Dance the Mutation: A History of Hamilton Music

February 7, 2017 in features
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In a steel city visited by The Velvet Underground in 1966—joined by the strobe lights, whips, and tinfoil-wrapped dancers of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable—that also produced the “psychotronic” children’s show The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, it should be clear than anything can happen.

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Ask any local historian and they’ll tell you that Hamilton’s musical lineage begins with King Biscuit Boy. Ronnie Hawkins gave the blues harpist born Richard Newell his nickname when he played as a member of the Hawk’s backing band. This led to Newell’s stint in Crowbar (famed for their inescapable “Oh, What A Feeling”) before he linked up with Allen Touissant in New Orleans. The legendary producer helmed King Biscuit Boy’s 1974 self-titled LP (featuring The Meters) with cheeky love songs like “The Bum Is Mine.”

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The seeds of Simply Saucer were planted in 1972 with a group of record collectors synthesizing the sounds of the VU, Hawkwind, and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. After stripping down to a quartet, they began rehearsing seven nights a week (including Christmas), propelling their outerstellar overdrives with pulsating electronics. Frontman Edgar Breau’s sci-fi lyrics time-hopped between Nazi invasions and a dystopian future that both feel increasingly prophetic in 2017. Lifting off for a decade of misadventures, the band’s run-ins with biker gangs and the Toronto punk scene finally saw them crash-land at the end of the ’70s.

Writer, DJ, and record store fixture Bruce “The Mole” Mowat launched his label Mole Sound Recordings in 1989 for the first release of Simply Saucer’s posthumous collection Cyborgs Revisited. While it has gone on to gain a hallowed status as one of the most shockingly original albums to emerge from Canada—early champions included Julian Cope, Byron Coley, and Sonic Youth—the electro-rockers were then barely a blip on the radar. In fact, they’d been broken up for 10 years when their music saw the light of day, 15 years after it was originally recorded.

Adding to the legacy of Simply Saucer, the basement recordings that became side one of Cyborgs Revisited took place in the home studio of brothers Bob and Daniel Lanois. While the latter Lanois plugged his ears during those 1974 sessions, he would go on to become a Brian Eno and U2 collaborator, star-studded producer (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris), and ever-evolving solo artist. On 2016’s Goodbye To Language, his pedal steel freezes time and soars into cinematic horizons.

2003’s expanded CD edition of Cyborgs Revisted from local label Sonic Unyon saw Simply Saucer reunite for the first time in nearly 30 years. This has been followed by a resurgence of new releases, reissues, and documentation. The definitive double LP version of Cyborgs Revisited will soon be released by influential LA label In The Red. Five decades after their formation, Simply Saucer are finally receiving the recognition they deserve and continue on as a band recharged.

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Punk titans Teenage Head formed in 1975 as the band’s members finished high school. Frankie Venom, Gordie Lewis and Co. spent the next three years honing a sound and a stage show with undeniable charisma. Mere months after the release of their debut single “Picture My Face” in 1978, they hyped up a Horseshoe Tavern crowd packed to the rafters for Toronto’s Last Pogo. 1980’s Frantic City increased their notoriety with two national hits and incited an infamous riot at Ontario Place. Though Venom sadly lost his battle with throat cancer in 2008, Teenage Head has continued in various incarnations with Dave Rave (The Shakers, The Dave Rave Conspiracy) recently resuming vocal duties.

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The Forgotten Rebels began their career of glam-punk provocation by torching a Canadian flag. The band’s 1978 live debut at a local YMCA ended in a blaze of glory with promoter Gary Pig Gold charged $400 in damages (including $25 for harm inflicted to “carrots and lettuces”). Frontman Mickey De Sadist would continue his reign of tongue in cheek terror with the motto “let’s just get any reaction.” Classic songs include “In The Love With The System”, “This Ain’t Hollywood” (inspiring the name of Hamilton’s greatest rock bar), and the punk party anthem “Surfin’ On Heroin.” Members have changed over albums, tours, and eras, but The Forgotten Rebels stay the same.

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Miraculously, Simply Saucer leader Edgar Breau and original bassist Kevin Christoff never truly parted ways. In 1986, they rebounded with earlier member David Byers as the Byrds/Moby Grape-style country-psych group The Third Kind. Breau and Christoff continued as The Shadows of Ecstacy, while Byers formed The Shangs, melding the mystique of late ’60s girl groups with spine-chilling songs of pop culture tragedy. Saucer co-founder Paul Colilli has also re-emerged as an accomplished solo musician, author, and professor at Sudbury’s Laurentian University.

