With the recent fascination with first-wave, Canadian punk — writer Liz Worth published Treat Me Like Dirt in 2010, detailing the rise of Teenage Head, the Diodes and other first-gen Toronto punks; Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s Don Pyle compiled a photo-narrative of Hogtown’s early punk scene; and AUX’s Sam Sutherland is penning a book documenting the era, coast to coast — the question accompanying Bloodied But Unbowed is simple: Do we really need more media exploring punk’s genesis?
The answer: Maybe not. But filmmaker Susanne Tabata, who lovingly directed Bloodied, isn’t saturating punk’s cinematic canon. Instead, she focuses on strict parameters: Her lens narrows in on Vancouver’s punk scene, which also included “noise bands, sound art and sparse electronica.” The film’s time frame ends in 1981, when D.O.A. revolutionized the game with Hardcore ’81. And she goes to great lengths to establish Vancouver’s distinctiveness: The city, she says, drew its influence from west coast America, a lineage that still exists today. But, she adds, she waited years to tell Bloodied’s story.
“It took 30 years to piece that story together,” she says. “Because you need the perspective of going through other musical periods. It was a very fertile time for Vancouver, and it’s arguable it laid the ground for independent music. But I’m not the person who decides that.”
Tabata’s cautiousness, though, is deliberate. Rather than present a definitive thesis about the current state of punk — and become, like so many music history documentaries, an exercise in banal nostalgia — Bloodied simply captures the magic of the period. Drawn between fast-cut, if rough-hewn, archival interviews, modern Q&As and live performances from D.O.A., Pointed Sticks, Young Canadians and more, Vancouver’s early punk scene is portrayed as equally serendipitous, fertile and unique. (“If you asked anyone if they thought, at the time, that the scene was significant, they wouldn’t think so,” she says. “It was exciting and real, but fast and fleeting.”) Indeed, while L.A., London and, more recently, Toronto receive plenty of retrospective accolades, Bloodied makes a convincing argument that Vancouver’s punk scene deserves critical praise, too.
“The relationship Vancouver had to punk ran down the coast, not across the country,” adds Tabata. “Those bands got to D.C. and Chicago, but they didn’t find a lot of love in Canada [unlike, say, Teenage Head]. It’s 600 miles from the nearest Canadian town, and that’s Calgary. The freeway, the I-5, was the freeway for Vancouver’s punk. We’re American.”
No surprise, then, that both Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra, both repping California’s punk scene, earn screen time in Bloodied. But aside from those punk-doc staples, the film also wows with its collection of rare footage: Tabata collected early punk videos and live performances, aided from her volunteer work at Nite Dreems, a public-access music show. She captured footage from “Anarchy in Canada,” where D.O.A. perform, amazingly, in Stanley Park. She sourced material from Braineater’s Jim Cummins, then a local art-school type who eagerly photographed the scene. She even interviewed Bob Rock — yes, of Metallica fame — who had recorded many punk bands at his studio, Little Mountain Sound. (And, Tabata adds, he often recorded them for free during the night shift.)
“When you make a film, you start with an outline,” she says. “And this film’s character-driven. And while you can’t even believe these people are real, it’s not Trailer Park Boys. We wanted to get into the birth and the life of the scene, and use the music as a backdrop. Vancouver Complication was a flagship record, and it showed how eclectic our scene was, but who recorded it? What were the circumstances that created it?”
Such questions also position Bloodied as an anthropological study: Tebata’s punk scene was a time when bands existed without telephones, without digital communication, and when bands “mimeographed things.” It was a haven for outsiders — punks, artsy types and Vancouver’s gay community “all drank at the same bar, because there was only one bar.” And it, like punk scenes worldwide, epitomized DIY: No one paid to record or distribute music.
All are era-specific curiosities, to be certain, but Tabata argues that the late 1970s had plenty of parallels to 2012.
“The questions artists faced in the ’70s, they’re facing them again today,” says Tabata. “You’re much better DIY today than selling off your rights and not making a dime from it. So, how do artists get paid for what they do? How do you make ends meet — tour, sell vinyl, make T-shirts? That connection compares to contemporary music.”
But it’s not the only lesson that can be learned from Bloodied. Tabata witnessed the death of first-wave punk in 1981 — and it wasn’t, as other punk scholars have argued, simply due to the rise of hardcore.
“What creates magic or intuitive, spontaneous creativity? A lack of self-awareness,” she says. “Once a scene becomes aware of itself, the camaraderie and the creativity is affected. We had power-pop, lots of different forms of punk, and lots of different bands playing on the same bill. But by 1981, it was all like-sounding bands, like Black Flag and D.O.A., playing one bill. A distinct sound was coming out of California. And punk became codified.”