Friday 1 July 2016

CCPS Miscellany: New wave washes over Calgary (1979)

Oh, crap! We missed our own birthday! The CCPS is officially nine years old as of last Sunday (we were too busy with Sled Island-related shows/drinks/naps to remember on thee glorious day). So as a belated present to all of you, here's a great James Muretich article we had never seen, courtesy of Rodney Guitarsplat Brent...

New wave washes over Calgary
James Muretich
SUNDAY TAB October 28, 1979

In a second-storey window across from the Oddfellows St. George Lodge No. 39, a nude mannequin stands illuminated by neon lights. The female mannequin's arms are missing and her bald head looks down onto 9 Ave. S.E.

Outside cars drift by, their lights trailing in the distance, while people enter the Oddfellows centre in clusters. Inside another local concert is happening. Some say it's new wave. Some call it punk. Others just say it's rock'n'roll. Whatever it is, whenever groups like the Verdix, Hot Nasty's, Sandwiches and Black Shirts perform at different Calgary community centres they draw hundreds of youths.

The groups play loud, raunchy rock drawing inspiration from recording artists like Elvis Costello, the Ramones, Sex Pistols, early Rolling Stones and The Who. Whatever the label, the local bands play with a raw energy that makes up for their lack of finesse.

The vocals are usually barely audible, the music a fusion of electronic power and feedback, and the pace fast and furious.

On the dance floor dozens of people bop up and down frantically. An Oriental girl dances about in a long white shirt that barely reaches her legs, which are covered only in white tights. A dozen eyes watch her as she negotiates in her black high-heel shoes.

On stage the Hot Nasty's are playing, sweat staining the brows and shirts of each musician. Lead singer Warren Kinsella is screaming into the microphone. At one point lead guitarist Pierre Schenk leaps off the stage onto the dance floor, picking all the while. Schenk has been known to strum his guitar so hard that he's slashed his fingers until blood flows. Tonight, the Nasty's ends its set by writhing upon the stage floor while the members play their final chords.

* * *

Downstairs in the kitchen area, the Sandwiches sit around discussing the band and the local scene. The group is to follow the Nasty's, The Sandwiches project movies, with a slight stag twist at times, on on the wall behind the band while playing.

"It's not really a state of music, man," says lead vocalist and guitarist Doug Smith. "It's a scene, it's people." 

The group's bassist and philosopher Kim Solar agrees. "There's no defining it. If anything it's modern. The really contemporary thing has no definitions," he says. 

"Our songs are immediate," adds guitarist Tim Campell. "They're written about things that are happening now. They're about the area. When you listen to us you're not listening to someone who comes from 1,000 miles away."

Solar says the Sandwiches "are afraid of over-production. That can get you sounding very superficial. Virtuosity is not an end in itself. It's the power that occurs in the instruments that counts."

Drummer Bill Betzler taps away at the table while fellow band members talk. He has little to say while they're around. He listens and punctuates the conversation with nods and "yehs" of approval. Betzler had put away his drums until he heard punk for the first time. He then decided that would be the only kind of music he would ever play.

* * *

The Hot Nasty's is one of the better local new wave groups. The band plays with an energy that is infectious. The nasty quality to the group's music belies the Beach Boy image Kinsella creates visually when he sings in his red and white striped T-shirt.

Along with guitarist Schenk, Kinsella was a member of one of Calgary's early "punk" bands called the Social Blemishes. When the Blemishes broke up in the spring, Kinsella got Wayne Ahern on guitar 
and Tom Edwards on drums to join him and Schenk. The Hot Nasty's were born.

Sitting in the basement of a community centre, wiping his brow after a set, Kinsella says punk opened him up musically.

"In the summer of '77, I heard the Sex Pistols for the first time. I went home with the record and that was it. I had never heard anything like it in my life. It had so much emotion, so much life. And I sat there and said, hey, I can do this."

With no musical training, and still in high school, Kinsella got together the Social Blemishes and debuted with the Verdix last March. Fellow highschoolers called him a "punk faggot."

"I don't care what people say or for monetary things. It's just fun."

That's what the whole thing is about, just going out and having fun. All you need is a cheap second-hand guitar and you're on your way. After the initial expense of about $100 or so, it's cheaper than getting stoned."

