Tuesday, March 26, 2013

CMW 2013: Highlights

All right. So, tomorrow I'll talk about the bands that I saw during CMW*, but for now, I just want to think a bit on the experience as a whole — and look at a couple clear highlights.

Same shit, different hotel. Whenever I've headed down to pick up my wristband1, it's always been a case of head down, plow through, get in and get out. Even still, I managed to catch sight of some of the "industry" types that give the festival a bad name — a lounge and lobby full of middle-aged dudes2 — some attired in too-flashy clothes, the smiles a bit too plastic, others with a mellow swagger in that he's-hip-he's-cool-he's-45 kind of way. As always seems to be the case, I saw one of those types sitting down with a group of nineteen year old kids, selling that rock'n'roll dream. A couple tables over, a fauxhawked dude a couple years their senior was sitting impatiently, as if he were waiting for his image consultant to arrive.

Honest Reviews

With that in mind, I can say in full certainty that the best thing to emerge during this year's festival was the Slagging Off tumblr that appeared and quickly went viral. The site spent some time not-so-gently pointing out that a lot of the bands playing the festival really shouldn't be. When that snark is aimed at specific bands — young people who have undoubtedly put a lot of work into their projects — it can easily seem mean-spirited. But let's be honest here: you don't have to dig that deep through the listings to find a lot of bands that seem to be aiming at the blandest sort of mersh mediocrity, at subsuming even the faintest spark of originality to become a fungible widget in "the industry" — and oh, my, they are easy to make fun of.

That said, the site was at its best when it stepped back to make a more systematic critique of the "perpetual motion machine" of self-congratulation that the festival thrives on. This was the best part of the week because it sparked conversations, giving a lot of people cause to consider the festival beyond their own little bubble. It also called out people — people like me — who admit that CMW is on the whole a craptacular festival, but reckon that there's just enough interesting stuff around the edges that one could hold their nose and just sorta plow through it. Doing that, of course, means we — and me — are legitimizing it, letting the festival off the hook with a shrug instead of demanding something better. We're diving for dear life when we could be diving for pearls.3

The Last Pogo Jumps Again

Dir: Colin Brunton and Kire Paputts. Canada, 2013. 212 minutes.

I suppose I should be easier on the "suits" — after all, before they started peddling mediocrity they were on the leading edge once too, right? At least that's what I was thinking a bit while I was waiting outside the screening room of the Lightbox, the other early arrivals with their laminates declaring them to be VIP's, radio insiders or A&R wizards. Hey, maybe they still have some of that rebellious fire in them!

When we walked into the theatre, Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" was playing at ear-splitting volume — and with some sort of harsh white noise behind it.4 "Hotel California" and a few other AOR chestnuts would follow, with that sawing phased-out noise continuing. The people around me started complaining. "IT'S TOO LOUD!" shouted one.

I looked up from my newspaper.


That got me a glare. "BUT THIS IS JUST NOISE!"


At that, one of the middle-aged A&R types stormed out of the theatre to complain. This was a two-hundred-twelve minute movie that had people fleeing the room before it started. I took that as a good sign.

And yes, that duration is correct. Where the original Last Pogo was a half-hour near-verité portrait of a single night, this redux version is a three-and-a-half-hour comprehensive immersion into Toronto's original punk scene. A sort of visual companion piece to Liz Worth's Treat Me Like Dirt, this combines archival footage with new interviews with most of the scene's surviving members to flesh out a portrait of Southern Ontario's vibrant musical subculture. There's a whole pantheon explored here, from bands that are now considered groundbreakers to some that remain obscurities: The Viletones, The Diodes, Teenage Head, The Curse, Simply Saucer, Forgotten Rebels, The B-Girls, The Ugly and more.

A lot of the stories will be familiar to those with an interest in this music (and to readers to Worth's book), and a lot of the footage will also be familiar as well.5 But the real skill here is in the montage, in bringing all this material together into a coherent whole. Brunton, being personally trusted by the scene's original members (many of whom still apparently carry lingering resentments with each other), was able to wrangle facetime and rare source material while Paputts (as editor) shaped it into a cohesive (but never monolithic) narrative.

Along the way there are asides that never feel like an indulgence, such as seeing how the nonconformist "punk" mindset has served some of these people decades later in life, digressions into various outgrowths of the scene6, and above all music, the music, the music.7

A true labour of love, this film is a worthy testimonial to a brief spurt of under-documented and under-appreciated history. The great music that was produced in this little community never had a fair shot the first time around, and the best of it has managed to creep its way up from the bottom through the word-of-mouth and generational rediscovery.

At a personal level, I found this to be a powerful reminder of the importance of witnessing the great music that's going on all around us. Though weeks like CMW remind us of the need to stop coddling awful, bullshit bands (and the infrastructure that feeds them), seeing The Last Pogo Jumps Again also reminded me that we absolutely need to celebrate the amazing things that are going on here and now — not to wait for bands to get "buzz" or any other sort of approval from the States or Europe. I see local bands all the time that are miles better than the trendy, touring ones and we don't have to be shy about saying it. The good stuff shouldn't have to languish and wait to be rediscovered a generation from now. If only we had, say, a festival or something to celebrate the good stuff...

* A note on nomenclature: for years both the industry showcase and music festival components were known as Canadian Music Week. But as of 2009, this was deemed to be too simple and straightforward, and the music portion was "rebranded" as Canadian Music Fest, under the aegis of the larger Canadian Music Week. I see no reason to put up with this and will simply refer to everything as CMW.

1 And why, I might ask passingly, is it that the desk with the wristbands closes at six? Does CMW think that the bulk of the people covering the festival are high-flying international media with nothing better to do during the day, and not people who have to cut out early from work to deal with this?

2 And I use the term "dudes" here deliberately — perhaps for the same reason that in the festival program book's page for out-of-towners, CMW's first recommendation for entertainment was a strip club.

3 There is so much that needs to be said about all of the issues that this website is addressing. But until I can find the time to crank out that essay (tentative title: "The Political Economy of 'Friend Rock' and the Deontology of the Folk Process"), I shall let it rest.

4 It's has been pointed out to me that the tunes were, indeed, mashed up with Metal Machine Music. (Hat-tip to Jamez for the straight facts.)

5 Besides the concert footage of the original Last Pogo, there were clips from the infamous CBC shock report and the underground short An Afternoon With The Viletones at New Rose.

6 I was especially intrigued by the forays into the second wave of Toronto's punk/new wave scene, which remains underexplored terrain. I've been especially grooving on The Government — and if anyone can send me a copy of "I Like Living in Scarborough" by leisure-suited new-wavers Swollen Members (not the Vancouver hip-hop band) — or get that up on youtube — I'd be fully grateful.

7 Also worthy of singling out was a masterfully edited presentation of The Mods' "New Breed", which cut back and forth between live footage from '78 and a reunion show 30 years later with time-melting intensity.


  1. Hey, thanks for those kind words. And I know who you're talking about, the "suit" who stormed out. I was in the lobby, and he practically yelled at an usher to "Turn that fucking noise down!" Good times.

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    2. Well we've been here before, right? You and I and the inimitable Monsieur Topp were among the viewers present when a certain music critic (and you know who you are Pete) not only left noisily in a righteous huff, but declared his distaste for what was going on in the auditorium. And then the next day this distinguished member of the press reviewed the show, in the first person, as though he'd been present, right to the last number. That show was epic - the first Ramones in Toronto. It feels great to know that my esteemed leader is still chasing the suits out of seats that