Tomorrow Is Too Late—Toronto Hardcore Punk in the 1980s
By Derek Emerson and Shawn Chirrey. UXB Press, 320 pages, softcover
At the risk of shortchanging the efforts of Derek Emerson and Shawn Chirrey—who went to entirely above-and-beyond lengths putting together Tomorrow Is Too Late—let’s focus for a long second on where things got really great.
Toronto’s Youth Youth Youth is hardly a hardcore household name in 2018. No one talks about the Ontario four-piece in the same reverential tones reserved for the likes of Vancouver’s D.O.A., Los Angeles’ Black Flag, or Minnesota’s mighty Hüsker Dü. Hell, the group isn’t even mentioned alongside worthy second-stringers like Millions of Dead Cops, House of Commons, and Articles of Faith. Unless your grandparents were deeply tied into the pre-Internet international punk underground in the early ’80s, chances are good they never heard of them back then either.
And despite that, YYY were one of the greatest hardcore bands this country has ever produced—their songs an enraged roar of broken-glass guitars, hard-gallop bass and drums, and vocals that were as smart and literate as they were impassioned and indignant. Hop on YouTube, punch in “Youth Youth Youth + Philosophy”, and prepare to be floored.
Actually, wait—we’ll do it for you. And please take note that the following clip has amassed a grand total of 181 views since it was posted last year. The lone comment, from Silvio Carvana, reads as follows: “one of the most crucially under rated bands ever.”
Congratulations, Silvio—you could not have nailed it more perfectly.
The folks responsible for the lovingly assembled, and exhaustively researched Tomorrow Is Too Late—Toronto Hardcore Punk in the 1980s have set to right that YYY wrong and many more. Emerson and Chirrey (along with contributing writer Simon Harvey) were responsible for getting the coffee-table-sized softcover off the ground, but it would be erroneous to say they went it alone; those who were there sat down for two years worth of interviews totalling over a staggering million words, with dozens of photographers raiding their archives to contribute upwards of 10,000 black-and-white images. Old ticket stubs were collected, and yellowed concert posters sourced and scanned to give a complete picture of a movement that’s never got the recognition of scenes in Vancouver, New York, or Los Angeles.
This effort speaks to the book being a true labour of love rather than a money-making rush job.
It’s no great shock then that the mission statement that prefaces Tomorrow Is Too Late is a heartfelt one: “Many of us didn’t enjoy our high school experiences, and some of us didn’t even make it there at all. The Toronto hardcore scene of the 1980s is where we fit in: a place where we belonged for our differences as much for our similarities. This book is intended to be the yearbook we never had. A record of the events that shaped us and the people we grew up with. A proud place where everyone’s contribution counted.”
Tomorrow Is Too Late’s main objective is to document Toronto’s hardcore—not punk—scene. So while the vaguely cartoonish (and that’s admittedly a West Coast perspective) likes of the Viletones, the Diodes, and Teenage Head get their quick nods, the book focuses on the fast-and-loud acts that came up after the city’s first wave of spikey-haired miscreants.
Hardcore was louder, faster, more abrasive, than the ’70s punk movement that spawned it. Think righteously fucking angry as opposed to carefully calculated to shock.
After setting the table with recounts of how D.O.A. showed Toronto how it was done with a series of 1980 shows in Ontario, Emerson and Chirrey tackle the birth of Hogtown hardcore chronologically. Things kick off with the short-lived Young Lions, who—trivia buffs will be delighted to learn—provided the music for the fabled Queenhaters appearance on SCTV’s Mel’s Rock Pile.
From there we get a couple of pages—and sometimes more—on each of the army of bands that followed, along with archival black-and-white photos. Smartly, Tomorrow Is Too Late places a premium on history and context, but not at the expense of keeping things entertaining. The members of Youth Youth Youth, for example, first bonded on hockey rinks and in Boy Scouts before coming together as a band; the quartet avoiding swearing in songs to set YYY apart from most other hardcore bands on the North American scene.
Founded by kids—literally, we’re talking 14- and 15-year-olds—the surprisingly accomplished Chronic Submission had to be smuggled into bars, and then ushered to the street after playing to avoid problems with underagers being on licensed premises.
Direct Action, meanwhile, came with the drug and alcohol problems that have been ripping punk bands apart since Sid Vicious joined the Sex Pistols. The book chronicles the group embracing landspeed hardcore after having its collective mind blown at a Bad Brains shows, and then proceeding to take a hyper-political—and sometimes naive—approach to the genre.
Tomorrow Is Too Late isn’t solely about the bands that made Toronto’s hardcore scene. Chapters are also devoted to groundbreaking promoters, long-shuttered venues (RIP original Silver Dollar), and recollections of fabled shows today’s punkers would give up their Urban Outfitters safety pins to have attended (Black Flag with the Meat Puppets and Nig Heist). Punk houses, fanzines, renegade indie labels, and pioneering record stores also get their own chapters.
There are moments of brutal and refreshing honesty (Glen Salter of early crossover act Death of Gods confessing “Our lyrics were stupid as shit”) and moments that are as wistful as they are hopeful for future generations (Morgan Gerard of One Solution Magazine summing things up with “The music was magical, especially when you’re 16....I hope every kid discovers something like this for themselves.”)
The ultimate triumph of Tomorrow Is Too Late is that you don’t have to have been on Toronto’s hardcore frontlines—or obsessed with Youth Youth Youth—to find it fascinating.
Before the Internet ruined everything, vital scenes were allowed to percolate in cities like Vancouver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Washington, eventually bubbling up into the mainstream on the backs of future legends like D.O.A., Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, and Minor Threat.
Toronto never really got its due. But that’s just changed in a big way with Tomorrow Is Too Late.