Kinsella said he doesn't see any conflict between the rebellious na-ture of the music and his living at home with his parents and going to university.

"We're weekend punkers. During the week it's not around. You go to school, do your work, listen to your parents and then on the weekend you just go out and have fun. It's the most incredible release."

While he sees the group as making a dent in "Calgary's cultural wasteland," Kinsella has no pretensions about being a great musician or about the people who come to watch the Hot Nasty's.

"The people who come out cause me some consternation. I feel for a lot of them it's just a fashion show. It's a parade. They're not even listening to the music.

"This bunch of people are just as conservative as anybody else."

* * *

Another evening, at the Ogden Community Centre, the show un-folds much the same as it does any time one or more of these groups get together.

The hall is crowded. With a minimum of notice, a few posters around town, nearly 200 people have shown up. The feeling is incestuous. The same faces are seen over and over again at these gatherings. Once, the site of a Hot Nasty's/Sandwiches concert was shifted 24 hours before it was to begin. In-credibly, still more than 150 people showed up.

Alcohol is never legal at these meetings yet the police seldom create hassles. Liquor flows like the rivers of Babylon and dope makes its predictable rounds about the tables.

The average age is young, with many high schoolers making the scene. Appearances vary from Sid Vicious look-alikes to latter-day freaks who seem like they're just about to head off to Woodstock to catch Jimi Hendrix.

Because the music is decidedly punk or new wave, the audience decides they should be as rough as the music they're listening to.

If there's a breakdown in the sound system, a chorus of f---offs echos throughout the hall and is usually spat back by members of the band. Yet it's all verbal. No fights, no Altamont knives are brandished. A guy still pulls a chair away from a table for his girl.

* * *

Mick Memorex, vocalist and guitarist for the Verdix, sits in Mission Pizza sipping coffee with a female visitor from England. He's dressed casually in running shoes, no socks, a blue T-shirt and a checkered light jacket. His blonde hair is in disarray, his speech is slow and hesitant. As the German expression goes, getting words from Memorex is like trying to pull worms from his nose.

"Our music is mostly just observations. There's no statement within the lyrics or anything.

"You have to see us. It's not really planned out . . . though it's really very complex . . . yeh, just come and see.

"We've progressed as a band but yet we still do it for fun."

The Verdix took a couple of months off this summer to practise. The band, which consists of Memorex, Hostility on drums, and Murray Keene on bass, feels it's gotten much better during its musical retreat. Yet Memorex doesn't really know how much better.

"I don't know what we sound like. I know that we have fun when we play and I like the music that we're playing. But I don't know what it sounds like out in front of the PA system.

"All I know is that when we do a gig it seems to get better and better as we go along. But then it's partly because people get more and more loaded."

While Memorex, a part-time cabbie with Shamrock, says fun is the central reason for being in the band he admits to having rock'n'roll fantasies.

"We all want to be rock'n'roll stars I guess."

The Verdix may move out to Vancouver in the near future.

"We want to move. We want to move out of this town. Calgary's a drag. I'm sure that'll happen now that we're playing better. Besides, I've lived in this town since I was four."

 In Calgary, the Verdix has played community centres and stayed out of the bar scene.

"We like doing the kind of gig that we do. We have a better chance to do our own thing then. Here the bars play mostly top 40 stuff and you have to play it if you want to play there."

Despite Memorex's alleged aversion to bars, the Verdix recently signed with Studio City, a booking agency, which should take them out of the community centres and into the bars.

* * *

It's Saturday night at the Airliner. The Unusuals are milling about the stage readying for the band's opening set.

The group is often mentioned as one of Calgary's "new wave" groups since much of its material is drawn from artists like Costello, The Knack, Patti Smith and Joe Jackson. However, unlike the other bands, the Unusuals do play the bar scene.

Tonight is not one of the band's more receptive audiences. They look more ready for a brawl than a rock gig. People play pool off to one side of the room. One man with a deep scar on his left cheek looks about the room with disdain. He chalks up his cue and moves unsteadily towards the pool table to scatter the balls with his opening shot.

The Unusuals take the stage and open with My Sharona by The Knack. An employee wanders up to a reporter sitting at a table covered with other people's beer bottles.

"Are they all like this?" he asks. "Don't let them get in here if they are!"

