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Saturday, June 25, 2005
Listen To This Playlist #5: Canadian Bands
Note: The Listen to this Playlist series is so-named for a 1974 John Lennon promotional campaign for Walls and Bridges. It also provided audio via a third-party source, Rhapsody Radish, which is on indefinite haitus. Until Rhapsody Radish reopens, or I install an in-house alternative (I'm seriously looking into it now; stay tuned), you'll only be able to "listen" in your imagination. The series at Freeway Jam was proving popular, however, so it will continue.
Sometimes it's easy for Americans to forget, much to the chagrin of our neighbor to the north, that we are not alone on this continent. Canadians, of course, can't help but be reminded that they aren't alone, with their big, noisy, neighbor to the south. Naturally, much American media has flooded across the borders, in the form of music, movies, television, radio. So much so in fact that Canada had to pass the Canadian Content Law in 1975 to make sure their own culture and artists weren't overrun; media outlets are required to contain at least 25% homegrown content. This ushered in a golden age for Canadian rock; preserving older artists in rotation, and assuring at least limited space for new ones. As a result, there are far too many worthwhile Canadian artists to include in a top-20 list. Still, a top-20 makes for an interesting playlist, and a good overview.
An overview of important/influential artists/songs include:
1. Rush: Tom Sawyer
One of the longest-lived and most popular of Canadian musical exports to America, Rush has had a recording career stretching as far back as 1974; their current line-up of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart have been together since then, one of the longest spans of no personnel changes of any band in history. The band actually dates all the way back to 1968, when a trio of Lee, Lifeson, and drummer John Rutsey formed in Toronto. Rutsey lasted through their 1974 self-titled debut, after which he was replaced by Peart. The highpoint of their career was Moving Pictures, from 1981, which peaked at #3 in America. "Tom Sawyer" marked a maturation of their sound, from a murky heavy metal band into a cleanly produced progressive one. Rush's career has remained fairly consistent and successful; their most recent release, Feedback, made the top-20 in 2004.
2. April Wine: Just Between You And Me
While April Wine's popularity in the U.S. was limited to a relatively short stretch in the early 80's, they are among Canada's most enduring and respected bands. April Wine was formed in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1969, but soon relocated to Montreal, which became their base of operations. Their 1976 album, The Whole World's Goin' Crazy was the first Canadian album to go platinum. Situated somewhere between hard rock and heavy metal, with pop impulses, the band evolved through the 70's into a more mainstream outfit, scoring their biggest American hit in 1981 with "Just between You And Me", a power ballad from Nature of the Beast. Despite some key lineup changes, the band is active today, under founding member Myles Goodwyn's leadership.
3. Cowboy Junkies: Sweet Jane
Cowboy Junkies blended traditional country, western, and folk with slow, hazy melodies and tempoes that bore some similarities with the Velvet Underground. Guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins and bassist Alan Anton had played together in a band called the Hunger Project, based in Toronto as well as a U.K. based experimental band called Germinal. Returning to Toronto, they formed Cowboy Junkies in 1985 with Timmins' sister Margo on vocals, and his brother Peter on drums. Their first album was a lo-fi homemade affair; their 1988 album The Trinity Sessions, recorded in a single night inside Holy Trinity Church, cast them into the public eye at large. "Sweet Jane" a Velvet Underground cover with a missing verse restored, was chosen as the single in America, where it reached #5 on the Modern Rock chart; The Trinity Sessions peaked at #26 on the album chart.
4. Barenaked Ladies: One Week
Barenaked Ladies from Toronto are something of a novelty pop act; best known in America for their enormous but atypical #1 hit "One Week" in 1998, the band have been cult favorites since 1994. Formed by childhood friends Ed Robertson and Steven Page in the wake of a Bob Dylan show, in which a line about 'barenaked ladies' cracked them up, they debuted with a home recording in 1991, The Yellow Tape. Written off by critics as a novelty group, the album surprised many by becoming the first indie release to go platinum in Canada. The mayor of Toronto was ired by their name, and prevented them from playing a gig in 1992, but the band's swelling popularity couldn't keep them down; they became college favorites in America through the 90's.
