[This is the sixth section of the blog post “how the Queen Street West scene began, pt. 2: OCA bands”]

It all happened so fast when punk exploded on Queen Street West in 1977. When the new year rang in, “punk” was hardly a term used to envision what the scene could become, and “new wave,” while surely a term the industry embraced, was not yet assigned a derogatory status as the chosen style for musicians and fans who couldn’t handle punk’s intensity (see Cateforis 2011).

In ‘76 and ‘77, when I was what’s called a “punk” now, you have to remember that it didn’t really even have a name then; there wasn’t a particular sound that you had to have, and there was no special dress code. That’s what was good about it. It definitely wasn’t just about wearing swastikas or dog collars. I always thought that kind of stuff was just pointless and too obvious; just for attention. I was only interested in having the best band, and writing new kinds of songs that were modern and urban [David Clarkson, quoted in Worth 2011: 86]

The Thornhill sound’s legacy would be to keep the torch alive for the original mix of disparate elements — 60s pop and R&B, Brit-rock and glam, art-rock, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, and so on — that motivated the pre-punk alternative in Toronto. By forgetting these groups, we risk simplifying the original context and prime movers on Queen Street West — and forgetting some truly exciting music.

The Doncasters: With its rotating line-up and ‘art project’ orientation, Oh Those Pants! was never meant for a sustained campaign toward career longevity. Some form of the Pants would convene now and then up through 1980, but that wasn’t exclusive of new activities by band members. Probably the first of the OTP! Offshoots was the Doncasters, who came together in late 1976: Ross Edmonds on bass, John Ford on guitar, Martha Johnson on vocals, her brother David on guitar, and her husband John Corbett on drums.

The Doncasters: Ross Edmonds, Martha Johnson, John Ford, David Johnson, John Corbett. 3-D show, OCA, 1977. Photo by Ralph Alonso. Source: Worth 2011.

You know where the Doncasters’ name came from? It was a street like a block over from me. Up in Thornhill, actually…. It just had a nice ring to it. It sounded like one of those old black and white British Ealing films, you know: “The Doncasters.” [John Corbett]

Inspired by 60s British rock and pop, of the kind that used to excite the members in Thornhill, the Doncasters played two performances (to Martha Johnson’s memory). One of them turned out to be quite important in the history of the QSW scene: the “3-D show” on February 8, 1977 at the OCA auditorium, also featuring the Dishes and the Diodes. The Dishes had been playing for a year, and the Diodes had just debuted at the well-attended Talking Heads gig, but with the new Doncasters on the bill, the 3-D show represented the first group exhibit, if you will, of new musical action in the QSW.  Young bands like the Viletones (who had yet to play a gig) and Hamilton’s Teenage Head were in attendance.

I think that 3D gig was ground zero for the whole movement [Stephen Mahon of Teenage Head, quoted in Worth 2011: 51]

Yeah, it was kind of a big deal. I remember that. I remember people coming up and talking to us afterwards, going like, “Where did you guys come from??” And we’re just like, “Well, you know, people go to OCA, and some of us went to high school together, and we’ve been playing together on and off, and here we go.” [John Corbett]

The very first show I went to was at OCA and that seemed to be where the germ actually started, from my opinion or my first time seeing what was going on there. We went to this show called The 3D Show and there was the Doncasters, Diodes, and the Dishes. And the things I remember the most about that musically is, again, it was original music. They stand for playing original songs; this is incredible! And I remember the Doncasters doing a Kinks song, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” and for me at that age, what a perfect song: I’m not like everybody else; I’m a misfit. And so that kind of told me that there’s something happening in this city that I really want to be part of, and [Viletone] Steve Leckie was there. We met him. We both talked and we said, “I’ve got a band, I’ve got a band.” We probably didn’t say much more than that. [Gordie Lewis of Teenage Head, quoted in Worth 2011: 51]

We decided to check out The 3D Show at the Ontario College of Art. Many people acknowledge that show as the first official new wave gig in Toronto. Initially, all the bands were called “new wave,” with “punk” being a sub-category. You could certainly tell the Dishes were, anyway. Their music was for select tastes. The Doncasters you could loosely say were like the Talking Heads, and the Diodes were pretty raw but were at least more exciting than the others. [Paul Kobak, manager of Teenage Head, quoted in Worth 2011: 51]

In retrospect, the Doncasters can be seen as the musical stepping stone for Martha Johnson, today the Thornhill kid weirdo the most acclaimed and longest-lasting career. There are no recordings today to make the call about who was lead vocalist (a photo shows mic stands for Edmonds and Ford), but everyone today remembers the group as “Martha’s band.” The Doncasters allowed her a role larger than the background position she accepted in Oh Those Pants! Along with her vocals, the Ace Tone would constitute the signature sound of the Doncasters, as it would for her next group.

