The first time Geoff Pevere saw Teenage Head at a basement club in Ottawa back in the 70s, he knew he was watching something truly special.
The band was tight, explosive, and wrote monstrously catchy hooks. Songs like Picture My Face stayed with him immediately, nestling into his auditory pleasure centres and fostering a connection with the band that perseveres some four decades later.
- Listen to a classic archived interview between author Geoff Pevere and Teenage Head frontman Frankie Venom
Pevere is the author of the new book Gods of the Hammer: The Teenage Head Story, which is slated to be on bookstore shelves May 8. He spoke with CBC Hamilton’s Adam Carter just before the launch and talked about the band’s legacy, the pop hooks they pulled from Neil Diamond, and just what he thought about the Frankie Venom statue controversy.
Q: What was it like the first time you saw Teenage Head?
I remember when I saw the band I was knocked over. Not just because they put on such an incredible and electrifying show, but also because I felt like I was watching a band that had been doing what they had been doing for years. It felt like they were put on this Earth to do it.
'Is there anything more unpunk than a statue?' - Author Geoff Pevere on the Frankie Venom statue controversy
There were a few songs — in particular Picture My Face — which sounded to me like perfect rock songs. I was unprepared for a band that I didn’t really know much about to be that perfect when I saw them. That song stuck in my head to the point since in those days they didn’t have records out, you couldn’t hear them on the radio so the only way you could hear those songs that had installed themselves in your head was by going back to see the band.
In the next couple of years, I probably saw teenage head between 15 and 20 times.
And that process of having to physically go must have fostered a deeper connection to the band.
Exactly. What I didn’t realize at the time is I was actually taking in part of a process that was happening to a lot of people who saw Teenage Head and who responded the same way. It was a great show, the songs were terrific, you wanted to hear them again because they stuck in your head — and you physically had to go. This is how on the one level fandom was basically instilled in me but also I realized later on that I was part of a process where this band was building fans in that way.
And in those days, that was the way you had to do it. You couldn’t just download it out of curiosity. At that point it would be a full year before I could even go to a record store and buy a teenage head album.
Part of the reason they accumulated such a passionate and deep, enduring following is that every time I went, there were more people there. And as I started doing things like seeing them in different cities, what I realized is that every time I was going there were more people there. That process was very much a part of that time. It couldn’t be duplicated at all in the same way today, but it was instrumental in instilling in people who liked the band a really enduring enthusiasm in them.
What is it exactly about the band’s sound specifically that set them apart?
The craft of the writing of the songs was quite incredible. It wasn’t because the songs were in any way elaborate or intricate — in fact it was the opposite. There was a simplicity to the songs.
They knew their way around a pop hook. Years later — last year with the guitarist Gord Lewis and I was telling him about my experience with the band, and I told him that it was the song Picture My Face which had basically hooked me in for life. And he said to me "Well, that song began with a Monkees song called A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You."
I just about fell off my chair because I immediately remembered that when I was about 10 years old the second Monkees album came out. I played that song so often that my father used to have to come up and tell me to play anything else but that song. There was just something about the very simple arrangement of chords in that song — and it turns out that was a song written by Neil Diamond and performed by The Monkees but it was insanely catchy. It just kind of hit my auditory pleasure centres in such a way that I couldn’t get enough of it.
What I realized was that even though Teenage Head was being called a punk band, Teenage head was essentially a really smart pop/rock outfit. They were taking some of the simplest and most appealing structures in rock music and in pop music and they were amplifying it and tightening it in such a way that it gave the music a kind of force and tightness which was completely irresistible.
And the fact that they wouldn’t shy away from a pop hook must add to the band’s legacy and the fact that they still resonate with people today.
They really did. Whether it was because other bands were taking a kind of anti-commercial posture, or whether those bands just weren’t capable of reproducing a catchy pop song, the end result was for the most part, punk music wasn’t all about melody. It wasn’t about being immediately gratifying or appealing — and yet these guys did that.
The other thing I talk about in the book is “just how punk was Teenage Head?” On one level, they weren’t punk at all. They had this affinity to pop hooks, they weren’t afraid to borrow song structures from Neil Diamond — I mean how un-punk is that? And yet on the other hand, their insistence on doing things their way and not following any kind of fashion or trend — and the fact that they so clearly didn’t give a s--t about they were “supposed” to be doing — was in the end pure punk.
So tell me about the book itself — is it more for casual fans or the hardcore listener?
Well, there was no way I could write a complete biography of the band with space constraints. So what I kept in mind was by way of focusing it and keeping the book down to length was “why are you writing this book?”
And I’m writing this book because I heard a song at a certain point in my life, and I saw a band at a certain point in my life, and it instilled itself permanently in my memory and in my experience of rock music. What I wanted to do was to write about what it was that basically hooked me for life.
And so I wrote a book that is on the one hand unabashedly a fan’s appreciation of this band — but I also wanted to account for a couple of things: what it was precisely about the band that made them do what they do so awesomely well, yet on the other hand I’m always trying in my writing to appeal to anybody who might sit down and read the first few paragraphs.
In that sense, I think it is a book that I think definitely will appeal to fans, and it is a book that hopefully will appeal to people who are interested in that period of music. There was no downloading, making this a period of historical interest — we had to listen to music differently. Bands had to perform differently, reputations were made differently.
It’s also an interesting book about the way that Canadian culture works and doesn’t work.
I’m sure you’ve also heard about the statue issue that broke out here when mayoral candidate Coun. Brian McHattie proposed a statue of singer Frankie Venom to be erected in Victoria Park. Some people loved the idea, some people hated it. What do you think?
When I was first alerted to it, my first thought was “what an interesting idea — but buddy, do you know what you’re doing?” Because the fact is, that on the one hand, it indicates just how far Teenage Head has gone especially in Hamilton in terms of creating a legacy — but then again, I also thought “is there anything more unpunk than a statue?”
The thing is that to me, whether it’s just Frankie or the band itself, the real monument – the real thing that lasts is the fact that Teenage Head maintained a legacy and a fandom in the absence of so many factors that we normally consider to be essential to the building of those kinds of cultural monuments. That to me is the real legacy.
I’m not surprised there was a concerted community effort to quash the idea of a punk rocker in one of the public parks, but the fact that the idea was even suggested to me is an indication that I certainly wasn’t alone in thinking Teenage Head was one of the great rock bands.
That was my initial thought too — what punk musician ever does this to be bronzed in a statue in a public park? That’s the least punk thing ever.
I agree, totally. [Laughs]. I can’t help but think that if we listen very quietly, the loudest laughter over the suggestion that we could’ve heard was probably Frankie’s from beyond the grave.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Gods of the Hammer: The Teenage Head Story launch party is happening this Friday at This Ain't Hollywood in downtown Hamilton. A cast of special guests like Dave Rave, Max Kerman of Arkells, Lou Molinaro, Buckshot Bebee and more will be belting out classic Teenage Head songs along with the band. Copies of the book will also be available.