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culture

How Punk Changed Canada For the Better

Sam Sutherland, author of the new book Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk, says punk bands of the late 1970s created alternative culture in Canada.

Regina's The Extroverts, one of the many bands covered in Perfect Youth. Photo courtesy of Les Holmlund.

For local music journalist Sam Sutherland, his new book, Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk, was the culmination of what he describes as five years of hard work, including “basically not sleeping for two years.”

The book chronicles the early days of Canada’s various local punk scenes. Sutherland says he spent years searching out rare recordings and talking to people about punk bands—not just from Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, but also from places like Regina and Cape Breton.

“It required a lot of what I can only describe as actual journalism,” he says. “When you’re a music journalist, so much of what you do is calling a publicist, getting a phone number, and then calling that phone number at a prearranged time. This involved a lot of tracking people down, and tracking down recordings, and asking multiple sources, ‘Okay, who were the bands that mattered?’”

According to Sutherland, there’s a common misconception that Canadian punk bands were simply aping American and British acts. In reality, he says, at least one Canadian band predates most of its better-known U.K.- and U.S.-based contemporaries.

Teenage Head got together in 1975, and what you were seeing at that time was a really genuine response to a really shitty dominant culture,” he says. “It didn’t matter if you were in New York or in Winnipeg, rock and roll was so completely bloated and unrelatable and shitty that there was a natural response from young people to bring it back to the roots…. It wasn’t just that The Ramones went to Edmonton or Regina or Saskatoon and then there were punk bands.”

He adds that there are two key reasons that Canada never had a band that reached that Ramones/Sex Pistols/Clash–type stratosphere. One was a lack of recording studios; the other was the conservative nature of the Canadian music business.

“Record labels couldn’t take the same chances here,” he says. “It’s a much smaller market, so you can’t take risks. You had to rely on what was popular and going to make you money. Sire Records could afford to take these chances and put out these risky records. Canadian labels couldn’t.”

The Canadian band that came closest to stardom, he says, was DOA. While DOA may not have had label support, it and its fellow Vancouver bands did have a leg up on the rest of the country when it came to recording.

“One of the great things about Vancouver, and one of the reasons DOA is one of those [well-known] bands, is because you had Bob Rock learning to record by producing records for The Pointed Sticks, The Young Canadians, and DOA,” he says. “That’s a guy who would go on to work with Mötley Crüe and Metallica and even Michael Bublé.”

Sutherland says that although Canada’s early punk bands may not always have had huge impact while they were active, they set the stage for much of what came after them.

“We owe all of our alternative culture to these bands,” he says. “Canada was an inhospitable place for people like us before these bands. There were no good bars; there were no places to hang out. Queen Street West was not fucking cool until The Dishes, who were cool in Thornhill, came downtown, and started working in restaurants and flyering and booking shows. We owe that whole alternative culture—of things that weren’t just Goddo, and Long John Baldry, and Trooper—to these bands.”

CORRECTION: November 21, 2012, 11:15 AM A previous version of this post stated that The Extroverts hailed from Ottawa. They are, in fact, from Regina. The caption above has been edited to reflect this.

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