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Have Not Been the Same
The CanRock Renaissance 1985â"1995
By Michael Barclay, Jason Schneider, Ian A.D. Jack, Michael Holmes, Jennifer Hale
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2011 Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack, Jason Schneider
All rights reserved.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
"All my cousins live here fat off the land. I hear them lowing but I can't understand. And in the line-up where their souls can be sold, they've never heard of this Canadian band. But the dinosaurs are dying each day. They're going to wish I never got up to play." Rheostatics, "RDA (Rock Death America)," 1992
"If you read only the work of dead foreigners you will certainly reinforce the notion that literature can be written only by dead foreigners.... If, as has long been the case in this country, the viewer is given a mirror that reflects not him but someone else, and told at the same time that the reflection he sees is himself, he will get a very distorted idea of what he is really like." Margaret Atwood, Survival, 1972
In 1985, the landscape of Canadian music was changing. The boomers were washed up. Punk had exploded and crashed. The remains were a messy morass of largely embarrassing cultural icons and an endless parade of "hoser rock." Commercial viability seemed to mean Loverboy and nothing else. By 1985, it was time for tabula rasa: this generation would take classic rock, synth pop, country music and art-school approaches to crafting a new canon of creative, vital music that would create a new legacy from which future generations could extrapolate their own explorations. In 1985, it was clear that we were not going to be the same.
By 1995, this era was beginning to fade. Audiences were declining, indie labels were folding, and major labels were dropping quality acts and signing derivative ones sure to make a quick buck. Although there was no shortage of great music, it became harder to hear, and the polarized mainstream musical climate began to look a lot like 1985. So many things had regressed that we could only look back at the 10 years between '85 and '95 as a defining moment, and indeed, since then, we have not been the same. One only needs to look at the artistic and commercial triumphs of the years 2000–2010 — a time when those two poles no longer seemed mutually exclusive — to witness the lessons learned from the CanRock Renaissance.
This is not a book about the Juno Awards. This is not a book about record sales. This is not a book about major labels. This is not a book about rock radio. Those elements might come into play, but first and foremost this is a book about music and the glorious, intelligent, beautiful, ridiculous, talented and fucked-up people who make it. This is a book about a time and a place that deserves to be celebrated, even more so because the music in question was created in a climate of cultural bulimia, in a country with a nasty habit of eating both its young and its old and leaving them for dead, a country that believes nothing of any great historical importance ever happens here.
There once was a great book written about the American underground in the '80s, which the post-boomer author began by stating, "I grew up thinking everything had already happened." If the author had been raised in Canada — "twice removed," to borrow Sloan's phrase, both generationally and geographically — surely she would have added, "I grew up thinking everything had already happened somewhere else." This was accepted wisdom for songwriters growing up in the '80s. John K. Samson of the Weakerthans recalls, "Growing up I thought that songs were written about somewhere else. Real life is always elsewhere; life here doesn't matter. Unless you're at the centre of the culture, there is no traction to what you do." After the people in this book hit the road and started to unleash classic albums, future generations wouldn't have to ponder such issues.
I WANNA GO TO NEW YORK CITY
The year is 1985. Canadian music, as known to the general public, is right up there with Canadian television and Canadian film: the term "Canadian" is used as a derogative, or as a patronizing, medicinal adjective. Admitting you liked Canadian music was akin to declaring a strange affinity for turnips. Some would argue that the youth of the early '80s had no concept of their country's culture, but they most certainly did. They thought it sucked.
Impressions outside Canadian borders were no better, and as a result any interesting music that did come out of Canada tended to be dismissed as being guilty by association — or a freak of nature. Peter Rowan, an East Coast manager who helped launch the careers of Sloan and Eric's Trip, says, "Really, most music that comes out has been embarrassing Canadian music lovers for years and years, and has done nothing but have an ill effect on us trying to sell outside of Canada."
There's little question that the late '60s produced a series of artists who laid the template for CanRock as we know it today, although practically all of them had to find recognition in the U.S. first: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, the Band, Gordon Lightfoot, Steppenwolf and others. But for a new generation of Canadian artists beginning to forge their own sounds and identities, Canada was perhaps the last place they would look to for inspiration. Discussing his band's formative influences, Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip recalls, "There were certain Canadian groups that you sort of had to relegate to a different file; it was never considered on the same level as the other stuff you listened to, somehow not as exotic. Not as — or more — ambitious, hence making it less exotic."
