Putting The "B" In Brantford
Tim Ford looks back on how The Bicycles became one of Brantford's most endeared "hometown" bands.
Tim Ford, December 17, 2021 // Brantford, OntarioThe Bicycles perform at the Ford Plant 2006. Photo credit Kyle Rose.
I observed from very early on that there is a grand river that flows between being “punk” and just being “a punk.”
Being “a punk” is telling everyone who walks in the room to go to hell. Being “punk” is walking in the room and not caring that someone tells you to go to hell. Being “a punk” you want destruction. Being “punk”, you want deconstruction. Both hold weight. To prove my point, I present to the jury The Bicycles. The Bicycles were fucking punk. More than they got credit for and more than I think they even realized. Just by their natural authenticity, they broke down the roles of gender, race, machismo and quite frankly what a band from Brantford could musically achieve. Being “a punk” is spitting on the band. Being “punk” is breaking into ‘tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the old oak tree’ while a bunch of punks spit at you.
It was a hot August night in 2003. The very edge of a disused downtown was dotted with 120 pissed off teenagers, impatiently swirling on the corner of King and Colborne. They were waiting for the owners of a rinky-dink music venue to come back from the Rodeo Tavern and start a show that was supposed to start 40 minutes ago. In the spirit transparency, one of those unprofessional and tardy owners happens to be penning this very article. As our shadows broke over the KFC parking lot, the crowd of leathered hormones wanted blood. The only way we were coming out with our heads, was to put on the most electric, sweaty and life affirming show we could imagine. I strutted up to the crowd with the confidence of a bull fighter because I knew what was about to happen that night. Total and complete musical annihilation. Wax Mannequin, Silent Film Soundtrack, the Vermicious Knid, The Majesties, and a band I had discovered sifting through early-internet message boards, The Bicycles. A band who claimed they were from Brantford, but had to be lying, because there was no way a band from here sounded so studied and dare, I say, classic. The baroque pop coming from my one working computer speaker, was mesmerizing. Every note like a soft pat on the head. Like a lovely memory from childhood, misplaced, coming back into my thoughts.
The Bicycles perform at the Ford Plant 2006. Photo credit Kyle Rose.
I was embarrassed because in my youthful arrogance I assumed I knew every band in Brantford. Even with cursory research I found we had mutual band-friends in Cartoon Khaki. I was too late. By the time I found the Bikes, they had already ridden off to Toronto.
“I was kinda outside of the music community. Not because I was cool or anything, just because I had no clue what was going on.” “I kinda grew up on the outskirts of Brantford in the country - Onondaga township area. I was bused into Brantford for school. I think being kinda left on my own in the country had more to do with me starting to write songs, than Brantford. I just started writing and recording on my four-track at my parents house in the country” says Drew Smith, one of the primary songwriters of the Bicycles.
Smith, along with childhood friends Matt Beckett and Randy Lee started writing songs together in their teens in Brantford. With the encouragement of Beckett, Smith joined both him and Lee in Toronto, refining their craft in the big city. I needed them to play the FP. At all costs. Well… the cost of gas. I sent them an offer, with a bonus of the greatest “crowd of kids they’ll ever play to”, and with no hesitation they accepted. They loaded up their gear, giant cut-outs, and hand-made merch and drove into Brantford. Into the sleeping limb of downtown. Into that rinky-dink venue. Into the wolf den of pissed off cubs.
"Smith, along with childhood friends Matt Beckett and Randy Lee started writing songs together in their teens in Brantford. With the encouragement of Beckett, Smith joined both him and Lee in Toronto, refining their craft in the big city."
Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Scott and drummer Dana Snell both bring an outsider’s look, being the only two non-Brantfordians in the group.
“When we went there for the first time, they showed me the downtown and it had these bizarre silhouettes painted on the boarded-up businesses, maybe to make it seem less bleak. But the silhouettes had people lining up for ATM lessons at the "bank" and A River Runs Through It at the "cinema." You could date the town's decay from those silhouettes. They also told me Silent Hill had been filmed in Brantford. The place seemed really creepy.” Snell vividly remembers. A memory that Scott amusingly brings up as well. He describes them as “sad and lifeless spray-painted silhouettes of unmoving passersby mockingly adorning the boarded upfront windows across the street”. He would go on, “...it was as if it got deader the further in you went, in the space of just a few blocks...and then there, right at its most busted deserted spot was that little corner beacon of hope that was the FP.”
They made it through the literal horror movie backdrop safely, but was the horror yet to come? I worried this ‘cute and cuddly’ group, all matched in tee’s with giant fuzzy B’s personally hand stitched on them, would be devoured by the wolf cubs. Before they played, we had already had two kids trying to steal the money box and I had to clean up a double layer of puke (someone puked and then 1 minute later someone puked on top of the puke). During this typical tornado of a Saturday night, the Bicycles calmly bopped their heads to Silent Film Soundtrack, playing on stage at the time. I also expressly recall every member of the band humbly holding their hands behind them, all with soft smiles on their lips, enjoying the chaos swirling around them. It may seem odd to remember those small details, and even odder to write about them in a story so many years later, but that always stayed with me. Were they unafraid? Unaware? Did our little venue and our little town’s shadowed reputation not reach their ears?
