How did Mount Pearl become so punk?
It’s a sleepy, suburban city, far from the coast of mainland Canada and anchored in the middle of the north Atlantic Ocean.
It’s not quite the setting many might imagine would foster generations of musicians and bands focused primarily on a fringe genre of music that exploded out of underground scenes in London, New York and California in the 1970s.
St. John’s, the bigger city to the east, may have had the downtown bars, the university campus and most of the venues where bands could play, but the Pearl — despite or maybe even because of its tree-lined streets and quiet suburban vibe — had the heart and the muscle in Newfoundland and Labrador’s punk scene.
If the Pearl was sneered at by townies, the bands it produced sneered right back.
And now that history is being captured in an exhibition that puts a spotlight on a scene considered legendary by local music fans, even if it’s also been largely ignored by the public.
Like all great ideas, however, it was likely out of necessity that punk found “the Pearl” and became a musical export of a small city where there isn’t — or at least there wasn’t — much else for a kid to do outside of organized sports. (Sure, there was the Reid Community Centre, which acted as a refuge for bored teens to shoot pool, play foosball and sneak a cigarette, but sports were the main recreational offering from the city council and the schools.)
The roots of Mount Pearl punk can be traced back to the late 1970s. Word-of-mouth and magazines were the only ways to keep up with what was new, fresh and different in an era that not only preceded the internet, but for some kids came before cable television.
A nudge from influences outside of the province were what was needed to light the fuse in Mount Pearl.
In neighbouring St. John’s, punk bands like Da Slyme were already off and running with vinyl LPs making their rounds through music circles and Memorial University’s CHMR radio.
Mike Fisher was living in the Toronto-area in the early ‘70s, touring in a top-40 cover band and taking in the first wave of Canadian punk during days off. When his band ran aground he moved home.
Fisher started the Reaction in 1979, which rehearsed out of his parents’ basement on First Street in the centre of Mount Pearl.
Without knowing it, they set the table for bands — dozens of them — to follow in the years after.
“Our first gig was at the university which was a double-bill with Da Slyme, I believe, and that was well received,” Fisher told CBC News.
“When we went out of town, that’s when it got interesting because we were basically doing a country and western territory.… When we released our 45, I think it was at the Blue Mountain just outside of Brigus, a guy bought the 45 and broke it in front of our face.”
Fisher now laughs at that memory.
He said those original releases can now fetch about $1,000 on eBay.
“If only he had known,” he said.
The history of Mount Pearl punk is as winding as the intricate pedestrian trail system that connects the entire city — basically a suburban playground for teens with no destination in mind.
But it’s also one that is bursting at the seams with decades of snarl, angst and talent, starting with the Reaction at the end of the ‘70s, Age of Majority in the late ‘80s, and Good to Go, Plan 13 and Bud in the ‘90s.
In the early 2000s, the scene was getting bigger and more popular. Bands like Crooked, Dopamine, Three Chord Revolution and Nerve Attack, among many more, ushered in the new millennium.
By the mid-2000s more Mount Pearlians were plugged in. De-Mons, the Ridiculice, Moke Cove, Shit Legion and Cider Squadron 666 added themselves to the growing list of Mount Pearl punk exports. More followed in the wake as the decade pushed on with King Sized Kids, I Was a Skywalker and Good News, Everyone!
In fact, many other acts that comprised the scene consisted of one or two members who hailed from Mount Pearl.
How and why that happened is anyone’s guess, but those who were a part of it say it was simply a common DIY interest and a close-knit community.
“The music was definitely the first thing I was drawn to,” said Kady Meaney, who has a long resumé as a member of several bands from the past. Now a mom, she’s still playing bass, and is a member of the band Dark Era.
Her punk inspiration goes right back to her Mount Pearl upbringing.
“Obviously some of the anti-establishment ideas, being an angsty teenager, that was all very appealing,” she said.
Outside sports, there was music and skateboarding, two things that go hand in hand for kids trying to carve out an identity amid an angst-filled adolescence.
The old skatepark behind the Glacier Arena is long gone, but the unlevel concrete surface with a quarter pipe and a box in the middle saw countless hours of use from kids who wanted something to call their own.
The slab of concrete, graffitied and littered, stained with a little blood and even memories of broken bones, was primitive compared with the current park, which sits off Smallwood Drive.
It should come as no surprise that grassroots movements are usually underfunded and carried on the backs of those who are in the midst of them.
Punk rock is no different, especially in Mount Pearl. Most involved agree the scene was a community of like-minded people, but also a weird, sweaty and inclusive family.
The scene throughout the decades was always for the kids, by the kids.
