In Vancouver's long and glorious history of punk rock, nobody was any more punk, or any 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's first show was at an anti-Canada Day celebration (sponsored by anarchists) on July 1st, 1978, but the roots of the group go back years earlier, when a bunch of long-haired social misfits named Brian Goble, Gerry Hannah, Ken Montgomery and Joe Keighley started hanging out together in Burnaby.
Thier first musical experiments were crude covers of Black Sabbath, early Pink Floyd, the Doors and Bob Dylan. Then Gerry, believing industrial society was destroying the world convinced his comrades to put aside their electric instruments and go acoustic. Dropping out of school, they left the city and squatted in abandoned cabins with a vague plan to form a commune and grow their own food.
Alas, winter came, starvation beckoned, and they moved back to Vancouver. Upon their return, they once again picked up electric instruments and formed the band Stone Crazy. They tried to make a living playing rock songs from the late 1960's/early 70's - songs which they felt had both edge and meaning, but it was 1976 and the era of disco and self-indulgent formula rock was in full swing. Consequently, the band did not do very well and Brian, Gerry, Ken and Joe became increasingly bitter and resentful towards a music industry that seemed intent on thoroughly defanging and lobotomizing rock music.
Luckily, in early 1977 the first punk rock recordings began to surface in Vancouver and after a few listens to such classics as the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the U.K. and the Clash's White Riot, the boys from Burnaby realized they had found their niche. They cut their hair and dove in, face first. Brian became Wimpy Roy, Gerry became Gerry Useless, Ken became Dimwit and Joe, Joey Shithead.
Brian, Joe and Ken, along with a guitarist named Simon Werner formed the Skulls and Gerry started a band called Victorian Pork. Within a year though, Shithead had founded D.O.A., while Wimpy, Useless, and Dimwit joined with guitarist Mike "Normal" Graham to form the Subhumans. The mix was perfect. Wimpy was a born front man, delivering unbelievably funny off-the-top-of-his-head rambles while hunched around the stage. The rhythm section was lethal. Dimwit bashed his drums with sticks the size of baseball bats, and lock in with Gerry's bass to create a rumble and cruch that could level tall buildings. Mike Normal sprinkled gas on the fire with electrifying bursts of guitar.
It drove audiences wild. In Los Angeles, hundreds of fans stormed into a sold-out show, precipitating a full-scale riot, complete with a police helicopter - and band hadn't even played. At Simon Fraser University, a couple was so stimulated by the (well hidden) eroticism in the Subhumans' music they jumped on stage and had sex. "Somebody said 'if you guys take off your clothes and fuck right here, we'll give you a case of beer,' " says Gerry, "and they fucked right on the stage." But the wildest gig of all was at a short-lived Vancouver punk club called the Laundromat (it's now the yuppie bar Richard's on Richards). A raucous New Year's Eve crowd hauled Wimpy off stage, ripped off all his clothes, and deposited him back on stage, completely nude. "It was like Jonah," laughs Gerry, "This guy gets sucked into the sea, and then he gets spit back up on stage five minutes later with no clothes on." "It started to take a physical toll on me," says Wimpy, "Because having your clothes ripped off your body...it's tough material. When you rip it over your skin, you can get pretty nasty bruises."
The audiences really went crazy when the band unleashed their anthems, Fuck You and Slave To My Dick. Both were penned by Gerry Useless, and both captured the tenor of the times. Fuck You was the ultimate giving-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!" Slave To My Dick was something else again, a song that is deadly serious, but also deadly funny. Has anyone ever written a more wicked satire of horny men? "I put on my clothes, that make me look tall. I don't think about, i don't think at all! I dres high class, it makes me look high paid. You know I do it baby 'cause I want to get laid! I'm just a slave to my dick! It really makes me...sick!" The song was inspired by some disco ducks who were lingering around Gerry's old girlfriend. "The clothes they wore, the way they did their hair, the fact that they went out and danced to this music that they really didn't like at all ...it was all an effort to get into some woman's pants, as far as I could tell." Unfortunately, the irony of the lyrics went over the heads of some people. "I remember one guy who was totally into that song," says Gerry. "He kept saying 'Right on! Right on! Yeah I'm a fuckin' slave to my dick too! Right on!' He was just totally ecstatic that somebody had finally written a song about the male sex drive and how God-like it was. It was amazing."
Wimpy had the knack of writing serious political songs with hilarious titles - Death To The Sickoids, Moron Majority, Let's Go Down To Hollywood (And Shoot People). Mike Normal's songs also tended to be very political (Firing Squad, Urban Guerillas), and blisteringly fast.
Dimwit played with the band for about a year, during which time the band released their first record, the Death To The Sickoids single. When he left to follow other pursuits, he was replaced by Jim "Koichi" Imagawa. Jim may not have hit as hard as Dimwit - few did - but he was a blur of energy, and was the drummer on most of the band's classic recordings, including the self-titled EP released in 1979 on Quintessence records, the Firing Squad single, released in 1980 and the Incorrect Thoughts album.
Besides doing very well in Canada, constant touring help the band establish a beachhead in the United States, where they would often appear on the same bill with such bands as Minor Threat, the Dead Kennedys, X, and Bad Brains, to name a few. They did particularly well on the West Coast, building up large followings in places like Seattle and San Francisco. But it was a grind, and being underground sensations was not what you'd call financially lucrative.
Eventually, Gerry and Jim packed it in, and were replaced by bassist Ron Allen and drummer Randy Bowman on the last Subhumans album, No Wishes, No Prayers. In 1982, Brian decided to join D.O.A., and Mike went off to found Shanghai Dog and the Subhumans were no more.
In 1983 Gerry became famous, 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 in Direct Action, a band of urban guerillas that blew up an environmentally unfriendly hydro-electric substation on Vancouver Island and bombed the Litton plant near Toronto, which manufactured parts for the cruise missle, a "first strike" nuclear weapon.
Gerry wound up being sentenced to 10 years in jail when the police finally caught the group, which became known as the Squamish Five. He served five years in prison, but has no regrets. "I don't look back and say 'Oh my God, if only I hadn't been in guerilla group and we hadn't done these actions!' I never do that. I'm not ashamed of it: it's the way my life and I don't have a problem with it."
These days, Gerry works as a snow plow operator in the B.C. interior, while Brian is still playing bass with D.O.A.. Jim is a postman, and Mike works for his father's architectual firm. Sadly, Ken Montgomery died in 1994, just when he appeared on the verge of major success with the Four Horsemen.
In 1995, the Subhumans reformed for a western Canadian tour (Gerry called it his "summer job"), with Brian on vocals, Gerry on bass, Jon Williams on guitar and David Macanulty on drums. It remains to be seen if more live gigs are forthcoming. Time has been kind to the Subhumans music - it sounds as fresh and invigorating as the day it was cut, and the political sentiments are as valid today as they were in 1979 or '80. the Subhumans are still pissed off - and with good reason.