A note of explanation: This is an article I wrote for Halifax Today, the newspaper organ of the King’s College University Journalism program. It was published on March 31, 1983.
… and don’t waste our time with hatred-racist-fascist bull. We believe in supporting each other.
– the editors of RePress
There’s a party at the Phi Rho Sigma fraternity house on Inglis Street.
The party is sponsored by the Dalhousie University radio station, CKDU, to showcase a few local bands. The groups are all very new, and very loud. As one strolls toward the house, invigorated by the crisp March air, the dancers and band members can be seen through a large curved bay window, jerking and shuffling to a muffled beat.
There is the Master and Marguerita, a semi-competent punk band squalling out songs by Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Joy Division. The singer weaves among the dancers, snarling and threatening them when they grab the microphone. Most of them gyrate with arms akimbo, their eyes focused inward or into the middle distance. Occasionally a skinny blonde guy thrashes through the group, waving a cigarette about wildly.
This is certainly a new brand of fun. The singer barks his lyrics, butchering the songs with single-minded intensity. The music shakes the floors, the roof, the dancers and spectators. The songs are mostly about perversion and despair.
But it is fun.
The next act is a raw-edged garage band, christened the Duff Hicks about forty minutes before the show. Allison plays rudimentary guitar and sings in a hypnotic drone, while Edwin bashes convincingly at the drums. Only Clive, a bassist with sweaty brown bangs hanging in his eyes, handles his instrument like he’s had it for more than a few months. Allison whines her way through a song from the cult movie Eraserhead. ‘In heaven, everything is fine. You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine.’ The crowd thins out, but the dance floor is still swarming.
Around midnight, Tanz Function takes the stage. The ‘band’ is striking in its sparseness. The drum kit has been taken away, along with the guitars. One studious-looking individual bends over a keyboard, picking out interesting combinations of tonal distortion. A tape recorder provides a simple, danceable drum beat, and the singer (Edwin, the blonde drummer in the previous band) howls incoherent, impromptu phrases. A manic-looking fellow dances in the bay window, and occasionally smacks the keyboard he’s only had for a month. SLAAASSSHHHH.
There are not many bands on the planet that sound like this. The music is a gut-bursting orgy of feedback, a real mess. Dancers move forward and merge with the players. SLAAASSSHHHH. This ain’t rock and roll.
But … it’s fun.
Now why is this?
The history of the punk-new wave scene goes back to 1976. Ira Robbins, editor-in-chief of the progressive music-oriented Trouser Press magazine said, ‘New bands are breaking rules that were in effect for the entire history of rock and roll, bringing minimalism to music in a way that has been hinted at for years but was never successfully achieved.’ That’s the new music in a nutshell; minimalism. After years of listening to bloated superstar bands and their bad imitators, people (some people) began to realize how dull they were. By the mid-seventies, New York bands like the Patti Smith Group and the Ramones started playing simple tunes with direct lyrics that spoke to their audience at their level. These bands were cool; they sang about real-life situations.
But the new wave didn’t explode until 1977, when the British rock media and several sensationalist daily tabloids took the Sex Pistols and shoved them in front of a camera. Housewives said ‘Yuk!’ Respectable businessmen went red in the face with infuriated loathing. The bored and unemployed British youth liked the rage and raw energy of the bands. And punk records began to sell.
Since 1976, the new wave has crested, and is now becoming the new generation of bloated superstar bands. But the spirit of minimalism remains. The lesson learned in the late seventies was that a person doesn’t have to be a guitar virtuoso to play music. Why, a person doesn’t even have to be competent! Iggy and the Stooges figured this out in 1969 when they would pack clubs by performing such gems as ‘Asthma Attack’, an eleven-minute one-chord wonder. Today, minimalism is infiltrating even mainstream music. The Stray Cats play stripped-down rockabilly – a stand-up bass, a snare drum and a crazy guitar player was all they needed to rocket into the big time. Soft Cell is even more minimal. It is made up of two people: Marc Almond sings (sort-of), and David Ball plays synthesizers. POW! Hit Singles.
This lesson was well-learned in Halifax. By 1978, a scene was developing, and punk bands like the Garbage Kanz, The Vacant Lot and Nobody’s Heroes sprang up. The venues changed over the years. There was Theatre 1707, next to the Palace. Then came Odin’s Eye, which quickly changed into the Grafton Street Cafe.
As the punk scene expanded, the groups mutated into a pool of musicians who seemed to spend much of their time trading band members. Bands like Agro and the Survivors switched their line-ups so often, they could have used revolving doors.
Occasionally a group would get good enough to play at Ginger’s or at the Shogun Lounge. For the most part, however, the Halifax new music scene stayed underground, out of the conventional club circuit. There was no booking agency, no publicity. Lounge managers prefered to get the same old acts, believing the new bands couldn’t attract a large, paying audience. For a short time, the Grafton Street Cafe was the only place to hear that kind of music. Three hundred people might be found packed into the small venue on some summer nights in 1981. The floors shook and the bands cooked. Then, it was bought by the Unicorn clothing store, and shut down.