The bands and promoters, the majority of whom were underage, built their own stronghold for alternative music and fostered a community with friends from neighbouring communities of St. John’s, Paradise, Conception Bay South and Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s. (As a side note, the same can be said for the closely related heavy metal scene with teenage Mount Pearl bands like Cyprian leading the charge.)
Tapes, CDs, T-shirts, buttons, posters and patches were all largely created by kids who steered a raucous ship of musical pirates. No one had money; everyone seemed to have ideas.
And while St. John’s was the hub for all-ages shows, Mount Pearlians dabbled in their own effort to bring punk rock to the city within a park.
Fisher believes the first all-ages gig in Newfoundland was held at Mount Pearl Arena in the late ‘70s — later known as Smallwood Arena. To locals, it was the “Tin Can.”
In the early 2000s, Dan Warren took his own stab at booking bands for gigs. The venue? His parents’ basement in Powers Pond. The events were named Dan Fest.
“I wasn’t musically inclined myself. I had a lot of friends.… They were all really great musicians in their own right and I wasn’t able really to be a part of that because I wasn’t a great musician,” Warren said.
“I had some great organizational skills and I had a great venue at the time, for what it was worth, so I approached my parents and said, ‘I have this crazy idea.’”
A crazy idea, indeed, though one supported by his parents, Warren said. Although Dan Fest didn’t last too long — Warren said the second running got “a little hairy” — he remembers those shows fondly.
But, much like most other amenities on the northeast Avalon Peninsula, living in Mount Pearl meant commuting to the capital city to see a punk show, and often to play at one.
All-ages venues in St. John’s included Calio’s, the St. John’s Curling Club, St. Andrew’s Hall, the CLB Armoury and the historic Masonic Temple, all booked and promoted by underage entrepreneurs who kept the wheels in constant motion.
Most notably, the unsuspecting Riverdale Tennis Club — you can find it at the base of Portugal Cove Road, right in the heart of east end St. John’s with picturesque scenery courtesy of the nearby Rennie’s River — became an important venue for up-and-coming musicians who were too young to get into bars.
“It seemed like in Mount Pearl you were either a hockey player, or [sang in] show choir or you fit into one of those buckets,” said De-Mons lead singer Dave Mandville while revisiting the grounds of Riverdale during a rainy St. John’s afternoon.
“Punk rock was just an area where people had skateboards, and people listened to fast music and people thought critically. It was a cool scene to be a part of and it was an alternative choice to where most people fit.”
So what does one do with decades of history forged solely out of basements, garages, sheds and the minds of idled youth across a relatively slow-moving suburb in Newfoundland?
They preserve and showcase it, of course.
Elsa Simms, manager of Admiralty House Communications Museum, told CBC News the idea behind a Mount Pearl punk exhibit has been a dream for a long time.
“I grew up playing in punk bands. The most successful punk bands I’ve played with or the most fun punk bands I’ve played with were all with people from Mount Pearl,” Simms said.
“It’s just kind of serendipitous that I became manager of this museum and get to sort of live out this dream.”
Simms and the museum teamed up with Kris Hamlyn, who runs the online blog Secret East, which is about all things alternative in Newfoundland and Labrador. Hamlyn chipped in as a researcher with Punk Rock Pearl and is the writer behind the museum’s blog posts.
Those posts were a springboard that launched the physical exhibit, along with provincial funding for municipalities to ring in Come Home Year 2022.
Hamlyn said the exhibit is simply about its creators and what they brought to the long-standing tradition of songwriters and storytellers of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“The story about Punk Rock Pearl, and punk rock in Mount Pearl in general, is about what kids can accomplish when they come together under a common passion,” he said.
“They created a youth movement that fed the local alternative scene for a lot of years. The bands that came from Mount Pearl and the kids that came from Mount Pearl kept the alternative music scene alive in St. John’s for decades.”
The exhibit, which launched last Friday with live music from current punk bands, runs until Aug. 31.
There was no ribbon-cutting ceremony. Instead, a chain was snipped by bolt cutters to mark the occasion.
The next generation was out in force, moshing shoulder to shoulder with those who built, added to and curated punk rock in Mount Pearl for decades.
Museumgoers can expect to see T-shirts, CDs, buttons, instruments and personal artifacts provided by people who built a punk scene in an unlikely city on Canada’s East Coast. Many of these objects had been tucked away in shoeboxes and drawers.
The exhibit also features a breakdown of local music history on wall-hung panels and interactive activities, including screen-printing T-shirts and ripping mixtapes.
After all these years, Fisher said, it’s an exciting moment.
“I’m really curious to see the exhibit myself, actually, to catch up on what was happening,” he said.
“I’m aware of a few names. I think it’s great. Mount Pearl has always been on the edge for arts. Not a lot of people know that.”