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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Viletones and the Foundations of Punk Rock

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

by Yuya Joe College (excerpt from forthcoming book "The Vile Ones - Bad Boys of Punk")

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, 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.

Sex Pistols live

Most people know of Steven Leckie via his public image, the sneering, arm-slashing punk pioneer threatening everything in his way, including the social mores of the time. Naming ones' stage character Nazi Dog was a recipe for being barred from the industry, yet the aura of being an outsider rebel breaking doors down was exactly what he had crafted... and from the beginning I saw a different side of him.

Growing up in a family with Hollywood glitter on his mother's side and ad agency hucksterism via his father, Steve was well-positioned for the rock'n'roll circus he plunged headlong into, and Toronto was just not ready for the lyrical iconoclast and stage chameleon.

My bass player in JC and The Rulers was Menachem Begin (aka Russell Bethune), a strong 6'3” gentleman of Jamaican-Canadian heritage, and he knew Steven before I did. A couple of years earlier, Steve had asked Russ to “beat somebody up” for him, though Russell politely declined the opportunity. When we were working on preparations for the Rock Against Radiation protest concert in July 1980 at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, I witnessed a hungover Steven in his Grosvenor Street apartment inquiring if I “had any pills”, so from the foundational days of punk I have always seen Mr. Leckie's more vulnerable, offstage personality as the real man.

Steven Leckie with the inestimable Garth Hudson (The Band)

During Toronto's early punk years, Steven Leckie invented a stage persona that was as repulsive as anything punk rock had to offer. Many were repelled that he would have done this, 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.

Joe Strummer of The Clash
On 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), Viletones lyrics were not about white power 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

Viletones at Rock Against Radiation, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto

Hamilton punk band The Forgotten Rebels had a lead singer named Mickey deSadist and wrote songs about bombing Iran (have times really changed???) and sometimes (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 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 mostly branch-plant music suits employed therein were not ready for anything appearing to be so extreme and offensive. Real anarchy scared the money men away.

Steven Leckie and Malcolm Mclaren

Where Steve could have made a lot of cash by selling out, the opposite was true for Frankie Venom and Teenage Head. The Head were already safe enough that they did not need to listen to the industry reps, and releasing Something On My Mind as an acoustic softie cost them much of their fan base and killed their careers. Just imagine if they had recorded that song in typical Ramones / Teenage Head style; it would have been a big hit and the upward trajectory on the band's success would have been maintained.

Viletones at Rock Against Radiation

By contrast, Steven and his Viletones were more untouchable than the Sex Pistols ever were, for they had the misfortune of being born into the abode of the Victorian moralists, Toronto the Good. Here people did not always perceive punk as entertainment, but as a threat to the very fabric of Canadian lives. Viletones were feared and hated and despised and cast out into the wilderness, and with little to no record industry support, the band rarely reared its head after 1983/84.

Other early Toronto “punk” bands were not always true punks in the hardcore sense, but rather rock'n'roll (Battered Wives), New Wave (Martha and the Muffins) and pop punk (eg Diodes) musicians, so Viletones really only had The Demics as local competition for quite a long time. Still, competition creates a scene whereas isolation leads to loneliness and withering, and without a strong, vibrant and industry-supported growing local punk scene, what action there was ended up being mostly underground, small club shows, rent parties and benefits. The only hope for Viletones would have been to move to the USA...

Early DOA: Joey, Chuck, Randy (Chuck was about 15 at the time this pic was taken)

The social / political camp of punk rock pioneers included the likes of The Clash, Billy Bragg, DOA, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains 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 three political “ideologies” (or lack of same) regularly shared bills and toured together. If it was hard, fast, angry and fun, it was punk!

Iggy and The Stooges were formidable punk pioneers.

The third 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 youthful rebellion and wanton partying 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.

Stiv Bators (Dead Boys) with friend Steven Leckie

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. The likes of Green Day, Linkin Park and Billy Talent all owe a tremendous debt to first generation punk rocker Steven Leckie, pioneering singer, writer and frontman for Viletones, Canada's first punk rock band.


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