I missed the first wave of local punk bands in Toronto by about two, maybe three, years. By the time I was able to get into bars it was pretty much over. The bands, The Viletones and The Diodes to name two, and events, The Last Pogo, were already fading into the mystery of myth memory by 1981. Thankfully, while parts of the scene had been co-opted and cleaned up for consumption by suburbanites, places like The Spadina Hotel, Larry’s Hideaway, and The Horseshoe Tavern still catered to the punk trade.
Here you could see both second generation punk bands and those few who had survived from the first wave. While I was more interested in bands like The Rheostatics, L’Etranger, and Directive 17, it would have been still possible to have seen The Scenics up until 1982. Ken Badger (guitar and vocals), Andy Meyers (guitar, bass and vocals), Mark Perkell (drums), and Mike Young (guitar, bass and vocals) stayed intact longer then most, but that was the year they called it quits.
While they were lumped in with the punk movement, it was more because they embraced the “do it yourself” ethos of the times than because of their music. Instead of looking to The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, or even The Clash for inspiration, their music mixed an appreciation for Patti Smith, Television, and Pere Ubu with a liking for Roxy Music and The Velvet Underground. Probably not a sound that most would have understood or appreciated on the nascent punk scene in Toronto.
During their first go round from 1976 to 1982, The Scenics released one LP, Underneath The Door, one 45, and were included on both the album and in the film made of The Last Pogo, a weekend-long marathon of Toronto independent/punk bands held in 1978. The band lay dormant from 1982 until 2008 when they released How Does It Feel To Be Loved, a collection of Velvet Underground covers, and in 2009 released Sunshine World, a collection of recordings they had made between 1977 and 1978 which had never seen the light of day. Now comes their first recording of new material in 30 years, dead man walks down bayview on their own Dream Tower Records.
I have to confess as to being curious what, if anything, these guys could have to offer that would be interesting after all this time. However, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, if others from that era can still be putting out music that’s relevant and interesting there’s no reason they couldn’t do the same. Upon listening to this new recording my first impression was there’s no way these guys should have been lumped in with three-chord punk if this is an example of what they were producing in their first go round. In fact after listening to the first few songs and the big jangling guitar sound, my first impression was here were people who had listened to a lot of The Birds and Graham Parsons.
Yet to say they are kind of an alt-country band is wrong. It just took me a while to get past the melodic guitar sound. It’s been so long since I’ve heard guitar that doesn’t sound like its patched through a million effects boxes that I’d almost forgotten the instrument could fill space with just its resonance. The more I listened to this recording, the more amazed I became at the quality of sound they were able to produce using only the standard rock and roll set up of bass, drums, and guitars. Normally you think “loud” when you think “full” for that kind of band. However, The Scenics manage to fill space with their music without necessarily being loud. It has a richness and a melody that gives it substance you don’t normally find in a rock combo’s music.
As they did originally, Meyers and Badger split the songwriting duties for this disc. Musically you can still hear traces of outside influences with Velvet Underground overtones here (“A Fox, Her Fur, an Where She Parks It”), a Birds influence there (“When You Come Around”), and rockabilly coming out on “No Sleep”. The latter is actually the closest song on the disc to being akin to any of the old punk stuff you could hear back in the 1970s and early ’80s. With a rockabilly beat given a hard and dangerous edge, you’d never confuse this with anything from the Sun Record catalogue. The lyrics have the same rather nasty tone to them as they describe the reasons for the “No Sleep” of the song’s title. “I say I love you and I get the fear that you’ll never dump me for a thousand years/No sleep/No sleep/No sleep anymore/Tall Sally’s built for speed/Cheap speed is all she needs”.
However, this track is the only one which comes in at under three minutes. In fact with the majority of the songs on the recording being a minimum of five minutes in length, these guys break the cardinal punk rule of keeping songs short, simple, and fast on nearly every cut. At over seven minutes, “Growing Pains” isn’t even the longest cut on the disc. However, it’s much more representative of the band’s sound than “No Sleep”. Haunting and sparse, but at the same time melodic, its combination of vocal and instrumental harmonies—listen for the guitar solo at about the three minute mark, with the second guitar providing a harmony line for the lead—is an object lesson in how a basic four-piece band can have intricate arrangements without sounding pretentious.
Judging by the lyrics, the title of the song refers to the growth and progression of a relationship, from that first spark of interest in a person who you might glimpse from afar and the gradual process of two people getting to know each other. “Some lights seem brighter when they’re farther away/I’ll make you my galleon/Somethings you hold just to hold away/And they’re no answers/I see you in streets and shapes/I see you in sidewalks and streetcars/I see something else/And you’re nowhere at all/Like me”.
Over the course of the song, both the language and the music intensify as more is revealed. However, instead of there being some neat and tidy resolution, it ends with an ever-increasingly noisy and harsh instrumental which then just peters out into nothing for the final few moments of the tune. Inconclusive and confusing, but compelling all the same, some might feel like they’ve been left hanging. However, the reality of relationships is such there are no easy paths to follow while you learn about the other person and grow from two individuals into a couple. What I heard listening to this song was a band managing to capture this emotionally volatile and charged state of being both musically and lyrically.
The Scenics might have come of age in the first wave of punk in the 1970s, but they are no more a punk band than The Talking Heads were. Yet, while the art rock influences of The Velvet Underground and Roxy Music are unmistakable, their sound also reflects the rejection of the excesses of the rock and roll of the early 1970s, which was a hallmark of the punk scene. Combined with their willingness to embrace a range of musical influences that includes country and the ability to create music which reflects the emotional content of their lyrics, they have a sound unique onto themselves.
dead man walks down bayview is not an attempt to recapture the lost glory of youth by a bunch of middle-aged wannabes. What you have is a collection of songs both musically interesting and lyrically intriguing. Maybe this time around no one is going to mislabel them and lump then into some category they don’t belong. This is a band that deserves to be recognized for who they are and what they are capable of producing.