Canada’s Punk Rockers: Rebelling Against… Something, and Doing It Well

The CD cover for Sum 41's "Underclass Hero."I’m sort of embarrassed to admit it, but my international travel has been limited to three trips to our neighbor to the north, Canada. Actually, one of those barely even qualifies. In 1999, while in Detroit during a multi-city baseball trip with two of my nephews (neither of whom had ever been to Canada, but wanted to be able to say that they had), I drove to Windsor, Ontario long enough for us to get burgers at Harvey’s, the biggest Canadian-owned burger chain in the country. The length of the entire trip was maybe an hour. My previous forays into The Great White North (a tip of the cap to Bob and Doug Mackenzie, characters from the once-popular SCTV sketches) came many years earlier during a pair of family vacations with my parents. Both of those trips were in the western provinces, the English-speaking part of the country, where the relative differences in culture to that of the Midwest isn’t any greater than that between the Midwest and the American east coast.

The impression of Canada that I came away with from those three trips was that of a slightly cleaner country than my own United States, inhabited with people who seemed a little more polite than my own fellow countrymen. I’m sure that that assessment doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as those things seem to be the most common ones that Americans observe about our neighbor to the north. The trouble with impressions made from vacation trips, however, is that you tend to visit “nice” places and seldom stray into decaying areas filled with have-nots. The picture is very seldom balanced. For all I know, Canada may have had its share of urban blight and teeming slums, no different than the United States, but I didn’t see it. Consequently, my view of Canada was fairly rosy.

Several years ago, I noticed a certain musical trend coming out of Canada, which was the surprising number of Canadian punk bands that were making inroads into the United States music charts. My general perception of Canada was somewhat rocked by the thought of the country now being a hotbed for emerging punk artists. “What are they rebelling against?” I wondered. Could it be the lack of recent Stanley Cup triumphs by their NHL franchises in recent years? Or, were they pissed off about the 1995 merger of their homegrown Tim Hortons restaurant chain with America’s Wendy’s International? (For the record, Tim Hortons was spun off as its own company again in 2006, only to merge with Burger King eight years later; so they might be pissed again!) Who knows the reason? In any case, punk, the music of rebellion, was alive and well in Canada. The punk of the nineties until now, of course, isn’t quite the same as what it was when it first came onto the music scene in the seventies.

So, what is punk? As is the case with other popular genres, the music is defined by common lyrical content, tempo, and instrumentation, but also by the attire worn by band members (and their fans), as well as their general attitude, whether it be their stage presence or the way they act during interviews, public appearances, etc. Punk originally emerged in the seventies as part of the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement, and particularly in Britain, as a political outcry by a generation of young working class men who were coming of age only to find an economic landscape littered with failed manufacturing companies and entire industries paralyzed by lengthy strikes. The decline of the British Empire had resulted in a generation of workers feeling hopeless about their prospects, but with few viable ways to express their frustration. This frustration resonated to some degree with the younger generation in the United States and Canada, but the economic difficulties in North America were never as devastating or long lasting as they were in Britain.

Although punk originated on this side of the Atlantic Ocean with The Ramones in the mid-seventies, punk never became more than an underground movement here. Had it not been for the safety-pin piercings and spikey, multi-colored hairdos of its adherents, it’d probably have gone unnoticed by most Americans. A few major cities had fervent punk scenes, but the movement never really took hold across the board. By 1980, several of Britain’s punk bands had already evolved into what would become known as new wave, which – in part due to the launch of MTV in 1981, which initially relied on newer bands willing to produce music videos – did have a decided impact in North America and around the world.

Simple PlanWhile new wave siphoned off most of the major British groups who were hitting the American pop charts during the eighties, punk didn’t completely wither away. In fact, it was renamed hardcore punk to more clearly differentiate it from the much poppier post-punk bands of the eighties that would eventually morph into alternative rock. Hardcore punk soon jettisoned the “punk” portion of the name and carried on the angry attitude for ensuing generations of rebellious young music fans. By the late-eighties, a punk revival was fomenting on the west coast wherein the music was more akin to the late-seventies style. By the mid-nineties, Green Day, The Offspring, Blink-182, and Everclear were among a wave of bands championing this more melodic form of punk that would boost the genre into the upper reaches of the U.S. singles charts for the first time, with accompanying massive album sales. It is this strain of west coast punk that gained traction in Canada during the late nineties and into the new millennium.

