In this edition of our Toronto-music oral-history series: the album that put the city’s queer-punk underground on the international map back in 1986.
Fifth Column is one of those bands that has become more renowned in its afterlife than during its initial 1982-1994 heyday. A group that also worked in experimental film and produced their own fanzine, Fifth Column were cited as an influence by many of the riot grrrl and queercore bands of the early 1990s. The band was dedicated to radical politics and just being radically strange; they wrote songs about patriarchy and homophobia, invited guest musicians on stage, and were often accompanied by dancing go-go boys. In 1986, after recording an EP and some songs for compilations, Fifth Column entered the studio for their first attempt at recording a full-length album. The result was To Sir with Hate.
GB Jones (drums and guitar, Fifth Column): In college, I joined my first band, Bunny and the Lakers, with Peter Morgan and How’rd Pope. I took the photo for the one and only album and wrote one song with Peter and How’rd, and then we played our one and only show together before Peter moved to the U.K. and How’rd moved to New York.
Caroline Azar (keyboards and vocals, Fifth Column): In high school, I bought a Bunny and the Lakers disc at Records on Wheels on Yonge Street. It was a rapture of baroque punk melodies with environmental soundscapes, and a hospital-mint aqua cover. I played the vinyl obsessively. The neighbours were banging on the ceiling, [yelling] “Stop that noise!”
Part I: Half Truths and Party Crashing
GB Jones learns to play drums on the job, while a teenage Azar crashes a party and winds up being recruited into Toronto’s newest feminist experimental post-punk band.
GB Jones: My friend, the Toronto artist John Brown, told me about two women, Janet [Martin] and Kathleen [Robertson], who were starting a band. I went over to meet them and I was so impressed by their aesthetics that I lied and said I could play drums so I could stick around for a spell. I learned three songs they had already written: “Pick-Ups,” “Sheri’s Suicidal,” and “Worms.” All these songs were about death, destruction, and necrophilia. We played them at a party, which was our first show.
Caroline Azar: I was 18 when I crashed that party. There was Kathleen on bass, Janet on guitar/vocals and gloomy GBJ on drums. I was into X-Ray Spex, LiLiPUT, and Kleenex and these three girls were doing this powder-keg punk, sounding like no one else but themselves—the urgency of it all stopped my heart.
GB Jones: We decided we wanted a lead singer in the band, so we asked a few girls to come to a practice, and one of those girls happened to be Caroline.
Caroline Azar: I was at the The Edge, to see The Slits. [It was] their one and only show in Toronto. I was smoking up a storm in the washroom when Kathleen and Janet strolled in and invited me to audition. I masked my excitement with this veneer of blasé. It was only weeks after that fateful house party where I heard their inimitable sound.
GB Jones: I had seen Caroline at [experimental-film venue] The Funnel at a screening of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. I asked around to see if anyone knew who she was. It turned out she had appeared in a couple of experimental films, so when Caroline showed up at our practice space, we knew right away we had to have her in the band —she was an underground movie star.
Part II: Post-punk heroes and dead pop stars
With a lead singer in place, the Columnists bond over a love of pop-cultural ephemera and develop their sound.
Caroline Azar: Rehearsals with Fifth Column were like a horror movie where the sad, dark children would communicate telepathically. Then, after the odd espresso or 10, we would explode into talking fits.
GB Jones: We’d play Throbbing Gristle’s “United” 45 on clear vinyl, Nico’s The Marble Index on eight-track and K-Tel’s Soul Explosion… What I liked most about the early Fifth Column days was that, after the rehearsals, we would spend hours talking about dead pop stars.
Caroline Azar: Between word and sound, we wanted to manufacture a tension of opposites, where it was effective to have an ugly subject matched against a “pretty” melody or vice versa. We were committed to the sideways tuning early on and stuck with it to the end, to many a members’ chagrin.
GB Jones: We were writing little operettas and mini-symphonies, which we played on our broken-down instruments, as if we were an orchestra. It was the sound of things falling apart, literally.
Part III: About a zine
Concurrent to their own musical development, Fifth Column introduced their very own house organ, the Hide fanzine.
Caroline Azar: There were five issues [of Hide] and four of them came with compilation cassettes. Cassettes rule. I still have a cassette player in my car. Primarily, we were looking for a musical community. Also, why not support others in a manner of how you’d like to be supported?
GB Jones: It gave us a chance to keep in touch with bands we played with when out of town: Wars in Transit and Maggot Fodder from Guelph and The Word of Mouth Band from Peterborough and The Bettys, plus The Ragged Bags from Kent, Ohio, and who can forget A.S.F. (Anti-Scrunti Faction) from Boulder, Colorado?
Caroline Azar: This was Xerox art exploring the grey scales available using black-and-white photocopy as a medium: lace, chicken wire, science and math cutouts from the How and Tell series, balanced out by drawings and pop-ups. Trompe L’Oeil Xerox.
Part IV: Recording To Sir with Hate
After a 45 and some compilation tracks, Fifth Column decide to record a full-length album—provided no more members dropped out.
