Cameron Carpenter: The ABC’s Of Rock – L is for Live

The great news of Sam Grosso (Cadillac Lounge) buying the El Mocambo last week got me to thinking of all the great old venues I was lucky enough to spend time at in my youth.

We are very fortunate in Toronto to have so many great venues for acts to play at. On Queen West alone you have The Rivoli, The Legendary Horseshoe, The Cameron House, The Hideout, The Bovine and Cherry Colas to name but a few. The Tattoo Rock Parlour had a ton of potential but they just didn’t seem to be able to fully commit to “the rock”.

The El Mocambo was a brilliant venue in the late seventies and early eighties, The second floor was the venue of choice for record companies looking to promote up and coming domestic and international talent. Those were the days that the labels would purchase the entire back wall of the club and ply the writers, disc jockeys and retail buyers with drinks, tee-shirts,and meet and greets in hopes of a good review, a couple of spins or a good order from Sam The Record Man or Records on Wheels. We would huddle in the dressing room, pose for pictures and hopefully on Friday morning the shots would be in RPM Weekly. Each major show was immortalized on the back wall with huge show cards. The record companies would pay for these at a little shop on Pears Avenue and then leave them with the club. It was a visual history of the club doubling as art work.

The enthusiasm that Sam and his partner are showing is contagious. First and foremost they are sticking with Yvonne Matsell as their booker. Yvonne kept the club alive for ten years when many thought it wasn’t possible and it is great to see her rewarded with the gig. Next up they plan to restore the “neon palms” on Spadina, the long neglected iconic neon sign in front of the building. Lastly they are going to restore the second floor to the old floor plan with the stage on the side. This was the stage setting for The Rolling Stones, U2, Cheap Trick, The Ramones and thousands of others. The majority of shows during the last decade have been on the main floor which really bears no resemblance to the old downstairs bar. Really looking forward to what will happen at the good old El Mocambo (maybe they will re-hire Reggie as the doorman),

Here are a few of the venues that I cut my musical teeth on.

The Knob Hill

Being an east-ender this was the big hard rock venue on our side of town. Located deep in the heart of Scarborough at the corner of Eglinton East and Danforth, The Knobby was an infamous hard hitting bar. As Kim Mitchell quipped on Q-107 “I went to the Knob Hill one night and a band broke out”. The place scared the hell out of me but it is where we had to venture to see the likes of Moxy, Goddo or Triumph. Other than Maple Leaf Gardens, Massey Hall or Ontario Place there were very few venues to see bands. Bands was do three-nighters back then and a minimum of two sets (if they had a support band) and up to four 40 minute sets if they were the only act on the bill. I was pretty young when I first ventured out to the Knobby (the drinking age was 18 then and fake ID’s were pretty easy to come by). I think I saw musical comedy duo MacLean & MacLean there but I don’t think it was one of the three nights that they were joined by Burton Cummings back in 1977.  Once I discovered the multitude of clubs on the Yonge Street Strip I tended to shy away from this biker heavy bar.

The Colonial Tavern

In the fifties and sixties The Colonial was a world renowned jazz, big band and blues venue. Performers such as Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson, Charles Mingus and BB King all graced the stage. The club was located on Yonge Street just a few doors north of Queen making it an easy streetcar ride from The Beach, In the seventies it turned more towards rock, and ultimately punk, The first show I remember seeing was David Wilcox & The Teddy Bears. Back then David had hair down to his butt and a wicked moustache and the band performed as a three-piece. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the debut of The Jam at The Colonial and I also recall early Teenage Head shows when they were still performing the occasional New York Dolls or early Aerosmith tunes. One night sometime Teenage Head harmonic player Slash Booze took a dive from the balcony and broke his ankle. The club closed as the seventies turned into the eighties. The punks would march up the street to new short-lived homes.