“I knew NOTHING about Brantford as a music town beforehand. I'd met Matt and Drew's roommate Brian Ward, of Brantford’s The Vermicious Knid, and he was from there as well and thought they were all super cool.” Scott looks back on his first memories of Brantford, not with fright but more of a curiosity and excitement for his friends’ prodigal return. Talking of Drew, Randy and Matt he says “There was a strange excitement of ‘come look at our busted ass town where we grew up’ …one-downsmanship? I was stoked though. I could read their eagerness to get back there and play. Show off the band. Look what we can do. “
Smith doesn’t recall with much concern either, not remembering the violent hum around him, but excitement for his return. “It was a bit of a homecoming of sorts.” “We were very happy that such a cool place was happening in our hometown. It was magical to us.”
Randy Lee of The Bicycles performing at the Ford Plant 2006. Photo credit Kyle Rose.
Well, this was it. Up they climbed to the altar. Was this to be sacrificial? But the moment they strummed their first note a deep calm overcame me, I humbly put my hands behind my back and a soft smile appeared on my lips. Anyone in the room, be it a punk, an indie kid, or the tag-along friend who didn’t have anything else to do that night, all collectively embraced each other and in real time fell in love. Cartoon birds and butterflies and shit. The whole cliche. Song after song was pure sugar on the tongue. Every kid danced like the band was playing a private show in their own bedroom. For those 40 minutes, even the most cynical, bedazzled-faced bruiser could see the sun through the clouds. The band’s joyousness almost seemed antagonistic. THAT’S fucking punk.
“I don't think I ever worried about us fitting onto a bill. Live, we kinda had a scrappy, garage thing going on. It wasn't really a reproduction of our album. We'd get really sweaty and dance around a lot.” Drew discusses. “Also, I didn't worry about heaviness then because Dana could sure bash the shit out of the drums”.
Drew hit the stick on the snare (bad pun), referring to their not-so-secret weapon, Snell behind the kit. To the FP kids, who were all very new to live local music, seeing a girl drumming, and not just drumming, but blasting the room with womps, was a spark they needed to pick up an instrument.
“Seeing Dana on stage was such a cool moment. It was the first time I saw a female playing drums and that made me feel that I could do that too. I think maybe a month later I started my first band”, recalls Sam Ayerhart, who started going to Ford Plant shows from the beginning and would later work with the venue.
Like the rest of her band mates, Snell doesn’t look back with concern but fondness. “Maybe we were punk in our minds. It was important to us (well, Matt really, but then by extension us) to put on a memorable show. That's why we performed with life-sized cut-outs of ourselves and in matching homemade B shirts. So, we always tried to play with a lot of energy. And, of course, we were inspired by the crowd. When I think of the Ford Plant, I think of looking out over this wall of kids. I remember them being elevated somehow. Up on speakers? On the ceiling? I'm not sure.”
After the band walked off stage, the 120 people (in a room that held 80 people) knew The Bike’s music would fill those walls, forevermore. I personally gave them the FP all-access pass to the basement and an invitation to literally play any time they wanted to. An offer, I’m eternally grateful they accepted time and time again through The Ford Plant’s life. When it was time to close that rinky-dink music venue’s book, it was only fitting to invite The Bicycles back for the “Last Waltz”. They opened the very last show to be played on that corner of King and Colborne, in a building that no longer stands. Recollections of the Rodeo, Admirals, Fast Eddies, and other life-threatening landmarks still last in their minds. Scott looks back, writing every word perfectly. “I so very fondly remember how sweaty the windows got during those shows, how you'd duck out that side door in the middle of winter and just be steaming clouds off a sweaty B t shirt, into the street-lamped night. That was Brantford to me”.
In the end, the Bicycles were a favourite because of the force of their music. The songs were THAT good. But to the Ford Plant kids it was so much more. They opened heads and hearts and put the B in Brantford. In a city where it's sometimes hard to find local pride, it feels good to have such a lovely pin on its lapel. No matter where they may end up living or that they were 2/5ths adopted Brantfordian, the Bicycles forever are a Brantford band.
"the Bicycles were a favourite because of the force of their music. The songs were THAT good. But to the Ford Plant kids it was so much more. They opened heads and hearts and put the B in Brantford."
“This is proof of what it meant to us and the “family” feeling the ford plant fostered - Matt's son (who was in the 10 to 13 age range at the time) came out to see us play in the town where he lived. That was a special show.” Smith points to a favourite moment. Scott concludes, “Other bands I was playing with surely experienced all this too and had some of the most badassed shows there, Meligroves, Adorables, etc. but Bicycles seemed the best fit, embracing us and the way we did things because they saw some Brantford in it.”
Seeing someone FROM Brantford doing it was not lost on the hungry cubs that night either. Sometimes you need to be shown that in a town that feels like its streets are against you, its best to whistle ‘tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the old oak tree’ while you walk down them.
THAT’S fucking punk.
Tim Ford is a part-time disalarmist who insists on leaving the window open.
After releasing three acclaimed records, the Bicycles moved on to equally beloved projects. Bunny, Biblical, Sheezer, Marker Starling and Drew Smith’s solo project are all spokes on the Bicycle’s beloved wheel.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario…so…yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.