Tuesday, March 9, 2010

This is the Hammer Sound: Music from Hamilton, Ontario

Text by Bruce Farley Mowat, introduction by Robert Barry Francos
© 1986; introductory comments © 2010, FFanzeen
Images from the Internet

The following article on the phenomenal music scene in Hamilton, Ontario was originally published in
FFanzeen magazine, issue #14, in 1986. It was written by Bruce Farley Mowat (listed as Bruce “Mole” Mowat).

This reprint is to be a companion piece to my review of Liz Worth’s excellent book,
Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond, 1977-1981, which is currently up at jerseatbeat.com – RBF

Hamilton is the undisputed rock’n’roll capital of Canada. Affectionately dubbed “The Hammer” by the natives, it is a town of about 350,000 odd people who make their livelihood in and around the local steel mills, making it a sort of scaled-down Pittsburgh. For many, rock’n’roll is not only an escapist way to get “out,” it is a career way to get out. (Play the Animal’s “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” while reading this article…)

The musical legacy of The Hammer must start with King Biscuit Boy (a/k/a Richie Newell), one of the world’s best blues harpists, who recorded three LPs in the early ‘70s, two on the now defunct Daffodil label: Official Music, Gooduns and one self-titled LP, produced by the legendary Allen Toussaint for CBS Records, featuring the Biscuit being backed by the Meters (who featured some of the Neville Bros.). Biscuit is alive and well and released an LP, Mouth of Steel, on the Canadian Stoney Plain label a couple of years back – and touring with Kelly Jay’s revamped Crowbar.

You may remember Crowbar from a smallish hit they had in the early ‘70s, “Oh What a Feeling,” which was banned by several US stations for the alleged pro-drug line, “What a rush.”

In the mid-seventies, it was Hamilton that first answered the call of New York’s Bowery (and not the Viletones, as several Toronto punkers would have you believe).

The legendary Teenage Head hail from The Hammer, and you better believe it pilgrims, they are currently one of the 10-Best Live Acts On The Planet Today, especially with new idol lead vocalist, Dave “Rave” DesRoches and Blair “Mojo” Marin on traps. But let’s backtrack a bit…

Back in ’74, lead guitarist Gord Lewis and current bassist Steve Marshall were looking around for members influenced by classical rock’n’roll of both the old (’50s-‘60s) type and the new (York Dolls) type. Drummist Nick Stiparitz filled in when he wasn’t gigging at YMCAs for $20 a night with the Almost Bros. Feature vocalist Frank “Venom” Kerr was recruited on drums and sang from a microphone attached to a bird cage. For their first gig (June ’74), Dave Rave sang and Steve Parks played bass (while Marshall roadied that summer). When Steve returned, Parks moved over to second guitar and Nick assumed drum choices on a regular basis. Frank took over the front man role and Dave left to become a singer / songwriter with Rick Andrews in Fulcrum.

In 1975, the band played all the local high schools and was promptly banned from same for “an overly aggressive stage act.”

In 1976, Steve Parks was kicked out (or left, depending on whom you talk to) of the group, which contracted into a quartet that held steady for almost eight years. Steve Parks went on to join Simply Saucer, a quirky pop / rock group who released a 45, “She’s a Dog” / “I Can Change My Mind,” on Pig Records in 1978 (79?), a label run by FFanzeen’s very own columnist, Gary “Pig” Gold. All SS info can be gotten from him (plug, plug).