Yeah, we only did two shows. That was mostly my high school friends and my husband, who I was breaking up with. We said, “We could still be in a band together,” but we started fighting, and that’s probably the real reason the band broke up, because we couldn’t be in the same room together at that point. It was all very fast. It was all within a few months. My memories of it is the Doncasters coming to being, my marriage ending, and the Muffins starting. It was all within three or four months of each other. I don’t know if that was true, but it would have been that spring of ‘77. [Martha Johnson]

The Cads: For my money, the most unfairly overlooked of all the QSW bands is the Cads. Over three years they played residencies at the Bev and headlined shows at other local venues. They never recorded an album, only a self-released single, but the Cads wrote a lot of material, all of which is now on SoundCloud (another reason their musical memory risks erasure!). With their tuneful barre-chord rock, ironic lyrics, and unfussy self-presentation, the Cads prefigured the sound of “alternative rock” to come, maybe more than any of their QSW peers. And they represented the most durable legacy of Oh Those Pants!, forming in late 1976 out of the Thornhill quartet of Rob Lusk, Jim Hughes, Ross Edmonds, and Chris Terry.

The Cads were a direct offshoot of Oh Those Pants!, because we were like in a sense a splinter group. Things were kind of changing. People were kind of starting their own things, and the Pants sort of drifted off. It did come together once or twice after all the other bands started to form, but once the other bands started to form, it was like, “Yeah, now we’re going to do something of our own.” And that was really the big shift between the Pants and all the other bands that started to form in and around it. It was that shift towards, “Okay, well, we’ve kind of done that. We’ve played all the stuff that we like, and that was a lot of fun, but we want to do our own stuff.” So that was a way to kind of separate and move on. [Chris Terry]

Four future Cads circa 1976: Jim Hughes, Ross Edmonds, Rob Lusk, Owen Burgess. From Owen Burgess’ collection.

Thornhill Secondary classmates Jim Hughes and Rob Lusk brought much of the original Cads material, before Hughes left with his songs for the New Japs (see below). Owen Burgess, ever the “honorary member” in the Thornhill sound, briefly came in to fill the void on guitar and songwriting; in turn, he brought John Ford on second guitar, making the Cads a five-piece.

I think the Cads were one of the first bands to go out there and play in a bar setting as a band. We had two sets, and we played first set, second set, first set again — typical of that era. And we attracted up-and-coming bands like the Viletones and Teenage Head. And those guys would come down to the Beverly after their gigs and hang out with us. And we played gay bars, and we played [unclear], and so just whatever, right? You know, who cares. We just got out there and played. [Owen Burgess]

The Cads and the B-Girls: Cynthia Ross, Rob Lusk, Chris Perry, Ross Edmonds, Xenia Splawinski, John Ford, Lucasta Ross, Rhonda Ross (l-r).

In important regards, the Cads were like the Dishes in establishing a template for the QSW band. Like the Dishes, they pioneered a sophisticated style of flyer design — the new medium of musical publicity just beginning to clutter the telephone poles of downtown Toronto. Whereas Steven Davey’s natural talents as an illustrator were sharpened by his interactions with the QSW art scene, many of the Cads drew upon art school training as well as post-production experience in John Ford Sr.’s filmstrip company.

They were very ironic, and that did not exist in Canadian folk music, it did not exist in Canadian pop music, it did not exist in Canadian rock music. It was this sense of parody and satire, in some cases, you know, very cutting, knife-sharp lyrics. [Mark Gane, quoted in The Last Pogo Jumps Again]

By the time the Cads recorded their 1978 single, Burgess and Edmonds moved on, replaced by Toronto guitarist/songwriter Glen Binmore and Thornhill friend John Corbett on bass.

The Cads lost the wind in their sails in 1979 not long after the Dishes did, both groups unable to progress to the next stage commercially speaking or evolve the band as keyboard-based dance music began to change the sounds heard on the QSW music scene.

