Saturday, July 01, 2017

The Diodes John Catto Interview, Canada Day Special & Show # 664

The Diodes formed in Toronto in 1976 and were part of the burgeoning Toronto punk music scene. Before this there wasn’t really a scene there. Inspired by UK bands such as The Clash and US bands such as Ramones, The Diodes blended these influences with a touch of 60s British Invasion sounds and power pop for a sound that was completely their own. The Diodes featured Paul Robinson (vocals), John Catto (guitar), Ian Mackay (bass) and John Hamilton (drums/keyboards). Along with manager Ralph Alfonso, The Diodes opened Canada’s first punk club called the Crash ‘n’ Burn. Many bands within the scene and outside the scene played and hung out there. The Nerves (from LA) along with The Diodes were the first to play the Crash ‘n’ Burn when it opened its doors. Despite now being seen as an iconic venue within Toronto’s music history, it closed in the summer of 1977. Following the demise of the short lived punk club Crash n’ Burn, The Diodes were signed to CBS Records Canada, being the first Canadian punk band to be on a major label.

The Diodes first single “Red Rubber Ball” was a punked up version of the 1966 hit single by The Cyrkle, a song that was co-written by Paul Simon. According to vocalist Paul Robinson, they decided to cover this song after hearing Simon slag punk/new wave music. The Diodes took this love song about looking into the bright future full of a new potential after a break up and gave it a twist musically. In the context of 1977 when it was released, The Diodes first single symbolized something new while not forgetting the past. This was also the first track on their 1977 self-titled release.

Released in October of 1977, The Diodes was recorded in about a week and produced by Bob Gallo, who had previously worked with ? And The Mysterians, The Rascals, Solomon Burke and Ben E. King in the 60s. The sound of the record is immediate and to the point. The band’s power pop sounds seep through their US/UK punk and 60s influences. “Child Star” is a song with rolling drum fills, synthesizers and Ramones influenced power chords. The song is based on the true story of Anissa Jones, who a character named Buffy on the TV show, Family Affair. She died of a fatal drug overdose at the age of 18. “Tennis (Again)” with its back and forth guitar riffs and melodic basslines features lyrics wrapped around a metaphor telling of a doomed/fleeting relationship. “Blonde Fever” plays on the stereotype of blondes having more fun in between stop and start guitar riffs, “Plastic Girls” with lyrics such as ”Plastic girls are so pathetic/Plastic girls with that new aesthetic” is a satirical look at the plastic or “fake” person who tries to be something they’re not. The song can also be seen as a reflection of the mainstream vs. the underground punk/new wave music scenes happening at the time.

“Death In The Suburbs” attacks with a cinematic paranoia lyrically, “Behind Those Eyes” features an almost mod-punk aesthetic musically and lyrics such as “While smiling like a crocodile/Avalanching style/But behind those eyes/Who is watching/What is waiting” which seems to emphasize an eerie determination. The song tells the story of a character that is different than what people think on a surface level. This is something that could be reflecting the outside view that others had of the people involved in the punk music scene at the time, but is also still relevant today in many different contexts. “Midnight Movie Star” addresses late night TV cult movie stars contrasted against more “studio music and lots of tricks”. With ringing guitar leads, creeping synthesizers, sliding guitar and basslines, the song addresses an underground lifestyle and aesthetic. “Shapes of Things To Come” is another cover song found on this album, but like “Red Rubber Ball” it is rearranged in The Diodes own style. The song itself comes from the 1966 counter culture exploitation film, Wild In The Streets. In the movie a fictional band was created called Max Frost & The Troopers, a full-length album was even released featuring members of the 60s surf instrumental band Davie Allan & The Arrows. The song like “Red Rubber Ball”, takes on a different meaning when executed by The Diodes here. The song deals with the future and how it is going to happen regardless of the other factors surrounding it.