Meanwhile, the Head moved to Toronto to absorb and dominate the Diodes / Viletones cultural milieu. By 1979, they had released a shoddily produced but still classic first LP (which was re-mixed and re-issued in ’82) and, in 1980, they released a second LP, Frantic City, which went gold and eventually platinum, and spawned a Top-10 hit (in Canada only) with “Something on my Mind.” They were inciting riots at Ontario Place and generally looking hot.
A lot of Hamilton musicians took note of the Head’s success and the burgeoning club scene in the area. Dave Rave and Rick Andrews took note of this and, in the Fall of ’79, released the 45 “Out the Door” / “Till I’m Gone,” as the Shakers. This 45 must be ranked as one of Canada’s All Time Greatest Rock’n’Roll Records Ever. “Out the Door” features an accelerated acoustic guitar intro scrubbed out and kicks in with the rhythm section and an electric rockabilly lick. Rick and Dave kick in with Everly Bros. vocals, going at full tilt. And halfway through the song, Gord “Crazy Legs” Lewis rips a single note Chuck Berry solo with some magnificent slurs for effect. The flip is a folk / pop / rock number that drips brightness. Radio up here jumped on it, but backed off when no distribution could be arranged, and then when there was no touring band to support it, it died.

The latter problem was rectified with the addition of Tim Gibbons on lead guitar and Claude DesRoches (Dave’s cousin!) on drums. This version of the band released a live-in-the-studio EP, Rock’n’Roll (consisting of old covers), a studio LP, In Time (which includes the first 45, a 7” EP, Shake Some Action (in double-time), and another 45, “Do Anything” / “California.”

In 1982, Tim left to form the Trouble Boys (more on them later) and the band went through several guitarists before settling on Dan Gibbons (Tim’s brother!). A second full LP, Weekend, was released. But by 1983, the band had collapsed due to loss of momentum (and Dan’s vocal chords to nodes!).

Dave Rave found Tim Gibbons washing dishes in a club and recruited him on the spot to play in the Shakers. But Tim was too dominant a personality to play second fiddle (or even lead guitar), so in 1982, he started to put together his own projects. A single 45, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” / “Keep a Knockin’” was recorded under the name of the Rhythm Rockets that featured Rick Andrews on drums. The single was recorded from a cassette deck in a three-quarters empty campus cafeteria! Eventually, Tim formed the Trouble Boys and, after two years of going through rhythm sections like most people go through socks and underwear, they finally settled on Mike Williams (bass) and Ray Curse (drums). Last year (’85), they put out an LP, Pass the Bottle Baby, on Booze Records, and are currently working on a follow-up, provisionally entitled Brain Scurvy. PTBB was allegedly recorded and mixed on 13 hours of studio time won on the pool table, and features great three-chord throwaways like “Lamppost,” “Graveyard Shift,” and the manic title track.

Shock rock’n’glam rock left its mark on The Hammer in the form of the Forgotten Rebels. Formed by founding member Mickey DeSadist in 1977, the band specializes in sensitive interpretations of such original material as “Third Homosexual Murder” and “Nazis,” both of which were taken from their classic first EP, Tomorrow Belongs to Us (a response to arch-rival Teenage Heads’ motto, “I’ll Take Today, You Take Tomorrow”). Released in 1979, original pressings of that now fetch $50 among collectors. The original members of that group were Peter “Treason” Lotimer on drums, who later went on to the Loudmouths, and is now in the Throbs, and bassist Chris “Suicide,” who went on to form Slander, Hamilton’s first hardcore group (they even released an LP, Hami-Conscious). Slander disbanded in 1983 (Ray Curse of the Trouble Boys drummed for them for a while and has a million stories, none of them reprintable – yet).

Meanwhile, back with the Rebs. A full length LP, In Love With the System, was released and featured a predominantly non-Hamilton line-up of Al “Mocambo” Smolak on guitar, Larry Electrician on drums, and Chris “Pogo Au Go Go” Houston on bass. Chris has just released a solo LP on Zulu Records (out of Vancouver) entitled Hate Filled Man. The other two disappeared into anonymity.

