The punk rock firebrand looks back on ‘War On 45’, forging new paths alongside Black Flag and gate-crashing the Dead Kennedys in London.
Canada’s D.O.A. have a foundational place in punk rock history. Singer and guitarist Joey “Shithead” Keithley and his compatriots forged a new kind of touring circuit as they carved a route around North America, gave vital support to up-and-coming bands, and, as their first three albums got harder and faster, popularised the term ‘hardcore’.
The third of that trio, ‘War on 45’, has recently been expanded and reissued for its 40th anniversary, providing the occasion for Punktuation to connect with Joey via a Zoom call to Burnaby in British Columbia.
With album number 19 on the way, a film about the band in the works, not to mention Joey’s council role and his solo work, he’s certainly not resting on his laurels. Nevertheless, he’s clear about the impact of D.O.A.’s first albums.
“D.O.A.’s known, after ‘Hardcore ‘81’, as this is the hardcore band – they set the template on this, not doing the only band doing it, but kind of wrote the book on it in a sense, right, and came up with the title.
“To me, ‘War on 45’ is one of the big three – it’s ‘Something Better Change’, the first album, ‘Hardcore ‘81’ and ‘War on 45’. We have done very good albums since then, but it’s like, if you look at Iggy Pop, what’s his best album? It’s his early stuff. And it was kind of like that with D.O.A. When we recorded the first and second albums, people were going, ‘Wow, these guys are really sharp and they’re totally on top of it’. And you know, the records had a lot of flow to them.”
Formed in 1978 from the ashes of The Skulls, an early Vancouver punk rock band whose split would also produce The Subhumans (the Canadian not the UK version of course), D.O.A. quickly expanded their renown and touring schedule to the US.
“We started out really early, I’d say we started travelling around North America in like 1979. And then by the end of ‘79, early ’80, we were down in the States like, five, six times a year going down to California or different places across Canada.”
“[We] even went to the UK in 1981 – we opened for the Dead Kennedys and Anti-Nowhere League at the Lyceum, because we [read in] one of those weekly papers that are from London, that D.O.A. would be playing in London. We go, ‘Well, we haven’t heard anything about it’, right. So, we phoned up and got on the bill.
“But those days, ’79-80, we were basically punk rock pioneers. We were on a shoestring budget, with an old van that barely ran, sleeping on people’s floors, trying to collect 100 bucks a night. It was pretty down to earth and DIY.”
During that time Joey made a particularly important connection with Black Flag as both bands were trying to create a brand new pathway for punk rock touring, then without anything much in the way of infrastructure or an established circuit.
“I was good friends, still am, with Chuck Dukowski from Black Flag. And we’d play with them frequently so me and him started trading contact addresses. Like, ‘Well, go there, you’ll get paid, or don’t go to this guy in Sacramento – his production company’s called Can’t Tell and that means you can’t tell what the fuck you’re gonna get paid.
“So Chuck and I sort of sorted that out, setting up this route where punk rock bands would go. It was different [back then] and people were hostile. The one thing for us was that we’d go play places, and D.O.A. was furious, we played fast, we played hard and in my mind it was a great band. And people’d go, ‘Where’d you guys from Canada [learn that], they got punk rock up there? I thought it was only ice hockey and snow’. And we go, ‘Oh, no, no. We watch TV too. We heard about the Ramones and we’ve seen The Damned on TV’. So the people were shocked, like ‘This comes from Canada?!?’”
The band’s hard-touring schedule continued into the ’80s, giving its early rhythm sections “push and pull in the right spots”, Joey said. “By the time we recorded the first album we’d done like, 200 shows; the second album we’d probably done 500 shows, playing the same songs.”
The band’s only consistent member, he’s had a revolving cast of compatriots over the years. For ‘War On 45’ the line-up featured second guitarist Dave Gregg, bassist – and former Subhumans singer – Brian ‘Wimpy Roy’ Goble and Ken ‘Dimwit’ Montgomery on drums. But it nearly looked somewhat different.
Before the band began working on the follow-up to ‘Hardcore ‘81’, original bassist Randy Rampage was given the boot. “We kicked him out at the end of ‘81 beginning of 1982,” Joey said. The ensuing reshuffle saw Dimwit pick up the bass and his younger brother Charles Montgomery (pictured above with the band in 1981) take the drum stool.