“Time Damage” is a more heavy hitting song with strong harmonies and aggressive guitar sounds. I imagine that this song if it were being played live would end in waves of feedback. This is the feeling you get at the end of this album. It was recorded live off the floor and really has the effect of a live show. There is a certain energy in the early recordings found on this album. The Diodes were popular in the Toronto punk music scene at the time, but aimed for something bigger, which also caused some conflict within the music scene. But, The Diodes emitted a large influence. The lyrics that would make up the band’s songs dealt with elements of suburban turmoil and the suburban psyche. They took a look at a different side of the culture at the time, that of the life in the suburbs. These themes permeated their lyrics, amongst other themes/topics in a way that set them apart from the rest.

Continue reading for an interview that I did with Diodes guitarist John Catto.  He talks of the first Diodes album, guitars, recording and the Diodes vinyl box set:

RR:  The music scene in Toronto in 1977 when the first Diodes album came out was a very different time. How would you compare playing in the early Toronto punk music scene as opposed to the way it is now?

JC: Well, very very different. For one thing there was no independent scene as we understand it now, or even as someone living in London or New York then would understand it. While there had been one in the 60's, live music in Ontario had come under the iron grip of the musicians union and the cover band agencies. So you had an entire generation of musicians AND audience who'd never even seen (local) bands playing original material and had even less interest in it happening.

So all this came about outside of the existing music scene. So when we started the ONLY place we could even conceive of playing was OCA (Ontario College of Arts) which led to the rather convoluted solution of booking the Talking Heads so we could open for them. I suppose, that if that opportunity hadn't presented itself to us and another month had gone by we would have looked into playing the Beverley Tavern down the street (where the Dishes and Zoom were getting going) or something similar. Then we would have had a quieter less auspicious debut but it never worked out that way.

RR:  What inspired you to play guitar and who are some of your favourite guitarists? What is your guitar of choice and why?

JC: When I was in High School off the top of my head at least 6 of my best friends played guitar so it was all around me, it was you know, the early 70's. Unlike them I didn't take lessons, I just got Mel Bay book 1 and took on teaching myself and got my friends to show me stuff. I think the first couple of rock things I learned were "Sunshine of Your Love" and Rhinoceros's "Apricot Brandy”.

If quizzed I'd probably always say my favourite guitarists are Townshend, Hendrix and Leslie West, especially Leslie when it comes to actual sound/tone. Over the years I've also been interested in Santana, James Williamson, Brian May and as far as soloing is concerned Robert Fripp's solo on Eno's "Baby's on Fire" has a pretty disproportionate influence that probably no one could ever discern ! Everyone get’s a look in for a moment!

But, right at the very beginning I think it was Jorma Kaukonen. Early on I had this huge fascination with the Jefferson Airplane yet I don't think I've ever tried to play like him, I DO try to play like Jack Casady every time I pick up a bass though!!

Overwhelmingly though it’s the Who. They’re the band I’ve seen more than anyone else and you know circa “I can see for Miles” into “Live at Leeds” is my template for the way I like things to sound.

Guitar of Choice:

I’m a Les Paul guy pretty much all the way, at least that’s where I started and where I ended up! First of all I had the homemade one (basically a body I made with the neck from a Japanese 335 copy and Gibson pickups and hardware) then a number of Les Paul Customs and Juniors. After the second album I started to want a change so I went out and got a Strat which was for me a huge frustration since I never could get it to sound right, stock anyway! Eventually like a lot of people in the late 70’s I settled on this Strat with a humbucker concept, the first one I made was late ‘78, then I had a great Walnut Tele that I built which is the foundation of the 3rd album wherever there wasn’t a tremolo bar or the solos which I cut with a late 50’s junior (Leslie West again!), that album btw I did all of with a 50’s Ampeg "Reverb-o-Rocket” with a greenback Celestion speaker stuffed in in it, great amp! I carried on playing those Strats right through to the early 90’s then had a rethink and put them away forever.

When I got back into playing I went right back to the Les Paul thing where I started. These day’s you may or may not know I build guitars a lot and they are exotica predominantly influenced by Les Paul’s and also similar things like Zemaitis and the Arts & Crafts aesthetic. Many are very fancy with etched metal parts, fancy inlay and so on but at core … it’s a Les Paul.

