Pukka Orchestra formed in 1979 as part of Toronto's burgeoning Queen West new wave scene and centered around lead singer Graeme Williamson and guitarists Neil Chapman and Tony Duggan-Smith. Auxiliary players varied from gig to gig and were drafted on an as-needed basis from other Queen West bands. The band's name, incidentally, was inspired by a relative of Duggan-Smith's who felt that Tony was wasting his time in a rock band and that he should try to find paying work with a "pukka orchestra," pukka being a Hindu word meaning "genuine."
After a one-shot independent single in 1981 ("Rubber Girl"/"Do the Slither"), released on the band's own Rubber Records imprint, Pukka Orchestra landed a recording contract with Solid Gold Records, and a self-titled album appeared in 1984. The album's first single was the Tom Robinson/Peter Gabriel composition "Listen to the Radio" (which Robinson had recorded under its original title, "Atmospherics"); the song quickly leaped into the Canadian Top 20 and it looked like Pukka Orchestra's career was well on its way.
Then disaster struck, not once but twice. First, Solid Gold Records went belly-up even as the band's single and LP were climbing the charts. So although the Pukkas were receiving airplay, their album was suddenly withdrawn from circulation and the royalties owed to the struggling band were tied up in complicated bankruptcy proceedings. Then, while still reeling from this first misfortune, a second disaster hit: lead singer Graeme Williamson developed a life-threatening kidney ailment. A series of benefit concerts by Chapman, Duggan-Smith, and a number of the band's Queen West cohorts raised money to help pay for Williamson's dialysis treatments, but Pukka Orchestra was essentially shut down for two years until Williamson was well enough to return to active duty with the band in 1986.
Pukka Orchestra subsequently released a four-song EP called The Palace of Memory on their own sardonically named A Major Label in 1986. A couple of the EP's tracks received enthusiastic local airplay in Toronto, but the record failed to make a national impact. With Williamson's health a continuing concern, Pukka Orchestra disbanded in 1988. Chapman joined the Sattalites and later re-teamed with Duggan-Smith to form NeoTone; Williamson left the music biz and returned to his native Scotland to work on a novel. The CD Dear Harry, which included six tracks from a never-completed second Pukkas album, appeared in 1992; the long out-of-print debut album, Pukka Orchestra, was finally issued on compact disc by Koch in 2000. ~ Rudyard Kennedy