WASTED LIVES – Long Lost Canadian Punk Treasure – Interview with Phil Smith

WE LIVE IN amazing and fascinating times. Here we are in 2018 featuring a release from Wasted Lives, a punk band from Vancouver that with a couple of different incarnations, and together for less than a year recorded some songs in 1979 and broke up. The story doesn’t end there as the various members moved on to play in some of the most influential punk bands to come out of Canada: DOA, the Modernettes, U-J3RK5, Corsage, AKA, to name a few. But even with that pedigree the four songs they recorded as Wasted Lives have left their mark and with just one listen to the reissued 7″ from the excellent archival label Supreme Echo out of Victoria, BC, it’s easy to see why.

Wasted Lives was formed in late 1978 by vocalist Phil Smith, guitarist Colin Griffiths, bassist Mary Armstrong, guitarist Brad Kent and drummer Taylor Little. Just a few months in they quickly lost Kent to San Fran’s The Avengers and Little to the Shades. Andy Graffiti came in on drums and they didn’t replace Kent. They headed into the studio to record, played some gigs and called it quits in June 1979.

However even with the short life span their track “Wirehead” made it on the classic and influential 1979 compilation “Vancouver Complication” and other than that track, Wasted Lives faded from the memories of all but the most fervent punk purists, until now.

Skipping ahead a few decades Supreme Echo boss Jason Flower has unearthed the recordings and had them remastered by local punk icon Ron Obvious (Pointed Sticks, D.O.A., Spirit of the West, Subhumans) from the original master tape. This is classic sounding late 70s punk rock, albeit very much harder and edgier, but sharing the same song writing prowess and craft as contemporaries The Undertones or The Buzzcocks. Some have called their sound “proto-hardcore” if you’re looking for a label.

Another thing that sets Wasted Lives apart from a lot of the punk of the late 70s is that the musicianship is also accomplished. Scalpel-sharp guitar, intricate bass and the unbelievable chops of drummer Graffiti; it sounds like he has eight arms, all brought together by Phil Smith’s sardonic delivery.

Other than “Wirehead” the recordings languished in obscurity until Flower, himself a young punk rocker with an interest in old West Coast Canadian punk rock, heard a track that caught his attention.

I was in a band in the 90s named Mexican Power Authority, all members were 9 years older than me. Kev from the Neos was in the group and we bonded over our mutual appreciation for old West Coast Canadian punk rock,” Flower says.

“One day he played this amazing track by the Wasted Lives. Turns out there were only three rare releases out there, each with one WL track on them. Our group (MPA) went onto play “Divorce” in our set and record it, not an easy song to play. The drummer Andy was a jazz player and had amazing energy and control. Our drummer could barely keep up and he too had a jazzy background. Years later after being in touch with the Dishrags I set out to contact Phil. We met a number of times at the Vancouver Art Gallery to discuss the prospect of a release.  One thing led to another and even with the best of intentions, fifteen years lapsed before it materialized. There yah go. I would just add, that working with them (Wasted Lives) has been one of the best experiences ever in regards to detail and accuracy.  This all climaxed on the release day. A great success.”

Are we ever glad he did. Order Wasted Lives HERE!

Photo: Vincent Kuan

Jason also hooked us up with vocalist Phil Smith for a little Q&A.

The Vancouver/Victoria punk scene in 1979 sounds very inclusive with people playing in multiple bands and it seems a lack of competition and rivalry. Tell us about that atmosphere.

Phil: Yes, “inclusive” is a great word to describe both scenes (which in a way were kind of one interconnected scene – hands across the water, literally and figuratively). It was very welcoming – partly an “us against the world” kind of thing and partially a happiness and relief that was a place for freaks like us, no matter what your background, skin colour, sexual orientation etc.

Like any scene, it was not without its rivalries and feuds, but even at the time they seemed remarkably few and minor – perhaps the geographical isolation of these two cities at the time further cemented a “we’re all in this together” feeling, one that still seems to have carried on all these years later. Even today, whenever there are events that draw people from the scene back together – the Vancouver Complication re-issue party, the Supreme Echo release parties, and yes, as the years go by, some Celebrations of Life also, people seem genuinely happy to see one another again – I think there really was/is a deep affection across the board.

The Toronto/SW Ontario punk scene of the late 70s gets a lot of attention – Teenage Head, the Viletones, Forgotten Rebels…what was the word about the Canadian punk scene back then? 

Phil: Hard to say from a West Coast perspective. People knew of these bands a bit – sometimes more through film showings at alternative art spaces like Pumps than records, but very few of these bands seemed to come out all the way out here to play and can’t say the Toronto scene was of much influence in Vancouver – I think people here looked further east to England or down the coast, particularly to San Francisco – there’s always been a Cascadia vibe throughout the West Coast.

 

“The other thing I think was fascinating about B.C. punk and which did set it apart somewhat was just how strong the songs were – a lot of great anthems that came out of that time – which no matter how hard-edged and punk on the one hand also had a great pop sensibility on the other – even D.O.A.’s “Kill, Kill,  This is Pop” is really a pretty catchy song!”

 

What is the legacy today of BC punk?