Before I go any further, I want to point out that punk didn’t just suddenly appear in Canada during the late nineties. In fact, some of the first major punk bands in North America were Canadian. The first Canadian punk band to be signed by a major label (Columbia) was The Diodes in 1977, which came within a year of their formation. The Toronto, Ontario-based band released three proper albums, as well as a fourth album of demos and outtakes between 1977 and 1982. They were largely responsible for creating the vibrant Toronto punk scene, as the band and their manager turned their practice space into the city’s first punk club. Hamilton, Ontario’s Teenage Head was started by high school classmates in 1975 and they had their self-titled debut disc on store shelves by 1979. Teenage Head released several albums during the eighties, which may have been helped or hindered by the notoriety they received for two Toronto concerts (in 1978 and 1980) that ended in riots and police intervention.

On Canada’s west coast, punk was also becoming established. Vancouver, British Columbia’s D.O.A., formed in 1978, was soon regarded as one of the progenitors of hardcore punk during the early eighties. Since then, D.O.A. has experimented with various musical styles – with a revolving door of members – but they always seem to return to their punk rock roots. In the process, they have released an impressive eighteen studio albums! Nomeansno formed in Victoria, BC in 1979, the result of attending a D.O.A. concert that got them pumped up for punk. Their distinctive sound comes from placing the instrumental emphasis on the bass guitar and drum kit, rather than on lead guitar. Since 1982, Nomeansno has released a dozen albums and numerous EPs.

A new breed of Canadian punk bands began emerging in the late nineties, no doubt inspired by the success that America’s west coast punk bands were already achieving. This time, however, almost all of the action taking place north of the border was in the province of Ontario.

Sum 41 came together in tiny Ajax, Ontario in 1996, but were soon gigging in the province’s larger cities. Their first album was released in 2000, but it was 2001’s All Killer No Filler that brought them fame on both sides of the border. Often sophomoric in their lyrical approach, the quality of their musicianship and production, however, make their albums a rollicking romp. Through 2011 they’ve put out half a dozen studio albums, plus one live disc.

Montreal, Quebec’s Simple Plan was formed in 1999 by several high school friends who’d initially gone their own way after graduation, but came together again a couple of years later. Their first album, No Pads, No Helmets… Just Balls (2002), was an immediate success, using a formula that might be described as “party punk.” Since then, they’ve released three more studio albums and a live set.

Hailing from Burlington, Ontario, Silverstein began in 2000 as a side project of its five members. After recording a well-received EP that same year, the quintet decided to become a permanent arrangement. Silverstein’s post-hardcore sound is a melding of screamo and punk. The band has recorded eight full-length albums between their first in 2003 and their latest, which was released this year. A good place to start might be 2005’s Discovering the Waterfront.

Like Silverstein, Alexisonfire (pronounced Alexis on fire, not Alex is on fire) also mines post-hardcore territory. Formed in St. Catharines, Ontario in 2001, the combo’s disc debut came with an eponymously titled album in 2003. The highpoint of their five-album career may be 2006’s Crisis.

Glass BoysTogether since 2001, Toronto, Ontario’s Fucked Up released a succession of EPs and singles before recording their first full-length album in 2006. Three more albums have been issued subsequently, but the prolific band continues to churn out EPs and singles at an amazing rate. The eclectic rockers vary from the usual enraged vocals and limited, but feverish guitar lines of traditional punk songs to also include lengthy instrumental passages, atypical arrangements, and experimental sections. Their latest album, 2014’s Glass Boys, may be their most subversive yet.

Other Canadian punk bands worth a listen include The Mahones, Propagandhi, Billy Talent, and Death from Above 1979. Click on any of the linked items to take you to the online catalog records of each of these bands. Reserve them, take them home, and give them a spin. Then you too can find out why punk is alive and well in the land of the maple leaf!