Formed in Toronto in 1980 by Montreal-born singer Graeme Williamson, and guitarists Neil Chapman and Tony Duggan-Smith, The Pukka Orchestra took their name from a Hindu term meaning “first rate” or “genuine,” after Duggan-Smith’s mother complained he wasn’t pursuing a ‘real’ musical career.
For the next year and a half they made themselves a permanent fixture on the Queen Street West club scene, for which they often borrowed from a revolving door of backup musicians on an as-needed basis. Occasionally, the stage could be packed with a dozen members or more while they mixed new wave with pop and a touch of punk. They also toured Quebec and made some stops on the East Coast.
In the fall of ’81, they released an independent single, the tongue-in-cheek “Rubber Girl” b/w “Do The Slither” on their own Rubber Records. It quickly got decent airplay around the Toronto area and college radio stations. Another year of so and they eventually got the attention of reps at Solid Gold Records (Toronto, Chilliwack, Headpins).
The label shipped them off to four studios around Toronto over the next few months with producer Eugene Martynec (Bruce Cockburn, Rough Trade), and their self-titled debut was released in the spring of 1984. Compared to the likes of Doug & The Slugs, the record was full of wit, as well as tight hooks and slick production with a funky big band feel, spurred on by over 25 musicians and backing vocalists.
The lead single, “Listen To The Radio” was a cover of the Tom Robinson/ Peter Gabriel song that Robinson recorded while with The Atmospherics. Pukka’s version shot up the charts and peaked at #20, helped in part by a cleverly amusing video. It was followed soon after by “Cherry Beach Express,” about the alleged brutal practices of a Toronto police detachment, and then “Might As Well Be On Mars” (later covered by English folk rock legends Strawbs). Also on the album was a reworked version of the single that gave their career its kick start, “Rubber Girl.”
More often than not, the number of people in the supporting cast made any string of shows impracticle, but they assembled a backing band and finished out the year on the road that included opening gigs for Cyndi Lauper, Thomas Dolby, and Marianne Faithful, and in front of 30,000 people at a Halifax festival. But what for all intents and purposes looked like a bright future was cut short when Williamson developed kidney problems while in Scotland. A benefit concert was organized in Toronto to help aid his family that raised $5,000. He ended up staying in a Glasgow hospital for several months while receiving daily dialysis treatments. While the band’s future was left in hiatus, Solid Gold turned out to be pyrite. The label closed its doors and the royalties owed to the struggling band were tied up in complicated bankruptcy proceedings.
Williamson returned to Canada, and after receiving a kidney transplant, got back to writing. The Pukka Orchestra reformed and released a four-song EP in ’87 called PALACE OF MEMORY on their own label, A Major Label. Two singles with videos were released, “Weekend (Come Alive),” and “Goldmine In The Sky,” and each were met with a fairly respective response around Toronto, but neither made an impact elsewhere.
But still fragile, Williamson’s health didn’t improve significantly, and the band packed it in for good in the spring of 1988, or so they thought – despite being in the middle of writing material for a new album. They resurfaced in ’92 with the self-produced and financed DEAR HARRY.
Consisting of three tracks from the 1987 EP, a remixed version of “Might As Well Be On Mars” and the rest from the prematurely abandoned 1988 sessions, it was recorded at Toronto’s Enormous Sound Studios and produced by Norman Corbett. But with the band now officially retired, the record was mostly met with indifference with the exception of the only single “Every Man And Woman Is A Star,” which almost made the top 40.
A few of the tracks made it to compilation albums over the next few years, after Williamson retired from acitvely performing, moved to Scotland, and became a music and novel writer. Duggan-Smith and Chapman continued to work together, releasing a CD called OH MY under the guise of their new project, The Neotunes in the mid ’90s. Over the years, Chapman had also become a highly sought-after session player, appearing on a multitude of albums, and included working with the likes of Buffy Saint-Marie, Alan Frew, Alannah Myles, Dan Hill, and Rita MacNeil, among others.
In late 2000, the band’s 1984 debut was released on CD by Solid Gold, but didn’t contain any bonus material. Different versions of the band, sans Williamson, got together for the odd show and again over the years, while Williamson kept himself busy with outside projects. In June, 2020, he passed away in his Glasgow home after a long battle with cancer.