When Teenage Head released their career-spanning Fun comes Fast compilation in 2017, bassist Steve Mahon made sure he found a Frankie Venom autograph to put on the artwork for the record. Venom, the original vocalist, passed away in October 2008 following a battle with throat cancer.
“It’s not easy to lose one of your best friends,” Dave Rave, current singer for the band, said. “Frank was a best friend to all of us … that is not something you can just walk away from … We’ve never left Frank out of the band.”
Rave said he believes the band is always including Venom in everything they do, and the spirit of the band is still Venom.
“We’re not walking away from Frank … we pay homage to him,” Rave said. “We love him.”
When Rave spoke of an interaction with a fan at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, he said the fan told him Venom is still around because the band continues to bring him to the audience.
“I thought that was really nice he said that,” Rave said. “We’ve embraced him. We’ve included him as part of the show. He is still the spiritual cornerstone of this band and always will be. We’re taking his spirit. He’s in the tunes and that’s why Steve put his autograph there. I really respect Steve for that because he’s there.”
Hamilton’s Teenage Head have carved out their own unique spot in Canadian music but the road to the stages they are playing 43 years after the band began have not always been smooth.
Gord Lewis, guitarist and the member who decided he was going to name a band after a song by The Flamin’ Groovies, was a sports fan when he was young. He played hockey and baseball up into his teens when music started to take over his life.
“I was just a big fan of playing records and listening to bands and I just kind of converted from sports over to music and then I wanted to be in a band,” Lewis said. “So I just started learning how to play bass guitar on my own.”
Lewis loved listening to the Top 40 hits on CKOC but outsider bands like New York Dolls, Iggy and the Stooges, MC5, Black Sabbath and KISS started to find their way into his record collection in his teenage years.
During the summer between Grade 8 and high school Lewis started playing music with drummer Nick Stipanitz in the basement of Stipanitz’s home.
“Just bass and drums,” Lewis said. “It started there and eventually Steve wanted to join us, so I gave him the bass and I moved over to guitar.”
Nick had an opportunity to play in his older brother’s band, so they were left without a drummer. Venom took over the drums, but they still did not have a singer.
Venom started to hang a makeshift microphone holder around his neck made by bending a coat hanger so that he could sing and play drums. Nick returned to the fold and Venom was freed of the encumbrance of a drum set and a coat hanger around his neck.
Even though he would become a notorious punk front man, his musical influences weren’t as extreme as those of Lewis and Mahon. Venom leaned more toward the popular sounds of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elvis. He even attempted to bring some RUSH into the mix. The wide range of influences the band members had showed up in the songs that Teenage Head started to write.
“We always wanted to write songs and the song writing was based on the bands we liked,” Lewis said. “Bands like the Dolls, we used to do their songs, so it affected our song writing for sure.”
The band was not always comfortable with the punk label but in hindsight they have a much more positive view of that era.
“It was a good healthy thing for us,” Lewis said. “It gave us a place … It gave us somewhere to fit into, the punk scene in Toronto.”
Teenage Head had already been playing for two years by the time punk came along so they had a lot of music under their belt already. When they got pulled into the Toronto punk scene they dominated it.
“We were just at the right place at the right time,” Lewis said.” We were able to go into it and join in and we were able to leave it too.”
Paul Kobak, who ran Star Records at the corner of King and James streets in downtown Hamilton, was a supportive friend who let them hang out, drink beer and practise at his record store. He also helped get them to shows.
“He wasn’t really a manager, he was just more of a friend – he was a friend who helped us out,” Lewis said. “He was kind of a weird guy though, still is. He’s just nuts.”
When it comes to John Brower and Jack Morrow, the band’s first managing team, Lewis does not have any fond feelings.
“I don’t like either one of them,” he said. “They were very manipulative, very domineering, very controlling … It wasn’t one thing they did, it was many things … our best interests weren’t their priority. We were just young kids and they really took advantage of the situation.”
In spring 1977 when they were young and full of vigor they decided, along with Steve Leckie of the Viletones, and a few other friends to take a drive to New York City to ask Hilly Krystal if they could play the infamous bowery bar CBGB, where bands like the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads got their start.
