Punk-Era Reissue Blasts Back From the Past

by Brian Lynch on Jan 27, 2005
Vancouver Complication, now available on CD for the first time, documents an explosive time in local music

Rock ‘n’ roll began its recorded life in small, makeshift studios. And in the late ’70s, after many years of growing tanned and tubby in the palatial recording houses of L.A., it was kidnapped and dragged back to these mottled little rooms for deprogramming. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols had by then already proved that Boston and Boz Scaggs did not provide the template for all new music, and that even Fleetwood Mac’s uptempo numbers did not represent rock at its most energetic. Once again, the cellars and garages of North America made an unholy racket, as loose networks of outcasts and self-designated punks taught themselves a raw, original form of music that sparked a pop-culture revolution.

One of the most isolated of these safe houses was a green bungalow on a hillside in Burnaby, where CBC technician Chris Cutress lived and the modest eight-track recording studio, Sabre Sound, that he’d built in the basement. Here, through the winter and spring of 1978-79, Cutress, his assistant Jay Leslie, and Steve Macklam, a young CBC music journalist and budding manager who had recently moved back to Canada from London, England, tried to capture a full cross section of Vancouver’s independent music scene, which had exploded over the previous months to become one of the strongest on the continent.

The eventual result of their experiment, conducted entirely on unpaid time, was Vancouver Complication, an LP whose reputation as a classic of homemade punk and new-wave music is about to be revived by a (somewhat belated) 25th-anniversary CD reissue, due out Tuesday (February 1) on Joe “Shithead” Keithley’s Sudden Death label.

(In the spirit of punk philanthropy, all proceeds from the CD will go to the Vancouver Food Bank, as will funds raised by the release party scheduled for February 19 at the WISE Hall [1882 Adanac Street].)

“As of early December ’78 we just started bringing in bands,” Cutress recalls on the line to the Straight from CBC’s downtown headquarters, where he still works as a recording engineer. “The idea was that we’d record Saturday and mix Sunday. And we tried to get two songs from each band. Some of them ended up taking a little less time in the studio, others needed more. But we tried to keep to the two-day session rule.”

This chain of weekend visits from the city’s tightly knit but eclectic community of self-made performers produced a wide range of sounds, from the furious barre-chord attack of the Dishrags, the Subhumans, and Keithley’s newly formed D.O.A. to the lean, British-tinged pop of the Pointed Sticks and Active Dog, and from there out to the angular art-school jams of U-J3RK5, Exxotone, and [e?].

All of this was according to a concept born months beforehand. Grant McDonagh, now the owner of local music mecca Zulu Records but back then one of the minds behind the Xerox-and-staple fanzine Snotrag, had approached Macklam with the proposal of producing a cheap eight-inch flexidisc presenting a handful of Vancouver’s punk and new-wave bands. This humble sampler, McDonagh thought, could be included in an issue of his magazine as a response to an influential compilation of Akron, Ohio’s independent musicians that had just been released by the legendary British label Stiff Records. But Macklam, who had befriended most of the members of Vancouver’s scene, soon had a bigger idea: a full-length LP on proper vinyl, documenting a local movement that he believed was as vibrant, odd, and daring as any he’d encountered in London or elsewhere.

“It was very fluid at the time, and a very accelerated framework, so it was difficult to nail down, but basically everybody that mattered we recorded, and everybody that we recorded mattered,” Macklam explains on the line from his office at Macklam/Feldman Management, from which he now manages such high-powered acts as Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and the Tragically Hip. “Vancouver and many communities were one year or so behind London or New York, so it was maybe a bit of an echo scene. But it was very, very good, and there were a lot of great, original bands in Vancouver then. A lot of them were sleeping on my couch at the time, so I was lucky enough to know everybody, and hung out with all different factions.”