GB Jones: It seems that every time we decided to make a record, someone would leave. During the recording of our first single, our bass player left and we enlisted Anita Smith to replace her. Then, right after we had recorded the first song for the new debut album, which was “Right Hook,” our guitarist quit. We were in a bit of a panic, and so Caroline went out and roamed the streets to look for a new guitar player.
Caroline Azar: Charlotte [Briedé] had to immediately learn all the songs we had for the entire album in no time flat, and then we went right back into the studio.
Michael Philip Wojewoda (producer): I had made the acquaintance of a man named Clive Robertson, who owned a small studio/label/left-wing magazine. He was recording an EP for Fifth Column and asked me to come over and listen to the tracks. He had been engineering the recording himself and wanted some insights from me on how he could make it sound better. I did something similar for another Robertson recording of a band called Plasterscene Replicas—I ended up mixing that EP. I already had a reputation as a trustworthy recording engineer. I had also worked with many female artists and the word on the street was I wasn’t an asshole.
GB Jones: Altogether, we began to explore harmonics with everyone’s voices, verging on an Everly Sisters sound. In solo, I attempted a Mama Cass imitation in my head. This also was the debut of the ELKA ’55 organ sound, so there was a creamy dramatic richness I wanted to pull out of her. To this day, I’ve never met a keyboard as variant or likeable.
Michael Philip Wojewoda: The elevator door opened [at the studio] and I found two of the four girls lying on floor of the hallway. Obviously, well past the 12th hour in the studio, the image of hard-working determination was my first impression of them. I remember stepping over a semi-sleeping body to get to the control room.
Caroline Azar: Meanwhile, at home, every other day I received hate mail slipped under the door from a family member. And then being threatened by an infamous folksy type who told us not to call ourselves “women,” because we were a disgrace to all “womyn” artists everywhere. Finally, there was a sycophantic roommate’s purebred terrier that mauled the left side of my face.
GB Jones: So we moved to the other side of town into a building that was condemned.
Michael Philip Wojewoda: I forget the timelines, but I ended up at the house that they lived in on Parliament Street for maybe a production meeting, or perhaps a job interview? I don’t recall the sequence. The space was an explosion of DIY punk publishing. [It was] kind of chaotic, but purposeful. The living space ran parallel to the needs of the fanzines and pre-internet promotional techniques of the time. The other thing I thought was cool was it was the first time I met a band that actually lived together in the same house. Just like The Beatles or The Monkees. Perhaps one member lived elsewhere, but I remember that impression.
Caroline Azar: Regardless [of having to move], GB and I were determined to make this record, which we called To Sir with Hate.
GB Jones: It is the ultimate anti-authoritarian statement.
Caroline Azar: Why not a title that both attracts the aligned and disgusts the detractors? We’ve always enjoyed shoving a thermometer up the bottom of a culture, just so we can take its temperature. Nothing wrong with a little fever to remind you that you’re alive.
Michael Philip Wojewoda: The band’s creative process was painfully democratic at times. There were lots of pauses in the studio to have band discussions. Sometimes, ideas would get rather territorial and there could be undertones of mistrust between members. I do recall the band playing examples of recordings they thought Fifth Column should partly sound like. In my mind I thought, “Strange, they sound nothing remotely like this, but I wonder if they think they do?” It had me thinking about eccentricity and situational awareness and how those things should not be disturbed if a proper Fifth Column record was to get made.
GB Jones: Our friend John Brown—who we call Jack, who some people call Jake—came over with a series of photos that he took of himself wrestling another guy. We decided that was the cover of To Sir with Hate and that was that.
Michael Philip Wojewoda: I have this vivid memory of mixing late into the night with all the members in the control room. GB had fallen asleep on the studio couch for 20 minutes or so. I remember her waking up with a start and lunging towards the mixing desk, wanting to hear what had happened to the mix since she fell asleep. It was clear that in her exhausted state she feared that she had let go of 20 minutes worth “say” in the process and it concerned her deeply.
Part V: Feedback
Eventually, Fifth Column would be hailed as figureheads for the riot grrrl and queercore bands that would follow them, with the likes of Bikini Kill/Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna saying they “paved the way” for bands like hers. GB Jones would go on to make several films, including cult hit The Yo-Yo Gang; her art would be displayed in galleries around the world. Caroline Azar would direct more than 20 plays and act in several more; she also narrated a 2007 documentary on Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, called Colour Me Free. In 2012, Fifth Column became the subject of a documentary, Kevin Hegge’s She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column.
All that would come later, though. Initially, To Sir with Love didn’t receive the warmest reception—but word of mouth slowly spread beyond the city limits.
Caroline Azar: I remember my mother saying it was not exactly a crowd-pleasing sort of music but it was possible that, in a future time, people might enjoy it.
GB Jones: We never cared about what our parents thought … Our mailbox started filling up with letters from out-of-towners.
Caroline Azar: Truth be told, a lot of experimental, post-punk, and girl groups have a short shelf life. We beat the odds without the oddness being beaten out of us. Our goal was to create songs that celebrate otherness in people and art in a time that was beyond dour, circa Mulroney, Reagan and Thatcher. Kids, don’t give in, don’t give up—take back your creativity and culture, because you owned it the day you showed up.