“It was as simple as that,” Lewis said. “We walked into CBGB, told Hilly Kristal about the band and asked if we could play. Lo and behold he gave us a couple of dates in July… the Toronto bands were opening for The Cramps, so we had a good headliner too. There were a lot of people in the audience.”
Teenage Head was a hard-working band. They played small towns, big towns – they played everywhere they could across Canada. Before they had released their first album they started getting invited to play pubs at colleges and universities. There was a cutting-edge music scene on campuses in those days.
“We were different,” Lewis said. “It was something brand new. We were young, so we attracted a young audience. They had their ear to the ground. They kind of knew what was going on as far as the scenes that were happening.”
When they finally released their debut album it did not feel like the crowning achievement they had expected.
“We were kind of disappointed in it at the time but right now it’s a classic,” Lewis said. “I wouldn’t change a thing on it but at the time we were a little disappointed.”
They had released a 45 previously which they thought was good and they didn’t understand why the album didn’t sound so hot. Alan Caddy of the English band The Tornados produced the album.
“He did a really good job on arranging the songs, so it was good and bad – I get good and bad feelings about it especially when I look back,” Lewis said. “On the CD we were able to remaster it, so the CD sounds really good, but the vinyl still suffers.”
Recording their sophomore album Frantic City with Stacy Heydon was a better experience for the band. Heydon was a Canadian guitarist who had toured with Iggy Pop and David Bowie which impressed the guys in Teenage Head.
“We were all 23 years old and we were at our musical peak,” Lewis said. “It shows on that album – sound wise and performance wise.”
By 1980 the band was creating a buzz in the music world. To capitalize an industry showcase was set up in New York City to make contacts and start bringing the Teenage Head sensation to the coveted American market, where all Canadian bands dream of making a splash.
The band’s management team was still working them hard in little pisshole bars across Canada. After wrapping up a night playing a booze hall at the arena in Palmerston, Ont., an accident happened that put the showcase plans to rest.
“You only get so many breaks in this business,” Lewis said. “You get a showcase down in New York and you lose it cause of a car accident, you don’t get another one. They move on to the next band – the next new thing.”
On the way home from the gig in Palmerston there was a single-vehicle accident. The driver, who was hired to do security for the band, was driving too fast and couldn’t make a turn.
“He just drove right off the road and hit a great big rock,” Lewis said, remembering the accident clearly. “That was that. That was the accident and I’m just lucky I’m able to walk because I was supposed to be paralyzed. My back was broken. I was in hospital for a month and then recuperated for another five … It was detrimental to the career of the band I think. We were able to rise up from it and continue but it really hurt us.”
The band played local shows with a replacement guitarist while Lewis recovered from the accident, but they never did the industry showcase.
“I don’t know why they didn’t do the showcase,” Lewis said. “It’s a good question actually.”
After Lewis recovered they got to work on their third album Some Kinda Fun but relations with their label Attic Records had soured. Attic hired armed security to protect the masters of the album.
“That was kind of silly,” Lewis recalls. “We were leaving the label for some stupid reason. I can’t even remember why … they didn’t trust us with the masters for some strange reason … I guess it’s the music business, so anything can happen.”
Even without playing their industry showcase MCA eventually gave them a contract and their chance to break into the American market. However, to appeal to American sensibilities, the band was pushed to change their name to Teenage Heads to remove the double entendre.
“It didn’t go over good,” Lewis said. “The people who did it left MCA right after, so they weren’t even part of the company when we had to put the album out … It was just a stupid idea.”
Near the end of 1985 Venom announced he was leaving the band. The band tapped Rave to take over.
“I’ll be honest with you, the very first time back in the ’80s it was intense because Frank was still alive,” he said. “I don’t think the audience could really understand why he wouldn’t want to be doing it with Teenage Head … there was resistance in the beginning but Gord and Steve … have got a good sense of what Teenage Head is about … Those two guys – they never ever gave up on me.”
Rave was involved with the band since the beginning. In fact, he knew Lewis since Grade 1, and their love of music and record collecting developed together.
He had been involved with the band since their first single Picture My Face in an unofficial capacity when they asked him to add some guitar to the song. This relationship continued with Rave adding guitar and backup vocals on albums until he was officially asked to join the band as a second guitarist around 1982.
