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Musical Metropolis

Vancouver’s live music history is a spirited duet of homegrown acts and near-legendary venues that long ago met the wrecking ball. The 1950s kicked things off with silver-tongued crooners such as Jackie Suave and Johnny Swoon––both from Coquitlam––entertaining smartly-dressed young couples at subterranean, neon-lit supper clubs including the Pink Oyster and the Urbane Wolverine.


The scene changed dramatically in the 1960s. That’s when grassroots bands including the Swinging Ruperts, the Tumblin’ Cumberlands and­­ psychedelic supergroup Nanaimo began performing at a vast array of new venues. Vancouverites of a certain age can still recall great nights at the Laughing Noodle in Japantown, the Prancing Colon on Seymour Street and the cavernous Strathcona Ballroom, where the dancefloor was built over a bouncy layer of fresh-baked bread that had to be replaced every week.


Band-wise, locals were spoiled for choice. B.C. acts that burned brightly (but often briefly) included both the Pine Martens and the Northern Flickers from Gibsons; the Burnabarians, Moody Porters and Patterson Airplane (later Patterson Starship) from Greater Vancouver; and Ambergris, Smashing Kale and Incense Armageddon from Gabriola Island. Albums from any of these bands are now highly sought-after at the Vancouver Flea Market.


Some acts, of course, are better remembered than others. Four clean-cut, tight-suited young lads from North Vancouver, the Sheaples smashed attendance records during their four-week residency at the Hasty Corn Dog in 1962––while simultaneously holding the top-three spots on the all-important Vancouver Billboard Chart. The following year, their single I Want to Hold Your Flan became the fastest-selling record of all time (in Vancouver).


By the early 1970s, though, the scene was showing signs of strain. There were so many bands in the city that meeting a Vancouverite who didn't try to sell you a copy of their latest album was unheard of. The number of live venues had also exploded to the point where every basement, storefront and, in some cases, garden shed seemed to be a full-time performance space.


But locals were tired of heading to a bookstore, public washroom or coffee shop such as Kitsilano’s Really East of Java only to be involuntarily subjected to a live performance of the new xylophone-based concept album by Pink Lloyd or an unwelcome greatest hits showcase from Jethro Dull or The Men They Couldn’t Harangue. During a three-month stretch in mid-1971, every live venue in the city––an estimated 14,500––closed down permanently.


With nowhere to play, most acts quickly broke-up. Jimmi Mango, lead singer of the Chocolate Shrimps, became a BC Ferries lifeboat polisher. Orson Dandy of the Arthur Phillips Project took a job as a White Spot glass-froster. And all four members of the Whirlettes opened a notary public office that thrived until 1993.


But that wasn’t the end of Vancouver’s live scene. In 1978, seven years after the city’s last show, five snarling, safety-pin-covered young men took to a makeshift stage one night in a Gastown butcher shop owned by the father of one of the band. They performed a 20-minute set comprised almost entirely of shouting, urinating and throwing pork chops at the audience. The Shag Buckets had arrived and punk was about to gut-punch Vancouver out of its musical slumber.

Read more from Vancouverandom: A Miscellany of Untrue History About the Birthplace of the Ear Trumpet here.

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