[This is the second section of the blog post “how the Queen Street West scene began, pt. 1: the Thornhill sound”]

So how did the Thornhill sound go on to shape the Queen Street West scene? There are least two different stories to tell about this ten-year process, but I’ll start with a sociological one that traces the growth and development of a semi-rural hinterland settlement into a suburban setting for youth-culture creativity.

A Thornhill historic preservation society celebrates the late 18th-century village at the core, connected to the city to the south by the extension of Yonge Avenue (Toronto’s main north-south axis). The old village was surrounded by extensive farmland and, by the post-WWII era, other low-density amenities both leafy (a golf course) and not (a junkyard, a speedway). The village’s high school, Thornhill Secondary, abutted farmland and bussed in students from a wide catchment area. Then around 1965 and again in the early 70s, developers subdivided farm parcels into the spacious, generic housing familiar to North America’s “corporate suburbs” (Harris 2004).

If you drive up Yonge Street nowadays, it’s, like, basically one city almost all the way up to a place called Barrie. But back in the day, it was like Thornhill, farms, Richmond Hill, farms, Aurora, farms, Newmarket, that kind of thing. [John Corbett]

Martha Johnson remembers a particular landmark associated with the new development.

The sign that as you went downhill and came up into the other side which was called Thornhill Green was, “You’re entering getaway country.” …. It should say, “You’re entering hell country”! … [I]t was one of the first subdivisions up there, north of Steeles, it was one of the first ones. And it’s just all subdivisions now. [Martha Johnson]

Martha Johnson in front of the Thornhill house she spent her adolescence in.

The kids who would make up the Thornhill sound were born in the 1950s. A few were natives, spending their whole youth in Thornhill once their parents came back from city hospitals, newborns in toe. Most moved to Thornhill later in their childhood to live in the new housing. Their moves were often associated with their fathers’ transfers within middle-class careers (e.g., Ontario Hydro, Canadian Marconi, Bell Canada, insurance, advertising, the military) in the Toronto metropolis, the larger Ontario province, other provinces, or even across the border.

As geographer Richard Harris explains, Canada’s metropolitan suburbs typically developed rapidly before municipal services or electoral representation were adequately established. This encouraged a civic activism among residents, especially via residential associations and especially by women, to petition for such services or organize services themselves. At the same time, the upscaling of lifestyles and lengthy commutes were frequently conducive to domestic anomie. The “feminine mystique” that Betty Friedan decried was alive and well in Thornhill and elsewhere, with consequences visible to the kids.

At the time that we were all starting, like the early 70s, the major show that came along was that TV show “An American Family”. Do you remember that? […] Thornhill was Lance Loud suburbia, if I can put it that way. A certain post-awareness kind of thing. Families were breaking up, divorce was all of a sudden rampant, like epidemic, where it hadn’t happened before; all of a sudden, lots of families were breaking up. Or all of a sudden your friend’s mother would be living in a two-bedroom apartment in very reduced circumstances.  Like [Martha and the Muffins’ 1978 song] “Suburban Dream,” that undercurrent? Some of that stuff is based on, to my knowledge anyways, actual events. Some of the mentions in there are actual events. And of course that’s part of the thing: the darkness behind the facade of that. Because it came and got dark pretty fast, obviously. [John MacLeod]

 

High school experimentation

The musicians I interviewed recall Thornhill as a geographically “out-there community.”

And if you wanted to go anywhere, get anywhere, it was a little bit of a hike to travel around. So as kind of a grouping of young people at that time, you kind of made your own activities. And there were — it was really clustered around the high school. There were two high schools. There was a new one that had been built. [Chris Terry]

The original high school, Thornhill Secondary, was described to me as rather typical of an affluent middle-class suburb. Which is to say, it could feel alienating and cliquish to a sensitive adolescent.

Thornhill Secondary School (2015).

