It was November 1977, and it was the first time any of us had traversed our home and native land. We soon found out what a big-ass country Canada is. The ground in Saskatchewan was covered with snow, and it was so fucking flat that you could see a grain elevator miles away. It looked like the earth had been run over by a giant bulldozer! Let’s just say the beauty of the heartland is an acquired taste. The road was like a skating rink through eastern Manitoba. I drove through a flotilla of cop cars and tow trucks, my knuckles white from grippin’ the wheel.
– Joey Keithley, I, Shithead: A Life in Punk (pg. 39).

weird scenes from the 5 and the TCH metropolitan structure and rock in Canada 1

This passage from the autobiography of D.O.A. frontman and Canadian punk pioneer Joey Keithley, a.k.a. Joey Shithead, conveys a fact of life known to all Canadians: theirs is a huge country with a fairly small population. Consider this: in 2011, Canada had a population of 33,476,688 residents within its 3,855,103 square miles (9,984,670 square kilometers). That gives the country a population density of 8.7 people/square miles (3.4 people/square kilometers). By contrast, in 2010 the U.S. had a population density of 83.0 people/square miles (32.1 people/square kilometers), while the U.K. had the respective figures of 661.8 people/square miles (225.5 people/square kilometers).

Of course, most of Canada is undeveloped or inhospitable by “modern” standards (scare quotes to give the country’s indigenous First Nations inhabitants their due). Thus, its population is geographically concentrated within a relative handful of cities close to the U.S. border. Canada’s statistics office reports that in 2006, 80.2 percent of its national population lived in “urban areas.” (I couldn’t find the most recent 2011 figures for urban population.) The census metropolitan areas for Canada’s three biggest cities alone — Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver — account for 42.3 percent of this urban population, or 34.4 percent of the entire population. As a point of comparison, you would have to sum up the 17 largest metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S., from NYC to San Diego, before you reached a comparable proportion of the national population.

It might seem that Canadians with an inkling to visit the big cities would have an easy time of it, considering how few of these major metropoles their country has to offer, but the vast distances separating the three cities can raise a significant obstacle. This point was illustrated to me when I met up recently with a recent graduate from Vassar College who hailed from Victoria, a charming little coastal British Columbian city some 70 miles (114 km) and a ferry ride away from Vancouver. A bright, intellectually curious student, this individual is very much what I’d call an urbanist by disposition. Just last summer, she bicycled across the U.S. with a team raising funds for Habitats for Humanity. And yet… she had never visited Toronto or Montreal, Canada’s two biggest cities.

Although I have no idea how typical her experience is for Canadians living on the West Coast, I’ll bet it isn’t all that out of the ordinary. U.S. citizens wouldn’t necessarily expect all Seattleites to have visited Chicago or New York City. Why should we expect Canadians living just across the border to have spanned similar distances? Well, speaking from an American point of view, we do it because Canadians have so few big cities in Canada to choose from than we do. Essentially, if you’re looking for the cosmopolitanism, diversity, amenities and cultural developments (including architecture) that we associate with ‘great cities’, there’s really only three places in Canada to choose from. Why wouldn’t a self-conscious urbanist take the time to visit these places?

Perhaps the construct of national borders blinds us to the more relevant metropolitan structure. To return to my example, this individual did have a repertoire of cities that she was intimately familiar with growing up in Victoria. They were situated along the Pacific West Coast and U.S. Interstate 5 (“the 5,” in regional parlance): Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego. Indeed, Washington state’s San Juan Islands stared at her and other Victorians any time they took the ferry, while her story of the family roadtrip to Disneyland could be substituted for any U.S. resident’s experience, except for the added element of passports.

These features of Canada’s metropolitan structure, particularly the vast distance separating Vancouver from the country’s bigger cities along and off the Trans-Canada Highway, have exerted an overlooked influenced on the development of pop music — in Canada, the rest of North America, maybe even further. Here now, three vignettes from the North America’s highway vector, along the 5 and the TCH.

The Collectors

I recently watched “Shakin’ All Over: Canadian Pop Music in the 1960s,” a CBC documentary from 2006 based on Nicholas Jennings’ book Before the Gold Rush: Peace, Love, and the Dawn of the Canadian Sound. The doc moves quickly through the usual suspects (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell) to focus on the national groups whohad hits and played gigs within Canada. As for the ascent of bona fide 60s rock played by and for countercultural freaks is concerned, the doc assigns Vancouver a key role in the story (at about 14:00 into this clip).

