They were Montreal’s very first glam-punk band in the late ’70s. They incited a concert riot at McGill University that ran red flags up on punk rock right around the city; they made many memorable bottle-dodging tours of central Canada’s less-appreciative rock’n'roll environs with the legendary Teenage Head; and immediately prior to their dissolution, they were forced to record what would be their swan song under threats of death by elements of Montreal’s criminal underworld.
They were The 222s. And they’re back.
Formed in 1978 and fronted by the affable and loquacious, and then-16-year-old, Chris Barry – who today is an all-around top-shelf gentleman, peerless rock’n'roll raconteur and, as the mood strikes, utterly loveable troublemaker – The 222s were (and are) rounded out by guitarist Pierre Major, bassist Joe Cerratto and drummist Louie "Louie" Rondeau.
The 222s, and those of their ilk elsewhere (as there were certainly none like The 222s in Montreal at that time), took their cues from early punk and glam rock bands like the New York Dolls, The Damned, The Dead Boys and Generation X, flaunting a certain kind of in-your-face sexual ambiguity that belied the edgy tenor and toughness of their music. Which, of course, earned them a reputation early on; which, in turn, meant everything was going according to plan, save for one critical thing: There was virtually no scene in which to be seen.
"There was nothing going on in Montreal at the time,’ recollects Barry. "And I mean nothing. It was all cover bands and the remnants of April Wine. There wasn’t even anywhere to play. If you were playing original music – and the only people playing original music at that time were a handful of punk bands, and not even a full handful at first – just getting anything done was really hard. And us, of course, we didn’t have any money. I mean, we were three high school dropouts on welfare."
Which, in retrospect, made them uniquely suited to the task they’d set out for themselves: blow off everything else and write some songs, be as obnoxious as possible in the process, and get famous doing it. However, despite a respectable amount of hometown disrespectability, and a considerable amount of playing and touring at a tender age that shouldn’t have seen them much past the parking lots of some of the venues they were habituating, The 222s were never able to put out a full album proper.
"Listen, just putting out singles was hard," says Barry. "There were a few other bands [like us] in town at the time, but we were the only ones who could even get it together enough to put out a single – it was hard back then."
The 222s lay (so far uncontested) claim to the title of having put out the very first punk rock single, and by extension you could say indie single, in Montreal, 1978′s hilariously titled I Love Suzan/First Studio Bomb.
"For what it’s worth, it’s a dubious accomplishment, but yeah, nobody had done it." And with that milestone there now comes a certain measure of collectability, one might imagine? "Oh sure, I’ve seen it selling for as much as $150."
After I Love Suzan/First Studio Bomb, it was to be another three years before The 222s would put out the follow-up, "and even then it was only because of the fuckin’ Mafia," says Barry.
"These gangsters in Laval decided that they were going to make us into a fuck-up, Québécois, teeny-bopper act, and they would use their criminal influence to get us on the radio – this was the age of payola, remember – and we would be something that they could make money off of.
"So when we got to their house to record, of course it was a disaster, and we were fighting them on every single thing because by this time they’d decided they were record producers. And so we did this song, La Poupée qui fait non, a Les Sultans song, a kind of garagey, bilingual kind of thing. I mean, hey, we wanted a hit too. Anyway, it started getting ridiculous and after a couple of days of fighting they took us upstairs to the kitchen – because we were recording in the head crook’s basement – and they put a gun on the table and said, ‘There’s not going to be any more fighting.’
"And there wasn’t."
The mob mix of the song – much to the band’s shame and chagrin – went on to become a minor regional hit, helping hasten the demise of the group. "That pretty much spelled the end of the band – that was the catalyst. I was embarrassed, very embarrassed."
La Poupée qui fait non is noticeably absent from the only album that The 222s ever put out, 2006′s late-to-the-dance Montreal Punk – ’78-’81, a 14-track compendium of singles, demos and live tracks that, taken as a retrospective whole, is actually very good and, especially as Barry’s lyrics are concerned, highly entertaining (more on that a bit later).
As you’re probably gathering, The 222s weren’t your regular issue, off-the-rack outfit. And in those days, in every town across the country that had a nascent punk scene, if you were talking the talk and walking the walk, you were invariably and inevitably fighting the fights as well.
"That first generation [of punk] in the late ’70s was for sure. I carried a chain with me, and I used it. Walking down the street with Pierre the guitarist was fraught with peril, because he just wanted to look as offensive as he possibly could to everybody. He’d be wearing his multicoloured tights and his sailor cap and shit," Barry laughs. "And it was just asking for trouble."
"I can remember one time walking along Ste-Catherine Street one Sunday night, minding my own business, and two kids about my age came walking up towards me. They pushed me and were all like, ‘Hey faggot!’ And I had this chain in my pocket and I was all excited and I turned around towards them and next thing I know I whacked this chain into the guy’s neck, and he fell, and the other guy ran away and I ran away in the other direction thinking, ‘Whoa… I just killed somebody!’
