Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Pointed Sticks take a poke at a comeback

The Pointed Sticks were the toppermost of the poppermost in the early Vancouver punk-new wave scene. The band — (from left) Bill Napier-Hemy, Tony Bardach, Gord Nicholl, Ian Tiles and Nick Jones — releases its second album on Sunday, after a 29-year hiatus.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 28, 2009


The Pointed Sticks was the band that was supposed to make it.

They won a Georgia Straight battle-of-the-bands contest; released head-bopping singles about love and heartache; got spotted by a talent scout and signed to Stiff Records, joining a stable including the likes of Elvis Costello.

The Vancouver Sun’s music critic praised the Sticks for showing “a freshness of purpose, a sharp sense of melody and beat, and a flair for catchy pop.”

They even appeared as a band sending a crowd into a pogoing frenzy in the Dennis Hopper movie, “Out of the Blue.”

They were Green Day a generation before Green Day, power-pop punksters with snappy lyrics and more hooks than a boxing champion.

Their epitaph was concise.

Founded in 1978. Signed in 1979. Released album in 1980. Broke up in 1981.

And that was supposed to be that.

“When we broke up there was no hint of a reunion,” said Nick Jones, the vocalist. “Ever. It was over. It was done. And after 20 years, you come to terms with it.”

Some band members continued in music. Families were started. Mr. Jones tried the 9-to-5 schtick, but wound up instead traveling the continent handling merchandise sales for major acts.

The Pointed Sticks remained little more than a memory of a glorious time in Vancouver’s music.

Most of those bands had long since dispersed, except for D.O.A., whose frontman happened to own a cottage-industry record company. On tour, Joey Keithley discovered strong interest in the halcyon days of the city’s punk-new wave explosion. He reissued the Sticks’ music. Sales were good, especially, of all places, in Japan.

The distributor there asked the Pointed Sticks to perform. The request seemed absurd. The band had long ago split. Their drummer, the legendary Ken (Dimwit) Montgomery, had died. Some of the fellows had not even seen one another in more than a decade.

After some back and forth, the distributor promised to cover all travel, hotel and food.

Free trip to Japan? That appealed. Besides, if they sucked, no one back home would know.

The first rehearsals were understandably awkward. Soon enough, though, the reformed band — keyboardist Gord Nicholl, bassist Tony Bardach, drummer Ian Tiles, and guitarist Bill Napier-Hemy — was ready for the long trek. They had been booked for just three gigs.

You can see the result on YouTube. The Japanese audience, young enough to be their children, know the lyrics, belting them out phonetically, undoubtedly memorized during repeated listening.

“Watching those kids go absolutely ballistic,” Mr. Jones said, “was heartwarming.”

The overseas success meant they were obligated to do a show in Vancouver. They practiced some more. The hometown show went well. They have since performed in Toronto, New York, and Austin, Tex.

They also decided to return to writing songs. Mr. Nicholl sent music to Mr. Jones, who would write lyrics before sending them back.

“It was like writing a song by mail,” Mr. Jones said from New Orleans, where he was preparing for an AC/DC concert as a tour administrator for Live Nation.

The process was more satisfying than it had been half-a-lifetime earlier.

“When the clock’s not ticking,” Mr. Jones aid, “being creative is a lot easier.”

The result will be unveiled on Sunday, when Northern Electric releases “Three Lefts Make a Right,” featuring 13 new Pointed Sticks songs.

In the music business, it is said you get a lifetime to prepare your first album, but only six months for the second. Taking 29 years between releases is one way to avoid the sophomore jinx.

Born in Scotland, raised in North Vancouver, Mr. Jones was part of the suburban invasion that briefly made Vancouver seem like Liverpool circa 1962 with such bands as D.O.A., the Furies, the Subhumans, Young Canadians, Modernettes, Dishrags, U-J3RK5, and others.

The singers said the new album is not a mere exercise in nostalgia.

“I don’t feel we’re trying to relive that era,” he said, “though it is definitely reverential.”
One nod to the past is a Bardach-composed song titled, “Igor Said,” about the hulking doorman who checked I.D.s at the entrance to the Smilin’ Buddha cabaret on East Hastings Street.

A listen to some of the tracks shows the Pointed Sticks (yes, the name comes from the Monty Python sketch “Self-Defence Against Fresh Fruit”) still have as much snap, crackle and pop as a fresh box of Rice Krispies.

In his nervous excitement about the upcoming release, Mr. Jones confesses to allowing himself what can be described as a fantasy with a punchline.

He likes to imagine the band being nominated for a Juno — “for best new artist.”

Afterword: The Sun pop critic who praised the Sticks’ music? These days, Vaughn Palmer critiques politicians, still evaluating ne’er-do-wells without respectable jobs based on their record.