There are an inordinate number of top-notch musicians that come out of Hamilton, Ontario. So it’s really meaningful when a band from the area earns as much respect as have local heroes Teenage Head. Teenage Head played a showcase at Canadian Music Week, but the following night, May 9th, played at This Ain’t Hollywood in Hamilton.
This show was special for many reasons. Firstly, they were playing in their hometown, so many of their friends and long time local fans were there. Like true rock stars, the band waited until after eleven to hit the stage (doors were at nine). They were busy hanging out backstage with their friends, of course! When they were finally ready to begin, they went full tilt for the entire show, with the exception of one slower tune called “Glasgow’s Cryin’,” a touching and sentimental piece that Venom wrote after his father passed away.
Billed as “Teenage Head and Friends,” the band brought about a dozen notable guest vocalists up to sing with the band (all from the Hamilton area; I’m telling you, there’s something in the water!), a testament to the impact the group has had (and continues to have) since forming in 1975. Ginger St. James, Tim Gibbons, Max Kerman (the Arkells), the Evelyn Dicks (Chris Houston, Lori Yates, Buckshot Bebee), Lou Molinaro, Dave Rave (periodic band member over the years and close personal friend to the band), Brad Germain (Dinner Belles), Melissa Marchese (Weekend Riot Club) are a few of the artists that graced the stage. Each artist brought something special and unique to their performance, as well as recalling the magic of Frankie in the way they lit up the stage.
Watching Teenage Head play live for the first time is one of my most fond musical moments. I guess because these are a bunch of high school buddies who went against the grain by writing truly original music in a burgeoning genre at a time when most musicians were playing in cover bands.
Additionally, back in the time when record labels still had big A&R budgets and played a much different support role for artists than today, the band fostered a do-it-yourself attitude, even making their first EP covers themselves because they wanted them in the European format (North American and European printing formats were different at the time).
They were also highly skilled musicians, well ahead of virtually every other punk band from the Hamilton area — or even the whole of Canada — and boy, did they give the established Toronto bands a run for their money! Best known for their electrifying and engaging live shows, singer Frankie Venom was a natural frontman whose unpredictable, acrobatic movements were a big part of the reason the band drew capacity crowds at their shows. Venom personally inspired many other young performers. Just take a look at Hugh Dillon of the Headstones; he modeled himself off Venom, whose go-for-it attitude undoubtedly inspired Dillon as well as countless other developing musicians.
The band’s career has, unfortunately, been plagued with mishap after mishap. From what some consider to be lacklustre recordings early on (many felt the first record didn’t adequately capture their live sound), to poor management when the labels stepped in, to a devastating car accident that left guitarist and songwriter Gord Lewis with a broken back just when they were on the brink of breaking through on an international level.
The most recent blow, of course, came when Venom succumbed to throat cancer in October 2008, just days before it was announced that Teenage Head would receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hamilton Music Awards. Yes, it’s been something of a comedy of errors, which is why the fact that these guys are still slugging it out is so gratifying. Pete MacAulay has joined in recent years as the frontman, and considering who he’s taking the space of, he does a damn fine job. Gord Lewis and bassist Steve Mahon, the two remaining original band members, are joined by Jack Pedler on the kit, and sound as polished as ever.
The show had an intimate feel, aided by the venue itself that felt like home in a way. I was impressed by the age range of guests. There were the obviously long-time fans, groupies, or whatever you want to call the hardcore bunch who knew every song, every lyric, every riff. There were also young teenagers accompanied by their parents who seemed just thrilled to be there.
The place was packed. It was sweaty and energized, and it was FUN. It was fitting that towards the end of the show, an inebriated woman who could barely stand climbed up on the stage and shook each band member’s hand. Then someone in the crowd OD’d and was taken away in an ambulance. All in a night in Hamilton, and all part of the riot that has surrounded this band since its inception. Never a dull moment!
The pinnacle of the evening came when Lou Molinario — venue owner, one of the guest singers and friend of the band — made a special announcement. He presented Gord Lewis, Steve Mahon and Frankie Venom’s sisters Christine and Dorothy (who were on hand to receive the honour on Venom’s behalf) with Gold albums for the Head’s 1982 release Some Kinda Fun, which officially reached gold status in Canada in April.
The surprise announcement was a perfect way to honour the band and specifically the legacy of Frankie Venom. Chris Houston put it well when he said, “it’s Frankie’s womb, we’re just all living in it.” The best part about the Hamilton music scene other than the stellar music is the supportive community it fosters. They remember and honour their friends. On this night, we honoured Venom and the Head in the most appropriate way imaginable; with a beer in our hands, dancing and singing along to one of the best bands to ever come out of Hamilton.
I should mention that this show was also a book launch for Geoff Pevere’s Gods of the Hammer, released last month. It is the first book dedicated solely to the Teenage Head story and is a mesmerizing read.