The path of punk rock and new wave history ran right through Toronto, and Simon and Nick White caught it on camera.
The Torontonian brothers will document the part the Big Smoke played in the beginnings of the feral and working-class rock movement with “Toronto Calling: Photographs Of The British New Wave As It Happened In Toronto 1979–1981,” going from March 3 to April 1 at the Steam Whistle Gallery at the Roundhouse (255 Bremner Boulevard).
More than seventy photos of punk rock and new wave’s kickstarters will be on display, including a gigantic, eighty-piece, twenty-two-foot-long mural of the Ramones playing at the Danforth Music Hall, mounted along the Roundhouse’s windows.
“It’s going to be pretty impactful, if that’s the word,” says Simon White. “The show is going to be comprised in the few years after 1979 when the punk rock explosion was looking to spread the word. And North America, at that point, had been fairly resistant, but it became a new wave. Week after week you could see acts like the Pretenders and Iggy Pop playing. It was all very exciting. The thirtieth anniversary of the Clash’s O’Keefe Centre show that ended in a small riot just passed, so I thought to myself, ‘This is a good time to put it out there.’”
Using his older brother Nick’s I.D., a teenage Simon would sneak into local venues and get a mosh pit’s eye view of the bands, resulting in shots as raw and gritty as the music itself. (Taking photos notwithstanding, he notes the camera proved a handy bludgeoning weapon when the pogo-dancing mob got a little too rough.)
Growing up on Collier Street, Simon and Nick were overexposed to the nearby Yorkville folk spirit of the ’60s and the coffee-house hipsterdom that sprang up in the following decade, and, as familiarity bred contempt, acquired a taste for something with a little more oomph. To them, punk became the enema that the Toronto music scene—much like a music industry backed up with prog-rock, folk, and disco—oh so desperately needed. It was fast, gritty, and unrepentantly fun. It was real rock ‘n’ roll howling in your face with nihilistic fervour, and White aims to recreate that spirit which also birthed local acts such as the Diodes, Teenage Head, and the Viletones.
“I wanted to reproduce the excitement of being sixteen, seventeen, and going into a dark dingy club and saw something that made us say, ‘Wow, now this is exciting,’” White said. “I wonder if these bands helped revitalize the record industry. In the ’70s you had disco and it was talking about the sensual, ‘I love to love’–type stuff. And this brought in an era where you could dance to Ultravox talking about the end of the world, because that’s where our heads were.”
It was that sense of impending doom that brought the movement more believers, the fear of a looming Armageddon that more commercially popular forms of music dared not address as punk and new wave did with such songs as the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The U.K.” and the Clash’s “London Calling,” to name two. Such songs reflected the headlines of the day: economic recession, the threat of terrorism, foreign nuclear powers, and the rise of authoritarian right-wing governments that maintained conditions friendly to corporate bodies but few else. Sound familiar? White certainly thinks so, adding that the top music artists of our day don’t speak out enough about the times.
“As kids we thought, ‘This is going to be the end. They’re gonna push the button,’” White said. “That was certainly reflected in the music that came right out of punk rock. And it’s something that’s lacking in the top ten these days. There’s just not enough awareness.”
Photos by Simon and Nick White. Not for duplication.