Subhumans Lead Singer Brian Goble Was A Pioneer Of Vancouver Punk

Randy Bachman and Brian Goble 1991 Photograph by Craig Hodge.jpg

Courtesy of Tom Hawthorne of The Globe And Mail
Photo: Randy Bachman and Brian Goble 1991
Photograph by Craig Hodge

On Canada Day in 1978, anarchists organized a picnic with the promise of a free concert in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

A Canadian flag was burned in front of the stage. The police came by car, horse and motorcycle. While some punk aficionados jumped up and down on the spot in front of the stage, slack-jawed passersby stood and stared.

On the bill was a newly formed band called the Subhumans. The lead singer, Brian Goble, a somewhat quiet young man with a pointy Jughead nose and a mordant sense of humour, stripped off his shirt while barking barely decipherable lyrics into the microphone. It was the public’s first glimpse of the energetic front man.

In an age of aloof rock gods, Mr. Goble smashed the invisible wall separating artist from audience with the subtlety of a rampaging Visigoth. His manic performances – as a twitchy, jumpy singer who liked to dive off the stage into a sweaty, beery crowd – became legendary. Once, a frantic audience ripped off his clothing (an act so violent he was left bruised), before depositing the naked singer back on stage. Another time, Mr. Goble dove from the stage only to land on the concrete floor, where the unseen figure groaned curses into the microphone. The most common of those, a two-word imprecation used as a signal of angry dismissal, was also the title of one of the group’s most popular songs.

Mr. Goble, who died on Dec. 7 at the age of 57, was a central figure in the music scene in Vancouver. He was on the roster of the Skulls, an early incarnation of punk in the city, then fronted for the Subhumans for four years before joining D.O.A. as bassist and singer for more than a decade. He had a following all along the West Coast, from Seattle to San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Brian Roy Goble, born on Jan. 6, 1957, grew up in a Vancouver suburb where classmates and neighbourhood friends became future bandmates. As teenagers, he and Joe Keithley (originally Keighley), Gerry Hannah and Ken Montgomery all attended – with varying degrees of regularity – Burnaby North Secondary. Feeling alienated by top-40 music and the prospect of a future of dead-end jobs, they sought direction in life and in music.

Their first inspiration came from an unlikely source. Mr. Hannah attended a John Denver concert, afterward declaring he and his pals needed to get back to the land.

They wound up in Lumby in the B.C. Interior, squatting in an abandoned farmhouse without electricity. After several months, they called quits on the experiment in rustic hippiedom by moving into a house in nearby Cherryville with access to the hydro grid. They swapped acoustic guitars for electric. Their first gig was a wake for a logger; they were asked to stop playing after three songs.

Soon, calling themselves Stone Crazy, they played Led Zeppelin covers at a show in Merritt, only to be booed off stage. They exited cursing the crowd only to return to the stage to apologize to avoid a beating by outraged loggers. They split $30 for the gig.

They returned to Vancouver where they altered their musical approach after listening to the Damned and the Sex Pistols in late 1976. The future was sealed after band members caught a show in the summer of 1977 by the New York quartet the Ramones, clad in sneakers, torn jeans and leather jackets while playing a series of rapid-fire power-pop songs with witty lyrics.

Mr. Goble and his friends called themselves the Skulls, proudly carrying the label “Vancouver’s most hated band,” as they were described by music writer Tom Harrison. After a few shows in Vancouver, they moved to Toronto with hopes of playing in London, England, the home of punk rock. In Toronto, no local band agreed to open for them, so they put out a poster advertising a show by the Skulls with an opening act called Wimpy and the Bloated Cows. The opening act included the same members as the Skulls, swapping instruments so they’d be even less proficient.

Mr. Goble took the nickname Wimpy, also Wimpy Roy, or Sunny Boy Roy, from this point. The other band members also adopted punk noms de guerre – Mr. Montgomery called himself Dimwit; Mr. Hannah became Gerry Useless; Mr. Keithley took as his last name a common vulgarity describing a contemptible person.

When the band split up, Mr. Goble went to London to live in a squat in the hardscrabble district of Brixton, scrounging food from dustbins. He returned to Vancouver as broke as ever, but soon formed the Subhumans with Dimwit on drums, Useless on bass and Mike Graham on guitar. Their set list included songs with such titles as Oh Canaduh (an anthemic plaint against capitalism), Firing Squad (a critique of the Iranian Revolution) andDeath to the Sickoids, a call-to-arms against the mainstream media written by Mr. Goble.

The latter would provide the A-side of the band’s first release, a self-issued, seven-inch single whose sleeve art looked as though designed by chimpanzees with scissors. The title track, with lyrics rhyming “Red Brigades” with “terrorist plague,” came in at a tidy one minute, 58 seconds, including a concluding six seconds of guitar feedback. A self-titled extended-play recording and an album, titled Incorrect Thoughts, soon followed. While local commercial radio stations refused to play the songs, the recordings are now regarded as classics of the genre.

