Welcome back to The Turntable Talk. As before, we’ve invited some other interesting music writers to share their opinions on a single topic, and we’ll be running their replies this week. Previous times we’ve looked at the influence of The Beatles, pros and cons of live albums, and the impact of MTV and music videos. This time around, we’re looking at “out of the blue”… debuts that came out of nowhere and really took listeners by surprise. Albums, or singles, that made you turn your head and say “that’s great! Who is that!?” Let’s hear about the great entrances to the musical stage and why they so impressed you… and perhaps if the act would go on to live up to that early potential or not.
Today, we finish up this topic with a few thoughts from yours truly here at A Sound Day.
First, thanks to the other writers who’ve made this event a great learning feature for us this week. I hope you have discovered some new artists you might like; I certainly have.
One thing that strikes me as I research and write these columns daily, is how very many successful artists point to one thing that changed their life and put them on their musical trajectory towards stardom – they saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan when they were young. And one by one, they decided that was what they wanted to do…be rock stars. Before they might have wanted to be hairdressers, or pilots, or follow their dads into the insurance biz, maybe become classical concert pianists. After seeing that appearance on Ed, they wanted to be rock stars like the Beatles.
I marvel at how one appearance, one new record can impact so many so significantly. But I wasn’t around yet when that happened, though I do wonder what it would have been like. And that got me thinking about what artists have appeared on the scene that took me by total surprise – the types of records that make me stop what I’m doing, and listen and marvel “who is that?”. Make me want to run to the record store and get the record. Or else, the albums I buy, without knowing much about the artist and find “Wow! This is great!”. Such times are magical. They happened a few times to me in the ’80s. For instance, the first song I noticed by The Smiths was the one song to hear by the Smiths if you only hear one – “How Soon is Now?” . I somehow even now remember hearing that song one summer day, when I was in the basement of an office with quite a few people around my age who worked together on a summer job. We often had the radio on down there on CFNY, the “new wave” station…and that tremolo guitar sound made me stand up and take notice. As it did for a lot of other people as well. R.E.M.’s “Driver 8” had the same reaction for me, but I did know a little about them by then, and knew a few of their songs when I first heard that jangling away in a record store, so it didn’t take me entirely by surprise. But my pick for this event did take me by surprise…and teach me to be more open-minded. Sometime in 1987, out of the blue came Blue Rodeo, and their first album, Outskirts.
Blue Rodeo were, are still, a Toronto band, and had become one of the most popular live acts in the city’s Queen Street bar circuit, playing places like the Horseshoe Tavern regularly for a couple of years. I’d heard of them, but shied away from giving them a listen because… they were “country”. I was a rock fan, a new wave fan. I didn’t think I liked “country.” Looking back, I could have been on the bandwagon a year or more earlier. A girl I worked with asked me to go see them with her long before the album dropped. This is a girl I went to U2 with, so I should have paid attention when she said they were excellent. But she described them with those, to-me-then poison words “they’re pretty country”, so I declined.
Many people would likewise back then. After all, as the band itself says “for (over) 30 years now, Blue Rodeo has taken the road less travelled…and succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations…the band emerged in the ’80s as a countrified rock band in the era of metal and glossy pop.” In a time when pop radio was being owned by Michael and Janet Jackson and when rock radio was of the “more hair! More makeup! More Motley Crue” mindset, along came a downbeat outfit with two lead guitarists, a soulful organist and twangy songs about the down and out. A bold proposition to say the least. Jim Cuddy, one of the two guitarists/singers/ songwriters (the other being Greg Keelor) recalls the time very clearly.
“The first night we started to make Outskirts was also the night my wife Rena went into labor with our first child, Devin. So needless to say it was an unforgettable night.” But, months later “the record came out to a deafening silence. Not a single station played the first single, ‘Outskirts’. We sold 5000 records, which we thought was amazing but we were told we’d be dropped (from their record contract and label) if nothing else happened.”
Thankfully, something did happen. And a lot of it was just down the road from them. CFNY, the “new wave” station – that year it had U2 and New Order as its top two albums – decided to take a chance on them. They began spinning the second single, “Try” (and soon after several more songs off the album). An emotional ripper worthy of Patsy Cline, with haunting sad organ courtesy keyboardist Bobby Wiseman and lyrics of a troubled romance being ripped out of Cuddy, the song became a hit at the station, alongside U2 and New Order. Thankfully back then some people at some radio stations actually would play anything they thought sounded good. Soon other Toronto pop stations took to the song, then other ones around the land. Then the country stations suddenly wondered “hey – that’s good! How come it’s on pop stations and not ours?” About nine months after the album came out, it eventually hit #6 on the national charts and #1 on the country sales chart. The single would go gold and win the band a Juno for Best Single. After that “Rose-coloured Glasses”, a song sounding more upbeat but equally world-weary in lyrics, this time delivered by Keelor, followed it into the top 40. Little by little the album built in sales… 5000. 10 000. 50 000. Soon it was a top 20 hit from coast to coast, and eventually it went 4X platinum. They didn’t have to worry about Risque Disque dropping them from the roster any more!
When I bought the album, I found more and more it just infiltrated my every thought. The two hits were fine singles, but every track on the record was brilliant in its own way. The upbeat rocker “Rebel”. The slow-building, jazzy, eerie “Piranha Pool” that kicks in unexpectedly like a Spector Wall of Sound, full of unexpected anger. Lines like the blistering “For all the men you condemn, I hope there’s a heaven and there’s got to be some kind of Hell for you” make the Cobains and Cornells that followed along in the ’90s seem tame by comparison. The jangly guitar and infectious chorus of “5 Will Get You Six” that all but dares you not to sing along after you’ve heard it five or six times.
Alas, I never did go see Blue Rodeo with that girl from the office. But I did seek them out and see them play several dozen times, in venues ranging from small neighborhood bars to the prestigious Massey Hall to in front of 15 000 or more on a summer evening at Toronto’s lakefront Molson Ampitheatre. I even had a chance to meet them a few times; got invited to a record release party for their second album, Diamond Mine, a random-sounding record with almost as many high points as the first. Jim, Greg and bassist Bazil Donevan, still the core of the band, are about as nice as can be and as ordinary as can be for musicians with a string of platinum records and members of Canada’s Music Hall of Fame. I remember talking to Keelor one time about his big, beloved Gretsch guitar… I know almost nothing about guitars and knew less back then, but it was awesome to hear him talk about it with such passion. And passion is a great word that covers their decades of music.
Not the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but an album that made me a lifelong fan of a local band and taught me not to judge a book by its cover. Nor a record!