On Sunday, Teenage Head guitarist and Canadian punk pioneer Gord Lewis was found dead in a downtown Hamilton apartment. His son Jonathan Lewis has been charged with second-degree murder.
Gord Lewis, 65 at the time of his death, was the sweet-natured barre-chord dynamo that drove Canada’s greatest punks, who, despite their high status, were beloved underdogs. Legions rooted for the unsophisticated band behind Disgusteen and Teenage Beer Drinking Party. Some even fought for them.
In the 2020 documentary Picture My Face: The Story of Teenage Head, former Ramones drummer Marky Ramone spoke about Teenage Head and how fortunate Canada was to have their presence on the punk rock landscape. “You guys were lucky to have a band like that,” he said.
Ramone wasn’t wrong. Beginning with its chugging debut single Picture My Face in 1978, the Head rocked lean and hard and bopped with cocksure esprit. Its live-wire shows were the stuff of lore – riot starters, literally. New York had its Dolls; Canada had theirs. In a punk world full of Johnnys – Thunders and Ramone – Canada rolled with a Gordon.
But here’s the thing: The words lucky and Teenage Head don’t belong in the same sentence. The band will be remembered for a bad twist of fate. Its 2017 compilation album is Fun Comes Fast. It can end the same way.
From its inception, Frankie Venom contributed the lyrics; Lewis wrote the unfancy music. Mixing pop-song savvy with joyous rockabilly energy and proto-punk swagger, Teenage Head recorded seven LPs and EPs between 1979 and 1996, including a pair of successful albums in the early 1980s for Attic Records, a Canadian independent label co-founded by Alexander Mair.
“I remember Gord as living for the music,” Mair told the Globe and Mail. “And he was always a gentleman, calling me Mr. Mair.”
Within Teenage Head’s repertoire were proposals that were often irresistible (Let’s Shake) but not always practical (Let’s Go To Hawaii, a cover). For a young generation raised on corporate beer-commercial jingles, they offered electric anthems – “Give me that opener, give me that beer” – for the house-party people. Parents did not exist; it was the teenagers’ turn to “heat up the RCA.”
The band gained front-page notoriety when, on June 2, 1980, some 1,000 angry fans battled 75 police officers for almost four hours outside Toronto’s Ontario Place after they were refused admission to a sold-out concert. Mounted policemen pushed the crowd back through a hail of beer bottles, stones and firecrackers. The mob chanted “fight, fight, fight.” And a harmless, simple-minded rock and roll band welcomed the international attention that arose from the melee.
A series of showcase gigs in New York were arranged in hopes of landing a U.S. record deal. Shortly before the tour was set to begin, however, their luck abruptly came to a halt.
Lewis landed in a hospital intensive care unit after the van the band was travelling in ran off a county road into a ditch near Elora, Ont. The tires skidding on the road was sound of the group’s early-career momentum coming to a halt. “I knew we were going to crash,” Lewis told the Hamilton Spectator. “You could feel it inside the van.”
Lewis, a passenger, was wearing a lap seatbelt. The force of the impact broke his back and some ribs as well. Lewis would need months to recover. The promising schedule of shows was cancelled – a major opportunity missed. “This was the Head’s turn,” the group’s disappointed manager, Jack Morrow, told The Globe at the time.
Lewis eventually recovered. But while the band continued recording and touring, it had lost its place in line. It was a life-changing blow for Lewis, who later in life suffered from clinical depression. “I sensed he always felt guilty for the accident that wasn’t his fault,” said Mair.
In 2008, Frankie Venom died following a battle with throat cancer. This summer, Lewis was still leading a version of the band that had a series of festival gigs lined up.
It’s hard to imagine them continuing without him. Though the title of the band’s 1982 album Some Kinda Fun is a musical epitaph as good as any, thoughts of what might have been for Lewis and the hard-luck Teenage Head are hard to shake.