By Alan Brostoff
America may have had bands like The Dead Kennedys, The Misfits, JFA, Black Flag and T.S.O.L. but just up north in Canada you would have seen that D.O.A. were making a name for themselves as one of the founders of “hardcore punk.” However, they did not limit their songs to just about issues of the Great White North, but often wrote about issues that also affected the United States.
Frontman Joey Keithley sat down with Goldmine to talk about 40 years in a punk band, some politics and even how rich he might be if he still had all his original punk 45s and LPs.
Goldmine: You have a new release 1978 which is unreleased tracks and singles coming out in June, when you take a minute to look back on the 40 years, what comes to mind?
JoeyKeithley: Well, 40 years. (laughs) I don’t remember everything it was like when I was younger but it felt like a double life sentence. I think of a few things. One was like, okay, when we started out, no one knew anything about punk rock. It was just kind of a thing we would see on TV. People saw the early punk going on in New York, California and Boston. In Toronto we saw the same thing, and we had read about The Ramones. This was around '76 in high school type things. We witnessed punk rock pioneering. We had no idea what we were doing and we mailed singles out to promoters with a letter that accompanied it that said “We are a punk band called D.O.A. from Canada, can we come play in your town.” We did not have anyone's phone numbers and we would wait for a letter to come back that would say “Yea, that’s cool.” Eventually we started to get people's numbers and we kind of wrote the book on punk rock and traveling around. That era means to me that there were no places to play. If any town had heard of punk rock it was because maybe Black Flag had played in their town. We had a fun competition with that band. We are friends with them. We just said, ”Depending on which band showed up first, they would play as the headliner.”
GM: What was it about Punk that allowed D.O.A. to have a voice and get out the message even when mainstream music turned a deaf ear?
JK: Yea, it’s an interesting time period when punk rock came along. We were still in elementary school when bands like Country Joe McDonald and Jimi Hendrix came out against the war and stuff like that and we sort of got a glimpse that rock was this radical thing that could take on the establishment — and by the time I got out of high school in '75/'76, rock had become pretty tame. Not all of it, there were still some stuff out there like Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls, stuff like that, but most of it had become really corporate, or at least it was to me. Well, it's about you speaking out about what's wrong and what they feel is right. When I look back at my background it comes up as a funny one in the sense that I grew up listening to folk music. So all the protest music of the '60s and '70s that my sister would bring home, these records from people like Pete Seeger and so on, gave me a kind of sense of politics from those songs. Then, you know, joining Greenpeace when I was in high school, and then punk rock came along and I was like, "Well this is really kick ass take on The Man and say-what-you-think type music," and I was attracted to it.
GM: Listening to the new release I realize so many of the songs are still relevant to this day. That has to make you feel good.
JK: Yeah, I guess it kind of makes me feel good and it kind of makes me feel bad, you know I mean by that? It shows that despite quite what people thought about punks being like low and they don't know what they're doing and just nihilistic and stuff like that —which there is an element of punk rock that is like that for sure — a lot of us were motivated to try and change things so we spoke about what we saw, what was wrong. But, I mean, hey, I'm the one that when I started out when I was 20 years old we were like fighting against racism, sexism, warmongers and greed. Now, 40 years later, what are we fighting against? Racism, sexism, warmongers and greed. You know some things will change for the better, but maybe some things got worse. But you have to keep on fighting.
GM: So how did how did your songs set you up for becoming so politically active?
JK: It was simultaneous I'd say. The first thing we got involved with was another band that is another precursor to D.O.A. called The Skulls — not to be confused with The Skulls from Los Angeles — we were from Vancouver, Canada and we had a few political songs, maybe one or two and then we covered some Iggy Pop songs and stuff like that. When we started D.O.A. there was the arms buildup going on with the Soviet Union and the United States so it seemed like a nuclear war could be imminent at any point, right? So that fueled a lot of it and the Vietnam war was over but obviously there's still a lot left over, bad feelings about that ... and then people kind of picked up on it right away, what we're doing, and the first kind of break that we got that fit was that we got invited to put this big Rock Against Racism event in Chicago, in 1979, right on the waterfront that is near the Bears football stadium. This was supposed to be an all-day-long event and we talked our way on to the bill and we built a tour around that; down the California, Texas, up to Chicago and on to New York, so the Chicago thing was big because there were like 5,000 people there. We have never played for a crowd of more than 100. You know, we were this little tiny punk rock band from Canada and we made a lot of friends there, and influenced people. We played music like “The Enemy” and “World War 3” and “Nazi Training Camp” stuff like that, and “Race Riot,” and people picked up on what we talked about and it just kind of fit that era. People started asking us to do benefits. So one fueled the other, so to speak.
GM: Okay, sure, so you move on and so you get older and the next thing you find out that December 21 in Vancouver is D.O.A. day. What was that like?
JK: That was really cool. The city doesn't make it an annual event. We did try have the D.O.A. guys get together and do something ... but the mayor, at that time, was a progressive guy who had just been elected. It was actually his first official act in office was to declare D.O.A. day. Mayor Campbell knew that Vancouver kind of had this reputation as a no fun city; you couldn’t do this and couldn't do that. The town had this funny old history, going back 15-20 years ago, we were like the biggest small town in the world type thing. Now it's just become a medium-sized big town, right? So it’s changed but still has this small town mentality. Vancouver did not want to be known as a “no fun city” so the Mayor declared D.O.A. day in Vancouver. I have a plaque on my wall with the city scroll and it says “Whereas D.O.A. has traveled through Europe and broke ground and whereas..." Well, it goes on with 12 of these “Whereas” type things.
