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Review

Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk

By Sam Sutherland

November 4, 2013

Review By Eryk Martin

As the angry, impetuous, and disobedient stepchild of rock-and-roll, punk has become an increasingly popular topic for academic and popular writers. Yet, as Sam Sutherland’s Perfect Youth demonstrates, Canadian contributions have often gone unnoticed. In response, Sutherland’s popular history argues that Canadian bands were important and active participants in punk’s global emergence during the middle years of the 1970s. While Canadian voices were part of this larger chorus, Sutherland maintains that punk also reshaped Canadian cultural life by ushering in new sounds, new communities, and new forms of musical practice and organization.

Based on over 100 interviews with musicians, managers, and fans, Perfect Youth effectively imparts a sense of agency to local communities, and easily demonstrates that punk was more than an imported phenomenon. Through numerous examples, Sutherland shows how local bands contributed important albums to an emerging musical genre, as well as pushed punk in new directions. Here, Sutherland provides fascinating commentary on how communities in Toronto, Victoria, and Vancouver produced some of the first all-female punk bands in North America while also helping to foster new sounds and styles such as hardcore and queercore. In these ways, Sutherland colourfully illustrates how, when, and where Canadian bands contributed to punk’s early development.

Perfect Youth’s also does well in explaining how punk changed popular music in Canada. For reasons of age, musical skill, and cultural taste, most mainstream venues were inaccessible to young punks. With limited places to play, bands took advantage of alternatives spaces: gay and lesbian clubs, art galleries, and dive-bars, while also creating temporary venues in community halls, warehouses, and basements. As bands from outside and inside the city passed through these alternative spaces, punk created networks and cultures that transformed both themselves and the surrounding cultural environment.

However, these examples of movement and exchange sit awkwardly with the book’s assertion that the physical distances between different communities created a “shared hardship” that united separate punk experiences in ways that sound, style, or dress did not. As a result, the reader is faced with a perplexing contradiction. Canadian punk was defined by its isolation, yet also defined by extensive patterns of connection across vast reaches of space. While both conclusions are possible, Perfect Youth fails to effectively bring these themes into conversation with each other in ways that make their relationship explicit. As a result, a key component of the book’s argument is weakened and the reader misses out on an important opportunity to see the complexities and conflicting nuances of this history.

In addition, Perfect Youth also suffers from its treatment of politics. Although the chapters on bands such as D.O.A. and the Subhumans note political themes, the vagueness with which they are often explored leaves the reader with very little understanding of the substance of specific ideas or the surrounding political context. For example, while Sutherland notes that Vancouver’s 1978 anti-Canada Day concert was an important moment of punk’s political dissent, there is no discussion of why the event was held or what it sought. More than an opportunity to burn the flag, the concert was a conscious decision by local activists to try and bridge the punk community with the city’s vibrant anarchist movement, a decision based on the idea that the two shared a commitment to decentralized forms of democracy, direct action, and the politicization of culture. In this way, those chapters that do attempt to link punk to politics rarely move beyond rhetorical description to effectively consider the content of punk’s diverse political perspectives.

Despite these limitations, Perfect Youth still makes a number of important contributions to the early history of Canadian punk by highlighting the breadth of its development and the ways in which an eclectic mix of people organized new and exciting forms of popular music.

Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk
By Sam Sutherland 
Toronto: ECW Press, 2012. 320 pp. $22.95 paper.