RIDEAU HALL IS BURNING!
(How the punk revolution came to Ottawa)
Punk rock is ubiquitous.
Call it what you want (“alternative music” being the most common term), the genre of music and lifestyle once despised by the mainstream population and relegated to the extreme margins of society has now become thoroughly embedded and even embraced by popular culture. Piercings and tattoos adorn everyone from television hosts to civil servants. Pink and blue hair dye is available in any mall. Our own Rideau Centre has a store catering specifically to Goth culture. You can see original, live music seven nights a week.
In 2008, Punk rock is everywhere. But it wasn’t always this way…
Before the ‘alternative music revolution’ of the early 1990’s, atrocious dance pop (Alan Parsons Project, anyone?) and ‘hair metal’ a la Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister and Poison ruled the airwaves. Original live music was hard to find. By and large, the majority of venues offering live bands dedicated themselves exclusively to ‘top 40’ cover bands or ‘tribute’ acts. Roxanne’s in Hull concentrated primarily on metal and hard rock acts, while bars such as Hooper’s (on Bank street, in what is now the location of Babylon Night Club), The Strand (bizarrely located in the Lincoln Fields Shopping Plaza), The Black Swan on Rideau Street (later called Arnold’s), The British Hotel (Aylmer), The Chaudiere Club (Hull), and Bogie’s (in the Butler Motel, Vanier) were the places to go to see live music. Unfortunately, the bands rarely played original material. In the early 1980’s, your options for live music in Ottawa – and the rest of North America - was overwhelmingly middle-of-the-road radio hits. The fledgling Ottawa subculture devoted to punk rock was well off the radar. So how did the ‘alternative music revolution’ come to Ottawa? Where did it happen? Who were the people involved? How did it develop?
I’ve been fortunate. I was born in the right place and at the right time to be able to watch the Ottawa punk scene emerge. As I travel around Ottawa, I often pass spots where “historic” (to me anyway) punk shows happened. There are so many local landmarks where highly influential bands played and yet people pass these spots every day without knowing their significance and the crucial part they played in bringing alternative culture to the nation’s capital.
My personal introduction to live, underground music actually occurred underground… thanks to England’s the Stranglers at the salons of the civic centre in Lansdowne Park. It was the spring of 1981 and the band was on their ‘Men in Black’ tour. In the audience I saw for the first time real, live punk rockers complete with leather, studs, mohawks and Doc Marten boots. The opening act was Montreal’s ‘Men without Hats’ whose synth/dance pop left me cold. But the Stranglers – although not exactly young lions even then – grabbed me right away. No cameras were allowed in, and I was awestruck when lead singer Hugh Cornell dove headfirst into the crowd and fought his way toward someone taking illicit photos. He got a hold of the camera, ripped out the film, and was back on stage before the band missed a note. I left very impressed. I’d heard that American punk sensations ‘The Plasmatics’ had played the same room a few months earlier and I was fascinated. Apparently, the show started with a screen covering the stage with a film projected of the band destroying police cars and cutting televisions in half with chainsaws. When the screen rose up… there they were, with half-naked lead singer Wendy O. Williams belting it out and the rest of the Plasmatics blasting away behind her. Now THAT’s entertainment, I thought to myself!
Although it was before my time, I’d also heard tales about gigs at Ottawa’s first real punk bar – The Rotter’s Club. ‘The Rotter’s’ was a room below an all-night restaurant at Bank and Frank Street called ‘Tomorrow’s’ where many early punk shows had been staged. During one infamous Teenage Head show lead singer Frankie Venom jumped up on the bar and ‘dropped trou’ – pretty eye opening stuff for a staid government town in 1978. The Rotter’s club also served as home to ‘the Action’, one of Ottawa’s best known punk groups before they packed up and headed to Toronto. Tomorrow’s restaurant is now the “Book Bazaar”, but if you look on the south side of the building you’ll find the door that led many Ottawans to their first glimpse of the underground scene.
Intrigued by stories that surrounded the music scene, I was determined to search out more punk gigs… and eventually I found them.