The school had people who came from rural, people who were bussed in from small towns like Uxbridge and places like that, Maple. They were just little towns at that point, but now most of them are just subdivsions now… So there were some kids who were quite poor, farmers, rural and farmer stock, and then there were more city/urban types like myself, who came from the city, and mixing the two together. [Martha Johnson]

So you had this group that was kind of like the “greasers,” you know, the car group, hot cars and hanging out at the drive-in on Saturday night kind of crowd, you know, going to the — there was a speedway north of Thornhill, not too far. They’d go there on a Saturday night in the summertime get hammered on lemon gin or whatever.
Then there was the kind of counterculture crowd. Steven Davey was probably the one of the main kind of instigators around that. And it came through music. So, there was kind of like two or three — I don’t know, what would be some of the other crowds that were there…
There was another crowd of kind of establishment people. A bunch of us went to a reunion up there a few years back, but it was interesting to see that establishment group was still all kind of a group. So, you know, it’s normal what happens. I’m sure at all kinds of high schools there are groups of people that kind of coagulate together. [Chris Terry]

Against this institutional setting for “creeping conformity” (to quote the title of Harris’s book), a crack appeared that would let in a little light. In 1969 a second high school, Thornlea Secondary, opened to serve families living in the new subdivisions. Significantly, Thornlea implemented a remarkably progressive curriculum: no examinations, students elected their own courses and designed curriculum, an open period each day (to take extra courses, go home, etc.), and so on. Other Toronto area schools experimented similarly with alternative education, but “Thornlea [was] definitely the most advanced high school in Ontario,” according to the assistant superintendent of the province’s Department of Education (quoted in Zwicker 1969: 11). Scott Davey was in that first class at Thornlea.

So I went to an experimental high school for, you know, for grade nine and grade ten, as did Murray [Ball], and Tony [Malone]… And so the first two years you could do whatever you like. The place was, like I said, run by hippies. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean this in a very positive way. For someone like myself who was interested in the arts, it was awesome! You know, it was like the exact opposite of what you think a high school experience is, where you’re ostracized and there’s like a heavily regimented social pecking order. And for the first two years, there were no senior students. It was like only grade nine and grade ten…  Every class was somewhat experimental. And there was a tremendous amount of social and cultural freedom. So, a heavily artistic atmosphere. [Scott Davey]

Headline from 2/15/69 Toronto Daily Star.

Davey foreshadows the end of this experiment after two years, when Thornlea reverted to a more conventional educational format — a sign of a broader contestation within Ontario over the values and promise of public education. Yet even after this retrenchment, the future musicians who attended Thornlea recalled the creative seed being planted in those two years. One area was the stimulation and opportunities for musical and artistic creativity.

There is also an activities period each mid-afternoon when, for instance, the school’s rock band, Rose Among Thorns, practices… There has been a “creative explosion,” says Jerry Diakiw, director of instruction, teacher of geography and head of the geography department and coordinator of educational television and visitors’ tours. Drawings and paintings hang thickly in the halls. Music — folk, classical, rock, blues, electronic — fills the air. Panels and seminars abound, as do less conventional activities. [Zwicker 1969: 11]

Another area was the exploration and expression of personal identity. Glenn Schellenberg, a younger student who enrolled after the early years of Thornlea’s curriculum, remembers the visibility of queer sexuality there.

I mean, I was out certainly, and I guess it was something, because I was certainly very, very aware of Tony [Malone] and Murray [Ball], because they were the school queer guys. Just like really identifiably homo. And I remember being kind of like sort of afraid of them or something, you know? Not exactly, but kind of odd, just how seemingly open it was. [Glenn Schellenberg]

I think that it was only easy [being a gay teenager in Thornhill] at a place like Thornlea. Because there were a lot of very artistic kids and very sensitive kids. And parents that had those kind of kids picked up on Thornlea right away and wanted their kids there. And those are the ones that actually made Thornlea work for them. The ones that were artistic and were also driven…. But the most interesting thing was that I was surrounded now by young straight men as well who were very sensitive, and who really didn’t give a shit if you were gay. Because they were artists and if you’re in an artist’s world, it really is kind of normal. So I was always rebelled against anything, any restrictions that my parents set up for me, and that included social constructs where you’re not supposed to tell people if you’re gay. And eventually I just thought, “Well, fuck that. I don’t want to do that.” [Tony Malone]

