All the signs were good.
The Potatoes was about to play it’s first gig – at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, the centre of Vancouver punk-rock – opening for three nights for DOA, the preeminent Vancouver punk rock band.
Then, on the way there in Ronnie’s van, Ellie O’Day announced on CFOX that this was Potato month. As the radio played, the guys in the van just looked at each other and grinned.
Yep, February 2nd, 1980, was going to be a great day.
Earlier, I figured I’d better do something about my long hair. So, I went to Don Betts at Black Swan Records. He’d been a hair dresser before becoming a cashier where his knowledge of music would be appreciated. When he heard that we were opening for DOA and I needed a haircut, he gave me a pig shave on the spot. I left Black Swan bristly and feeling like a carpet sample. At the Province newspaper, where I worked, I stopped in at my desk and was greeted by a bunch of oohs and aahs. Well, it was a drastic transformation. At least one woman came by the desk and rubbed a hand through my hair. Or what was left of it.
I walked into the Buddha for sound check. DOA’s 15 year old drummer, Chuck Biscuits, threw his arms around me and gave me a hug.
“Tom,” he wailed. “You’re one of us!”
Is that all it took to be accepted as a punk? Maybe. Dave showed up in a white shirt with a skinny tie and long blond hair that made him look like Tom Petty. The spiky punks milling around the Buddha sneered and let their disapproval be known. New wave poseur!
Little did we know that this was the first of the last hours of Dave as a Potato.
We’d formed, if I remember correctly, because Ronnie Hyslop and his long time friend, Grenville Newton , were stimulated by this new thing called punk rock. It’s egalitarianism appealed to them. Anybody could play rock and roll. You didn’t have to be a virtuoso. Both Ron and Gren had played a bit but were inhibited, feeling limited technically. Punk rock encouraged them. They knew I was an aspiring drummer and had some experience playing for the Georgia Straight “house band”, The Explosions, even opening for Talking Heads.
I also had been encouraged by the new bands and their records. So I was the third Potato. Dave Saul, who played lead guitar and sang, was the fourth.
Our repertoire was a selection of 60s hits, many almost forgotten: Bo Diddley’s Cadillac, as heard on the first album by The Kinks; The Witch by The Sonics,, My Little Red Book by Love.
We might have played these that first night at the Buddha. We made a lot of mistakes and weren’t very good. Might have been intimidated by the circumstances. But we got through it and felt we could only get better during the next two nights.
The following evening we’d arranged to meet at a restaurant in Chinatown. Three of us showed up but not Dave. As the night wore on without Dave, we got worried and called his home. Dave’s mother answered the phone. She said she didn’t know where Dave was but he’d vowed never to return to the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret . He’d quit without telling us.
The second night there were no guitar solos as Ronnie hadn’t the confidence to play lead. I sang from behind the kit. Although not what we wanted, that night have been the best of our three shows.
For the last night, we got not one but two guitarists, Finn Manniche and Al Harlow. Finn we knew as a great musician via his playing with my brother Don’s band, The Critics. Al was the bassist / cum guitarist for Prism and an old friend of both Ron and Gren. However, we played fast and they weren’t familiar with the material. There were frequent collisions and a lot of stray solos.
As Ronnie’s wife to be Oshie, looked on from the back of the room, all the promise that had carried us, turned into disaster.
We were down but by no means out. Before we broke up at the beginning of 1983 there were a jumble of events that I’ll attempt to unravel.
As punk rock boomed loudly in Vancouver in 1980, we recruited Karel to sing and Don to play lead guitar. Karel (Carl) Groeneveld was a taxi driver who, shyly, said he always wanted to sing. Don Harrison, my brother, was on the rebound from the dissolution of his first band, The Critics. From the outset, Don let it be known that he was with us only until he could assemble his own ideal band. In other words, until something better presented itself. Temporarily, at least, we had a credible, accomplished lead guitarist.
We played a variety of gigs from high school lunch hours to a Kelowna soccer club, from rented halls with bands such as The Bonus Boys and Al Harlow’s side project, Panties From Heaven, to an occasional club, the most emblematic of which was the Big O.
The Big O actually was a pub inside the Olympic Hotel, the bar run by Teddy Rogers, a friend who booked us on the occasion of a wedding reception between a biker and his “mama.” The motorcycle club would meet at noon at the American Hotel on Main, and then finish the night in North Vancouver at the Big O.
As we set up, a fight broke out between two mamas. They punched and scratched and shrieked across the dance floor and out the door, seemingly disappearing. After setting up and about to go home, the two women reappeared through the door, still punching and scratching and shrieking. It only was a sidelight but it added a little tension.
The night was a success. Although there were the usual array of flubs, there were lots of friends who cheered us on and ignored the mistakes. We set a record for bar sales. In a beer parlour, this was no small accomplishment and encouraged Teddy to bring us back.