In 1985, the few heroes of Canadian rock were either extinct (the Band), in stages of irrelevance (Neil Young), in cultural exile (Stompin' Tom), in a separate class of their own (Rush) or rather ridiculous in the first place (Loverboy). There were few young artists creating exciting new music that didn't sound like it came from somewhere else. Even the Canadian punk pioneers were more or less aping records made in New York City, Los Angeles or London, England.
In London, Ontario, the Demics recorded a single called "(I Wanna Go To) New York City," which in 1979 summed up the aspirations of most Canadian musicians prior to 1985. "I'm getting pretty tired / and I want to get out / I'm getting pretty angry, man / and it's no good to shout." Shouting was about all you could do to retain your sanity above the din of "Snowbird" and "Sometimes When We Touch," both the epitome of proud cultural touchstones at the time.
Former Maclean's editor Peter C. Newman reflected in 1995: "Back in 1985, Canadians ... neither proclaimed themselves nor the potential of their country and were happy in their ignorance. They had long before given up asserting their identities or challenging the righteous claw of authority. They remained deferential and blindly obedient to the powers-that-be. They fantasized about being Clark Kent instead of Superman. Treading water became a national sport."
"What's Going On Around Here?" the Rheostatics would ask years later, and before 1985 the answer was negligible. As the Max Webster song goes, "You can only drive down Main Street so many times." And even the main streets of Canada's biggest cities weren't wide enough to accommodate the ambition of a new wave of musicians.
Joe "Shithead" Keithley moved from Vancouver to Toronto with his band the Skulls, thinking he was moving to the big time. He soon realized that Toronto wasn't big enough and moved the band to London, England, before returning to Vancouver within the space of the same year to start D.O.A., which quickly became renowned as one of the premier punk bands in North America. They did this by making connections along the West Coast down to the L.A. and San Francisco scenes, not by cowtowing to the Toronto industry. Similarly, 54·40 xxxx didn't play their first Toronto show until after they signed to a major label.
And why would they? Toronto musicians were fleeing to New York City, including Michael Timmins and Alan Anton of the art-rock band Hunger Project. Says Timmins, "We'd always take road trips down to New York to see a band or something, and it was just the place, like the Demics' song. We were 19, and thought, 'Let's just go.' We rented a place in the East Village at Avenue B and 12th, and all four of us lived there. We hung out, got illegal immigrant jobs to support ourselves. It was fun, an exciting time being in New York and playing in a band. We'd do a monthly gig at CBGB's on a Wednesday night."
"Playing CBGB's seemed like the thing to do," says Greg Keelor, who moved down there with his musical partner Jim Cuddy around the same time. "It seemed pretty evident that Toronto was going down. New York in the late '70s was lawless and scary. Plus a lot of our heroes, everybody from Holden Caulfield to Dylan Thomas, walked those streets. It was very romantic and poetic, like all those Leonard Cohen songs."
Tapping into punk's DIY ethic, across the country, new original music was being performed — quite literally — underground. Kurt Swinghammer, an artist and musician who started his career in the Niagara region of Ontario, recalls, "We would play basement parties, because there was nowhere else to play. I played once in a club that would book Max Webster or whatever, and the owner of the club actually punched me after the set! He couldn't deal with anything that wasn't rock." Producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda has fond memories of concerts held in suburban rec rooms: "It would be all word of mouth and set up in someone's basement, and there would be 35–40 people, sitting cross-legged, up the sides of the wall and around the perimeter of the room. At that time it was all ska and mod."
The club scene was devoted to cover bands — "which now seems like a ridiculous concept to everybody," says Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath. "Half of our [early] shows were in peeler bars, because they're the only ones that would let a band who dared play original songs get up on stage. At the time [powerful West Coast booking agency] Feldman's only had three original acts: Images in Vogue, 54·40 and Grapes of Wrath. Everything else was all Top 40 cover bands. Canadian bands were seen as being watered down versions of what was happening in England and the U.S."
Gord Sinclair of the Tragically Hip recalls one club they would play in Sarnia, Ontario, where the club owner made each band write out their set list and the artists who originally performed the songs, to ensure no one played original material. Sinclair says, "Original music was Trooper and Prism — those were the groups that would come to town. That was your perspective on what it was to be an original recording act, and the gap between what they were and what you were was so huge. You never thought you'd be a legitimate recording artist until you got the mega-light show and the tight pants and stuff like that. You never thought you'd get a kick at the can wearing work boots and blue jeans on stage."