It didn’t happen. I kind of thought it might’ve, but I don’t know. I mean, we just didn’t get our shit together enough. Maybe our demo stuff wasn’t good enough…. I think the Cads were perhaps a touch too clever for our own good. You know, a lot of the songs involved in-jokes. I know I had some people from work who would show up [at gigs], and they’d go, “You guys are really good, but we don’t get what you’re singing about.” And I’d go, “Oh, well —” and I’d have to explain the joke behind it. They’d just kind of look at me and go, “Oh.” Yeah, like I said, a bit too clever at times. [John Corbett]

Perhaps understandably, the Cads were a last stop for some members who had been playing in bands for the entire decade. With no apparent model of how a QSW band might break out commercially, they had entered an age when a new course in life began to seem attractive.

One thing I’ll say personally about the Cads was that, personally, I had to make a decision whether or not to carry on in music for my primary focus, or graphics. And that’s when I decided to switch away from music, or that I wasn’t going to go with music. I think in a way that was a good decision, because it would have been a lot harder to make a good living… I play music all the time now. I also play in a steel band. And I’m working on more solo stuff to try and become more of a performer. And that’s something I’m still learning. Because I don’t think any of us were good at performing. We would just get up on stage and play music and see if people like it, you know? [John Ford]

The New Japs: Jim Hughes, Ross Edmonds, Kimmo Eckland. I really know nothing about this provocatively named group except that they comprised another splinter group from Oh Those Pants! that drew on two defections from the Cads: Jim Hughes from that band’s first line-up, and Ross Edmonds from its second line-up. If there were any hard feelings about those defections, they didn’t deter the two bands from sharing a May 5, 1978 gig at the OCA auditorium with Johnny & the G-Rays and the Curse. Eckland died not long thereafter at the age of 26.

http://whatwaslostisnowfound.tumblr.com/post/75021922799

Johnny and the G-Rays: The Country Lads’ last gig in November 1976 proved to be the Eels’ last gig as well. From the ashes of those two bands came the core of Johnny and the G-Rays: Johnny MacLeod and Harri Palm on guitar, and Bent Rasmussen on drums. There was some question whether other Country Lads would join in.

So it was originally going to be Harri was going to come in on guitar, and Bill [Priestman] was going to switch to keyboards and guitar, and blah blah. But Bill got married at this time. Carl [Finkle] doesn’t drink, a total abstainer, so Harri was not [keen on him joining]. At the time I was drinking a bit, so that was a dividing line. [John MacLeod]

When the newly formed Diodes drafted Rasmussen on drums, Johnny’s brother Doug (from the Thornhill Secondary band the Rhumba Kings) filled in on drums until Rasmussen departed from the Diodes and (subsequently? simultaneously?) the Streets. The appearance of bass player Bob MacDonald completed the line-up. In August 1977, Johnny and the G-Rays played their first formal gig, opening with the B-Girls for the Cads at the gay disco Club David’s. (Punk band the Ugly would debut at David’s later that week.)

We were sort of somewhere in between new wave and the punk era, ‘cause we weren’t really punk but we weren’t really new wave, either. [Bent Rasmussen, quoted in The Last Pogo Jumps Again]

Listen to Every Twist Reminds by Johnny and the G-Rays

Indeed, Johnny & the G-Rays have the most traditional rock sound of all the QSW bands — the kind you want to hear blasting away in a great, raucous bar, except for the fact that in Toronto at this time, “bar band” meant a cover band playing to please the audience. By contrast, the G-Rays deliver a musical valentine to all the exciting guitar-based rock and roots music, from the world-famous to the locally obscure, that MacLeod and his Thornhill friends consumed in their teenage years. My interviews with John MacLeod, among the most enjoyable I conducted for this research, reveal him to be a living library of Toronto rock, blues, R&B and jazz. I haven’t been immersed in this Toronto tradition long enough to discern the influences of these overlooked musicians in the sound of Johnny and the G-Rays, but MacLeod’s fervor is enough to make me believe him.

And if you didn’t have first-hand, you wouldn’t know the reality: we worshipped Joe Hall, who was like the real Tom Waits, who had this amazing band of top players, who would play at the Black Bull, and who is never known today, Joe Hall and the Continental Drift. And we’d be there at his feet, watching him play, watching these guys play. In reality, we’d be going over to George’s Spaghetti House to watch Lenny Breau play, you know what I mean, sitting at his feet, trying to figure out what he was doing. [John MacLeod]

Another way that MacLeod became a conduit for the QSW music scene was by being the one to secure rehearsal studio spaces and other musicians to share them with. During the Country Lads days, he founda space in a relatively suburban residential outpost, a garage in York near the crossroads of Mount Pleasant and Eglinton, which he shared the space with the Time Twins and their collaborator Billy Bryans (later of the Government and then the Parachute Club). By 1977 MacLeod found rehearsal space downtown, first in a space at the run-down National Hotel at King and Sherbourne and then a room near the heart of QSW at 4 Saint Patrick Street, which he shared with the Cads and the early Muffins.

