The Vacant Lot: Saskatoon’s unsung rebels and first-ever punk band

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“On a Friday night in 1980 I went to see D.O.A. The next morning I went and bought a guitar.”

That’s Don Cruickshank. I met him in a steakhouse in 2010 to interview him after hearing his claims to have started Saskatoon’s first punk band. As it turns out he actually did.

Cruickshank recalls going with some friends to a gig at The North 40, a country and western bar on 20th Street in Saskatoon. A local new wave group, The Dial Tones, were opening up for Vancouver punkers D.O.A. The performance changed his life, and the next day he got that guitar and began learning punk songs. Then he started writing his own.

“My roommate, Joe, always wanted to be a singer in a band,” said Cruickshank. “So once I started learning guitar, we began jamming. Once we had a full band, we were jamming thirty hours a week. I’m not kidding. That’s how we were able to learn so many tunes. You know, for an hour of music, we literally had 90 songs.”

Cruickshank and “Joe” found some friends to play with, but no one was a reliable drummer. Hearing that another Vancouver punk band, The Subhumans, were coming to Saskatoon, Cruickshank decided the concert might be the best place to find a drummer. He hung up posters in the men’s bathroom with his phone number on it. The phrase “versatile experienced drummers need not apply” graced the bottom. And after attaining just such a drummer, the group christened themselves The Vacant Lot.

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Rehearsals spaces were nonexistent, so the band had to practice in the only space they had available to them – a meat locker. “Ha ha! It’s true,” Cruickshank insisted. “We had a space downstairs in the basement of Swift Premium Meat Packaging Plant on the corner of Wall Street and 24th. It was a meat locker with a big steel door. It was only six by twelve feet.”

Using glue, the band fastened carpeting and egg cartons onto the walls of the locker to soundproof the room. And there was real need to do so, because Cruickshank had custom built the amplifiers the band was using.

“I built all the power amps, probably about 3000 watts worth of power amps,” said Cruickshank. “We had phased linear 400’s, we had phased linear 200’s, a tri-amp and a bunch of other small amps. It was fucking loud.”

The band began performing live in 1982, playing house parties and fundraiser shows exclusively, having no interest in being a “real rock band” or being paid to play music. Cover songs were still favoured by the group at this point, and they regularly played songs by their favourite groups like Black Flag, Anti Nowhere League, Cockney Rejects, UK Subs, Ramones, and The Sex Pistols.

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When asked about The Vacant Lot’s original compositions, Cruickshank shared this story: “There was this song by a Los Angeles punk band, The Controllers, called “Slow Boy.” It was a song making fun of the mentally ill. Our singer really wanted to cover the song badly because of how offensive it was. The rest of us told him to go fuck himself. Anyway, there was this other local band called The Cold Boys, who were pretty close to being a punk band. But we decided to rewrite the cover and call it “Cold Boy.” So a few months later, the guys from The Cold Boys showed up to a party that we were playing at and we played the song. They weren’t pissed off though. They thought it was funny and ended up writing a song or two about us.”

Cruickshank left the band shortly afterward, but continued to support the band. When I asked him about seeing them after his departure, he shared maybe one of the best rock ‘n roll stories I’ve ever heard out of Saskatchewan:

“There used to be this thing in Saskatoon called Louis Riel Day. The city made this big hokey show of it. They would have a race down by the rivers with runners, horseback riders and canoes. There would be perogie eating contests and what have you.”

One of the band members lived in an apartment across the river from the festivities. He decided it would be great for The Vacant Lot to taunt the festival attendees by performing punk songs on the roof of the apartment. “Nobody knew what was going on,” Cruickshank recalled. “The city didn’t have a proper noise bylaw at the time.”

He cracks up laughing while recalling the memory.

“They were across the river playing songs and drowning out the band who was playing in the bandshell. They had huge extension cords coming from three houses to power all the speakers they lugged up. It was hilarious. The dragon boats were racing down the river as they played ‘Bomb the Boats, Feed the Fish’ by Forgotten Rebels.

“The cops showed up and asked them to turn it down. Dave was a scary-looking biker guy and told the cops, ‘No, we’ll do three more songs.’ And they said okay and left.”

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– Photos courtesy of Don Cruickshank – a million thanks for saving these