(Re)writing Punk

A gendered, oral history of Winnipeg’s early punk scene

In the late 1970s, drummer Debbie Wall was a founding member of Winnipeg’s first all-girl punk band, The Wurst. She later joined the city’s second women-led punk band, Ruggedy Annes.

Cynthia Funk (Supplied)

In a building on the corner of Stradbrook Avenue and Main Street, now hiding shyly behind a denture clinic, adjacent to the rapid-transit route, lived the vibrant, (in)famous House of Beep. Named after a beloved sugary fruit drink, the House of Beep was a counterculture chapel where Winnipeg’s early punks congregated.

Alongside venues like the Zoo, the House of Beep would foster a key point in Winnipeg’s music history. In 1979, while staple names in Winnipeg’s early punk history like Personality Crisis and the Unwanted were playing shows at the Royal Albert Arms Hotel bar, the city would see its first all-girl punk band emerge.

A decade before riot grrrl – a feminist response to punk spearheaded by bands like Bikini Kill – took flight, a cluster of aspiring female punks began claiming space in Winnipeg basement shows, patching up fanzines and pooling their change to put out an EP.

These are their stories.

An early promotional photo of The Wurst by photographer Gordie Agar.

Punk beginnings

Debbie Wall remembers her first encounter with Winnipeg’s then-blossoming punk scene taking place at a show at the Belgian Club. Soon, she’d frequent Winnipeg’s most renowned punk-rock party house and living space, the House of Beep. Not long after, Allison Cain, a fellow aspiring punk, approached Wall about starting a band.

“We were at an event at the Granite Curling Club, and (Cain) had smuggled in some gin and tonic, and she had asked me if I wanted to play drums in an all-girl punk band,” Wall says. “I said, ‘well, I can’t play drums,’ and she goes, ‘well, I can’t play guitar.’

The Wurst perform in all their chaotic glory in an archival photograph by Gordie Agar.

“Nine weeks later, we played our first show.” The Wurst became Winnipeg’s first all-girl punk band in 1979. Though the band would eventually split, it wouldn’t be the last hurrah.

In the early ’80s, Margaret Fonseca was also interested in starting a punk band. She posted an ad in the newspaper, expressing an interest in recruiting female musicians.

“I heard that there was a woman in the punk scene named Ruth who was playing bass, and so I met her eventually, and everything seemed to kind of feel good with her music-wise,” Fonseca says.

Hosting their first gig at the Zoo in Osborne Village, Ruggedy Annes was born, becoming the second punk band in Winnipeg entirely composed of women.

“We were making our own posters, putting up posters, planning gigs, setting up our own tour dates, saving up money to make our record.” - Ruggedy Annes guitarist Margaret Fonseca. Supplied photo.

When The Wurst disbanded, another opportunity would arise. After the drummer from the Ruggedy Annes left, Wall stepped up to the plate. Soon, Fonseca says the crew would embark on a tour that would take them all the way down to Hollywood, with lead vocals by jake moore, Fonseca on guitar/vocals, Wall on drums and Ruth Monk on bass.

“Debbie walked in, and I was just ecstatic, like, ‘Debbie Wall wants to play with us!’” Fon - seca says. “That all worked out, and it tightened up our sound even more.”

‘What we have here is a genuine subculture’

By November of 1983, the influence of punk in the Prairies was picked up by Winnipeg Free Press reporter Randal McIlroy in an article titled “Punks ... are people, too.”

“What we have here is a genuine subculture,” McIlroy wrote. “Surviving and thriving within this city is a small but growing community of punks, young people whose desire for their own identity is linked not only to punk-rock music but to a look, a culture predicated on indepen - dence of tradition.”

Winnipeg Free Press reporter Randal McIlroy wrote about the local punk scene in 1983

Since its inception, punk has been fashioned as a haven for outsiders. The core values of punk, cen - tred around an ethos of non-judgment and auton - omy, laid the groundwork for a genre that, beyond music, was a community and a way of living.

“We were just coming out of high school, and a lot of us never felt like we belonged,” Wall says. “When we came together in the punk scene, we belonged to each other.”

Kathryn Martin, the director of Piss on You, a documentary about Winnipeg’s early punk scene, originally became interested in Winni - peg’s punk history after being introduced to local punk legends like Mitch Funk of Personal - ity Crisis at the Pyramid Cabaret.

“It was definitely counterculture and anti-es - tablishment. Do-it-yourself, you know, don’t rely on anyone to do it for you,” Martin says. “They had to tour on their own dime, rent a bus, sleep on people’s couches, things like that.”

