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Teenage Head: The band that (unintentionally) inspired Canadian punk

The punk genre didn’t exist when Teenage Head – pictured July 1, 1977 – came together in ’75, but the band has come to live with the label.

The reason Teenage Head, the Hamilton band that will mark 40 years together this Saturday at a concert at the Phoenix in Toronto, didn't consider themselves a punk band when they formed in 1975, is because the term – at least as it would soon come to be coined – didn't really exist yet. They predated the phenomenon that, for better or worse, would become their destiny.

The context is important, for not only does it clarify just how early certain pockets of Canadian music were, by the mid-seventies, creating new forms of deliberately stripped-to-the-basics rock 'n' roll that would come to be called "punk," it tells us something about the role labels play in pop music and how they shape perceptions. Original intentions aside, when the current iteration of Teenage Head – Gord Lewis on guitar, Steve Mahon on bass, Jack Pedler on drums and Pete MacAuley singing vocals – takes the stage this weekend, they will do so as Canada's longest-running, hardest-rocking and best-loved "punk" band. And like it or not, Teenage Head has come to live with the label.

As a concept, musical genre and specific historical cultural phenomenon, it took punk a long time to get any traction or respect in Canada. Despite the fact that Canadian punk bands were there from the beginning, Canada's contribution to what may well mark the last truly vital global rock-'n'-roll revolution has gone conspicuously, woefully and persistently under-recognized. Take, for instance, the very first sentence in the Wikipedia entry on the subject, which describes punk as "a rock music genre that developed between 1974 and 1976 in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia."

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The facts, however, confound this conventional version of events, and no fact more so than the career and influence of Teenage Head, a band that, by sheer dint of endless gigging for four decades, probably influenced more Canadian kids to make some noise of their own than any other this country had ever produced, and which, in one way at least, might be the purest expression of punk you could ask for: When all was said and done, they couldn't be stopped from doing what they do.

Formed by four Westdale Collegiate high school students – Lewis, Mahon, Nick Stipanitz and Frank (Frankie Venom) Kerr – inspired by the glammed-up, stripped-down early '70s sound of the Stooges, the New York Dolls, Kiss, MC5, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople and David Bowie – Teenage Head arrived at the punk moment the same way most of the movement's pioneers did, which is to say, out of sheer boredom and exasperation over how alarmingly uninteresting so much so-called rock music had become by '75.

And so, in the same way the Ramones perversely channeled producer Phil Spector's "wall of sound" girl-group heyday and the Sex Pistols siphoned sonic energy from the Monkees and Alice Cooper, Teenage Head drew energy from the past: rockabilly, Eddie Cochran, bubblegum. These were the influences that fed the songwriting process that Lewis insisted be a part of the band's m.o. from the beginning, and by the time the band first appeared on the nascent Toronto alternative music scene in '76, they not only had an impressive number of original songs in their set, they'd already rehearsed and performed the hell out of them. Where most of the city's newly sprouted punk acts were defined more by ambition and attitude than musical experience, Teenage Head could really – actually and ferociously – play. And, as more than one gobsmacked local scenester has recalled, they compelled everybody else to step up their game. By early '77, punk had arrived in Toronto, and to a huge extent it pulled in from Hamilton.

But to be labelled punk, especially in Canada, was to be dubiously honoured, draped in a cloak that was as initially exciting and energizing as it would eventually become stifling and confining. For one thing, the Canadian mainstream press used the label as an excuse to gawk condescendingly at a form of music and behaviour it felt entirely licensed to ridicule. "Punk" became a cudgel for beating uppity new musicians, shorthand for untalented and proof positive of precisely the opposite of what had inspired the music in the first place. Instead of undermining the legitimacy of commercial corporate rock music, it reinforced it.

In Canada, long established as a place where anti-authoritarianism and insurrection go to die, punk rock was the best argument the mainstream could have asked for. For those who'd drunk the Kool-Aid being mixed in the media, April Wine had never tasted better. And in '77, the year punk broke the world music scene wide open, Canada's top-selling single internationally was Dan Hill's Sometimes When We Touch, a song so terminally earnest, sentimental and un-rocking it made you want to move to Australia.

For Teenage Head, the road to the current milestone was bumpy. After becoming so popular they caused Canada's most-notorious pop-music riot at Ontario Place in June, 1980, the band was beset by a series of unfortunate events – including vehicular accidents, creative mismanagement, abrupt label changes, lineup changes, Frankie's premature death and corroded internal relations – that would easily have crushed any band less devoted to the sheer simple principle of making ear-splittingly great rock music for people to drink beer to.

That's why, after all these years, that label might actually describe Teenage Head more accurately than ever. For what could be punker than never, ever giving in and going away?

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Geoff Pevere is the author of Gods of the Hammer: The Teenage Head Story

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