Toiling Midgets: more local than you ever knew

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      The names of Toiling Midgets founder, Craig Grey, and his previous San Francisco-based band, Negative Trend, came up a few times when the Straight talked with Stephen dePace of Flipper last year. That’s only natural, since the late Will Shatter—who wrote Flipper classics like “Sex Bomb”—and dePace himself were in one lineup of Negative Trend, before Flipper even existed. Ricky Williams, who sang with Negative Trend,  and later with Toiling Midgets, also came up, since Williams was briefly in Flipper, and came up with their name.

      At no point, however, in discussing the intertwining of Grey’s bands with Flipper and the history of San Francisco punk did anyone (including me) mention the long history that Grey has with the Vancouver scene, since (I blush) I had no idea at the time that Grey was originally from Chilliwack, went to high school in North Van with Nick Jones and Bill Hemy of the Pointed Sticks, or that the very first ever Toiling Midgets gig was in August 1979 at the Buddha, with a fuck band that consisted of Craig Grey, Randy Rampage, Brad Kent, and Ken “Dimwit” Montgomery.

      Read that last line again. Suddenly, this weekend’s Toiling Midgets show at CBDB’s has become a must-see, and I find myself being schooled by people who do remember Grey: a who’s who of first-generation Vancouver punks.  

      Nick Jones’s anecdote is “shameful”, as he puts it. “I once traded him my copy of Alice Cooper’s Killer for the Grateful Dead ‘skull and roses’ LP.  Never lived that down.” (Jones can’t make the Toiling Midgets show this Friday but encourages Grey to come check out the Pointed Sticks at the Rickshaw on December 6).

      Heather Haley—of the Zellots, but also the .45s, which featured Rampage—is pretty sure she saw that fuck-band gig, but doesn’t remember it at all. Joe Keithley recalls it too, but also can’t provide any specifics, memories lost to countless tours and gigs; he does, however, have very positive associations with Negative Trend. “Will was the first punk I met in San Francisco, in 1978 on D.O.A.'s first road trip,” he tells the Straight. “We didn’t have gear, so Will got Negative Trend’s gear into a taxi and brought it to the Mabuhay Gardens for us.”

      Negative Trend.

      Photographer Lynn Werner counts the first Negative Trend single as one of her “all-time favourite punk 45s from the first wave of West Coast bands, right up there with the Dils, Avengers, and Subhumans.” She remembers a Negative Trend gig at Vancouver’s Quadra Club, in late summer of 1978, which contained “one of my favorite all time recollections from almost any live show of my life. Craig starts playing, and within minutes struck his guitar with such playing force that he managed to break multiple guitar strings on one fell stroke. It was pretty intense music, to say the least.” (Craig Grey remembers the moment: “I broke two strings at once, totally bizarre, never done it since. I do remember it being a good show. There was some kind of punk bus protest that day and Zippy had been on the news…”) 

      John Armstrong of the Modernettes—soon to play the Rickshaw in a revamped form—was also at the Quadra gig. “I was a huge fan of Craig’s guitar playing, loved his sound, and really watched what he was doing at the Quadra and when we saw them play down south.”

      While sadly, the likes of Randy Rampage, Brad Kent, and Zippy Pinhead are no longer available for comment, you get ample sense that they valued Negative Trend from seeing them perform “Black and Red” as the Sick Ones.

      Compare with the original here: 

      It apparently was a song Flipper valued, too: “Bruce [Lose, of Flipper] bragged in an early interview about ripping off the riff for ‘Black and Red’ for one of the first Flipper songs,” Grey says.

      But most surprising of all? Craig Grey lives in Mission now.  “I just moved back last April,” he explains. “In a way, Toiling Midgets is a part-Vancouver band now, since none of us are in San Francisco. I live in Mission, Paul Hood, the second guitarist, lives in Seattle, and the rhythm section is from Berlin. And I have deep connections here”—including attending a legendary 1978 Stanley Park punk show on Canada Day. “That’s the day I met all the Vancouver punks,” he tells the Straight. “We went to some B.C. box house after in New West and jammed all night.”

      Furthermore, “my uncle, Nick Collier, was one of the writers for the Georgia Straight and would occasionally get me tickets for some shows. I actually sold the Straight to get tickets to Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies Tour at the Coliseum,” back in 1973. “You could buy them for 15 cents at the Straight office in Gastown then sell them on the street corner for a quarter. I stood at the corner of Granville and Georgia by the Bay all day freezing my 15-year-old ass off.” 

