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Punk-rock pioneer Joe Keithley, AKA, "Joey Shithead," from the seminal band D. O. A. is behind the independent label "Sudden Death Records," which has kept alive Vancouver's street music scene for over 30 years. (Simon Hayter/HAYTER 2009)
Punk-rock pioneer Joe Keithley, AKA, "Joey Shithead," from the seminal band D. O. A. is behind the independent label "Sudden Death Records," which has kept alive Vancouver's street music scene for over 30 years. (Simon Hayter/HAYTER 2009)

D.O.A.'s label rocks the DIY ethic Add to ...

It was May, 1978. Disco dominated the airwaves and the nightclubs.

The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever was in the midst of a 25-week run as the top album on the Billboard charts. Guys with open shirts and gals with Farrah Fawcett hair were buying 45s of Stayin' Alive , Le Freak , and, later in the year, Boogie Oogie Oogie . In Vancouver, a trio of suburban kids became the first punk rockers invited to perform in a battle-of-the-bands showdown. They didn't win the contest, but their rabid supporters doused the hapless emcee in a shower of beer and spittle.

Things that work: the eighth story in series on a better B.C.

The next obvious step for the new band was to get into a recording studio. They faced a problem.

"Everybody hates us, no one will sign us, we'll never get a record," remembers Joey Keithley.

In the true spirit of punk, the members of D.O.A. decided to embrace DIY - do it yourself.

They booked time at Ocean Sound Studios in North Vancouver, located in a cinderblock building with all the ambience of a doomsday bunker. The session went well with only one snag. After the bed tracks had been recorded, it was time for the vocals. Problem was they hadn't been written yet. In about 15 minutes, Mr. Keithley finished writing the lyrics to four songs.

The record was pressed at Imperial Records, where 500 copies of the seven-inch vinyl were ordered. (PTL, the first company Mr. Keithley tried, rejected his business, thinking the songs satanic. Only later did he learn the company's initials stood for Praise the Lord.) As it turned out, the records played about four seconds faster than the master tapes, a glitch that only made the band sound ever more frenetic.

The art on the cover of the extended-play record included a photograph of Mr. Keithley's girlfriend on a stretcher, a sheet pulled over her head, leaving only her toes exposed. The reverse side featured a photo of the band with their noms de punk - Randy Rampage, Chuck Biscuits and Joey Xhead (he crossed out his vulgar scatalogical nickname, suspecting the record otherwise would not be stocked by stores) - and a list of the tracks: Royal Police , Woke Up Screaming , Nazi Training Camp , and, doing double-duty as the EP title, Disco Sucks .

It had all the graphic elegance of a ransom note cut-and-paste by glue-sniffing monkeys.

You'd be lucky today to find a copy for anything less than a cool C-note.

Thus was born Sudden Death Records, a small label whose sputtering existence over three decades belies its cheeky name.

In a city known for having launched the spectacular careers of the likes of Bryan Adams, many more musicians have found an audience and an income, however limited, thanks to the vision and the cash-in-the-beer-bottles-between-paydays dedication of independent labels such as Mr. Keithley's.

"We're a mom-and-pop operation," said Mr. Keithley, whose wife and eldest son work for the label.

The business was left dormant for many years until revived by a line of credit obtained in 1998. The label has handled more than 50 full-length albums from a variety of acts.

Perhaps most importantly, it has reissued long out-of-print records by the cream of Vancouver's late 1970s punk and new wave scene, including music by the Modernettes, the Pointed Sticks and the Young Canadians. Sudden Death also handled the revival of the legendary Vancouver Complicated anthology. The difficulty in determining who was owed what royalties led all the acts to agree to a shared payment of zero. The lucky beneficiary of the decision was the Vancouver Food Bank, which received a donation for $5,000.

D.O.A. will be returning to the studio in the new year to record two albums, one of which will be titled This Machine Kills Fascists , which is the slogan American folk troubadour Woody Guthrie placed on his guitar.

Their most recent Sudden Death CD is D.O.A.: Kings of Punk, Hockey and Beer . They love the winter game, icing scofflaw teams in which all the players wore No. 13 sweaters. Playing against D.O.A. was like facing a squad where all your opponents were Tiger Williams.

That sense of humour has also marked their approach to music, which can be said to be more political than playful. Over the years, D.O.A. has Rocked For This and Rocked Against That. Their viewpoint has been expressed over the years by graffiti that became a common sight in east Vancouver: Talk minus action equals zero.

Disco is dead, while Sudden Death Records continues to entertain the kids. There's got to be a lesson there. Joe?

"Be your own boss," he said. "Think for yourself. Try to effect some positive change in the world. That's the do-it-yourself ethic."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Follow on Twitter: @tomhawthorn

 

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