But you could be that and not be ostracized in that environment. Usually that’s some place where you have to move to go there. So it’s unusual for someone to be in a suburban atmosphere where Tony can be, you know, openly gay — but I mean, like, you’re a teenager, so it’s like how gay are you, dude? You know, it’s like, you’re not that gay. You know? It’s a high school. You can’t be, like, uber gay. It’s not like there’s couples kissing in the hallways; there’s none of that. You could just be as flamboyant as you like and no one cares. Right? And so you just go, “Fine.” But again, as I say, it’s the early seventies, so socially a lot more forgiving in terms of what people allowed. There’s like super — there’s a huge mix of people and no one really cared. Because the teachers were kind of flamboyant people as well. [Scott Davey]

 

Cultural consumption

For the future Thornhill sound, suburban isolation was the mother of creative necessity — a goad to their their musical and artistic activities. Generally these began with teenage cultural consumption, which provided a sounding board for developing an aesthetic sensibility.

You’re just teenagers, you know? So you’re interested in music and the arts, and it’s a big thing for you, you know? ‘Cause this is all you got to do and to spend your time doing, watching TV, listening to music. [Scott Davey]

There were no athletes in that scene at all, really. And that was nice actually, because most gay people are not into sports. And it’s like immediately obvious that you’re gay if you’re not into sports, if you’re around a bunch of athletes. [Tony Malone]

Especially for students at mainstream Thornhill Secondary, developing a creative sensibility out of cultural consumption benefited from a group setting. So these kids hung out — killing time, dabbling with drugs, sharing music discoveries, and cultivating a critique of their surroundings informed by humor and satire.

Some of us were misfits and outsiders, and I’d say we kind of all gravitated together at some point. There was a kind of a humor thing attached to all if it, too. We all sort of appreciated and had kind of a twisted take on what was going on, and that led to some of the interests that we developed later on. [Chris Terry]

We mostly just hung out at other people’s houses and smoked a lot of dope and skipped school. [chuckles] When I started hanging out with this one group who are still my friends, you know, we got into all kinds of — it wasn’t trouble, we were just like everybody else, we were smoking dope, some of us did acid. [Martha Johnson]

None of us being what you would call outdoor enthusiasts, at the time, no we weren’t out there skiing or snowshoeing or any of the other stuff. So yeah, we tended to huddle in basements and play music together. [John Corbett]

We didn’t have bars we could go to and see bands. You’d go outside the Farmer’s Market and listen through the ventilation to hear the band. You know, if you had had your tent out in the backyard and you’d see the light go out in your parents’ bedroom, you’d sneak down to Yonge Street and listen to the vent to hear the country band at the Farmer’s Market, you know? It was that desperate. “Anything, man!” Give me anything that connects me to music, because we’re out here in the hinterlands, man, and you know, we want more, you know what I mean? [John MacLeod]

Okay, one of the connections was that Steven Davey worked at a record store in a big suburban plaza that was just south of where I grew up… And so there was always a fresh batch of records every week, kind of, when he worked there, sharing and that kind of stuff. That had something to do with it. I mean certainly everybody was gravitating towards the British stuff. We were actually looking for things like that. [Chris Terry]

One time we sat on a back patio, and [Steven Davey] had an idea for a movie that we were going to make, because these guys would always come up with ideas for movies, even though there was no possible way we could do it, right — no resources or abilities. But we sat there one afternoon and wrote a whole thing, and songs as well, about “Backyard Beach Party,” I think it was called. About all these kids who decide not to go back to school and decide to keep partying around their parents’ swimming pools, you know, into the freezing weather. [John MacLeod]

