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Trouble in the Camera Club: Toronto’s early punk scene documented before the digital age and convenience of autofocus

By B. Simm

Strange, well-built young men, some of them have exploited your worlds
Equipped with frightening voices, and several dangerous talents
They are sent into town to take it from behind, tricked out in disgusting luxury
A paradise of violence, of grimace and madness

– Arthur Rimbaud, Parade (1872)
Translation from taken England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage

Self-portrait of Don Pyle, left, and Virlana taken at laundromat in downtown Toronto. Photo: Don Pyle

Self-portrait of Don Pyle, left, and Virlana taken at
laundromat in downtown Toronto.
Photo: Don Pyle

CALGARY — Even though the roots of youthful rebellion are gnarled deep, it wasn’t until the mid-70s before the mentality and movement of punk rock, as we now know it, crept into a wider consciousness. It was a confused time, a trying time and an exciting time as rock ‘n’ roll reclaimed itself as an art form, a lifestyle, a political position disregarding much of the commercial trappings that then possessed the music industry. One, if not the greatest virtue of punk, is the DIY vision and spirit that propelled those who immersed themselves into the new mindset. Freedom, the independence to create and carve out a corner of the universe that you could genuinely believe in was very heady, powerful stuff. And at right at the tip of your fingertips. Well, almost. Without question, it was a lot more complicated than just being there and having the vision. Nonetheless, when four street brats from Queens, NY formed the Ramones and their debut record found its way onto turntables all over the world, one thing was certain… the past was no longer the future, it belonged to those equipped with frightening voices and several dangerous talents.

Don Pyle was barely in his mid-teens when he joined his high school camera club in Toronto. His segue into photographing rock ‘n’ roll began with Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Blue Oyster Cult and David Bowie who all were punk before punk was branded as punk. Enticed by underground flyers distributed for bands like the New York Dolls, Pyle, like many others, followed the trail that led to the great turning point, the Ramones. By 1977 Toronto punk evolved into a small but concentrated scene that saw an outpouring of raw, new bands. Leading the pack where The Viletones, The Diodes, The Demics, The Ugly and Teenage Head along with a ground swell of under-the-radar clubs and bars where these bands held court and Pyle stood at the edge of the stage clicking the shutter, capturing the primordial glory raging away, a paradise of violence, grimace and madness.

Thirty-five years later, he unearthed the negatives from that period, dusted them off and packaged a stark, honest account of what punk was like circa ’76 to ’80 in his memoirs Trouble in the Camera Club. An exhibition of photos from the book takes place at the Nite Owl located at 213 -10 Ave. SW on Thursday, Oct. 9. Pyle will be there presenting his work and the Von Zippers will rip open the PA.

The conversation below pries into the zeitgeist of those early days, asking Pyle to expand on the images and comments found in his book.   

BeatRoute: Bouncers at the El Mocambo pushed kids who embraced punk down a flight of stairs, yet other clubs were happy to see a new crop of kids coming through the doors, even if they were underage, as long as they drank beer. Was there a lot of rough handling by the old guard clubs towards the new pups during the transition period from rock to punk? I also get the sense that it was more than just a difference in music and attitude. Toronto seems to have had a very staunch working-class core who were fiercely loyal to bar bands and its culture. Punk must have thrown an ugly challenge to those stalwarts. What was the tension like?

Don Pyle: That tension was probably felt in all the cities across the country. So many of those pockets of resistance have been documented now, particularly in Sam Sutherland’s book, Perfect Youth. It really was the beginning of a transformation to what is generally and loosely referred to now as “alternative” culture. So many people were stuck in a particular mindset that really took someone else setting the example in order for them to wake up to other possibilities. An example of that is making your own records. I remember as a kid thinking my friend’s uncle was a star because he had his own record – a 45 he made himself of his C&W songs to sell at his bar shows. All those bands that played those crappy country and western bars aren’t given enough credit for really being an early example of DIY aesthetics. It wasn’t until other people did it that so many others discovered that you could actually take your own tape to a record manufacturing plant and pay for records to be made! The tension was so much about trying to grasp at their petty little power, that power that some people who become politicians or police or bouncers need to have. It was undoing an old system where dumb bouncers were the cultural guardians and it was like they were fighting the revolutionaries for their position of power. I never saw a case of “punks” attacking “rockers” just for being “rockers” but I certainly saw it in reverse. Quite a lot. It’s the same tension we see and feel today when you see or read about so much violence that results from male anger. That shit can be scary but that bouncer pushing someone down a flight of stairs is the same impulse that causes one country to declare war on another.

