Revisiting the Crash ‘n’ Burn Club, birthplace of Canadian punk

We interviewed BBAM! Gallery’s Ralph Alfonso about his leading role at ground zero of Toronto’s punk rock scene.

The Diodes in 1977. Photo by Don Pyle

BBAM! Gallery owner/curator, label manager, music PR rep and punk rock historian Ralph Alfonso has worn more hats than a habasher’s mannequin in his time. Alfonso brings the latest in a non-stop series of cool initiatives to the Phi Centre for POP Montreal on Thursday night with a retrospective showcase on the early Toronto punk scene that includes a super-rare film, an interactive photo exhibit, and the music of Teenage Head’s Gordie Lewis and Dave Rave, the entire original lineup of the Diodes, and locals upcoming punkers The Frisky Kids.

Ralph and I exchanged emails and here, by his eloquent pen, he explains his role in the early days of Canadian raunch ‘n’ roll on the eve of what should be an uncomparable evening of sight and sound (Note: attendees wishing to see the film Crash ‘n’ Burn should arrive by 7 p.m. as the film will begin at 7:15 p.m. sharp).

Darcy MacDonald: Please introduce yourself to our readership and a bit about how you became involved in the music biz.

Ralph Alfonso: My name is Ralph Alfonso. I am originally from Montreal (James Lyng High School) and moved to Ontario in 1975 to study journalism. I was a photographer/journalist with Cheap Thrills magazine and had interviewed the Ramones, Dead Boys, Damned, etc, and decided to do a piece on the emerging Toronto scene. I had seen The Diodes and booked an interview with the lead singer Paul Robinson. This lasted about 4 hours and culminated in him convincing me to manage his band and a new punk club they wanted to create out of their rehearsal space.

That club became the Crash ‘n’ Burn, Canada’s first punk club, created and run by the scene (all the bands helped paint it and build the stage, etc). By creating a club, we helped create the scene, as that became the meeting place and the only place to play. We had the Diodes, Nerves, Dead Boys, Poles, Viletones, Teenage Head, Dishes and others.


Sign from the Crash ‘n’ Burn Club

DM: Please describe the Crash ‘n’ Burn club, what it represented to the scene, and tell us what you can about the film.

RA: The Crash ‘n’ Burn was the basement space of a building owned by an arts collective called CEAC (Centre for Experimental Art and Communication). They were radical and embraced some revolutionary things (i.e. Red Brigades) and saw that the emerging punk scene dovetailed into some of the radical politics that they were moving towards.

In exchange for providing the backing music for some spoken word recordings (later released as Raw/War – the most collectible Canadian punk single), CEAC gave The Diodes access to the basement as a practice space and later club. CEAC was a licensed arts organisation so we were able to get special occasion permits for all the gigs to sell beer.

At some point, the club’s notoriety caught the glare of the media and the CBC commissioned a special “punk rock” report to be filmed by Peter Vronsky who brought in TV lights and crew to film the club in action. An indie filmmaker, Ross Mclaren, found out about that and decided he was going to come in and shoot as well, and take advantage of the lighting.

He came in and we all signed the waivers and he shot on 16mm film over the course of various weekends. The film itself did not appear until after the club had closed and premiered at The Funnel, which was a film collective that took over the space after we were kicked out by CEAC because of the escalating violence at the club (brought on by media “punk” reports) as yahoos came in to start trouble because it’s “punk.”

The Crash ‘n’ Burn film is an incredible document of the 1977 Toronto punk scene and our club. There are two songs each by The Diodes, Teenage Head, The Boyfriends, and The Dead Boys. It’s one thing to read about that era, and a completely different thing to SEE it. It’s only 28 minutes, but what a ride.

The film is not available for sale. There is only one 16mm film print and that’s what we rented to show at POP Montreal.

DM: Who is Don Pyle and what does his photo gallery/talk have in store?

RA: Don Pyle was a cool nerdy teenage guy who hung around the club, taking pictures and helping out. We were so naïve, we didn’t realize we probably should have been checking for ID, we let everybody in and Don was definitely underage. Don was part of a Camera Club at his high school—that way he could get access to chemicals and the darkroom—and took tons of photos at all the pivotal shows in the scene.

He went on to become a drummer in various bands, the most notable being Shadowy Men on A Shadowy Planet, who wrote the theme to The Kids In The Hall.

A few years ago, he went through all his old negs and did a photo exhibition that garnered a lot of attention. I had just started working on the Treat Me Like Dirt book project and called Don and suggested we do a monograph of the show. It was a great idea but the sheer weight of the Treat Me Like Dirt project screwed up my plans with Don and he hooked up with ECW Press who suggested a more comprehensive book, and that became the beautiful Trouble In The Camera Club.

Since then, Don has taken the concept on tour with a kind of punk slide show of the photos and the stories behind them.

DM: What was your early relationship to The Diodes like?

