By Keir Nicoll
VANCOUVER – Back in the heyday of punk rock, when it was considered risque to spit on the audience and carve initials into your chest, Vancouver was busy proving its relevance to the larger, worldwide scene, with bands like D.O.A. making advances in the style and content of the music. It wasn’t unusual to hear people singing about tearing the system down. In this morass of cultural upheaval, in the late ’70s, was a band called Zellots. They consisted of frontwoman singer Heather Haley, guitarist Christine DeVeber, bassist Jane Colligan, and drummer Conny Nowe. They played a number of shows and recorded some songs but never released them. That is until recently, when a flexidisk was released containing the songs “On the Dole,” “Vampire Love” and “Let’s Play House.” BeatRoute had a chance to sit down and talk with Haley, about her music and her novel, The Town Slut’s Daughter.
The Zellots were influenced by their surroundings, including D.O.A., who they played a show with at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret. This show was exciting, as was the whole period. The band had just formed – everybody did it, you just threw a band together – and they had enough material for a 25 minute set. Haley recounts how they played their first song over for an encore.
“It was really exciting to play on all those bills with all those bands,” she says. Haley had been a singer with an affinity for performing but was frustrated and had never been able to successfully perform or write. Her boyfriend, Peter Draper, had been in Art Bergman’s first band, the Schmorgs. They talked about making music together but it never happened. Then, a lot of people from Surrey moved to Vancouver — Art Bergman, John Armstrong, Gordon Nichol of the Pointed Sticks. The attitude was like, “Why not?” and “Heather, when are you going to form your band?” There was a pressure but if they could do it, then she could too. Her friends and the scene were simply catalyst for that to happen.
Haley grew up in Cloverdale and in 1978, she knew a lot of people from there and across the Lower Mainland. The whole scene in Vancouver was made up from people in that area. D.O.A. and the Subhumans were from Burnaby. Guys in the Pointed Sticks, like Tony Bardach, grew up in North Van. It was a small scene but it seemed really overwhelming. It seemed like a lot of people but it was probably only a couple hundred people. “You’re just surrounded, it’s your milieu and you’re sharing shows and resources and rehearsal spaces,” says Haley. They had a cellar in a house that they converted into a rehearsal space, filling the windows with sand they got from Second Beach. They played and partied down there and never got any noise complaints.
It was a “wild and wooly” time, where all the bands had to be encouraging to and look out for each other. There was persecution from the police and the bridge and tunnel people. There were incidents when people from the suburbs would come in, bikers would beat the crap out of you. So people in the scene had to stick together. Haley remembers the first time she saw the Subhumans, in a cafe in Kitsilano. They were in their leather and spiked hair, with badges. “They just freaked people out. It got a strong reaction,” Haley says. Even now, when she went to Prince George with her boyfriend, she got stares because she has bright red hair, wears lipstick — real urban. You want to say that people are open-minded on the ‘Left’ Coast mentality but it is somewhat provincial. People are more forward-thinking. Sometimes you feel like you’re surrounded by hipsters, neo-hippies and social warriors but then again, friends get harassed on the street. People think Vancouver is a cosmopolitan city but it’s got a long way to go. It was even moreso then. It could be dangerous.
Playing with an all-woman band was a challenge at the time. With musicians, Zellots were well-received. Punk rock was a boys club but the musicians were supportive. Some of the crowd members would harass the band, even spit on them. “Often, you’d get a guy who’d try to push the mic into your face,” Haley recalls. There were often times when friends would have to come and intervene. Or Haley would say things like, “You know, there’s a reason why I’m up here and you’re down there!” They did their best to ignore it.
Speaking of the themes of the songs on the record, Haley mentions that “Let’s Play House” was coming from her being a ‘raging feminist,’ although it is satirical and tongue-in-cheek. In a way it’s an homage to the women performing on stage in bands in the ’50s and ’60s. “Vampire Love” was kind of metal. Haley recalls a love for Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath when she was a kid. She also mentions her backgrounds in church choirs and folk music, the really traditional. She admits to an influencing by the bible and perhaps its having turned her on to an affinity for verse, despite being an atheist. As for “On the Dole,” everybody was on the dole. Sooner or later, you’d end up on welfare. It was tough to find jobs. Haley says of the song, “I think it’s a really good, kick-ass rock song. It stands the test of time.”
Recounting the release of Zellots’ record, Haley reveals she carried an old cassette with her for most of her adult life that had these recordings from the record. She is grateful to Jason Flower from Supreme Echo Records who put out the recording. Flower has said it was the most degraded tape he’d had to use to restore but Peter Draper did a really good job of recording it. Now Flower is doing Wasted and the Stiffs, also early Vancouver punk bands.
Reading Haley’s book, The Town Slut’s Daughter, an uncanny resemblance emerges, between her band in real life, Zellots, and the all-woman band, the Virgin Marries, led by the book’s hero, Fiona Larochelle. She reveals that drawing from her experience is what lends the book authenticity. The book is grounded in reality but a lot of it is feigned and imagined. Some of the events were recounted exactly as they happened, like the St. Valentine’s massacre. Haley mentions being inspired by E. L. Doctorow and his book Ragtime, where he mixed fact with fiction. She left in a lot things, like D.O.A. and some real punk names, because she couldn’t imagine anything more appropriate.
Haley went on to play with Heather Haley and the Zellots for six years in L.A., when other members from the Vancouver Zellots left for London, ON. She went on to write much more lyric song and poetry. The more recent release of Zellots, recalls a time when a lot was on the line in music, and that involved itself in events like Rock Against Prisons and Rock Against Radiation. The gritty realities of Vancouver in the late ’70s, are also recounted in the records songs, so it’s worth a listen for some good punk from a great era.