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Hamilton’s other ’80s underground dwellers were rounded up on the compilation Music From The Armpit of Canada. Garage/punk weirdos like The Dik Van Dykes, Drunk Dentist, and Trash and The Bags share space with The Hated Uncles. No one can hold a candle to the latter group fronted by a 6-foot-6 former wrestler with a Thalidomide survivor on trumpet. Their songs include “I Don’t Want To Die On Heroin” and “Why Do I Live In Canada?” from the Uncles’ unreleased album Tumours (a parody of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours).

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Simultaneous to Simply Saucer’s late ’80s rediscovery, a hyperactive artist, musician, and inventor named Dan Zen (or sometimes Dan Beer) began throwing “Op Hop” events.

With performances from his monochromatic garage-mod group The Chessmen, these all-ages happenings combined soul, beat, and R&B dance nights with lysergic light shows not unlike the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The Chessmen released their self-titled LP—including the heavily comped hit “Time Machine”—on the same day as Cyborgs Revisited.

A shaggy-haired high schooler named Gaven Dianda was one of the regular Op Hop attendees. He briefly joined The Chessmen before forming a new band with Zen called The Swingin’ Gurus. Wearing robes, playing sitar, and burning incense onstage, their over-the-top psychedelia was equally inspired by The Strawberry Alarm Clock and Get Smart’s Sacred Cows with their signature song “Kill, Kill, Kill.”

Dianda then followed Zen to a synagogue inhabited by the transgressive trio of Zena Hagerty, Walter G. Peter, and Thomas Monte. As Sublimatus, they created their own metalloid music with an ARP Odyssey, violent guitar shredding, and Hagerty’s trance-inducing vocals. Described by Bruce Mowat as “the Mother of all Hamilton underground groups,” Sublimatus transitioned into goth-rock on their 1990 cassette Whore of Babylon then fell under the trip-hop spell of 2008’s School of Sorcery.

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In 1992, Thee Gnostics arose as the illogical response to everything that had come before. As Dianda moved into a shuttered post office with Sublimatus axe-wielder Thomas Monte, they regrouped with Zen to blast into a kosmische kartoon void. Costumed performances with alien face paint and fake arms sprouting from their shoulders sprawled into Saucer-style electronic freak-outs. Thee Gnostics’ recordings culminated with a 1994 concept album about the planet Gorgolon. In 2009, their continuum-rippling history was compiled on a two-cassette art edition from Toronto’s late, great Bennifer Editions.

Christine Leakey formed The Double Feature Creatures in the midst of the mid ’90s garage/psych boys’ club. Rosemary Stehlik joined Leakey on vocal duties with a rotating cast of members including Dianda on drums. During their original run, the band’s supernatural/superhero-themed fuzz-rock was captured on a pair of 7”s. In 2005, Italy’s Teen Sound Records compiled the Creatures’ studio rarities, live recordings, and more. Leakey has continued as a solo artist, opening for Iggy Pop and Junior Kimbrough before releasing albums of dreamily whimsical sounds and jazzy cabaret pop.

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Art-rockers Altogether Morris plumbed the depths of early ’90s Hamilton with their K-Tel inspired compilation 22 Original Hits, 22 Original Stars. Alongside familiar names like Dave Rave and Edgar Breau, it featured beloved grunge rockers Junkhouse, slacker punks Sinister Dude Ranch (renamed I Love My Shih-Tzu), and pre-Killjoys project The Monday Nuns. Several years later, The Killjoys soaked fans with four legitimate hits and the recording of their second album Gimme Five at Memphis’s famed Ardent Studios. The power-pop trio reformed in 2015 and can still make crowds stage-dive (politely).

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As the ’90s continued, Sonic Unyon Records peeled back yet another layer of local music. The shop turned label’s roster featured flagship shoegazers Tristan Psionic and SIANspheric joined by sludge-metal trio Shallow North Dakota and one-man band/political candidate Mayor McCA. Since Hamilton is home to the country’s first Tim Horton’s, he pledged to change its name to Donut Rock City. Wax Mannequin brought a surreal twist to the singer-songwriter genre, while members of math-rockers Kitchens & Bathrooms formed The Inflation Kills, joining a new crew of hardcore heavyweights including the earth-scorching Cursed.

