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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Steve Leckie and The Viletones - Reckless rock'n'roll revisited

Steve Leckie and Screamin Sam at Rock Against Radiation, Toronto 1980

Viletones and the Foundations of Punk Rock

by Yuya Joe College

When gauging the socio-political impact of pioneering Canadian punk rock band Viletones, it is first necessary to understand their context within the nihilist / reckless camp which includes Dead Boys, Sex Pistols, Richard Hell, Husker Du, Subhumans, The Damned, The Exploited and other bands whose primary purpose was to destroy everything in their paths. These were foundational punk groups that mostly emphasized personal politics, alienation, thwarted ambitions, and danger; diehard bands living and breathing anarchy, with anger and pain bleeding through their sometimes discordant, always raw music.

During Toronto's early punk days, Steven Leckie had invented a stage personna that was as repulsive as anything punk rock had to offer; however, confusing the character with the creator remains offensive even today. Leckie and Viletones paid the price commercially as they were pretty much blacklisted from radio and the Canadian music industry in general ... yet as artful music, Viletones songs stand the test of time.

On the early Vilteones recordings they sound a LOT like Joe Strummer and The Clash (BIG compliment!), however there is little to none of the social activism concerns of Strummer, son of a UK diplomat. When he was performing on stage as “Nazi Dog”, Leckie was only seventeen, eighteen years old and that contrived image succeeded in shocking the vast majority of those who came across it, either live or through the media. Though it took decades for Steven to live down the negativity associated with that particularly evil stage character he had created (filmmakers and novelists rarely suffer this sort of prejudice), the Viletones lyrics were not about white power (from what I can make out through the distortion, even the scarily-named Swastika Girl seems to be just a “boy infatuated with girl” tune, though I could be wrong) or anything resembling fascism, as they were songs of personal frustration and anger and unfulfilled “possibilities”, along the nihilistic/individualistic lines of The Dead Boys and The Sex Pistols, lacking the social politics of more collectivist bands such as The Clash and DOA.

You're seeing the world through cynical eyes
I'm seeing the world through the eyes of somebody new
Oh there's a hope left
There's a dream still in my heart
Look past the answers
There's a chance that there's no rule book for this love

All possibilities
Are landing at my feet
There's nothing I can see
But possibilities

from Possibilities - Viletones

Hamilton punk band The Forgotten Rebels had a lead singer named Mickey deSadist and wrote songs about bombing Iran (have times really changed???) and actually (ridiculously) gave a Seig Heil type salute in their stage show, yet they barely caused a ripple as pretty much everyone except the ultra-obtuse and socially constipated were aware it was a parody of fascism. With the Viletones, people weren't sure, as their intensity made everything seem very real, and the lines between their stage show and personal lives remained blurred for a long time. Even if Viletones were also perceived as satire, Canada and the music suits were not ready for anything appearing to be so extreme and offensive. Real anarchy scared the money men away.

The social / political camp of punk rock pioneers included the likes of The Clash, Billy Bragg, DOA, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag (anarcho / political) and eventually Green Day. My late 70s Vancouver band The Reactors were in this camp, as was my Toronto group Joe College and The Rulers, though both were minor players in their respective scenes. The beauty and vitality of punk was that it was all about the music and the lifestyle, and bands from all 3 political “ideologies” (or lack of same) regularly shared bills and toured together. If it was hard, fast, angry and fun, it was punk!

The late Stiv Bators of Dead Boys

The 3rd wing of punk rock's founding years comprised excellent Fun / Hedonist bands such as Ramones, Stooges, Teenage Head, New York Dolls, The Diodes etc, all awesome live acts who stood for rebellion whether there was a cause or not. They promoted anti-authoritarianism in general, worshipped youthfulness and fast-living, and repped the joyfulness punk brought to teenagers everywhere.

In summary, though they never achieved commercial success, Viletones placed Toronto on the punk map and helped kickstart a global revolution in music that saw the longhaired double-LP airy fairy concept album replaced with the heavy pounding guitar and rhythms of the 2-3 minute songs of teenage angst and rebellion, and the mosh pit was born to celebrate OUR music.

Steven Leckie and a more recent incarnation of Viletones

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