CiTR’s Shindig celebrates 35 years of battling bands in Vancouver

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Japandroids. Death Sentence. You Say Party! We Say Die! Superconductor. Sons of Freedom. The Pack A.D. Slow. The Organ. The Real McKenzies.

Besides being a who’s who of Vancouver alternative bands of the past several decades, those groups have another thing in common: they all took part in Shindig, and they all lost.

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NG3 rocks out at the Savoy at one of CiTR’s first Shindig competitions. Photo courtesy Bill Fish

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the venerable battle of the bands from UBC’s CiTR Radio. Over the course of its three and a half decades, Shindig has served as a trial by fire, rite of passage for more than 1,000 Vancouver-area bands of all shapes, sizes and sounds. Some bands (like mine) were tossed out immediately in the first round like shit through a goose, while others ran the Shindig gauntlet, climbing through rounds that stretched over many weeks and months.

Dave Ball was vice president of CiTR Radio in 1984 and is credited with co-founding Shindig. “For about five or six years before Shindig, there was something called the Hot Air Show at UBC’s Pit Pub, which ended badly,” Ball recounts. “One of the finalists in ’83 was a band called the Gargoyles. They pissed all over the dance floor during their performance. The Pit Pub wasn’t too happy with that, and that was pretty much the end of the Hot Air thing.”

A few weeks later, Ball and his CiTR pal Jim Main were having beers with Janet Forsyth, whose family owned the Railway Club and had recently taken over the Savoy in Gastown.

“We were looking for a way to expand the audience and awareness of CiTR, so we floated the idea of a downtown battle of the bands to Janet. She was into it right from the start,” says Ball, who now runs a beer and wine u-brew on Vancouver Island.

“CiTR president Gord Badanic came up with both the name and the logo, cribbed from the old American teen dance show from the 1960s. Gord went down to the library and photocopied the show’s logo right out of a book,” recalls Ball with a chuckle. “We were kind of hoping we’d get sued to get some publicity but nothing ever happened.”

They didn’t need the publicity — Shindig was an immediate hit.

Shindig

“When we announced it, the criteria was that you had to be an amateur band playing original music with no recording contract,” remembers Ball (the same rules remain to this day). “With the backing of CiTR and Discorder Magazine, the response from local bands was immediate and huge.”

Forsyth slotted Shindig into the Savoy on Monday nights through the fall of ’84. “The Savoy was packed, wall to wall, every week,” Ball says. “Huge lineups… It became the place to see the best in up and coming bands. Our judges were supportive media types like Ellie O’Day, Tom Harrison and John Mackie.”

That first year was so successful that Shindig was held twice over the school year: first in the fall of 1984, and again in the spring of 1985. It settled into its current format of once a year in 1986. Zulu Records put out a Shindig compilation LP featuring participants sush as Rhythm Mission, NG3, Red Herring (the first-ever Shindig winners in ’84) and Nerve Tubes (the winners in ’85, who performed wearing nothing but transparent rain jackets, featuring future Odds member Steven Drake).

Everyone’s a critic

In the late 1980s, the Forsyth family sold the Savoy and moved Shindig up the hill to the Railway Club on Dunsmuir Street. That was where my band got unceremoniously booted in the first round in 1988. Comment cards from anonymous judges were handed to the bands at the end of the night, and their harshness is legendary. One of ours was particularly cruel: “The Smugglers are the worst band ever. You suck. BREAK UP NOW!” I eventually discovered that those comments were written by Bill Baker, co-owner of Mint Records. Luckily, we didn’t break up, and Bill signed us to Mint Records six years later.

“The Real McKenzies also got kicked out in the first round,” reminisces Aaron Chapman, former McKenzies’ tin whistle player, Courier contributor and award-winning author. “We changed the Pointed Sticks’ song ‘Out of Luck’ to ‘Out of Scotch’ and got disqualified for doing a cover.”

And while many speak of a Shindig curse — winning bands quickly going nowhere —  some of Shindig’s notable winners include the Salteens (1997), 3 Inches of Blood (2002), Clover Honey (1998) and Maow (1994), the first all female band to win Shindig. Then called Meow, it featured Neko Case on drums, arguably the biggest star to ever emerge from Shindig’s ranks.