A second LP, This Ain’t Hollywood, was released in 1982, and the band’s peak achievement. This LP featured Mike “Taster” Mirabella on lead guitar (who is still in the group – and runs a restaurant in town. Shades of Zal!), Rob Allen on drums (who is retired and just hangs around with this author nowadays), and John Welton on bass (who is now in the legendary as-yet-recorded Moon Crickets). After personnel changes and several fortune reversals, the band released an EP last year, Boys Will Be Boys, and are entering the studio this year to record a full length LP. The line-up currently is Mike Mirabella, lead guitar; Bob Luman (no, not that Bob Luman), bass; Damien McGlieu (nee Dave McGee), drums; and of course, Mickey on lead vocals.

Another coffee-circuit veteran, Tom Wilson (no not that Tom Wilson), decided to go electric in ’80 and formed the Florida Razors, who have since become a staple item on the South Ontario bar circuit. Originally, a four-song 7” EP was recorded and released in 1981 with a sextet of musicians plus guests Tim Gibbons and Dave Rave. The sextet proved to be unworkable (and unprofitable) so the band was cut down to a quartet, and a 45, “Break Down Your Door” / “She’s A Real Nice Girl,” was released in 1982.

It was the quartet, featuring Grey Cannon on drums, Carl Keesee (formerly of Lazarus) on bass, and Jason Avery on lead guitar, that also cut the first LP, Beat Music, which is a must-have for several reasons:

1) The cover is a modern art original by local artist / nutcase David “Zip” Liss. You gotta see this…
2) Side two is a live recording, recorded off-the-board onto a cassette deck at the Dollar Bills lounge, in Kingston. It is of such surprisingly high quality that, well, let Tom tell the story: “I played the tape to Dan Lanois (producer of Eno and Gabriel) and he said, ‘Great, where’s the master?’ and I said, ‘That is the master.’” The LP was released in March of ’84 (as was the first issue of Mole [Bruce Mowat’s fanzine - RBF], and features strong pop / rock / blues tunes like “Take My Heart,” “Let’s Go,” and “Italian Sunglasses.”

During the Summer of ’85, the Razors recorded and scrapped a full length LP, Boom, because they felt the record didn’t reflect the band’s live show. A live-in-the-studio EP, Half a Rock’n’Roll Record, is just that: a one-sided record with the flipside bearing Tom’s rendition of the Hamilton skyline with the band’s motto, “More or Less,” engraved in the vinyl. A new LP, Kings of Clang, is slated for a Fall release.

Teenage Head, whom we dealt with earlier on in this article, have gone through traumatic times in the past 5 years. In September ’81, just as the band was about to make a serious assault on the US, the lead guitarist was severely injured in an auto accident. Replacements were used but the momentum was lost. A third LP, Some Kinda Fun (1982), was less than stellar (but still features some worthwhile tracks), and suffered sales losses due to the label changing distributors three times in six months. The band changed labels and were signed to MCA on the condition they change their name to “Heads,” as the singular was construed to be, uh, overly suggestive.

An EP, Tornado, was released in May of ’83, and was even released in the USA. Unfortunately, it was the group’s nadir performance, and when So. Cal.’s Agent of Fortune Irving Azoff (Eagles, etc.) took over MCA, Heads rolled (‘scuse the bad pun).

It was around the end of ’83 that Dave Rave started gigging as rhythm guitarist / back-up vocalist (as documented in Mole No. 3); somewhere in the middle of ’84, he became an official member (the exact date is lost in an alcohol-induced stupor) and he appeared on the live / greatest hits package, Endless Party, recorded New Year’s Eve ‘83/’84, in Hamilton.

Naturally, under such conditions, the band came up with an ace LP. Some of the live versions of material on this LP eclipse studio version…in other words, it cooks.

However, the band continued to have problems. Management ties were severed and the band proceeded to record a final LP, Trouble in the Jungle, during the beer strike of ’85. Under such conditions, the band bogged down. Nick Stipanitz, in particular, sounds especially leaden, and the resulting LP sounds murky and listless, although their choice of material is always impeccable. And their version of Bobby Fuller’s “Let Her Dance” should have been a hit this year.

