This Saturday (Dec. 21) marks the 19th anniversary of DJ Davy Love’s once-weekly, now-annual mod/Britpop party Blowup, which, over the past two decades, has been hosted at pretty much every space in downtown Toronto that boasts a functioning electrical outlet. Prior to the festivities, we asked Love (pictured above at left circa 2001 with fellow resident DJ Trevor) to give us a tour of Blowup’s many, many homes throughout the years. And with Saturday’s event being held at the soon-to-be-shuttered Neu+ral at College and Augusta, Blowup will have to find a new venue once again for its 20th-anniversary bash, which Love says is already in the works for Dec. 2014.
It was 1994 and British indie was set to make a comeback after the long, dark American-grunge years finally started to wane. I had tried—quite unsuccessfully—to start a U.K. indie night in Toronto during the years previous to this in the early ’90s. Parties with tragically titled names like “Ice Cream Sundays” or the ever-original “Happy Mondays” all failed miserably. Grunge had a stranglehold on this city and it wasn’t letting up. Sure, there were DJs playing Brit stuff in their sets at the time, like Mr. Pete and Steve Scott at The Dance Cave, or DJ Iain at Limelight, but it was always generally done in short, three-song sets placed sporadically among the omnipresent grunge/alternative rock. I wanted to hear the music I loved played in a club all night and that wasn’t happening in T.O. at all.
I would go to clubs like the Dance Cave on a regular basis—I actually worked there in the late ’80s/early ’90s—and I would patiently wait, or bug the DJ, to hear the three-song U.K. indie set. When the set was finally played, I began to notice that the same 30 or 40 people would come out of the darkened corners of the club and fill the dancefloor, dancing like mad till the three-song set ended before scurrying off back to the corners of the club to drink and await the next three-song British indie set. I started to think that the time might be right to try a club night again that played U.K. indie stuff all night long instead of in random bursts. There was definitely a scene ready to break, and I was confident that, this time, it might just work. You would always see the same kids out for every British band’s show in Toronto during that time, and I knew I probably wasn’t alone in wanting a place to meet up and talk about the latest NME/Melody Maker darlings. There was definitely a longing to have a unified British loving music club scene.
Oasis had just played at Lee’s Palace in Oct. 1994, and it was at that show I knew for sure the time was finally right. Gone were the plaid jackets and toques and in came the Adidas trainers and the return of the sharp Fred Perry/Ben Sherman tops. You could actually see and feel that something big was a brewin’. It was definitely time.
The birth of Blowup (1994-2005)
After some research on venues over the month of November, I decided that mid-December would be the best time to try it. December is the party month, after all, and there were no competing factors like patios or cottages to take the city’s party kids away.
Believe it or not, Dupont Street was like the uncharted edge of hip Toronto’s world back then. Nobody ventured that far north for a party or club, and there were no indie coffeehouses or cool bars there. There were just old diners, shady bars and dilapidated businesses. It was kind of like the land that time forgot. It wasn’t a cool area to live in for a young person, either.
I, however, lived up off Dupont Street because it was all I could afford after returning from living in England broke. The Red Raven—now called the Pour House—was a neighbourhood place I went into once in a while because they had super-cheap beer and, at that point in time, I really liked cheap beer. It’s hard to believe, but I think it was around $2.25 for a Red Baron. Whatever the case, it was definitely an odd place to have a dance party, but it did have its charm. It looked like a cool old pub inside and had that seedy, dirty edge to it that went so well with rock ‘n’ roll. The owners were very keen to make some money when I offered to throw a party and bring in some people—though I wasn’t sure if I could actually deliver on that—so they let me and my then-girlfriend, Elisabeth Kurtis, who was the singer for Toronto shoegazey band A Tuesday Weld, host the first Blowup party there.
