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When Kerrisdale rocked
by Aaron Chapman-contributing writer

Piqued because the concert promoter handed out earplugs to the media, British rockers Motorhead cranked up the volume and blasted the neighbourhood with heavy metal.

On May 28, 1982, concert photographer Bev Davies arrived early to the Kerrisdale Arena and picked up her press pass for that evening's show, which featured British heavy metal rockers Motorhead. In addition to her media pass, she was handed a set of earplugs. She was surprised. "I don't think I'd ever been given earplugs before by a promoter before the show like that," she says.

Davies eventually took her position directly in front of the stage between the crowd barrier and the audience to take photographs. Prior to the show, the band members learned the media had been given complimentary earplugs, and they took offence. When the group walked on stage, Motorhead vocalist Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister, plugged in, took to the microphone and yelled to the audience, "This one is for the press who got the earplugs!" He turned up his amp and the band launched into its set. And with that musical blast, they disrupted the calm West Side neighbourhood of Kerrisdale, and set into motion the termination of a colourful chapter in Vancouver concert history.

When the Kerrisdale Arena officially opened in November 1949, the only music performed for the ribbon cutting was from an organ on loan from the Hudson's Bay Company for the anthem of "God Save the Queen" sung by those in attendance. Mayor Charles Thompson was present, along with Fred "Cyclone" Taylor from the 1915 Stanley Cup winning Vancouver Millionaires. Kerrisdale was then considered much like it is today-one of Vancouver's more affluent neighbourhoods. Almost a village within the city, it featured small, family-run shops that lined 41st Avenue and well-kept homes where parents knew the names of every child in their street.

Little did the conservative, horn-rimmed faces of Kerrisdale's 1949 social set, so prominent in photos of the time, know what would hit the venue in only a few years. The arena changed 50 years ago this June when the Kerrisdale Arena ensured its place in Vancouver music history as the site of the city's first rock concert with a sold-out appearance by Bill Haley and the Comets on June 27, 1956. An audience of almost 6,000, primarily teenagers from all parts of the city, descended on the neighbourhood arena.

Vancouver Sun music critic Stanley Bligh called the concert, "The ultimate in musical depravity." But that was just the beginning, because use of the arena as a concert facility was born. Throughout the 1960s, Kerrisdale Arena played host to a number of well-known bands. On July 31, 1967, British rockers the Yardbirds-with notable future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page-did a matinee and evening show. There was a sold-out performance by Frank Zappa on Aug. 25, 1968. In addition to concerts by Jefferson Airplane, the Young Rascals and Smokey Robinson, the venue was the place for concerts by popular local bands like The Collectors, Painted Ship and Mother Tuckers Yellow Duck.

But the heyday for the Kerrisdale Arena as a hall of rock had not yet arrived. Then along came the 1980s.

In the early 1980s, Norman Perry's Vancouver concert productions company Perryscope regularly staged international touring artists in Vancouver. Venues were hard to find. Local theatres like the Orpheum didn't allow rock concerts, and a decision by the city fire marshal reduced the PNE Gardens capacity from 2,800 to 1,400 persons.

"With all the restrictions at the time, the Pacific Coliseum was the only arena around, but too big for smaller concerts," remembers Riley O'Connor, who was Perryscope's general manager. "I thought the Agrodome sounded horrible, and doing them at UBC always involved scheduling nightmares with the sports department-and I really wanted to keep concerts being held within the city and in the community."

In early 1980, the Vancouver parks board, which provided the arena's budget, initiated widespread cutbacks and staff reductions. These fiscal cuts provided Perryscope its opportunity.

"I met with the Kerrisdale Arena manager who was worried he was going to have to let staff go because of the cutbacks," says O'Connor. "It looked like he'd have to cut everybody but himself and the Zamboni driver, so he was looking for other sources of revenue. That's how it started."

For the next three summers, Kerrisdale and its East Boulevard hockey arena hosted an unforgettable variety of all-ages concerts unseen before in the city.

On Aug. 13, 1980 it was Devo for just $8.50 a ticket. CBC Radio 3 producer Don Pennington, who now lives in Vancouver, travelled from Calgary to attend. "I remember when I got there thinking to myself, this is some sort of curling rink-but it was a great show." With Devo in its infamous plastic costumes and flowerpot hats, many in the audience of roughly 2,500 were also uniquely attired-boiler suits, a man with a dyed green head, another with clothes pins attached to his hair. "I'm sure Kerrisdale was living in fear when they saw all these people coming into their corner of the city," Pennington laughs, "but I think it was a good kind of fear."