I mean, I really hated that kind of isolation, but at the same time it was this incredibly neat and fertile ground for creativity, ultimately. [Glenn Schellenberg]

 

A taste for downtown

Their interests in music and art made these kids curious about the city, where they could find better resources to cultivate their pursuits and sensibilities. Of course, in the 1960s there was Yorkville, Toronto’s legendary “hip” neighborhood” and a popular setting for suburban teenagers to nurse coffees, listen to street musicians, and congregate en masse on sidewalks and streets. However, my informants reported they were generally too young to travel to and hang out in Yorkville during its peak years (1964-66), although their older brothers and sisters might. By the end of the 60s, Yorkville became synonymous with moral panics over drug use and youth delinquency (Henderson 2011) — not something suburban parents of 13-18 year olds would necessarily let kids wander into. Furthermore, the city’s famous music venues where Toronto’s legendary 60s folk and rock musicians practiced their trade were typically limited to patrons 21 and over (Jennings 1997). The generation of the Thornhill sound would find their own urban haunts.

My relationship [to Toronto] really blossomed in high school, when I began to get interested in Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs and those kinds of writers. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could find at the mall in Thornhill, the Aurora Mall, so you had to go to the city to get to the bookstore. John MacLeod, myself, we were very interested in Beat literature and stuff like that. And Carl [Finkle], though he wasn’t interested in that kind of stuff, he was a good friend and came along for the ride. So my attraction to Toronto developed when I discovered there were so-called porno bookstores where you could buy interesting writers.[Owen Burgess]

And going downtown was, you know, a whole element of our life there. Like the usual suburban — I don’t know if you lived right next to a big center — but you know, when you got to be fifteen, sixteen, and you got cars and stuff, you could start going downtown, you could go to concerts, you could go to great movies. We had like a 99¢ Roxy cinema, which is where we would go down and watch movies. [John Ford]

[I would travel to downtown Toronto] as often as possible. It just felt like an escape. As soon as I could. I actually back then our high school went to grade thirteen. I started grade thirteen and just went, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know what I’m doing here, I’m gonna quit and get a job.” So I quit school, which my parents went ballistic at, but whatever, and I got a job right downtown in Toronto. A coworker I was working with — I was working at a department store at the time — found me some people who were looking for somebody to rent a room. I went and visited them, and it was fine, so I rented this room. And so I worked at this department store. Then I got a job at, for want of a better term, a hippie boutique on Yonge Street, and worked there, but the company was failing. In hindsight, I would say that the guy who owned the place was just basically using the till as his personal savings account. So the place went bankrupt, I lost my job. And in a classy move, I sort of went home for mother’s day dinner and said, “By the way, all my stuff’s in a van around the corner, do you mind if I move home? As long as I promise to go back to school?” Everything was fine. [John Corbett]

Interestingly, my informants differ about just how far away downtown Toronto felt to a restless Thornhill kid without access to their own set of wheels. Until 1974, the Yonge Street subway that started from Toronto’s Union Station stopped only as far north as Eglinton Avenue, some 12 kilometers away from Thornhill.

So you had to take the bus all the way down to Eglinton. And on the weekends that involved transfer to, between a couple of buses. So it would be a good hour or two of transit between when you left your door and when you got downtown. [John Ford]

I was so kind of crushed when we moved [to Thornhill in 1972], how far we were, you know? I took that bus from Eglinton, because the subway only went to Eglinton, so I took the bus to Eglinton Station, and I would go down and see Arlo Guthrie or whatever. And we used to always get in the car and go to the Revue Cinema, the Roxy Theatre, all the time, all the time. [Glenn Schellenberg]

The construction of the Finch Station far closer to Thornhill made trips into the city far easier.