BR: It’s quite amazing that a fresh-faced, teenaged kid like you could roam around the clubs, your camera a ticket to adventureland. Quite the testament that either TO was economically hard pressed or that the initiation of youth allowing them to enter and drink in bars was highly acceptable. Or maybe a bit of both?

DP: It’s easy to forget what small towns every city in Canada was in the 1970s. The population was way lower, people didn’t have the same need to shop 24 hours a day so things actually shut down and downtowns became deserted. Most people didn’t want to live downtown then, a huge shift from now. All the cities I visited had downtowns that were ghost towns at night – true for Calgary and Toronto. The scale of regulation was not even close what it is today. The organizations and methods for enforcing rules were not nearly as organized and payoffs were way easier to get away with. There were probably few precedents for something like the Crash’n’Burn club, where a band ran what was essentially a legal speakeasy. I never thought about it about as being connected to economy. My experience was more that the good clubs had people working the doors who were also fans of the same thing you were going to see so there was a lot of goodwill in letting you in to also see the band. So many clubs came and went before they were on the radar of the cops so some places really had an underground feel. The mainstream bars were so tight with unions and in really conspicuous places, and of such a conservative mindset that trying to get into them when you were underage was not even a possibility.

BR: Your assessment about The Clash… they might have claimed to have revolution in their sights, but they were just the next generation of wannabe rock stars. Calgary had its fair share of people jump on the punk bandwagon while staring at the stars. How did things like that evolve in TO?

DP: If you mean evolve in how did bands move from an underground scene to trying to be rock stars, that was present in some bands from the beginning. Some bands like the Diodes or The Poles made no secret of their aspirations for stardom and fame but in provincial Canada, that was a dream. But we had the UK and USA as models to see that those dreams could come true. The big difference was that the Diodes signing to CBS meant that they could go play in Philadelphia or Winnipeg. For someone like the Buzzcocks signing to United Artists in the UK meant that they could go play the world! If you signed to a major in Canada, quite often that was only a Canadian deal so even if you had big dreams, they were stifled by the small thinking of record labels and the general global indifference to bands from Canada. In some cases it resulted in a lot of petty competition, rather than cooperation, between bands fighting for a “career”. As one of the biggest bands from that period, you can look at Teenage Head as an illustration. They were one of the few bands that managed to get mainstream radio and video play, and they carved out a career playing across the country, but that success couldn’t be translated to anywhere else in the world. So many bands were crushed by trying to make a living out of a system that forced them to compromise too much in order to get the things they wanted, like a van or a song played on the radio. There’s example after example of the leap for the brass ring resulting in the most watered-down version of the band being offered. The Demics LP comes immediately to mind.

BR: Did you retire the camera in ‘83 where the book ends. Or was that just the end of that era?

DP: No, I still take photos all the time but less so of bands. Of course I wish I had kept it up with the intensity of when I began but there just isn’t time to do everything. There are so many people taking photos at every show and an overkill of images available of everyone, taking photos of bands mostly seems pointless to me. I can find great photos of anyone I want to see pics of, not the case when I was starting. I’ve seen a number of photos since then where I am seen in the audience taking photos and there is usually only one or no other people taking photos. If you look back toward the audience at any show now, it’s a sea of cellphones. It was a shift for me in that I wasn’t in high school anymore and therefore didn’t easily have a darkroom, and I was also playing in bands and had moved out so all that free time spent alone in the darkroom was shifted to being out and being social – sometimes with my camera but less so. I still have many great photos of bands beyond 1980 and still continue to shoot some bands outside of a live setting. All the promo photos The Sadies are using for Internal Sounds, for example, are ones I shot. I have many great photos of my cat that I’d be happy to share with anyone interested.

The Trouble in the Camera Club photo exhibition takes place at the Nite Owl Oct. 9.

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