No matter where you are in the world, if you meet someone who is into punk rock at all and they find out you are from Victoria, you will inevitably be asked about NoMeansNo, and for good reason. For over 35 years the band has been travelling the globe as one of the best bands ever to come out of our sleepy little Island town.
In the late 70s, punk rock had arrived in Victoria much in the same way that it was exploding across the rest of the world. Images of snarling Brits with rotten teeth and those four hooligans from Queens began showing up in magazines and on TVs everywhere. Brothers Rob and John Wright, two classically and jazz trained musicians who became obsessed with the Ramones and the freedom of expression that punk represented, took it to the basement.
As a two-piece band (bass, drums, and vocals) NoMeansNo recorded a couple of 7″ singles (Look Here Come the Wormies and Betrayal, Fear, Anger, Hatred) and their debut LP Mama all by 1982. John was also playing drums in another legendary Victoria punk rock band called Infamous Scientists at the time, and when that band came to a close, the I-Sci’s guitarist/vocalist Andy Kerr offered up his services to be their soundman. At one particular gig in December of 1982, the brothers asked Kerr to play a couple of songs on guitar. Rob and John quickly asked Andy to join the band, but he was reluctant to “weaken the minimal bass/drums concept” but the itch to play began to get the best of him, and he was soon playing more and more of their sets with them. “I joined the band by osmosis,” Kerr says.
With the three-piece line-up firmly in place, the band stepped up both their recording output and touring, releasing the You Kill Me EP in 1985 as well as hitting the road for their first cross-Canada tour the same year. The band’s popularity in the punk rock community continued to grow, and throughout the 80s they recorded Sex Mad (1986), Small Parts Isolated and Destroyed (1987), The Day Everything Became Nothing EP (1988) and finished the decade out with what many people consider to be the band’s crowning achievement; 1989’s Wrong as well as taking their live show to Europe and the U.S.A.
As the 90s began, and the mainstream world began to notice the musical stirrings of the underground, NoMeansNo continued on, playing to bigger crowds and acclaim (especially in Europe). The band released both their live album Live and Cuddly and new studio effort 0+2=1 in 1991 before Kerr decided to call it a day and move to Amsterdam. The Wright brothers officially moved the band to Vancouver (Rob had already been living there for a while) and began working on what would become their first effort as a two piece in over a decade, Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy? (1993).
While working as a duo did yield an amazing album, it was clear that a new guitarist would be needed, especially in live situations. Naturally, they asked Tom Holliston to fill the position. Not only was he another Victorian (he was Andy Kerr’s roommate at one point), but John had played in Tom’s long-running band Show Business Giants, and he also played guitar in NoMeansNo’s alter ego band, the hockey-loving, Ramones-obsessed Hanson Brothers.
While many die-hard fans may have lamented Kerr’s departure, claiming that the band couldn’t sound the same without him, NoMeansNo wasn’t interested in sounding the same album after album. Holliston’s recorded debut with the band was 1995’s blistering Worldhood of The World (As Such) and it went a long way to silence the doubters. It was clear that the band wasn’t ready to stop challenging what it was to make underground music. Amidst many worldwide tours, they closed the decade out with Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie (1998) and closed out the millennium with the incredibly dark (even by NoMeansNo standards) album One (2000).
In the last decade or so, NoMeansNo has really held off on recording new material. The last LP the band released was 2006’s All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt. Other than that, there have been two excellent tour EPs… and that is it. Or is it? The band doesn’t really talk much about their plans other than to continue playing shows here and there as NoMeansNo, The Hanson Brothers, or even NoMeansRamones. While it may seem like they are easing their way into retirement, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of them.
Earlier this year, it was announced that NoMeansNo was going to be inducted into the Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame. I am sure that the majority of people out there (the same ones pumping their fists in the air over the induction of Harlequin and Loverboy) don’t get it, but to the thousands of people worldwide who have borne witness to a NMN live show or had their mind blown by one of their many albums, the decision is obvious. NoMeansNo are an incredible example of Western Canadian music, punk rock, and innovation in art. I have seen every single show they have played in Victoria since I moved here in 1994 and I sure hope I can sneak my way into the awards ceremony in September to see them again!
Words by Ty Forslund, published in analogue magazine’s Aug/Sept 2015 issue
Photo by John Chedsey