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Keithley, who is legendary in the punk world, says he has knocked on about 2,000 doors over two months in the runup to the NDP nomination in the riding of Coquitlam-Burke Mountain. (Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)
Keithley, who is legendary in the punk world, says he has knocked on about 2,000 doors over two months in the runup to the NDP nomination in the riding of Coquitlam-Burke Mountain. (Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)

music

What happens when an old punk rocker enters politics Add to ...

What’s considered Vancouver’s first official punk concert took place at the Japanese Hall on July 30, 1977. The Dishrags, an all-female teenage act from Victoria, opened for the Furies.

“It was packed full with the news media everywhere,” recalls Malcolm Hasman, who played bass for the Furies, and now lives a decidedly un-punk-rock life as a successful real-estate agent marketing luxury properties in Metro Vancouver. “That same night in Vancouver, Emerson, Lake & Palmer … had sold out the Pacific Coliseum with 15,000 people, yet in the Vancouver Sun the next day, we were the big story.”

Just a month earlier, D.O.A.’s predecessor, the Skulls, had formed and played their first show at a beach band shell in suburban White Rock. The audience, as Keithley recalls, was made up of “rock ’n’ roll greaseballs” in Jack Daniel’s T-shirts; people hurled food at the band. The next morning, Keithley called up The Georgia Straight newspaper and told a music writer that his band had started a riot on the beach. Opening up the Straight later that week, he was thrilled to see D.O.A. called Vancouver’s most-hated rock band.

They were on their way.

After playing one of those early punk shows at the Japanese Hall, the Skulls would soon split up, and Keithley formed D.O.A. in early 1978. Knowing they’d never get a record deal, D.O.A. went D.I.Y. The members cashed their unemployment-insurance cheques and booked time at a local studio. In nine hours, they recorded the four-song EP Disco Sucks, which the band distributed around town themselves.

In the early days, many of D.O.A.’s big moments were political. They headlined an Anarchy in Canada concert in Stanley Park on Canada Day, 1978, which the police tried to shut down. The following year – during which the band opened for the Clash at the PNE – they were invited to play the Rock Against Racism concert in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Back in Vancouver, they helped organize a Rock Against Radiation concert (police once again tried to squelch it) and played another one the following year at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square.

D.O.A. took aim at politicians themselves, too. An early concert poster for a Victoria show featured a caricature of federal Conservative MP (and, briefly, prime minister) Joe Clark with “Joe Shithead?” printed underneath in bold letters. In 1980, D.O.A. played a protest show in Detroit that coincided with the Republican National Convention.

A riot broke out when Reagan supporters approached the park in which the anti-Republic concert was being held, and police moved in. On their manager’s advice, D.O.A. launched into the song Fucked Up Ronnie and then took off.

Eventually, the scene ran its course, peaking around the turn of the decade. The final nail in the coffin, according to Tabata, was likely the fallout from the political activism of the group that came to be known as the Squamish Five. Arrested in early 1983 in connection with a series of bombings, the group’s members included Subhumans bassist Gerry Hannah, who ultimately went to prison for his role in the Squamish Five’s activities. D.O.A. recorded a single, Right To Be Wild, to help raise money for their legal defence. It was, in general, a politically galvanizing year in B.C., which came close to a general strike, and D.O.A. released a benefit single called, you guessed it, General Strike. “At that moment, I think we became British Columbia’s official protest band,” Keithley writes in the book.

Over the years, D.O.A. has kept at it, Keithley and various incarnations of the band continuing to record and tour, not winding it down until now.

How long the band will be out of commission will depend on the political fortunes of Keithley, who has run twice unsuccessfully for the serially unvictorious Green Party, and may be facing another uphill challenge in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, which is currently held by the Liberals.

Among the three other challengers for the NDP nomination, to be decided March 3, is a popular former city counsellor, NDP stalwart Barrie Lynch. But Keithley, who figures he has knocked on about 2,000 doors over two months looking for support in the riding, says he has signed up many residents, and that they were receptive to his take on issues he has long been been putting into the spotlight.

“When we started out, we thought the world was filled with warmongers, greed, sexism and racism,” Keithley says. “And a lot of things haven’t changed. When I think about it, that’s really why I’ve carried on this long. There are wrongs there that still need to be righted.”

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