D.O.A.'s Joe Keithley on Fighting Skinheads in Five Points

D.O.A. brings its fortieth-anniversary tour to Streets of London Pub on Thursday, May 24.
D.O.A. brings its fortieth-anniversary tour to Streets of London Pub on Thursday, May 24. Courtesy of Sudden Death Records.

In 1986, Canadian hardcore punk band D.O.A. played a show in Five Points at the venue that’s now the Roxy Theatre. Frontman Joey “Shithead” Keithley says there were about twenty skinheads smashing and thrashing some of the 300 kids who were at the concert.

“Finally, I stopped the show,” Keithley says. “I kind of called these guys out on their bullshit. So of course when you do that, they send forth their biggest guy to have it out with you, saying, ‘Go kill this puke on stage who’s talking crap about us’ type thing. So, the guy comes out. I kind of leaned down with my hand to shake hands to make peace and calm this down. And he got really mad.

"The funniest thing was [that] as he moved away from me, because he didn’t want to shake my hand, I accidentally caught his T-shirt, and his T-shirt ripped off his chest. So I had his T-shirt in my hand. I got it, and I waved it in the air, and the crowd started cheering, and then they rushed in and beat the crap out of these guys and threw them out. I was going, like, 'Okay, I’m about to get my ass kicked here.’"

Keithley waving the shirt was the rallying point. He says one of the things that D.O.A. always pushes is that when people realize there's strength in numbers, it creates a really powerful force.

"And that’s how you change the world," Keithley says. "It was just one little incident where 300 kids also realized, these skinheads are wrecking our scene and nobody’s doing anything about it. And then this guy from D.O.A. stood up to him a little bit. All of a sudden they charge in and chuck these guys out the back door. It was a pretty cool moment.”

It’s just one example of fighting back, something Keithley — whose lifelong mantra has been "Talk - Action = Zero" — has been doing since starting the band in 1978. He’s doing it again on the band’s seventeenth album, Fight Back, released this month on his own Sudden Death Records imprint. Keithley says that Fight Back deals with racial and financial inequality as well as sexism in the entertainment world.

“[Those are] three things that are very prevalent — some of the things that we say you should fight back about,"  Keithley says. “So that’s why we picked up that title, because we thought that you just can’t sit there and take it. You have to fight back.”

Keithley says it’s hard to believe that in this day and age people have to be ever-vigilant, noting the world has swung to the right, citing fascist leaders in the Ukraine and Hungary along with the rise of big right-wing parties throughout Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, England, France, Austria and Finland, where his family is from.

“One of my biggest heroes who was ever-vigilant was Pete Seeger, the folksinger, who I was fortunate to meet a few times. I played a couple of shows with him — acoustically, that kind of thing,” Keithley says. “He’s the type of guy who fought that type of crap for like sixty or seventy years. The American government tried to stop his career and tried to jail him, too, but he stood up and just kept going.”

Keithley says he’s always equated folk music with punk rock, because it’s really the story of the people. “Of course, not all punk rock talks about stuff like that,” Keithley adds. “There’s some stuff that’s completely vacuous or fun bands that sing about nothing but light stuff, which I don’t have an argument with. I mean, you can’t have all music the same, right? But generally, punk rock was a way to speak what people felt, the same way like when rap music came along for African-Americans. The way punk rock spoke for suburban white kids, so to speak, when it started: It was protest music. That’s exactly what folk music was — or is.”

Since D.O.A. started four decades ago, the band has played around 4,000 shows on five continents and Keithley guesses in around 45 countries, and while the lineup has changed along the way, he says the group has retained the same basic attitude and the same sound it started out with.

“If you listen to D.O.A now or listened to it then, it doesn’t sound exactly the same, but it’s pretty similar,” he says. “Like, we didn’t try to transition into metal band or glam rock. We didn’t have those phases. D.O.A. has been pretty consistent all the way through. One of the key things is, you have to have a vision and be clear about what you want. That goes with the band and, to me, that goes for life or people in general. You have to make up your mind where you’re going; otherwise, you’ll end up being like a leaf blowing around in the wind.

"You have to know which way it's going type of thing. It’s really a matter of philosophy, and that’s really what backs up D.O.A., is that political, kind of change-the-world, irreverent, I-don’t-give-a-crap-I’m-going-to-mess-with-your-mind type attitude.”

D.O.A. and M.D.C., with Blood Loss and No Takers, 9 p.m. Thursday, May 24, Streets of London Pub, 303-861-9103, $20-$22.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon