Punk & the Press
The punk scene in Vancouver had a convoluted, love/hate relationship with the mainstream press. In the earliest days, there were few allies in the two daily newspapers, or the Georgia Straight. The Province’s Jeani Read showed some interest, but The Sun’s Vaughn Palmer was less than enthusiastic. That left the weekly Georgia Straight paper, which started life as a hippie counterculture publication in the late sixties, but by the mid-seventies it had started its transformation into the entertainment guide it is today. The Straight showed little interest in nascent punk rock scene in Vancouver, except for a cadré of staffers that included Bob Mercer, Mark Murphy, Ken Lester, and music columnist Tom Harrison. Even when the Straight did write about the local punks, it was never quite partisan enough for the local musicians. Even the slightest criticism stung the local scene, where an “us against them” attitude prevailed. Nevertheless, the Straight gave the first exposure to Vancouver's early punk scene, even before [Vancouver's first fanzine] SnotRag began publishing.
In June 1978 Tom Harrison organized the first Georgia Straight Battle of the Bands, modelled on the showcases of the 1960s northwest garage rock scene. Local punk and new wave bands, including DOA, were invited to participate; but when DOA didn’t win (despite a blistering performance, as documented in the Triumph of the Ignoroids 12-inch EP), it solidified the punks’ suspicions. As Joe Keithley noted later in I, Shithead: “We didn’t realize it at the time, but something definitive had just happened. The Battle of the Bands made the cultural clash between the Vancouver punks and everybody else official” (page 54). Nevertheless, a tradition was started by Harrison and the Straight that led to Battle victories in subsequent years by the Pointed Sticks, Young Canadians, Bonus Boys, and French Letters. UBC radio station CITR retained the template for its Shindig series that ran throughout the 1980’s. Late in 1978 the publishers of the Georgia Straight launched the short-lived Public Enemy, a punk/new wave oriented music paper, roughly modeled on Britain’s music papers.
By 1979 Tom Harrison was the music columnist for The Province, and the local music received a much-needed jump in mainstream exposure. Meanwhile, at the Sun, writers Fiona McQuarrie, Neal Hall, and former Straight staffer John Mackie also helped publicize new and local music. Back at the Straight, coverage of new music and the local scene continued through the 1980’s under music editor Alex Varty, and the inheritor of Harrison’s Time Out column, Ellie O’Day.
Outside of the Straight and the daily papers, the other mainstream source for local new music scene coverage was Vancouver magazine, a glossy monthly publication that provided news, arts & culture coverage. The magazine was blessed with the presence of two talented staffers who not only were interested in the local music and night club scene, but were also eager to seek out and expose everything weird and wonderful at the margins of society. Les Wiseman wrote the script and Argentine import Alex Waterhouse-Hayward provided the peerless photography that made every issue a must-read. In September 1978 the magazine published Wiseman’s “Punks On Parade,” the first extensive survey of the local punk scene, complete with photos, that sparked the imagination of countless teenage readers in suburban households who were mailed the magazine free each month. Over following issues, Wiseman would spotlight the Young Canadians, Dishrags, Subhumans, and Modernettes, among others.
Les sez: Punk coverage virtually owes its existence to Tom Harrison for igniting and carrying the torch. He got me in the game. Through Vancouver magazine, Trouser Press, and Graffiti magazine, I spread the word to New York and Toronto (the land that punk forgot). While I was chronicling the music, the music provided a living for me. I was good to it; it was good to me.