It's been said that they were famous before they ever played a show. With an…
- Posted on Oct 10th 2012 5:30PM by Sam Sutherland
When he emerged, he'd written Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk, which was recently released by ECW Press.
To celebrate the book's release Sutherland will be doing a marquee interview tonight with Fucked Up's Damian Abraham at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern (it's free, too). The pair are also promising the appearance of a long-forgotten group of punk heroes performing at the event.
In order to psyche everyone up for the inevitable old punker pogo that'll happen tonight, Sutherland and ECW have gratiously provided Spinner with an excerpt of Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk.
Here it is:
Back Door to Hell
October 15, 2006, 5:00a.m. EST
Copies of the Sunday edition of the Toronto Star have started to appear on doorsteps in the suburbs and in the racks of downtown convenience stores. Inside the paper's arts section screams the attention-grabbing headline "Nazi Dog set to snarl again." The Viletones have reunited, leading the Star to print a headline that could have just as easily been culled from a decades-old archive, still offending 30 years on. A few days earlier, the article's titular Nazi Dog, better known now by his given name, Steven Leckie, gave an interview to the paper in which he declared himself the lone survivor of punk's first wave -- John Lydon doesn't count to him. He extols the virtue of a punk rock death count. He proclaims his intentions to render obsolete modern punk bands as he once did Goddo. He calls new audiences "milk drinkers." And the Star runs it in all its titillating hyperbole, just as Leckie intended. Whether announcing plans to kill himself onstage in New York City in the '70s or showing off his self-inflicted scars on TV, the character of Nazi Dog has always dominated local punk coverage. A lot has changed in Toronto since the Viletones first stalked the stage of the Colonial Underground on Yonge Street. But it's good to know that some things stay the same.
The first time that I met Steven Leckie, he barely looked at me. Seated together in the living room of B-Girls vocalist Lucasta Ross, Leckie was entirely absent from our conversation. One of my only notes, beyond Ross' recollections of her own history, is that I was offered a sandwich.
Then he called me. Leckie was full of conspiracy theories; about his friends, about his former bandmates, about the Viletones' late '70s road crew and their double life as spies for Malcolm McLaren. For an hour, Leckie lived to up to every brilliant, eccentric, and scary thing I had ever heard about him.
If you live in Toronto, you will, at some point, stumble headfirst into the legend of Steven Leckie. He was our Iggy Pop, our Johnny Rotten, our David Johansen. He fronted the city's most notorious punk band, the Viletones, a punk rock Ogopogo that lived even larger in legend than it did onstage -- which was goddamn large. His legacy as a brilliant frontman is equalled by his notoriety as an unstable personality onstage and off, a man who created a character -- the violent, unhinged Nazi Dog -- and allowed it to lead him through the rest of his life.
That he is now on the other end of my cell phone, spelling out his most paranoid fears about his art and accomplishments, is overwhelming. That he agrees to meet again and talk properly is a relief.
So for the second time, I am seated with Steven Leckie, tape recorder between us. On the patio of a bar in the Junction -- Leckie smokes, so even though it's freezing, we opt to drink our coffees outside -- we shoot the shit for a few minutes before he asks to read me something. From inside of his jacket he pulls a perfectly folded piece of paper with my name written in big, bold letters at the top of it. He reads,
What can you do when the medium of first-generation punk requires not a stage but a tight wire because the true craft of punk demanded not a persona but a life? A life to even sacrifice on the altar of life and death, an attempt to bear witness to the purity of a spectacle that in history would be understood by perhaps the Aztecs as a human sacrifice or maybe general custom. Misunderstanding or doubting, that is only proof that those who through their mediocrity stand on the sidelines not only of punk rock, especially Viletones, but any art ahead of its own time. The words of Rimbaud not only told but warned over 100 years ago this spectacle would come, and I, far more than most first-generation punk artists, embraced and heeded that future vision. A vision that manifests in high art reality. That punk art is the bastard son of no one. Of no other movement. An orphan. But an Artful Dodger orphan. And the death count in punk is much higher than those Dickens himself could have foreseen, for there is no Fagin to pay off but something much greater. Immortality itself, though an Aztec spectacle of sacrifice, whose virtues have been eroded through time.
The letter wasn't entirely unlike Leckie's usual crypto-poetic style of speech, but I struggled to grasp the essence of what he was trying to say, casting himself as an adolescent protagonist culled from the pages of Oliver Twist. When he was done reading it, he didn't hand it to me. He just folded it into four, put it back into his pocket and started our interview.
In many ways, the story of the Viletones is best left for Leckie to tell. Leckie is the Viletones -- he is the history, and he is the heart. He is the subject of and source of all the great rumours that swirl around the band, from the claims of near-fatal onstage blood loss to the seedier stories about having sex with Debbie Harry in a Cadillac behind Max's Kansas City.
