I still have my punk scars. A lump on my nose where it was broken one night outside of the Rotters Club in Ottawa in 1978, and a companion dent beneath my left eye. I earned them by running into the wrong people on Bank Street after enjoying a scorching performance by Hamilton’s mighty Teenage Head. The perps had just spilled out of a hard rock/country joint called the Hitching Post, and they decided some punk ass – or, more accurately, university student wannabe punk ass – needed some righteous kicking. Sudden and unprovoked, it was over faster than a 1-2-3-4 count-in to a Ramones single.
Stuart Smith smiles when I tell him that story, then goes me several times better. He tells me about bomb threats he received after opening Rotters, Ottawa’s pioneering punk venue, in that seminally noisy year of 1977. Death threats, too. The tires on his vehicle were slashed a total of 17 times. Rival club-owners weren’t happy about this instantly successful punk upstart, and the local musicians’ union took a dim view of the Rotters’ cheeky policy of insisting bands play original music only, which ran directly counter to the bizarre, and thankfully long-gone dictum that only cover music could be performed in local live venues.
“Sometimes I’d park blocks from the club,” Smith remembers, “but every time I’d go back they’d found it.
“I look back now and I know how much danger I was in,” Smith says in the comfort of his home-studio cum condominium high above Toronto’s Bay Street, “but at the time it didn’t occur to me. I was just trying to have a good time with my friends, and not lose money. But it got scary and it soured the whole thing. So I came to Toronto, started working in commercial real estate, and never went back.”
I’m sitting with Smith in his condo because the 61-year-old musician, early punk adopter and commercial real estate broker – he has placed more than 40 stores on Queen Street West alone, and sheepishly admits: “If anyone’s responsible for what happened to Queen Street West, it’s me” – has decided the time has come to go back. Back to Ottawa, to the late-seventies, to his short-lived clubs such as Rotters and 80s, and to one of the most concentrated, eclectic and fleeting episodes in Canadian music history. Largely because of Smith, a British-born immigrant who arrived in the capital at the age of 18 in 1970, Ottawa rocked back in the day. And he has the recordings to prove it.
“I feel like it’s unfinished business,” Smith says with a nod toward a stack of reel-to-reel tapes by his kitchen. “And now’s the time to get it done.”
What’s the hurry? He says that if he leaves it too late, “some nephew will come down here, root through my stuff and chuck it all in the bin. And that’s going to happen all over the world.”
For the past several months, Smith and long-time musical co-conspirator Carl Schultz have been painstakingly working their way through that stack of tapes. At a rate of two days per track, they’ve remastered and digitized some 300 studio-quality tracks of Ottawa music that they recorded for the Double Helix production label when Rotters was raising such an unholy ruckus on Bank.
They’re all here. Key local acts such as the Red Squares (art punk), The Action (glam punk) and the inevitably named Bureaucrats (meat-pie-and-potatoes Britpunk). Smith and Schultz recorded live off the board at his clubs, and also some skull-splitting early live covers done by Smith’s proto-punk, psych-rock outfit Mickey Rat.
Smith plays me the remastered version of Rot n’ Role, a 1980 compilation LP of Rotters regulars he’ll be releasing later this year. The rollout of Ottawa alternative music is part of a Canadian punk revival that’s been gathering momentum and volume in the past five or so years. And it sounds astonishingly good: fresh, fun, smart and intense, and recorded with a professionalism that few scenes across the entire country enjoyed. If it finds its way to the right listeners – and at no time has interest in punk music been keener than right now – Rot n’ Role might well stand as a resurrected classic of its era.
It began last week, as Smith and Schultz released MP3 singles of the Red Squares’ Transmitter and Ottawa Today on July 1. That will be followed first by a launch of the remastered Rot n’ Role CD in the fall and then by a proposed five-disc Double Helix compilation in time for Christmas.
And if Smith has his way, on it will go: He has albums’ worth of recordings by most of the acts that contributed single tracks to the 1980 compilation. And there’s enough live music to keep him and Schultz busy for some months yet.
It’s a legacy project, the belated unearthing of a singular and nearly forgotten moment in Canadian music history.
It happened in Ottawa, and I’ve got the scars to prove it. So I have to ask: Why there and then?
“It’s a phenomenon that happens when people get into groups and they’re in isolated parts of a big city or in a small town,” Smith says. “The Hacienda, CBGBs, the 100 Club. It’s a bit more than a place you go to see a band. It’s an artists’ colony. And we had one of those in Ottawa. Maybe we didn’t know it at the time, but I think back now and realize how amazingly lucky we were to experience it.”