RA: I didn’t realize it at the time but a lot of the early punk managers and supporters were from the comics and science fiction fanzine scene. I was active in comics in the early 70s (I co-published a highly influential zine in Montreal called Le Beaver); Greg Shaw who ran Bomp Magazine and the Bomp! Label came from science fiction fandom, and John Ingham who managed Generation X was a zine cartoonist. Greg and I especially hit it off and he came out to Toronto to check out the scene.

My relationship with The Diodes has always been on a creative level. I was fresh out of school with a journalism degree and I was putting all my media training into real-world practice—something that would benefit me greatly when I went on to work for labels like Attic, Warner and EMI. The Diodes sharpened my knowledge of art, style, and media perception. In many ways, they ruined it for me when I worked with bands who weren’t—uh—as erudite :)

DM: Similarly, what was your relationship to Teenage Head. I know you and Dave Rave still work together a lot, but please explain to our readership how the Gordie Lewis Band contrasts and compares to the early days of of Teenage Head, if you will.


Gordie Lewis Band

RA: I first saw Teenage Head at the Colonial Underground club in Toronto in 1977. Frankie Venom (their late lead singer) was a cross between Iggy Pop and Gene Vincent. He had his pulse directly on the rock ‘n’ roll livewire. Teenage Head was obviously influenced by the Flamin’ Groovies but they fused that with New York Dolls, rockabilly and obscure ‘60s covers to create this really familiar yet totally unique sound.

I was living in Oakville for the first part of 1977, so I would always get a ride with them back to my place. Their manager, Paul Kobak, had this crazy-ass big car, so that’s how I got to know them. Later, of course, I was working at Attic Records when they signed to the label. By this time, they had a new manager, Jack Morrow, who was a beatnik hustler with a million schemes and ideas. It did not end well.

But I have always maintained contact and when I started to perform myself, Dave Rave (who had been both rhythm guitar player and lead singer with Teenage Head) and I re-connected and toured together all over Canada and England and Italy (with The Diodes), so there are personal and professional roots that go deep.

When I saw that Gordie Lewis was doing a solo side project, I thought there was an opportunity to create a very special once in a lifetime thing for both old and new fans of that era. Gordie loved the idea and here we are.

DM: What does punk have left in it to offer, as a social movement, in  2015, do you think?

RA: Punk is always there to inject energy into a (sometimes) somnambulant music scene. It’s hard now because punk has splintered off into so many directions—from crust to hardcore to pop, etc.

There are different variations of the punk attire (some of it directly linked back to Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood). There is no victory in criticizing or being cynical about people with genuine belief in their convictions. Punk culture, like rave culture, can be a transitory phase for many; for others, a way of life. The uniform sometimes is necessary to recognize fellow travellers in a crowd. There is no ambiguity there. Punk is punk.

As a social movement, yeah, of course. Joe Keithley is running for office. That says it all. There is a lot of positive agitprop going on in terms of disseminating political and social issues not yet on the mass media radar.

DM: You’ve done variants of this show in Ontario earlier this week. How did they go in the ‘hometown,’ and what were your highlights? Also, what do you hope Montreal will take away from this evening of history, insight and music?

RA: Obviously, in Toronto, there is a lot of emotional engagement. You’re watching a 38 year old film with people jumping up and down and going crazy, and there, in the audience, are many of those people now, older, and transfixed at this opportunity to open a door into the past—because the Crash ‘n’ Burn movie is not an easy thing to see. You have to rent it

and get a projector and the whole dead-tech she-bang.

Apart from the film, you have the reality that we are the last people standing and in many cases, the last people with any oral history of this scene (Don Pyle has one of the better books, by the way); the reality that we are dying now—something I would never have thought I’d have to deal with when I was 22 years old at the Crash ‘n’ Burn—that is creating a sense of some urgency to get the barriers down and stand together.

You know, I was always kind of a neutral force, even if I manage The Diodes, because I also actively promoted everyone also—I’m a journalist—I’ve got the inside track on a story I’m a part of, why wouldn’t I want to blast that out there? And I did; to Bomp!, Kicks, NY Rocker, Creem, etc. I still get comments from people all over the place who saw those stories. I’ve contributed to books in Italy and UK about the Toronto scene. We have to let the world know what happened here.

You know, Montreal had a scene here and they were always the poor cousins to the Toronto bands but that all changed in the 80s with The Nils, Grimskunk and everybody.

Since moving back to Montreal, I’ve connected with a lot of the Montreal punk crowd from every era. There are not a lot of peers within our circle sometimes and insularity is not good, so it’s great when we can share common experiences and help each other.

But in terms of this evening; we’re giving you the ground zero of 1977 Toronto punk—past and present. Obviously, there are not a lot bands with all original members intact so The Diodes can operate on various levels in that regard, in that, for people from that era who can relive the energy, for kids just reading about this secret history of Canadian rock, and for people who just want to see what all the fuss is about—whatever—The Diodes are really loud, wear earplugs! ■

Greenland Productions presents a screening of Crash ‘n’ Burn at the Phi Centre (407 St-Pierre) followed by performances by the Diodes, Gordie Lewis and Frisky Kids, with Don Pyle’s photos on exhibit on Thursday, Sept. 17, 7 p.m., $25/$20 in advance, as part of POP Montreal