Chris Houston's 'secret world': a tour of Hamilton's historical punk scene

Hamilton and its music culture have undergone quite a few changes since Houston, now 58, was a teenage punk rocker in the band Forgotten Rebels. But his mind is still full of memories of the the city's thriving punk scene, which served as an incubator for bands like the Teenage Head, Simply Saucer and Forgotten Rebels. 

Former Forgotten Rebels bassist and local musician showcased Hamilton's punk roots on a walking tour

Chris Houston paints a picture of the '70s Hamilton punk scene for the crowd during a stop on the tour. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

Chris Houston has a specific route he walks through downtown Hamilton almost daily. He usually passes the bar he's credited for naming (This Ain't Hollywood), strolls by the vacant building where Frank Zappa once bought magazines, and eventually stops at the top of Jackson Square — where he looks across the street into the window of what used to be Star Records.

Hamilton and its music culture have undergone quite a few changes since Houston, now 58, was a teenage punk rocker in the band Forgotten Rebels. But his mind is still full of memories of the the city's thriving punk scene, which served as an incubator for bands like Teenage Head, Simply Saucer and Forgotten Rebels. 

Houston still considers the strolls down memory lane as his "secret world" of punk music — a mind-map of the good old days, when the local record store reigned supreme and the internet was nonexistent. This Thanksgiving weekend, Houston gave walking tours of his secret world to the public.

Houston addresses the crowd in front of the building where he wrote the hit 1982 Forgotten Rebels song, Surfin' on Heroin. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

Two tours took place on Saturday and Sunday, with Houston leading groups of 20 to 30 enthusiasts and musicians to some of the city's most notorious punk landmarks. A few of his musician pals from back in the day joined along the way to provide extra stories and commentary. 

Tara Bursey, program director at the Workers Art and Heritage Centre, helped organize and put on the event with Sid Drmay and Craig Caron, under the moniker Punk City. Local artist and bookstore owner Dave Kuruc, who Houston referred to as "the encyclopedia of Hamilton," designed a limited edition annotated map to accompany the tour.

Record store beginnings

Bursey has lived in Hamilton for about seven years now, but she's been a fan of bands like Teenage Head and Forgotten Rebels since she was a youngster. After moving to the city, it wasn't long until Bursey ran into Houston at one of the local record stores. That's when she had the idea for the tour. 

She thought it would benefit younger punk musicians — who Bursey says are having trouble finding space to congregate and play nowadays — to hear from a much-respected and experienced veteran of the Hamilton scene.

Wearing tinted shades and a vintage leather jacket, Houston first led the crowd of mixed ages to the outdoor second floor of Jackson Square, looking over King Street and James Street.

Star Records — the place where it all started for Houston — used to be in the building just across the street. He pointed to one window in particular of the now-abandoned floor, and explained it was the exact spot where he first heard a Teenage Head demo tape.

Band t-shirts were a common sight among attendees, including this Teenage Head shirt. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

"It was total anarchy in there, where records that would never even be stocked in certain stores, were on the front rack [at Star Records]," Houston said. 

The emergence of punk in the '70s was especially prevalent in Hamilton. It was a town with a lot of "misfits" and "outsiders," he said, and when punk arrived, it gave those people a home in the form of a cathartic outlet. It felt like a secret world to Houston because — at the time — Hamilton was the only thriving punk scene he and his friends were aware of.

Why so serious?

The prominence of the genre in the city boiled down to a hard working blue-collar culture and a teenage scepticism of not taking anything too seriously, Houston said. Forgotten Rebels lead singer Micky de Sadist would come up with most of the band's song ideas when he worked at the Otis Elevator factory.

"A lot of those songs are influenced by him sitting around a lunchroom with his colleagues at work, and their perceptions on life," he said. "Hamilton was a working class city and you're not going to make good music unless you really represent the environment you're living in."

The group followed Houston through the streets of Hamilton to see where punk musicians used to live, play and rehearse. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

Houston also stressed the importance of maintaining a sense of humour when creating punk music as teenagers.

"When you're a kid, you're always going to see the contradictions of people and power ... and you kinda play with that."

Sometimes that attitude got the band in patches of trouble, specifically once with Canadian politician and former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. 

Turn it up to 11

Then-band manager of Forgotten Rebels, Steve Berman, had a useful family connection for the band to take advantage of to play a high profile show. Berman's father was campaign manager at the time for John Munro, Liberal Member of Parliament for Hamilton East. 

"They wanted to get the youth out," Houston said, and so the Rebels were invited to play at a campaign event for Trudeau's 1980 reelection.

Houston speaks to the crowd of punk enthusiasts on one of the many stops of the tour. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

Houston couldn't attend the show because his parents dragged him to the family cottage, but he managed to catch some of the event on CBC Television. 

"They had the reporter talking about Trudeau's campaign event and all I could hear was Micky's guitar in the background," he said. "And then during Trudeau's speech, Micky kept turning on his ear-splitting amplifier and making feedback sounds.

"It's juvenile stuff, but it takes the piss out of all the serious stuff."

Houston still records music daily and his new album, which he's been working on for the past two years with top-tier musicians, will be available in the coming weeks. 


Justin Mowat


Justin Mowat is a reporter with CBC Hamilton and also spends time in Toronto at News Network. Reach him at: justin.mowat@cbc.ca


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