PM Press Blog, Review

NoMeansNo — From Obscurity to Oblivion charts career of Victoria hardcore punk legends

By Stuart Derdeyn
Vancouver Sun
Jan 24, 2024

Canadian punk legends NoMeansNo featured in new book.

At its peak, there wasn’t a better punk rock band on Earth than Victoria’s NoMeansNo. Don’t believe it?

You may reconsider after reading the praises heaped upon the Victoria group from luminaries ranging from Nardwuar the Human Serviette and Banger Films director Sam Dunn to Foo Fighters Dave Grohl and so many others in NoMeansNo — From Obscurity to Oblivion an Oral History.

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Using interview snippets from a large cast of contributors, the book travels through three decades of music-making by the band inducted into the Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2016.

From the foreword by actor Fred Armisen to the backward by the mysterious W. Buzz Ryan, author Jason Lamb with Paul Prescott pack in 300-plus pages of career-spanning history about the project helmed by siblings Rob and John Wright. Formed in the brother’s family home basement in 1979 and running until 2007, the combo would release 12 full-length albums, nine EPs, one live album and a celebrated 1991 collaboration with the Dead Kennedys’ vocalist Jell-O Biafra titled the Sky is Falling and I Want My Mommy.

They toured constantly, packing venues across Europe where they enjoyed a fervent following, as well as in specific markets in North America.

An unwillingness to pursue mainstream commercial avenues and compromise their distinct creative goals, the band remained somewhat mysterious. It could be argued that spinoff projects such as the hockey-themed punk goofball quartet the Hanson Brothers eclipsed the original source. You can still hear their music played across NHL arenas to this very day.

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Speaking with drummer John Wright, the lead singer of the Hanson Brothers, the trip down memory lane touches on the fact that NoMeansNo emerged fully forged at a time when most bands were learning the basics of plugging in their instruments in front of audiences. As Jell-O Biafra notes in the text, the two brothers played like one individual.

“I went through the school band program in Victoria, which is why I always played traditional grip, and Rob was living in a tent in our parents’ backyard all into punk rock with the Ramones as his gateway drug,” said John Wright. “He bought a state-of-the-art TEAC four-track recording unit and wanted to play music. I wasn’t totally convinced until we went to see D.O.A. and the Dishrags play at the University of Victoria Commons’ block where we both worked, and that gig was Ground Zero.”

Not knowing any guitar players at the time, the brothers form a drum and bass duo, which was unique for the time. Bringing jazz flourishes and fusion influences to the sound, NoMeansNo played complex, pummelling punk with mathematic precision.

Lamb notes that the Victoria scene at the time was wide-open compared with the more directly U.K. and N.Y.-influenced Vancouver scene. Groups such as the Neos, Dayglo Abortions and others had a sound all of their own. NoMeansNo fit right in to that outsider scene.

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By the time the demo tape version of the song Self Pity became the band’s first “hit” on CiTR, the band had a well-earned reputation for incendiary live performances. Guitarist and vocalist Andy Kerr joined in 1983 and albums such as Sex Mad and Small Parts Isolated and Destroyed followed, cementing their recorded legacy as well.

“Andy and I had played together in the Infamous Scientists and he would join us sometimes but was against becoming a member,” said Wright. “He was a duo purist, but eventually joined full-time, until leaving to move to the Netherlands.”

From there, membership shifted to include guitarist Tom Holliston and drummer Ken Kempster. Spinoff groups from the Hanson Brothers to Rob Wright’s solo Mr. Wrong character followed. Through ups-and-downs, the band did become profitable enough that members no longer needed days jobs. For a punk act, that might be considered a pinnacle.

For author Lamb, it was a dream come true to write a bigger book on one of his favourite bands. Author Mark Black had previously released NoMeansNo: Going Nowhere in 2012, a 104-page concise history.

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“After an amazing career, people know who NoMeansNo was,” says Lamb. “But for so many of us, they were Victoria’s band who played here a lot. When I started looking at a bucket list of things I wanted to do, I thought a visually driven, longer book that unveiled the truth about the band was something worth doing.”

While NoMeansNo is likely never returning to live performances, drummer John Wright resurfaced from obscurity living in Lund last year with a new band called Dead Bob, with an album titled Life Like.

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