Monday, October 12, 2009

The Scenics

I have to review the Gaslight Anthem show at Toronto's Kool Haus on Tuesday night (Oct. 13) and I'm unsure if I'll be able to make it up to the El Mocambo in time to catch The Scenics, who I saw at The Last Pogo 30th anniversary show at the Horseshoe Tavern last fall. But even if I can't write about the group's show, I still want to publicize it and the band's new Sunshine World album because The Scenics are one of the secrets of Canadian music that shouldn't be secret any longer. So here's the artist bio that the band asked me to write for it this summer:  

Andy Meyers and Ken Badger formed The Scenics in Toronto in the summer of 1976 and, with a rotating cast of drummers and bassists, made some of the most innovative music Canada has ever produced during their six-year original run.

You can hear elements of Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, The Velvet Underground, Television, Roxy Music and free jazz in The Scenics' intricate yet powerful twin-guitar sound, but the band put everything together in a way that was uniquely their own.

"We were kindred souls, but we created our own thing," Meyers says of The Scenics' acknowledged influences, while asserting their independence.

"The Scenics never toed the line. Never once did someone bring in a song and was told, 'You can't do that.' There was complete acceptance and support of each other just because that's the way it went. Musically and lyrically, there was this sense of being able to do anything you wanted."

The Scenics opened for Talking Heads and The Troggs and were part of the infamous Last Pogo punk blowout concert at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern in 1978. The band recorded their Underneath The Door album for Bomb Records in 1979 and the "Karen/See Me Smile" single two years later before breaking up on amicable terms in 1982.

Almost nothing was heard about The Scenics after that — not that they were well-known when they existed anyway. But when Meyers finally got around to listening to some of the more than 300 hours of rehearsal, live and studio recordings that had done little more than sit on a shelf for a quarter-century, he was knocked out and "totally taken by surprise with the songs and the passion of the performances."

The Scenics re-introduced (though it was more like an introduction for most people) themselves to music fans in early 2008 with the release of How Does It Feel To Be Loved: The Scenics Play The Velvet Underground. This collection of 10 live recordings taped between 1977 and 1981 and released on the band's own Dream Tower label received Canadian campus radio airplay and earned critical acclaim across North America. But as positive as the feedback was, the album left many music writers asking if The Scenics wrote any of their own material.

Those scribes will get their answer with the Oct. 13 release of Sunshine World, which features 14 original songs and intriguing covers of Tommy James And The Shondells' "Mony Mony" and The Kinks' "Where Have All The Good Times Gone?" The songs were laid down in the studio in 1977 and 1978 and, while they were cleaned up in mastering, there are no overdubs on the original four-track recordings.

People will finally be able to discover such previously buried gems as the art-punk album opener "O Boy," the jangly "In The Summer," the melodic yet still mildly cacophonous "So Fine," the outsider pop of "Sunshine World" and the danceable rock of "Do The Wait" — which features an unsettlingly long pause two-thirds of the way through that literally makes listeners "do the wait." The album ends with its longest and most experimental track, "Scenic Caves," which was the group's original name in the spring of 1977.

Meyers and Badger were both prolific songwriters, and there are almost another 100 originals from The Scenics' early days still sitting in the vaults.

"It's not like we had a few good songs and the rest were dreck," asserts Meyers. "If you like Sunshine World, we have a trunk full of songs that are like them."

The Scenics' originality earned them a small core group of devoted fans, but they were far from universally beloved in the late '70s Toronto punk and new wave scene that spawned the likes of Teenage Head, The Viletones, The Ugly, The Mods, The Secrets and The Cardboard Brains, all of whom are featured along with The Scenics on The Last Pogo CD and DVD released on Dream Tower last fall (and which included seven Scenics songs performed on video as a bonus feature on the DVD).

"Punk was this revolution, but there was no room in the revolution for another revolution," says Meyers. "And that's what The Scenics were.

"There were a lot of people in the Toronto scene who hated us and there was a serious debate in the Toronto scene about whether what we were doing had any validity whatsoever."

While there's little doubt that what The Scenics created was musically ahead of their time 30 years ago, it's easy to agree with Meyers now when he says it no longer sounds like "some totally foreign experiment" and that "then was the perfect time to do the creative end of it because there was so much space and freedom, and this is the perfect time to do the marketing end of it."

The Scenics have played a few shows over the past year-and-a-half with singer/guitarists Meyers and Badger joined by former bandmates Mark Perkell on drums and vocals and Mike Young on bass and vocals. They recorded 14 new songs — written by Meyers and Badger over the years following The Scenics' break-up — while in Toronto for The Last Pogo 30th anniversary show last fall. Those tracks will be released on an album next year.

But there are a lot of things going on in The Scenics' world before that.

They'll be featured in Treat Me Like Dirt, author Liz Worth's tome on the history of the southern Ontario punk scene that will be published by Bongo Beat in September.

A short Canadian tour hitting cities between London and Montreal will coincide with Sunshine World's Oct. 13 release on Dream Tower. The musicians may have grown older, but their performances remain vital. These shows should be a must-see for anyone interested in learning more about a little-known but important part of Canadian music history.

The Scenics will be featured in The Last Pogo Jumps Again, director Colin Brunton's sequel to The Last Pogo, which is expected to be released by the end of the year.

Furthermore, The Scenics' website is now featuring Punk Haiku, Meyers' bi-weekly blog of his reminiscences of what was happening with the band and the exciting and changing world of music 30 years ago. Punk Haiku will be augmented by Basement Box, an online storehouse of Scenics material from those 300 hours of recordings that will be available via paid download.

"The Scenics were not a mild-mannered or small band," concludes Meyers. "Our energy was very big and very powerful, but it happened in a vacuum.

"But these things are coming out now to give people a real sense of what we did. And the story is starting to be told in the Punk Haiku blog and the Basement Box."

Find out more at

"They were my favourite Toronto band, and having seen them play or rehearse well over a dozen times, I never heard them play the same version of a song twice. They were the most creative, the most original, the most daring — and probably the most misunderstood — of all the bands in that scene. And 'Do The Wait' was the coolest dance tune ever."
—Colin Brunton, The Last Pogo director                                                                  

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