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This week, we ponder the musical question: Is it possible to pogo in ice skates?
London, 1977. New York, 1975. Los Angeles, 1979. Punk rock arose (and arises still) in conditions of urban alienation. The Canadian scene, as chronicled in rock journalist Sam Sutherlandâ€™s new book Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk, was no exception.
Canada is, contrary to perceptions abroad, a more urbanized country than the US, with its four largest cities accounting for a full 30% of the total population â€” that is, double the concentration as in the States. But â€” and hereâ€™s where the alienation comes in â€” those urban areas are geographically isolated from each other. The endless miles of prairie in between population centers made cheap, speedy touring nigh-impossible. Fans and bands alike were stuck with the venues available in their area. So itâ€™s a misnomer to speak of â€œCanadian punkâ€ as a monolithic entity. As Sutherland tells the tale in this sprawling mosaic account, pieced together from interviews with dozens of musicians and fans, the varying scenes were highly localized, small-scale, and generally short-lived.
Itâ€™s a miracle that Canadian punk happened at all. The many arms of the Canadian establishment, so invested in the nationâ€™s self-image as a bastion of decency and virtue, was hugely resistant. The very first gig by Torontoâ€™s Viletones prompted the screaming newspaper headline â€œNot Them! Not Here!â€ The twin obstructions of the musicianâ€™s union and the Mob â€” which owned many of the nightclubs â€” worked to keep punk bands out of most venues. But happen it did, in cities large and small across the sprawling nation. From Vancouver in the west to subarctic Winnipeg, from industrial Saskatoon to tiny St. Johnâ€™s in Newfoundland, every city had at least one place for punks to play, and each had its own core audience who would come to every show.
This proved to be a mixed blessing; no band could play out too often, lest they wear out their welcome. Many performers scored additional stage time by recombining into the kind of one-off combos known vernacularly as â€œfuck bandsâ€ â€” swapping instruments, banging out covers, or simply jamming onstage â€” and snagging opening slots. But few of these groups ever became seasoned road warriors the way the New York punks did; along with everything else, the mathematics were against them.
But the flame that burns briefest burns also brightest. The bands inspired both intense devotion and intense loathing, and managed to blaze all kinds of trails…
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