August 5 – Rusty OK With Hit Being A ‘Fluke’

Beginner’s luck? Perhaps, but Rusty don’t seem to mind. And perhaps they’re raising a glass today, looking back to this day in 1995 when they seemed poised to be the Next Big Thing. The Canadian band hit Billboard with their debut single, “Wake Me”… but it would turn out to be their only international hurrah. And a bit of a subdued one at that – “Wake Me” would peak at just #26 on the Alternative Rock charts in the States, and they’d never be heard of again Stateside. At home they did a wee bit better.

Rusty was a band The Record described as “’60s psych-pop meshed with vintage punk, with a hip hop-funk & roll sound seasoned with ’90s grunge.” Whew. Got all that? Basically they were a straight ahead rock band that fell somewhere between the growing California surf punk (Green Day, Offspring) and well-settled grunge (Nirvana, Soundgarden) sounds of the decade. Like slightly more successful contemporaries Sloan, they’d formed in Nova Scotia in the late-’80s, at the time being known as One Tree Fall, then moved to Toronto. Their they added in Scott McCullough, from the Doughboys, and changed their name. They recorded “Wake Me” as an indie single, it got some attention locally and got them signed to a small imprint of BMG in Canada and a short-lived punk branch of Atlantic Records in the U.S. They quickly recorded their first album, Fluke, which whether a “fluke” or not, was a minor hit in Canada. Oddly, “Wake Me” wasn’t a biggie off it domestically; “Groovy Dead” did a bit better in the Great White North and the first single off their next album, “Empty Cell”, better yet, hitting the national top 30 and being a major hit on the Much Music video station back when it still ran music. The song “Punk” from the debut even got some Big Screen treatment, being used in the David Spade/Chris Farley movie Black Sheep. But their career never really took off.

Rusty called it a day by 2000, for a simple reason – they weren’t making any money doing it anymore. McCullough said recently “we all got along pretty well…we always remained friends.” So, eventually they got a hankering to reunite, playing a reunion show at the NXNE Festival in 2011, then crowd-sourcing to raise funds to record a new album, in 2018. Singer Ken McNeill has an answer for that too : “my kids started to get older, and just through some conversations I realized they didn’t know I was (once) in a band.” He adds “we’re not gonna play full-time, but we kinda consider anything people offer us.” Is he upset they never made it really big? Hardly. “I always think ‘how lucky are we?’ We decide to play and go to Toronto and tons of people come out…we’re not the Rolling Stones, but we’re very lucky.” And we’re lucky there are so many acts like Rusty who never became household names but enjoyed their moment in the sun and added to the musical tapestry of a decade.

July 7 – BNL Rise To Top In States Was An Impressive ‘Stunt’

Saturday Night Live‘s Jack Handy once had a “Deep Thought” that suggested “You know what would make a good story? Something about a clown who makes people happy, but inside he’s really sad. Also, he has severe diarrhea.” One might think that whether deliberately or unwittingly, this might well have been the inspiration for the late-’90s Barenaked Ladies, as we heard on Stunt. That, their fourth big-label studio album came out this day in 1998 to popular acclaim but highly mixed professional reviews.

The Ladies, or BNL, were a Toronto band that had risen to unexpected heights, first at home in Canada then internationally with their blend of quirky songs and goofy, lovable guys personas. But there was more to them than that, for better or worse. It was particularly true of Steven Page, the co-leader and primary songwriter for the band, who suffers from bipolar disorder that was yet to be diagnosed at that point. Tensions over both the band’s direction and the stress of being the ever “happy, goofy big guy” had by then begun to creep into the relationship between him and co-leader Ed Robertson. And thus with Stunt, we get a continuation of a slowly maturing, but also darkening undercurrent to the band’s songs that became noticeable on their previous album, Born on a Pirate Ship. When Page was writing he was giving a few glimpses into his own life and managing to camoflauge them with generally happy-feeling upbeat melodies. Take “Alcohol” for example, which notes “while I cannot love myself, I’ll use something else.” Even the breakthrough hit “One Week” delivers a look at a seemingly highly dysfunctional couple delivered at breakneck speed and covered with pop references to things like The X-files and Swiss Chalet, a popular chicken restaurant in Canada.

Clearly Reprise Records felt the band was poised to be as big in the States and elsewhere as they were at home. They had them record half the record in Texas and brought in a couple of studio stars to produce it with them, David Leonard and Susan Rogers. She had honed her skills at Prince’s Paisley Park studio while he had been an engineer or mixer on a slew of hit records of the ’80s and ’90s including Toto IV, and albums by the likes of the Go Gos, Belinda Carlisle and John Mellencamp. And they did quite a publicity blitz outside of Canada to help them be known more widely.

