Teenage Head lead singer Frankie Venom. Photo by Ross Taylor.
The history of punk rock is usually dominated by the emergence of scenes in New York City and London. This makes some sense, given the significance of bands like the Ramones and the Clash, but it only allows a very black-and-white understanding of the period’s culture—punk didn’t exist, and then it was here. The greater story comes into better focus with an understanding of Toronto’s own punk scene, which gets its due treatment in a new book by local writer Liz Worth: Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond (1977–1981).
“When I first found out that Toronto had even been part of punk’s first wave, I was really interested, but it was really hard to find anything out about it. The more digging I did, the more I realized that it wasn’t just a few bands we had here, but a thriving scene,” says Worth. “I couldn’t understand why it was so hard to find out about it when it was so easy to find out about punk in other places, especially since it’s become such an important part of pop culture history.”
“If the sky was overcast and you walked out onto Yonge Street on a Sunday morning and everything was closed and you’d look down from Bloor right down to Wellesley, you’d see nobody else on the street but you….So Toronto was small-town-y, but becoming this big city.”
— Blair Martin, former frontman for the Raving Mojos and sometime-drummer for Teenage Head, quoted in Treat Me Like Dirt
Bands like Teenage Head, The Diodes, and Viletones are all included, in addition to a slew of less well-known acts. But Treat Me Like Dirt isn’t only about the evolution of the local music scene. By telling the story through an oral narrative, Worth lets the interviewees dig into their personal experiences and provide snapshots of an urban life that feels familiar but out of time. Within the first few chapters, the scene for the punk movement is set within the day-to-day experiences of seeing double-bills at The Original 99 Cent Roxy Theatre and spotting then-unknowns like John Candy and Catherine O’Hara at Dan Aykroyd’s Club 505 on Queen Street. When the bands in the book play their first shows, it’s at Gasworks on Yonge Street and the Victory Theatre on Spadina.
Left to right: Margaret Barnes-DelColle (proprietor of New Rose), Gambi Bowker (proprietor of the 404 speakeasy), Lucasta Ross (the B-Girls, Minutes From Downtown), Nora Currie (fan). Photo by Gail Bryck.
“There was that hair salon on Yonge Street called House of Lords. On a Saturday—nowadays you can’t even imagine it—but imagine a hair salon having a lineup outside of people wanting to get a shag haircut. I lived 30 minutes outside the city and yet I took a bus to go stand in line at House of Lords to get a shag haircut. So there was that whole glam rock thing that everybody was really into.”
— Margaret Barnes-DelColle (a.k.a. Margarita Passion), proprietor of Toronto’s first punk store, New Rose, quoted in Treat Me Like Dirt
Toronto still boasts a music scene—albeit a very different one—but its downtown culture has shifted significantly. Says Worth: “Now it’s like the Eaton Centre tore down its walls and spilled out all over Queen West. Paul Terefenko summed up Queen West perfectly in NOW Magazine when he wrote, ‘the hood’s long been ultra-FCUK-ed.’ He’s more creative in describing it than I am, though. I prefer to just say it’s fucked.”
Worth will be featured in the next edition of This Is Not A Reading Series, taking place this coming Monday at the Gladstone. She’ll be discussing the story of Toronto punk with (appropriately?) Fucked Up lead singer (and hero) Damian Abraham.
Photos courtesy of Bongo Beat Books.