RR:  Where/when was the first Diodes album recorded and how did you get connected with Bob Gallo to produce it?

JC: The first album was all recorded at Manta Sound (as were the demos for the second). It was Bob's favourite studio and he had a favourite engineer there Hayward Parrott who he worked quite closely with.

Bob came from CBS, he was I suppose our assigned A&R man, in those days the A&R would more often than not produce unless there was some conflict of time. Bob of course had this long and pretty glorious history in both R&B and garage. Which really he'd never talk about, he'd mention 16 candles and 96 tears but to me that was whatever, now if he'd talked about James Brown that's a whole other thing! :)

RR:  What do you remember of recording/working on any of the songs for this album?

JC: Well, especially on the first album Bob gave us a whole lot of guidance and a very long leash. To me it was this incredibly exciting thing and I took to doing stuff in the studio pretty much straight off. I found out for one thing that many of my instincts as to what to do or add were correct and Bob encouraged that the whole way. He was also a guitar player so he'd show me stuff, everything for the fastest route to an end. We hired in a bunch of different Marshall's and I had my Ampeg V4 there and a little Epiphone, sort of like Fender Deluxe size. I had my homemade Les Paul copy and I think Bob didn't trust it so we also hired in a Wine Red custom, but they're about 50/50 on the bed tracks same with the Marshall/Ampeg mix. What they did establish and I think a lot of this was Hayward was a really definitive guitar sound. There are lots of outtakes from the first album, "Noise", "I've Got a Headache" and so on and the thing that is amazing is that guitar sound is right there on the tape in everything. There's a thing there that sounds like it's running through a short decay plate reverb right on the verge of feedback and it's always there. Whatever they did it nailed it, everything has this huge sound and its even there on stuff that wasn't really finished. I really should ask Hayward, he's on my Facebook friends!

There's quite a bit of "unfinished" work that went on and lyric changing. We had a pretty quirky range of song subjects, it wasn't all about getting drunk or dungeons and dragons! China Doll was delivered as a song about Jerry Hall the model and Bob really couldn't work out "why" anyone would even write about that! If only it had stayed and of course for a often accused "poppy" band we had one hell of a lot of songs about murder and suicide! So that was a constant source of discussion and a filter when it came it choosing what would be there.

The second album was a different thing. We'd recorded Tired at Manta in a one off one day session but then Manta wasn't available. So I think rather reticently Bob booked us into Eastern Sound. Probably a mistake for him but we really enjoyed working there. What did happen was that we walked in with all this very disparate material ranging from a sort of John Entwistle type number to these sort of "teen anthems" and lots of science project stuff!! It all sounded amazing while we were working on it but towards the end I think Bob started to get uncomfortable finishing it. So he brought Hayward in to mix it even though he hadn't been there for the recording. Common practice now but perhaps not then. I actually think it would have been better if Hayward had taken the tapes back to Manta and mixed them there in a known space. Still a lot of things still shone, especially the quirky ones which are in the majority anyway. The rockier stuff suffered a bit which we attended to a bit with the choice of versions at the time of the 1999 CD release.

RR:  A lot of the songs on the first album deal with subjects relating to the “suburban psyche” lyrically as stated in the linear notes to your 1998 release Tired of Waking Up Tired: The Best of The Diodes. Was this something consciously that the band wanted to address in their lyrics or was it more of a reflection of what you were going through at the time?

JC: Umm, you write about what you know and sometimes what you don't. Punk was in many ways the tail end of the glam thing and most people involved had emerged out of that whole thing of being attacked on the street or at school or whatever. So when we were writing those songs a lot of the focus really was our past high school days, that feeling of being outsiders constantly under threat. Maybe amusingly, in the earlier punk days up though the summer of '77 it wasn't "that" public a thing so the divisive threat was low since we weren't running around in lurex and platforms. But, by the time we were recording the first album it was now a identified, labeled thing so the trouble with the denim hordes returned with a vengeance. I can remember being attacked on the bus going out to Etobicoke at the end of the day during the recording of the album. It was all this nonsense about "punkers", all coming from people who hadn't even the faintest idea what it was all about.

