By Christina Whipsnade
Named after a Flamin’ Groovies record, Steeltown’s Teenage Head was created in the 70s by then-high school friends Frank Kerr (Frankie Venom) on vocals, guitarist Gord Lewis, Steve Mahon (Marshall) on bass, and drummer Nick Stipanitz. Disgusted by the disco and prog rock that were so popular at the time, they formed a garage band, practicing every Saturday morning. The band’s practices were obstructed by a neighbourhood curmudgeon, who would consistently call the police whenever the boys plugged in. The same cop would come by each week, stay for a few songs, and offer encouragement of the “keep it up!” variety. Teenage Head’s first live show would be held in their high school cafeteria, and their fellow students loved it. They were the soundtrack to many teenaged, drunken Saturday night parties. With two years of practice and school behind them, the band was ready to play out. When they moved to Toronto, the difference between them and other bands in the area was that they could actually play. Their sound was basically punked up rock n’ roll on speed, with nods to new wave and rockabilly, influenced as much by Eddie Cochrane and Gene Vincent as the New York Dolls and The Stooges.
In 1975 the band headed to Toronto to see the New York Dolls, and the experience proved invaluable, as they didn’t feel so much like outsiders as in Hamilton; this was the scene they belonged to. At the same time, Toronto’s burgeoning underground punk scene was gathering attention. Local bands like the Diodes and the Viletones, in addition to touring bands like the Ramones and Blondie, made Toronto almost as notable as New York and London at the time. The center of the scene was the opening of a dank basement club called the Crash n’ Burn in 1977. Touring bands would often stop in after their shows to take in the local mainstays like Teenage Head, or put on impromptu gigs themselves. The fun started to end when the club lost its liquor license later the same year. A last hurrah gig called the Last Pogo would be held at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern in December of 1978; it was as much of a farewell as an acknowledgement of the punk era in the city. The show starred Teenage Head, who ended up being the last band standing from the once hot scene.
Teenage Head released their self-titled record in 1979 on InterGlobe Music. The band was unhappy with the muddy production; it sold poorly, and subsequently InterGlobe folded. Despite the production, the songs were great, and the album contained quality numbers such as “Top Down” and “Bonerack”. A re-mixed version of the album was re-released in 1996, complete with bonus material. The problem with some of Teenage Head’s recordings was that they failed to translate their energetic live sound. Through 1979, Teenage Head continued to play clubs and hockey arenas throughout the country. The band’s shows were always packed to capacity and were insanely ferocious, with the reckless Venom climbing the rafters and stage diving before this was considered the norm. That got the attention of Attic Records, who released the seminal Frantic City in 1980 and Some Kinda Fun in 1982. Frantic City was met with strong critical praise, and the band started to receive some airplay with “Let’s Shake” and “Disgusteen.” Teenage Head fervor was so strong in the early 80s that the band would even spawn a devout pre-teen tribute band called Teenage Kicks, who performed the band’s songs, as well as their own, in the Head style.
Although they didn’t know it yet, Teenage Head were to become infamous on June 2, 1980. The band had planned a big show at the Ontario Place Forum. Hoping to rouse some interest south of the border, US label representatives were invited. When Gord Lewis arrived at the venue at around four, he felt something was slightly amiss, as crowds were already gathered for the 8 pm show. The band unknowingly caused a riot at the Forum, as many fans were unable to get into the already at capacity crowd of nearly 12,000. Outside the venue, angry fans hurled beer bottles and large rocks pulled from nearby Lake Ontario’s shores at police, while some clever fans found their way over the locked gates and swam across the moat that surrounded the venue. Inside, the band played on, oblivious to what was taking place. Teenage Head were at their liveliest best, as throngs of fans had to be tackled off the stage. Nearing the end of the show, the fans were approaching the stage so fiercely that the band had to flee. Roadies chased fans into the stands that had swiped their instruments. After it was over and arrests were made, the Forum’s management decided to ban all rock acts permanently at the venue. Teenage Head would be featured on headlines all across the country, and held the tag of parent’s most feared rock band. Despite lost revenues due to anxious club owners who cancelled gigs, Frantic City saw a huge upsurge in sales – 10,000 the week after the now legendary show. Word of mouth continued to spread after some big US label guys were blown away by the Ontario Place performance. Eager for the band’s big break, Attic arranged for a showcase in New York and later in Hollywood, with many members of the press to attend, but unfortunately bad luck would strike the band first.
On September 6th, 1980 at around 2am, the band wrapped up a gig in Palmerston Ontario, a small town near Kitchener. Teenage Head shouldn’t have even been there after the triumphant Forum gig, especially since they were scheduled to fly to New York in two days. Speeding their way home on a dimly lit country road, the band’s van slammed headfirst into a tree. Marshall, who was in the front passenger seat, was flung into the windshield, severely gashing head. Lewis, in the backseat, suffered a broken back and ribs. The band was lucky to have survived the mangled wreck. Lewis would spend the next two months in a body cast confined to hospital, and many more months in rehabilitation. David Bendeth would fill in for guitarist Lewis at the time, but after the mending and the cancelled shows, the buzz had died.
In 1983, MCA records in the US would pick up the band’s option and set out to re-market Teenage Head as a bar band. This meant that the band would tone down its antics for their next record, the ill-advised, jangly 5-song EP called Tornado. Adding insult to injury, MCA made the band change the ‘Head’ to ‘Heads,’ so as to not offend the Tipper Gore led PMRC. The band was dropped from MCA by the year’s end, along with the extra ‘S.’
A live album, Endless Party, would be released in 1984 on Ready records and featured Teenage Head and their old sound, but the band was imploding. By mid-1985 discord broke out in the band and Stipanitz left, for good. Singer Frankie Venom was now living the ‘party-til-you-puke’ lifestyle he always sang about. He would be replaced by old friend and contributor to the band, Dave ‘Rave’ Desroches of The Shakers. Teenage Head would continue to record several independent albums with Dave Rave including 1985’s Trouble In The Jungle, on Warpt Records and 1988’s Electric Guitar, released on Fringe Product.
This would have been the end for most bands, but nearly ten years later, the original Teenage Head line-up with Mark Locerbie on drums reunited to record a comeback album, 1996’s Head Disorder , released on Loud Rock Records. That same year, Teenage Head would be included on the soundtrack to the film “Hard Core Logo.” The plot, a fictional documentary about a 70’s punk band that attempts to get back ten years later, sounds a bit familiar.
Teenage Head continue to record and tour to this day. Marky Ramone recently joined the band in some recording for an up-coming release. A best-of may be in the works as well.