The band’s staccato rhythms and chainsaw guitars made it a sensation as a live act. The Subhumans finished third in a Battle of the Bands sponsored by the Georgia Straight entertainment weekly. (The winner was the excellent new wave, power-pop group, the Pointed Sticks, to whom Dimwit would soon defect.) The city had never seen anything like Wimpy, whose stage antics fomented near riots each night. An early receding hairline and a cartoonish moon face made him look like a demented Charlie Brown undergoing electroshock therapy.

“His shaggy crew cut might well have been trimmed with a fishing knife,” The Ottawa Citizen noted. “Wimpy Roy gets down to business flailing around the stage and barking out gloomy phrases.”

The band played halls such as the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret in the city’s Downtown Eastside. The owners tolerated punk rockers, because whatever damage they caused to the sordid little club was more than compensated by the copious amounts of beer downed at every show.

The band readily appeared without fee at benefit concerts, rocking against racism, radiation and Ronald Reagan, while rocking for the guerrilla rebels of El Salvador.

The band’s serious political content was leavened by a self-aware stage theatricality, as well as by humour in the lyrics.
The Subhumans toured along the West Coast, appearing on bills with prominent California punk bands such as the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. But after four years and a turnover of personnel, the group folded. Mr. Hannah would soon become involved with the urban guerrilla group Direct Action, also known as the Squamish Five, and would be sentenced to prison for conspiracy to commit robbery.

Mr. Goble joined his childhood chum Mr. Keithley in D.O.A., a band also launched at the 1978 Canada Day show and the Subhumans’ foil and tongue-in-cheek rivals in the local scene. Wimpy played bass and gave the band a second vocalist behind the growling of Mr. Keithley.

D.O.A. was also political, known for the slogan “Talk minus action equals zero,” which appeared as a mathematical equation in graffiti spray-painted throughout Vancouver. Mr. Goble arrived in time to record a memorable eight-track extended-play album, including a robust cover of Edwin Starr’s War. D.O.A. recorded General Strike during the province’s Solidarity Coalition upheaval of 1983 and played benefits to raise money for the legal defence of Mr. Hannah and his co-accused.

D.O.A. toured extensively and Mr. Goble took part in continental and European treks with such names as Never-Ending Tour, Disease and Pestilence Tour, and the Tortuous Journey Tour.

The band also played hockey, raising money for charity. The skaters on the D.O.A. Murder Squad were known as the Gordie Howes of Hardcore, their style on ice as brutal and obnoxious as on stage. The team crest featured a gun-toting skeleton with barbed-wire piping. All players wore sweater No. 13. The team motto: “Take no prisoners.” The bloodiest games involved the team from radio station CFOX, which had never once played a D.O.A. or Subhumans song. “We just resent everything they stand for,” Mr. Goble, a right winger, said before one charity game.

Mr. Goble took a hiatus from music around 1990 to raise his children. “I’ve been kickin’ around the house, helping my kids grow,” he told music chronicler John Mackie in 1992. “I’ve been enjoying that. Kids are only small once, so it’s good to have a chance to be around and see it happen.”

He later returned to D.O.A. and later still revived the Subhumans, including Mr. Hannah, after he completed his prison term. Meanwhile, an English band had taken their name and Mr. Goble learned they no longer controlled the rights to their original out-of-print album. They re-recorded every song and added bonus tracks to an album titled, Same Thoughts, Different Day. The release received rapturous reviews and revived interest in the Subhumans, who returned to live shows.

Mr. Goble, heavier than in his youth, eschewed the stage-diving antics of old, though he still provided energetic performances, a bandana wrapped around his head, a black leather jacket straining around his torso. “We might die up on this stage tonight because we’re so … hot and we’re so old,” he told the crowd at a show in 2005, by which time he was 48. “But what better way to die than doing something you love?”

His contributions were not limited to his old bands, as he appeared on stage with numerous groups, including Chris Houston’s Evil Twang and Rude Norton.

After the original punk explosion, Mr. Goble wore clothes on stage that challenged any known style. He wore wigs, shorts with gumboots, and fanny packs, even the occasional dress (before Kurt Cobain), a true punker in his do-it-yourself defiance of convention. His closest friends remember him for his nonjudgmental approach, as well as for his encouragement of female musicians in an often macho scene.

At home, he was the father who delighted children in his Vancouver co-op by setting off fireworks in the shared courtyard, undoubtedly in contravention of housing authority bylaws.

In recent years, Mr. Goble worked as a building manager and mental-health worker at the Roosevelt Hotel, a 45-room building operated by a not-for-profit society.

Asked his duties in a 2010 interview, he said, “Keep the place from erupting into anarchy and chaos, y’know.

“I think touring on a shoestring budget in that kind of environment has given me experience in dealing with crisis situations,” he added. “In D.O.A., we were the band and we were the bouncers at a lot of our shows. I’ve dealt with a lot of craziness, so it doesn’t surprise me when more craziness rears its ugly head. I have a good idea how to deal with that stuff.”

Mr. Goble was at work when he suffered a heart attack on Dec. 7. He leaves his girlfriend, Calla stepson, Cole McLeod; son, Dillon Goble, and daughter, Sarah Goble, and their mother, Janet Berman; and brother, Roger Goble.

A musical memorial gathering, including former bandmates playing his songs, will be held at Vancouver’s Wise Hall Tuesday, on what would have been his 58th birthday.