You have probably never heard of Slow — a five-piece rock ‘n’ roll band that’s reuniting after 30 years to perform a string of shows in Victoria and Vancouver — and that is not surprising. The group’s full oeuvre consisted of one and a six-song EP. They only played a couple of shows east of the Rockies, and awakened — many of them still in their teens — in the aftermath of an anarchic, riot-provoking concert at Expo 86.

Yet, nobody who watched a Slow concert could ever forget it, or them. Before grunge, they blazed like a shooting star of adolescent angst during the vacuous eighties, melding punk, glam, blues, surf music, power pop and hard rock. They’re, in my view, the most vibrant — and underrated — band ever to come from Canada. The timely reissue of the album Against the Glass from the Toronto tag Arttofact can also be a reminder of a place and time now lost to history: Vancouver, pre-1986, as it was still a sleepy, end-of-the-line port city where isolation and inexpensive rents fostered the distinctively self-sufficient music-and-arts scene which subsequently fostered Slow. When the band takes to the stage for a three-night gig at Vancouver’s beginning FridayDec. 1, they’ll be playing to a very different city.

In regards to Slow, I will admit that I am biased. I went to high school with a few of the members and, at one stage, the group asked me to handle them; I sensibly declined. (A lanky English-lit major with a simple blush, I was seriously ill-equipped for the job of shaking down dive-bar owners to get an additional case of bee) However, I made sure to get to as many shows as I could. Slow were too great to miss.

They wer speaking, an arresting bunch. On the bass, there was sideburned, gentle-giant Stephen Hamm, who towered over the rotund, whip-smart Terry Russell on drums — a savant rhythm section plucked from among the greatest high-school jazz bands in the Lower Mainland. On lead guitar, Chris Thorvaldson, who worshipped at the altar of Chuck Berry and Dick Dale, always sported suit, tie and a seraphic smile. On rhythm was spider-limbed, spike-haired Ziggy Sigmund; vocals were provided by Tom Anselmi, a Botticelli-faced cherub capable of the most devilish Jim Morrison growls. Wherever they played on a waterlogged stage in the underground booze can Stalag Thirteen or standing on surfboards in the Savoy in Gastown — they tore up the place. Nobody remained indifferent.

Our parents had come from Britain, central Canada or the United States to settle, — some in communes and other intentional communities — in the earnest belief that British Columbia was a North Pacific Lotus Land, a blank slate to be blithely occupied and appreciated. We, who rode the Brill trolley buses with First Nations individuals and cast-offs of the source economy who clearly were not profiting from the job, took a perverse delight in serving as fact teachers to our parents’ generation. American-born Anselmi specifically was expert at parroting hippie talk, causing even the most tranquil boomers to lose their cool with his pitch-perfect sarcasm.

Anti-utopian sneering at the time of Aquarius — that in Vancouver seemed to continue well into the eighties — was part of the standard armamentarium of DOA, the Subhumans, the Young Canadians and other Vancouver punk groups. Slow was orthodox: Their influences included James Brown, Agent Orange, the Stooges and glam rockers Sweet. (Some music authors have filed them away as “proto-grunge,” a tag Tom does not think much of: “The gap between Slow and bands such as Nirvana and Soundgarden,” he told me recently, “is that we were Led Zeppelin-free.”)

Lyrically, they were also more sophisticated than other groups. Listen to Bad Man, the next song on the first side of Against the Glass. A juggernaut guitar intro precedes a harrowing account of the crimes of a child abuser, delivered in a slur of outrage. Know the lyrics were composed by a 17-year-old whose youth was spent in a rural intentional community — in a time when groovy free love blended to creepy sexual permit — and imagine how profoundly disturbing this tune could have been to bien-pensants of Vancouver in the heyday of Pied Pumkin and Raffi.

I missed Slow’s most notorious show, in the Xerox Theatre in Expo 86, a world’s fair even then viewed as a greed-inspired, welfare-hotel-clearing catch of Vancouver’s industrial heartlands. Slow arrived on stage after drinking the majority of the 10 cases of beer they had demanded within their contract and delivered to their “wildly-out-of-control” billing. They began by ripping apart some onstage props and throwing them in the audience and then played loudly (and, let it be said, sloppily) the organizers turned off their amps. Anselmi responded by inviting the audience to salute then-premier Bill Bennett with sarcastic “Sieg Heils,” until Hamm stopped the series entirely by dropping his trousers. And — in his own words “wagging his wally.” The crowd spilled out on the fairground and rioted in front of the onsite CTV channel; the ensuing set-to with safety made headlines in Billboard and London’s Daily Mirror.

Michael Turner, a musician and writer of the publication Hard Core Logo, sees Slow’s performance that night as a seminal moment in Vancouver music history. “What Slow failed at Expo was the equal of what the Imperial Japanese kamikaze pilots did to the U.S. Navy. It’s the most punk thing a group has ever done in this town, and therefore, also, they need to be remembered and valued.”

What I, a friend and fan, will recall is scenes from the concerts I did atten Sigmund spinning onstage till he was tangled in guitar cords like a praying mantis in a tarantula’s net, or the looks on the faces of pub patrons as Anselmi crawled over their tables, sending pints and pitchers flying. The group disintegrated, like their 1969 Econoline van, at the cross-country tour which followed the Expo debacle. They played their final show at Vancouver’s Town Pump on Oct. 13, 1986.

In the years that followed, I saw shows by other alternative bands; after Slow, they looked like considerate echoes of real chaos and subversion. The Tragically Hip, in their own quintessentially Canadian way, brooded dark and depression over a center that would most likely hold. Slow were something else entirely: To see them perform was to stand on the continental shelf and witness things gloriously falling apart.

In terms of their reunion — I wish them well. After diverse careers in music, they say they’re feeling the older gestalt of jamming together. (That was always the point: When you get the appropriate people together, a band — such as a street gang — can turn into a plausible countersociety into the prevailing dystopia.) Anselmi is writing new tunes and Hamm tells me it seems as though they picked up where they left off three years ago.

One thing is sure: The Vancouver that could generate a mad, bad, dangerous-to-know ring such as Slow does not exist any more. The alternative schools and cheap bungalows where we spent our childhood are either gone or are $3-million teardowns. The Expo lands are now full of Yaletown see-throughs and fuerdai from the opposite side of the Pacific racing new Bentleys. The town which always boasted of its beauty has become a victim of its own geoclimatic enviability.

The past, I understand now, is a foreign country. The area we grew up in — prior to an abysmal real-estate deformed virtually every human connection — isn’t one that may be revisited. However, it is one which can be recalled. And that is something I do every time I put the well-worn vinyl of Against the Glass on my turntable.

Taras Grescoe is the author of Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue on the Eve of the Second World War.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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