Mark Gane points out the rehearsal space on Saint Patrick Place.

It was the former stable of the Rex Hotel, which is directly across Saint Patrick. And it had — it’s still there, both the Rex and the building. And at that time it had a little window like that. It was the only window on the ground floor, which apparently, somebody told me they fed the horses through, because it was a stable or something. And it was freezing cold in the winter. It was as if every ten minutes, because it was so cold, it would just go [makes a sharp wire-breaking sound]. [Mark Gane]

In 1980 Johnny and the G-Rays recorded an album, Every Twist Reminds, for Basement Records, a subsidiary of Candian indie Attic Records. The recording process was difficult, and Harri Palm walked out before it was through. When the album went nowhere, the G-Rays fell apart. But MacLeod has never really left the scene, continuing to manage rehearsal spaces, write songs, and record solo when he can. By the new century the G-Rays began convening from time to time, as Palm’s Guelph residence allows.

Drastic Measures: Tony Malone split from the Dishes in January 1977, just before the band went in the studio to record their first EP. On his website he remembers, “I gradually lost control of the band’s direction, as they aligned themselves heavily with a certain Toronto art collective. It was a brilliant move in many ways, but I wanted us to be part of a music scene, not an art scene.” Malone didn’t stay inactive long. That summer he put together the Streets: Malone on keyboards, Paul Scriven and Rick Washbrook (an associate from the Thornhill/Markham area) on guitar, Perry White on bass, and Bent Rasmussen (fresh from the Diodes mk 1) on drums. However, the Streets were here and gone in a few months, playing just one gig at the Crash ‘n’ Burn. A live recording from that gig makes clear the compositional sophistication that Malone brought to the Dishes’ “cartoon music.” The Streets’ songs formed the basis of Malone’s next band, Drastic Measures, which drew upon a rotating cast of Toronto musicians.

When I played with the Streets, those guys were better players. They were more educated musically than the Dishes were. But like I said, I didn’t really know what to do with that selection of characters. I would know today, I’d love to have a heavy band of guys that just looked like tough dudes with brown leather jackets, that would be fine with me today. But at the time, it made no sense at all, fashion-wise or otherwise. So I didn’t know what to do with them. So the early Drastic Measures were a lot like the Dishes. It was just whoever I could get together, who was a good character, and who played a bit. And then they’d have to strenuously work to play my arrangements. [Tony Malone]

The sartorial switch from floppy-haired power-poppers to androgynous lounge lizards paralleled the way Malone ratcheted up his music into even tighter, turn-on-a-dime arrangements. In Drastic Measures, Tony Malone had formed possibly the most technically proficient band to come from the Thornhill sound.

I did want to have some commercial success. I did want to please a lot of people, and then eventually go on to make more artistic music. [Tony Malone]

Hanging over this quote is the idiosyncratic musical vision Malone had for his new band. If anything, the Drastic Measures were prone to going off in esoteric directions, as suggested by their choice of covering the Tin Pan Alley antique “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” for the first single (in 1979, on the Canadian subsidiary of Epic Records). Fans of the tightly wound power pop that XTC, Todd Rundgren, and Bill Nelson were making around this era should check out the Drastic Measures’ self-titled 1979 album.

The B-Girls: Lucasta Rochas (née Lucasta Ross [no relation to Cynthia or Rhonda] – guitar, vocals), Xenia Holiday (née Xenia Splawinski – guitar, vocals), Cynthia Ross (bass, vocals), Rhonda Ross (drums). The origins of the B-Girls is familiar QSW lore. Regular music scenesters about town, the members hadn’t even thought of forming a band until the Crash ‘n’ Burn summer of 1977 was underway.

