Jul 23 2020

Edmonton Block Heater

It usually takes a death to get me talking on this space. Ken Chinn, of the legendary punk band, SNFU, has passed. He had been in ill health for some time and I have no interest in going into the details as, I don’t have first hand knowledge of them and it’s nobody’s business.

We know far too much about the personal lives of our musical heroes or musical enemies and it serves no purpose that I can see. Someone’s public persona almost never informs their art. Inspiration is illusive and both swell and crappy people are able to make either good or bad music.

What’s important is Ken was an incredible front man and SNFU were the best band to ever come out of my hometown of Edmonton AB and one of the greatest punk bands of all time.

I met Ken when he was 14. The Edmonton punk scene was pretty small and you got to know everyone, if not by name, at least by sight. My first memory of Ken was him wearing what looked like his junior prom suit, (suits were kind of a thing in the early days of punk) digging on the bands, including my band, The Modern Minds. We were a power pop band that played really fast, like The Dickies or The Ramones with the melodic sensibilities of a band like The Buzzcocks. There weren’t a ton of gigs for bands like ours. Often the gig would be a bar that would slum it midweek and have a ‘punk’ or ‘new wave’ night, knowing that everyone in the scene would probably show up. Back then, there was no such thing as a stand alone nightclub that sold alcohol in Edmonton. Bars were attached to hotels and the only other place to get booze was at a restaurant, (if you ordered food) and restaurants didn’t have live music.

Once in a while, some enterprising kid would rent a hall for a punk show. I remember seeing DOA at one of those shows. There was a guy named Randy Boyd who opened a record store downtown called Obscure Alternatives. It mainly stocked the flood of releases that were coming out post Sex Pistols and Ramones that fit into the category of Punk or New Wave. It became the epicenter of the scene and I remember the night DOA played Edmonton, the band showed up at the store. They scared the crap out of me-they looked like they were in a bike gang. Most of the people in the Edmonton scene were college students or disenfranchised youths who would have been Smiths fans had they been born 7 years later. Which is to say, looking less like bikers and more like pasty white boys.

DOA just tore the roof off of the hired hall that night. The crowd went absolutely nuts for them and I think they got about eight encore calls. I honestly thought they were going to get pissed off at people begging them to keep playing.

Sometime around then, Randy, (I think) rented a place and built a stage in it and opened the doors. Edmonton had its first (non alcohol) punk club. It didn’t have a name but people called it the Suicide Club even though that had been a name for the Smilin’ Buddha in Vancouver. I think it only lasted a month, The Modern Minds played twice, one night had The Modernettes and The Subhumans and I forget what happened the other night. The Modernettes were kind of my favorite band at the time. Randy had organized a trip to Vancouver, which to us, was like a punk rock Mecca. We opened for the Modernettes and a band called No Fun at the aforementioned Smilin’ Buddha. I remember walking to the club, which was in a terrible neighborhood and the first person I encountered asked me, “how much would it cost to get you to kill my wife.” My suburban self walked away terrified. We played our show and then The Modernettes hit the stage. They opened with a song called Confidential and it was love at first listen. It remains one of my all time favorite records.

We released a three-song single as everyone released singles back then. The A-side was Theresa’s World and the B-side had Bungalow Rock, (my ode to my actual hometown of St Albert, a suburb of Edmonton) and She’s Gone. We recorded it at an 8-track studio called Homestead that was run by Larry Wanagas who would go on to manage KD Lang and The Trews among others. The single didn’t sell a lot but aged well and became something of a collector’s item. I would get requests for copies of it from various places, mostly Japan and a company there called Record Shop Base eventually asked if they could press a Modern Minds CD. All we had was the single, so we fleshed out the CD with a bunch of demos. Most of it was recorded live to 8-track, even the vocals. Years later, I was approached by a guy named Simon Harvey who had a reissue label called Ugly Pop who released a vinyl version of the Japanese CD. So it’s been fun, over the years, to see this single fight to stay alive.