“They looked at me because I had sung before with them, they wanted to continue the band,” Rave said. “That lasted until 1989 … we worked the album Electric Guitar. After we toured … we realized it was time for a change. I left the band at that point.”
Through the ’80s and ’90s the band continued making their living through live performances but visits to the studio to record albums had fizzled out.
Then, around 1995, with Venom back the band released Head Disorder.
“We just decided we wanted to record an album,” Lewis said. “It was a really good album. I really like it. It was a really good experience, but it was never released properly. It was on a small little label that went bankrupt right after they released the CD. It was just bad luck.”
An opportunity the band could not pass up presented itself around 2003 to record another album even though they had not written any new songs, but they had to move fast so they looked to their back catalog for material.
Marky Ramone was doing a spoken word tour and he would end each show playing a set of Ramones songs with local musicians.
“We were part of that in Toronto and Hamilton,” Lewis said. “We said we’ve got to ask if he’ll record with us because it would be great to get into a studio and record with Marky Ramone. Lo and behold he said OK. We just did three songs first.”
The experience was so good it expanded from three songs to a complete album. Even this exciting experience did not come off without some hitches. It took almost five years to get it mastered and find a label.
Hamilton-based Sonic Unyon released it in April 2008, shortly before Frankie Venom lost his battle with cancer on Oct. 15, 2008.
In 2016 there was a fundraiser to help former Teenage Head drummer Jack Pedler who had been diagnosed with diverticulitis, a painful inflammation or infection of small pouches along the walls of the intestines.
“Jack is one of my best friends and I love him, so I went down to do the show,” Rave said.
Lewis and Mahon were also at the benefit show and they ended up playing a couple of Teenage Head songs together.
“We did Let’s Shake and Picture My Face and it just went over so well,” he said. “It was fantastic. The audience loved it … We were all laughing and smiling.”
Mahon called Rave up later to tell him that he hadn’t had that much fun in years and he asked Rave if he’d sing with them again. Rave was flattered and took them up on the offer.
In 2017 Warner released Fun Comes Fast and Teenage Head has been playing shows regularly to support it, leading to renewed interest in the band. With Rave, Mahon, and Lewis all approaching 60 years old they are excited to still be able to play the music they love.
“It’s nice after 43 years to still be playing and have an audience,” Lewis said. “We’re grateful for that … especially since we didn’t have any major hits – no international exposure, just Canadian exposure. So, we’re very lucky.”
The band has been having such a fun time playing shows recently they’ve decided to see what they can come up with as far as new songs go.
“Gord started playing me some super, super riffs he had written, and I just went, ‘Wow! Let’s go. Let’s see if we can turn some of these fantastic riffs you have into some great songs.’” Rave said. “We’ve got one that we did with Frankie Venom’s old lyrics called Fed Up and we took it and put it to some really cool Gord Lewis riffs and we’re playing it live. It goes over as well as old stuff. It’s a great song … Now we’re going to continue writing. I think Gord wants to do a new album. I think I’d be very excited about that.”
Mahon has been busy making sure the band’s back catalog is available. The complete discography was just released on Spotify at the beginning of November.
“I think Steve is now working on getting some of the individual albums reissued,” Rave said. “I like that because Steve is working on the past and Gord is working on the future.”
Rave said the performances he is witnessing from the band are the most inspired he has seen since their glory days.
“If anyone is cynical about the band saying ‘Oh, it’s Teenage Head. Why are they still around?’” Rave said, “I say right now this is the time when these guys are really excited. They are playing with passion and they’re playing like they are young lads again. It excites me. I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t expect this much fun to be happening. I just thought I’d have a good time with the lads, but I didn’t expect it to be this inspired.”
When they were finishing their set on Nov. 10 at Lee’s Palace Rave said Lewis asked the band to bow to the audience.
“Gord said to all of us, ‘Let’s bow to the audience. Let’s appreciate these guys. Let’s appreciate the fact people are still here for us,’” Rave said. “He really does appreciate it. He appreciates the people now.”
Teenage Head is playing the Saturday Nov. 17 at the Starlight, 47A King St. N., Waterloo. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Doors at 7 p.m., with the show starting at 8 p.m.