I approached Lucasta. We were in the washroom at the Thin Lizzy concert and I said, “Wait a minute, why are we hanging around all these bands? Why don’t we just start our own band? You can sing. I’ve never played bass but I’m sure I can.” I’d taken piano as a child so I had a music background. [Cynthia Ross, quoted in Worth 2011: 137]

Okay, it didn’t exactly go like that. We were at a Thin Lizzy party at a hotel and the guys were starting to get a little crazy with some of the girls and we didn’t want any part of it, so we just took our drinks and locked ourselves in the bathroom. It was there we started talking about how everybody’s getting a band together these days and we could do it. By the time we unlocked the bathroom door we said, “That’s it, we’re a band.” So that’s how we started. [Lucasta Ross, quoted in Worth 2011-137-138]

Lucasta said, “Sure, but my best friend has to be in the band,” and that was Xenia. I said, “We’re gonna need a drummer so my sister will be the drummer,” and we started rehearsing in my parents’ basement in Thornhill. [Cynthia Ross, quoted in Worth 2011: 138]

If the B-Girls’ Thornhill connections are often forgotten, there are probably three reasons. First, as discussed in my previous blog post, those connections belong specifically to the Ross sisters, who (at least before 1977) didn’t come from the garage-band tradition that characterized the general pattern for the Thornhill sound. Instead, they were precocious urbanites who mingled early on with other music fans and habitués of the emerging QSW scene. (Recall, for instance, Xenia and Lucasta’s appearance as Fashion Burn models.) John MacLeod refers to the urban entrepreneurial activities of the Ross sisters’ father (described in my previous post) in discussing Lucasta Ross:

Lucasta from the B-Girls, her father would have been a similar kind of guy. He was involved in different things, you know, diamonds, currency, but also he was a record producer. He produced the record “When I Die,” which was a Band-soundalike thing by a band up here called Motherlode. It did become an international hit. But that was Lucasta’s dad, Mort Ross. And of course he had her singing on jingles by the time she was eight. She was definitely the greatest singer to ever come out of this scene. [John MacLeod]

Second, if the B-Girls’ place in the QSW music scene’s history is better established than many of the bands I’ve been writing about in these past two posts, that may be because they distinguished themselves, in musical agenda and social circles, from the arty “OCA band” that many punk musicians and fans defined themselves against.

Our band really wasn’t about the art scene, it was more about not the art scene, just enthusiasm and non-pretension. It was definitely a courageous thing that we were doing because it was part of breaking that whole scene of girl bands. It did really take a lot of courage to get up there and play some of the gigs that we played. [Xenia Splawinski, quoted in Worth 2011: 187]

There’s a little irony to this self-presentation. The B-Girls’ style of music — a poppy, DIY nod to the Shangri-Las and 60s other girl groups — seems regularly to solicit immediate qualification in many retrospective accounts of Toronto punk that the band didn’t play so-called punk rock. Yet their identification with punk, not with OCA bands or (an even more likely category) new wave, is regularly established (see, for instance, Sam Sutherland’s [2012] Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk). In this way the B-Girls constitute an important part of the symbolic contestation, in Toronto music now and then, of “punk” and “new wave”: are they antithetical in sound, meaning, or sociological basis?

There were certain bands that incited the crowd more, the Viletones, mainly, and other bands that came to town like the Dead Boys. The B-Girls, if you were just listening to our music, is not punk. We were in the punk era and at that time there were a lot of bands that were called punk bands, but how do you define the music? How do you compare Patti Smith to the Viletones, yet they were both considered punk? So we fit in there somehow, but our music was not the kind that incited people to start pogoing into each other or smashing beer bottles on each other’s heads. We always played gigs that were more melodic, I suppose, so that stuff rarely occurred at our shows. [Lucasta Ross, quoted in Worth 2011: 139]

Rhonda’s stint in the B-Girls lasted just long enough to get the band rolling; by the next year she had been replaced by British drummer Marcy Saddy. Lucasta followed; she joined a group called Minutes from Downtown and left shortly after they got signed, eventually getting into singing and voice-overs for advertising. Xenia took over lead singer duties, a new guitarist, Renee Schilhab, was added, and the rest is B-Girls history. Cynthia got engaged to Dead Boy Stiv Bators, the B-Girls played on the North American leg of the Clash’s London Calling tour, and the band relocated to New York City before calling it a day in the early 80s. Cynthia still lives there, fronting a band called New York Junk.

The Byters: Owen Burgess, David Johnson, Douglas MacLeod, Ross Edmonds. Another group with origins in the Thornhill sound, and time on their hands after departing the Cads (Burgess and Edmonds), the G-Rays (Johnny MacLeod’s brother Douglas), and the Doncasters (Martha’s brother David). The Byters didn’t last  long, just enough to go through prior names the Sportsmen and  the Red Byters. The Byters appear to be the end of the musical road for Douglas MacLeod and David Johnson.

The Byters: Owen Burgess, David Johnson, Douglas MacLeod, Ross Edmonds (clockwise from left).

Next – the last house band: Martha and the Muffins.

 

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