It's easy to overlook unsung local firsts. But in the late 1970s, punk in Halifax wasn't just a cute imitation of crass Brits and stoned New Yorkers. It affected major changes in a city that shunned inexperienced performers and laid the groundwork for some of the most exciting independent music of the 1980s and '90s.
Halifax's first tentative dance with its own punk culture happened in the halls of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, a goof-around art project by a handful of smirking art school students. The Vacant Lot and The Trash Kanz were the city's first punk bands, consisting of two very similar, friendly lineups in different formations, playing off a staged rivalry used to drum up excitement for supposedly contentious billings. And beyond the walls of NSCAD, they managed to find a local hippie cafe, Odin's Eye, that wasn't concerned with running afoul of the musicians' union.
Like many cities across Canada, the Halifax bar scene of the '70s was tightly controlled by the American Federation of Musicians. AFM Local 571, the Atlantic Federation, would blacklist venues that hired non-union musicians or refused to pay scale, a measure of protection for the professionals who comprised their backbone.
Upstart punk bands couldn't afford union dues, and venues couldn't afford to be blacklisted by hosting non-union performers. The young, excited kids starting sloppy new bands and hoping to play in their own town were, essentially, fucked.
Which is why Odin's Eye, soon renamed The Grafton Street Cafe, became such a crucial local institution. When The Vacant Lot and The Trash Kanz inevitably imploded, the first bands to play the re- christened room were Nobody's Heroes and Agro.
Equally passionate bands, they were younger musicians whose reaction to punk was more genuine and less self-conscious. Nobody's Heroes still relied on covers, but its two recorded originals demonstrate a serious dedication to the craft of songwriting, along with the undeniable influence of Stiff Little Fingers. It's no surprise that Cowan continued to play long after the Heroes---he later formed The Little Ministers, a classic rock radio staple, as well as Absolute Faith, the first vehicle for future reality TV star and INXS frontman JD Fortune.
Agro was Halifax's tougher, wilder punk outfit. It was a boundary-pushing collection of weirdos right out of the gate, an almost-immediate post-punk response to what had barely come before them. Confrontational and intentionally obtuse, the few existing live bootlegs of early shows hint at a Pere Ubu-like attack, a very literal assault on a limited audience.
Talking to anyone who attended early shows, words like "chaos," "psychotic behaviour" and "troublesome" tend to pop up a lot. One of the most infamous episodes in the band's history was an impromptu set on the steps of a church---set at the top of a hill, the building had a handful of working outdoor electrical outlets. Naturally, it was Agro who first thought to storm the church and set up its amps, cranking through almost half an hour of tunes before the cops showed up.
Before long, local arcade owner Greg Clark opened the city's first real venue to reject the AFM outright---The Flamingo, also on Grafton Street.
The rest is local history, but it started with some passionate kids and an open-minded hippie enclave, sidestepping and rejecting an establishment that had tried to keep them from participating in and creating their own culture: punk.
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