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Liz Worth’s excellent “Treat Me Like Dirt”, An Oral History Of Punk In Toronto And Beyond, 1977 – 1981 has just been published by Bongo Beat Books.

Photo: Liz by Alyssa Faoro

This is an uncensored oral history of the 1977 Toronto punk explosion as told by the bands who were there... ‘Treat Me Like Dirt’ is the first book to document the histories of the Diodes, Viletones, and Teenage Head, along with other bands (B-Girls, Curse, Demics, Dishes, Forgotten Rebels, Johnny & The G-Rays, The Mods, The Poles, Simply Saucer, The Ugly, etc) and fans that brought the original punk scene to life in Toronto and beyond (Hamilton and London).

It is the ONLY book on the 1977 Toronto punk scene; an indispensable reference work. There is a wealth of previously unpublished photographs including The Dead Boys, The Ramones, The Nerves in addition to The Viletones, Poles, Diodes, Dishes, Teenage Head, etc. Previously unpublished photography by Ross Taylor, Gail Bryck, Steve Burman, Ralph Alfonso, Edie Steiner, Don Pyle and others.

The book was written by music journalist and author Liz Worth (Exclaim), edited by pop musicologist Gary Pig Gold, and designed by Ralph Alfonso. Gary Pig Gold and Ralph Alfonso are veterans of the Toronto 1977 scene; Gary ran the legendary Pig Paper zine and released the first single by Simply Saucer; Ralph ran the Crash'n'Burn club that the scene revolved around, manages The Diodes, and is a former rock journalist/photographer (Bomp, Cheap Thrills, New York Rocker) in addition to his current role as owner of Bongo Beat Records (and Books).” - Bongo

JEREMY: What was your chief motivation for creating “Treat Me Like Dirt”? It strikes me as a classic “labour of love”. How long did it take to write? And how did you hook up with my old friend Ralph Alfonso?

LIZ: I had started getting into bands like the Diodes and the Viletones after reading a novel called ‘1978’ by a Toronto writer named Daniel Jones. This novel, which was published in the late ‘90s, was my first introduction to the fact that punk’s first wave had touched down in Toronto the way it had in New York and London, and I was very excited about learning that. When I started seeking out the music that came from the Toronto punk scene, I got even more excited because a lot of it was really good. But I had a really hard time finding out more about these bands, and about the history of Toronto’s punk scene. It was a very under-documented movement compared to other cities’ punk scenes. About six years after first discovering Toronto punk and wondering what the story was behind it all, I decided to find out for myself and create the kind of book I’d been looking for all that time.

You’re right in assessing it as a “labour of love.” Once I got started, I let it take over my life for two years straight. I worked on it every day during that time. Every time I went out to hang out with friends or whatever, I would feel guilty because I didn’t want to be away from it for too long. I think it would have taken longer to put together if I hadn’t have been so obsessive about it, but when you get that kind of a feeling with a project you’ve just got to go with it. I did 200 interviews for it altogether. After I’d handed in the final manuscript, there was about another year of it being in the hands of Ralph Alfonso, my publisher, and it went through its proofreading and design phases then.

Ralph is actually one of the interview subjects for TMLD. I did three or four interviews with him, and during one of those conversations he said that he would be interested in considering TMLD for publication once it was completed. So when the manuscript was ready, I sent it off to Ralph and we moved on from there. It was an ideal situation because Ralph was, and still is, the manager of the Diodes. He also helped run the Crash ‘n’ Burn, a really important venue in the history of Toronto punk, and was around the scene as a journalist, photographer, and fan on top of it all. So he really had an appreciation for this story and believed it was important to get it out there.

JEREMY: Outside of Toronto and Canada what significance does your book, and the bands and scene it documents, have? What awareness of them is there in Europe and Japan, for example?

LIZ: There is a lot of obscurity with some of the bands in TMLD, but there is also reach well beyond the city. The Viletones can name people like Daryl Jenifer of Bad Brains as a fan. The Diodes did a couple of tour dates in Italy this year. Hamilton’s Forgotten Rebels have also played in Europe. There seems to be some good interest in Teenage Head over there, too, as well as in the in United States. I’ve also heard that kids in China are into Teenage Head. I’m not sure about Japan, but I’d love to start connecting with people over there to find out. I have a feeling some of this stuff would go over great there.

JEREMY: The Viletones were one of the great punk rock bands of all time, in my humble opinion. What was the main reason that they failed to make it outside of Toronto?

