Trouble In The Camera Club is the story of a chubby, gay nerd coming of age during the first wave of Toronto Punk. It's a pictorial journey from the fall of poodle-haired, bell-bottomed bar bands to the rise of a kind of music that would punch those bands in their heads and then have unprotected sex with their girlfriends.
In Don Pyle's day, if you wanted a Ramones shirt you had to iron on the letters yourself. As Don learned how to use a camera, the punk scene in Toronto was exploding. His early photos feature people like Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Stiv Bators, and pretty much all of Canada's early punkers.
Later, Don founded Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet aka the group that did the Kids In The Hall theme song aka Canada's second national anthem. I called him up to discuss his new book and ask him to share some of his stories.
VICE: What was the Toronto scene like as punk was forming?
Don: I have a bit of a skewed perspective. From the beginning, Canadian punk bands like Teenage Head were put into the model that already existed. You had to play five sets a night at places like The Gasworks, which was the most prestigious place you could play if you were a shitty hairband playing the circuit. That was it, you got to that point and then your only choice was to slog it out.
It must have been intense to get thrown into that as a 14-year-old.
When I came into the scene I was awestruck, not only because I could get as close as I did to the bands, but I had the sense that these people were stars or superhuman beings. I actually believed that you had to have really special powers to play a guitar or to sing. This was all new to me at the time. I remember just wanting to have pictures of the bands for myself.
Obviously the photos in the book are the first things that grab your attention, but I felt like the personal story is what really gives the reader an idea of what Toronto was like at that time. How did you decided to tackle it the way you did?
I spent a lot of time retouching the photos. I am very intimately familiar with them from all the time scanning, going over them microscopically, and removing bits of junk. While I was doing that it gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to write. But the writing was much more challenging. I probably wrote five times more than what eventually got published. Anytime I started telling a story about a band or trying to describe where they fit in, I felt that I was almost setting a trap for myself. I didn’t want to set myself up to be the historian of Toronto punk—then there would be no truth except my truth. I know everybody's take on these bands is different. There was a whole struggle I had about what to say and what not to say. It did feel a little exposing to say some of these things. There are all sorts of things about my family life that play into why I was out all night.
Being a 14-year-old hanging out at bars all night, did you have any problems with your parents?
That was sort of the missing part of the story. I felt that if I wrote about it, it was going to hurt my mother.
Well you can tell us, she probably won't read this.
My mother was a single mother with a partner who was abusive. Her partner beat us up and we had a terrible home life. Part of our existence became to be out as much as possible. In that way I think that my mother recognized that I was good at taking care of myself and was always upfront about what I was doing. If I were going to be out all night I would tell her. If I were going to miss school I wouldn't forge a note, I would just tell her. She was trying to keep things together with five kids in a house, while being in a bad situation and doing the best she could do. Sometimes she just didn't know what to do. Sometimes some of the chicks flew the coop and she couldn't keep track of them all.
I imagine that made for a lot of time to obsess over bands.
I was reading the finest print on every record. Everything from the year it was published to the place it was manufactured. I used to look at the addresses of the record companies and then actually go to places like GRT records in Scarborough, knock on the door and say, "Hi, I really like this band, do you have any posters?" It's amazing the stuff I got from doing that.
That sounds pretty ballsy.
To me this was just what you did. Being in a record company office was a fantasy to me. It was totally magical, "This is where that Sparks record came from! This is where that Brian Eno record came from!" I went to Island Records’ office and they gave me a poster for Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, promo singles, and press packages. I realize now that most people at the time were probably like "Oh my god there is a kid at the door... and he wants an Eno poster."
I liked the story about asking Stiv Bators from the Dead Boys for an autograph and how he sort of Canadian-ized it for you.
Yeah "EAT MY PUNK, EH?” It was one of those moments that was sort of enlightening. I had just finished watching them perform and they came out to the lobby with these applications for their fan club. They just came off the stage after being really intense and really aggressive and threatening, and were just like, "Hi!" sitting and chatting with everyone. I will never forget the drummer, Johnny Blitz's signature which, in total 1976-year book style, read "Best of luck Don!" I remember at the time being like, "Best of luck Don?" They were so friendly and so nice it just didn't make sense to me.
I also loved the story of seeing The Ugly play David's on New Year’s Eve.
The Ugly were small time crooks. They were thugs but they were nice guys. The Ugly and The Viletones clearly had a very different aesthetic than everyone else in the scene. To me they were really sinister looking guys and there was a sense of danger around them at their shows or parties. It was New Year’s Eve and the band was playing a big show. The tradition was that if you were playing on New Year’s Eve you had to have a buffet. You needed games and prizes and these ridiculous things. It was part of the whole culture that was built up at the time, and it was absolutely silly. A food fight started because there was this table with the most pathetic spread you could imagine. It wasn't even ham, it was baloney. It's New Years Eve and everybody's high, everybody's dressed up. Nobody’s eating the food. So at the end of the set the singer, Mike Nightmare, is sort of doing this Roger Daltrey thing, swinging the microphone around as the band is vamping on their last chord. He let go of it and it flew into the audience. It was like a baseball, I saw it flying toward me before just falling at my feet. I'm looking at the stage and then at the microphone thinking, "Should I? Should I?" and nobody on stage is paying attention at all. So I reached down, unplugged it and put it in my jacket. I was with my friend Roger at the time. I said, "We have to go now. We have to go." As young and naive as I was it was hard to separate what was reality. I didn't feel like I was crossing them, I guess I thought it was the venue's equipment. I knew the Cramps were playing across the road anyway. This was really early in the Cramps career so they were super amazing. After I got it home and took it out of my pocket I looked at it and carved across it in block letters it said "N-I-G-H-T-M-A-R-E."
And then you had some good luck.
Yeah, the club burned down that night, which I had nothing to do with. That was unbelievable. I didn't know if the equipment was lost in the fire, but I thought it was easy enough to believe that in the pandemonium no one would notice a mic was missing. I wasn't too worried. I thought, "Nobody knows me." It's something that I think is pretty reprehensible now, but at the time I felt like Robin Hood because it was like "Now I can start my own band!" I had a microphone so I became the singer
Check troubleinthecameraclub.com for more info.
WORDS BY TOBIAS ROCHMAN
PHOTOS BY DON PYLE