MAYBE IT'S JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO GO ON LIKE NOTHING'S CHANGED
Michael Timmins eventually returned to Toronto after forays in NYC and London, and formed the Cowboy Junkies in 1985. Although his band would go on to sell millions of records worldwide on major labels, in the beginning they had no illusions of success. "In the mid- to late '80s there was a lot of interesting music coming out of Canada, and there was no real industry here; it was very hard to make a living playing music," says Timmins. "People did it because they had to do it; it was a real labour of love. To think that anyone was going to be signed to a major label was just insane back then. It just didn't happen, outside of Loverboy world. It had been five to eight years since the punk explosion, which brought a lot of people into the music scene at a very young age. A lot of those people had matured, gained more musicianship and absorbed a lot more influences, and the music from those players was beginning to blossom."
The Cowboy Junkies recorded their first album in their garage, put it out and distributed it themselves, and hit the road all across North America — gaining one fan at a time, and often sleeping on that fan's floor after the gig. It was an attitude culled from years of working DIY in a scene where people were beginning to benefit from each other's accumulated wisdom. People in the underground scene "had been doing it by themselves for years, and they didn't need a major label or anyone else," says Timmins. "They knew how to run a studio, how to tour and how to promote their own records. There were enough independent distributors around, and enough independent record stores, that you could make your way across Canada by contacting enough of those people. Even campus radio, although it wasn't very powerful, was more cohesive than it is now. There was a weird patchwork of independent scenes going on across the country. There was never even a thought of trying to find someone else to help you beyond those in the community."
Much of this approach stemmed from the rise of hardcore punk, a genre of music that by definition was aware that there was zero chance of commercial compromise. Musician Ford Pier, who says seeing NoMeansNo as a teenager was a life-changing experience, and who would tour as a member of D.O.A. in the '90s, recalls: "The first vintage of punk, everyone was looking for record contracts, even people with the best of political intentions like Gang of Four — they were absolutely interested in being on [television] and having promo shots done and having all of that baggage from the way it had been done since the 1920s. Hardcore represented a wholesale rejection of all of that. The only point was to play the gig that night."
Toronto scene veteran John Borra recalls, "It was truly alternative. It wasn't mainstream. The bands were all alternative in their own way, and the one thing they shared in common was that they didn't sound like Glass Tiger, which left it open; it didn't define it as one type of sound."
In Vancouver, unlike Toronto, there was a very distinct division in the industry, between corporate rock and the underground. Powerful Vancouver manager Bruce Allen — who with his business manager, booking agent Sam Feldman, brought BTO, Trooper and Bryan Adams to stardom — was once quoted as saying, "I happen to know what the public wants, and I try to find artists who fill that need." As a result, the Vancouver punk scene created its own set of rules for people who didn't need Bruce Allen's roster.
"They found their own gigs, and they rented halls," says Vancouver journalist Tom Harrison. "It gave [Vancouver punk] a real sense of purpose and direction. The politics were two-pronged. One is the general 'Society is fucked,' and the other is 'We've got to show the Bruce Allens and Sam Feldmans that we mean business.' Everyone was helping each other because they were all in the same boat."
Vancouver naturally had an "us vs. them" attitude with Toronto. So did most of the country, but Vancouver had enough talented bands to be deservedly snobbish about it. Tom Harrison says, "The universal feeling among the punk and new wave bands was that the Toronto industry was lame. They didn't like the Toronto bands by and large, and didn't trust or have any respect for the industry there. For them there was nothing to be gained by going to Toronto — that came later. So it made more sense to go down the coast."
Bill Baker of Vancouver's Mint Records says, "I found the Toronto music scene to be very industry-driven. The punk bands there all had this thing like, 'Hey, do you know who was at our show?' In Vancouver, I remember going to gigs where you wouldn't even see an adult at the show, let alone someone saying, 'Hey, is that the guy from BMG?' It just didn't happen."
Excerpted from Have Not Been the Same by Michael Barclay, Jason Schneider, Ian A.D. Jack, Michael Holmes, Jennifer Hale. Copyright © 2011 Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack, Jason Schneider. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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