Charles, or Chuck Biscuits as he’s better known, stayed with the band look enough to record the 1982 demos included on this reissue, before jumping ship to Black Flag. Then from there he joined the Circle Jerks before playing with Danzig and Social Distortion over the years. But before that it looked like being the perfect fit for D.O.A.
“Of course, we thought this was complete shit, just terrible. So our manager said, ‘Well, how about D.O.A. does War on 45’. Those eight songs that we came up with, most of them had a theme, like ‘Class War’, ‘War in the East’, that kind of thing.”
The inclusion of reggae song ‘War in the East’ in particular turned people’s heads Joe said. “I think people looked at it, like, ‘Well, this is really innovative’. I mean, we weren’t the first punk band to do reggae tunes, obviously the Bad Brains and The Clash have done a number of great versions of reggae tunes or dub or whatever you want to call it. [But] it was different enough that people went like, ‘Okay, this might be D.O.A.’s most innovative album’.”
Also on the album was a cover song that D.O.A. thought they had a chance of making a real impression with. Written in 1969 and a number 1 hit for Edwin Starr on Motown, ‘War’ seemed ripe for a comeback in the ’80s.
“We thought, ‘Okay, this could be kind of a hit’, right? This is a really great song. I remember it from my youth and it was one of my favourite songs from when the Vietnam War was going on.”
But D.O.A weren’t the only ones to have their eye on the tune and among them were The Jam who recorded it as a b-side.
“I’m a fan of The Jam’s first two albums, I thought they were pretty good, I kind of lost the plot with them after that. So then we’re like, ‘Oh no’, they’re a lot better than D.O.A., this is terrible, this is a big idea of ours. Then we heard their version we went, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it’, because it was terrible.”
As well as ‘War’ the song, conflict more generally was on the band’s mind. The Vietnam War had just three years before the band formed and D.O.A.’s slogan of ‘Talk Minus Action Equals Zero’ mapped out their approach to activism.
“One of the things we were involved with, like, right from the early days of D.O.A., was doing like, anti-nuclear arms protests and stuff like that. The build-up of nuclear arms between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time was phenomenal. There’s always wars going on and people trying to dominate each other. Unfortunately it’s a perpetual theme that obviously carries on today.”
Speaking to Punktuation at the end of the summer, Joey’s point was focused on Ukraine, but it could equally be applied to the recent horrific events in Israel and the Gaza Strip. With D.O.A. currently on tour in North America, the world has a way of keeping ‘War On 45’ relevant.
After their latest live dates D.O.A. plan to finish up their 19th album, readying it for release in next year and looking to be able to do more with it than 2020’s ‘Treason’, which came out at the same time that Covid shutdowns began. “Needless to say, there wasn’t much of promotion or tours around it”.
2024’s looking like it’ll be a very different type of year for Joey and D.O.A. It starts with a three-week run through Brazil ahead of the next album’s release around March. Alongside this there’s a documentary in the works by Scott Crawford, who directed the Washington punk scene film ‘Salad Days’ and ‘Boy Howdy’ about Creem magazine, and producer Paul Rachman who directed ‘American Hardcore’.
They’ve assembled the likes of Jello Biafra, Duff McKagan and Keith Morris to tell their story. Titled ‘Something Better Change’, it’s half about D.O.A. and half about Joey’s surprising metamorphosis into an elected politician.
“I’m a councillor here in the city of Burnaby. I got re-elected last October so I must be doing something right.”
As the ‘War On 45’ reissue, as well as ‘Something Better Change’, will show – Joey Shithead and D.O.A. have had plenty of practice when it comes to doing more than just something right.
Side A – Original Release
1. Liar For Hire
2. I’m Right, You’re Wrong
3. America the Beautiful
4. Let’s Fuck
6. I Hate You
7. War in the East
8. Class war
Side B – Demos
2. Liar For Hire
3. Race Riot
4. America the Beautiful
5. No Way Out
6. No God, No War
7. I Hate You
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I’m a punk rock aficionado, martial arts pupil and fair-to-middling student of the Bengali language. I’m also a journalist, writer and editor, specialising in medicine and technology.
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