On our return, the band that held the previous bar sales record sat in on our sound check. Who was this upstart band called The Potatoes? We were billed as punk and our uninvited guests sneered until Don dazzled them with a slow blues.
I’d brought my four track recorder. The resulting cassette reveals energy and enthusiasm. Don is all but inaudible during the first set, louder in the second. We treaded water outrageously to fill out the first set and took more chances in the second. Karel forgot some lyrics and got lost a few times but generally he acquitted himself, especially on Don’s arrangement of Put A Little Love In Your Heart, the Jackie Deshannon hit. Karel’s big moment was If You Won’t Fuck Me, Baby (Baby Fuck Off). Many people liked this Wayne County song but I didn’t, which was why I didn’t tape it. Censorship, I guess.
Speaking of Wayne County, The Potatoes opened for him at Gary Taylor’s Rock Room. While we did our set, he, who was about to be she and appeared in a woman’s peignoir, fumed in his dressing room that we were playing his favorite 60s songs.
Which was about as punk as we got. Punk in the sense of an American garage-rock optimism as defined by Lenny Kaye’s groundbreaking Nuggets compilation of 60s hits by, mainly, one hit wonders. That was my guide and more or less shaped my attitude, reinforced by the more contemporary punk attitude.
Ronnie and I had moved into a house with John Tait. John didn’t like the band, so we rehearsed in the garage during his work hours. These afternoon rehearsals would have been great if everyone had showed up on time, but often Karel was late by as much as two hours, which meant the by-now home John would be grumpy. While waiting for Karel, I filled in by singing.
There was some awkwardness at these times but it was better than the Soft Rock. A hippie coffeehouse and restaurant in Kitsilano, the Soft Rock also rented out spots in the basement. For a few months we were there beside a belt maker and a glass blower. It was hot, humid, uncomfortably close and the sound was bad, but it was cheap.
The garage in North Vancouver was even cheaper and much more convenient. I learned to sing while drumming, the band got tighter and even started to write songs.
The one good thing about the Soft Rock was that we collected Karel to travel with us at the right time.
He was with us at Mushroom. Someone at the studio gave Lindsay Mitchell eight hours. The Prism guitarist figured this wasn’t enough for whatever he was planning, so he decided to produce us instead. We knew him, or at least Gren and Ronnie did, and my family was renting a house owned by Lindsay’s mother.
At Mushroom we recorded four songs including Ronnie and my first attempt at songwriting under The Potatoes’ name, Guess Who, and Ronnie’s thematic Potato Song. Catchy, packed with hooks in its two minutes. Lindsay would sit in the control booth and shout, “Next.”
Four songs lasting less than 10 minutes. Afterward, Lindsay came to us and said, “The bass is all over the place,” and overdubbed his own bass parts. I guess it made for a better tape but it definitely was the first crack in our unity. Grenville was gracious about it, but this must have hurt. Lindsay is discreet and Gren is still in the mix but way down as to be almost inaudible.
Our other adventure in recording also was incidental. Little Mountain Sound was asked by the Pacific National Exhibition to demonstrate modern recording, so it built an eight track studio in one of the pavilions on the fairground. Little Mountain needed bands and we became one of them. For some reason, Karel never showed and so I did the singing. We did The Potato Song again and two originals , the music for which was written by Don. It was recording in a fish bowl. As I sang, fair goers would peek in or stroll by. At first, I was self-conscious but got over it, and the results are good.
On to television. This, too, was more providential than planned. Martyn Stubbs, then program director of cablevision four, wanted cable four to be more community involved. At the same time, he had launched Soundproof, a program devoted to local music news of which I initially was host. Martyn wondered if a crew of volunteers could produce a live concert, using The Potatoes as a guinea pig . So, Potato Bandstand was created. It was simple. We’d play in the TV studio for an invited audience. Live.
Over the years, I’ve thought of this as either the worst thing on TV or the funniest. It was live, indeed, mistakes and all. One of the camera people frequently shot the studio floor, during which Karel just as frequently skipped into view although only his red Converse runners are seen. Karel got to display his rock star ambitions, at one point draping himself around an aghast Grenville a la Mick Jagger embracing Keith Richard. The only problem is that, so strangled, Gren couldn’t play. Nonetheless, the mult-coloured Karel – red runners, yellow pants, Hawaiian shirt – dances here, dances there, has a great time.
Our days were nearly up. We always knew Don would leave, which he did when he discovered drummer Don Short and bassist Don Binns jamming in a garage just down from my parents, now living on 6th Street. With his friend, Jim Newton, they became the celebrated Sons Of Freedom.
The Potatoes might have lasted with another guitarist, but I took a leave of absence from The Province and lit out for England with Kerry Moore in May 1983. That was it; The Potatoes went back in the ground and stayed there.