September 6, 2018

Still Fighting Back

L-R, Mike Hodsall, Joe Keithley and Paddy Duddy in 2015 Lower East Side Vancouver.

From a new album to a run for mayor, D.O.A.’s Joe Keithley’s ethos remains: “Change the world, have a great time doing it, and play some loud punk rock”

IT WAS 1978, THE HEIGHT OF THE DISCO era. Songs like “Le Freak,” “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” and “Y.M.C.A.” ruled the airwaves; the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack stayed at No. 1 for 24 weeks. But not everyone was a fan of the genre, including a trio of punks from Vancouver, British Columbia, a locale far, far from elite discos like New York City’s Studio 54: D.O.A. The band made their feelings plain on their first record, a four-track EP also released in 1978 entitled Disco Sucks, whose chorus got right to the point: “Disco sucks — like shit!”

Forty years on, D.O.A.’s still in business, with a new album, Fight Back, and a US/Canadian tour that started in May and runs through August 18 (check the Sudden Death Records website for more info). Not to mention the upcoming mayoral campaign for lead singer/guitarist Joe Keithley (aka “Joey Shithead”). “I didn’t even think we’d last two years,” says Keithley, marveling that D.O.A. still remains a going concern four decades after the release of Disco Sucks.

D.O.A. arose from the ashes of another Vancouver punk act Keithley was in, the Skulls. The band moved to Toronto, but soon broke up, and Keithley returned to Vancouver. He soon joined forces with Randy Rampage (a drummer whom Keithley convinced to play bass), and Chuck Biscuits (drums). While rehearsing at a warehouse favored by punk acts, a young man recalled only as “Harry” wandered in. “He had a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a girl on each arm,” Keithley remembers. “He was watching us, and he goes, ‘Hey, you guys are pretty good. How about you be the band, I’ll be the singer, we’ll call it D.O.A. and we’ll make a million dollars.’ So we had about a 30 second meeting, and all of a sudden D.O.A. started. We said, ‘Sure, sounds good.’”

The name D.O.A. stuck, but Harry didn’t, and Keithley ended up taking over lead singer duties (and as for whether the band has made that million over the years, Keithley jokes, “I’ve never added it all up — we’re incrementally inching toward it”). Then came Disco Sucks, which put the band on the map. “It became our passport to travel the world, because it got notoriety right away,” says Keithley.

The band played local clubs and occasionally rented a hall for the evening. Seeking to spread the word, Keithley would head down to the local record store and write down the addresses of the music magazines he couldn’t afford to buy and send them D.O.A.’s music. He also sent records to promoters and radio stations, “And I would stick in a letter going, ‘Hi, we’re D.O.A., we’re a punk rock band, can we come and play in your town?’ Or ‘Could you play our new record?’ That kind of thing.” Before too long they were landing stateside gigs, surprising the Yanks who couldn’t believe that there was punk rock in the land of, as Keithley puts it, “lumberjacks and dog sleds.”

Like a number of punk acts, D.O.A. has its political side too. Keithley’s political interests were stirred by his sister’s collection of folk records, and growing up at a time when the Vietnam War “was on TV every single night.” At 16, he attended his first Greenpeace rally. “It was my first political act, and I just carried on from there.”

Feeling that “Empty blustering usually doesn’t do much,” Keithley soon adopted the slogan “Talk – Action = 0,” a phrase he saw on the cover of a magazine. You’ll find it on the cover of Fight Back, a raw, raucous album that opens with a song expressing a sentiment surely everyone can agree with: “You Need An Ass Kickin’ right Now.” The song’s video shows some likely candidates for that whuppin’: Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Putin, Trump.

“They’ve crossed the line of morality,” Keithley contends. “And that may sound funny coming from the a lifetime punk rocker, but that’s what people are really feeling. There’s just so many assholes in the world and they get away with it because they have power and money. There’s two systems of justice, and it’s wrong.”

But the album isn’t a full-on attack. “Killer Cops” denounces the police brutality seen in the US and Canada, but it’s balanced by “The Cops Are Coming,” told from the perspective of an admitted criminal who pursues crime as he feels he’s run out of options: “When you got nothin’, you try to stop the hurt.” There are even a few anthems of hope, such as “Time to Fight Back” (“a bit of a folky street punk singalong type thing”) and “The World’s Been turned Upside Down,” with its last refrain: “It’s a struggle to/to stay strong/But it’s always darkest before
the dawn.”

“Basically, the theme of the album is inequality,” says Keithley. “Whether that’s racial inequality, gender inequality, or economic inequality, which is really the root of all of that anyway. It’s a messed up world, and with Fight Back we’re trying to get people to think that there’s a lot more power if they get together, and stand together; they can change things. As people, we’re more powerful than big government, big media, and big business. Most of the time we don’t think we are, we think we’re powerless against them. But if you find a way of working together, we can take on those big interests, and change things for the better.”

Keithley’s hoping to change things for the better in a more formal arena as well, running for mayor of Burnaby, B.C. (outside of Vancouver), representing the Green Party. “It is time for a fresh start in Burnaby,” he said in a statement released the day he announced his candidacy. “[Current mayor Derek] Corrigan and the [Burnaby Citizens Association’ council have been pushing their same old agenda for the last 30 years. As your mayor, I will take a common-sense approach and work for all of our citizens.”

It’s the not the first time Keithley’s run for office; last year he ran to become Burnaby-Lougheed MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly), coming in third. “My platform is going to be for the people,” he says, “an open city for all, and not just cronies of the mayor. Make it a greener, more sustainable city. It’s time for a change. Basically, I’m taking the same platform I have with D.O.A. — grassroots democracy.” The election will be held October 20.

But don’t worry, D.O.A. fans; should Joey Shithead become Mayor Keithley, the band won’t be left behind. Keithley enjoys it too much, for one thing. “When you get a great crowd, it’s a great thrill,” he says. “You’ve got to get up there and kick ass every time you’re on stage. And if the crowd reacts, the crowd and the band feed off each other, and that provides the excitement. That’s a key thing; that’s why it’s fun to do it.

“Our original goals, really, were set up, change the world, have a great time doing it, and play some loud obnoxious punk rock,” he continues. “I think we’ve managed to keep up doing all of those, to one extent or another.”


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