Our city’s late-’70s punk explosion was short-lived, but its aftershocks can still be felt over three decades later. Scene veteran Ralph Alfonso’s walking tour shows us how punk changed the city—and how much the city has changed since that first wave.
The history of Toronto and its surrounding cities’ punk origins has been the subject of increased exploration over the past few years; author Liz Worth brought us the story straight from the main players’ mouths in her 2010 oral history Treat Me Like Dirt; Don Pyle showed it all off earlier this year in his photo book Trouble in the Camera Club: A Photographic Narrative of Toronto’s Punk History 1976-1980; and director/producer Colin Brunton has been working on a feature-length documentary capturing those fleeting first years in The Last Pogo Jumps Again: A Biased & Incomplete History of Toronto Punk Rock Circa September 24 1976 to December 1 1978.
Ralph Alfonso was there through it all. A rock writer and photographer who found himself managing the pioneering local band The Diodes, as well as Canada’s first punk club Crash ‘n’ Burn, Alfonso (who now also runs Bongo Beat Records) has come up with an engaging new way to tell his stories—through a walking tour of some of the era’s most significant locations. That first wave of Toronto punk was very short; the geographical boundaries are, too.
From the halls of OCAD to The Diodes’ old rehearsal space on Queen West (now the Red Bull offices), we toured the past yesterday afternoon while the modern-day Diodes themselves got ready for a show just a few blocks away at the Horseshoe Tavern.
OCAD is considered the ground zero of Toronto punk. At the time it was just OCA, and students would book bands in the auditorium, now a standard lecture room. Members of The Diodes were students at the college, and convinced friends to book the Talking Heads in January of 1977. The Diodes opened the show.
This building, just south of the school on McCaul, is where The Diodes would do some early recording.
After shows at OCA, everyone would make their way to what was then The Beverley Tavern on Queen Street. They’d shortcut through the alley now known as Renfrew Place, where there was a chicken slaughterhouse. Though not specifically relevant to the history of The Diodes or the first punk wave, the image of chicken blood veining through the alley seemed to stick with Alfonso and another tour attendee, so much so that it became part of the tour.
The former site The Beverley at 240 Queen St. W. is now Spring Rolls restaurant. Bands and friends would use this side entrance, which was spitting distance from the chicken slaughterhouse.
Queen Street between John and Duncan wasn’t always so dense and tourist-y, of course. “In 1977, there was nothing here, “Alfonso says. “This was an old-man street. You’d come here if you needed an electrical surplus store.”
Just south of Queen and Duncan, at Pearl, is the site of Canada’s first punk club, the Crash ‘n’ Burn. At the time, part of the building was occupied by CEAC (Centre for Experimental Art and Communication), an avant-garde artists collective. They needed a band to record as part of an audio project, and so The Diodes did it in exchange for getting the basement as a practice space (after OCA had asked them to leave). It quickly turned into a venue. Through the bottom windows, the massive wooden columns seen in live footage and photographs of the space are still very visible.
The club’s official entrance was off of Pearl Street. Alfonso would affix a temporary Crash ‘n’ Burn sign above the door when there were shows. He would also often sleep there after gigs. The legal capacity of the place was 16; there would often be 200 people at a show.
Inside the Pearl Street entrance, the building has been changed drastically to accommodate many offices. The stairs were once a ramp down into the club, where Alfonso fashioned “punk benches” out of CEAC’s art debris. The very spot pictured above was the site of a Diodes photo featured in Don Pyle’s book. The Crash ‘n’ Burn only existed for about a month and a half, and was closed by the end of summer of 1977. The building’s other tenants—the Liberal Party of Canada—wanted it shut down.
Leaving the Crash ‘n’ Burn and heading north on Duncan, The Diodes’ founding bassist, David Clarkson (pictured at right), was serendipitously outside of the OCAD building where he now teaches fourth-year painting. When it’s noted that Clarkson played on what is known as Toronto punk’s most expensive collector’s item, “Raw/War”—the recording The Diodes made in exchange for the rehearsal space at CEAC—Clarkson says he wishes he had one. It sells for $1,000.
Further west on Queen, in the stretch just past Peter, a non-descript door leads up three flights of stairs—above the Payless and the Gap—to Red Bull’s Toronto offices.
In 1977, this room was The Diodes’ rehearsal space; at the time, the building was owned at by Coopers Furniture. Alfonso also had a small printing station somewhere in this completely modernized room where he would make posters. Outside the large windows that overlook Queen, we can see The Diodes’ current touring vehicle parked in a lot across the street.