The Wave Club / Paradise Room
The Wave Club was a venue in the Riverside Hotel on River road in Vanier. In December of 1982, Washington D.C. hardcore legends the Bad Brains were slated to play and I was stoked. The Wave Club was a dingy room on the second floor of the hotel, and the “band room” was a small space behind the tiny stage, semi-concealed by a tattered curtain. We could clearly observe the band conducting their pre-show ‘rituals’. Much like my experience seeing the Stranglers, the show began with a terrible arty/synth pop band called Gash. I sat through their torturous opening set trying to ignore the annoying lead singer in his make up and leather pants. Wasn’t this what I was trying to get away from? At long last, the Bad Brains came on and blew me away with their set of half hardcore and half reggae. Although the set was very short and the band was clearly high and not into it, it was an unforgettable show.
Like many underground gigs in the early 80’s, The Wave Club was not really a regular venue for bands. Generally, promoters would book a band, find a room, and put on the show. This was the case for many of the early concerts at the time: The Fyfe and Drum at the Beacon Arms Hotel (affectionately called the “Pipe and Drugs at the Broken Arms Hotel” by local punks) saw shows by Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, and Bauhaus; The Paradise Club (another room in the Riverside Hotel) had Teenage Head; M.D.C played at the Ottawa Boys and Girls Club; D.O.A. played at Ottawa U’s Café Alternatif; D.R.I played at the Dom Polski Community Centre. On May 24th, 1981, England’s The Jam – originally booked to play at Barrymore’s – was moved at the last moment to the auditorium at Ottawa Technical High School. The following day was lead singer Paul Weller’s birthday and he got in a celebratory mood by smashing his guitar a la Pete Townshend.
This same strategy of booking subculture bands into non-standard venues was employed in Ottawa throughout the 1980’s. Punk shows that simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be presented in ‘legit’ venues ended up being relegated to other spaces. Local punk co-op Youth Culture Promotions (Y.C.P.) promoted many all-ages shows at the Somerset and Glebe Community Centres. Local bands organized concerts at Carleton’s Porter Hall and the Saw Gallery on Nicholas Street. Often, the only place that an alternative or punk band could play was an ‘alternative’ venue – an art gallery, a community centre, or a house party. Before the ‘alternative music revolution’ brought on by grunge, promoting original music was extremely difficult. The media was uncooperative, the clubs were unreceptive, commercial airplay was non-existent, and the general public was highly suspicious. The subculture remained underground… but for those stubborn enough to persist, headway was slowly being made.
The Jungle Club
If I stand beside the Rogers video store on the corner of Bank and Gilmour and listen carefully, I swear I can sometimes hear the echoes of ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’. On the hottest day of the summer in 1983, The Ramones played the smallest venue of their entire Subterranean Jungle tour. The Jungle Club was on the second floor above a country and western bar called the Gilmour Tavern. Open for a brief time as ‘The 80’s Club’, the room really hit its peak as ‘The Jungle’ in 1983-1984. The club hosted a slew of punk and hardcore bands including England’s the Anti-Nowhere League, California’s Channel One, and Canadian legends The Viletones.
The Ramones show that night at the Jungle Club was brilliant. The night was so humid and the club was so packed that at one point I looked around the sweat soaked room and realized that I was the only male – besides the four Ramones in their leather jackets – still wearing a shirt! People in the crowd were passing out from heat stroke and here were four guys in leather under bright lights, dodging bottles and stage divers like the seasoned pros they were… and barely breaking a sweat! Too tough to die, indeed. My ears rang for days.
Paul Symes is the owner of the Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield. Over the last decade, Paul has built up the Black Sheep to become a ‘must play’ stop on Canadian tours. But Symes has a background that many Ottawans aren’t aware of…
Paul Symes had the courage and foresight to book hardcore bands Black Flag and Saccharine Trust into the Roxy – a basement room at 292-B Elgin Street with a low ceiling and (thankfully) even lower lighting. For many in the national capital’s music scene, things would never be the same. Sure we’d seen punk bands before, but this was the real thing – California hardcore at it’s most ferocious. Henry Rollins sang half the set holding a hapless local in a headlock, his maniacal gaze daring the audience to approach the stage and risk the same fate.
During the years 1980 – 1983, Symes booked an amazing array of acts into the Roxy. The Violent Femmes first foray out of the midwest saw them held over for a second night due to overwhelming demand. Deja Voodoo (who went on to create Montreal’s OG records and have a huge influence on the Canadian DIY scene) had their debut Ottawa shows as the opening act. The list of bands that Symes presented at the Roxy is impressive: Mark Smith and the Fall, Chron Gen, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Flipper, the Lounge Lizards, and Mission of Burma, just to name a few. The Roxy also hosted a series of benefit concerts for CKCU-FM called ‘Fridgidaire’ that were instrumental in developing the local music scene.