      It didn’t work. To get in to see the Coop, “I had to borrow a couple of bucks from my Mum, as I didn’t make shit.”

      Grey also would go to the Easter Be-Ins at Stanley Park, as a teenager, and while it isn’t particularly germane to his own musical biography, he does have an entertaining story about sitting on the grass, circa 1972, “near the Seawall, very stoned. A limo pulled up and three people got out, one with bright red hair, one with white hair and one with long hair and silver sideburns. They were dressed like no one I had seen before. They stood around, ate an orange and left after about 10 minutes. Years later I learned it was David Bowie and Angie and Trevor Bolder.”

      Negative Trend.
      Don Denton

      SO LET'S GO BACK and get this right. Can Grey give me a timeline of bands he was in?

      “I moved to San Francisco from Chilliwack in July 1977,” Grey tells the Straight. “My first band was actually called Grand Mal, with Don Vinil, who later formed the Offs, and Will Shatter. I was staying with Don, who I met through my friend David Kelly. Don had met Will before I arrived and wanted him to be in a band with us. He didn’t play anything and had just bought a bass. Will was easy to work with for me as he wasn’t writing music yet, in fact he could barely play. He was very political and hung out with some would-be revolutionaries who were just using him to get into the punk-rock scene in San Francisco. Will and I formed Negative Trend in November, 1977, and our first gig was December 14, 1977—he was the main lyricist. Toward the end of 1978 we had started to move in different directions, and Will quit the band.”

      Summer of '78 was the time of the Stanley Park show, and the Club Quadra gig (September 5 and 6). Returning to San Francisco, Negative Trend “went through various lineup changes”, and folded in May of 1979.

      Grey then came back north, to spend the summer of 1979 here. He knew all the local bands from their visits to San Francisco and from Negative Trend’s gig in Vancouver at the Quadra in the summer of ’79, which Werner remembered, above.

      Then there was “the very first Toiling Midgets show”—that one-off at the Buddha, previously mentioned. “We had one rehearsal in North Vancouver. I remember it as a typical night at the Buddha, full but not packed. We played a set of covers, a couple of Negative Trend songs, ‘I Fought the Law’, ‘Back in the USSR’, and few others which I can’t remember.”

      Grey had come up with the name Toiling Midgets that same summer, when he and his girlfriend were staying with his Uncle Nick. “There used to be a show called Real People on TV in the late '70s. They would have people on who would now be in viral videos.” (Eccentrics, in other words; I recall a yogi who agreed to be sealed up in a small cube long past when his oxygen should have been used up). “There were twin millionaire real estate developers on, who were dwarves. When asked the key to their success one replied ‘I guess we are just a couple of toiling midgets.’” 

      Of course, “midget” is not politically correct; the diminutive seem to prefer “dwarf,” despite its Tolkien-esque associations. But Grey never caught flak for the name—at least not until recently. “I was trying to book a show in Victoria recently and one booker informed me that midget was a derogatory term and I needed to explain myself before they could consider booking us. As they were already offended, I saw no point in pursuing it.”

      Armed with his next band’s name, Grey “went back to San Francisco in the fall and put together a band with Tim Mooney and Nosmo King from the last version of Negative Trend, with the addition of Paul Hood on second guitar. Paul and I have been doing the Midgets in one form or another for the past 40 years.”

      Some of their more interesting moments include opening for Nico in 1982. (“I played pool with her before the drugs showed up.”) Toiling Midgets also “opened for PiL twice, they were assholes both times. We have a long history, so a lot has happened. And we have done a lot of recording. What we are doing at the moment has always been my focus.”

      Their recorded output begins in 1982, with Sea of Unrest. It’s not an album I remember seeing around a lot in Vancouver record shops. This writer’s one encounter with Toiling Midgets was on the 1982 Eastern Front compilation, which also featured D.O.A., Flipper, the Lewd, T.S.O.L., and Toiling Midgets doing a rather noisy cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

      Grey laughs when I ask about the gig. “Well, I remember this one very well, and I am going to be truthful here. The Eastern Front was a festival in the East Bay between Oakland and Berkeley. It was also known as a ‘Day in the Dirt’. as opposed to Bill Graham’s ‘Day on the Green’. I had been up all night shooting drugs with a model girlfriend. We were on around one in the afternoon. I was still on edge so I drank a pint of vodka before we went on. The rest of the band were mad at me, not because of the drugs but because the girl I spent the night with was not my girlfriend and both women were at the show. We played what I thought was a terrible set. The sound was awful and the sun too bright. After we played, the band and my now ex-girlfriend left without me, leaving me to make my own way back to San Francisco from the East Bay.”

