What it comes down to is that The Explosions existed for the sake of a song.
Bob Mercer had written Wilson Lucas And Bruce as a protest of the B .C. prison system’s solitary confinement.
Rather than go back to “the hole,” three B.C. pen prisoners, Clair Wilson, Dwight Lucas and Andy Bruce, attempted a jailbreak, taking 15 hostages. Their gamble for freedom was thwarted in a bloody, violent showdown staged by a tactical squad. One of the hostages, Mary Steinhauser, a prison social worker, who was said to be close to Bruce and a prisoner sympathizer, was killed. Her murder, by police hands, subsequently was covered up.
Mercer tells a gripping story with a taut blues-rock underpinning that does, indeed, explode in drums, guitar and harmonica by the end.
I suppose the door is open for a debate on solitary confinement, one side reasoning that those destined for solitary are prisoners, after all, and get what they deserve. The other side will argue that the spartan conditions are inhuman. Doesn’t matter; solitary confinement is cruel, yay or nay.
With 40 years hindsight, The Explosions formed as a matter of convenience. We became known as The Georgia Straight house band. Mercer was the editor of the Straight in 1977. David Lester, who essentially did the weekly’s lay out, played rhythm guitar. I compiled music news and handled my own lay out and had taken up the drums. Alex Varty, a music reviewer, came in as lead guitarist with progressive ideals. Jamie Baugh was the outsider of us five, my neighbour with whom I had written and crudely recorded a couple of songs. He was invited to play bass.
Collectively, we were encouraged by this new twist called punk. It valued ideas above technical ability, was rebellious and stressed a DIY, do-it-yourself ,attitude.
We weren’t punks but we bought into punk rock completely.
Local radio had grown smug and conservative while the local music business seemed desperate to make it, whatever that means. A shake down was needed but the established industry got its back up and was defensive. Makes sense; the punks constantly were attacking and made the music establishment appear reactionary.
So The Explosions did it their way, not quite accepted into the punk community but too punk for the mainstream.
Our first gig was at a Kitsilano house party, the only thing I remember of which is that a guy named Warren wanted me to give him drum lessons . As I’d never played in public before and was extremely nervous about being so exposed, I was surprised and flattered. Warren did become a drummer, later playing in a new wave band with Alex Varty.
We then opened for Doug And The Slugs at a rented hall for one of their theme bashes, Beach Blanket Bungle. Doug Bennett’s Slugs were a fast rising band, rather similar to The Explosions – not mainstream, not punk. That wasn’t why Doug chose us. He had done art and lay out at the Straight before quitting in 76 so knew us and we probably posed no threat.
If he was throwing us a bone, the bone bounced back. Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun, attended the gig, ostensibly to write about the newsworthy Slugs and their irreverent relationship to the music business. He gave more space to The Explosions. So bruised, Bennett never got over it, but he did okay anyhow.
I wanted The Slugs to play at the Straight’s first battle of the bands, April 78. The 60s battles of the bands seemed romantic and exciting. I revived the idea as a way of focusing on various elements – but mainly punk/new wave, which was changing the make up of local music and had become a cultural phenomenon that couldn’t be ignored, try as the mainstream might.
Kicking off the first night at the Body Shop was The Explosions. We weren’t competing. I just wanted to break the ice. The tape of us points to a roots conscious blues-rock with a degree of soul. We were okay and went down well. I had borrowed a four track recorder from No Fun, which also appeared. It was a crude set up – two microphones hanging from the ceiling, two feeds from the mixing deck. One of the feeds didn’t record, so we made do with three channels. Although I recorded everybody – twice in the case of The Dishrags – I don’t have all the reels. The Furies and Slugs kept theirs, some of The Dishrags sets was used for a compilation, four songs were the basis for DOA’s Triumph Of The Ignoroids 12 inch. Don’t know what happened to No Fun’s.
Anyway, the Body Shop was packed all three nights and generated a lot of enthusiasm. A few months later, Norman Perry, of Perryscope Productions, who’d seen us at the battle of the bands, asked us if The Explosions would open for Talking Heads. This was unexpected, but, of course, we would do it.
When word got out, an upset Tim Ray of Tim Ray’s AV phoned me, complaining that, “I thought you guys were only doing this for fun.”
Although I knew AV was clearly in the vein of Talking Heads, I answered with a question “You think opening for Talking Heads won’t be any fun?”
Come the day, September 7, 1978, I awoke to the news that Keith Moon of The Who had died. Later, at the Commodore, Talking Heads learned that their British tour manager couldn’t come into Canada because he wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter the U.S.. Talking Heads bassist, Tina Weymouth took over the sound check, barking orders that David Byrne, Jerry Harrison and her husband, Chris Frantz, duly and sharply obeyed.