Borrowing a friend’s computer to layout a handbill, I put together a flyer and crudely-done poster by today’s standards; making flyers and posters on a computer was kind of a new thing at the time. I hand-stamped a roundel—mod target—on each and every one with two pieces of old eraser and a blue and red bingo ink pad, and I hit the streets. Most local record shops were supportive and let me put the posters and flyers in their shops. I’m not so sure that would happen nowadays, but I did spend a lot of money in record shops back then, so I’m sure some of the owners felt like they had to support the party. We also handed flyers out in front of other bars and at a couple of concerts that month.
The first Blowup happens on Saturday, Dec. 17, 1994 at The Red Raven.
I rented a sound system from Devon—the former Club Focus DJ who owned Sunshine Sound on St. Clair—and set it up in the club with help from a few friends. It was a primitive set-up: no lights, none of the bells or whistles of a normal club. Just turntables and speakers—no CDs, mp3s or laptops.
Along with me and Elisabeth doing the DJing, we also had help spinning records from a few of Elisabeth’s fellow record-geek friends, Christina and Samara. The first Blowup also saw Chris Robinson from Vortex Records on Queen Street spin records. Chris was also the future singer/guitarist in Brit-inspired local band Admiral, who played live at Blowup many times over the years.
Nobody could have predicted the wild success of the party that night. I think we had about 125 people out dancing to the latest British indie releases and classic Brit-’60s sounds. Though a party with 125 people would be considered a total failure nowadays, it was big then, and I was very happy with it. Judging by the noise complaints from the neighbours above The Red Raven, the party was a huge success. All the familiar faces I saw out at Brit-band concerts and dancing during those three-song British indie sets at other clubs came out for the party. We even attracted some of the old Toronto scooter-scene people who just happened to live down the street from the party. Apparently, they heard some Jam records and some “non-beer commercial” Kinks records blaring out of The Red Raven that night and decided to investigate. This was the start of the mod/scooter/Britpop connection in Toronto.
It was a very special night in my life. This was finally the club I always wanted to go to in the city. That night gave me a weekly DJ gig at a roving club that lasted for 10 full years every Saturday night. It was an incredible amount of fun. When people ask me about the success of Blowup, I always say the same thing: the success was all just down to timing. You can have everything in place in life but, if the timing is off, nine times out of 10, you will fail. Timing is everything and Blowup’s timing was just right.
But we were only at The Red Raven for that one night—I’m sure the neighbours were very happy about that! Here’s where we went from there:
The Sticky Wicket (720 Spadina Ave.): The site of our first New Year’s Eve party—also a one-night-only deal. This place later became the Ferret & Firkin Pub and is currently a Shoeless Joe’s.
The Lemon Drop (115 McCaul St.): Right across from OCAD and the AGO, this bar was originally called the Gallery Loft but was renamed the Lemon Drop, by me. The Lemon Drop was the first real permanent home for Blowup. Some of my fondest Blowup memories were here. The mod/scooter scene was always out in full force, and seeing all the scoots lined up in front of the Lemon Drop made it really feel like a London club. I met so many great people during these days and many of them I am still good friends with today. The owner, Jeff Valentine, was quite the character. Apparently, he was a semi-retired police sergeant at 51 Division—we used to jokingly call him “Bad Lieutenant” after the Harvey Keitel role. It always seemed kind of odd that a cop would own a bar—but, hey, he was interesting and he welcomed us with open arms and gave Blowup its first proper home during the formative years. He also let me rename his club and repaint a giant mod target on the walls and decorate the tables with old NME/Melody Maker clippings. Many people remember the karaoke bar/Chinese buffet that was attached to The Lemon Drop, and with whom we shared an entrance and owners. That was always a bit surreal.
We’ave (330 Dundas St. W.): This was just around the corner and we hosted one Blowup here when the Lemon Drop wasn’t available. Nothing too memorable about that night.