Phil: Not sure if ultimately its different than the legacy of other punk scenes I think that punk always provided a source of  energy and inspiration, whether in the alley’s of New York, the council flats of London or the beautiful scenery of B.C. – in its attitude of DIY, of solidarity and loyalty, of supporting one another that transcends a specific locale or culture. But there was I suppose an interesting aspect of incongruity re punk vs. Vancouver’s lushness and perhaps because of this also a lot of  huge, larger than life personalities that emerged and which maybe owed as much to vaudeville as to punk (although these two may not be so far apart either, e.g. the Sex Pistols).

The other thing I think was fascinating about B.C. punk and which did set it apart somewhat was just how strong the songs were – a lot of great anthems that came out of that time – which no matter how hard-edged and punk on the one hand also had a great pop sensibility on the other – even D.O.A.’s “Kill, Kill,  This is Pop” is really a pretty catchy song!

Photo: Craig Neelands

Wasted Lives recorded 4 songs and broke up in under a year. How do you explain the longevity of the band?

Phil: Really have no idea. The band did seem to have its own sound and way of approaching things which, from what I remember, puzzled us as much as everyone else! I also think, like many Vancouver bands as noted above, the songs were there and from a singer’s perspective at least, Colin, Mary and Andy really created a unique sonic landscape that was a singer’s dream to try to float some words over.

Brad Kent was with the band for just a couple of months and left to join The Avengers, for only a few months as well. Tell us about the relationship with Brad.

Phil: Besides being a great guitarist and amazing songwriter (I mean just listen to “Corpus Christi” by The Avengers), Brad was also an amazingly positive and energetic person who was really the driving force in getting this band going and pushing it to play (both in a space of about 4 days!) Although Colin and Andy were pretty experienced players already, for me (and perhaps Mary but you’d have to ask her) who’d only done a few one-off guest shots singing in front of people, Brad really gave a push that “hey, we’re gonna do this thing and it’s gonna rock!”

Note: Brad Kent died from complications of the virus H1N1 on February 3, 2016

What were you listening to in 1978?

Phil: Pretty much everything, but maybe with a definite edge to the British prog-punk(?) like Magazine, The Stranglers, and the Fall – as my musical background is piano/keyboards was probably drawn to this particular strain of Punk/New Wave. Definitely remember also being obsessed by the Advert’s first album, Blondie’s Plastic Letters (I think their masterpiece), and Talking Heads” More Songs about Buildings and Food (their masterpiece also) and of course the Vancouver singles that had come out to that point – D.O.A. Subhumans, A/V, Pointed Sticks, Dishrags etc. – not because they were from Vancouver but just because they were great singles and always seemed to dominate the turntables at parties back then!

But still maintained a sweet, if somewhat downplayed, spot for Led Zeppelin and the Doors and obscure ‘60s classic pop (see Fuck Bands discussion below). I seem to remember Johnny Cash and Coltrane also sounding great back then – maybe both very punk in their own way.

“Fuck Bands were also a way to break out of some stated and non-stated musical straightjackets that might have been forming around punk at this time, by giving people some cover under which to play some other genres of music that they also loved, from heavy metal to ‘50s rock and roll to country music.”

Describe the term “Fuck Band” and how it was used back then.

Phil: Yes, this seems to have been a truly Vancouver phenomenon at first. As I think Nick Jones of the Pointed Sticks has pointed out, when the Fuck Band thing started, it was simply a way for people to switch it up musically, by assuming different names/personas and playing different instruments and songs (usually covers) as well as an attempt to pull in a different audience (beyond what was ultimately a still small scene) and so maybe make a few more bucks playing.

But looking back on it now, and this is something you can really see on the two Bud Luxford Presents albums, Fuck Bands were also a way to break out of some stated and non-stated musical straightjackets that might have been forming around punk at this time, by giving people some cover under which to play some other genres of music that they also loved, from heavy metal to ‘50s rock and roll to country music. For example, in my case, this included obscure ‘60s pop (The Snow Geese), The Doors (Jimbo and the Lizard Kings) and New Romantic synth-pop (Corsage which, like with some other people’s Bud Luxford projects, metamorphosed into an ongoing band which is still active today).

Tell us about the infamous club The Smilin’ Buddha.

Phil: To borrow and paraphrase Bill Shirt/Scherk’s great line in the documentary about the Vancouver punk scene (Bloodied but Unbowed), “the Buddha was a dive, but it was our dive”. Not in a great part of town, an aroma like no other upon entering and the same again in the restrooms, structurally in let’s just say “a state of disrepair”, but a fair and friendly owner and staff and I guess a , um, somewhat flexible policy to ID checks! And definitely some great and stand-out gigs there at the time, but just as importantly, you could go any night and be pretty sure of seeing someone worthwhile on the stage and people that you knew from the scene in the audience. Kind of like a Cheers with leather jackets and more spiky hair I suppose.

How has it been to have all this attention on Wasted Lives and the old scene as a whole 40 years later?  

Phil: It’s been great if a little strange at times going back that far in terms of memories and music, but am just happy that people still seem to enjoy the songs  – at the record release party, it was the first time that all four of us had been in the same room together since the last Wasted Lives gig (with the Avengers in May 1979), but it felt as if it could have been yesterday in terms of the collective energy and excitement maybe the songs and record have that same kind of feeling?

SUPREME ECHO – FACEBOOK

Cover photo: John Sherlock

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