Friend of mine, God rest his soul, Jim Green was a counselor and he came down to a club where I was playing a solo show and brought up the scroll. He got onstage and said, "Joe I’m going to read this," and started reading it. I finally grabbed the scroll from him and said "enough is enough" and we got back to playing the show.
GM: D.O.A. has been credited with the motto of “Talk minus action equals zero.” Tell me what that is about?
JK: it's a funny thing. There's a magazine that’s called Open Road and they had one issue that was called “Talk minus action equals zero.” There was like a spray painting of it on the wall of the cover of this monthly political magazine and we saw this and I thought “Wow, that's kind of like us." We get out and do things and we don't really take crap and, you know, we don't care if we're not big and popular and stuff like that. We're going to go and travel and play shows and do things. And we asked them, "Could we use the slogan?" and they went “Well, the world was free, so go ahead.” So we went, "Okay sure," and I mean then we became kind of friends. We just thought that it's an excellent example of what is a model for people to go vote. I mean everybody can’t at all times have that freedom, right? You know that there's also difficult circumstances that people have to deal with, but yeah, you won't get anything done if you just talk right so there you go, “Talk minus action equals zero.”
GM: Your currently out on your 40th anniversary tour. What is different about now from back then?
JK: It's funny because I think the crowds were wilder 40 years ago, like if you played in Orange County or San Diego or Boston, people were out of control. It was Hardcore, it was brand new, and if anything's brand new and it's still a phenomenon there's a massive energy with it. Right now you get shows that can have a massive energy but it's not quite the same thing, you know. It's like punk rock has a lot of great aspects to it still; like it talks about being authoritative and, you know, taking on the system. And it happened to be creative and all that aspect that drew people over in the first place. But you know punk rock has now become like a genre of music the same way jazz or country is. You have highs and lows and everything in-between as far as bands and record releases go. So today I find that we have done pretty well and that the audience is way less than half my age, put it that way. It’s not all geezers trying to get up there and walk down memory lane, trying to relive when they were 20, slamming around in the pit. There are lots of kids there, so it really gets kind of regenerated and I think that's because the way that D.O.A. plays live is really good, and then we've got songs that make sense — and we've got a good reputation for delivering the goods.
GM: Let’s talk a little about D.O.A. records and their value.
JK: I've been a big fan of Goldmine for a long time so I was thrilled that you wanted to do the interview.
GM: Do you know that some of your original 45s are selling for big bucks and on some sites they are selling from $186 to $270 for the “Disco Sucks” original 45. So I guess my first question is: do you still have some of those in your collection?
JK: Yeah, I've gotten 10-15 copies of some of them and some of them I did not have. The ones that I did not have, friends have gotten me copies of over the years. I wish I had a few boxes of each of those but I don’t. Just like I wish I had a few of the old guitars I had sold or a few cars I've gotten rid of ... actually not the cars because I always had crap cars, right? But it’s really cool because I think the thing about the music that made those punk releases from that era — from, like '78 to '83 around there, maybe '84 — you know, kind of the first generation of punk rock out, you know, after the initial. You know The Ramones, Clash and Sex Pistols things that happened like in '76. When you've got all your bands like Bad Brains, D.O.A., Circle Jerks, Black Flag and Avengers and Discharge — to name an English band — well, they all got really heavily criticized by regular rock people that I knew. DJs or magazine reviewers — not all but some — back in the day they would criticize the bands for being really under-produced and say, “How can you make a record like this?” I think that's the charm of these bands. They said, "We're just going to go out and record this — like we're playing like you would a live record — and you'll get that raw energy. And, consequently, at the same time the record companies were so small or they were self-financed by the bands that there's no time to sit there with a big-time producer — no money — and so you get this raw product. And so for that 5-year period, these records are like gems. You can imitate them all you want but you never get back to it quite.
GM: So what have you been up to lately?
JK: What do I do now? Now I'm actually a city councilor and I'm still touring with D.O.A. I got elected as a Green Party candidate in the city of Burnaby and it’s the third biggest town in British Columbia. I ran on stopping evictions and on, you know, creating a more sustainable city. I won that last October, so yeah that's what I have been doing. I also run a record label (Sudden Death Records), so right now I am sitting at my kitchen table and I'm looking at boxes and boxes of D.O.A 1978 that are going to be shipped off to England today. I package them up so they make the journey over to England. As far as the tour, we played 60 shows last year and this year we are playing 70 shows mostly in the United States, all up and down the west coast, Texas, Midwest, New York and so on and then we're off on an Alberta tour and we're in Europe in August and then the Fall,...it looks like we'll go to Southeast Asia and to India. I’m trying to schedule this tour in kind of in-between city council activities. Time is tight.
GM: Any record stores out there that you still like to try and visit?
JK: Yeah, a lot of them are gone. The ones we used to like it ... but you know, it might still even be there, in Toronto called Rotate This. They asked us to come down and play on a Saturday afternoon, the only problem was that the trolley tracks run on the ground level and these electric trolleys run in front of the store. So when we played we've got such a mob in front of the store that it blocked all of Green Street — and we were playing in front of the store and the mob was so big that all the traffic came to a stop. This is the main street in that area. The cops were trying to get to the record store and they couldn't because it was so packed. And then somebody who knew us gave us a signal when the police were coming near and we grabbed our guitars and threw them inside the record store. So that was a cool store. There are a couple of really good ones I go to all the time in Vancouver; one called Neptoon and one called Red Cat. Yeah, I'm not that big of a record collector, strangely enough, just because when I was young — 20 to 25 or something like that — I was on tour and all my big collection of really punk rock records got ripped off. I came back, they're all gone and I looked for them forever because I have marked my initials on the label. When I used to go to parties I would be checking people's record collections. I never found one so I gave up after a while.
GM: Well, who knows, maybe somebody will find them out there and return them back to you.