The Green Room (504 Bloor St. W.): Ah, the gritty and grotty Green Room. We actually held a few Blowups here. One memorable time was when Jeff, the owner of the Lemon Drop, and I had a falling out, and he kicked us out with two days notice. We called the Green Room and arranged to host our weekly party there—it was rammed and the Green Room people loved it. Jeff held a rival party down at The Lemon Drop that he called BLOW OUT, which was kinda funny seeing as the ’80s remake of the ’60s film Blow-Up was Blow Out—and just like the remake, the party also sucked. Nobody went to BLOW OUT and the Lemon Drop owner called us back within a week. I never knew who he had DJing the fake BLOW OUT party… but maybe it was Mark Holmes? Ha ha. We also held a New Year’s Eve party at The Green Room. It was a great one.
The Study Hall, a.k.a. The Student Hall (205 Beverley St.; now a townhouse development): We held a lot of Blowup parties here—a great New Year’s Eve party and some regular weekly parties. It was an old Austrian social club and it was an amazing venue with an old pub in the basement. It was also owned by the Bad Lieutenant from The Lemon Drop so we would do Blowup here when the Lemon Drop wasn’t available. It eventually got shut down after a big brawl. It was a real shame, as the place was so very cool.
The Lion Club (349 College St.; later became Neu+ral): Eventually, we had to leave the Lemon Drop. The owner wanted a cut of the door money, which was never the deal we made at any venue. To be quite honest, we kind of outgrew the Lemon Drop and actually needed a new venue, so the final falling-out with the owner was kind of a blessing. Blowup was growing. I am not sure how we found the Lion, but I think it was just a hit-the-pavement-and-find-a-new-venue quick thing. In many ways, this place was the perfect venue. It was underground, dark, and loud, and had all sorts of nooks and crannies for hanging out. One major memory of the Lion was that bathrooms had a habit of flooding. Some nights, it flooded out on to the dancefloor, which made for some interesting slip ‘n’ slide dance-offs.
Hallelujah Kizomba (Augusta Avenue, near Dundas): This was probably the weirdest and craziest venue we ever had. HK was an African bar at the south end of Augusta in Kensington. It was kind of small, and the sound system sucked hard. But hey, it had palm trees, and no beer refrigeration system, and it was as if our little British indie-music club just up and moved to a Caribbean beach bar for a holiday. We held a few parties here when The Lion had to serve temporary liquor-licence suspensions. The owners were very cool and laid back and we had a lot of fun there… though it was definitely weird.
Tranzac Club (292 Brunswick Ave.): We held a very cool New Year’s Eve party here with loads of bands and DJs. It was a really memorable one for a lot of people.
Davy Love, circa 1996.
The El Mocambo (464 Spadina Ave.): The venue that needs no introduction. [Editor's note: But here's one if you do!] To most Blowup regulars and DJs, this is the true home of Blowup. We were here for two runs after I was approached by the great William New, who had seen the success of Blowup at the Lemon Drop and offered us a permanent home. The first was around 1996 to ’97, and then 1998 to 2001. We also did the Blowup finale here in 2005 when The Soundtrack Of Our Lives played a very special secret show. It was here that some of the craziest moments happened. Booking Pete Best of The Beatles with William New, seeing Will Ferrell and Janeane Garafalo dancing to The Who… yeah, that all happened. The basement, the kitchen, and the back alley at The El Mo were as much a part of the story as the stage or the dancefloor. There are so many rock ‘n’ roll stories about Blowup’s time here… unfortunately most cannot be printed! The El Mo oozes rock ‘n’ roll. I had very high hopes that it would be resurrected by its current owners, but sadly it seems like it’s just a venue for classic-rock tribute acts now.
The Ukranian Hall (297 College St.; became a Buddhist temple before being bulldozed for condos): We moved to this place, located around the corner from The El Mo, for one night when The El Mo was booked for a big live show. This was uneventful… not a great venue at all and now it is gone.