5. Max Webster: Lip Service
Max Webster (a band name, not an individual) is definitely not a household name in America, where they failed to chart a single or album. However, they did maintain a large cult following in Canada throughout the 1970's. Max Webster's sound derived from the hard rock approach of vocalist/guitarist Kim Mitchell and the more melodic style of vocalist/keyboardist Terry Watkinson; the band played a mix of hard rock, prog rock, and metal that is fairly difficult to classify. Mutiny Up My Sleeve is their most successful album, featuring a vaguely Frank Zappa-esque approach to the music; the leadoff cut "Lip Service" is a good stage setter.
6. The Guess Who: American Woman
The Guess Who were an immensely successful band in America, managing a fairly amazing 21 charting singles from 1969-1975. Yet, in Canada they were even bigger, the first real Canadian rock titans. "American Woman", from 1970 was the first of two #1 singles in the U.S., and it was an explicit message to the neighbor to the south: "I don't need your war machine/I don't need your ghetto scene/Colored lights can hypnotize/Sparkle someone else's eyes" Their classic period included Burton Cummings on vocals and keyboards and Randy Bachman on guitar. The band's history goes all the way back to 1965 when they were called the Expressions and had a fluke hit in both Canada and the U.S. with a cover of "Shakin' All Over"; as The Guess Who, they broke in America with "These Eyes" in 1969. Randy Bachman left in 1970 to form Brave Belt with original Guess Who vocalist Chad Allen; the band evolved into Bachman-Turner Overdrive. The Guess Who remained successful without him until they broke up in 1975. American Woman is their best LP, featuring the classic title track, "No Sugar Tonight" (which also hit #1), and "No Time".
7. Arcade Fire: Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
The Arcade Fire was formed in Montreal in the summer of 2003 and rapidly gained notice for their brand of experimental post-rock. Their music is a peculiar mix of punk, bossa nova, classical, and other unpredictable influences. Their music is emotive and depressing, but shouldn't be considered emo; they avoid overt drama, preferring to let their musical textures speak for themselves. Funeral bears a passing resemblance to David Bowie's Heroes album; part of its concept involves lovers who are separated by a metaphorical tunnel linking their bedrooms. "Neighborhood #1" is the best place to start, since it opens this ambitious debut album, but it is hardly representative of the myriad of styles and textures on the album.
8. Bachman-Turner Overdrive: You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
BTO was formed by ex-Guess Who alumni Randy Bachman and Chad Allen in 1972, along with C.F. "Fred" Turner on bass, and Randy's brother Robbie on drums. Originally called Brave Belt, they released a pair of albums; Allen was replaced by another Bachman, Tim, and the band became Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Carrying on largely in the same tradition as the Guess Who, but with a sweatier, more pared-down sound, the band had six top-40 singles in America, two of them, including the good-time rocker "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" claiming the #1 position. Randy Bachman left the group in 1977, but they continued on until breaking up in 1979; a new version, led by Randy Bachman was formed in the 1980's, but they never charted again.
9. Teenage Head: Picture My Face
Sometimes referred to as the Canadian Ramones, Teenage Head actually was more new wave than punk in their sound, but there were similarities; Teenage Head shared the Ramones' love of pre-Beatles rock 'n' roll, and applied it to their music. Formed in Hamilton in 1976, they took their name from an album by the Flamin' Groovies, and released a self-titled debut in 1979. Their debut remains their shining moment, featuring a classic mix of punk energy, trash culture lyrics, a power-pop aesthetic, and silly, but likable vocals. The band is famous also for a 1980 riot at a gig at the Ontario Place Forum, resulting in dozens of injuries and arrests; at the time, it was the worst rock-related riot in Canadian history. The band remained successful in Canada until breaking up in 1988.