Nick must have been depressed because he quit and, finally, in March of ’86, Francis Hannah Kerr, official left to form Frank Venom and the Vipers, with Nick and Zeke Taylor (of the Bopcats / Rock Angels). A single is due out this summer.

Meanwhile, the revamped Head is busy recording demos in preparation for yet another full length LP (slated for Autumn release later this year). New Blood Blair Martin on drums and Dave Rave on vocals have given this band a new lease on life, and they are setting sights on the US of A again.

Lately, there have been a slew of new acts popping up in the area. From the old Loudmouths / Bad Apples / Mad Daddys / Untouchables alumni have spring two bands: The Throbs, featuring ex-Daddys Jeff Campbell, guitar, Mike “Dupe” Lotimer, bass, ex-Rebel / Loudmouth Pete “Treason” on drums, and Ron Collie on lead vocals (who comes from Toronto). An EP (12”) will be out by the time you read this. The band has a Stooges / Ramones approach (Proud To Be Loud, Precision Records).

The other offspring of this branch of Hamilton’s musical mayhem crew are the (Legendary) Moon Crickets, featuring ex-Rebels’ Turk Thrust, bass, and Joe Rockhead, drums, ex-Daddys / Untouchables / etc., etc., DL Lee, mouth, and Dave Howitt, lead guitar (same as DL for band credits).

This band could be pegged as a ‘60s garage band except that their timescope goes both ways. They will probably never record for Midnight or Bomp!, and they don’t want to. They have turned down more gigs / record offers / etc. in the past three months than most bands receive in a lifetime, and are looked upon by Those In The Know as the Next Big Thing from Hamilton.

Just to close things off and generate Mouth Foaming Controversy, I’d like to say that Hamilton bands blow away 90% of the competition on the East Coast of the US, and when they come to your town, you will pledge allegiance to the Hamilton Sound.

Thank you for your kind indulgence.


  1. Notes:
    1) You can tell this was written BEFORE I heard the 74-75 Simply Saucer Cyborg recordings

    2) Ron Collie from the Throbs went on to (brief) NYC glam=rock infamy with HIS version of the Throbs.

    3) Tom Wilson went on to record with major labels and stuff with Junkhouse, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings

    4) Tim Gibbons signed himself to Mole Recordings on CH-TV in 89, 90 thereabouts. I only WISH I had that footage...Alas, nothing came of that. "Tape...what Tape??!!"

    5) Toronto is the branch plant/ major label centre of Canada. And all that implies from that assertation.

  2. Thanks for the great article. As I recall the Hamilton punk-scene got even better the following summer with the Dick Van Dykes and the Wetspots. I was just finishing high school at around this time and remember well sneaking into shows at the chuggies (the corktown), the Gown and Gavel (and Moondogs on the 3rd floor), and Teasers (a short-lived but excellent bar/live venue around King and Walnut area).

    I had the opportunity to jam with John Welton last night, and it was a lot of fun. I actually came across this article when I 'googled' John after realizing that he had been in the Rebels and Teenage Head.

    Thanks for posting this old article Bruce. I always thoroughly enjoy your writing -- since the long-ago days of Nerve Magazine.

  3. This is not a very accurate article. Time, dates, members, spelling and alot of other mistakes. To bad this telling of history is so wrong.

    Oh yea, John Welton in Teenage Head? Nope.
    Although Steve Mahon from Teenage Head played gigs with the Forgotten Rebels ( circa 2000) and Dave Mcghire from the Forgotten Rebels played gigs with Teenage Head on drums (circa 1984).

  4. Anon

    All the dates are correct. They may not jive w/your addled memory, but they are correct and you are wrong.

    There are some typos (e.g. Latimer , not Lotimer,) and Damien McGhieu, er Magoo, er gesundheit is kinda tricky. BTW, John Welton is credited in the article as a Forgotten Rebel, although he would play w/Frank Venom two years after the article was written ina group called The Blue Angels.

    Please learn how to read, as you may need a job in the future.