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Despite some stiff competition, B.A. Johnston should be regarded as the Hammer’s true ambassador. Touring relentlessly to fans coast to coast, he leaves it all on the floor with anthems for G.S.T. cheques, Giant Tigers, and the Tiger-Cats. From his song “Jesus Is From Steeltown” to the album Stairway To Hamilton and even his tourism TV show B.A. Johnston’s Ham Jam, no one does more for the jewel of Ontario. Proving he also has love for the Maritimes, Johnston’s latest album Gremlins 3 has enlisted the backing band of Reagans Rayguns from Saint John, New Brunswick with a loving tribute to East Coast donair sauce.

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Hamilton’s electronic undercurrent dates back to the techno/industrial fusions of Orphx and Teste’s 1992 rave classic “The Wipe.” Members of Azari & III and the Junior Boys came up at the same underground parties, with the latter flashing back to these formative memories on 2016’s Big Black Coat. Dundas spawned Dan Snaith of Manitoba/Caribou/Daphni along with Stones Throw daydreamer Koushik and Brandon Hocura of exploratory DJ duo/label Invisible City. Ryan Ferguson has voyaged from his bedroom as Electroluminescent since the late ’90s, while few have traveled further than Jessy Lanza’s Hyperdub-via-Hamilton visions of the future.

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2001 launched the space odyssey of The Battleship, Ethel. This Canterburian caravan featured the core duo of Mike McLean and Carl Didur alongside future members of turbo-driven noise punks Sailboats Are White, ambient drifters Head/Phone/Over/Tone, and the reformed Simply Saucer. After their decade of activity including a tour with Can’s Damo Suzuki, the final prog-rock power trio incarnation of Ethel flipped wigs with lightning speed precision.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-At3A6yFhY

Following the Battleship’s disbanding, Didur and McLean formed Zacht Automaat (a direct translation of ‘Soft Machine’ in Dutch). With a string of seven albums and a Beatles cover set in 2010 alone, the duo flowed through instrumental expeditions into the courts of baroque bubblegum, Faustian stompers, and Sun Ra space-jazz. They have since expanded to a quartet for twice yearly performances (often accompanied with new releases). Highlights of Automaat’s initial run have also been compiled on a monumental double LP from Slim Twig and U.S. Girls’ Calico Corp.

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Mutant strains of free-form experimentation filtered throughout the late aughts from the harsh noise duo Fossils, haunted laments of Gasoline Gathers Hands, Gathers Friends, drone floats of Misner Space, Scott Johnson’s Thoughts on Air, and Olga Kirgidis’ Eternal Dreamer. This scene received its biggest co-sign when Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! imprint issued a 2011 vinyl release for the feral nightmares of Hunting Ritual. Jag of Gasoline Gathers Hands founded the Perdu label with releases from his noise-rock group WTCHS alongside newer acts like Lizzy Boredom, Get Off The Cop, and Eschaton (whose members have launched their own label/venue HAVN in turn).

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Alongside events like Sunday Slamfest—a monthly all-ages matinee at This Ain’t Hollywood—Schizophrenic Records have carried on Hamilton’s proud punk tradition since the late ’90s. Their slate of releases includes contemporary heavy hitters Born Wrong, TV Freaks, and Flesh Rag next to local heroes like The Forgotten Rebels’ Chris Houston (with his anthem to Einstein’s brain stored at McMaster). TV Freaks frontman Dave O’Connor has recently unveiled his latest guise with the ghoulish croons of Sweet Dave & The Shallow Graves. His album Mental Jails will be the first release on the band’s new label Pointless Product.

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Looking ahead, Adam Bentley and Jordan Mitchell (former members of indie-pop group The Rest) have constructed the TAPE recording studio to work with Hamilton acts ranging from pop-punks The Dirty Nil to hip-hop artist Emay. Bentley and Mitchell’s impressionistic arrangements have also resulted in the upcoming release of Simply Saucer frontman Edgar Breau’s most accomplished solo album to date.

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Drifting further out, Cem Zafir’s Zula Music Colletive and Something Else! event series have linked local jazz/free-improv players with international icons since 2012. The Strangewaves collective have celebrated and connected another wave of experimenters including freak-rockers The Pucumber Sassquash Family Band, psychedelic beatmakers Persons, the vocal gymnastics of glassEYElashes, and many more. With their third annual Strangewaves festival scheduled for June 2017, future possibilities in Steeltown remain limitless.

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By Jesse Locke

Jesse Locke is a writer, editor, and musician based in Toronto. He is the author of Heavy Metalloid Music: The Story of Simply Saucer, published in 2016 by Eternal Cavalier Press. Jesse currently plays drums for Century Palm, Tough Age, Chandra, and Simply Saucer.

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