Joey Shithead on D.O.A.'s Musical and Political DIY Roots

Vancouver's D.O.A. is considered to be one of the foundational bands of hardcore punk. The title of the band's Hardcore '81 album is generally thought to mark the first time that term was used in connection with punk's second wave. As did contemporaries like Black Flag, Bad Brains and Middle Class, D.O.A. drew inspiration from early punk and proto-punk acts like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and the Stooges. That generation of punks also grew up at a time of great social and political upheaval during the most active phase of the global anti-colonial movement, the civil-rights movement in America, the Vietnam War and its protestors, the Weather Underground, SDS, Black Panthers, the early gay-rights movement, the beginning of a more radical phase of feminism, the Red Army Faction, the rise of a meaningful environmentalist movement — and a backlash against all of it. That was the backdrop for a style of music that was faster, more aggressive, and, to a large extent, pointedly political in tone.

Joey “Shithead” Keithley, D.O.A.'s charismatic frontman and guitarist, was exposed to folk protest music by his older sister Karen. The Weavers, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie informed what Keithley played early on with his acoustic guitar. But in his teens, Keithley was exposed to what is now considered early classic rock and artists like Jimi Hendrix and Country Joe and the Fish, both of whom helped redefine music and develop the counterculture. By 1971, Greenpeace had started in Vancouver, and the organization went to all of the high schools in the area and recruited students to march to the American consulate to protest the testing of nuclear weapons in the Aleutian Islands. “Our principal tried to stop us from leaving by standing at the main entrance of the school and crossing his arms,” recalls Keithley with a chuckle. “Completely ridiculous.”

The experience left Keithley energized and inspired, and he initially tried to go to school to become a civil-rights lawyer. But that didn't pan out, and Keithley started his first punk-rock band, the Skulls. That band didn't last long, and Keithley started D.O.A. He expected to self-release the band's records, as it was likely that no Vancouver label was looking to sign a punk-rock band. Inspired by having seen a hippie band called Pied Piper String Ensemble, D.O.A. figured out how to get its debut seven-inch single, “Disco Sucks,” recorded, pressed and packaged in a very DIY fashion.

“If you see the first pressing, the covers were so fresh, and we were excited to fold them. You can see people's fingerprints on the white spots, because the ink was still wet. It was pretty down-to-earth, and we had no idea how to distribute it," Keithley says. "We went to six record stores in Vancouver and dropped the singles off for a buck each, and the stores would pay us back $1.25, and we thought that was an incredible profit. The smartest thing we did was mail the single to magazines and promoters. We didn't have money to buy magazines, and there was nothing online, obviously, in those days, so we would go to the record stores with a notebook and jotted down the addresses with all these different contacts that might be interested, and we just mailed them singles.”

D.O.A. got its big break when a college station in San Francisco put the single into rotation and the song made it to number two on the charts. That admittedly meager level of encouragement, however, got D.O.A. to make the trip down to the Bay Area to play the legendary Mabuhay Gardens and subsequently connect with and help shape a vibrant new punk movement in North America.

Since D.O.A. is overtly political — its “Fucked Up Ronnie” (recently reworked as “Fucked Up Donald,” aimed, of course, at Donald Trump) is a classic of the '80s — it should come as no surprise that Keithley would eventually run for office. In the last two decades, he's run for provincial political office with the Canadian Green Party as well as the New Democratic Party. But he feels that the band gives him a more open outlet to speak out about social issues. He is still not cynical about the possibility of people impacting their governance.

“Change really starts from a local level,” offers Keithley. “If you have a good idea, it spreads to your neighborhood, city, state or province. It can go bigger than that if it's a really good idea and has some backing. Big government and big business don't want you to know that. Those big organizations that run our society, they're just poll readers, and they just react to people. And if people got mad enough to effect some real change, you can bet the change would happen the way you want. But people are too timid — within North America, particularly. We don't really do a lot; we let a lot of this stuff happen to us.”

D.O.A. at Punk Rock Bowling with Buzzcocks, the Briefs and Pitch Invasion, Thursday June 2, 7 p.m. doors, 8 p.m. show, Larimer Lounge, 303-291-1007.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.