The Unusuals continue playing, disregarding the negative atmosphere, Ron Matsalla enjoys lengthy, rapid solos on his lead guitar reminiscent of the '60s style of rock.

Drummer Rick Valleau pounds away trying to keep up to Matsalla's leads while bassist Danny Patton turns in an admirable effort considering he's playing this evening with a separated shoulder following a car accident with his brother.

* * *

Matsalla sits in a rundown arm-chair in his house, one leg hanging over the side of the chair. Both he and Danny Patton, sitting on the couch, have a beer in their hands which they nurse slowly. In an adjoining bedroom a snare drum lies on the floor, its skin revealing a gaping hole.

"What's really neat is that there's starting to be an underground thing again here," says Matsalla. "I remember what it was like about 10 years ago when then was kind of a hippie, militancy thing happening. Well, it's happening again in a different way. It's music, it's art, and it's people like us, and it's all going down."

Patton joins in. "It's like Frank Zappa says, we just went through a post-Beatles depression. I mean, after the Beatles it takes a while for anything to hit that big again."

Matsalla, an ex-grade 10 social studies teacher, says new wave is the inspiration behind the Unusuals and other groups like the Verdix.

"It's been the catalyst. We're trying to do a little bit with the new wave sound thing and get people exposed to the new music that's around.

"I like to make my guitar sing and scream," says Matsalla. "I play like today is the last day. I'm really just a punker who's been doing it for a while. I've been playing that kind of stuff since the beginning. It's the only stuff I've ever liked, stuff like the early Who."

Matsalla dropped out of teaching more than two years ago, which is about how long it took him to pen some tunes and get; his band together.

"We're playing rock'n'roll and that's it. We've taken the whole field of music and picked this little tiny pin-point and with it we do the best we can.

"When I write these songs I know exactly what the medium is that I'm working with. And I know what the tools are. You can't overwrite. You have to keep it as simple as possible. You can't use anymore than four chords. And you can't rhyme any more words than a certain amount or it's not that kind of rock anymore.

"It's an artistic endeavor. I'm just trying to create using these materials."

Matsalla and Patton continue talking while a stereo in another room blares out Frank Zappa.

"The agencies are the people who have been controlling the music scene so much. All the bands from Western Canada are productions of the agencies. 

"I've seen it. I've been there. They just try and tell you what to do, like they're doing to us now." The Unusuals have also signed recently with Studio City.

"I want to play rock'n'roll. I want to sing about life in the '80s, about life as an image in which you can pretty well make that image whatever you want."

* * *

Part of Calgary's incestuous new wave scene is Allen Baekeland. He runs the radio station at the U of C, is a big booster of this new genre of local music, a good friend of Kinsella and the Hot Nasty's, and may sing for the Sturgeons, a new local group, when the band makes its debut in Edmonton this coming weekend.

"The whole thing has really picked up just in the last few months. There's a lot more bands and a lot more gigs. Things are finally happening for once.

"This scene is developing apart from the musicians' union and the like, which is nice to see. That's what I like to see — people taking it into their own hands.

"I'm really excited by what's happening this fall. New wave is really going to start to make it in Calgary."

Baekeland sees the whole thing in terms of relevancy and rock having grown too immense.

"We shouldn't let the music of the '60s die. It still makes sense today, is still relevant. I don't think there's anything wrong with gathering inspiration from that. I don't think any of the bands are being ripped off. I mean, even the Stones used to do Muddy Waters tunes in the beginning.

"I think a lot of the new music really is new music. I also think it's a reaction against rock which became too big. I think these bands reacted against that and wanted to go back to a smaller base. No band should have to play in front of 200,000 people like Led Zeppelin did in England. Rock had just grown too enormous to cope with.

"I refuse to go see a concert at The Corral. The band is just a couple of ants on stage.

* * *

The house is nice and cosy and middle class. It stands in contrast to the home of the Unusuals which always looks like the morning after a party. This home could easily be used as a setting for an episode of Happy Days or Mary Tyler Moore. On the furniture is a picture of the family together and all the little knick-knacks that families ac-cumulate over the years.

Borrowing Kinsella's term, it's the weekend punker syndrome. Come the weekend, the MacDonald boys, Al and Ron, turn into punkers either on stage or pogoing all over the dance floor.

