D.O.A. makes history as the seminal Hardcore 81 wins the Polaris Heritage Prize
It actually took me a little time to get clear on why I should vote for D.O.A.’s Hardcore 81 for the Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize, but I’m pretty glad that I did, now that D.O.A. has taken the prize, becoming the first B.C. act to have won it.
First, let's rewind. Think of the The Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize as a way to recognize artists from Canada's rich musical past. It's the Polaris Prize's version of a hall of fame nod for to those would have been nominated or won the Prize before it began in 2006.
Of the 12 albums put up for public vote in October, there was some stiff competition—but there were also plenty of bands on the list that I had no interest in.
I mean, I don’t even know who Main Source are. (Toronto hip-hop, I gather, and still around, but I’ve never heard of ’em).
And sorry, Sarah McLachlan; sorry, kd lang. You weren’t part of my musical heritage. Someone’s, sure, but not mine. And as much respect as I have for Joni Mitchell and Buffy Ste. Marie, I don’t own any of their albums, which should disqualify me from even considering them.
But the Band’s Music From Big Pink—featuring the song “The Weight,” which is maybe one of the greatest songs to come out of Canada (even if the singer was from Arkansas)—that was a pretty big name to snub in favour of D.O.A. One local musician (who will go nameless) quipped on Facebook that, “With all due respect to D.O.A., picking them over the Band should be grounds for losing your job as a music journalist!”
So there’s that. Then there was also “Barrett’s Privateers,” another great Canadian song, on Stan Rogers’ Fogarty’s Cove, which speaks to my heritage in a particular way, since my father came from Nova Scotia, and Rogers is identified with East Coast folk. Of course, Stan Rogers was actually born in Ontario, and he’s long past being able to profit from the prize, having died in 1983, but if you don’t know “Barrett’s Privateers,” it’s a pretty rousing tune (even Joe Keithley concedes that this is a fun video clip).
It took some consideration. But—without even getting into the whole Toronto-versus-Vancouver thing—I rationalized it thus:
D.O.A. was the first Canadian punk band I ever heard, and their momentous debut LP, Something Better Change, was one of the first punk albums I owned (back in 1982, when I was 14 and just discovering punk, out in my Maple Ridge purgatory). It has remained in my collection in some form or other since then, and is ingrained in who I am. I actually like Hardcore 81 a bit less than Something Better Change, but whatever, Something Better Change wasn’t nominated.
Hardcore 81 was actually one of the first albums I ever actively hunted for, because by the time I had discovered punk rock, Hardcore 81, just a year after its release, was already out of print. It took another year’s searching stores all over the Lower Mainland (including Vancouver) for me to track down a copy, which I ended up buying for 10 bucks off a girl in my high school (she wouldn’t sell me her Subhumans’ Incorrect Thoughts).
Along the way, I learned a whole lot about Vancouver record stores, and even more about the music business—like that there was a great band from Vancouver who you couldn’t buy in most B.C. record stores (at least not in 1982) and who never got played on the radio. Phoning CFOX DJ’s and requesting D.O.A. basically got me laughed at: like Art wrote, “It’s a new minority/ how does it feel to be so small?”
And being part of that “new minority” became part of my identity: you don’t enter a subculture that can get you laughed at or beat up lightly. Now, 37 years later, I may not mosh anymore, and I might not listen to all that much punk rock at home (it scares the cat and aggravates my wife), but at 51, I still sometimes call myself an old punk.
And much as I think “Barrett’s Privateers” and “The Weight” are epochal songs, among the greatest songs even written in Canada, and certainly more historically significant than, say, “Smash the State” or “Slumlord,” the truth is, I have spun D.O.A.’s Hardcore 81 from start to finish (vastly!) more often than I have spun Fogarty’s Cove or Music From Big Pink. Hell, there are songs on those albums I don’t even know. On the other hand, I know what “M.C.T.F.D” stands for, and I’m betting, if you’ve read this far, that you do, too.
And besides all that, Stan Rogers and my favourite members of the band, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm, are all dead, and can’t stand to profit from the prize. (And they certainly couldn't email me to let me know they’ve been nominated).
So even as a music journo, I was able to rationalize my vote. Other albums may have sold more copies—D.O.A. frontman Joe Keithley estimates that Hardcore 81 has sold approximately “100,000 copies over the years”—but none of the entries on the list had played a bigger part in my own personal heritage; and not one of them helped define a subculture I belong to. I mean, it’s not like there’s a classic rock movement called “Big Pink” out there—but there is a punk rock movement called hardcore.
“It’s pretty cool for D.O.A. and our fans to have Hardcore 81 recognized by Polaris,” Keithley said in the Polaris Prize press release following the win. “When it was released, we never realized that this album would give birth to the hardcore music genre and make an impact around the world, so this is an amazing moment for us.”
D.O.A. and the Oscar Peterson Trio join past Heritage Prize winners that include Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Alanis Morissette, and Glenn Gould.