Club Shanghai (247 Spadina Av.): Ahhh… the Shanghai. We were lured down here from The El Mo with the promise of more bells and whistles—better sound system, new DJ booth, etc. This place was something else. To my knowledge, it was the first and only club in this city where an elevator whisked you up four flights from the lobby doors directly to the dancefloor. It was always a crazy feeling when the elevator doors opened to pumping music and a packed room of dancers. It was an old warehouse building in Chinatown. There was a grocery store on the main floor and the club was on the third floor and the live music was on the fourth floor. The owners let us basically do what we wanted. This is where I formed a friendship with the Brian Jonestown Massacre guys. We had them play Blowup with More Plastic one night after Mikey Apples [now owner of Bambi's at Dundas and Dovercourt] convinced me that they were the coolest band going… he was right and the BJM guys and I remain good pals to this day.
Vox Central (585 Yonge St.—formerly the Gasworks!): I have a very vague memory of doing a Blowup here once when we needed a temporary venue for one-night. I kind of doubt that it ever happened… but apparently it did, as I’ve since been shown the photos.
Reverb (651 Queen St. W.; now CB2): Another one-night party in conjunction with some other one-night club that I can’t recall… I do clearly remember it being the worst venue we ever played at, though.
Rancho Relaxo (300 College St.): Yet another one-night-stand venue. The most memorable thing that happened was that the cops showed up to tell us to turn it down right when one of the DJs played “New York City Cops” by The Strokes. I laughed and, strangely, so did the cops. I like Donnie [Blais], the owner. And the door guy there was a true gent.
Sneaky Dee’s (431 College St.): We did one night upstairs at Sneaky Dee’s as part of a multi-club, multi-venue party called Night Tripper. The organizers, Ryan and Kyle, did a great job in trying to bring the fractious mod/indie scene together. They went all out with the promo, too. They made these amazing passports that looked like real passports that you got stamped in every club you went to that night. It was a great time. I always loved Sneaky Dee’s.
The Comfort Zone (480 Spadina Av.): The darkest hours of Blowup. It was 2001, and the new owner of the El Mo gave everyone the boot so he could start a dance studio/orphanage/soup kitchen/women’s shelter or whatever it was he did there. We had no venue and we were forced to move to the Comfort Zone. I lived around the corner, so in many ways it was convenient, but it was very dark. There was always some sketchy CZ regulars lurking around; the Blowup vibe was rapidly dying in that place. Thankfully, it only lasted a month before Blowup was given a rebirth by Kenny Sprackman and Jeff Cohen, who were sympathetic to our plight and offered us a new home at…
Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor St. W.): This was the rebirth of Blowup. We went long and hard at Lee’s and packed the place for a couple of years. I was happy to be back there, as it always felt like a personal home to me. I was a bar-back in my late teens at Lee’s Palace and had some great memories of that place. I saw so many good bands there. We lasted a few years, but eventually it started to die out. There were so many other clubs and nights popping up that the unified vibe Blowup once offered was all but a thing of the past. Music became super-defined; no longer did all British indie fall into one group. There were a hundred splinter factions and everyone wanted their own night… which is kind of how Blowup began in the first place, so I understood what was going on.
Dance Cave (upstairs from Lee’s Palace): We held Blowup in the Dance Cave when Lee’s was booked for big shows.
The Horseshoe Tavern (370 Queen St. W.): We held two parties here—it was a two-night affair to celebrate an anniversary. I had Rob Bailey of The New Untouchables mod club in London, England fly in to guest DJ. It was fun.
The Swallow Lounge (292 College St.): After the fire died out for Blowup at Lee’s Palace, we were offered a residency at a new bar on College Street called The Swallow Lounge. I had known the owner, Dave, for many years from my days working at Lee’s Palace and from being a customer at his dad’s paint store on College under the Swallow Lounge. The Swallow Lounge signalled the end of the magic for Blowup. It was evident that the world had changed too much for it to survive and British music was so drastically different at this point—Britpop was long dead—that we just couldn’t seem to find a groove anymore. We kept it going for a bit and we did have some stellar nights, but, overall, you could tell it was time to give it the Old Yeller treatment… so this is what I did. It was 2005, and the 10th anniversary had just passed and that seemed like a fitting time to bow out. We held one final party on both floors of The El Mo and had at least 10 bands play—it was one of the best parties ever. The Soundtrack of Our Lives made a special live appearance for free, and even called me up to sing with them—something which I am mortified about ever seeing again. Clearly I could not sing, but I wasn’t going to turn them down. It was a triumphant and fun way to end 10 long years of fun.
