Ottawa, as we know, was not a haven for high-rolling, gender-bending, DIY-misfits in the ’60s. But fast forward to 1976: London and New York were hotbeds of punk, with names like The Sex Pistols and The Vibrators rocking dirty, dark clubs and Vivienne Westwood’s fashion house capturing the true image of straight-up punk.
Forget punk-rock, rock-alternative and the blends of mainstream music that invade our iPods today. Once upon a time, back in 1977, The Action — Ottawa’s first punk band — was playing in many of the city’s infamous, and now defunct, clubs.
The Rotters Den was one of those clubs (the building now houses the Book Bazaar at Bank and Frank). Eventually, The Action landed a regular house gig there, which was where many of the city’s punk fans congregated. Before long, Ottawa’s media houses began to take notice, which is when The Action staked a claim to local punk fame.
“We spearheaded the idea that people should get ready for Ottawa punk, and sure enough the kids came. The Rotters Den became a bunch of misfits from around the city,” lead singer Ted Axe explained. “I found other misfits like me, hence came the punk clichés.”
After shows in Montreal and Toronto, the US beckoned, promising greater punk influences, opportunities and fans. In the late ’70s, The Action made appearances at the famed CBGB’s in New York and did a 20-show tour with The Ramones, slowly but surely making a name for themselves.
Over time, Axe’s interest in strictly punk music began to wane. As the queer face of The Action (he identifies as tri-sexual), he explains that the band wore out its welcome after awhile: Axe had a glam side to him in terms of costumes and gender presentation, and his fondness for art rock and David Bowie began to take over.
Dressing in drag onstage was becoming a regular occurrence for Axe, which was not typically seen in a lead singer of a punk band. But it was a big part of Axe’s life; he had begun experimenting with women’s clothing back in elementary school, wearing his mother’s outfits to school.
“In grade five, I dressed in my mother’s clothes. I wore sequins, boots, see-through black crepe shirts...the girls thought I was strange but I just went along with that ‘rock star’ thing,” Axe explains.
“I always thought women had cooler clothes. And, in music, a girl loved a man in drag and makeup.”
With his more current project, Sister Hyde, based out of Seattle, we see a different side of Axe; one that showcases his tendency to challenge gender stereotypes through rock and punk music.
In one of The Action’s songs, “Downtown Boy,” Axe writes about a New York butch woman he met while hanging out on Rideau Street. It was instances such as these, he explained, that would get him in trouble when performing in front of hardcore punk audiences that were at the time less-than-receptive to these types of messages.
“Before David Bowie got off a plane in drag, the term gay was [rarely] used in music,” Axe said. “This was complete gender confusion and he manipulated the press with it. There were even rumours that he and Mick Jagger had slept together.”
Axe explained that fans and the press would speculate about his gender and comment on how it didn’t mix well with the punk genre. When confronted, he stuck to his guns.
“I could tell the audience wasn’t expecting me. I wasn’t what they had hoped for. There were even incidences of having pitchers thrown at us during a performance,” Axe recounted.
On ice for 30 years, The Action is reuniting in their hometown of Ottawa later this month. Axe is joined by three of the four original band members — Paul, John and Michael Phantom. The band sets its sights on educating new punk audiences later this month when they take the stage of the Dominion Tavern November 28 and 29.