I remember the night I left the punk scene. We were playing a show at the U of A, which was another place that would hire punk/new wave bands. We weren’t playing in one of the regular rooms where they ran gigs. This place had a makeshift stage that was only about six inches high. As I said earlier, you kind of got to know all of the people in the scene. There was this guy who was at every show, a big dumb guy. He was also a rich kid, which made him even more unlikable. He always had a nice leather jacket and that sullen, my rich dad knows I’m a fuck up, expression on his face. What some of you may or may not know is that back in the early days, there was an idea that spitting on the band was a thing. I don’t know where this originated but occasionally someone would want to try to be “authentic”-even in Edmonton. Well, on this night, the big dumb guy, who probably didn’t think I was punk enough, stood in front of me, like literally right in front of me, and spit at me through our entire set. His disgusting, pungent gob ran down my face, covered my glasses and gooed up my brother-in-law’s beautiful ‘60’s Rickenbacker. After enduring this abuse for several songs I began to have an existential crisis. This really wasn’t how I wanted my life to go, not how I envisioned being a musician. It never occurred to me that we could just stop the show, I didn’t want to quit and I resigned myself that it was my duty to ‘take it’. As this was all swirling around in my head, a fist flew across my field of vision and knocked Spitty out cold. Some guy had been watching this performance and had clearly had enough. The place went crazy and it felt like the cops were there in 10 seconds. The other thing was, punk shortly thereafter became hardcore and most of the fans were shirtless bald dudes assaulting each other. I wanted to be in a band where girls came to the shows. I would still be a fan but started to lean more towards my melodic side, creating more complex compositions while still playing the odd 180 BPM ditty.

Anyway, Ken formed a band called SNFU, adopting the stage name, Chi Pig. One memory I have is travelling from the suburbs on a St Albert Transit bus that ran once an hour, walking a half an hour to transfer to an Edmonton Transit bus that only ran every half an hour to get to a where they were playing. It was at a bar called Scandals, which was attached to the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Edmonton. I think I was on my third Edmonton band by this point and I had never been in one as good as SNFU. Their set was just blistering. A lot of the punk bands in Edmonton were unmusical, mostly attitude and hadn’t figured out how to use a tuner. But SNFU were incredible musicians, super tight and then there was Ken. Just a dervish on stage with charisma to spare. They signed a deal with BYO and put out their classic debut, And No One Else Wanted To Play. The band went on to become a world famous, highly influential band and one of Edmonton’s most significant exports.

A few years ago, SNFU went back on the road after a long break. They had a show booked in a club called the Velvet Underground in Toronto and this was going to be my first time seeing the band in many years. My status as one of the grand daddies of the Edmonton scene meant that I was always one of the people interviewed when a movie or book was going to feature Ken. It was great to see the band again, even though only Ken remained from that original Edmonton line up. I got a chance to talk to him briefly before the show and he honestly didn’t seem much different than the last time I had seen him decades ago. His voice still had a tiny bit of the timbre of youth and he joked and laughed at his jokes and seemed in a good place. His bass player was Dave Bacon, a guy I had become friendly with, largely over social media and it was great to hear all of those old songs again, played really well by the current line up.

So his death, as death often does, has caused me to reflect and wax nostalgic. Being in a band in Edmonton was so hard that it toughened you up, made you a good musician and tempered your expectations. There was no industry out there, almost no gigs and no real future. When The Pursuit of Happiness broke, even though it was what I had always dreamed of and worked so hard for, it still seemed unreal that it could happen to someone like me. It never would have happened if I hadn’t moved to Toronto and I thank my lucky stars that I was dumb and ambitious enough to move across the country with basically only the money in my pocket.

But there was one weekend in Edmonton where I almost felt that I had made it there. The Modern Minds were hired to do a three-night stand at a place called the Riviera Rock Room in the Riviera hotel. It was at the height of our popularity and I think we sold it out all three nights. That was the only time I remember a Western Canadian club promoter ever being happy with me after a show. It was recorded by a radio station that had to because it was part of their CRTC licensing agreement. I’m told the tape of that show still makes the rounds in Edmonton. That weekend ended up being the swan song for the band. Our bass player, the late, great Bob Drysdale had let us know before the shows that he was leaving the band. But that was as good as things ever got for me in my hometown and I flailed around there for a few more years until I figured out I was going to sink in suburban quicksand if I didn’t get out of there. But lets stop here. This isn’t my autobiography. Rest in peace, Ken.