RR:  The song “Tired of Waking Up Tired” from your 1979 album Released is perhaps The Diodes best-known song. It charted on US alternative radio as an import only release. How did you come up with the idea for this song and what do you think it is about this song that people respond to so much?

JC: Well, the feeling seems to be universal, I can't actually remember much about how I wrote it other than the fact I had almost everything at once, there wasn't this long developing curve where it changed dramatically over a period of time. The song was there, pretty much fully imagined from the beginning, then as soon as we started playing it everyone jumped on it.

In the end it lost a verse and got a bit shorter, and it lost some of the very "Power-pop" inflections it had in the demo. It's about a certain world weariness which is obvious but is also this sort of strutting "I'll take on anything you throw at me" sort of boasting thing like one of those talking blues records, that's more evident in the demo with all its verses.

RR:  The Diodes have a new vinyl box set coming out in September. What can you tell us about this box set and some of the unreleased tracks featured in this set?

JC: Over the years we'd recorded a pretty enormous amount of material, much more than anyone would expect with the number of albums we released. And over time what we "did" changed a fair bit as we went along as well, we always had a prominent experimental edge.

With the box set we've aimed to do two things. One was to present idealized vinyl examples of the 3 albums presented how they should have been, minus any of the compromises that went on.

Then there's the rarities disk. There was so much to pick from here. Part of that is unreleased and even unfinished material especially from the first album period, plenty of which will be familiar to people who saw us at the end of the Crash 'n' Burn period and the first shows after. That's about 2/3 of side one. So you've got stuff like Parasite and Lawnboy Lover and there's also things like the first demo of Tired of Waking up Tired. Then there's demos for all sorts of things. I've often heard comment, especially about the first album, that it's very worked on, that perhaps we didn't sound like that. Well here you get the first demos that we recorded at the Crash 'n Burn (one week after dropping to a 4 piece) and you can hear it's all there, I think a lot of people will get a kick from that. Plus there's some live stuff from the second era of the band, and demos from the very end of all that, I revisited a couple of things that were previously released and remixed them since I didn't think they put their best foot forward. And so on, there's lots of stuff no one has heard before, especially on the CD/download version and then the vinyl version of the rarities is a complete album in its own right that I think gives any of the official ones a run for it's money!

Get a copy of The Diodes vinyl box set by clicking on this image:


Show 664 - The Diodes Canada Day Special

1. Bloodshot Bill - Love Me Twice
2. James OL & The Villains - Foolsome Tourist
3. The Locusts Have No King - Is it or Ain't It
4. Shotgun Jimmie - Used Parts
5. Daniel Romano - Modern Pressure
6. The Diodes - Red Rubber Ball
7. The Diodes - Child Star
8. The Diodes - Tennis (Again)
9. The Diodes - Blonde Fever
10. The Diodes - Plastic Girls
11. The Diodes - Death In The Suburbs
12. The Diodes - Behind Those Eyes
13. The Diodes - Midnight Movie Star
14. The Diodes - We're Ripped
15. The Diodes - China Doll
16. The Diodes - Shapes of Things To Come
17. The Diodes - Time Damage
18. Zoom - Schoolgirl Hitchhiker
19. Johnny & The G-Rays - Put the Blame On Me
20. The Grapes of Wrath - The Weight (Brave New Waves Session)
21. The Band - Jawbone
22. The Sadies - Reward Of Gold
23. The Gruesomes - Whirlpool
24. Deja Voodoo - New Kind of Mambo
25. Deja Voodoo - Pig Fat Papa
26. The Inbreds - Any Sense of Time
27. Trout - High Score
28. Cellos - White Lines
29. Pointed Sticks - New ways (Demo)
30. Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet - I Know A Guy Named Larry
31. Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet - Exit From Vince Lombardi High School

To download this weeks program, visit CJAM's schedule page for Revolution Rock and download the file for July 1.

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