Today, the underground is still healthy, although venues are scarce. Bands may be found playing in Junior high school auditoriums, or in front of pizza parlours. One encouraging development has been the establishment of Re•Press magazine as a forum for the Halifax Underground. Editors KimRilda van Feggelen and Gary P. LeBlanc have also established a new forum for the bands in Dartmouth’s Seaweed Theatre. Although slated for eventual demolition, the theatre provides a handy interim venue for the struggling underground bands. And it gives punk and new wave music lovers a place of their own.
According to KimRilda, a large portion of the underground populace comes from the university populace in Halifax. ‘University students have money, they’ve been places, and generally they know more about music,’ she notes. A lot of influence arises from the music students from Steve Tittle’s experimental music classes at Dalhousie. Without a doubt, the students from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design make up the trendiest element of the Halifax underground. Their musical tastes depend on what is newest, cleverest, and most obscure.
The other half of the underground movement can be seen cruising the streets on skateboards near Queen Elizabeth and Saint Patrick’s high schools. Or they may be blasting aliens into atoms in Backstreet Amusements, a cozy pinball arcade downtown on Prince Street. Backstreet started out as a head shop, selling posters, records and other lifestyle-oriented devices. The owner of the shop, Greg Clark, showed his business smarts by bringing in a few video games. Soon enough the games had taken over and the posters and paraphernalia had vanished.
According to Clive McNutt, bassist for the Duff Hicks, the kids who have forged a youth subculture in downtown Halifax were alienated from high school, and were seeking other means of social stimulation. They discovered the ‘cool’ punk scene. ‘It began with people who were very young, socially outgoing, and to a certain extent image-conscious, who started hanging out downtown,’ Clive explains. Backstreet became a natural haven. With its up-to-the-second music selection and abundance of social contacts, the arcade has become more than a place to play video games. Cashier Leanne Webber notes that the high school kids confide in her as if she were a sympathetic bartender.
It’s the high school punks who bring a certain flare to the Halifax underground. They take themselves very seriously, on the whole. As far as these people are concerned, a person who listens to a boring radio station, dresses like everybody else and adheres to a mundane lifestyle is just a ‘slug’. There is a sense of superiority among the punks, a sincere belief that they are the gifted few, superior minds who are repressed by the intellectual inferiors who make up the majority of the populace. The slugs.
To reinforce their identity, people in the Halifax Underground dress differently. Among the high school crowd, leather jackets and narrow-legged trousers are a status symbol. The teenage girls are into anything from leather miniskirts to oversized white shirts. The older, university crowd tends to approach the fashion angle with only one rule in mind: complete rejection of the slug credo, the Coca Cola image of everyone basically dressing alike. The result is a plethora of eye-catching fashion, a flamboyance and an almost peacock-like preening which makes any Underground event, be it a movie or a dance, a memorable experience. The girls are generally rivetting; even those without conventionally attractive features draw attention with radical hair styles and colours, dramatic make-up and carefully assembled wardrobes. The boys look serious most of the time, and cultivate a rumpled splendour out of grungy boots, tattered pants and long overcoats. The optimum punk physique must be lank, boney and starved-looking. You don’t see many fat punks.
Such delight in one’s physical charms might seem a little precious and shallow to some, but usually the pursuit of fashion is done with a sense of humour, a little taste and a great deal of creativity. Gary LeBlanc notes, ‘It’s arty to shock people and look different.’
For the high school punks, it’s a great way to ‘get up their parents’ noses.’ For others, it’s a nice way to avoid becoming one of the herd, to illustrate one’s independence, and declare one’s personal philosophy.
Such a movement seems threatening to many because it is a kind of rebellion. The people who are into the Halifax underground do not feel any powerful obligation to conform. They reject the common music, the common appearance, and the common philosophies of society. They become a disturbing, alien presence, and their strangeness scares people. But unlike the hippie generation, the punks have a very cynical nature. They know they’re a minority. There can’t be more than 300 people active in the underground today. They don’t want to change society, they want to exploit it as much as they can, and avoid it whenever possible. ‘There is a conviction that most people are idiots,’ admits Clive McNutt.
Halifax can give that impression at times. In the Vegas-oriented Palace, a giant video screen shows Dr. Hook yodelling ‘Baby Makes Her Blue Jeans Talk’ while stalking a stunning blonde down a busy street. On TV, yet another episode of Quincy sets up paper tigers and knocks them down for the docile viewer’s pleasure. C100’s play list becomes even more terminally mellow. But over in Dartmouth, not far from the ferry terminal, a hundred people dance. Their clothes range from leather chic to valley girl togs. Their ages range from thirteen to thirty. On stage Andrew Lordly and his band are chugging through a series of ska classics. There are plenty of smiles, and positive energy crackles on the dance floor.
There’s a strong sense of security here – for once, the punks outnumber the slugs. But they’re still out there, in house after house, condo after condo…. Slugs in cars and slugs in buses. Slugs, dead long before they reach the grave. And always there’s the creeping fear that one day they’ll look in the mirror, and see a slug.
That’s why there’s an underground. Long live the resistance!
The original title illustration was drawn in pen and ink by Hugh Orr. Photos show Steve and Mike on the street outside Backstreets Video Arcade, March 1983. Sincere thanks to all the folks who made this article possible, back in the day.
For more info about the history of the Halifax music scene, read this excellent article from The Coast.