Skip to main content

D.O.A. was considered one of the premier bands during Vancouver’s punk-rock era in the late seventies and early eighties.

It's July 1, 1978, and a baby-faced Joe (Joey Shithead) Keithley, in Stanley Park to play an anti-Canada Day concert, is bemoaning the popularity of disco and Fleetwood Mac - just as the police arrive to shut down his alternative event. So opens Bloodied But Unbowed: an examination of Vancouver's late-1970s/early-1980s punk scene.

Fast-forward more than three decades, and there's Keithley again, in the opening shot of the film No Fun City, still expressing concerns about the state of the music scene in Vancouver. This time, he's on about a lack of venues.

Both films are about to have their world premieres at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, which opens in Vancouver on Friday, both made by filmmakers who are intimately familiar with the subject matter.

"I come from the scene," says Susanne Tabata, 50, a Vancouver filmmaker who got her start working on the local community cable show Night Dreams, where as a teenager she interviewed many of the punk acts featured in her Bloodied But Unbowed.

Those personal connections helped to secure her access to a cache of archival footage that paints a vivid picture of a seminal time in Vancouver's musical history, when bands such as D.O.A. ( Disco Sucks), the Pointed Sticks ( What Do You Want Me To Do?) and the Subhumans ( Fuck You) played the Smilin' Buddha Cabaret, heroin use was rampant and anti-establishment activity extended far beyond the stage - and often beyond the law.

The extensive archival footage is paired with candid present-day interviews with the musicians, including punk hero Art Bergmann and Gerry Barad, now a top executive with global music promoter Live Nation.

"I see this as an oral history," Tabata says. "I'm really trying to keep it a story that's told by the survivors."

Keithley is one of those survivors. At 53, he still fronts D.O.A. (he is the only remaining original member) and continues to tour.

"I don't think the bands got a break because we were from Vancouver, which at the time was pretty much a backwater," Keithley said in an interview from the airport, where he was about to board a flight to begin a European tour. "There was no music industry or anything like that. At the same time, it fostered a really creative scene. There was no pressure like in Toronto or New York or L.A., where a lot of bands conformed to what A&R people thought were successful formulas. But in Vancouver it was kind of like the Wild West and everybody just made everything up as they went."

The film addresses that dichotomy of Vancouver: a sleepy West Coast town with a thriving punk scene.

"From the moment I started playing, I was aware that Vancouver had the best punk-rock scene," Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver says in Bloodied But Unbowed. Tabata also touches on Kurt Cobain's connection to the Vancouver scene (although some rarely seen archival footage of Cobain and Courtney Love had to be cut because of rights issues).

Tabata spent three-and-a-half years making the film (which will be broadcast in the fall on B.C.'s Knowledge Network and on TVOntario after that), taking on part-time jobs such as delivering auto parts to support herself. It's about time this chapter in music - and civic - history was examined, she believes, and by choosing to be the one to document it, she feels a great responsibility. "The pressure to tell this story is on my shoulders."

Thirty years after the punk explosion, Vancouver's underground music scene continues to thrive, but the struggles remain. No Fun City, a new documentary by Melissa James and Kate Kroll, looks at the fight to preserve Vancouver's music venues in the era of the City of Glass, when rising condos and their noise-wary owners threaten the head-banging way of life.

Originally meant to be a straight look at the music scene, the film morphed when venues - in particular, the beloved Cobalt - started closing. "So we changed the direction of the project," James says. "It really became [about] taking on this much bigger issue: Why is it that it's so hard to keep a music venue in Vancouver?"

James, 31, and Kroll, 27, are friends who met at The Sweatshop, one of the venues that closed during the course of the filmming. They make no secret of the fact that they're part of the scene and sympathetic to the cause.

"We offer a more kind of understanding or compassionate view of people that might appear intimidating or might appear to just be unconventional," James says. "It's a good opportunity to be able to show people that we're just like everyone else ... and just because we don't look the same as everyone else, it doesn't mean that that makes us any different."

While the film pays homage to the city's alternative music history, it is very much about the situation today, when a shortage of venues has forced some creativity on the part of bands and promoters. One promoter, Malice, drives around looking for empty industrial space where he might put on concerts after the venue he owns is closed; the band Sex Negatives puts on gigs in an underground parking garage (at one point draining the power from a Jessica Alba film shoot).

No Fun City serves as a celebration of DIY culture and the bands that subscribe to it, but it also raises alarm bells about the future of a music landscape that has such a rich past. "There's always been a great scene in Vancouver," says Justin Hagberg, with the band 3 Inches of Blood. "But you can see it's getting thinner and thinner with every venue that gets shut down."

No Fun City screens at Pacific Cinémathèque on May 10 at 9 p.m. (sold out) and Bloodied But Unbowed screens at the Empire Granville 7 Theatre, May 13 at 8 p.m. (