There are also the indisputable facts that cement the band's status as punk visionaries. Their very first show earned them an infamous headline on the front page of the Globe and Mail's entertainment pull-out: "Not Them! Not Here!" As recently as October 2007, SPIN named "Screamin' Fist" one of the 20 best punk singles of 1977, the song having earlier made its way into William Gibson's genre-defining novel Neuromancer as the name of an operation aimed at disrupting Soviet computer systems. Nirvana covered "Possibilities" at a 1993 concert in Rio de Janeiro. And that's Steven Leckie framed next to Christian Bale in Mary Harron's 2000 adaptation of American Psycho when Bale's murderous Patrick Bateman says to a bartender, "I want to stab you to death, and then play around with your blood."
At the same time, the Viletones have never occupied the same mass cultural space as major west coast names like D.O.A. and the Subhumans. They never got Teenage Head's gold record. They remain a strange cryptozoological punk rock specimen, having never released a truly satisfactory recording, their only CD compilation now long out of print. The Viletones live on as a hushed name, graffiti scattered throughout the city, an iconic logo. They live on through Steven Leckie as a Toronto institution as knit into the city's cultural fabric as SCTV and porn shops on Yonge Street. They're bigger than a band. They are art. They are a ghost. They are in my van, writing me letters, and smoking on a patio with me talking about Herman Melville.
"Ahab was punk rock's demographic," says Steven Leckie. "With one killing harpoon, so would be all that came before and after first generation punk rock." This is how Leckie talks -- in metaphors, in poetry, in the elevated fashion that one associates with high art. Martin Mull's imminently quotable quote, that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, is never better applied than in an interview situation with Leckie. There are dry facts about the Viletones, but, in many ways, they are identical to those of any other band. The Viletones' real story, real power, is buried somewhere in Leckie's cryptic statements. But there's still some worthwhile dry facts to get out of the way.
Steven Leckie lived on his own in Toronto, his father moving to Montreal for work and trusting his teenage son to handle the big city alone. Legend has it that the first classified ad Leckie placed in the Toronto Star came in 1976 with the simple line "Ramones/Iggy Pop stylist seeking same." A search of the paper's archive doesn't turn up this locally infamous request, but does uncover an ad from the paper's December 11, 1976, edition:
"VILETONES, a quick punk rock group doing originals & mid 60's music, desperately need a bass player. 363 3809 after 6."
It's a relic that is in keeping with the Viletones timeline Leckie has always claimed, one that sees the band forming before the release of Ramones and long before the titular band's first visit to Toronto on September 27, 1976. The show, while poorly attended, is frequently cited as ground zero for the explosion of local punk bands, an aspirational gig that saw dozens of new punks sprouting up in its wake.
"Oh boy, has it ever engendered a long shelf life -- this idea that when you saw the Ramones, everyone in the audience wanted to get a band," says Leckie. "It wasn't the way I felt. I already had a band that I knew was far more pronounced than the Ramones." The Viletones already existed on posters plastered through the city and, most notably, on the back of Leckie's own leather jacket, an early warning for the planned takeover to come. It wasn't until 1977 that they would exist onstage, although the wait allowed the band time to refine that pronounced expression that Leckie claimed to be theirs since the beginning.
Two musicians responded to the first Toronto Star ad -- Freddy Pompeii, a Philadelphia-born draft dodger who had played on the Syndicate of Sound's proto–psych rock classic "Little Girl" before transplanting himself to Toronto and fucking around in the folk trenches for years, and Mike Anderson, renamed Motor X, a young drummer who was intrigued by the world into which Leckie offered a golden ticket. Along with bassist Jackie Death, the band began their campaign of Viletones postering and jacket-wearing, a routine of gang-style intimidation Leckie lifted from The Warriors that quickly wore on Pompeii. He quit when it became apparent that no shows were going to be booked in the near future. A few days later, they had a gig, Pompeii was back, and the band wrote their first batch of songs inside of a week.
The Viletones made their live debut in May 1977 at the Colonial Underground, the dank basement playhouse of the Colonial Tavern on Yonge Street. Leckie had gone to the wall promoting the show, and it was suitably packed with the kind of curious revellers that appeared at early punk shows, unsure of what to expect but eager to experience something new. A teenager who had gone through the multiple identities of any adolescent, Leckie debuted his most important invention in the form of his manic onstage persona, Nazi Dog. For the curious and the committed, the Viletones delivered.
"Steve Leckie comes out and starts smashing a beer bottle and scraping up his arms and he's gushing blood and everyone in the crowd is like, 'Holy shit,'" recalls Ralph Alfonso, the manager for the Viletones' local rivals the Diodes. "The gauntlet has obviously gone down."