Central to Winnipeg’s punk scene was its DIY essence, which permeated everything from fash - ion to venues. Karen Brown, a former resident of the House of Beep who once went on tour with Millions of Dead Cops, has fond memories of going to underground shows at the Doghouse, a punk-rock speakeasy nestled between Main Street and Sutherland Avenue.

“It was all completely illegal and under the table, but we managed to run that club for almost a year before it got shut down,” Brown says.

Other venues, like the St. Charles Hotel and Wellington’s, became regular gathering places for punks of all stripes. Without the piggy bank of a record label or the organizational support of music grants, the punk scene in Winnipeg became a cooperative of underground imagination.

For people who traditionally saw themselves underrepresented in music circles, the DIY nature of punk allowed for the freedom to experiment with new ways of creating and being. Crucially, it gave musicians autonomy to do things their own way.

“We were making our own posters, putting up posters, planning gigs, setting up our own tour dates, saving up money to make our record,” Fonseca says.

Before the dawn of the internet, local punks were forced to be creative with how to get their messaging across. Packed with political prose, interviews and album reviews, fan zines emerged as a way to spread the word about shows and allow others to get to know people in the scene.

For Wall, punk was an opportunity to merge music with social justice. As animal-rights activists, Ruggedy Annes became a musical channel to protest against factory farming through the band’s lyrics.

“I found the punk scene to be very supportive,” Wall says. “It was an outlet. You weren’t just obligated to play some fluff. You could actually integrate it with other parts of your life and get a message across.”

Though bands like The Wurst and Ruggedy Annes were a tour de force in the local punk scene, Martin notes that women’s representation in music at the time was by no means satisfactory.

“I think that just being a female musician back then was something that was just rare,” Martin says. “Guys always had picked up guitars and sang in bands and this and that, but for women at that time, it just wasn’t really something that everybody did.”

A clipping from a contemporaneous DIY zine profiling The Wurst. Supplied photo.

Still, as the band continued to pop up in various venues around Winnipeg, from hole-in-the-wall dives to the benefit shows like Lion’s Telethon of 1983, the feminist ethos of the Ruggedy Annes began to extend beyond the punk scene. At one point, Wall says, an aspiring female sound technician had written to the Winnipeg Free Press’ advice columnist, Miss Lonelyhearts, concerned about misogyny in the industry. Her response?

“Miss Lonelyhearts suggested she reach out to the Ruggedy Annes,” Wall says.

Making room for punk

With the Zoo now all but urban decay and many of the former punk venues remaining in memory, rather than in business, the question remains: what place does punk hold in Winnipeg today?

Despite the equitable ambitions of punk, the music scene continues to grapple with issues of underrepresentation, locally and globally. Still, efforts to diversify the stage act as a driver of hope on a local and global level.

With the riot grrrl manifesto demanding the inclusion and autonomy of women in punk, and the emergence of queercore resisting the structures of heteronormativity, the legacy of punk continues to work through cycles of (re)creation.

A clipping of the Jan. 6, 1982 issue of The Uniter featuring an interview with Ruggedy Annes. Supplied photo.

Today, local bands like Vagina Witchcraft continue the narrative of punk and hardcore, bringing in themes such as anti-racism and gender diversity. Punk duo Mobina Galore is known for their unapologetically honest lyrics, taking the same approach to writing “no-fluff” music as Wall did in the Ruggedy Annes.

Alongside are efforts to reign in greater representation of women, non-binary and BIPOC musicians, with Equalizer’s audio production workshops for women and non-binary folks, and promotional entities like Good + Plenty WPG with a dedicated commitment to amplifying women, non-binary, LGBTQ2S+, disabled and BIPOC musicians.

For seasoned punks like Wall, Fonseca and Brown, punk was an invitation to make music on their own terms.

“People have to realize what a vibrant punk scene Winnipeg was and how it really laid the basis for a lot of other musicians to come forward,” Martin says.

“I found the punk scene to be very supportive. It was an outlet. You weren’t just obligated to play some fluff. You could actually integrate it with other parts of your life and get a message across.” - Debbie Wall. Michelle Tree (Supplied)

The Zoo might be gone, and Osborne Village, once home to the punks of the ’90s, has become a strip of vacancies. Yet the core values of punk, premised on non-judgment, continue to set the framework for inclusivity in Winnipeg’s music scene. Remnants of the DIY ethos of punk carry on in annual music festivals like Burning Couch and in the survival of the scene as a whole. Reunion shows at the Pyramid Cabaret merge old and new punks.

Punk is not, and will never be gone.

Published in Volume 76, Number 05 of The Uniter (October 7, 2021)

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