Until recently, The Centaurs were one of those classic 1960s garage-rock bands that seemed lost to time.
“All that is known about The Centaurs is that they came from The Hague,” said the liner notes to compilation of Dutch bands from the “psychedelic sixties,” Flight to Lowlands Paradise. “Their only single came out on Polydor in 1967.”
The band did live in The Hague in the ’60s, but they were actually from Richmond, B.C.
After forming in 1964, the quintet played most every type of local gig you can imagine. They opened for movies at the Lougheed Drive-In, attracted 1,400 teenagers to the Peach Bowl in Penticton and were headliners at Vancouver’s first psychedelic hotspot, The Afterthought.
But they grew frustrated at being a garage-rock band in a rhythm and blues town. So in November 1966 they moved to Europe.
In Holland they were billed as the “Topgroep uit Canada,” opened for The Troggs and had a hit single. In Germany, they were offered a residency at the Star-Club in Hamburg, where the Beatles had honed their craft.
“They said, ‘We’d like you to stay, we want you to play here like The Beatles — but we’re not going to pay you,’ ” recalls drummer John Gedak.
“We said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘We will make you famous.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Well, we’re already famous. We have a hit record in Holland with Polydor, we’re booked there as Canada’s top band.’ ”
The band was in Europe 18 months before they got homesick and came back to Vancouver. Gedak stayed behind to play with a German band, and The Centaurs broke up.
Fast forward five decades. Gedak is living in Tsawwassen and sells a drum kit to someone who wants to give it to a kid as a birthday present.
“He goes over to Victoria to this party, and who’s at the party but our old road manager, Don Moss,” says Gedak. “So I call (Moss) and he says, ‘By the way, I’ve got this box … I opened it up and there’s this tape in there.’ And I’m going, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
Before leaving for Europe, The Centaurs had recorded several songs from their stage show with legendary local producer Robin Spurgin.
They pressed about 20 cheap “acetate” copies to send overseas to try and get gigs, but the whereabouts of the original tape were a mystery until it turned up in Moss’s box.
Last week, their debut album was finally released, 53 years after it was recorded.
The four remaining band members got together at Gedak’s house to autograph copies of the vinyl album, and to reminisce about their unique career.
“We were one of the first bands in Vancouver to have long hair,” recounts guitarist Hugh Reilly, 76. “We had numerous confrontations where these greaseballs, for want of a better term, wanted to beat us up.”
Gedak laughs: “Some restaurants wouldn’t serve us.”
“The Knight and Day on Boundary and Lougheed, they wouldn’t serve us,” says Reilly.
“There was another occasion where we walked through The Bay downtown and we literally stopped conversations, dead in their tracks. Walking down the sidewalks we had people with grocery bags walking into parking meters because they couldn’t take their eyes off us.”
Singer Ron Williams was a handsome buck and a snappy dresser, which made him a magnet for the women in the audience. But this didn’t always sit well with their boyfriends.
“There was one time Ron got into a confrontation with somebody, at a little disco club in Richmond,” says bassist Al West, 75.
“Oh that was a bad one,” says Gedak.
“After we packed up we were heading out to the parking lot and this circle was gradually forming around us,” says West. “It was getting pretty scary.”
“It was like West Side Story,” said Reilly. “There was a big circle of guys closing in on us, so we grabbed mic stands and stuff like that (to defend ourselves). The next thing the cops arrive, and escorted us all the way to Burnaby.”
“You beaned somebody’s car with a mic stand,” says keyboard player Bob Brown, 71. “They were pulling out and it went bang!”
“That was a different time,” says Reilly. “That was the rowdies from Prince George.”
Gedak was still in high school, and the principal threatened to boot him out unless he cut his hair. He argued he needed long hair for the band, so the principal relented, as long as he greased his hair down and combed it back.
“All the guys would come into the washroom and go, ‘Comb it down, we want to see what it looks like!’ ” says Gedak. “I’d comb it down and they’d go, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’ ”
Originally they dressed in matching suits and turtlenecks, but quickly they adopted the mod look, picking up bright, snazzy clothes from the Bad Boys Ragge Shop in downtown Vancouver.
As cool as they thought they were in Vancouver, when they got to Amsterdam the scene was something else.
“It was a shock,” says Reilly. “Even in ’67 when the Retinal Circus (club) and the psychedelic thing was kicking off, compared to what was going on in Holland … (Vancouver was) a backwater.
“We felt like country bumpkins over there. Unisex was everywhere, the mini-skirts, the hair down to the butt, male, female, it didn’t matter.”