The Roxy is now known as the Bytown Tavern. If those walls could talk…
Banana Obskouri / Club Zinc
Another important venue in the growth of the fledgling Ottawa punk scene was Banana Obskouri on the second floor of a decrepit building at 95 Laval Street in Hull. During its brief heyday in 1984 – 1985 I saw shows by a number of international bands (Youth Brigade, San Fransisco’s Toxic Reasons) and local groups (Porcelaine Forehead, Honest Injun). The club was small, dark and intimate – somewhat similar to Café Dekuf on Rideau Street – an ideal spot for a scene to germinate. The club was booked by long time CKCU personality Nadine Gelineau. Gelineau was very open minded about booking and was responsible for presenting a wide mix of original music - from punk and hardcore, to garage and pop. A few years later Gelineau was involved in presenting underground acts at Club Zinc in Hull (later called Club Manhattan). Both The Nils and The Doughboys played their debut Ottawa shows at Club Zinc. After working for a number of years at CKCU, Nadine moved on to college radio in Montreal and eventually to a position with the BMG record label. She then moved to New York where she worked for TVT Records and then joined Gavin McInnis (of Ottawa band Anal Chinook) and Shane Smith (of Ottawa band L.A.B.F.) at Vice magazine where she ran their marketing company. Nadine is currently running her own marketing company The Muse Box in New York.
The Underground Club / Zaphod’s on Rideau
Like many of the clubs that were presenting live original music in the ‘80’s, the Underground had a short- but spectacular – lifespan. Open for only 8 months in 1984, the Underground helped stimulate the growing local music scene and inspired both the bands and the owner to stretch for bigger things. Like the Downstairs Club, the Underground helped foster an ‘alternative pop’ scene in Ottawa with local bands such as the Randy Peters, Screaming Bamboo, and Gonks Go Beat. When the six-month (!) lease was up and after two months of extensions, the bar was closed.
Fortunately, inspired by his experience with the Underground, owner Eugene Haslam was able to lease a larger room on the main level of the same building .This became the original location for the Zaphod Beeblebrox nightclub and Haslam set about booking cutting-edge bands that otherwise would have passed Ottawa by. For two years (1989 - 1990) we witness an amazing line up of local and touring acts including Firehose, the Lyres, and my personal favourite, ex-Dead Boy guitarist Cheetah Chrome (with Shotgun Rationale). Eventually, the lease ran out and the building (on the corner of Rideau and Friel Steeets) was demolished to make way for a Bell Canada switching station.
Happily, Hasalm reopened Zaphod’s in May of 1992 at its current location (27 York St.) in the Byward market. With bands like Eric’s Trip, Monster Magnet, Jonathan Richman, U.I.C., The Fleshtones, Greg Ginn and Fishbone, he has continued to present an incredible line up of talent and challenge the status quo.
One Step Beyond
One of the most important venues in the 80’s Ottawa underground music scene opened its doors in September of 1986. One Step Beyond, located on the south side of Rideau street near Dalhousie, was a non-licensed venue that held all-ages dances Friday and Saturday nights (Admission: $3.50, half price between 8:00 and 8:30!). Within a few months the club began booking a mix of pop, mod, garage and punk bands. Club owner (and CKCU DJ) Jeff Cohen’s booking policy was wide open: from punk bands like No Means NO, the Circle Jerks, Rollins Band, the Dead Milkmen, and SNFU and dissonant electronic bands like Ministry and the Swans, to garage acts like the Gruesomes and the Chesterfield Kings. “One Step” provided a venue for local bands to develop as well: Grave Concern, Neanderthal Sponge, and the Trapt were part of the scene during the club’s two-year reign. In hindsight, it’s a miracle the club survived as long as it did, considering it was trying to pay the rent from the sale of soft drinks and fruit juice.
One Step Beyond owner Jeff Cohen has since gone on to help reopen Toronto’s famous El Mocambo Club and create the promotion company ATG Concerts. He is currently the owner of two of Toronto’s most famous live venues – the legendary Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace. In the meantime, the building that once housed One Step Beyond (and where the Rollins Band cranked out a blistering version of “Next Time”) is now a tattoo parlour.
