The top 10 Toronto punk bands of all time
Punk rock took off early and fast in Toronto, and while we can't count ourselves among the first cities of punk — New York and London will forever have that honour — we're probably prime among the second cities, a list that includes Los Angeles, Manchester, San Francisco and Cleveland (Yes — Cleveland). Like any decent city, we've always had the ingredients necessary for a punk scene - lots of bored suburban kids and a few lousy, filthy clubs willing to take a chance on music made as much out of anger as love.
It's hard to choose just 10 bands that sum up Toronto punk through the ages, and taste is, as ever subjective, but these bands would be on any punk rock mix tape you'd make, preferably with an old C-60 you found under the couch of the band house you share with 10 people and five dogs. What you can't be certain of is finding all of them on iTunes, and that's probably just as it should be.
Here's a list of the 10 most significant groups to bring Toronto's version of punk rock to the world, all the way from today back to its primordial origins.
From Scarborough via the Yorkville scene in the '60s, the Ugly Ducklings carved their name for posterity in the prehistory of punk rock with "Nothin'," their first single. Snotty and fuzzy, with lyrics full of the defiant nihilism that was punk's calling card, it laid a thick, dirty foundation for what would follow. The Ducklings would have a career trajectory that was essentially punk — an opening gig for the Stones at Maple Leaf Gardens, a handful of great singles and an LP, with the last single (the magnificently bombastic "Gaslight") recorded in New York with just the singer and a bunch of session musicians from Doc Severinson's band. Add Malcolm McLaren and ten years and you've got the Sex Pistols.
Formed out of the Ontario College of Art back when the school and its students practically owned the run-down retail backwater that was Queen Street West, the Diodes would have been essential to Toronto's punk story even if they hadn't opened the gig space and club house that was the Crash & Burn. For one brief, hot, summer, Toronto's budding punk scene had a place to play, hang out, get drunk and get laid. But then the band produced the perfect jukebox single — their anthemic "Tired Of Waking Up Tired," whose title alone sums up being young, the '70s, and Toronto's first wave punk rock scene.
The Toronto scene from '76-'78 had a lot of great bands, but none ruled the punk rock roost on top of more newspaper column inches than Steve "Nazi Dog" Leckie and his Viletones. The talked like punk, they looked like punk, and thanks to songs like "Possibilities," "Rebel" and "Screaming Fist," they sounded like punk. No history of Toronto punk rock would be complete without them, but there was a lot more happening in our punk scene in those days than ripped t-shirts and a theatrically bad attitude could contain.
Like the CBGB scene in New York, Toronto punk was a sloppy corral holding a bunch of truly idiosyncratic bands, few of whom played dress-up with leather and ripped t-shirts when they hit the stage. Bands mined their rich vein of influences at the very edge of their musical competence, few more ardently than the Scenics. Drawing from the Kinks, Roxy Music, psychedelia and the Velvet Underground, this three- (later four-) piece chased down their muse with little regard for what the music industry wanted or needed in the years when Rumours topped the charts.
They might have remained a footnote except for their own abiding belief in what they did, which has resulted in several new CDs drawn from rehearsals, demo session and live shows recorded in their heyday, compiled by the band and including a whole disc of Velvets covers. When digital posterity has come to mean more to a band's reputation than their onetime obscurity, the Scenics are a reminder that Toronto punk, in its prime, was as wild and creative as any other city.
When a young boy was found murdered above a Yonge Street massage parlour in the summer of 1977, the city reeled in media-stoked horror, and the city's reputation as anodyne, upright "Toronto the Good" took a major hit. But when a quartet of unsavory female punks whose band name was a menstrual play on words dared to shout out a few uncomfortable truths about the tragedy with their single "Shoeshine Boy," the reaction was almost as if they'd killed the boy themselves.
There were women in a few of Toronto's first wave punk bands, but while the B-Girls were cute and kitschy, The Curse were nasty and confrontational, and if being in an all-girl band wasn't marginal enough, "Shoeshine Boy" made them media pariahs, with a statement that was a lot braver than wearing safety pins and picking fights at shows.
Hardcore was punk's unkempt, unpopular little brother in the '80s, and its home base was Kensington Market, where the Bunchofuckingoofs ruled the streets. Love them or hate them — and if you hate them, you'll have to get in line — the Goofs were happy to be as notorious as the debased punk rock brand had become in the era of shoulder pads and big hair. They probably weren't the best band in the scene, but they were the most visible, even despite their name. They lingered in the Market for years, disappearing just in time for an unexpectedly lush, deluxe book on the band to appear a couple of years ago, telling their story as the scuzzy, downmarket heroes they always thought they were.
With a name that looked great on handmade gig posters, Random Killing were of, but not part of the Kensington Market scene, managing to make their reputation outside of Toronto and even Canada thanks to dogged touring and an occasional genius flourish of publicity. They began as a joke, and were never afraid to look silly, gigging under black light and appearing in cartoon form on Sesame Street.
Once upon a time, if you put "fuck" in your name, the record industry would shun you like a social disease and the media would treat you like a dirty gag. Those days are over, as singer Damian Abraham and his ambitious, plus-sized punk band have proven. There was also a time when the punk police would have given you stink eye for writing epics or producing concept albums, but Fucked Up have done both without apology, winning the Polaris Prize on their way.
t's hard to believe that punk and metal were once hostile neighbours, but that was a long time ago, and the bleeding together that began in the '80s is seamless now with bands like Cancer Bats. Beginning with a self-titled EP in 2005, they've released four albums and spun themselves off as Bat Sabbath, a Black Sabbath tribute band, ricocheting between the punk and metal poles while touring with Anti-Flag, Rise Against, Billy Talent and Misery Signals. Happy to confound listeners, singer Liam Cormier happily admitted that the Fleet Foxes were an inspiration on their latest record, Dead Set On Living, but good luck figuring out how.
Nearly forty years after it congealed on either side of an ocean, punk has shed the politics and fashion that made it merely shocking and grown to fulfill its basic destiny — making an unholy great noise. Toronto's Metz embody this simple mission statement - three men making a vast, brutal sound with anger and swagger. "Toronto's music scene is awesome," singer/guitarist Alex Edkins told Interview magazine recently, adding that "it's not just a group of people doing a similar thing — it's a group of people doing their own thing." At this point, at least in Toronto, the punks could be anyone, and that's more than anyone expected at the Crash & Burn back in the humid summer of 1977.
Photo of the Viletones by Jeremy Gilbert
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