From this central position Macklam acted as coordinator, diplomat, and goad, persuading Cutress and Leslie to donate studio time and engineering skills, and shepherding the bands into Sabre Sound’s cramped 10-by-12-foot quarters. (“It was interesting,” Cutress says of the size constraints, “because we had mike cords running into bedrooms and out on the back porch to try to get some isolation between the instruments.”)

With the sessions wrapped up in April 1979, a benefit gig took place at O’Hara’s, a ramshackle ballroom perched on a dock at the northern tip of Main Street. This raised most of the $1,750 needed to press the first 1,000 copies. Later that summer, Vancouver Complication was released.

Packaged in a stark black-and-white cover, the record forms a survey of an independent music scene whose diversity had driven it to a creative peak. At one point, for example, the Subhumans’ disturbing and hilarious “Death to the Sickoids”, revving like a homemade armoured car being thrown into gear, runs headlong into “U-J3RK5 Work for Police”, a jagged, minute-long blast from the band whose lineup included Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham, both of whom went on to international careers as conceptual artists. This in turn gives way the understated, ’50s-flavoured pop of Private School’s “Rock & Roll Radio”. Exxotone’s hiccupping keyboards share time with Tim Ray’s cool and poised melodies; D.O.A.’s ruthless three-man assault jostles with [e?]’s spare synthesizer and guitar.

According to those involved, this unlikely but powerful mixture, reflecting distinct musical genres without absolute attachments to any one of them, was a product of Vancouver’s cultural isolation at the time.

“The one thing that I always thought separated Vancouver from the bigger cities was that people just kind of played for themselves and tried to be creative,” recalls Keithley, D.O.A.’s legendary leader and the man in charge of the CD reissue. “If you’re in a bigger city like Toronto or L.A. or New York or London, then you’re usually trying to fit into something that you think a record company might want. That stymies creative growth. That’s why I think you had some of the more interesting scenes, like in San Francisco and in Athens, Georgia, and in Vancouver. Because there was no dangling carrot, it was like, ‘Well, I guess you just get up and play, and then we have a party afterwards and scrounge money for beer.’ ”

Grant McDonagh agrees, comparing the scene to a large, close family whose members were wildly different from one another. “It was unique in that Vancouver was almost the perfect size then,” he explains on the line from Zulu Records. “If you have a small population base, you don’t have enough people in the arts and you really can’t get anything done. And if it’s too big, you get defined groups–the art students stay to themselves, as do the rockabilly guys and the punks.

“But Vancouver was the perfect size for a scene like that to happen,” McDonagh continues. “All the strange folks from North Vancouver and White Rock and New Westminster gravitated to these gigs, because it was the only game in town. And there was usually a gig a weekend. So it wasn’t derivative. It was influenced, most certainly, but because people went to the same parties, and the punks got in the same conversations with art students, things happened that wouldn’t have happened in other cities.”

The common enemy, McDonagh says, was commercial radio, and for the brief period that Vancouver Complication calls up so vividly, the noise made by local recordings and shows all but drowned out the factory rock and prefab disco pumped out by the major labels. Instead of the K-Tel corporation’s top-10 anthologies, there were the tight, sarcastic songs of the K-Tels; instead of ELO, there was D.O.A.; instead of Styx, the Pointed Sticks.

Prominent Vancouver songwriter Carl Newman of the New Pornographers was only a kid at the time, but he remembers the record clearly. “My older brother bought Vancouver Complication when I was, like, 10 years old,” Newman explains when reached at his home, “and ‘The Marching Song’ by Pointed Sticks was one of my favourite songs. I thought that was just as good as any of the hits on the radio. And then when I was a teenager, I remember going back and looking through my brother’s records that he had basically abandoned, and going, ‘Hey, I know this record,’ and putting it on and thinking it was great. I just love it–I mean, it really proves that the Vancouver punk scene was just as good as any punk scene anywhere.”