Initially, the band was scheduled to go straight to Germany. But the night they arrived in Amsterdam Gedak went out to see the sights.
“First music I heard, a club, I walked in and it was live,” he says.
“I said I want to talk to the manager, I’m in a band from Canada. This guy come out and says, ‘I’m Hans Van Oosterhaut.’
“He was manager of a band that had a hit called Ma Belle Ami, the Tea Set. He freaked out. ‘You’ve got a van and you’ve got your gear? I’ve got to hear you play!’ ”
Van Oosterhaut became their manager and in a short time they found themselves opening for The Troggs, who had recently topped the charts with Wild Thing.
“When we went onstage we came on really powerful,” says Gedak.
“So when (The Troggs) came on, they cranked everything up. Back then they didn’t have big sound systems like they do now. So they cranked their little amps up, but couldn’t keep up with our stuff, and the lead guitar player blew his amp.
“So here’s Hugh, our lead guitar player, having to lift his Vox amp over all the crowd to get it up to (The Troggs’ guitar player) so he could play his amp. I’ll never forget that.”
The band rented an apartment “on the main drag” in Scheveningen, a seaside town near The Hague, and six months of fun ensued.
“It was a rotating door there,” says Gedak. “You’d be playing all these gigs, and all these (female) fans — let’s call them fans — would be coming in and out like they owned the place.”
“Well, we needed somebody to cook for us,” deadpans Reilly.
They headlined all over Holland, but after six months their work visas expired and they got the boot.
“Our fans wrote in to the Queen (of Holland), ‘please allow this band to stay, blah blah blah, they’re Canadian, they helped us win the war,’ all this kind of stuff,” said Gedak. “Didn’t work. They wanted gigs for their bands, not Canadian or U.S. bands coming through.”
So they went to Germany, starting with the Star-Club.
“The place was just a dive, honest to God,” said Gedak. “Black. The Beatles paid their dues there. They played their heart out and wrote their music and said to hell with everything, we’re just going to get our stuff together. We weren’t interested in that, so we packed up and went south into Bavaria, where we had a lot of gigs lined up.”
After a year in Germany most of the band came back to Canada, which hadn’t changed all that much.
“I came back from Europe and the same guys were in the same cars at the same drive-ins with the same girlfriends,” says Brown. “And I’d had guns pulled on me in Holland, been chased by seven different kinds of German police, and had all kinds of adventures with girls.”
Brown remained a musician, playing solo gigs all over town. Reilly became a computer programmer for the City of Surrey and West became an engineer for a company that built robotic submarines. Williams moved to Williams Lake, where he died in an accident in 2015.
Gedak thrived in business.
“I started an art gallery chain called The Picture Show Art Galleries, which turned out to be 37 art galleries within three or four years from Vancouver to Winnipeg,” he says.
“I had a store in every mall. Then I started Getaway Vans (with his family). They were everywhere.”
Indeed. In his home he has a framed letter thanking for his help during the Papal visit in 1984, when Getaway Vans built the Popemobile that ferried Pope John Paul II around the Lower Mainland.
“It was a white pickup truck that we completely converted in the back with blue and gold upholstery that matched the papal colours,” Gedak explains.
“It had four captain’s chairs and an aisle way down the middle, all done up in velvet and carpet. So he could walk in and sit down or stand up, we had a handle there for him to stand up.
“The neat part was when I built it at Getaway I drove around in it and blessed everybody.”
But he kept playing drums throughout and got The Centaurs to reunite a few times for gigs. Then he met Jaime Anstey, a young guy who’s so obsessed with ’60s music he formed Regenerator Records to release some of it. (The label is co-owned by Larry Hennessey, of Larry and Willie fame.)
It took a couple of years to put out The Centaurs album, From Canada to Europe. But it’s a fabulous little disc, a lost garage-rock classic that mixes originals like On Your Way and You Never Let Me Do Nuthin’ with covers like Heart Full of Soul (by The Yardbirds) and Kicks (by Paul Revere and the Raiders).
Gedak is a pack rat and kept all sorts of mementoes from their career, including posters, fan letters and photos. There’s a colour photo shoot for their Dutch 45 that’s so psychedelic you get a contact high just looking at it.
The album jacket (on both vinyl and CD) is packed with selections from Gedak’s horde, and is worth the price of the disc alone. Fifty-two years after they broke up, a new generation can discover the power and glory of the “Topgroep uit Canada.”
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