Graded on a Curve:
The Bureaucrats,
“Feel the Pain” b/w “Grown up Age”

Amongst other things, Canada is renowned for producing comedians and playing a whole lot of hockey, but they also have a worthwhile punk rock lineage. One of the lesser-known twigs on that leafy tree was Ottawa’s The Bureaucrats, a band that knocked-out a spectacular 7-inch in 1980 with “Feel the Pain” b/w “Grown up Age.” That record was once the domain of big-dollar spenders, but the Ugly Pop label has given it a much deserved repressing, and anybody with a deeply personal relationship with The Jam’s All Mod Cons or The Buzzcocks’ Another Music in a Different Kitchen should investigate its contents with due haste.

In the annals of punk rock, the coverage of the movement’s Canadian division frequently devotes prominent placement to Vancouver’s D.O.A. And that’s not without good reason, since that group stampeded forth as one of the earliest and finest in Hardcore’s first wave of pissed-off tumult. Indeed, their second album Hardcore ’81 is the meat in a highly tasty and unusually nutritious three album sandwich, with the bread being the 1980 LP Something Better Change and ‘82’s 12-inch EP (later expanded to album length) “War on 45.”

It was D.O.A., and to a lesser extent their hometown cohorts The Subhumans (responsible for the killer ’83 album No Wishes, No Prayers amongst other worthy material, and not to be confused with the Brit anarcho-punks of the same name) that really put Canada on the map for a generation of younger punk fans. And through relentless touring and unflagging political commitment, D.O.A.’s rep really persevered. In fact, it’s continued to linger even as their most productive musical period grows ever more distant in the rear-view mirror of history.

But the truth of the matter is that D.O.A. and The Subhumans were kicking up dust in a country with considerable punk rock achievements already under its belt. Three of the earliest and most notable bands in the land were Teenage Head, The Diodes, and The Viletones, all formed in Toronto during the formative and formidable ’75-’77 period. And part of the reason for this trio’s enduring profile relates to a four-night stand the three bands undertook at New York’s CBGB in July of 1977, with the late Lester Bangs giving them a write-up in The Village Voice.

The fortuitousness of this US visit should in no way belittle the musical chops of these outfits, however. Teenage Head’s self-titled debut is a roaring blast of early punk at its most ‘50s-reverent, and The Diodes had more than their share of strong moments including a nice rip into The Cyrkle’s ‘60s chestnut “Red Rubber Ball.” But The Viletones stand as the best of the bunch, with their “Screamin’ Fist” EP from ’77 being a legit classic from deep in the belly of that year’s primo musical disruption.

And yet the quality manifested by these three groups was only the tip of Canada’s early-punk iceberg. For instance, there was Vancouver’s pop-kissed Pointed Sticks, who managed to get signed to Stiff Records along with briefly appearing in Out of the Blue, a Dennis Hopper-directed mindfuck of a movie from 1980. Their LP Perfect Youth was released the same year, and along with pretty much all the stuff recorded in the band’s initial phase, it continues to be a killer listen.

In addition, Hamilton, Ontario’s The Forgotten Rebels (like D.O.A, another batch of guys who refuse to quit) knocked out some cool Pistols-damaged obnoxiousness in their early days, the all-girl lineup of Vancouver’s The Dishrags did a fine job of counteracting male dominance in the Canadian punk scene, and London, Ontario’s The Demics, and Toronto’s (recently reactivated) The Scenics both released strong albums in 1980.

But that’s not all. Peel off another layer from the Maple Leaf onion and even more interesting punk rock can be found, with din from obscure but fantastic acts like The Hot Nasties (from Calgary), Cardboard Brains (Toronto), and The Spys (Windsor, Ontario) playing a big part in the scenario.

The deeper a person digs the more vital junk can be found; it’s the case with any established form and a circumstance that rarely evaporates when applied to geography. Often it’s music that been severely neglected and sometimes even forgotten, but once rediscovered it can blast with the best sounds from anywhere.

Take the 1980 single from Ottawa’s The Bureaucrats for example. It’s a two-song double-whammy of poppy, Modish punk at its most spirited and intelligently constructed, and when placed beside recordings from many of the band’s far more famous contemporaries from all over the globe, “Feel the Pain” b/w “Grown up Age” not only stands up tall but even outshines a fair amount of their better known competition.

The Bureaucrats consisted of guitarist Joe Frey, bassist Lamont Porter, drummer Wayne Johnson, and the Sidwell Brothers Gaz and Mitch on vocals and guitar. In 1979 they released an LP titled Rot n Roll and followed it up the next year with this dandy 45 on the VIP label before disbanding in ’81. Flashing forward to ’99-2000, they first compiled a CD titled Roi and then a self-titled LP, with both releases focusing on material recorded from ’78-’80, and the quality found in the handful of tracks I’ve heard causes me to lament that I’m currently lacking in a copy of either.

