July 27, 2018 | by James Greene, Jr. [photo by: Kenneth Davison]
Between 1981 and 2002 Toronto’s cinema-centric feminist punk rock collective Fifth Column helped mold the sound and aesthetics of the riot grrrl movement via landmark releases like 1985’s To Sir With Hate and 1990’s All-Time Queens of the World. At the center of this group were always two multi-instrumentalists, Caroline Azar and G.B. Jones.
Hungry for insight into this legendary act, Jones was kind enough to let us pick her brain via email not long ago. What unfolded is below, submitted for your most valued approval.
NO RECESS!: What was your doctrine when Fifth Column began? What were you setting out to accomplish? What was the driving force behind the group at its inception?
G.B. Jones: Fifth Column really set out to take the idea of what a band could be and do it in a different way. From the beginning we wanted to work with experimental film makers and artists, and start a fanzine. And so our band included film and print mediums, theatre, photography, spray painting, and art work — all those aspects were part of the band. We just didn't want to reiterate all the clichés that were so prevalent at that time, especially for women in bands. We wanted to try to discover new ways of doing things… everything from writing music, to being on stage, to our presentation in media. We wanted to challenge ourselves.
NR!: How much of Fifth Column's reality ultimately lined up with the visions that propelled the band from the start?
Jones: When you start a band, you do begin with a vision of what you might hope to achieve, but as soon as you leave the practice space and enter the real world of live performances and making recordings and touring you need to be able to think on your feet. So rather than be didactic and remain tied down to one idea of what the band could be, we tried to be spontaneous, to react to the world around us… and because we did, I think we surpassed our initial vision. Fifth Column became so much more than what we initially imagined could be possible.
NR!: Was there one moment or song for either you or Caroline that tipped you into punk rock, or was it more of a gradual discovery?
Jones: It would have been really difficult not to notice the phenomena of punk, it was the most exciting thing happening at that time! For me, it was the fact that it was coming from a wide range of areas, so it wasn't only the bands and the fact that so many women were involved from the beginning, but it also was films like Ross McLaren's Crash 'n' Burn, Jubilee by Derek Jarman, the no wave films by Vivienne Dick and Scott and Beth B., The Decline of Western Civilization by Penelope Spheeris, and Don Letts’ The Punk Rock Movie. It was the photographs of Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe, the collage art work of Jamie Reid, the clothes of Vivienne Westwood, it was the spray paint aesthetic. It was the jumble of everything altogether that could be used to take the opportunity to make up a name, re-invent yourself, and make a statement.
NR!: What would you say was the most difficult obstacle to overcome during Fifth Column's run?
Jones: Of course, time and money were the biggest hindrances. We had so many ideas we couldn't accomplish. I remember that at one point Caroline had ideas for stage sets, but it just wasn't possible to do. No one had a car and we were taking our equipment in taxis to our shows!
NR!: Wow, really? Were other bands not keen on sharing their drums and amps? Or was it more of, "We have this specific sound and we have to have these specific instruments?"
Jones: We always had a lot of pretty unique equipment that other bands weren't using, so we had to bring our own instruments and amps to every show.
NR!: I read in one interview that the members of your group all enjoyed the Swiss outfit Liliput. How would bands like that wind up on your radar in those wild wooly pre-Internet days? Did you feel connected to the global punk community at large?
Jones: There were really so many bands that we were interested in. One of the aspects of Fifth Column I really liked was the record playing parties we’d have after rehearsals. People would bring the latest single or album they’d got and we'd all gather around the record player to listen and talk about it. I got all the Liliput singles from the discount bin at the Record Peddler — they were all on sale because the staff there didn't consider them punk enough or cool enough. We'd also buy records at the thrift store, Goodwill, and the used record shops. We found out about bands from reading fanzines, or the NME and Melody Maker, during the time which is now referred to as the “golden age” of music journalism, and it was. It was through fanzines that we found addresses of other bands we were interested in and began writing to them, so we became connected to a global community through the mail, and through touring we'd meet bands and stay connected through our own fanzine, Hide.
NR!: Was Fifth Column always going to be the name of the band or were there other monikers in the running?
Jones: When I first joined the band, it was already named Second Unit. Second Unit is a film term for the team that will go and do all the on location shots and the background shots for a movie, while the stars and director stay in the studio. So that gives you an idea how closely we felt aligned to filmmaking right from the beginning. When Caroline joined the band we changed the name to Fifth Column because she was bringing so much to the band in terms of singing, keyboard playing, lyrics, and ideas, that we really felt like it was a new group.
NR!: Is there one instance or accomplishment with Fifth Column that you look back upon as being the apex or top achievement, or do you look at the group and its art as more of a whole singular achievement?
Jones: I think our greatest achievement is the fact that we managed to stay together and get so much done, in spite of all the obstacles. Sometimes I can't believe we did it!
NR!: To what do you attribute the longevity? Is there a secret?
Jones: I think Caroline and I had certain goals we wanted to fulfill, and we just kept going until we realized them. The secret is simply in not giving up.
NR!: Is there one recording of Fifth Column that you feel is the best representation of the band? One you are the most proud of? If so, please name it and explain why, if you can.
Jones: The thing I like best about Fifth Column is that we can sound completely different on our various recordings in different eras, so that there is no single recording that would be the best representation of the band. And this is something people would get upset about too — they’d complain that all the songs weren't like "All Women Are Bitches” or some other song, depending on the year. And that was just incredibly boring to us, the idea that a band would sound the same on every song. We went to great lengths to not sound the same on every song, to try to do something new and fresh each time, something we hadn't done before. Otherwise, what's the point? We liked to challenge ourselves.
Watch the video for Fifth Column's "Like This"