A quarter of a century has passed since the making of Vancouver Complication, and in an odd but somehow fitting coincidence with the reissue, Chris Cutress is now in the process of selling the green bungalow in Burnaby where all but seven of the 20 tracks on the original LP were recorded. Judged by today’s standards, the technical quality of those recordings will fall on many ears as the audio equivalent of a photocopy made by a machine low on toner. But Steve Macklam wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This is just a personal prejudice,” he says, “but if you’re a fan of the blues or jazz, and you hear Thelonious Monk stories or how the Robert Johnson sessions went down, in every case the technology was not the issue. What there was was this impossible-to-stop creative energy taking place. And a lot of times the technology gets in the way of that. You see, in Vancouver, that was really happening. It really was. You couldn’t stop this music from happening.”


Sound and Fury

Reliving Vancouver’s punk explosion
By Greg Buium / www.cbc.ca/arts/music/soundandfury.html
April 15, 2005

When Joe Keithley – aka Joey Shithead, longtime leader of DOA, founder of Sudden Death Records and arguably the father of Canadian punk rock – reissued Vancouver Complication, a CD anthology of his hometown’s musical underground earlier this year, it might have seemed a bizarre bit of business. Had anyone really been looking for an album with 15 obscure, obsolete or superannuated British Columbia bands from the late-1970s? Was anyone hankering for a record that when it was first released in 1979 never appeared on the radio, never went beyond 4,000 pressings and after all these years seemed more a memory than a concrete musical document?

But when Complication arrived again this year, all buffed up, remastered and annotated to commemorate (somewhat belatedly) its 25th anniversary, it seemed an inspired act of cultural anthropology – equal parts musical ephemera, archival gold dust and long-lost anecdote. The names may now seem quaint (Jade Blade, Zippy Pinhead, Wimpy), the lyrics a hoot (“Kill, Kill, Kill, this is pop,” “I’ve got a wire in my brain…and it feels so real and it turns me on”) but the music is still so wild, so raw that even now, Complication digs deep down to the bone.

But it’s more than just a time capsule, this compilation that’s often called one of the punk era’s finest. Today, in an era when the newest indie “It” bands are immediately co-opted into the mainstream, Complication might serve as a kind of crude, prickly industry parable. When the Vancouver underground hit its peak – perhaps between 1978 and 1980 – Canadian music had never seen something as brash, as authentic, as genuinely unattached to the bottom line as this.

“People would say, ‘Oh my god, these guys are so weird,’ because it was new and it threatened the mainstream,” Keithley explained recently in a telephone interview from his Burnaby home. “That’s what the record was all about: we weren’t in with the music biz at all. We were out in the boonies and there was no chance in hell we were going to get a record contract from anybody – so we just created our own thing.”

Sure, other Canadian cities had their punks, but no one matched Vancouver’s stylistic range. Just listen as Complication bounds joyously from one subgenre to the next: there’s pure punk (DOA, Subhumans), catchy pop (Pointed Sticks, K-Tels), new wave (Exxotone), crazy electronica ({e}), even schoolboy sleaze (Rude Norton).
The weirdest group, U-J3RK5 – pronounced “you jerk”; the 5 was silent – sounded like a cross between Devo and Cheech and Chong and provided Complication with some of its most famous alumni, including future CBC radio announcer David Wisdom and three of the most prominent visual artists of their generation: Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham and Jeff Wall.

“It was an incredibly eclectic, advanced scene,” Steve Macklam, Complication’s original producer, remembers. “I knew something was going on at a street level, but was able to look at it all as a bit of an outsider, because I wasn’t as hormonally into it.”

Macklam, then in his late-20s — compared to the assorted teens and early-20-somethings around him — would later prove his musical prescience: he’s now one of the most successful Canadian managers in history, with a client list that includes Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Elvis Costello and Joni Mitchell.

