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.
When the subject of 1980s music in Toronto arises, most of the spotlight falls on Queen West and its circuit of clubs, artistic communities, and hipster joints. The combination of affordable housing, influences from the nearby Ontario College of Art, and plenty of performance spaces made the stretch of Queen Street from University Avenue to just west of Spadina Avenue a musical hotbed. But Queen West shouldn’t hog all the credit: elsewhere in the city, campus radio stations (and at least one commercial spot on the dial) were expanding Toronto’s musical taste, while large dance clubs kept the music going deep into the night.
1 Copa (21 Scollard Street)
While summarizing several long-gone music venues in 2010, there was a slight sneer in the Star’s tone when it came to the Copa: “Flavour-of-the moment world music and pop acts in the midst of 15 minutes of fame, with sporadic detours into not-quite-ready-for-soft-seater veteran acts, sporting crowds of regular Joes, well-coiffed yuppies and the occasional Flock Of Seagulls hairstyle.” Yet for a decade it was one of Yorkville’s busiest clubs, mixing DJ nights with performances from the likes of Berlin, Burning Spear, Herbie Hancock, Fela Kuti, and Skinny Puppy.
2 Gasworks (585 Yonge Street)
For those who wanted to rawk, the Gasworks was headbanger heaven. Hard rock ruled until it closed its doors in 1993. The venue inspired the identically named hangout in the movie Wayne’s World. (“This is the Gasworks, an excellent heavy metal bar. Always a babe fest.”)
3 The Edge (70 Gerrard Street East)
The Star once described The Edge as “Living up to its name in terms of eclecticism: a dark, spacious abode facing Gerrard that housed tastemaker promoters Gary Topp and Gary Cormier, who booked punk/new wave acts like 999 and The Mods with the occasional jazzy Don Thompson/Ed Bickert or folkie Ralph McTell date.”
4 CKLN (Ryerson University)
Originally available only on closed circuit within Ryerson, CKLN moved to the FM dial in 1983. That year saw the launch of The Fantastic Voyage, which was the first Canadian radio show devoted to hip hop. As for CKLN’s open format, musician and station graphic designer Kurt Swinghammer noted that, “It didn’t have a political agenda that seems to dominate now. Maybe because it was new, people didn’t seem to realize that they could use it for their personal agenda, and they just played all this crazy music that nobody was touching.” Among CKLN’s station managers during the 1980s was future city councillor Adam Vaughan. The station fell silent amid controversy galore in 2011.
5 Church of the Holy Trinity (19 Trinity Square)
Opened in 1847, this landmark might have been demolished had early plans for the Eaton Centre gone ahead. The church has long been praised for its acoustics, which has led to its use for concerts, CBC Radio broadcasts, and a 14-hour recording session in November 1987 that produced the Cowboy Junkies’ album The Trinity Session.
6 Music Gallery (30 St. Patrick Street to 1984, then 1087 Queen Street West)
Founded in 1976, the Music Gallery has dedicated itself to experimental sounds. Its mission is “promoting and presenting innovation and experimentation in all forms of music, and for encouraging cross-pollination between genres, disciplines and audience.” It has moved several times over the course of its existence, and currently operates out of St. George the Martyr Church, on John Street.
7 Beverley Tavern (240 Queen Street West)
Described in its Now obituary as an “art-punk haven” during its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the Beverley was the birthplace of the Elvis Monday indie music showcase in 1984, which helped launch more than a few careers.
8 Citytv and MuchMusic (299 Queen Street West from 1987 on)
From Toronto Rocks in the early 1980s to videos aired on MuchMusic by decade’s end, Moses Znaimer’s stable of channels helped promote local acts. When the stations moved from their previous home east of Yonge Street in 1987, it wasn’t surprising that they settled on the city’s hip strip.
9 Bam Boo (312 Queen Street West)
For a quarter of a century, tucked behind a gateway made from its namesake plant, the Bam Boo was a prime venue for reggae and dub poetry. It helped introduce a diverse range of world music to Torontonians. It is also reputed to have been the first spot in Toronto to serve Pad Thai.
10 Rivoli (332 Queen Street West)
Opened in 1982 in a former vaudeville/burlesque theatre, the Rivoli strived to be, in the words of music historian Nicholas Jennings, “ultra-hip.” Besides being a key venue for the 1980s Queen Street music scene, it also served as a showcase for rising comedy acts like the Kids in the Hall.
11 Cameron House (408 Queen Street West)
From 1981, the old hotel offered opportunities for up-and-coming musical and theatrical performers ranging from Blue Rodeo to Video Cabaret. It was also home to the Blue Monday classic jazz showcase hosted by Molly Johnson. Many of the artists who took the stage also lived in the building, making it one of the main creative centres during Queen West’s heyday.
12 Spadina Hotel/Cabana Room (northwest corner of King Street West and Spadina Avenue)
Built in the 19th century and once known as the Hotel Falconer, the Spadina Hotel’s second floor Cabana Room served as a stage for hundreds of unknown bands (and a few you might recognize). The site currently houses the Global Village Backpackers youth hostel.
13 RPM (132 Queen’s Quay East)
Opened around 1985, RPM was, according to promoter Gary Topp, a unique-at-the-time venue which “made dance music more popular than live music. No club owners have ever demonstrated so much artistry in operating a nightclub in this city. It was the place where interlocking subcultures were able to surface. It was a scene.” Among its resident DJs during the decade was Chris Sheppard, who occasionally brought on live acts like the Beastie Boys during Sunday all-ages nights. The site currently houses the Guvernment.
CFNY (Brampton, not shown on the map.)
Under the guidance of program director David Marsden for most of the decade, the “Spirit of Radio” won a loyal audience for its free-form format. As Marsden once noted, “We hesitate to play poorly produced records because it may do more harm than good. We do as much as we can to break unknown acts—through showcase programs like Streets of Ontario—but the goal is to expose them in the best light, not the worst.” The station also launched its own music awards, the U-Knows/CASBYs, which predated the MuchMusic Video Awards.
Additional material from: Have Not Been the Same by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack, and Jason Schneider (Toronto: ECW, 2001), Rock and Roll Toronto by John Goddard and Richard Crouse (Toronto: Doubleday, 1997), and the January 3, 2010 edition of the Toronto Star.