Forty minutes, you know, if you walk out my door, walk one block to Yonge Street which is the main transit line, you know, pick up a bus to get down to, you know, into the city, to get down to like Finch, you know, or Steeles — Finch was probably where the subway line ended — and then onto the subway down into the city. So maybe forty minutes and you’d be at Yonge and Dundas at Sam the Record Man’s. [Scott Davey]

 

Day jobs and discretionary income

Generally, the musical careers of Thornhill’s mid-to-late teenage “weirdos” and “outcasts” began in the bedrooms and rec rooms of their parents’ houses. The hobby of making original music and, further, recording, performing, and even accessorizing it relied on a few foundations, the first being discretionary income to buy instruments. Thornhill was hardly economically struggling, so parents were likely to spring for their kids’ first guitars and so on, but my informants report they also found day jobs and summer work to support their musical activities.

The first record I ever bought, I was 15 or 16, I was working — I was selling shoes at a place called Sayvette, and I bought “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen. Always a pivotal moment in my life. [Owen Burgess]

I can remember when I had just learned to play the guitar after having had a paper route for two years to my shame at age twelve. I just paid $125 to go to get a used electric guitar at Long & McQuade’s, because my brother was playing, and I wanted desperately to play. [Scott Davey]

You have to imagine the best of economic times. I mean, we’d work at the post office for ten minutes and make enough money to go to [college]. A bunch of us worked for the local counselor at the Diabetic Association in the summer, doing canoe tripping and all this kind of stuff up in Huntsville. Pretty idyllic time, man. [John MacLeod]

This summer camp (Camp Huronda) exemplifies the kind of institutional opportunities emerging out of the progressive education movement. It was run by a Thornhill Secondary teacher, Don Anderson, who later became Thornlea’s vice-principal. He ended up employing John MacLeod, John Ford, Bill Priestman, Sue LePage, and other musically inclined teenagers, whose duties included organizing music and other entertainment.

[W]hat used to happen with us is that a lot of the senior teachers would know us, and they would just say to you, “You’re working with me this summer.” You’d go, “What?” and that would be it… And it was literally like the teacher would think, “Got to steer this guy right. You’re coming to work for me!” […] So all of us were up at this camp, and we got a lot of music and harmony together. People always talk about the harmonies of these bands as being “campfire harmonies.” That’s legitimately true because we got together, we’d sing for kids. And Ford and Priestman are way ahead of me on that. I learned from those guys how to do it. [John MacLeod]

We came up with a version of “Alice’s Restaurant” that was called “The Diabetic’s Restaurant.” It had lyrics that we changed, pertaining to what diabetic kids had to go through. So that was a big hit. That camp still exists, and like I’m famous for having written that song with another guy. So that was another big part of the development of my playing. [John Ford]

Another foundation to the Thornhill sound was musical education. Two of my informants (Carl Finkle and Glenn Schellenberg) were identified as especially skilled due to extensive musical training. More often, though, these kids drew upon the training they received in public school music classrooms. Some instruments they learned in class (saxophone, clarinet) wound up in the high school combos these students formed. Also, music classrooms after school were sometimes left open for extracurricular jamming, where better players might offer on-the-fly lessons to novices. The future Thornhill musicians derived a rudimentary musical knowledge from their schooling — alongside the usual tools of musical self-training (chord books, listening by ear) — that they used as they gravitated on their own toward guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums.

A third foundation was recording equipment. Standard cassette recorders were by this time a consumer good available for about or maybe less than the same price of a cheap guitar. A leap forward from this level of recording technology came via Carl Finkle, whose father worked in the consumer electronics business. He was able to procure the simple multi-track recording technology with which Carl and his friends could record themselves, listen back, and overdub, for later listening and reflection.

It was very very basic. We were working on a two track, you know, in my basement with a bunch of microphones, line them up on the floor kind of thing. Yeah, so those were the early days. But typically we did these long weekend things where, you know — I remember we went through the Carlos Santana phase where Martha’s boyfriend and future husband John Corbett rented a set of congos, and we did that. [Carl Finkle]

Next – precocious urbanites: the Ross sisters.

 

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, citations and updates