The era of punk and new wave music was in full swing. On Sept. 2, 1981, 2,300 turned out for The Tubes, with masked vocalist Fee Waybill singing in bondage gear, while choreographed dancers provocatively acted out the songs with him on stage. It was a long way from the matching suits and pompadours of Bill Haley and the Comets.

To put the shows on, local crews assembled the stages in the arena, and Perryscope's production hands were an unlikely crew.

"It was great and good money," says DOA frontman Joe Keithley, remembering how members of his band and The Subhumans were hired on their off nights. "We sure made more money putting the stages together than playing our punk rock shows."

One of the most notable arena concerts was the double-bill of international reggae music stars Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh on Aug. 29, 1981. It was Cliff's first appearance in Western Canada. Twenty-five years later, Keithley remembers one incident at the show.

"That night the Cliff/Tosh show was sold out. We knew a bunch of kids outside without tickets couldn't get in so we'd go around to the side of the arena and open the doors and sneak some kids in."

Outside, 19-year-old student Ric Arboit was one of the kids who didn't have a ticket. "We were just standing around outside disappointed we couldn't get in when one of the side doors opened and somebody waved us in." Arboit is now the president of Nettwerk Records. "I never got a good look at who it was that opened [the door]," he says. "I only realized who it was when I read Joe Keithley's book last year where he retold the story. Thanks, Joe."

Not all Kerrisdale residents were turning their noses up at the shows. Some were ticket holders. In the audience was Thomas Gove-now Provincial Court Judge Gove-but then a young lawyer and a longtime Peter Tosh fan who lived in Kerrisdale near the arena. Gove clearly remembers walking over on the warm August night to see the concert. "The place was packed. Most everybody was on the floor but I guess some people were up in the seats. Both Cliff and Tosh did full shows. It was excellent."

One wonders if it was Tosh's ganja anthem "Legalize It!" that brought out so many lawyers or lawyers to be. Also in the audience was high school student Jonathan Simkin. Now an entertainment lawyer and partner with Nickleback's Chad Kroeger in Vancouver record label 604 Records, Simkin recalls: "I don't remember all the songs he played, but I remember Tosh was dressed like a mummy in complete white. He moved slowly around the stage, brandishing some kind of walking stick. Jimmy Cliff was OK, but Tosh was magic."

But Gove recalls one drawback from the show, and a common complaint about the arena-the notoriously bad acoustics and volume. "I remember this one massive bank of speakers they had at the stage-it was just so loud in there. It was just overkill. I remember Sharon my wife leaving to listen outside. I think I lasted most of the concert, but towards the end of it even I went outside, and there were people sitting outside on the track leading up to Point Grey High School next to the arena listening there where it actually sounded much better. It was so loud in the arena I couldn't hear for a day. I really liked the show and I was a fan of the music, but it was hard to enjoy when it was so loud."

Complaints about the lousy acoustics and noise stretched back to the 1960s. The arena had been designed for hockey and ice sports. But it didn't stop the concerts from happening and the crowds kept coming.

For many fans, sports was no competition for the music. In 1982, the front marquee of the arena displayed in tile lettering "May 13th-Split Enz." It would be the pop band's second performance at the arena in as many years. An audience of 3,000 passed on that evening's game three of the Stanley Cup playoffs, in which the Vancouver Canucks lost to the New York Islanders, to attend. Reviewers noted a strong opening set by local group The Payolas who had toured as an opening act for the Split Enz. Payolas vocalist Paul Hyde recalls the Kerrisdale gig. "It was fun. I wore a Canucks hockey jersey for the one and only time I've done so on stage. I figured since it was a hockey arena I'd fit in."

On June 5, 1982, the front plaza of the arena was filled with fans in trench coats and jackets emblazoned with the Union Jack gathered to see English mod trio The Jam, with an opening set by local band The Scissors. It was to be the last ever North American appearance of The Jam. The group broke up after the tour. Approximately 3,700 people watched them perform.

"Vancouver really had such a vibrant music scene at this period," says Shane Lunny, then an independent producer of the Nitedreams music video show in the early '80s that aired on community television. "But so much of it was still underground. And Perryscope caught the wave of this."

