Journalist Bob Mersereau’s new book The Top 100 Canadian Singles has reduced our musical history to sort of a baby boomer version of a Guy Lombardo set list. Despite the inclusion of indisputable classics, crucial genres like metal, reggae, jazz and hip-hop get the bum’s rush and towering figures like Vancouver punk stalwarts D.O.A. don’t even warrant a mention.
But being an outsider doesn’t faze D.O.A.’s indefatigable leader, Joe Keithley (a.k.a. Joey Shithead). In their 30-plus years, the band, famous for their love of beer, hockey, lumber jackets and rabble-rousing politics, never kissed the kind of industry asses behind Mersereau’s list. Of the few late ’70s Ontario-based punk bands who did sneak onto the list, Keithley says:
“Toronto bands at that time — and it’s not insulting them and saying that they’re not good bands — but they had the record industry that they would try to cater to. By being in a backwater like Vancouver, you have to strike out by being more daring than the rest. We didn’t just to try to sound like bands from New York.”
Instead, D.O.A. built a sound and vision as Canadian as hell, like BTO being fronted by Tommy Douglas. Or as Keithley says:
“One thing I decided a long time ago was that a band needs an identity. So when I thought about Texas, I thought about ZZ Top. When I thought about London, I thought about the Sex Pistols. There’s something about their sound and the way they look that makes you really identify where you were. That’s how we came up with the mac jackets or the flannel look, which ended up getting copied in Seattle. This is the Canadian lumberjack look. We really played that up with the hockey, the chainsaws and the mac jackets and anything we could think of. At first, people in Europe and even the States couldn’t believe there was punk rock from Canada. By being adventurous and going and taking a chance, that made the name for D.O.A.”
And in another great Canadian tradition, D.O.A. are survivors. They have lived through near-constant upheavals including backstage fist fights, a lengthy break-up, a near-crippling lawsuit, a dozen record labels, deaths of their members and Keithley cutting off a chunk of his finger with a chainsaw on stage. But through all this turmoil, or maybe because of it, they have never tired of taking the stage and hammering out their songs.
“If you take a song like ‘The Prisoner,’ we’ve probably played it 3,000 times but if something is a vehicle that will give people in the audience joy, then it’s a good thing to use. I don’t like to totally play old songs but there’s a few nuggets like ‘Fucked Up Ronnie’ or ‘Fucked Up whoever we’ve attached the title to,’ that the audience gets a real jolt from. That kind of energy kicks back at the band and helps carry everything through. The thing with D.O.A. is we put out new albums and we’re progressive, politically and socially, so that stops us from becoming a nostalgia band. That’s death when you’re like that.”
And maybe that’s the problem with Mersereau’s Top 100 Canadian Singles — as a collective statement it’s just an exercise in bloodless nostalgia. When asked about the current state of this nation, Keithley says, “It’s rule by mediocrity. When you don’t have a leader that’s strong enough to put forth a vision, then our political leaders are reduced to just reading polls and reacting to what they hear in the press.” Those words might well be aimed at the craven mediocrity of some of today’s cultural leaders.
D.O.A play The Zoo on Oct. 15 and 16.