10. Crash Test Dummies: Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm
The Crash Test Dummies first edged into the U.S. charts with their 1991 single, "Superman's Song", which peaked at #56, but their real breakthrough was the fluke smash "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" a Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads) produced effort, which reached #4 in 1993. Instantly recognizable for Brad Roberts' rich baritone, and the band's absurdist lyrics, they became cult favorites among the college set in the early 90's. They never hit the American singles charts again, but remained popular in Canada and kept a small cult in the States; they've continued releasing albums, most recently in 2004.
11. Skinny Puppy: Who's Laughing Now?
Frightening, dark, and aggressive, the avant-industrial band Skinny Puppy was formed in Vancouver, BC in 1982 by drummer cEvin Key (Kevin Crompton; ex-Images in Vogue) and Nivek Ogre (Kevin Ogilvie). Keyboardist Wilhelm Schroeder joined up in 1985, which added dimension to their sound, and changed the course of their evolution. VIVISectVI is their most realized effort, from 1988. It is far from easy listening; the snippets of radio broadcasts, distorted vocals, radical politics, and sheer walls of noise can be off-putting and unsettling, as can Ogre's shrieks and moans. However, underneath it all is one of the best industrial albums ever, and "Who's Laughing Now?" a textbook classic industrial tune.
12. Gordon Lightfoot: Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Singer/Songwriter Lightfoot's career stretches back to 1966, when he gained his first recognition for writing "For Lovin' Me" and "Early Morning Rain", both hits for Peter, Paul, and Mary, and "Ribbon of Darkness", a country hit for Marty Robbins. His own career took off in 1970 with the mega hit "If You Could Read My Mind", and he continued to strike gold through the late 70's, but his star faded quickly, hastened by a drinking problem that curtailed his 1980's output. "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" stands as his greatest hit; a spine chilling story-song based upon the true sinking of a freighter in Lake Superior. Lightfoot's career resurrected somewhat in the late 90's; his most recent album came out in 2004.
13. Bryan Adams: Run To You
Bryan Adams was one of the best selling names in pop/AOR in the 1980's, reaching an enormous audience with his #1 album Reckless in 1984, and subsequent releases. From Kingston, Ontario, he was the son of British parents; his middle name is "Fawkes" after Guy Fawkes. His career began at the age of 17 as vocalist in a band called Sweeney Todd and actually entered the U.S. charts at #99 with "Roxy Roller" in 1976, he remained for one more album in 1977, before quitting. He made the charts again in 1979 with a song written with his songwriting partner Jim Vallance, a disco track called "Let Me take You Dancing", which peaked at #22; he has disowned the song, which was released without his permission. His rock breakthrough came with his second solo album proper, Cuts Like A Knife in 1983. Never a critics' favorite, "Run To You" was one of his biggest and best hits.
14. Blue Rodeo: Til I Am Myself Again
Blue Rodeo is Canada's greatest roots-rock band, mixing up a convincing brew of The Band, Bob Dylan, and Gram Parsons, and filtering it through a late-period Beatles sensibility. Formed in Toronto by high school friends Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, the band debuted in 1987 with Outskirts, which was a smash hit in Canada. The band has never managed to break through in America, although their 1991 release, Casino, came closest, garnering considerable critical notice. The band remains popular in Canada to this day; their most recent album was released in 2005.
15. The Tragically Hip: Courage
Gordon Downie (vocals), Bobby Baker (guitar), Paul Langlois (guitar), Gord Sinclair (bass), and Johnny Fay (drums) were all childhood friends from Kingston, Ontario; they formed The Tragically Hip in 1983, taking their name from a Michael Nesmith video. Their debut EP arrived in 1987, and their first album in 1989. By the mid-1990's Americans had discovered their blend of roots rock, arena rock, and pop, making them cult figures and college radio staples. Fully Completely, from 1993, stands as their best album, where all of their disparate elements come together musically and lyrically. "Courage" is a finely acute song, given resonance with gently muted guitar and poetic wordplay.