Some 25 years later, Lunny is chief creative director of the Lunny Group, a multimedia company that most recently designed the Vancouver 2010 pavilion at the Torino Winter Games.

"Most of the major media wouldn't cover the scene at all. Tom Harrison writing for the Province was about the only one in the major papers. And we were advertising the Perryscope concerts on our TV show, and getting good ratings that confused the brass at the other stations wondering where the audience was coming from. You had all this rebel fringe media that was contributing to the scene and helping promote the shows."

It reached a height on June 26, 1982 when the Clash performed at the Kerrisdale Arena. With a stage draped in camouflage netting, and blaring police sirens, The Clash-arguably at the height of its popularity-was in full swing of the Combat Rock Tour promoting the album of the same name. The arena swelled with an audience of 4,000 in attendance, with hundreds more hanging around outside, hoping for last minute tickets or to hear the band from outside the walls. Inside, The Clash performed a near two-hour show-with a split screen backdrop displaying slide images of war, nuclear power, racism and images of the Third World and Middle East.

Columnist Bill Tieleman, who attended the concert, was at the time a political science student at UBC. He vividly recalls the night, as much as the atmosphere in the streets of Kerrisdale. "It was a real event. There were people all over 41st Avenue with mohawks, and for one night it was more like 'London Calling' than the 'tea-and-crumpets-London' of Kerrisdale."

"We were on a roll," Perryscope's Riley O'Connor recalls. "We had an amazingly positive response from the businesses on 41st Avenue from all the foot traffic and customers, and positive response by the artists that played there who enjoyed it. We had a good thing going, and best of all, we were actually keeping people employed at the arena."

It did not last. The beginning of the end for the Kerrisdale concert series came with the May 1982 Motorhead performance. The band had actually performed at the arena the summer before, opening for Ozzy Osbourne. But if the Jimmy Cliff/Peter Tosh show had been loud, Motorhead in full flight creating the wall of noise they were famous for was literally heard blocks away. Georgia Straight columnist Steve Newton recalls seeing people and passersby at the glass doors at the arena entrance standing outside with their hands over their ears. There were rumours the show was so loud it broke a Guinness World Book record for loudest concert, with a volume level of 148 decibels-the equivalent of standing 10 yards away from a landing jet.

There were inevitable noise complaints telephoned to the police. But disturbing the peace complaints weren't the only thing that would doom future concerts from taking place. The rowdy audience of 1,500 that attended might have played a factor.

"That Motorhead show was absolutely insane," remembers Joe Keithley. "It looked like everybody from Whalley had shown up in Kerrisdale. It was mostly a heavy, violent biker crowd. They were all loaded." Most arena shows ended early by 10 p.m., but after the show, loitering Motorhead fans drank and wandered around for hours outside the arena and through neighbourhood before they went home.

"After that show we had about four or five local residents with political sway who filed complaints," O'Connor remembers. "The parks board had a meeting and they shut us down directly from doing concerts at the arena by the end of that summer. They weren't interested in any good we were doing, or how successful the shows were. They just listened to those old fogies who complained. Vancouver as a whole was very conservative at this time, and wanted to keep a status quo. We tried to fight it, but they banned us."

For O'Connor, it was a prime example of the city's "No Fun" reputation. "City council back then was very conservative. Anything to do with concerts or any youth events were never given any enthusiasm and it was always a slog," he recalls.

O'Connor may have the last laugh. He is now the senior vice-president of House of Blues Concerts Canada, one of the largest global entertainment companies related to live music that brings many large concerts to Vancouver. He looks back fondly on the Kerrisdale Arena concerts that Perryscope produced, and how termination of the arena concerts became an incentive for larger events to happen elsewhere in the city.

"We had a good couple of years run out of it. And those Kerrisdale Arena shows helped the city's concert industry a lot. By the time the parks board had shut us down, the other civic venues downtown had realized how well we were doing with the arena concerts, and they opened up to concerts a little more."

On a chilly day on a Saturday afternoon at the Kerrisdale Arena in 2006, children learn to skate in the same part of the arena that once held a concert stage. It is very quiet. One wonders if the arena might ever play host to concerts again. If it does, and the children or their older brothers and sisters attend, will they stand the noise?

published on 06/07/2006

Photo-Bev Davies

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