The Diodes get back to business

By  Martin Popoff

Diodes10263p0.jpgAs part of last summer’s Canadian Music Week, Toronto’s first, best and biggest punk band, The Diodes, reunited for a free outdoor show and attendant later-that-night club gig, much to the amazement of hundreds of old punks around town.

The added bonus was that the lineup was identical to the one that recorded the band’s self-titled debut masterpiece — namely, vocalist Paul Robinson, guitarist John Catto, bassist Ian MacKay and drummer John Hamilton. Two more records were issued after that initial punk blast, with a switch at the drum stool and, more pertinently, a switch from pounding heavy metal-fueled punk to tentative, finicky new wave.

Looking fit and trim and color-coordinated all in black, the band rocked efficiently through most of the debut album, as well as their biggest hit, “Tired Of Waking Up Tired.” However, with Robinson living in the U.K., it’s not looking too likely that more will come of it (other than a reissue of the band’s third album, Action-Reaction, which should be out on Bongo Beat as you read this).

Says Robinson of the band’s legendary debut, issued on Columbia in the fall of 1977, “A lot of it was written from first-hand experience. And instead of being political, like say, The Clash’s first album, we weren’t talking about unemployment in Canada. A lot of it was about growing up in the suburbs, the vast sprawl that was outside of Toronto. Some of the lyrics were written around popular culture. There’s a song on there about commercialization and exploitation of people like Farrah Fawcett. Another song was about the character Buffy, from the television program ‘Family Affairs,’ who died of a drug overdose. So, it revolved around those issues, rather than sheer politics. Musically, it’s quite a hard, raw-sounding album, but it was well produced. It sounded as good as a lot of the English things that were coming out. Although the sound was purely the Toronto sound, really.”
With regard to the artsy, yet seminal, front-cover art, which featured, in effect, a bunch of mug shots of the band, Robinson points out that, “It was remarkable, because it was the first album cover to use SX-70 Polaroid photography. And actually, all over the world, it’s really acknowledged as one of the more interesting album covers from the time. Funny enough the Talking Heads album, which came out a little bit after us, had SX-70 photos on the back cover.”

On the record itself, besides driving anthems like “Plastic Girls,” “Child Star,” “Tennis (Again)” and “Behind Those Eyes,” The Diodes offered up power-chorded covers of “Shapes Of Things To Come” and more obscurely “Red Rubber Ball.”

Says Paul, “I was taken to see The Beatles when I was a child by my parents. And the opening band for The Beatles was a group called The Cyrkle, who were like a garage band from New York. But, they were the ones who recorded ‘Red Rubber Ball’ and had a hit with it in the ’60s. And that song always stuck out and just reminded me of something I would like to do when I got into a band. So, we recorded that, but then at the same time, it came out that Paul Simon had written it. Which we didn’t know at the time. And then we had noticed that Paul Simon was making these very, very anti-punk comments, that punk bands had no talent, etc. And we thought it was really appropriate that we did this Paul Simon song.”

Subsequently, the single was played up in the press as a sort of revenge on Simon, a “punking” of a song from deep in his past he’d likely rather forget.

But, the scene was changing quickly. In fact, if it wasn’t for The Diodes, punk might have passed Toronto by completely. Sure there was Teenage Head and The Viletones, but the former was barely punk by the time of their debut, and the latter, as notorious as they were, never even made an album. Arguably, as big as Toronto was, and is, the city coughed up one lonely pure punk album, and that was The Diodes — on Columbia, no less.

And then even this legendary band abandoned the cause, leaving Vancouver to lead the Canadian supercharge of guitars brandished in anger, through the work of Subhumans and major punk icons D.O.A..
“It’s true,” agrees Robinson. “I think that we were going for something different at that stage. I mean, already by 1978, punk was changing. It was morphing into something else, which was probably new wave. And we were trying to write some slightly more melodic power-poppy songs, rather than very 4/4 Ramonesy-type stuff. We were already morphing into something else — power-pop, Cheap Trick, a new wave sound, as such. You’ve got to remember, this is all in a very short period of time. The band formed in 1976, we invented ourselves in 1976/77, and then by 1978, when we recorded the second album, we were already quite accomplished musicians in what we were doing. And we were just trying to change. We didn’t want to stay in the same place. We wanted something more melodic, I think, than the original punk stuff.”

Robinson and company haven’t entirely shut the door on more activity.
“If the call is there for it, we probably will do a few more things. In terms of real hitting the road and touring for a year or something, that’s extremely unlikely at this stage. It would have to pay for itself. The gig we did in Toronto was totally for love — it was totally for all of you guys, because it ended up costing us quite a bit of money to do it, to be honest (laughs). But, it was great. We just had the best time, and we now know that we can still get together and play and put on a good show. We had a nice long lineup around Sneaky Dee’s, we had a hundred people wanting autographs and posters and CDs and stuff at the gig at Dundas Square, and for us… I couldn’t believe my eyes, really (laughs). Because when we left to move to England 25 years ago, you know, there wasn’t anybody to wave us goodbye at the airport, to be honest (laughs).”

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