The Nickelodeon 

The Nickelodeon was just up the street from The Colonial and occupied what is now The Hard Rock Café just south of Dundas. I seem to remember very long tables, red chequered tablecloths and lots of popcorn. The stage was on the north wall and the snack bar over to the east. This was were I first saw Larry Gowan perform as a member of Rhinegold. It was a proggy-pop show with lots of keyboards and costume changes. Of courser Larry went on to great solo success at CBS Records and has been the front man for Styx for the last dozen years. This was one of the early haunts of Rough Trade when they made their move away from Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina. It was the early classic line-up of Rough Trade and they had just released their direct to disc debut album. We were part of a gaggle of regulars who followed the band up and down the strip. Neil Michael Davidson, now the head sports writer for Canadian Press was part of the posse as well as his pals from the Delta Kappa Epsilon frat house at the U of T (including pollster John Wright and business reporter B.J. Del Conte). We would always arrive early and try to get a table near the front of the stage. At the end of the song “Grade B Movie” Carole Pope would always leave the stage and curl up in the lap of one lucky patron. With her see thru tops, leathers and whip it made for an exciting couple of minutes. Of course I was too young and naive  at that point to realize Carole was gay but songs like “Dykes By Default” should have given me a clue. It was before Pride, Fab Magazine and I was an innocent boy from the east end and not a worldly hipster like the OCA crowd (Ontario College of Art) crowd that also followed the band.

The Piccadilly Tube

About a block north of The Nick was The Tube. Oddly it was one of the few clubs on the west side of Yonge Street. They have a pseudo English “tube” sign out front and used to advertise their fish and chips and the fact that you could feed a friend for an extra penny. The club was underground and had really low ceilings. This was my favourite spot to see A Foot In Coldwater. I seem to recall a couple of Goddo shows and one or two by Max Webster as well. The club was across the street from the infamous burlesque parlour “Starvin Marvin’s” whose outdoor ads were rather titillating for a teenager. It was also just down the street from a great pinball arcade and in the heart of all of the head shops where fake ID’s could be purchased cheaply and quickly.

The Gasworks
It was a bit of a walk up Yonge to get to the epicentre of the seventies and early eighties rock scene in Toronto The Gasworks. The club was immortalized in the movie “Wayne’s World” as Mike Myers is a Toronto native and every rocker worth his mullet spent mandatory time at the gritty bar on the corner of  Yonge and Dundonald. “The Gasworks! Always a babe fest!” Myer’s said in the film which also had their Aurora, Illinois club named in tribute to the club. The big memory here is the quart bottles of beer which took forever to finish and then became massive weapons when a fight inevitably broke out. It wasn’t a huge club but the sightlines were good (expect for a couple of poles) and the sound was loud. It was the place that international touring bands would stop by after their shows at Maple Leaf Gardens and you could also expect a surprise or two up on stage. Bands such as Rush, Saga and Triumph cut their teeth at this club. A drunken Tina Turner seems to stir some distant memory.

OK, let’s call this the conclusion of part one as I have barely scratched the surface on long gone venues in Toronto. Part two coming next week and then maybe we will move on to other great Canadian cities.

One place that is very much alive is The Shanghai Cowgirl at 538 Queen Street West. Hell, it is August already and you need to take advantage of their fab back patio while you still can. New menu is being worked in and there are lots of tasty new treats available.

Cam’s column appears every Thursday.

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Cameron Carpenter has written for The New Music Magazine, Music Express, The Asylum, The Varsity, The Eye Opener,  The New Edition, Shades, Bomp!, Driven Magazine, FYI Music News, NXNE, The Daily XY and Don’t Believe A Word I Say.

2 Responses to “Cameron Carpenter: The ABC’s Of Rock – L is for Live”

  1. Cam ,as always your column takes me right back to the places and events .Man , we must have sat near each other a million times !!!

  2. I mistakenly call Cameron, Curley back in the Rock n Roll Heaven days when his hair, then, was really more like Larry’s. Was looking for a Piccadilly Tube sign pole photo tonight, but no luck. Wanted to mention The Yonge Station just below Bloor.

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