The Canadian music scene continues to thrive locally in the mid-1960s, but without any national music infrastructure. There is no cross-country radio airplay or touring circuits, so West Coast musicians look south to the psychedelic sounds of California. Like San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, Vancouver’s music scene is based in incense-filled clubs like the Afterthought and the Retinal Circus. Dozens of adventurous bands spring up with their own mind-expanding lightshows and groovy poster art.

The first significant group in this story is the Collectors, flower-punk pioneers from Vancouver who morphs into a Haight Ashbury folk-rock group, Chilliwack. Tapping into the West Coast connection wasn’t merely a matter of musical influences for the Collectors; it was also a matter of career practicality.

It was easier for us to travel 1500 miles to L.A., and there was a great center of music there, than it was for us to go 3000 to Toronto or New York.
– Bill Henderson, The Collectors

In turn, the geographical shift of countercultural musical energy to the West Coast between 1967-69, the key years for the Collectors, gave Vancouver groups special access to the central influences, markets and industry feeding the baby boom rock generation. This was a not-inconsiderable advantage that groups from Toronto and Montreal would be hard pressed to match.

The Deviants

The West Coast urban chain is also the setting for the final burnout of London’s late-60s underground legends the Deviants. Led by Mick Farren, a writer for the underground publication International Times, the Deviants recorded three albums between 1967 and 69 that never quite met the musical standards set by their inspiration, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, but nonetheless capture the anger and anarchy of the freak community residing in London’s Landbroke Grove neighborhood. By the third album, the group took on Vancouver guitarist Paul Rudolph, whose hometown connections lay the basis for a brief Autumn 1969 sojourn to Vancouver. Deviants manager Jamie Mendelkau explained the idea in Rich Deakin’s Keep it Together! Cosmic Boogies with the Deviants and the Pink Fairies:

In simplest terms, the gig was arranged via Paul Rudolph and his pal who owned the Colonial, and it was seen as a great way to reopen the place. I don’t know if he had ever listened to any Deviants albums at this time. Paul Rudolph was well known enough in Vancouver music circles to pull a crowd (pp. 132-3).

These gigs at the Colonial were disastrous. Few people showed up at first, and when they finally did, they received an abusive earful from Farren:


Farren’s aggravated state (“They were actually seeing a human being in neural disintegration, right onstage, without hesitation and shame,” he recalled) burned the final bridge to his bandmates. Rudolph, bassist Duncan Sanderson, and drummer Russell Hunter sacked Farren from his own band and, stranded in the U.S. without return airfare, obtained a week-long residency at Seattle’s Trolley Club opening for… the Collectors.

From their they made a pilgramage to San Francisco, where they played a few poorly attended shows, crashed at various communes (including Chet Helms’ Family Dog; see the photo below, with Rudolph sitting to the left of a pontificating Helms), and caught gigs by the Grateful Dead, Jeferson Airplane, Steve Miller, It’s a Beautiful Day, as well as touring performances by the Velvet Underground and Crosby Stills & Nash. Rudolph and Deviants Roadie Boss Goodman even made it to Altamont; in exchange for help setting up the stage, they had backstage view to “loads of little magic moments” and “some of the most atrocious sights you’d ever seen” (in Goodman’s words; pp. 148-9).

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Perhaps most importantly, it was in the music room of an Oak Street commune belonging to one “weird hippy religous sect” that the three remaining Deviants put together a new set of material, including an epic new jam, “Uncle Harry’s Last Freakout.” After a final sojourn into Canada for a series of gigs at Montreal’s McGill University, the band finally made it back to England. By the end of 1969, the three Deviants convened with psychedelic musician Twink — ex-Tomorrow, ex-Pretty Things, and creator of the Farren-produced/Deviants-supported solo album Think Pink — to form the Pink Fairies.

DIY in the age of CanCon

In 1971, the Canadian Parliament legislated the recommendations of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission that radio and TV begin broadcasting a fixed minimum percentage of content that is in some way written, produced, presented, or otherwise contributed to by Canadian citizens. Known as the CanCon requirements, the law responded to longstanding concerns about the Americanization of content broadcast on Canadian airwaves. CanCon’s impact on creating awareness among Canadians of their own popular culture is immeasurable. Furthermore, as intended, CanCon gave a massive boost to the economic sectors associated with Canadian television and music. In the case of music, Canadian bands now could expect that national record labels might give them a serious lookover — at least in the aggregate.

(Famously, Canadian rockers Rush was totally ignored by Canadian labels, and they had to independently release their self-titled 1974 debut album. It took the surprise breakout of the album’s single “Working Man” from a Cleveland rock radio station to get them signed by a major label: the U.S. wing of Mercury Records. The whole situation was “pretty pathetic when you think about us being the biggest band Canada has produced,” Neil Peart told Sounds in 1980. “It makes you a little bit cynical about the [Canadian music industry].”)

