In Vancouver Canada’s long and glorious history of punk rock, few bands were more punk, or more rockin’ than the Subhumans. Subhumans gigs were a riot, sometimes literally; years later, their records still seethe with raw power. The Subhumans were angry and hilarious, often simultaneously, the living embodiment of everything that was great about punk rock circa 1978-82.
The band formed in the spring of 1978. Their first show was at an “anti-Canada Day” celebration, job fairs near me sponsored by anarchists, on July 1st. The band’s line-up consisted of Brian Goble (a.k.a. “Wimpy-Roy”) on vocals, Ken Montgomery (a.k.a. “Dimwit”) on drums, Gerry Hannah (a.k.a. “Gerry Useless”) on bass and Mike Graham on guitar. The mix of personalities and talents was perfect. Wimpy was a born front man, delivering unbelievably funny off-the top-of-his-head rambles while he hunched around the stage. His penchant for diving into the audience often left him bruised and battered and, at least once, completely nude. The rhythm section was lethal. Dimwit bashed his drums with sticks the size of baseball bats and locked in with Gerry’s bass to create a rumble and crunch that could level tall buildings. Mike sprinkled gas on the fire with electrifying bursts of guitar.
The Subhumans and the handful of other punk bands that exploded into being in Vancouver as part of the world-wide punk movement, built a local scene that was wild, raucous, and tempestuous. Venues came and went after gigs that left audiences exhilarated and club-owners and police appalled. The now-familiar punk ethos that held that anyone could be in a band, and that any band could change your life, was new and shocking.
The Subhumans quickly became one of the scene’s leading bands, plunging into DIY and small-label recording to get their music out. Like the other genuine punk bands of the time, they avoided the tired and self-centred subject matter of the stereotypical pop song. Always engaged with the ferment of the times, often political with a satiric edge, Subhumans songs like “Fuck You” and “Slave to My Dick” became anthems for their audience. “Fuck you” was the ultimate give-the-finger-to-authority punk song, a musical buzz bomb with a chorus that summed up the attitude of disillusioned youth everywhere: “We don’t care, what you say, fuck you!” Gerry’s “Slave to My Dick” was a critical look at gender roles from the point of view of a suddenly self-aware male; a wicked satire of horny men and the lengths they will sometimes go to get laid: “I do a lot of talking but I don’t say much. I can’t be real ’cause I’m such, you know I’m such a slave, to my dick. It really makes me, sick!”
Everyone sung along to that chorus. Other crowd favourites included “Firing Squad”, a song about the hypocrisies and fanaticism unleashed by the Iranian revolution, “Inquisition Day”, which warns against the possible rise of state totalitarianism here or in any country and “Death To The Sickoids”, a rampaging semi-serious call to arms against the mainstream press: “They’re hanging a noose around our necks, by gluing our minds to the front page.”
The first version of the band recorded an independent single, Death to the Sickoids / Oh Canaduh, now sought by collectors and contributed tracks to the landmark Vancouver Complication collaborative LP. After Jim Imagawa replaced Ken Montgomery on drums, the Subhumans put out a 12″ EP (self-titled) and another single Firing Squad / No Productivity on local Vancouver label, Quintessence Records. The Subhumans and the other local bands were all plugging into a burgeoning underground network of punk scenes and venues across the continent, and several tours through western Canada and up and down the west coast started to establish them among the frontline bands of the time. The band recorded its debut album, Incorrect Thoughts for another small Vancouver label and hit the road for more touring through much of the U.S. and Canada. They ground out endless hours in a stuffy van to play with such bands as Black Flag, Husker Du, Minor Threat, the Dead Kennedys, X and Bad Brains. They did particularly well on the west coast, building up large followings in places such as Seattle and San Francisco.
In 1981, just back from a gruelling tour across the continent which included a full-scale police riot in LA and other harrowing events, Gerry and Jim left the band. They were replaced by bassist Ron Allan and drummer Randy Bowman for more gigs and touring, working up to a second album recorded for Black Flag’s SST Records, No Wishes, No Prayers. The new set of songs never got much exposure; just prior to its release, front man Brian Goble was lured away to become DOA’s bass player and the band played its last gig in the fall of 1982.
In 1983 Gerry Hannah was in the news, but not as a musician. Always involved in political issues, including environmentalism – one of his nicknames was “Nature Punk” – he linked up with a group of political activists called Direct Action, whose frustration lead them toward armed struggle. Among other actions, the group blew up an environmentally unfriendly hydroelectric substation on Vancouver Island and bombed the Litton plant near Toronto, which manufactured parts for the American cruise missile, a “first strike” nuclear weapon. Canadian authorities eventually arrested the group, known in the press as the Squamish Five, and Gerry was sentenced to ten years in jail. He was released after serving five years.
In 1995, Gerry and Brian reformed the dormant band for a western Canadian tour, with Jon Williams on guitar and David Macanulty on drums. Audiences were as enthusiastic as ever, with one gig at the Starfish Room in Vancouver drawing so many fans that three hundred people were turned away at the door. The following year the band released a “best of” CD, Pissed Off … With Good Reason, on the Essential Noise/Virgin label. The disc included the band’s singles, their EP, and other popular songs, including many from their two previous albums.
In 2005, the band reformed with a different purpose; not just to play the old material, but to write and record again, bringing their music making skills to bear on the modern age. This time, the line-up includes original members Brian Goble on vocals, Gerry Hannah on bass, and Mike Graham back on guitar, with punk veteran and powerhouse drummer Jon Card (formerly with Personality Crisis, SNFU and DOA) on drums. After recording a demo of new material, the band played a spate of shows in the Vancouver area and throughout Western Canada, including a performance as a featured main stage act at the Under the Volcano Arts and Activism Festival. The Subhumans recorded a full-length album of new material in early 2006, entitled New Dark Age Parade. The CD/LP was released in September 2006 on Alternative Tentacles Records in the U.S. and G7 Welcoming Committee Records in Canada. The band followed up with a cross-Canada tour in the fall of 2006, and more gigs across the western provinces after that. 2008 saw the release of Death Was Too Kind, a collection of material from their earliest records and demo sessions. In April 2010 the band released Same Thoughts, Different Day, a re-recording of all of the songs from their classic Incorrect Thoughts album, plus brand-new versions of some songs from the same era that were never recorded in a studio before. Watch this space for future plans.