Davy Love, circa 2013.
The rebirth of Blowup (2008-present)
After a few years had passed, I started to receive messages from people asking me to throw another Blowup some time. I was kind of against it and didn’t want to wreck the memory of the club, but, after receiving so many email requests, I decided to put together a little one-off Christmas reunion/anniversary of the founding party to appease the people. I get all the old DJs back for one night a year and we pretend that it’s still 1998… it’s a lot of fun. These are the venues where we’ve held our annual Christmas party reunions:
Amsterdam Brewing Co. (21 Bathurst St.), 2008: I worked here as a driver, so I had to convince the owner to let me throw my party in the warehouse. It was very, very cold and there was about three feet of snow. It was the worst storm in many years, but that didn’t stop the BU faithful from piling in and dancing with their winter coats on. I got fired from Amsterdam the next day… coincidence? I think not. I guess it was a good party!
Neu+ral (349 College St.), 2009: Formerly The Lion, this club also played host to a couple of dance parties that featured some of the ex-Blowup DJs after Blowup ended. I always liked the room and the owner there, Oz Ferreira, is a super-nice guy and straight-shooting bar owner. One of the good guys, for sure. We had nearly 500 paid people to this reunion… it was absolutely mental. I was sad to hear that they will be closing in early January. This was one of the main motivating reasons we returned to Neu+ral this year—one last fling. Hopefully the Lion’s flooding has been fixed. We could make the dancefloor a rink in this weather.
The Velvet Underground (510 Queen St. W.), 2010: I like Pat the owner very much and was happy to be given this venue for our annual party. I don’t know if the vibe was really right, but we all had fun and everything went as planned. The turn-out was fabulous again.
Lee’s Palace, 2011: Back to the old house again… with another full house. This party was a good social one, but it didn’t end well. Lee’s decided to pull the plug on the music at exactly 2 a.m., which I always think is kind of sleazy. If you sell booze till 2 a.m., you have to let people drink that booze till 2:45 a.m. You should, at the very least, let the music and dancing go till 3 a.m. and give the people their money’s worth. I wasn’t happy and a lot of people were really pissed off.
The El Mocambo, 2012: This really felt like being back at Blowup again… it was great. The club looked totally different than it did when Blowup was there, but you could definitely feel the same El Mo energy in the room. It was magic. So many old familiar faces came out, and that was great to see. I am still shocked by the amount of booze people can still drink. So many of the old regulars are now parents and responsible adults… ha ha. I think this is one night of the year when they can book a sitter and let loose again. For many of my older friends, this is something they look forward to every year. It isn’t all oldsters, though… I was surprised at how many young people were out last year, too. Most of them would have been too young to have ever experienced a real Blowup, but I guess they like the music. It blows my mind to hear kids today talk about this great retro band The Happy Mondays… and it also scares that crap out of me. What was that famous line from The Who’s “My Generation“?
This year, we are back again at Neu+ral. It will definitely be the last Blowup in that venue, and one of the last parties at Neu+ral in general. They are closing their doors permanently in early January and the space is being turned into something else… maybe another Canada Computers? I don’t think they have enough of those in that area!
The party starts at 10 p.m. Advance tickets are $10 at Motoretta (554 College St.) or The Bristol Yard (146 Christie St.), and more at the door if tickets remain. We generally sell out early, and I think this year’s party will be sold out quicker than ever before.
All the old Blowup DJs are back, and we will not be killing the music at 2 a.m.—this party is going to go late.