The original idea for a Vancouver punk compilation actually came from 15-year-old Grant McDonagh, then co-editor of Snotrag, the scene’s fanzine, and a student at Kitsilano Secondary School. Snotrag, he thought, would be the perfect place for a Mad magazine-style flexi-disc. Macklam thought the idea charming, but a “less than complete way to go about things.” The scene was still small – most say it numbered about 100, including both fans and musicians – and Macklam saw an opportunity to create something more permanent. Then a producer at the CBC, Macklam had the contacts – CBC engineer Chris Cutress recorded most of the album in an eight-track studio in his Burnaby basement – and the experience to produce a long-playing vinyl record.
McDonagh, now the owner of Zulu Records, a music shop on Vancouver’s west side, remembers nearly every session at Cutress’s place. “It wasn’t a punk scene per se. It was all about ethics, it really was,” McDonagh says, explaining that oddities like U-J3RK5 or Active Dog were accepted because music fans saw real integrity in their work. “Sometimes people couldn’t agree whether a band was punk or punk-pop or this or that, but everybody agreed on what they hated.”

Remember, these were the years of disco and classic rock ‘n’ roll. Saturday Night Fever appeared in the summer of 1977. Even now, Keithley still rages about the “turgid stuff” on the radio: ELO, Fleetwood Mac, Styx and, his favourite target, Vancouver’s Prism.

“The truth is that the industry wasn’t into the music,” Macklam observes. “They weren’t into the most successful parts of it: the Sex Pistols, the Clash. Those bands weren’t selling, they weren’t on the radio and as big as they were in hindsight, at the time they just weren’t big bands.”

While the making of the compilation caused the usual bickering – who’s in and who’s out, whose songs should open and close each side of the record – the cover art came in for some of the most heated debate. Macklam and McDonagh both agree: their greatest regret is the shot that wasn’t used, a Jeff Wall photograph of the Cutress bungalow. Politics just didn’t allow Macklam to favour one aesthetic over another. His solution? A plain cover, a new title (the Vancouver Compilation became Vancouver Complication) and the absence of credits of any kind.
And as with most punk scenes around the world, the bickering soon turned to open warfare. A 1979 benefit designed to pay for the record became the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, with fights breaking out between the biker bouncers and the crowd.

Very soon, groups started to disband and the core audience broke into factions. Pointed Sticks, some say, jumpstarted the schism by signing a deal with London’s fabled Stiff Records in 1980. DOA even arranged a meeting with manager Bruce Allen (Bryan Adams, Loverboy). Keithley recalls: “He said, ‘OK, I want to know how much money you guys can make me.’….[We] all looked aghast. I guess we’d thought about making money from music, but we never really put the two together. We just made a bunch of noise, ’cause as far as we were concerned, that’s what you were supposed to do.”

You wonder if anyone’s ever had this reaction to a big-name manager’s interest since. That combination of purity and naïveté is something the Vancouver underground sure hasn’t handed down to its local descendants. The city’s indie darlings are now some of the most coveted in popular music, and they’re making the most of it. Hot Hot Heat jumped from a small Seattle label to Warner Brothers, while the New Pornographers and the Organ have been highly praised in, of all places, the New York Times.

“Now, when anything remotely new comes up, the record companies want to grab it and get it into the mainstream as quickly as possible,” Macklam says. “In those days, they wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible. There was enormous resistance to change.”

You wonder how the record industry today would have taken to the Pointed Sticks or U-J3RK5 or the Subhumans. DOA is still chugging along – marginal, but still alive. In the accelerated world of contemporary pop culture, you wonder if a scene could ever again coalesce the way Vancouver punk did, or whether the pressure of record scouts might have ruptured it sooner. Back then, even a shrewd weatherman like Steve Macklam seemed happy to see a blur between personal and professional matters.

“When I saw the movement, I saw it as an essential and important change for music and art and culture. That experience was so enjoyable for me as a listener, as an observer. I was a life participant then. I lived that life. I ran away with the circus.”

Greg Buium is a Vancouver writer