LIZ: Well, they didn’t actually get out of Toronto very much. They never did a cross-Canada tour, or North American tour, and they never made it to Europe. They did play gigs outside of Toronto, but there was no extensive touring. Teenage Head, on the other hand, toured all over the place. There are days when it seems like every person in Canada has seen Teenage Head. Obviously, that’s an exaggeration, but I’ve had so many people say, “Teenage Head played my high school,” or, “Teenage Head was the first concert I ever went to.” And you can hear that from people in cities all over Canada.

The original line-up of the band didn’t last very long, either, and it can take a while for a band to break out. Especially in Canada. When the Viletones broke up they had their first 7-inch, “Screamin’ Fist,” and their EP “Look Back in Anger” behind them, but that was it. There was no full-length album, and there was no record deal in place to help the band move forward. In the book, there are questions about whether a record deal would have ever been possible for the Viletones anyway, considering the band’s volatility.

But if they’d had a label behind them, pushing the band to get an album out there, would it have gone further? I don’t know. All anyone can do is speculate at this point. A lot of punk bands, not just in Toronto but in the States and the UK, had record deals and still never got anywhere.

There is awareness of the Viletones outside of Toronto. They have champions like yourself. And earlier I mentioned Daryl Jenifer. I interviewed him for a research piece on the history of Bad Brains a few years ago, at the same time I was working on TMLD. I hadn’t told him I was working on this book, and out of nowhere he started talking about how he loved to listen to their first single back in the day. It made me wonder who else the Viletones have had an impact on. It’s hard to measure because there’s been so much mystery surrounding Toronto punk.

So they did make it, in some ways, when you consider things like that.

JEREMY: To what extent are the recordings of the bands you’ve documented available now and would it be right to say that their legacy has been an influence on Canadian music in general?

LIZ: In the 1990s, a local label called Other People’s Music started releasing a lot of Toronto punk stuff on CD in full-length format, which was really great because it gave a new life to a lot of this music, and made it more accessible, although I’m not sure how available those CDs are anymore. The Diodes had a Best Of album released on disc years ago and that’s still available, and they just released a live album, recorded in 1978, on vinyl. Some of the original vinyl is still kicking around on eBay and in record shops, but it can get pricey, especially since a lot of it is hard to come by.

So there is music around, but it can still be hard to find, although there’s been a strong resurgence around Toronto in the past few years and a lot of these bands, in various incarnations, have gotten back up on stage again.

I think you can say that they have left a legacy on Canadian music, although I don’t think that their influence has been so obvious. In Toronto, for example, a lot of these bands persisted through times when music venues preferred to book cover bands over original acts. Musicians had to find, or make, venues where they could play their own songs. Now, we have a really strong, vibrant music scene all over the country, but it took a lot of artists to break down a lot of doors to help create spaces for music to happen.

I can’t speak for other cities in Canada, but in Toronto, a lot of the gentrification of certain downtown areas, like Queen Street West, can be traced back to the punk scene, too.

JEREMY: I’ve been away a very long time. What is the punk scene in Toronto like now? I know The Diodes and The Viletones play to this day. In what condition is Nazi Dog (nee Leckie)?

LIZ: There hasn’t been a Viletones gig in a few years, but Steven Leckie did play a show back in the winter, but it was a totally different thing. The Diodes just wrapped up a tour in southern Ontario with Johnny & The G-Rays and I was lucky enough to be included on that bill, so I got to tag along for all the shows. Every night was amazing. Both bands sounded incredible. The Ugly have re-jigged their line-up and have Greg Dick, formerly of the Dream Dates, up front.

There’s also always a lot going on in Toronto with younger bands. The whole city is buzzing, constantly, but it’s saturated.

JEREMY: Which of all the bands you’ve documented do you like the best yourself? Whose music stands up still? Who was, in hindsight, overrated? Underrated? Simply useless?

LIZ: I always liked the Diodes. They were the first Toronto punk band I got into and have remained one of my favourite bands all along, so I’m really glad they still sound so amazing today. But I really like the Viletones, Teenage Head, and Forgotten Rebels, too.

It's hard to say that any of these bands were overrated, considering that no one made millions. There were a lot of bands that never even put out a full-length record. So it's hard to say anyone was overrated or underrated in a scene where not even the more known bands can be considered household names. (Buy the book here)

Interview by Jeremy 27/06/10

Front cover image: Don Pyle (also the photographer) and the mysterious Virlana Back cover photos: Ross Taylor
Book cover design: Ralph Alfonso
Edited: Gary Pig Gold

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