Hamilton: The Sleepy Suburban Community That Gave Us Teenage Head

Teenage Head is to blue-collar rockers as Westdale Secondary School is to a Dickensian workhouse.

While you scratch your head trying to understand the meaning of that LSAT skill-testing question, I will launch into what is going to be my final contribution to the LivingArts blogscape…

I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those grouchy types who comes off as a super positive person. It’s a happy accident and has allowed me to avoid becoming known socially as a “grump,” but occasionally the grouchiness is unleashed by a rusty nail or something harder.

The other night I attended a Chamber of Commerce Ambitious City event with a focus on Hamilton as a Music City. The city is midway through enacting a music strategy proposed by a designated team of industry insiders and those who attended this event were in for an update on their progress. More importantly, we were there to hear about the $$$ meaning for the Chamber’s member businesses.

It was a rollercoaster thrill ride!

Tom and Thompson Wilson started out with a few tunes to get us in the mood and then Graham Henderson from Music Canada told us that Hamilton is basically half-way to achieving Music City status. When Graham was finished, we heard a discussion from a panel of active members of Hamilton’s music industry and the event ended quite suddenly with the announcement of Leonard Cohen’s death.

Super sad thrill ride!

To process all of the information/implications, my pal James and I took in a couple pints at the Brain. When we got there, I came to a realization:

I don’t want to live in a Music City built on the cornerstone of our musical legacy as proto-punk and roots rockers. I want to live in a Music City where every citizen has a profound appreciation of the importance of music and wants to be surrounded by it.

If that seems like a major leap in narrative, please let me explain:

The history of Hamilton music as tradition tells is that Hamilton is a blue-collar town and we make blue-collar music. We punch above our weight (which is in line with our Ambitious City identity) and produce world-class talent like the Band, Daniel Lanois and Teenage Head. That was essentially the story that we heard at the Chamber’s event.

That is the traditional legacy story, and the storytellers would have us infer that there is something about Hamilton’s tough steel-town edge that lead to such an amazing crop of talent.

I take exception to this legacy story. I’ve always had a hard time accepting it, perhaps because I’m not a part of that legacy, being an upper-middle class son of two teachers. Perhaps it’s because that story excludes the kind of music that I make and want to make, which is essentially art music.

Also, I’ve never seen any real connection between the steel town and the people who have risen in the musical ranks here. Most of the celebrated artists from Hamilton came from affluent neighbourhoods and families.

For starters – Teenage Head went to Westdale in the 1970s. My Dad taught at Westdale in the 70s and from everything he has told me, it was a pretty great middle-class school with pretty great kids and families.

Just like the Ramones came from the upper-middle class neighbourhood of Forest Hills, Teenage Head’s relation to the city of Hamilton is likely less rooted in the hard-nosed steel town reputation than it was a great storyline for music journalists outside of Hamilton.

Dan Lanois is amazing. What he has done and who he has worked with is world class and he is something that we should absolutely be proud of and point to as a role model for Hamilton music. But he is from Ancaster...

The Band did play here, sure. Conway Twitty wrote a song here, okay. Why did they do that? Is there any explanation other than they knew a guy from Hamilton who offered them a gig? Was there something about the hardworking blue-collar crowd that really LOVED the brand of rock’n’roll that Ronnie Hawkins brought up from Arkansas? As far as I understand, they had a whole circuit in Southern Ontario of clubs to play at and Hamilton was just one of the stops.

So as we brand our city as a Music City, shouldn’t we figure out why Hamilton has punched above its weight all these years?

Is it because of our great music fans? I don’t think so. Maybe it was, but it looks like that crowd is dying off, being replaced by a surging urban population from Toronto whose tastes will have been forged outside of our city.

If anything, the history of Hamilton’s music scene is a wholesome suburban culture, where kids were able to experiment in the safety of cozy finished basements and garages.

What’s more, thanks to some pretty excellent music education in the 70s, 80s and 90s, a large number of our greatest artistic contributions have come out of strong suburban schools, like Westdale, Westmount, Ancaster High or Parkside in Dundas.

Almost every single contact I have in Hamilton’s music scene is through my friends from Westdale. Everyone I knew was in a band or wanted to be in a band. I say a ‘band,' but more accurately there were tons of friends who were heavy into DJ culture or MC and hip-hop culture in school as well.

There was a great jazz culture in Hamilton when I was school-aged too, most strongly associated with Russ Weil’s program for the Hamilton All-star Jazz Band for secondary students. SOOO many great Hamilton musicians came through that program (Dan Snaith, Diana Panton, Jessy Lanza, Jeremy Fisher and soon to be legendary pianist David Braid, among many others).

‘School’ is where Hamilton’s greatest musical contributions have come from. I bet if you ask any major Hamilton artist when they decided that they wanted to do music as a living, it was when they were in school.

That sounds ridiculous to say, because of course they got into music when they were young. That’s how everybody gets into music, but when we are talking about Hamilton as a ‘Music City’, we need to acknowledge one of the main reasons why we are punching above our weight (if that’s true).

Hamilton’s success in music is that we have been great incubators of talent. 

I should say, we WERE great incubators of talent. 

Investment in music education has dropped off fairly dramatically in the last fifteen years. Where it was once a matter of policy to hire a full-time permanent music teacher, we have decided that it is optional (read: a bonus).

Without a professionally trained music teacher, our kids are not going to learn to sing and play Orff instruments, then recorder, then ukulele, then trombone, then guitar (the average trajectory of a kid born in the 80s).

They might grow up thinking that music is best enjoyed as a passive, background experience.

Certainly without their own performance experiences, once a staple of music education, they will not learn to appreciate the skills of an amazing performer.

Wealthy schools may be able to offset the loss of a music teacher, but some schools don’t have the means and not all parents are in a financial position to pay for music lessons.

Groups like An Instrument for Every Child have stepped in to make up for the shortfall, which is fantastic. They are providing an essential service that was once provided by public education.

So maybe we should teach kids how music works so that they can build a lifelong appreciation of music and support this Music City initiative?

Maybe we should foster a culture of musical appreciation at the elementary level so that our venues are at capacity every Friday and Saturday night?

Maybe it’s important to acknowledge WHY Hamilton has produced such excellent musical talent to date. Maybe it’s our sleepy suburban culture that led to our triumphs, not our former blue-collar identity.

Just a few thoughts.

As we move forward with this Music City business, I would like to see the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board step up to the plate and build music into their identity. I would like to see Home and School Boards making it clear to their Principals that music education is a top priority and then I would like to see Principals across the city uniting to offer a uniform music educational experience for each and every student.

There are billions of studies demonstrating that it’s REALLY GOOD for the kids - it’s not hard to justify. Put that together with the fact that our city is branding itself thusly, and we are talking about a HUGE step for Hamilton.

In closing, I wanted to say a big THANK YOU to Stephanie Vegh and Lesley Loksi Chan for their work with LivingArts! This is my last post for the blog, as I feel it’s important to step back and let somebody else relate their experiences here in Hamilton’s music community. Thanks for reading!


I really enjoyed reading your perspective and I agree with it. As a member of the city's music strategy implementation team, I feel I should clarify that the event hosted by the chamber intentionally focussed on a business perspective of music and its impact on the local economy. We did not have time to get into our full strategy which includes an objective to expand music education in Hamilton. You can read about this in the music strategy document that is on the city's website, or feel free to reach out to me or any of the members of the team, which include Glen Brown, who up until recently spent his life teaching Music in in the Hamilton school board, and now publishes Greater Hamilton Musician magazine. Education is very much a key part of what this team will be focussing on.