And while the source of good solid listening, when those cuts are heard in tandem with their single, the verdict is that The Bureaucrats actually managed to get better as they progressed, which is a rare feat in punk rock terms. Much of the reason can be credited to playing out live, for during their tenure the band both opened and closed Ottawa’s first fleeting punk venue The Rotter’s Club, and in so doing opened shows for both Bauhaus and The Payolas.

While Ottawa holds the distinction of being Canada’s capitol, it was reputedly something less than a cultural Mecca at the time, and The Bureaucrats can be thanked for getting the clubs in the city to open their doors to local bands of a non-cover-song orientation. And based on this 7-inch that’s no surprise, since the record is a beacon of tough-minded accessibility that holds the potential to win over ears that possess a very minimal interest in punk rock.

And yet this fact lessens their punk bona fides not one little bit, for “Feel the Pain” features great clarity in the production department while never resorting to slickness, and the instrumental dynamism enhances a fantastic hunk of melodicism without ever skimping on the urgency. All the instruments are well placed in the mix, with the dual guitar attack of Frey and Mitch Sidwell being appropriately rough in execution. Plus the rhythm section, particularly Johnson’s exceptional drum sound, anchors this beautiful baby with great skill.

As stated, The Bureaucrats were recognizably Mod in intent, so anybody that’s given the grooves of those early, splendid records by The Jam a workout should be well stoked by “Feel the Pain.” But it also lacks the more affected mannerisms that many neo-Mod groups displayed, so fans of old-school pop-punk ala The Buzzcocks shouldn’t resist the urge to inspect this record’s charms, either.

On that note, some prickly pickles have given this record guff for the detectably English vocal inflection of one Gaz Sidwell. And while I’m not one to let a faux accent get in the way of a very good time, I must report that Gaz’s Brit intonation is in no way a mock-job. The story is that he and his bro were both recent immigrants from the Merry Old land at the time of this recording, so in this case the Realness Police can relax their stringent attitudes and hopefully just enjoy this whopper of a short-player for what it actually is.

For Gaz does an excellent job of communicating palpable emotional ache without ever going overboard. And in another punk rock rarity, the tune employs unabashed vocal harmonies that pull off the trick of enhancement rather than harm. But the icing on the cake is that the flip side “Grown up Age” is anything but filler.

Unlike a lot of punk tunes that focus on encroaching adulthood, “Grown up Age” isn’t a sissy-fit of refusal (not that those little tantrums don’t hold the possibility of substantial appeal), but instead is a sensible acknowledgement of an inevitability. And it becomes obvious as it plays that the record’s songs could’ve easily been switched without any problems whatsoever. The maneuver would’ve still formed a total class-act of a single.

The playing on “Grown up Age” is fiery, the hooks massive, the sentiments enduringly relatable, and it’s all delivered with an assurance that never missteps into pro-like polish. Along with acolytes of The Jam and The Buzzcocks, I’d further recommend it to mavens of power pop and fans of scrappy melodic guitar rock in general.

For decades this rec has been a heavily difficult pup to track down, even with it landing a reissue pressing via the Japanese label 1977 Records way back in ‘03. Happily, the Canadian imprint Ugly Pop has recently returned it to availability, and in a very affordable edition. And speaking of bang for the buck, the Ugly Pop website is currently offering a collection of ten 45s, including this one, for a mere fifty dollars and fair postage in the bargain.

Along with The Bureaucrats, the offerings include 7-inch records by Pointed Sticks, The Spys, legendary Canadian psych merchants Bent Wind, and even The Hot Nasties’ stone classic “The Invasion of the Tribbles.” As a way to get acquainted with some very rare sounds and without wounding the ol’ bank account, it’s a truly marvy proposition, and it gives the lie to the notion of obscurantism as being mainly a gesture of one-upmanship on the part of cool-cats and deep-pocketed collectors.

Digging underneath the surface of popularity doesn’t always retrieve golden aural bounty, for there’s as much subpar business languishing in the folds of the forgotten as can be found amongst the ranks of the familiar. But when gold is indeed struck it deserves to be heard far and wide and in a format other than shared (or retail) MP3s, so here’s a big slap on Ugly Pop’s back for making this fabulous record from The Bureaucrats available once again. And it seems that they’re down to their last remaining (color vinyl) copies, so to repeat what’s said on the label’s website; don’t sleep.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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