You've almost certainly never heard of Slow – a five-piece rock 'n' roll band that is reuniting after 30 years to play a series of shows in Victoria and Vancouver – and that isn't surprising. The group's entire oeuvre consisted of one single and a six-song EP. They only played a handful of shows east of the Rockies, and broke up – most of them still in their teens – in the wake of an anarchic, riot-provoking concert at Expo 86.
Yet, nobody who saw a Slow concert will ever forget it, or them. Well before grunge, they blazed like a shooting star of adolescent angst through the vacuous eighties, melding punk, glam, blues, surf music, power pop and hard rock. They are, in my opinion, the most vivid – and underrated – band ever to come out of Canada. The timely reissue of their album Against the Glass by the Toronto label Arttofact is also a reminder of a place and time now lost to history: Vancouver, pre-1986, when it was still a sleepy, end-of-the-line port town where isolation and cheap rents fostered the uniquely self-sufficient music-and-arts scene that in turn fostered Slow. When the band takes to the stage for a three-night gig at Vancouver's Fox Cabaret starting FridayDec. 1, they will be playing to a very different city.
When it comes to Slow, I'll admit that I'm biased. I went to high school with some of the members and, at one point, the band asked me to manage them; I wisely declined. (A skinny English-lit major with an easy blush, I was gravely ill-equipped for the task of shaking down dive-bar owners for an extra case of beer.) But I made sure to get to as many shows as I could. Slow were too good to miss.
They were, physically speaking, an arresting bunch. On the bass, there was sideburned, gentle-giant Stephen Hamm, who towered over the rotund, whip-smart Terry Russell on drums – a savant rhythm section plucked from one of the best high-school jazz bands in the Lower Mainland. On lead guitar, Chris Thorvaldson, who worshipped at the altar of Chuck Berry and Dick Dale, always sported suit, tie and a seraphic smile. On rhythm was spider-limbed, spike-haired Ziggy Sigmund; vocals were provided by Tom Anselmi, a Botticelli-faced cherub capable of the most devilish Jim Morrison growls. Wherever they played – on a waterlogged stage at the underground booze can Stalag Thirteen or standing on surfboards at the Savoy in Gastown – they tore the place up. Nobody remained indifferent.
Our parents had come from Britain, central Canada or the United States to settle, – some in communes and other intentional communities – in the earnest belief that British Columbia was a North Pacific Lotus Land, a blank slate to be blithely occupied and enjoyed. We, who rode the Brill trolley buses with First Nations people and cast-offs of the resource economy who clearly weren't profiting from the occupation, took a perverse delight in serving as reality instructors to our parents' generation. American-born Anselmi in particular was expert at parroting hippie talk, causing even the most tranquil boomers to lose their cool with his pitch-perfect sarcasm.
Anti-utopian sneering at the Age of Aquarius – which in Vancouver seemed to last well into the eighties – was part of the standard armamentarium of DOA, the Subhumans, the Young Canadians and other Vancouver punk groups. Slow was less orthodox: Their influences included James Brown, Agent Orange, the Stooges and glam rockers Sweet. (Some music writers have filed them away as "proto-grunge," a label Tom doesn't think much of: "The difference between Slow and bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden," he told me recently, "is that we were Led Zeppelin-free.")
Lyrically, they were also more sophisticated than other bands. Listen to Bad Man, the third song on the first side of Against the Glass. A juggernaut guitar intro precedes a harrowing account of the crimes of a child abuser, delivered in a slur of outrage. Know that the lyrics were written by a 17-year-old whose childhood was spent in a rural intentional community – at a time when groovy free love blended into creepy sexual licence – and imagine how deeply disturbing this song would have been to bien-pensants of Vancouver in the heyday of Pied Pumkin and Raffi.
I missed Slow's most infamous show, at the Xerox Theatre at Expo 86, a world's fair even then seen as a greed-inspired, welfare-hotel-clearing grab of Vancouver's industrial heartlands. Slow arrived on stage after drinking most of the 10 cases of beer they'd demanded in their contract and delivered on their "wildly-out-of-control" billing. They started by ripping apart some onstage props and throwing them into the audience and then played so loudly (and, let it be said, sloppily) that the organizers turned off their amps. Anselmi responded by inviting the audience to salute then-premier Bill Bennett with sarcastic "Sieg Heils," before Hamm stopped the show entirely by dropping his pants. and – in his own words – "wagging his wally." The audience spilled out onto the fairground and rioted in front of the on-site CTV station; the ensuing set-to with security made headlines in Billboard and London's Daily Mirror.
Michael Turner, a musician and author of the novel Hard Core Logo, sees Slow's performance that night as a seminal moment in Vancouver music history. "What Slow did at Expo was the equivalent of what the Imperial Japanese kamikaze pilots did to the U.S. Navy. It is the most punk thing a band has ever done in this city, and for that, too, they must be remembered and appreciated."
What I, a friend and fan, will remember is scenes from the concerts I did attend: Sigmund spinning onstage until he was tangled in guitar cords like a praying mantis in a tarantula's web, or the looks on the faces of bar patrons as Anselmi crawled over their tables, sending pints and pitchers flying. The band disintegrated, like their 1969 Econoline van, in the cross-country tour that followed the Expo debacle. They played their last show at Vancouver's Town Pump on Oct. 13, 1986.
In the years that followed, I saw shows by other alternative bands; after Slow, they all seemed as if polite echoes of genuine chaos and subversion. the Tragically Hip, in their quintessentially Canadian way, brooded dark and melancholy over a centre that would almost certainly hold. Slow were something else entirely: To see them perform was to stand on the continental shelf and witness things gloriously falling apart.
As for their reunion – I wish them well. After varied careers in music, they say they are feeling the old gestalt of jamming together. (Which was always the point: When you get the right people together, a band – like a street gang – can become a plausible countersociety to the prevailing dystopia.) Anselmi is writing new songs and Hamm tells me it feels like they picked up where they left off three decades ago.
One thing is certain: The Vancouver that could produce a mad, bad, dangerous-to-know band such as Slow doesn't exist any more. The alternative schools and affordable bungalows where we spent our youth are either gone or are $3-million teardowns. The Expo lands are now filled with Yaletown see-throughs and fuerdai from the other side of the Pacific racing brand-new Bentleys. The city that always boasted of its beauty has become a victim of its own geoclimatic enviability.
The past, I know now, really is a foreign country. The place we grew up in – before an out-of-control real-estate deformed almost every human relationship – is not one that can be revisited. But it is one that can be recalled. And that's something I do every time I put the well-worn vinyl of Against the Glass on my turntable.
Taras Grescoe is the author of Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue on the Eve of the Second World War.