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The Rotters Club celebrates re-issue of Rot n’ Role at Nee’wollah

By Lee Pepper on October 28, 2014

This Hallowe’en, some of the elder statesmen of Ottawa’s punk and alternative music communities will gather to celebrate the legacy of a short-lived music venue with a big influence on local music.

Nee’wollah (read it backwards if you’re confused), takes place October 31st at Zaphod’s, revisits acts associated with the Rotters Club, and celebrates the reissue of the Rot n’ Role  compilation album. With only 500 copies in the original 1979 pressing, the album became a collector’s item for Ottawa music cognoscenti.

Comedian Mike Mac Donald got his first appearance ever at the Rotters Club in 1978. Photo courtesy of The Rotters Club Facebook page.

Comedian Mike Mac Donald got his first appearance ever at the Rotters Club in 1978.

Nee’wollah attendees will get to see comedian Mike MacDonald, who got his start at the Rotters Club, as well as bands Sister Hyde, Blackshirt Highwaymen, and Arson, and will receive a copy of the reiussued Rot n’ Role, along with other Rotters Club-themed swag.

The Rotters Club only existed from 1977 to 1980.  It was at 419 Bank, on the corner of Frank, downstairs from a Lebanese restaurant, which is now the Book Bazaar.  A door on the south side of the building lead down into the club, which was started by Carl Schultz and Stuart A. Smith.

The Rotters Club influenced even local musicians who were too young to ever have seen a show there.  Tom Stewart, co-owner of Spaceman Music, wrote that though he never went to the Rotters Club, he heard stories, like the one where Frankie Venom, lead singer of Teenage Head, jumped up on the bar and dropped his pants.

A commentor on the Punk Ottawa message boards fondly remembers the Rotters Club in similarly debauched terms: “Before the shows, they would show cult movies with a film projector. Waitresses would actually serve booze in the bathrooms and smoking pot was done openly at the tables.”

Co-founder Stuart A. Smith, in an Apt613 interview, remembered a New Years Eve show where the club hosted 5 bands and served alcohol until 5 AM.  While the police never showed up, two ambulances did arrive to remove several extremely drunk patrons, including one who drank to the point of kidney failure.

The club’s founders were motivated by what they saw as the sorry state of Canadian music in the mid-seventies, and wanted to create a space for music other than bland Can-Con, “somnabulent folkie singer songwriters”, and overly technical prog rock guitar wizardry.  Instead, it attracted bands like Toronto punk band the Viletones, who Smith remembers were late arriving in Ottawa after being kicked off their train near Kingston when a band member vomited on an  fellow passenger.

CompositeThe club’s mandate was “original music only, as eclectic as possible, in a multi media environment with images, live and pre-recorded material”.  Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests inspired the Rotters Club founders to “fill every sensory pathway to engage the audience at multiple levels simultaneously as intensely as we could, given the primitive state of the technology at the time”.

Smith, now in his sixties, is a commercial real estate broker in Toronto, and hasn’t been back to Ottawa in 36 years.  He looks forward to Nee’wollah as something like a high school reunion for both those who remember the Rotters Club and those for whom it has existed only as a local legend.

The reissue of Rot n’ Role marks the beginning of a series of releases of remixed and remastered studio tracks and live recordings from the Rotters Club and its associated recording studio, Double Helix. The series aims to celebrate the pivotal role that the Rotters Club and Ottawa played in musical history, and “for people to see that Ottawa is not just a folky bluesy noodle jazzy environment”, as Smith put it.

Nee’wollah takes place at 8:30 October 31st, at Zaphod’s. Advance tickets are $35 and are available online.  For more information, see the Facebook event page.