In 1979-80 a new scene was developing at the Luv-A-Fair, a gay bar located at 1275 Seymour Street. What was the forefront of the gay disco morphed into an alternative scene. “Straight Steve” (Steven R. Gilmore) as he was known had been a fixture at the club, having moved from the Parkside Continental gay scene in Calgary circa 1976. He designed the original Luv-A-Fair “lipstick” logo while a teenager. In 1980 Steven became a DJ with the help of his friend and new light man cEvin Key (Skinny Puppy/Images in Vogue). This was ground zero of the Vancouver electronic scene. Out of this was born Terry McBride, Mark Jowett & Nettwerk Records, and among other bands, the hugely influential electro-industrial band Skinny Puppy. Nivek Ogre (Skinny Puppy) was part of that circle of friends. At one point everyone was powered by the same playlist.
Before this scene broke, the Luv-A-Fair as art punk Jim Cummins a.k.a. I, Braineater (and Skinny Puppy Too Dark Park album cover designer) says “was a cauldron of creativity.” Video art god Paul Wong remembers it with a twinkle, “We bumped, we humped, we grinded.” If there was such a hang for creative artists, fashionistas, misfits, and people wanting to escape the sleaze of other clubs (think Boogie Nights), this was it. There were a couple of other clubs – Faces and Pumps – but the Luv-A-Fair had the sound system and was always first to play the newest of the underground disco. The year 1978 had introduced DJ Richard Evans who was the first real DJ of the underground dance club culture. As new wave and post-punk was pushing disco out, Evans was exiting on a high note. In 1980 he received recognition from Billboard for his contribution as a Canadian DJ. This was the only time Billboard gave out such an award. In a quote to current events promoter Vernard Goud, Evans recalls, “I was sent to New York City to represent Canada on a DJ panel along with many of the world’s top club DJs.” These included Jim Burgess and Tom Moulton (whom many claim originated the first remix, breakdown section, and 12”extended single vinyl). “While in NYC I spent a good deal of time at the Paradise Garage where I met and worked with legendary DJs Larry Levan and Francois Kevorkian. Many attest that the garage sound originated at the Paradise Garage.”
“I believe it was 1979 or 1980. The club was slowly morphing away from being strictly a gay establishment and catering more to an alternative crowd. The problem was that the music didn’t reflect the new clientele so one night we decided to stage a sit-in on the dance floor and refused to move until they stopped playing disco. Looking back, it was a little naive but it worked.” His manager Kenny – another recruit from Calgary “took me aside and asked me to supply him with a list of the music that I felt should be played in the club.” Shortly after that a new DJ, Michael Wonderful, was hired. Michael Clark had been a member of the art punk experimental band ‘e’ and brought a wealth of new wave into the club.
As things have it, Michael suddenly left on Halloween 1980 forcing the club to give Gilmore a turn in the booth. “I later found out that they would have hired me at the time of the sit-in but the owner John Kerasiotis knew that I “lifted” half finished drinks from the bus trays before they went into the kitchen to be washed and didn’t feel someone like that should be put into a responsible position at the club.”
Enter cEvin Key (Skinny Puppy). He was the light man at the Luv-A-Fair. Gilmore credits Key for “saving my ass by showing me how to work all the equipment and pointing out elementary DJ practices.”
He has nightmares to this day about playing to dead silence.
As Nivek Ogre points out: “Vancouver has an edge to it; an attitude; an arrogance when it comes to music. I came there as a young 20-year-old from Calgary and entered into a world I’d never seen before. There were no cliques…the punk scene was a huge fucking clique. At the Luv-A-Fair you could be gay, straight, effeminate, over-the-top, subdued, sociopathic or a businessman in a suit. It was the first meeting place for a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds and the music was mixed that way. Basically it was a gay club that transitioned into something far more. Steven was DJing, the only heterosexual. You could disappear into the night and escape those bigger questions. I used to bring two shirts and dance through the night, consumed by the music, doing my Ian Curtis spastic dance moves.”
And dance they did. It turns out both Ogre and Steven were from the same high school in Calgary – Ernest Manning High School – though years apart. Meeting in Vancouver would be the beginning of a life-long friendship.
It was time to replace extended mixes of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” or even Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” with a playlist that read something like this: Killing Joke, Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division, Human League, The Stranglers, The Cramps, Siouxsie And The Banshees, New Order, Simple Minds, Fad Gadget, D.A.F., A Certain Ratio, Skinny Puppy (of course), Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, The Normal, Bauhaus, The Cure, Kraftwerk, David Bowie, etc. Gilmore cites he played Bowie’s six-minute-long “Heroes” whenever he needed to take a pee break and used “two Technics SL-1210 MK2 turntables, Sansui amplifiers and preamplifiers and Yamaha equalizers.” Everything was either a 12” extended single or 7” single, often purchased at Odyssey Imports.
Not all were amused by his selection of tunes. Some patrons had moved on to the GandyDancer (now BarNone) and other gay bars. For the fans of the new wave and electronica, they hung in and hung on despite Gilmore’s lack of concern for beats. He admits that “unlike most of the DJs at the time, I didn’t care if the intro or outro to a song wasn’t danceable, what was important to me was that the integrity of the song was kept intact. So needless to say, there were a lot of people waiting patiently on the dance floor for a song to kick in at times. I also slowed down the evening by playing songs like Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ or Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s ‘2nd Thought’, which was my interpretation of the sock-hop waltz where couples could get close to each other.”
Steven R. Gilmore would eventually quit around 1985. Not before introducing the idea that “record companies supply free promos, a practice that later became quite common. Frustrated with people always coming up to the booth and asking me what song was playing, I implemented a running LED screen that showed what songs were being played. And then I made it possible for live bands to play there. Popular Front being the first to play at the club.”
Gilmore remains a loyal friend of Skinny Puppy, having struck friendships with both Ogre and Key before the band formed. “I have designed most of the artwork for Skinny Puppy since 1984 including their latest, Weapon, which came out in 2013. When cEvin Key first told me about Skinny Puppy it was still basically only an idea in his head but I went ahead and designed a cover anyway which later become the sleeve for Remission, their first EP. Because Nettwerk (early label) were so ‘impressed’ with what I came up with for Skinny Puppy they also hired me to design two other sleeves for the bands they were launching the label with at the same time, Moev and The Grapes Of Wrath.”
The Luv-A-Fair ran its course like everything else; its memory buoyed by occasional tribute evenings sponsored by Vernard Goud’s LuvnGrace Entertainment. By 1986 Vincent Alvaro opened Graceland, which paved the way for ‘house,’ the Shea brothers and Debbie Jones. Steven R. Gilmore had become a graphic artist, quit DJing and kept in touch with Skinny Puppy. For Skinny Puppy things were just getting started.
Skinny Puppy is performing on February 28 at the Commodore Ballroom.
By Susanne Tabata
Steven R. Gilmore photo (middle): Brion Topolski
Susanne Tabata works in digital media and makes subculture documentaries. Past work include: Skategirl, which is about the parallel journeys of professional women skateboarders; 49Degrees, which explores the history of West Coast surfing subculture; and Bloodied But Unbowed, the story about the rise and fall of the first Vancouver punk scene. Tabata was part of the underground music TV show Nite Dreems with radio legends JB Shayne and John Tanner and stinted at CITR as a DJ during the new wave era.