Barrymore’s Music Hall
Perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern emerging…. Throughout the 80’s it seemed like two or three years was about the maximum lifespan for Ottawa venues catering to the alternative crowd. Barrymore’s was the one exception. The booking policy seemed to fluctuate constantly: mostly blues one month, cover bands and tribute acts the next, maybe some washed up 60’s stars the month following. They even attempted to be a strip bar at one point. Often, months would go by without a single show of interest to the alt-rock affectionado. But at least the place stayed open, and when the good shows came they were really something to look forward to. In 1982, I saw ex-Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook with the Professionals (sorry… they were terrible, but hey, still kind of cool to see!). The Angelic Upstarts, Iggy Pop and Simple Minds also played that year. In 1983 punk rock super group Lords of the New Church graced the stage. Local legend has it that lead singer Stiv Bators made good use of the old theatre’s high ceiling by spitting straight upwards, doing a back flip and then catching it in his mouth… what a showman! In 1984 there was the Damned, the Forgotten Rebels and Motorhead; 1985 saw R.E.M. and Love & Rockets, 1986 had the Red Hot Chili Peppers, T.S.O.L. and D.O.A; in 1987 the Fuzztones and the Damned…. Barrymore’s is still alive and well and continues to present live music.
After the Revolution
With the onset of grunge in 1991, and the sudden popularity of ‘alternative culture,’ venues featuring original live music exploded across Ottawa. Punk shows were held at Oliver’s and Rooster’s at Carleton University, the Upstairs Club, Lucky Ron’s/The Hi Fi, Spodie Odie’s, Two Steps Above, the Cave, and the Liquid Monkey. The Pit (a tiny room located below jock-bar “On Tap” at Rideau and Dalhousie) presented local and touring punk acts including Blink 182. But without a doubt, the most influential venue for the Ottawa hardcore scene was the punk cooperative at 5 Arlington Street. From 1993 to early 1996, the collective promoted shows by Dischord bands Jawbox and Hoover, as well as the Archers of Loaf, Sparkmarker and many others. 5 Arlington was also ground zero for the local punk scene spawning Union of Uranus, Shotmaker and Okara. Bookings were done by Shawn Scallen, yet another CKCU veteran, whose contribution in dragging alternative music out of the 80’s underground and exposing it to a wider audience can’t be understated. Over the last twenty years he’s promoted hundreds of shows, released music on his Spectra Sonic Sound label, and now owns Endhits, a music store at 407 Dalhousie Street. 5 Arlington is now the location of Sounds Unlikely run by Tony Day – yes, another long-time CKCU-ite – and Ian Cooke, a former volunteer at CHUO (Ottawa U. radio).
Like cities all over North America, alternative culture came to Ottawa in fits and starts – a small music scene that developed organically under the radar of the popular media and out of sight of the majority of the population. Punk came to Ottawa by way of kids forming ‘weird’ bands, publishing fanzines, and slowly invading college radio. But the real thin edge of the punk rock wedge was the alternative gigs promoted in “hole-in-the-wall-bars” and non-standard venues. Starting in the late 1970’s, the music, fashion, and lifestyle of the punk rock subculture went from being ignored, mocked and even abhorred, to becoming completely entrenched in popular culture. It happened in St. Louis, Halifax, Denver, Saskatoon and Milwaukee… and it happened in Ottawa.
TOM STEWART (center) is one of the owners of SPACEMAN MUSIC which is the phoenix that rose out of the ashes of SONGBIRD MUSIC. this phoenix came in the form of conjoined twins that were separated which explains the existence of DAVE'S DRUM SHOP which is located right next door to SPACEMAN. both of these stores are the places to go to buy musical equipment or get your gear repaired. they are both owned and operated by musicians who are in active bands around the city. i'd rather go to a store like that instead of a music store where the only time the employees play music is when they're shredding out a solo while you're standing there like an idiot trying to get service.
TOM also played in many great ottawa bands such as FLUID WAFFLE and FURNACEFACE. the WIKIPEDIA entry on FURNACEFACE provides us with this gem: "During a live performance in 1997 Tom walked into a wall of flames, after receiving 1st degree burns the show was halted but the musician made a full recovery with no scarring." wow.
before we get ahead of ourselves, let's not forget the second of two punk rock cover shows is happening on friday the 14th even further down bank street at THE BAYOU. bands will be covering THE BOYS, DESCENDENTS, BLACK FLAG, JOHNNY THUNDERS AND THE HEARTBREAKERS, AMEBIX and apparently a RAMONES cover band has been added. all ages/8pm/4 dollars.