Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Return to Frantic City: A Conversation with Teenage Head and Geoff Pevere's Gods of the Hammer

Teenage Head in 2008: (from left) Frankie Venom, Jack Pedler, Steve Mahon, Gord Lewis (Photo by Stephanie Bell)

The last time I saw Teenage Head, Frankie Venom was swinging from the pipes over the stage, and Gordie Lewis’s guitar sound was circumnavigating my eardrums. Now here we are in the pristine white event space of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, sitting in civilized rows around a raised platform (call it a stage) on which sat four current (or ex) members of the band along with pop critic Geoff Pevere, the author of the new book on the band, Gods of the Hammer, and Hamilton Spectator columnist Graham Rockingham waiting for A Conversation With…Teenage Head. “A Conversation”! Who would've thought? 

Look around. The crowd is here, black leather jackets have given way to wool overcoats, and Converse All Stars have been replaced with loafers. The ladies look good, high heels, black stockings, short skirts, very sophisticated. Wait, there’s a guy in denim, wearing a baseball cap, he’s carrying an armload of old Teenage Head paraphernalia. Oh good, we’re not completely civilized. Someone in front of us accidentally kicks over her glass of dry white wine. Oh good, the floor’s sticky. Sure in the old days it would’ve been a bottle of beer, or even a tableful of draft, that was dumped, and for sure we wouldn’t have wiped it up carefully with polyester napkins, and paper serviettes, we would've simply waited for it to evaporate. The event is part of Hamilton’s GritLit Festival. Now ten years old it celebrates the work of Canadian writers (in general), and Hamilton writers particularly. Peter Robinson (creator of Inspector Alan Banks) was here Thursday, Emma Donoghue (Room and Frog Music) stopped by Friday, and Michael Winter, Catherine Bush and a host of others have participated through the weekend. Tonight though, it’s Geoff Pevere and everybody’s favourite punk band Teenage Head.

Pete MacAuley joined the band in 2011 (Photo: Janek Lowe)
Rockingham starts off with a cry to action, trying to inject a little punk enthusiasm. It just seems so…out of place in this sterile room. Even with a sticky floor, this ain’t Larry’s Hideaway. As moderator Graham’s job is to “converse” with the author and the band. To get them to open up a bit, and share their inner feelings, maybe some secrets. “Have any of you guys read the book?” he inquires. “Oh, uh, Pete has!” the band points to Pete MacAulay, the current lead singer of the group. “It was pleasant…” Pete offers. “Pleasant”? That’s like saying it was “Nice” isn’t it. He tries to expand on it, but drifts off into something else. Rockingham tries to control things; Pevere offers a comment or two about why he would write a book like this. It’s part of a series from Coach House Books entitled Exploded Views. According to Coach House’s website “it’s a series of books on cultural issues meant to occupy that space between a magazine essay and an exhaustive tome—not a 45 or an LP, but maybe an EP.” Kind of like Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, but not only focused on LPs. It might be a book about a film or a comic book, or a well-loved rock’n’roll band.

Geoff Pevere sits at the end of the table (next to him is Head’s drummer Jack Pedlar, then Head Head guitarist Gordie Lewis, Dave Rave from a previous incarnation of the band, and Pete who took on the unenviable task of filling Frankie’s space “but not his place!”). Pevere talks about his passion for the band, describing the development of that passion starting as a university student, and following their career to the present day. 

Gordie fills in fascinating biographical details. His early idols? The Monkees, The Beatles. That’s right…the Pre-Fab Four and not the Beatles from Liverpool, but the Saturday morning cartoon Beatles. Seeing them on the tube made him want to join a group, live with a bunch of friends in a house, with a firepole, and have a blast playing music. He was also inspired by the music coming from bands like The Ramones, Iggy Pop, and Alice Cooper so the music he created was an amalgam of all of that. Lewis started his musical life as a bass player. He liked plying bass, but when he started to put the band together with drummer Nick Stipanitz. Another friend wanted in. Steve Mahon didn’t play anything but thought he could take over on bass, so Lewis had to switch to guitar. Mahon was left-handed and just turned the bass upside down to play. When he finally got a southpaw instrument he still had it strung upside-down with the low string on the bottom. As a lefty myself, I understand the situation but can’t imagine playing that way! 

Dave Rave offered his opinion of the mid-period Teenage Head when he was called upon to step in for Frankie Venom. He spoke of the closeness of the band, and their devotion to the music. Frankie’s name came up again and again. Frank Kerr was a year older than the rest of them, and a true showman. Those of us who saw the band in action will never forget his antics. He owned the stage, and every part of the room as well. He could sing too. When the first album, simply called Teenage Head, was released we might have been disappointed with the production, but there was a musicality to the songs that other so-called ‘punk’ bands were missing. And by the time Frantic City came out they were in a category by themselves. Powerful drumming, chunky chording, a heavy bass and Frank’s voice, but Frantic City had guest musicians filling out the sound with piano and saxophones. It was a step beyond punk. This came up in the conversation. Were they really a punk band? Lewis didn’t seem to mind being categorized that way but confessed that he thought they were essentially “a band that played fast blues”! I’ll buy that.

After an hour of this kind of back and forth it was time for questions from the audience. The questions were focused on the writing of the book, and the philosophy of creativity, but then there was a true ‘punk’ moment. “We have time for one more question,” Rockingham announced. “Me! Me! Me!” our friend in the denim jacket cried. He had made himself known throughout the evening calling out comments from the floor. I think he annoyed Mr. Pevere who replied once, “I know the story, I wrote the book!” But Rockingham took his question at which time the fellow stood up and laid all his posters on the table and declare, “I want you to sign these!” Security was called. The party broke up and we repaired to the sales room to pick up a copy (or two) of the book, and get them signed. I went home and started to read.

Geoff Pevere, author of  Gods of the Hammer
Gods of the Hammer is a great title, echoing as it does the classic work by Stephen Davis (Hammer of the Gods). That one tells the shocking story of Led Zeppelin’s successes and excesses in gory detail. It includes the story of the groupie and the mud shark (which ended up documented in Frank Zappa's song "The Mud Shark"). Teenage Head though are gods of the Hammer, Hamilton, Ontario, the Steel City that has spent a lifetime in the shadow of the Big Smoke. Gods of the Hammer tells their story, and it follows the conversation quite faithfully, albeit with more detail, and a few more witnesses. The witnesses are not unlike the witnesses in Warren Beatty’s Reds. Remember them, they sat talking in front of a curtain telling their remembrances of the American communist John Reed, who chronicled the Russian Revolution in 1917. It’s an effective technique wrapped in a personal narrative, and essentially providing a chronological account of their climb from the basements of Westdale to hundreds of high schools, and bars, and clubs where they made their living.

Because of the nature of the Exploded Vision series, the tale is stripped down to its bare essentials, much like a Teenage Head song. Three chords and the truth. But loud and fast. And who would want it any other way. There are a few black and white snapshots dropped in along the way but it’s the story that matters, and Pevere tells it in a straightforward way. No bullshit. You get the bad management, the ups and downs, the good and bad, and the hopes and dreams of a group of guys from Hamilton who wanted to be in a band. All told in 130 pages. Sure you could wish for more, but you don’t need it, it’s all here. So, c’mon…listen to the drums, that bass, those chords…



David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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