How did a bunch of kids in suburban Thornhill ignite a Toronto music scene and bring new energy to Queen Street West, now a hip urban neighborhood? My last post introduced the key players and forgotten bands in the so-called Thornhill sound, but their network, activities, and energies would need to relocate and expand in downtown Toronto to make the QSW scene come alive. The ways they made this transition and the motives that impelled them go a long way to explain the arty, DIY nature of punk and new wave in this period.

You know, obviously, the formative stuff might be in high school, but it’s weird, it seems to have happened, took off as we got to the university, college level. And again as we all drifted downtown to Toronto, then it became a little bit more substantial at that point. But the bands that started forming prior to Toronto, you know, sort of got more serious once we all seemed to drift to Toronto for university and work, and we’re all hanging around the same bars and clubs and that kind of thing. [Carl Finkle]

I think we were all just occupied with going to school and getting out of the house and moving downtown, and we were listening to stuff that [excited us], mostly not [from] Toronto. Getting those influences and starting our own thing. Not because we were trying to start a thing, but a thing was happening. And we weren’t connected to any other — I wasn’t connected to any other scene going on in Toronto. [John Ford]

The punk scene began at the Ontario College of Art. [photographer Rodney Bowes, quoted in The Last Pogo Rides Again (2013)]

 

THE THORNHILL SOUND LEAVES HOME

It’s necessary to distinguish two distinct developments in the emergence of the Queen Street West music scene, although the Thornhill sound had a hand in both of them: one, the rise of seminal “OCA bands,” and two, the galvanizing of a music scene by an extant art scene. The first is a fairly straightforward story to tell.

In 1972 newlyweds John Corbett and Martha Johnson found an apartment in the Beaches neighborhood of downtown Toronto. To help out on the rent, they let Johnny MacLeod, Carl Finkle, and Owen Burgess move in; the newlyweds and their extensive record collection took the downstairs floor, while the bachelors were upstairs. MacLeod still apologizes to Martha about how loud the guys were.

Man, it was $180 a month down in the Beaches; this was before the Beaches had taken off. This would be about 1972. Of course, Owen was working at the time; John and Carl and Martha and I were I guess all going to school. And all the Thornhill gang were visitors frequently and so forth. [John MacLeod]

Two ephemeral bands emerged over this one-year residence.

The Dogs: Steven Davey on guitar, Johnny MacLeod on bass, and new friend Michael Robertson on drums. MacLeod remembers, “Steven decided [Michael Robertson] was a drummer, so he was the drummer!” The Dogs reportedly laid down at least one song to tape and had hometown compadre Chris Terry, by then a film student at York University, film them. [At this point, I should make my recurring request to the participants or anyone else to let me know if any of this material becomes available for online sharing.]

This would be like, to our knowledge, the first band called that [the Dogs], but not that original nowadays. I was kind of encouraged to be this character called Jack Martin, who was sort of like — the easiest way to describe it would be kind of like an Elvis Costello-looking guy… I do know Chris Terry made a movie about us where it’s kind of like — I do know there’s a scene where I borrow my dad’s ‘68 Skylark, and I’m driving Steven Davey over to Carl Finkle’s house. And Chris filmed that as we pull into the driveway, you know, as we’re going to do some recording in Carl’s basement or something like that. And then we went over to York and did a song called “Teenagers From Outer Space,” I think. I think, and I’ve never seen this — this is 1973, right, or ‘-2. I haven’t seen this thing ever, but I do know Chris made the film. [John MacLeod]

Swami & His Swinging Turbans: The second group, composed of John Ford, Johnny MacLeod, and Owen Burgess, was even less of a band. The Turbans were “strictly a studio group, a jazz trio Klaatu,” remembers Burgess.

Okay, the Swami thing was probably 1972 because we did all that stuff in the house we lived in on Lee Avenue. We’d set up in the bedrooms and [laughs] run the cable. Kind of like seeing that picture of the Band album where Robbie Robertson and Levon are up in the bedroom with the guitar and the drums, you know, sort of thing? Sort of a bit like that but without that skill. [John MacLeod]

Around this time, a subset of Thornhill Secondary graduates, who back home were divided across different grades of high school, was coming together via residence, work, and travel, fiddling around with instruments and audio/visual technology in ways that would come to fruition in 2-3 years later.

