Teenage Head – Tornado Turns 40

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“We like to play really loud. We’re like a 1980s version of that 50s
or early 60s rock’n’roll.” Gordie Lewis, 1981.

In many ways, Tornado is the great lost album by Teenage Head. For years it’s been almost a paen to what might have been if not for the unpredictability and capriciousness of the music business.

Ever since their 1979 self-titled debut, Teenage Head had built up a voracious fan base through constant touring and innovative promotional activities. This had translated into gold and platinum albums but the inability to secure a US release soured relations with their label (Attic Records). It was a situation that found them, in 1982 – one of Canada’s top live draws – without a record deal.

Enter MCA Records. Signed directly to the US label – the deal came with two conditions.

First, to avert any possible resistance or controversy; the band had to change their name to Teenage Heads. Second; it was decided a 6-track MINI LP would be the best approach to introduce them into a new market. This was a common tactic in that era; to introduce new artists via attractively priced 4 or 6 track mini-lps.

“I had never even thought of the band’s name as having that kind of meaning. Teenage Head was the name of a record by the Flamin’ Groovies. That’s where we got the name. It means being a head, you know, like ‘he’s a good head’. That sort of thing.” Gordie Lewis, The Globe and Mail, June 3, 1983, interview with Matthew Fraser (“Teenage Head adds an S to make it in the Midwest”). On Jan 4 and 5, 1983, the band went into Metalworks Studios and recorded and mixed six tracks in two days; produced by David Bendeth who knew the power of the band since he had been the replacement guitarist on their live shows while Gordie Lewis recuperated from a horrific crash in the band van that derailed the group for almost a year previous.

A busy session player and producer, Bendeth resolved to bridge the demands of a major label looking for radio play and a band wanting their live energy properly captured and recorded. There is no doubt Bendeth added a powerful kick to the Teenage Head sound and especially the Gordie Lewis guitar sound, which merited its own attention on the master tape recording sheets.

“The songwriting on the album is stronger, but, I still don’t think we’ve been captured live in the studio yet. You have to get those squeals in the background in. We’re a goodtime party dance band.” Nick Stipanitz, RPM, June 25, 1983.

“It’s hard to find those who understand the simplicity of our sound. The sound of all those old records are great. Now you have some bands using 24-channel boards and they end up sounding like crap. We don’t need all that gear.” Gordie Lewis, RPM magazine.

It is only now, thanks to the 2019 remix by Mark Berry, that the full power behind these tracks can be fully revealed. This is due in large part to current audio technology and Mark’s own previous work with the band (their majestic 1996 return to form, Head Disorder). David Bendeth, for his part, has since become one of the top hard rock producers in the world (after executive stints at various labels such as RCA and CBS); no doubt influenced by his time with Teenage Head.

“I think there’s a real demand out there for old-time rock’n’roll. I see it in our audiences. People want to hear guitars again.” Gordie Lewis, Toronto Sun, April 29, 1983.

The original Tornado dropped in early May, 1983, and MCA Records Canada wasted little time in putting all their promotional resources behind its release. Both the single (Tornado) and album rocketed up the Canadian charts (#39 for the single and #30 for the album). Band itineraries from the period show a cross-Canada tour with hardly any days off, and, if there was free time – that was quickly filled up with press and radio activities.

Press reaction was decidedly mixed; some writers applauded the band for making a move into the US market while other, more purist, pundits decried the name change and what they considered a more radio accessible sound.“To avoid ruffling the straight-laced, no-nonsense Republican sensibilities of the denizens of the American Midwest, Teenage Head has added an “s” to its name. That nod to marketability is reflected in the music. It is cleaner, smoother, and better produced than this local band’s earlier efforts.” – Paul Benedetti, Hamilton Spectator, June 24, 1983.

“The new set of tunes is, if nothing else, a welcome blast of real rock in a period when radio is overdosing on synthetic U.K. new wave. David Bendeth’s production has added some much needed bottom end, and the songs are as much fun as anything in the catalogue.”
– Jonathan Gross, Toronto Sun, April 29, 1983.

And this classic headline; “You can’t get ahead with a name like Teenage Head”, London Free Press, June 4, 1983. Writer Peter Laurie writes “Tornado’s guitar-heavy boogie-woogie sounds almost anachronistic next to an AM radio playlist increasingly dominated by the synthetic, repetitive tunes of the newer bands.”

With both album and single bulleting into the Top 40; relentless touring and a massive MCA Canada promo push; it seemed certain that the album would be on its way to gold status. A video for “Tornado” was filmed at Toronto’s premier hard rock club, Rock’n’Roll Heaven, and a US tour was next on the band’s game plan.

Unbeknownst to the Canadians, the American company was undergoing upheavals and changes. Caught in the crossfire was Teenage Head and the Tornado album.

“The entire team that had signed us was gone,” remembers Stephen Mahon. “We got a one page letter in the mail that basically said we were off the label. And…good luck.“

And with that, the entire Teenage Head momentum came to a halt. Their dream of a US release gone on a whim; and with it – the removal of all support from the Canadian label (but not before a second single, Blood Boogie, managed to slip out the door). This turn of events proved to be a pivotal point for the band and precipitated a major disruption that saw the dissolution of the band’s management structure and a return to their indie roots as the band finally took over complete control of their affairs. Tornado was to be their last major label album until the current renaissance of the band’s career; which ironically, has brought them back full circle into the Universal family – a family now populated by Teenage Head fans.

In 2019, ‘Tornado’ was remixed from the original 24 track masters by Mark Berry (Headstones, David Bowie, Billy Idol, Joan Jett) at Cylinder Sound in Toronto.
It went from a 6 track EP to a full 14 track full split green/yellow vinyl and 21 track CD and digital release. These contain original 1983 mixes plus demos and rarities, a Teenage Head Family Tree dating back to 1971, rare photos and flyers, essays from Stephen Mahon and Ralph Alfonso and much more.

‘Tornado’ was the last release featuring the original line up of Gordie Lewis, Frankie Venom, Nick Stipanitz and Stephen Mahon.

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