Discorder Magazine’s reviewer did not see Case’s potential, nor did he approve of Meow’s 1994 victory over the Papillomas (a Vancouver Island band that included Courier city editor Michael Kissinger) and Underwater Sunshine: “Meow were bad. Really bad,” wrote editor Dylan Griffiths. “Listening to their clamourous cacophony was bad enough… BUT THEY WON!”

Maow became yet another signing for Mint, which released debut records by no less than half a dozen Shindig participants, including four winning bands. Neko Case went on to join the New Pornographers and has a couple of Grammy nominations to her credit for her stellar solo career.

Going whole hog

Of Shindig’s countless memorable moments, the most notorious may belong to 1990 winners Windwalker.

“Our lead singer Stuart Oijen, who now goes by Exu Nazares, told us he was going to ‘do something’ for our Shindig semi-final set,” former bassist Anthony Hempell recounts. “The rest of us in the band didn’t know what that meant and didn’t want to know. Suddenly, in the middle of the show, he pulls out a full-on pig’s head out of a garbage bag that he bought at Save On Meats. Then he started hacking it up with a machete, while our only illumination was a strobe light through a fog machine. My friend said there was a visible shock wave that went through the audience. And this was at the Railway Club, so there’s basically no distance between band and audience. Anyway, we won.”

Windwalker’s lead singer also chopped through the guitarist’s patch cord and his own mic cable, then capped off his performance art by throwing the mutilated pig’s head into the audience. He was hog wild on beating the grunge rock, wall-of-sound sensations Superconductor, featuring the acerbic Carl Newman, future lead singer of the New Pornographers.

Competitive stories like that are riddled throughout Shindig’s history. In 2005, indie rock party band Fun 100 made it to the finals fittingly riding a 1994 Canucks theme, complete with their fans fervently waving white towels. Fun 100 lost to a band called Romance.

“I was completely pissed off,” says former Fun 100 drummer Bruce Dyck, still exasperated 13 years later. “The judges said we didn’t win because we already had enough fans. So second prize was a gift bag from Scratch Records, which was filled with terrible CDs they couldn’t sell in the store.”

Eye on the prize

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This year’s Shindig lineup (Grant Lawrence)

Arguably one of the key reasons Shindig has maintained its relevancy over 35 years is because of the grand prize: precious recording time in good studios. Local bands are still as broke as they were in 1984, and a whack of free studio time won at Shindig has resulted in many a debut album.

And yes, there’s still “Jokes for Beer,” something else that Ball came up with, though he credits its success to gregarious host Garnet Harry. It’s been an audience fixture ever since. Other Shindig hosts have included Cub singer Lisa Marr, Smugglers drummer Bryce Dunn, “Oral Dave,” Bill Baker and CiTR’s Ben Lai, who hosted Shindig for an incredible 15 years.

You can find Shindig 35 at the Hastings Mill (formally Pat’s Pub) at Hastings and Dunlevy every Thursday night this fall, with current host Andy Resto. This week’s bands are Ghulo, Mellt and Rinse Dream. Jokes for Beer will still be told, judges will still probably scrawl out something mean, and bands will still get pissed off when they don’t win. And everyone will have a great time and will likely always remember their role in Shindig’s long and loud legacy.

The complete list of Shindig Winners: 1984 to 2017

  • 2017: Mamarudegyal
  • 2016: Little Sprout
  • 2015: Late Spring
  • 2014: Still Creek Murder
  • 2013: Warbaby
  • 2012: Praying For Greater Portland
  • 2011: Sleuth
  • 2010: The Oh Wells
  • 2009: Hidden Towers
  • 2008: Hermetic
  • 2007: Fanshaw
  • 2006: Victoria Victoria
  • 2005: Romance
  • 2004: Vancougar
  • 2003: The Front
  • 2002: Black Rice
  • 2001: 3 Inches of Blood
  • 2000: The Cinch
  • 1999: The R.A.D.I.O.
  • 1998: Clover Honey
  • 1997: The Salteens
  • 1996: The Saddlesores
  • 1995: Readymade
  • 1994: Meow
  • 1993: Speedbuggy
  • 1992: Brand New Unit
  • 1991: Mystery Machine
  • 1990: Windwalker
  • 1989: Black Earth
  • 1988: Video BBQ
  • 1987: The Four Ones
  • 1986: Stubborn Blood
  • 1985: Nerve Tubes
  • 1984: Red Herring