      Toiling Midgets.

      Toiling Midgets eventually did make it to Vancouver, in 1990. “The Midgets' first gig in Vancouver, besides the Buddha show, was in 1990 at somewhere on Hastings maybe? We were on the bill with Vic Chestnutt.”

      Singer Ricky Williams would eventually die, in 1992, of a heroin overdose. You get the feeling from that Stephen dePace interview that dePace—whose ambitions to make something of Flipper were at odds with the punk rock nihilism of some members of the band—didn’t think much of working with Williams (he tells a story about Williams showing up too stoned to perform, and wheeling him up to the mike on a dolly), but Grey is quick to leap to his bandmate’s defense. “Steve is not a person to reflect on Ricky, he never really worked with him in a serious way,” he says. But Grey also acknowledges that “Ricky liked all drugs, heroin was just one of them. He did speed, crack cocaine, heroin, and whatever pills were available. Ricky was one of those people who are so incredibly gifted yet so fucked up.”

      Williams's vocals on Sea of Unrest are fascinating, actually. He can obviously sing—his voice at times reminds you of David Bowie or Peter Murphy—but he tends to mutter and mumble through lyrics, which are often incoherent. (Try “Trauma Girl” as an example). His mode of composing lyrics was unorthodox, too: “Ricky was an improviser who would listen back to what he had sung and then write it down… I remember watching him do vocal overdubs and it was like he was talking/singing to someone or something in the room that you couldn’t see, but which had Ricky’s full attention. It was scary and inspiring at the same time. Which pretty much sums up working with Ricky, scary and inspiring.”

      Samples of Wiiliams’s singing appear on the new Toiling Midgets album, more on which below.

      Of course, Negative Trend’s Will Shatter also died too young, in 1987, again of a heroin overdose, and Flipper’s other lead singer, Bruce Lose—later known as Bruce Loose—also would have serious drug problems, but dePace’s frustrations with his bandmates’ self-destructiveness fall on deaf ears, for Grey. “Steve always wanted to monetize Flipper, try to turn them into an income, but Will had always been about the art. He wanted to be Leonard Cohen, not a punk rock star. In 1983, Will and I did some recordings that were closer to Cohen than either Flipper or the Midgets, but they’re lost to time, unfortunately.”

      TOILING MIDGETS DIDN'T play live at all from 1997 to 2007, but Paul Hood and Craig Grey kept in touch, and recorded together during that time. “We have released the most stuff in the past five years. In 2013, a live record from 1982, and in 2015 a career-spanning double LP came out, on Ektro records in Finland. Ektro put out a companion cassette in 2017 and Green Monkey just released our self-financed LP, Sea of Tranquility, on Sept 20th of this year. We retooled the band for a European tour we did in the summer with a new Berlin based rhythm section of Daniel Benjamin from the band Sea and Air on drums and Kevin Kuhn from Die Nerven on bass. Our back catalogue is being released by Green Monkey Records online, so should be at all your favourite streaming services soon.”

      Grey emphasizes that this weekend’s concert—their first here in 19 years—is “not a nostalgia trip”. The band will be doing “some old songs but will be mostly new stuff, mostly instrumental. Noisy melodies.”

      Their latest single, "Arachnid", was named that for no particular reason. The video features images sourced from educational footage, edited together by Grey himself; it suggests the insect microphotography of the late, great Ken Middleham (Phase IV, Bug, The Hellstrom Chronicle, Damnation Alley). It also gives you a fine idea what to expect Friday: it’s a moody, guitar-driven instrumental post-rock piece that sonically might remind you of Godspeed! You Black Emperor or perhaps even Isis—bands that came decades after Toiling Midgets, so you get a sense of how ahead of their time Toiling Midgets were. (Earlier recordings, while more primitive and with a stronger vocal presence, are of a piece.)

      As for actual influences on him at the time, Grey says, “I am a huge Mick Ronson fan and so is Paul, that’s what we talked about when we first met. Bowie, Alice Cooper , the New York Dolls, the Stooges, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, the usual suspects for a musician of my age. I used to go see Sweeney Todd when I was 15. And Negative Trend opened for Nick Gilder in San Francisco in 1978. Ha!”

      Craig Grey in 2019.

      Sharing the bill will be Triple Fisting, Crummy (newly returned from Japan), and of special note to Grey, Car 87. "Vancouver rocks!” he says.

      Welcome home, Mr. Grey.

      See the event listing for Friday’s gig here