Music isn't just sound—it also informs our sense of place. And so, a look at some of the places that have shaped Toronto's music.
The venues, schools, record labels, stores, and other landmarks that created the sound of our city and shaped its music history.
The sounds were changing in Toronto during the 1970s, as music took on a harder edge than the folk/rock and R&B sounds which marked the 1960s. Venue-wise, the decade was a transitional period: the Yorkville scene vanished and spots dropped along Yonge Street as Queen West slowly began to gain prominence. The rising punk/new-wave scene saw venerable venues like the Horseshoe transformed and other places rise before quickly living up to the name of one of its earliest halls, Crash ‘n’ Burn. And the Rolling Stones took a liking to our city, even if some of their visits were legally mandated.
1 Nimbus 9 (131 Hazelton Avenue, then 39 Hazelton Avenue)
Founded as a production company in the late 1960s, Nimbus 9 quickly earned success through the Guess Who’s string of North American hits. By the 1970s, it operated a recording studio which drew acts like Alice Cooper and Bob Seger. Key producers included Bob Ezrin and Jack Richardson.
2 New Yorker Theatre (651 Yonge Street)
“They are the stuff of which bad myths are made,” Globe and Mail music critic Paul McGrath concluded after the Ramones played two shows at the New Yorker (now the Panasonic Theatre) in September 1976. “The music they play would be appropriate for a film depicting the ravages of heroin withdrawal.” Yet McGrath’s observation that something in the band’s loud noise appealed to fans was an astute one, as the shows are pointed to as one of the key inspirations for the city’s punk bands that sprang up soon after.
3 David’s (16 Phipps Street, northwest of Yonge Street and Wellesley Street West)
Featuring amenities such as a winding staircase encircling an old fountain featuring Michelangelo’s David and staff with nicknames like Mr. Shit, David’s presented punk bands every night until midnight, when it turned into a gay disco. Manager Sandy Leblanc felt punk was a passing fad, believing the genre wouldn’t last because it wasn’t socially acceptable. “At the moment, he told the Ryerson Review in September 1977, “we are the only punk rock club in the city because no other managers will tolerate them.” David’s literally went out in a blaze of glory—following a New Year’s concert to ring in 1978, the venue burned under mysterious circumstances, destroying the equipment of bands like The Ugly. Later that year, Leblanc was murdered.
4 Larry’s Hideaway (121 Carlton Street)
A steady stream of college rock, punk, and new wave acts played here through the late 1970s and early 1980s. The site was later demolished and replaced by an expanded Allan Gardens.
5 El Mocambo (464 Spadina Avenue)
One of Toronto’s first cocktail lounges after gaining a liquor license in the mid-1940s, by the 1970s the El Mo was one of the city’s top music clubs. While acts including Blondie and Elvis Costello graced its stage, the biggest headlines the venue garnered came when the Rolling Stones played two nights to record a side of their Love You Live album in March 1977. Billed as “The Cockroaches” below opening act April Wine, the group’s shows were their first in a club setting in over a decade and gained notoriety due to Keith Richards’s drug bust at the Harbour Castle the week before (see #12 below) and the presence of Margaret Trudeau, who had just separated from the Prime Minister.
6 Grossman’s Tavern (379 Spadina Avenue)
When the Downchild Blues Band had a long run at Grossman’s in the 1970s, one of its biggest fans was Second City comedian Dan Aykroyd. Following the improv troupe’s performances, Aykroyd dropped by the bluesy bar and occasionally blew on the harmonica even though at the time, according to Downchild singer Richard “Hock” Walsh, “he couldn’t play harmonica to save his life.” Aykroyd later cited Downchild’s album Straight Up as an inspiration for the Blues Brothers.
7 Sam the Record Man/A&A (Yonge Street, north of Gould Street)
The undisputed record-selling titans of the Yonge strip, music lovers could spend hours browsing the deep selection in either store. Both retailers evolved into chains over the decade—when A&A was purchased by Columbia Records in 1971, there was speculation that sale sped up Sam Sniderman’s move into franchising. Despite being “ardently wooed” by other record labels fearing the clout Columbia would have, Sniderman remained independent.
8 Victory Burlesque (Northeast corner of Spadina and Dundas)
If you’re going to play a concert in a burlesque joint, it makes sense to include strippers as part of the performance. Such was the case when Mainline unveiled the “Bump ‘n’ Grind Revue” at the Victory in 1972—which would later be shown on TVOntario. Before the Victory shut down in 1975, it also played host, sans stripteases, to the likes of Peter Frampton, the New York Dolls, and Rush.
9 Colonial Underground (201–203 Yonge Street)
As its name implies, this venue was located below the Colonial Tavern. Acts including Rough Trade and the Viletones played early gigs here.
10 Horseshoe Tavern (370 Queen Street West)
Opened in 1947, the Horseshoe was primarily regarded as a country bar during the first half of the 1970s. Among the lead attractions during this period was Stompin’ Tom Connors, whose May 1973 series of shows formed the basis of the film Across This Land. During the late 1970s, promoters Gary Cormier and Gary Topp (aka The Two Garys) booked an eclectic range of acts leaning heavily toward punk and new wave. Some shows drew better than others: the Police drew only 20 spectators over two nights in November 1978, while overcrowding at “The Last Pogo” punk concert a few weeks later led to a riot when the event was shut down.
11 Crash ‘n’ Burn (15 Duncan Street)
Located under offices rented by the Liberal Party, Crash ‘n’ Burn was a weekend-only punk club that lasted for a few months in 1977 under the guidance of Diodes manager Ralph Alfonso. Its demise was spurred by complaints about beer, noise, overcrowding, violence, and vomit—how rock n’ roll is that?
12 Westin Harbour Castle (1 Harbour Square, Queen’s Quay West at Bay)
Forty-five minutes. That’s how long it took RCMP officers to wake Keith Richards when they busted him for drugs at the Harbour Castle on February 28, 1977. The Rolling Stones guitarist was disappointed that the police didn’t match his vision of what a Mountie should look like—“I’d have woken up a lot quicker if I’d seen the red tunic and Smokey Bear hat.” He was charged with intent to traffic heroin (due to the amount he had) and possession of cocaine. When Richards went to trial in October 1978, the charges were reduced to one count of heroin possession. He walked away with a one-year suspended sentence with requirements to continue a rehab program he had entered in New York, report periodically to a probation officer in Toronto, and play a benefit concert for the blind. Years later, Richards admitted the incident helped him straighten his act (somewhat).
13 Ontario Place Forum
This all-purpose outdoor concert facility was one of Ontario Place’s major successes when it opened in 1971. Acts ranged from rock to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and there was even the odd riot, as occurred during a Segarini/Teenage Head concert in 1980. It was replaced by the Molson Amphitheatre in the mid-1990s.
Additional material from Keith Richards: The Biography by Victor Bockris (Toronto: Poseidon, 1992), Rock and Roll Toronto by John Goddard and Richard Crouse (Toronto: Doubleday, 1997), Treat Me Like Dirt by Liz Worth (Toronto: ECW, 2011), Trouble in the Camera Club by Don Pyle (Toronto: ECW, 2011), and the August 21, 1971 and September 27, 1976 editions of the Globe and Mail.