What’s more important from a legacy standpoint: being the greatest band, or being the band that writes the greatest songs?
The question is an important one when you’re reflecting on the Young Canadians’ place in Vancouver’s fabled first-wave punk gold rush.
During their time together between the late ’70s and early ’80s, the trio of singer-guitarist Art Bergmann, bassist Jim Bescott, and drummer Barry Taylor had no shortage of competition for the title of top band on Canada’s fertile West Coast.
For the honours in brute power, parental-advisory lyrics, and shock-and-awe live spectacles, D.O.A. and the Subhumans ran a dead-heat race. As for impeccably crafted, candied-punk pop, good luck in coming to a consensus on who did it better: the Modernettes on Teen City or Pointed Sticks with world-beating singles like “The Real Thing” and “Somebody’s Mom”.
Somewhere in the middle of all those legendary ground-breakers landed the Young Canadians, a band that was never as gloriously assaultive as D.O.A. and the Subhumans, or as fantastically flawless on record as Pointed Sticks and the Modernettes.
But looking back? It’s hard not to think that true greatness isn’t always easily quantified.
There’s a good reason to reflect on the Young Canadians’ legacy today: namely, a loving curated reissue of the group’s Hawaii EP by Los Angeles-based boutique label Porterhouse Records. It’s a meticulously detailed re-creation of the long-out-of-print cover art and liner-notes insert, topped off by the gold-star decision to press the record on orange vinyl.
Looking back, no band in the city was more talented musically. Bergmann arrived on the scene a fully formed guitar legend—one who oscillated between flame-throwing violence and art-star inventiveness. If you were learning bass in the era, you might have wanted the rock-star charisma of D.O.A.’s Randy Rampage, but the brilliantly busy Bescott was who you wanted to be as a musician. Taylor played like a man who lived on a steady diet of logger-strength coffee and black-market amphetamines, but not at the expense of knowing how to seriously swing.
As essential as its short-and-sweet catalogue might be, the band never made a perfect record during its short time together. If that sounds harsh, it’s not meant to be. It’s more of a reflection that, when the Young Canadian were great, they were fucking devastating.
Seen through that prism, the great crime of “Don’t Tell Me” and “Where Are You?”, from the B-side of the band’s debut 7-inch EP, was that “Automan” on the A-side was so insanely good it could never be matched.
The reality of the band’s final EP, 1980’s This Is Your Life, is that none of the songs were able to live up to the kickoff track, “Data Redux”, for apocalyptic savagery, cold-war paranoia, and nuclear-strike guitar work. Listen again and prepare to be floored, right down to what was arguably the greatest solo recorded during Vancouver punk’s first wave.
And then there was Hawaii. If “Hullabaloo Girls” is undeniably the weak link on the EP, then blame the holy trinity of “Hawaii”, “Well, Well, Well” and “No Escape” for shining so brightly.
It was “Hawaii” that immediately made the band heroes on the West Coast, largely as a result of notorious lyrics like “Let’s go to fucking Hawaii/Get drunk in the sun” and “Running from the rain, thousands on the run/Thinkin' like the rich, heading for the fun.” No one has ever written a more perfect anthem for this city, where it’s basically monsoon season nine months out of 12.
But the gold-star goodness on Hawaii didn’t stop there.
Part of the record’s magic was that it was about Vancouver—the real Vancouver, with its dark and menacing underbelly, not the shiny happy one the world would see on postcards and promo posters for Expo 86 a few years later.
“Well, Well, Well” had Bergmann—with a winning mix of amused disdain and world-weariness—singing of stepping over the great unwashed on his way to work at the Bank of B.C. at Hastings and Main. That there was no Bank of B.C. at Hastings and Main somehow made things even greater, partly because there was clearly a joke you probably weren’t cool enough to be in on.
And then there was “No Escape”, the cascading, claustrophobic closer that turned a spotlight on the fact that punk wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms by Vancouver, once you got beyond the underground.
Want to know what it was like to walk the West Coast with spiky hair and a “Young Canadians” button on your army jacket back in 1980? Proceed directly to the lyrics “Who’s always there when the fun begins/The music’s loud they walk right in/No escape from the city police/They chuck you out, you run through the streets.” And “This town’s frustrations are scrawled all over these walls/It’s a new minority and how does it feel to be so small?”
Today, one might ask of the Young Canadians “How did it feel to be so great?”
Once this whole COVID-19-lockdown thing is over, you’ll be able to go back to spending endless drunken evenings at the Railway Club, arguing over who was Vancouver greatest-ever punk band. So who was? For that, flash back, quite appropriately to the final line of "No Escape", where a resigned and disgusted Bergmann sneers "There's no answer".
The Young Canadians might not have left the same international mark as the Subhumans or D.O.A., and they never got a second act like the Modernettes or Pointed Sticks—both who still play occasional reunion shows.
Somehow that doesn't matter. Because if the Hawaii reissue offers an irrefutable argument for one thing, it's this: no band from Vancouver's first-wave scene wrote greater songs.
You can find the Hawaii vinyl reissue here.