"I read the Gazette the next day to see if there’d been a murder on Ste-Catherine Street. We had to deal with that stuff all the time!"
The 222s did, let’s say, take one of the more effeminate routes through the largely macho domain of punk rock…
"Mm-hmm – we were schooled in The Dolls! We were all into the New York Dolls. When The Clash and the Sex Pistols became kind of a movement or whatever, it was sort of like, this is great, this is something that speaks to [The 222s] a little bit. But nobody else was doing the glam thing here, for sure. And we were chastised for it fuckin’ relentlessly too.
"It was also because we could actually play," which ran somewhat counter to the reigning punk rock philosophy of the time, "and we figured we’d try to write real songs. Lyrically they’re a little special…" (The chorus for Female provides a choice case in point: "You look like a female/ But you fuck like a man.") "…but y’know. And we were serious! We wanted to have a professional act – we wanted to hit the big time!
"But here there was nothing going on. Other cities, like Toronto, had a real scene, but here it was just us, Chromosomes, The Normals, Electric Vomit… for years. We were thwarted [in our ambitions] because we could always draw well, and we drew well in Toronto and in New York, and we thought, ‘What more do [the music industry powers that be] want from us?’ Well, they wanted a lot more – they wanted us to sound like Harlequin."
And here we are now, 32 years on. And The 222s still don’t sound anything like Harlequin, something that Barry – who went on to lead the very popular 39 Steps (who were featured playing at legendary New York punk club CBGBs in the Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters), Pillbox (who toured with The Ramones), Acrylic and most recently The Throbbing Purple – is keen to put on display when the band plays with fellow reunited Montreal punk rock legends, and personal faves, the Asexuals this weekend as part of Pop Montreal.
"I think it’s going to be good! We’re certainly looking forward to it, and I’m confident it’ll sell out and all that stuff, and there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm," says Barry, who seems not to be wanting in the enthusiasm dept. either.
"It’s all the original band, and we’re only doing songs from The 222s, none of the later stuff from 39 Steps or Pillbox or what have you, just stuff that we can remember or that we found on tape, and it’s good. Seriously, like I say, we’re doing this with our hearts. If it was going to suck, or be one of those get-together-for-the-festival type things, we wouldn’t have done it. And if anyone wants, we’ll keep on doing it; if there’s an audience, well, nothing would make us happier."
In the here and now, Barry’s an established alt-weekly columnist and music journalist, and it occurs, with the aid of my remaining rudimentary math skills, that Barry could have grown into the 16-year-old that he was when he joined The 222s a full two times over in the years since the band first began. Not to be a dick – okay yeah, I’m being a dick – but that’s some serious mileage on them there tires…
"I tell you, it’s weird as fuck, man," laughs Barry. "For one, to be playing with those same guys. I mean it’s hokey, but I really do love those fuckers, and we went through so much together, not just with The 222s but later with 39 Steps. We gave our youth to rock’n'roll, and rock’n'roll didn’t give us much back. So it’s weird to be [playing with them again], but it also feels pretty natural.
"[Former Asexuals and Doughboys guitarist/singer John] Kastner was the catalyst for this and was always saying we should do this gig with the two bands in Montreal. And apart from the fact I didn’t think we’d all want to get together and do it in the first place, I just didn’t want to do it if it was going to suck. I didn’t want to hurt our modest legacy, such as it is. Because it can be really pathetic – you get these middle-aged fuckin’ losers going on and, well, you know… ‘Hi, this song’s called Jailbait, and I wrote it when I was 16,’ when I was jailbait myself. So singing it now is a little, um, special," he says, then bursts out laughing. "I enjoy singing it now more than ever!"
So can we expect to see Barry in some kind of glittery unitard-type get-up replete with Christmas-tree-stud chokers and velvet stilettos?
"Uhhhh, well, I’ve got my costume together," he says, equivocating somewhat. "My rock’n'roll costume hasn’t really varied that much over the years. I never went straight, Jamie, I never went straight. I still live by those principles that I had when I was like, y’know, 17. That’s how much I’ve matured and grown as an individual."
In preparation for their Pop Montreal appearance, The 222s recently did a couple of warm-up shows in Toronto. "And they were fuckin’ amazing," Barry says so himself. "We did The Horseshoe and The Bovine, and both venues were full and people knew the stuff, whether it’s from YouTube or wherever, and it was really cool. Just the fact that it’s been such a long time… It was almost like vindication!"
And it only took 30 years.
"I’ll take it."
The 222s with the Asexuals and Hollerado at Cabaret Juste Pour Rire (2111 St-Laurent), Oct. 1, starting at 9 p.m.