My father started an educational filmstrip company in Toronto… And Owen Burgess and I, and later Ross Edmonds… we worked at that company. It was called See Hear Now… Like, my primary career has been in graphics. And that’s where I started out doing that. Owen was doing a lot of photography then. And that’s where we became friends, because we had been a year apart. We both went to Thornhill Secondary School, but we were a year apart. Even though we’re the same age, I had been advanced earlier on, and so I was a year ahead of Owen and John and Carl.
And that’s where some of our musical interests and collaborations started. We had reel-to-reel tape machines that we used in the office. And a lot of the time we weren’t doing anything, and nobody was around, so we would sit around and make crazy recordings of us mixed with all sorts of crazy records. And then we could change the speed and stuff. Those were some early experimental absurd creations. And that absurd and surreal side of our interests is something we would pursue in various degrees once we started making music, too. [John Ford]

My story is kind of funny because high school had kind of finished, and I started going to university, and a bunch of us rented houses. This is kind of an interesting side-note to the story here. A lot of the old houses in the [suburbs of] Richmond Hill, Thornhill, and the next community over, which was Maple, the old Victorian-built houses were being demolished. So, in the wake of them being demolished, they’d fill up with students. So they would be waiting for development. I went through a successions of these: one in Richmond Hill, one in Maple. Eventually we ended up, a bunch of us, in this house that was John Ford’s family house for many years. I’d been there, hung out with John when they had lived in the house, but they had been told it was going to be demolished, and they’d have to get out. So they left and ended up moving like four doors down from where I lived in the suburbs just north of there.
So I’m in university, friends with Steven Davey and John Ford, also friends with Joe, John Ellison, John Corbett — all these people that were like kind of revolving around. Michael Robertson, as a sort of art project, got a set of drums, and he set it up in the living room. And he wasn’t playing it, so I started playing the drums. Two steps later, we’re over at Carl’s house in the basement, and sort of the rudiments of that band were starting to happen, activity there.
Then as we all started to move downtown — so, like the next step after that was I ended up moving to, like, right not far from where I am now — we started practicing at John Ford’s business location, which was this audio/video multimedia company that his father had. So we ended up practicing there on weekends. So the band started to form, and then it started to formalize. It was Robert Lusk and Jim Hughes and Ross Edmonds, and then eventually Owen. The core of the band was about four of us. And as we started to perform, it would sort of grow. [chuckles] “Let’s get more people involved!” [Chris Terry]

Owen Burgess, who humbly describes himself as a passing or “honorary member” of several groups that came before (Unity Theatre, Marzipan) and afterwards (the Cads), was especially significant in bringing together former Thornhill Secondary “weirdos” who might not have otherwise joined forces.

Here’s how it fell out. Rob Lusk was younger than me, as was Jim Hughes, as was my girlfriend in high school, so they were all a grade behind me. Whereas Martha, Steve, Corbett and Ford were all a grade ahead of me. Carl and I were in between… Jim Hughes would not have been friends with the Marzipan/Martha Johnson group. They were friends with me through Ross Edmonds, who is still in a band I play with. So they were friends, they were all younger than us, and maybe one or two grades behind. And when you’re two grades behind, that’s a pretty big gulf in high school topography. So these guys were different. [Owen Burgess]

The wheels began turning slowly toward the formation of Oh Those Pants!, now recognized as a pioneer of the QSW music scene. But to fully appreciate their impact, it’s necessary to review the parallel development of the Toronto art scene around Queen Street, beginning with the Ontario College of Art.

Next – how art came to QSW.

 

ROAD MAP TO QSW:

how the Queen Street West scene began, pt. 1: the Thornhill sound
the Thornhill sound
suburban dream
precocious urbanites: the Ross sisters
the starmaker: Steven Davey
the bands of Thornhill

how the Queen Street West scene began, pt. 2: OCA bands
the Thornhill sound leaves home
how art came to QSW
Oh Those Pants! bring the Thornhill sound to OCA
the Dishes open up QSW to new music
punk and art: the Diodes
the Thornhill sound set loose on QSW
the last house band: Martha and the Muffins

sources and citations