After our brief check, we met backstage where Talking Heads were finishing their rider meal, sushi. Sushi was just becoming popular in Vancouver, but wasn’t well known – except to Alex. When Byrne told Alex to help himself to the rider, Alex swooned and dove in.
Our set must have been okay as we got a rarity for an opener , a genuine encore. I didn’t know as I was fighting my drums all night. They kept scattering across the floor, preventing me from concentrating on the gig. Sheepishly, I went stage right, where Talking Heads insisted we do another song. They loved us. One of the reasons they liked us was that in all the other cities, they were paired with a popular bar band as promoters hedged their bets, not really understanding this punk thing, or Talking Heads’ place in it. To Talking Heads we were a fresh, welcome change.
For our encore, we paid a tribute to Keith Moon but mangled The Who’s Can’t Explain. My fault. Blanked out and didn’t play my part properly.
Sometime around the Battle Of The Bands in April, we issued our single. At six minutes long and with a complicated, controversial lyric, Wilson, Lucas And Bruce never was going to be a hit, but we had faith in the DIY ethos and put it out through the Georgia Straight, art and organization by Bob and Dave.
It was recorded at Ocean, then a garage in a North Vancouver back alley with an engineer who, it seemed to me, didn’t care what we did. “If these fools want to spend their money, ok, as long as I get paid.” He wasn’t very helpful, didn’t appear interested.The test pressing seemed bass heavy, the production flat. I like it a lot more now.
Very few people bought it and radio played it once. The city’s rock station, CFOX, had a daily slot called, I think, New Music At Six and told us that Wilson, Lucas And Bruce would be aired. The news traveled quickly on the prison grapevine. Come six p.m., all the prisons that received CFOX were silent. Six minutes later, they erupted as jail guitar doors were rattled, cups were raked over cell bars and prisoners shouted.
Not long after, The Explosions were invited to appear at Matsqui, a minimum security prison situated in Burnaby. We were given strict instructions about what we could take in and told to leave women at home. Although the organizers tried to make us feel welcome, the atmosphere nonetheless was tense. These were hardened convicts, a skeptical, tough audience. Behind a closed door, there was self-made booze and smuggled dope. I stayed out front. frightened to be busted.
My drums wandered across the floor. Clothes hangers were wrapped around the legs but ineffectual. Naturally, the biggest response was for Wilson, Lucas and Bruce, which I think we played twice. I was given a prison shirt, pants and cheap Panama type hat, which, along with everyone else’s, subsequently was hidden in my bass drum.
Mercer was an animated front man, whose biggest influence was Peter Wolf of the J. Geils band, with lesser elements of Mick Jagger, Bob Seger and Van Morrison; Lester believed the most of all of us in punk and wrote and played like it; Varty was much more cerebral, his often jagged solos abrasive but exhilarating, though his rhythm playing was suspect and rock seemingly too basic; Baugh quickly fit the image of the stoic, impassive but reliable bassist. Me? I was learning drums as I went, but my timing was good, I hit hard and kept everything I did necessarily simple.
We recorded at Little Mountain, a much better experience than that of Ocean. We did two of Mercer’s songs, both soulful and which could have been hits, two of Lester’s that were,a contrast to Mercer’s, and my Romance Of History, which I might have written with Baugh.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Romance Of History. Lyrically, it’s me being a smart ass, showing off a university awareness, but not being much more than clever. For me, the best part of the recording is Varty’s long solo at the end.
Romance was part of our live set. A crude recording of us at Rohan’s (long closed) is astonishing for the diversity and abundance of our original numbers, mostly written by Mercer and Lester. Jamie and I have one other song in the set, Suzie’s Magic Dancing Boots. I sincerely wanted to pay homage to Chuck Berry, but I don’t think The Explosions’ version has conviction and I’m not as witty as Chuck.
With five guys of such disparate influences, background and experience, could The Explosions have made it? Maybe; punk rock opened that possibility. I’d bound into the Straight office some days, feeling triumphant ,but Mercer would dismiss us glumly. Other days, I’d think we were crap and Mercer would talk of The Explosions’ bright future.
It didn’t matter. As editor, Mercer was struggling with the Straight’s future, if it was to have one. The Straight was renamed The Vancouver Express in a short-lived attempt to relaunch itself as all new. As I’d become an obstacle to achieving this and represented the old, I was fired.
That defused The Explosions Not a bang, not a whimper. Maybe a few unanswered questions.