarist Gord Lewis hadn't been laid up for half a year at their very peak by a back-breaking car accident — songs like "Picture My Face" and "Let's Shake" would be played before face-offs and stocked in jukeboxes from St. John's to San Francisco. The Head were always just a centimetre away from super-stardom. To a generation of hip music fans, they're as classic as The Cars, but instead of ubiquity, their story is a distinctly Canadian Almost Famous.

Teenage Head taught Canadian musicians what a viable model for professional indie rock looked like.

Since Liz Worth's Treat Me Like Dirt was published in 2011, there's been a new vogue in uncovering the long lost history of Canadian punk rock. There's Jason Flower's All Your Ears Can Hear, chronicling underground music in Victoria, British Columbia. Don Pyle of Shadowy Men and Crash Kills Five documents the nascent Toronto scene in Trouble in the Camera Club. Sam Sutherland's Perfect Youth does an admirable job tying together disparate communities as far flung as D.O.A.'s Vancouver and Agro's Halifax. Colin Brunton followed up his 1978 scene-setting doc The Last Pogo with the feature-length revisit The Last Pogo Jumps Again in 2013.

Each provides an invaluable subcultural history, but just as crucially, they demonstrate that punk was more than just Sex Pistols and The Ramones; beyond London and New York, where punk history is often told, the genre and culture evolved almost everywhere at once.

Even in pleasant, polite Canada, young musicians felt the need to return danger to their guitar music and rescue it from hippies and psychedelia. And while long unheralded, their contributions to punk history were great and many. The very fact that an indie band working today can reliably play shows through every province, as elemental as that may sound, owes itself to the touring infrastructure and networks built by Canada's first wave punks. And, as Pevere notes, few bands were as instrumental in that regard as Teenage Head.


Teenage Head - Let's Shake

It's worth mentioning that though history might remember the Head as Hamilton's first-wave punk band, starting up in 1975, they themselves were as interested in glam rock and boogie woogie as they were in MC5 and The Stooges. In fact, Frankie Venom, who, alongside The Viletones' Nazi Dog, is Canada's punk icon if we've got one, initially thought the fast and snotty schtick was childish. He wanted to cover more serious tunes, something by Rush or King Crimson, Pevere says. There wasn't an iota of political dissent, he writes. They had long hair and bell-bottoms when that was the furthest thing from the punk look.

And as for the music? "They would have been Cheap Trick if it hadn't been for the punk scene," the Forgotten Rebels' producer, Bob Bryden, told Pevere. Lewis says that while, yes, he felt like they were at the fore of some movement, he never really thought of what they did as "punk" exactly. And that might have been the punkest thing about them.

 

Just because you’re the first ones doing something doesn’t always mean you’re going to get the pot at the end of the rainbow.

Gord Lewis, Teenage Head
"I felt more that we were pioneers," he says, "Touring was really tough. I think we were the first or one of the first bands that were actually touring across the country playing original music. It wasn’t really done at the time. You had bands that played for a week in a bar, and they only did cover songs, you know, the current hits off the Top 40. I suppose we brought that punk attitude, that frame of mind, that do-it-yourself ethic, writing our own songs and crisscrossing the country doing it. But just because you’re the first ones doing something doesn’t always mean you’re going to get the pot at the end of the rainbow."

Lewis whips it off as a point of pride, a small consolation to the fact that they never got to play bigger rooms or top the Ontario Place show, but even when he's proud, he understates how crazy a feat they pulled off. The Head and their managers were able to convince nightclub owners in basically any Canadian town with a population of 50,000 or greater to let their virtually unknown band play completely untested songs to rooms that were accustomed to blues rock and heavy metal cover bands.

It's the Hilly Kristal-CBGB story rewritten hundreds of times over. There's no doubt, Canada had had rock bands before — Joni Mitchell, The Band, Neil Young — but few had tried to make a living in Canada alone. You had to break into the States or perish. Of course, that was always the goal, but Teenage Head proved, as The Tragically Hip would later exploit, that an indie band could survive, and better, prosper, playing mostly above the border.

When they couldn't book bars, they played high schools and detention centres, anywhere they could find delinquents who might like to listen. At their finest, they were humming from nightclub to university pub seven nights a week. They kept that pace for the better part of a decade. These networks and bar circuits weren't born of smooth talking or overnight success. They were cemented in kilometres traveled, services delivered, and like any good salesperson, return visits.

Teenage Head: "Teen Beer Drinking Party", Toronto, 1980

Pevere hits on this very ethic every time he refers to their live act as "a machine." Pyle remembers that the Head's management had them playing every shithole between Windsor and Sault Sainte Marie on the regular. They were packing rooms and selling beers. It's no surprise that Gord Downie, Doughboys, Change of Heart, and Sloan count themselves as Teenage Head fans. The Head were one of very few acts to hand deliver their music from east to west, spurring the cultural shift from covers to all-originals in nightclubs and barrooms and paving the Canadian indie superhighway that made the salad days alt-rock scenes of the late '80s and early '90s possible.


Recently, a Hamilton City Councillor caused a brouhaha when he tried to move ahead with a plan to erect a statue of Frankie Venom (who died of throat cancer in 2008) in the city's Victoria Park. While Lewis says Hamilton is exactly the kind of city — tough, no-bullshit, with a real soft spot for the arts — that deserves a monument to punk rock, some very vocal taxpayers didn't think Venom or his ragtag band were fit for tribute. Later in his life, he was known as a substance abuser, he'd been convicted of a domestic assault, and was thought by some to be a generally unsavoury character.

It's no surprise that the statue project was squashed; and while his merits as a role-model are debatable (as with many role-models we pay tribute to, Venom exemplified some virtues that were much more enviable and praiseworthy than others), the gains he and his buddies in Teenage Head made for independent musicians across the country are unimpeachable.

Any celebration of Teenage Head isn't just about Venom, our national Iggy Pop, or "hey, Canada had punk rock, too." It's about that greater DIY ethic, that do-it-in-spite-of-everything spirit. It doesn't look like they'll get their statue, but this book's a good start.

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