16. The Band: The Weight
Canada and America can both lay claim to The Band, their history criss-crosses the border. Originally formed by Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm, both from Arkansas, in 1958, they toured American and Canada as the Hawks. The Hawks spent a lot of time in Toronto, where they could make more money than in the South. In 1959 they were joined by Toronto-born guitarist Robbie Robertson in 1959, Simcoe, ON-born bassist Rick Danko in 1961, and classically-trained organist Garth Hudson, from London, ON, in 1962. The group were local heroes in Toronto, playing gritty rock 'n' roll when rock 'n' roll was presumed dead. The Canadians eventually came to dominate the band, however, and Hawkins dropped out in 1963. The group started their off-and-on backing of Bob Dylan in 1965; the re-named Band's debut, Music From Big Pink was released in 1968. Robertson's "The Weight", from the debut, remains one of their most beloved songs.
17. Paul Anka: Put Your Head On My Shoulder
Paul Anka, from Ottawa, was Canada's very first teen idol, releasing his first record in 1957 at the age of 16. In 1958 he had four top-20 hits, and was a star; he continued to chart regularly right through 1978; he had a few charting singles in the 80's and 90's as well. He's probably best remembered now for writing "My Way", popularized by Frank Sinatra, and his own biggest hits, which included "Diana" (1957), "Lonely Boy" (1959), and "(You're) Havin' My Baby" (1974), all #1 singles; "Put Your Head On My Shoulder", a romantic crooner, went to #2 in 1959.
18. The Crew Cuts: Sh-Boom
The Crew Cuts were a Toronto foursome who immediately became stars with "Sh-Boom", which went to #1 in 1954. "Sh-Boom" was originally a song by the black r&b group the Chords, and the success of the Crew Cuts' version set the stage for the rest of their career, which wasn't a noble one. They spent the rest of their career poaching other black r&b hits by the likes of the Penguins, Gene & Eunice, Otis Williams & the Charms, the Robins, and others, and gave them a real whitening, applying Four Freshmen-style glee club vocals to the tunes. This was an effort by the record companies to head-off the threatening rock 'n' roll clouds on the horizon, and water it down into something "safe"; it also deprived many of the black r&b singers of sales they might otherwise have gotten with their own, infinitely superior versions. By 1957, however, black r&b was making inroads with white audiences, obviating the need for the Crew Cuts.
19. Buffy St. Marie: Cod'ine
A Canadian born to Cree Indian parents, Buffy St. Marie has been recording since 1964, and remains active today. Her legacy is rich, in the mid-60's she contributed many songs to the folk and folk-rock scenes as a songwriter; her "Cod'ine" has been recorded by countless garage bands ever since its 1964 release on her debut, It's My Way. It's a particularly riviting and harrowing drug tale, from a time when drugs were seldom addressed in music, and is hair raising in its themes of degradation and humiliation. She would also wrote "Universal Soldier" (also on her debut), a big hit for Donovan, and her "Until It's Time for You to Go" became a big U.K. hit for Elvis Presley in the 70's.
20. Bruce Cockburn: If I Had A Rocket Launcher
Singer/Songwriter and sometimes folkie Bruce Cockburn has only had glimpses of minor success in America, but was quite popular in Canada for a long time, and still maintains a cult today. His self-titled debut came out in 1970; his 24th album came out in 2003. "If I Had A Rocket launcher" wasn't his biggest American hit; "Wondering Where The Lions Are" from 1980 reached #21. However, it is probably his best remembered now; written after a trip to Nicaragua and Guatemala, it was a literate, gutsy anti-war tune at a time when anti-war songs were decidedly unfashionable. It caused a stir on college radio, but he was unable to maintain an audience in America.
Listen to Teenage Head: Picture My Face (1979)
Watch The Guess Who: American Woman [Beat Club] (1970)