Late 1980s. Vancouver, B.C. The city was still recovering, in ways tangible and intangible, from the shock of Expo 86. Day to day, however, there wasnt a lot about the city that looked different. Especially not for two young guys attending the University of British Columbia and hanging out at the university radio station, CiTR. For them and many like them — music nerds with more knowledge than social skills — most days were spent sitting on the well-loved CiTR couches talking about music, drinking beer, and occasionally doing something resembling work — programming, writing stories for the stations music magazine DiSCORDER
, or DJing a show. It would be easy to say that Expo 86 and the future of the two guys in question are not causally linked. And yet, in the days following Expo, one story kept resurfacing in the halls of CiTR and parts beyond: the Slow Riot.
Vancouvers best and heaviest band Slow had played at the behest of Expo organizers as part of a concert series meant to display the citys independent music scene. This is somewhat baffling in retrospect, but one things for sure: no one really bargained for the results of a collision between Vancouvers underground music darlings and its general public. Vancouvers punk past was well known and, by then, celebrated; D.O.A., the Pointed Sticks, and the Young Canadians had most definitely made it into that chapter of music history. But this next phase of music, dirtier, less specific, unnamed, was just beginning. To say that Slow was grunge predates the grunge movement by a few years; however, as noted in the Canadian rock history book Have Not Been the Same (named after Slows seminal song, no less), “Slow … epitomized many of the elements that would comprise the ‘grunge movement of the early 90s.” In other words, they fucking rocked, and everyone knew it. Still, the leap from there to Expo is a funny one. One imagines some Expo organizer having seen the cover of Slows I Broke the Circle, a 1985 Zulu Records release, on his teenage sons floor: “If my kid likes it, then maybe hell bring twenty of his buddies down,” or something like that. Regardless, a culture clash of epic proportions was in the cards.
On that night, the Xerox International Theatre reserved for the “Festival of Independent Recording Artists” was packed with fans and curious onlookers when the band began their signature live show, a rather un-P.C. spectacle that, in dark clubs and basements, was wildly appreciated. This time, however, the open-air nature of things meant the audience was more diverse than usual. The band erupted into a shuddering, growling, loose come-on of a performance that shoved everyone under the age of 18 into a frenzy. It was, one can imagine, threatening to the image of Expo and its attempt at showing off Vancouvers serene potential for business. It had to be stopped, no matter what. And the band had to be blamed.
A Montreal Gazette article dated August 8, 1986, with the unfortunate headline “A bum rap?” details events of that day: “The incident began when singer Tom Anselmi stripped to his shorts and pranced around the stage.” Anselmi and Slow bassist Hamm may have also mooned the audience. In some reports, Hamm allegedly exposed himself. As a result of the mayhem, Expo cut the power and cancelled the set midway through.
What happened then varies from retelling to retelling, but almost every account uses the word “riot” in a way that Vancouver would not use again until the Canucks playoff fracas of 1994: audience members leapt onstage and refused to vacate, they protested loudly and vehemently, and they swarmed and so disrupted the on-site BCTV news tent that the broadcaster was forced to end its live feed. This led to Expo cancelling not just the night but the entire slate of performances for the rest of the festival. Fourteen groups in total lost their shows, and the ensuing negative attention, along with the bands self-destructive nature, contributed to Slows demise thereafter.
The Expo organizers response to the incident seemed, at least to the independent music community of Vancouver, totally overblown. Not that “parents just dont understand” is news to any kid who wants to rock; thats not the point. It was the feeling of an authoritative force that could and would giveth and taketh away high-profile shows at the drop of a hat, without mercy or explanation. Their willingness to do so stunned the local community. This wasnt 1955, after all. Didnt they know, went the common wisdom, when they booked us? Didnt they know what they were in for? Wasnt it cruel and unusual, not to mention hysterical, to punish every other band on the bill for the acts of one? A chance for Vancouvers indie community to come out into the light of day had been, in essence, cockblocked by the Man. As a result, the scene went even further underground.
At CiTR in the late 80s, the Slow riot story quickly became currency. The station had already been championing the plight of underground music in this strange, small, rapidly changing port city, where gigs and venues were hard to come by and would only grow more so over time. The Slow incident lent the band and the scene a whiff of infamy that indie kids crave — Vancouver underground suddenly had a cause célèbre to rally around. An argument could be made that this moment, more than any other, was the catalyst for Vancouvers current underground music climate. No scene is a single moment brought to bear, of course, but maybe, just maybe, this is where our story starts.
Whether or not Bill Baker and Randy Iwata internalized the Slow incident, they were certainly around when the conversations were taking place. (Baker, for his part, was at the show itself. He says he was drunk and doesnt remember it.) Perhaps subconsciously they took in the importance of this moment. Perhaps not. Regardless, one of their labels first signings as Mint Records would directly connect with it. But that was a ways off yet. First, lets meet our heroes.
Bill Baker was born and raised on the west side of Vancouver, an only son to parents who divorced when Bill was five. By the time he was in university, hed already developed the acerbic wit and self-effacing humour for which he would become known. Randy Iwata, on the other hand, was born to Japanese-Canadian parents in southeast Vancouver. He and his sister Robynn, who would go on to form the band cub (much more on that later), shared a love for music. While quiet and somewhat unassuming, Randy could hold his own against Bakers volleys. You could find them, in 1986 or so, sitting on the saggy CiTR couches and availing themselves of the beer machine (yes, beer in a pop machine). At that time, the words “Mint Records” had yet to be uttered.