"It was not like you were going to see the Beatles," laughs Colin Brunton, who captured the early Toronto punk scene in his film The Last Pogo. "They couldn't play super great, but it had an impact. We knew Steven before he became a punk rocker. So all of a sudden we're seeing this guy up onstage, cutting his arm. The band was wailing away. It just seemed like everyone was on, people were stumbling around, sniffing amyl nitrate. It was jam-packed and crazy."
The next day's Globe and Mail ran the infamous headline "Not Them! Not Here!" on the front page of the pull-out Fanfare magazine. Adorned with a full-page shot of Leckie, the feature articulated, in torrid, damning details, the previous night's concert. Writer Paul McGrath begins, "The Viletones are not a group of musicians, they are a spectacle, so no talk of music shall enter the argument." He doesn't stop there.
Nazi Dog is no ordinary entertainer. He is also no ordinary rock and roll entertainer, nor is he an ordinarily vicious rock and roll entertainer. Everything he does or says takes words, music, and motion to extremes of violence, anti-intellectualism, and consummate nastiness. But he is revered and adored by a fair portion of the audience. Others stare, slack-jawed in disbelief, while a few laugh openly at what appears to be a display of unmusical, catatonic seven-year-old temper. The believers, exhibiting ultimate libertarian restraint, bear no grudge against those who don't quite buy Nazi Dog's impersonation of a multiple auto crash. To each his own is one of the unwritten laws of the scene, and no fists are raised in defence of Nazi Dog's right to do what he's doing for what is most likely a meagre fee. After all, this ain't exactly Las Vegas.
"I had no intention to play with them," says Chris Haight, who, busy with his own music project, didn't realize how close to Viletone-dom he was. "But when I saw them, they were so pure. The Dog had all the anger, all the moves, everything to make people think, 'Fuck, I wish I was him.' But they needed a sound identity. They were all over the place. They needed an anchor to work from."
Haight was, in many ways, the exact anchor the new band needed. While Pompeii and Anderson had limited experience in live performance, and even less experience with writing and recording, Haight had already produced one of the early scene's best records with his power-pop band Zoom, a duo featuring future Diodes drummer John Hamilton.
"Zoom goes back to when Johnny and I met when I first moved to Scarborough," says Haight. "I was learning my chops from playing the blues. The rock thing didn't really do anything for me until later. By the time we started experimenting with rock, it felt like a brand new scene. Sometimes, we'd play classical music." The pair's eclectic taste is apparent in their lone recording, the "Sweet Desperation" single (backed with "Massacre at Central High"), released in early 1977, making it one of the earliest Canadian punk singles. It demonstrates the kind of nuanced musical approach that was lacking from many early punk bands, aided by production work courtesy of a young kid named Terry Brown. Brown would go on to fame as Rush's producer, working with bands as varied as the Rolling Stones and Voivod.
"Zoom is surprisingly forgotten," says Don Pyle, who played in several bands and published a book of his incredible photographs of the early punk scene, Trouble in the Camera Club, in 2011. "It's typical of that period; it's sort of bubble gummy, but it's sort of out of tune. It has that roughness to it. It's one of the earliest things, and it barely gets mentioned." The band's head start did them no favours, though, and despite a growing scene at the Ontario College of Art and the basement of the Colonial, Zoom folded soon after the single's release. There are a lot of claims to the first do-it-yourself punk single, many of which come from Leckie in regards to the Viletones' "Screamin' Fist." But it's quite possible that Zoom released the first punk single without the help of a major label.
"Even though we were all friends, it just wasn't firing on all cylinders," says Haight. Hamilton joined forces with the art school–oriented Diodes. Haight took a different route, following the trail of blood to the vacant bassist position in the Viletones. (Jackie had been recently booted from the band for being unreliable and irresponsible, impossible as it sounds.) Haight clicked immediately with the Dog, Pompeii, and Motor X, helping to pen their first three classic songs: "Screamin' Fist," "Possibilities," and "Rebel."
"The Ramones had that whole Beach Boys thing that harkened back to the '60s, but the Viletones didn't have that," says Cleave Anderson, drummer for the Battered Wives and himself a one-time member of the band. "They'd play two chords, but then it wouldn't even go to the third chord the way the Ramones did." It's a fact noted in SPIN's 2007 write-up of "Screamin' Fist": "Punk's early critics often condemned the genre as nothing more than three chords and an attitude. In this Toronto band's case, two generally sufficed."
The band's simplicity was an integral part of their charm; while other local bands like the Government and Cardboard Brains were exploring the artier end of punk's left-field spectrum, the Viletones were holding it down on the bottom rung, stripping a simple genre down to its barest parts. Before long, the band was a mainstay of Toronto's fast-growing punk scene, and by summer, they were taking the show on the road.