The MacDonalds were members of the Social Blemishes and now form the heart of the Black Shirts. 
Interviewing them is a bizarre experience. Drummer Ron, guitarist Conan Daly, and bassist Brian McGugan are prone to arguing among themselves while vocalist/keyboard player Al tells jokes to the tape recorder on the table.

Ron says individually they have "been playing longer than it would seem when you hear us."

There are a lot of things the Black Shirts don't like, either individually or collectively. They don't like the Smarties from Edmonton who spit at them at their last concert, Van Halen or Van Halen freaks, Kinsella's "woman's voice," the Verdix, music of the '70s, and hippies.

"We don't dare play our own high school man because they're all Van Halen freaks," says Ron. "they have long hair, go around in running shoes, and have an IQ of 100."

Daly jumps in. "They walk around and all they can do is say 'cook my brain, give me a toke, where's my pot.' They're always talking about drugs."

"I like doing Mersey Beat music," says Al. "I like wimpy music. I don't like the '70s at all.

"Basically, I heard God Save the Queen and Anarchy by the Sex Pistols and it really impressed me. And then Warren (Kinsella) got into the stuff — I heard the Sex Pistols way before them and it bothers them, though they'll never admit it.

"The hippies were the punks of the '60s. Now, they've become complacent. Now, it's the new people that aren't into the bullshit and commercialism and who go against the establishment. It's the hippies who are anti this stuff and they don't give it a chance. And in 10 years, the punks will be the establishment."

* * *

Few people outside of the local new wave family and friends know about what's going on. However, once you're inside it's easy to know everything through casual conversations. One group whose name keeps popping up is the Sturgeons.

The Sturgeons have yet to play anywhere for one simple reason —the band doesn't have a lead singer.
However, when they do they should be accorded a warm welcome. The three current members in a practice session showed them-selves to already be one of the better groups musically.

Al Charlton is an energetic and good guitarist with a penchant for the early Who, despite receiving a form letter from Pete Townsend when he requested the chords to one of the Who's songs. Mark Igglesden has been playing drums for several years, emphatically denies he's a punker and is an avid reader of music mags like Trouser Press. Pete Toulgoet is the quiet, serious member who's credited with get-ting the band to practice and keep improving.

Like every other group, the Sturgeons are out for fun and rock'n'roll.

"All these titles are meaningless, because it's all just rock'n'roll," says Charlton. "Everything's been done before," says Toulgoet.

"They expect that if it's a new band they've got to invent a new guitar sound. It's got to be a new music but hell there's only 12 notes and they're bound to repeat themselves," added Igglesden. The band loves the energy of new wave and dislikes, with the same passion, disco and sophisto-rock.

"The thing I hate about disco is that it's accountant rock, laid-back and for 40-year-olds," says Igglesden and Toulgoet almost in unison.

"And in rock, groups like Led Zeppelin, ELP, and Yes got seperated from people. What guy goes home from work in a factory and wants to listen to a song about crimson mountain tops?" asks Igglesden.

The Sturgeons, however, make no mistake about transplanting the anger of British punk and new wave to Calgary. Anarchy In The U.K. just doesn't wash philosophically in oil-rich Alberta.

"I don't know, we live in a fine house," says Igglesden. "I mean when you hear the word punk you picture some guy who can't count to five. I don't know. I've got nothing to complain about except personal things."

Charlton looks at his buddies and adds, "We're not out to make any major statements. We're just out to have a good time and hopefully others will too."

Energy. That's the main thing. It powers the universe and is strongest in human beings during their youth. Rock'n'roll is in response to that need, especially in our century of extended youth and education.

It's fun, something to do, and the music's not bad either. Some of it is on the rough and not-too-ready side. But, then again, some of it is rough and ready. Some like Matsalla's guitar playing, others like the Nasty's Calgary raunch, others feel the Sturgeons will be the biggest thing since Stetsons.

Punk is dead, a sociological and musical phenomenon that had its brief moment like a shooting star. New Wave is just another label attached by people who need labels to stick on everything from cam to artists.

Almost every group says its music is rock'n'roll and nothing else. And its basic rock. Not the best in the country and not the worst. But it's something that's happening here. And like the title to the Who's rock movie, it shows in Calgary that The Kids Are Alright.

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