Still, Canadian radio formats remained wed to the generic designations promoted U.S. radio consultants (see Line Grenier’s 1990 article, “Radio Broadcasting in Canada: The Case of ‘Transformat’ Radio,” published in the academic journalPopular Music). A punk-rock band in Canada could no more make headway into mainstream radio or the bars venues booking pop and rock acts than it could in the U.S. at this time. Thus the predicament facing Joey Shithead and other punks: they would have to do it themselves. As described in the opening quotation of this essay, Shithead took his first band the Skulls east to Toronto, where a lively punk scene had emerged in 1977. Still, it was fairly tough going at this time, as he recalls in his autobiography:

In one sense Toronto was like Vancouver: there were very few places to play. We had heard about the Crash’n’Burn, a place the Diodes had helped make famous, but it was closed by the time we arrived. We did go to to a couple of parties the Diodes threw, but they came across as art school posers to me.

Perhaps one incentive for the Skulls to make the daunting drive east (during a cold Canadian November no less) was that the trip was always meant to be one-way; after making a name for themselves in Toronto, the Skulls had aspirations to move to London. After their ignominous failure in Toronto broke up the band, Shithead returned to Vancouver and formed D.O.A. Significantly, this band found like-minded groups and made a name for itself largely via travels across the border and along the 5. Jello Biafra was a particular champion after D.O.A. shared several bills with the Dead Kennedys; he included the D.O.A. track “The Prisoner” on the seminal hardcore compilation Let Them Eat Jellybeans! (1981), and his Alternative Tentacles label would periodically release subsequent D.O.A. recordings. Through such support, the band went on to become legends of hardcore punk, opening up smaller cities and towns throughout North America to the punk-rock circuit that in turn laid the foundation for “alternative music’s” hegemony by the 1990s.

Another hardcore band that was committed during this period to playing “secondary and tertiary markets” (as Henry Rollins sarcastically calls these overlooked places, above) was Hüsker Dü from Minneapolis. “D.O.A. and Dead Kennedys were the two bands that were the most instrumental in getting Hüsker Dü to the West Coast,” Bob Mould writes in his autobiography See a Little Light (pg. 48). In turn, Hüsker Dü laid important ground for punk rock along the Trans-Canada Highway. Mould describes the inaugural dates of Hüsker Dü’s first North American tour (1981) in Calgary at the Calgarian Hotel (“a flophouse with a bar and lounge on the ground floor”). A real baptism by fire for the band, the event also provides a view onto the conditions for punk rock in Calgary, then a city of 591,857 people.

I’d sat next to bleeding unconscious people in bus terminals, I’d watched Johnny Thunders shoot up, and I’d watched drunk women attempt to vandalize our musical equipment; I’d experienced sketchy before. But this was a whole new level of sketchy. One woman who was a regular at the Calgarian was stabbed on Monday night, and then stabbed again that Wednesday. It was that kind of place.

Early in the week, we were playing our first set while a handful of local Native Americans were getting drunk. During the second set, some ranchers started showing up. Then the two groups started going back and forth at each other. A fair amount of fighting happened around the pool table between the cowboys and the Indians — those are crass stereotypes, but it was the reality. We would fire the music back up, and they would stop what they were doing and say, “What the fuck is this punk rock? This band sucks!” So now the cowboys and Indians were putting their beef on hold and uniting against the punk rock; not ony against us, but also the punks in the audience. Of the fifty or so people in the bar, there would be a dozen cowboys and a handful of Indians, but the majority were the punks. You might that that ratio would have discouraged the cowboys and Indians, but it didn’t. We’d finish a set, get off the stage, leave the drums and amps behind, run upstairs, go back to the rooms they gave us for free, and just sit there and say to one another, “We have to go back down there?” Fights were pouring out into the street, and since our room was in the front of the hotel, we saw everything. It was like a barroom brawl straight out of an old western movie.

This continued for six straight days. By the end of the week, we’d not only managed to keep ourselves out of harm, trouble, and jail, but we’d also become acquainted with several folks in the Calgary punk rock community. It was a hell of a way to start a tour (pg. 50).

As this passage suggests, there was already a small punk rock community in Calgary whose flames Hüsker Dü only had to fan. One wonders if the band didn’t have a special affinity, coming from the U.S. nothern midwest themselves, for punk rockers stranded in the Canadian plains, hundreds of miles away from the next outpost of good music.