By: Carl Wilson
November 4, 2023

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of proto-punk records from the Sixties (1964–1973, in our periodization schema). Series edited by Josh Glenn. Also check out our proto-punk playlist (a work in progress) at Spotify.



My enthusiasm for the Ugly Ducklings is that of the desperate colonial. I don’t mean a colonizer of stolen lands, though that’s also true. I’m talking about being the spawn of white anglo Canada as an underpopulated backwater relative to the declining British and rising American empires circa my own late-1960s birth. There’s no way I can say “Nothin’” is the greatest of the early proto-punk songs in this series. But for Canadians, it’s the best we’ve got, and, in a garage-rock rhyme, that means a lot.

Other proto-punks thumbed their noses at staid music industries, but Canada hardly had any such thing when “Nothin’” came out in 1966. Outside Montreal, the country barely had what we’d recognize as an urban cultural scene. Torontonians struggled to draw enough air for a laugh amid rigid drinking laws and other Presbyterian strictures. All that would change in the coming Pierre Trudeau era, with its countercultural boom, incoming draft dodgers, and a Canadian nationalist movement that established broad cultural and economic supports against foreign domination. By the mid-to-late 1970s, the country could boast plenty of punkish deviants, like Hamilton, Ont.’s Simply Saucer and Teenage Head. Before that, though, a fearful Toronto willfully ignored most of its jazz clubs, galleries, and R&B joints, so much so that each generation has had to unearth the history for itself all over again. With the books and documentaries of the past decade, including the widespread recognition of proto-trans U.S. transplant Jackie Shane, that amnesiac cycle might finally be at an end. But when high-schoolers the Ugly Ducklings migrated from suburban Scarborough to the few blocks of downtown real estate that made up the sprouting bohemian village of Yorkville in 1965 and 1966, they had no way to know they would become the most raucous founders of one of the first bulwarks of English Canadian youth culture.

Led by vocalist Dave Bingham, the Ducks made a series of surprisingly advanced instinctive moves. First, they were among the rare British-Invasion-sparked bands turned on more by the Rolling Stones than by the Beatles — their original name was the Strolling Bones. Even as a lifelong Stones skeptic, I must admit this was the more productive route for most kids with more adrenaline than technical skill, i.e., most wellsprings of punk. Then, when the group chose a more original name, it was a declaration of hostility not only to common cuteness but to so-called maturity and progress: If you are called the Ugly Ducklings, you never can become swans. As a colonial, I swoon for that rejection of the internalized pressure to grow up and become a real country, or adult, or bird. Punk is a Peter Pan story in which instead of eternally remaining a lithe androgynous innocent, you pledge to stay a bothersome, postule-plagued post-adolescent with an obnoxious sense of humor. No good to anyone, in some glorious way, not even to yourself.

Next the Ducks chose “Nothin’” as their first single, a song that like many proto-punk classics seems to stumble into a more radical nihilism than its creators consciously meant, finding that reverse nirvana waywardly through casual misogyny. At first it’s just a rageful response to rejection along the lines of, FINE! I DON’T NEED YOU ANYWAY! I DON’T NEED NOTHIN’! But then the second verse takes the thought a degree further: “I got a big Cadillac and a diamond ring / But I’ll send it all back ’cause I don’t need a thing…” By the final verse, it’s, “If, when you call, nobody answers the phone / You’ll know that’s all, baby, I ain’t comin’ home.” In its frenzy to come out on top, the song plunges to its base, stripping itself down, renouncing romance, materiality, existence itself.

Against this negationist rhetoric, though, the Ugly Ducklings did exist, and that’s what matters to me. In another savvy move for a bunch of teens, they pushed into a long-term residency at just-opened Yorkville club Charlie Brown’s, named perhaps after another of the age’s temporally arrested existential heroes. And so my favourite version of “Nothin’” isn’t the single that was a minor local hit and then a Pebbles and Nuggets proto-punk compilation staple, but the live one on a November 1966 tape later released as Direct from “Charlie Brown’s.” It’s the band in that place and time I like to think about, not the smoother-talking later singles like “Gaslight” or their various revisions and revivals across decades. It’s the recording where you hear bassist John Read’s fingers hastily slide up the frets and create an effect like Tony Maimone’s bass line a decade later on Pere Ubu’s “Street Waves,” or Roger Mayne’s handfuls-of-firecrackers guitar lines daring a Toronto crowd to go ahead and let itself get really excited for once. It all sounds like a clutch of unprepared young Canadians imagining for the first time that bad could somehow mean good, an insight snatched in its inception that’s only redundant if you weren’t too remote to have caught wind of it before. No matter how messy the delivery, you can’t get better until you first get born.


STOOGE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Mandy Keifetz on The Trashmen’s SURFIN’ BIRD | Nicholas Rombes on Yoko Ono’s MOVE ON FAST | David Cantwell on ? and the Mysterians’ 96 TEARS | James Parker on The Modern Lovers’ SHE CRACKED | Lynn Peril on The Pleasure Seekers’ WHAT A WAY TO DIE | Lucy Sante on The Count Five’s PSYCHOTIC REACTION | Jonathan Lethem on The Monkees’ YOUR AUNTIE GRIZELDA | Adam McGovern on ELP’s BRAIN SALAD SURGERY | Mimi Lipson on The Shaggs’ MY PAL FOOT FOOT | Eric Weisbard on Frances Faye’s FRANCES AND HER FRIENDS | Annie Zaleski on Suzi Quatro’s CAN THE CAN | Carl Wilson on The Ugly Ducklings’ NOTHIN’ | Josh Glenn on Gillian Hill’s TUT, TUT, TUT, TUT… | Mike Watt on The Stooges’ SHAKE APPEAL | Peter Doyle on The Underdogs’ SITTING IN THE RAIN | Stephanie Burt on Pauline Oliveros’s III | Marc Weidenbaum on Ornette Coleman’s WE NOW INTERRUPT FOR A COMMERCIAL | Anthony Miller on Eno’s NEEDLES IN THE CAMEL’S EYE | Gordon Dahlquist on The Sonics’ STRYCHNINE | David Smay on The New York Dolls’ HUMAN BEING | Michael Grasso on the 13th Floor Elevators’ YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME | Holly Interlandi on Death’s ROCK’N’ROLL VICTIM | Elina Shatkin on Bobby Fuller’s I FOUGHT THE LAW | Brian Berger on The Mothers of Invention’s WHO ARE THE BRAIN POLICE? | Peggy Nelson on The Kingsmen’s LOUIE LOUIE.




Enthusiasms, Pop Music, Punk