This is part one of a three part series. Throwback Thursday looks to explore the past, present and future of Hamilton’s music scene through the eyes of those within.
The Hamilton music scene is ever-changing. The rise of Supercrawl over the past decade has given local bands a public platform that they might not have had access to otherwise. Through this Throwback Thursday series, I seek to uncover the recent history of Hamilton’s music scene, and how the city has developed the unique musical identity that it’s known for today. This will take the form of three profile-based articles focusing on interactions with the past, present and future of Hamilton’s music scene.
We will begin with a snapshot of Hamilton’s music scene in the 1990s. Our guide is a former Silhouette Arts & Culture Editor, and co-author of Canadian alt-rock music book "Have Not Been The Same".
Ian A.D. Jack began studying Kinesiology at McMaster in 1992. Although his studies were heavily focused on physiology and physical movement, Jack had a passion for music that stemmed from his childhood.
Jack recalled living in Thunder Bay as a child in the 80s, going to the local library and borrowing vinyl records which exposed him to a wide range of music. When Jack’s parents divorced, he turned to music as a comforting mechanism.
“Music has been my saviour all along,” said Jack.
With the late 80s came the surge of bands such as U2, The Smiths and New Order, creating a new wave of music. Music was getting louder, heavier, but strangely more melodic as well. Jack was captivated by this style. He tried to emulate their sounds, find out as much as he could about the bands and build his music collection.
While Jack was at McMaster, he would spend all of his extra money at Cheapies Records and Tapes (67 King St. East), a staple record store in Hamilton’s music scene that is still around today. Cheapies does not confine itself to one type of music, allowing anybody to find their own interests in their vinyl record bins. After his first year of university he began writing for the Sil, after realizing that he would be sent new music for free so long as he wrote something about it.
“It was a great way of funding my habits and became a gateway for me to meet a lot of artists and my heroes,” said Jack.
In the past, the Sil used to have a dedicated pull-out section called Hamilton Entertainment Arts Directory, or HEAD. This section featured movie and album reviews, but also had a heavy focus on reviewing and interviewing local Hamilton-based bands. Jack wrote his first article for HEAD about alternative rock band, Rhymes with Orange. He continued writing for HEAD in his third year and became co-Arts Editor in his final year of school. HEAD was an important way for students to understand the music scene in Hamilton.
In addition to profiling Hamilton music, Jack’s section also featured interviews with bands such as Oasis and Blur. HEAD also ran interviews with notable people in the movie industry such as actor/director Kevin Smith, actor Don McKellar and director Noah Bombock.
In the 90s, there were two pubs on campus that hosted live music. The Rathskeller, now Bridges Café, typically housed Hamilton-based bands, and the Downstairs John, which has since been demolished to make room for L.R. Wilson Hall, typically hosted more well known Canadian bands. Jack described the city’s music scene as being rougher than it is today due to the minimal amount of exposure artists received as well as the undeveloped, underground scene they were playing in.
“Now, you have some more prominent artists like The Arkelles and White Horse, and you have Supercrawl. That festival didn’t exist [before],” said Jack.
Jack also recalls off-campus venues that would host live music. The largest of these clubs was called X-Club, housed on the second floor of a building at King William Street and John Street North downtown. Up and coming indie bands such as Jale, Doughboys and Pure would perform. Jack remembers tall posts extending from the floors to the ceiling, obstructing audience sightlines. Nevertheless, it was a great place to catch an indie show.
La Luna (306 King St. West), was another spot that would host smaller bands or acoustic sets. While primarily functioning as a Lebanese restaurant, it had a small space for live performances, hosting the likes of Dave Rave, Jale and Jacob Moon. This venue is still open today.
Jack noted that The Corktown (175 Young St.) sometimes felt dilapidated, but it hosted a number of punk and alt-rock bands. For that reason, it remained one of his favourite places to watch live music in Hamilton. One notable band who performed at Corktown was Junkhouse, a rock band helmed by Tom Wilson. This venue is still open today and frequently hosts live music.
While not primarily a place for live music, Fever, now Absinthe (38 King William St.), was a dance club playing alt-rock music. This style of music started to gain traction with more and more people throughout the city.
Throughout Jack’s university years in Hamilton, a few major genres dominated the Steel City’s music scene. Punk rock was made prominent in part to Teenage Head; rock n’ roll was from Junkhouse; folk rock came from groups like Crash Vegas; and power pop from bands like The Killjoys.
“Hamilton is like the Brooklyn to Toronto’s New York,” said Jack when describing the 90s music scene.
In Jack’s earlier years, many Toronto-based artists moved to Hamilton as rent was more affordable west of the city. The same is true of New York-based artists who move to Brooklyn.
“It’s financially logical and you also have a collective of creative people that can afford to be creative,” added Jack.
Jack graduated from McMaster in 1996 and went on to teach music in the elementary sector; however, his writing endeavours didn’t stop with the Sil. He co-wrote a book in 2001 called "Have Not Been The Same" that focused on the development of alternative rock in Canada from 1985 to 1995. Through this project, Jack had the chance to interview local Hamilton-based bands from his university days, such as Doughboys and Jale, in a process that came full circle for him.
On a more personal note, I had the pleasure of being taught by ‘Mr. Jack’ from grade four to six. Since my graduation from elementary school, we’ve kept in contact over the years. By coincidence, I also found my way to McMaster for my post-secondary education. When I told him I had accepted my offer, he told me to look into writing for the Sil. My first year was really about finding my own footing at the school, as is the case for many other students, which is why I wasn’t able to pursue his advice. At the start of my second year, he told me to reconsider writing for the Sil. I took him up on his advice and the rest, as they say, is history.
An inspiration not only to my music, but also to my personal morals and values and seemingly to my journalism career, thank you, Ian.