Also new to the band was a fifth member, keyboardist Kevin Hearn who’d been a touring member for the past couple of years.

The resultant 13 songs spanned quite a few genres of pop which helped at least one song off it find a home on a range of radio formats including rock, mainstream pop, alternative and adult contemporary. Some more recent editions of the CD have included a 14th song, “Get in Line” which they’d written for the King of the Hill show around the same time.

Some albums are universally loved. Others are mainly panned. Stunt came in somewhere in between, but with some passionate opinions on both ends of the spectrum. Rolling Stone gave it 2.5-stars (out of 5). The L.A. Times gave it 2.5, but out of four. Sputnikmusic rated it a perfect 5-stars…but Britain’s NME graded it just 1 out of 10. The latter snarkily suggested “these cohorts of Satan have sold six million records” and that Stunt “could variously be described as melodic, quirky, dull, soulless and plain horrible.” Rolling Stone were more favorable, saying the band “realize …that the world contains more than a few Hootie-honed melody lovers” and thus deliver “accessible melodies…like national anthems of untrendy fun.” They singled out the “wonderfully louche ‘Alcohol’” and “Call and Answer”, a “love ballad with a demented ending” as highlights. Allmusic consider it as good as any of the band’s albums, and comment “never before has the band been able to pull off so many different styles from jangly pop and alt-country to bossa nova.”

The wide-ranging sounds and high-end production certainly seemed to do the trick. The “Gap-rap” (to borrow from Rolling Stone) mile a minute “One Week” became a surprise American #1 hit and was a top 5 in Britain (curiously, it peaked at #3 in Canada where it wasn’t their biggest hit.) “Call and Answer” was also a Canadian top 10 while “Alcohol” was a hit on alternative rock stations and “It’s All Been Done” also got good radio play. It helped push the album to #3 in the U.S., and the top 20 in both New Zealand and the UK, the best showing for the Ladies in each of those countries. Domestically it got to #9, but by going 4X platinum, it was their biggest success outside their ’92 debut Gordon.

Maturing but still quirky… one final note on the album. They said they recorded “Alcohol” while all naked. Just in case you needed to know.

July 2 – The Turntable Talk, Round 4 : Out Of The Blue…Rodeo

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!

July 1 – The Turntable Talk, Round 4 : Max-imum Kim?

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, appropriately for Canada Day, we have Deke , at the western end of the Great Lakes, from Thunder Bay Rocks. Deke covers the last forty years or so of hard rock at his site and is something of a historian for his city’s great music heritage. He talks about a fellow Canadian today:

Thanks to Dave for letting me hop on this week for Top Debuts. My pick is Kim Mitchell with his debut solo EP. Mitchell already built himself up a career fronting Max Webster but by the time the early 80’s rolled around Kim called it a day with M.W and went solo…

Are you going to find a better five song studio solo E.P than Kim Mitchell’s 1982 self-titled release?

Maybe but probably not. For myself, I missed the boat at the time on Kim’s time fronting his former band Max Webster at the tail end of the ’70s.

It was a Canadian magazine, Music Express, that put out the word that here was Kim. Now solo and trying to make a go of it with his name on the marquee.  I bought this way back in ’82 on cassette tape and lo and behold saw it sitting in the used bins on vinyl a few weeks back. A no brainer, pay in cash and dash out the door!

Kim goes balls out in power trio mode with Paul DeLong on drums and Robert Sinclair Wilson on bass. Kim has always played some killer guitar on all his albums, but this EP has Kim going to a whole other level on the fretboard.

Kids In Action” sets the table as Mitchell gets right down to business and with Jack Richardson dialing in the sounds with Kim these songs sound live with few overdubs in the studio. Put it this way: all these cats can play and of course along for the ride is Pye Dubois who handled all the lyrics (as he largely had done in Max Webster) while Kim took care of the music. “Miss Demeanor” helped him stay on the charts a bit longer with it.

Kim has that cool summer breezy cool guy vocal vibe which comes across in a huge way on these songs. Five songs, no ballads just Kim lifting off on what would become a pretty good career in Canada.

If you’re a guitarist check out this EP for a crash course on exceptional soloing as you won’t be disappointed.

I’ve been slowly collecting Kim’s output on vinyl in the ’80s as I come across it.  Now with the inclusion of this EP on vinyl along with Akimbo Alogo(1984), Shakin Like A Human Being(1986) and Rocklandwonderland(1989) my KM collection is coming along nicely!

Rah Rah Ole!

 

June 22 – ‘Blue’ Mood Reverberated With Fans

Why feel “blue” all alone while you can share it with millions of others and, if you’re talented, be acclaimed as one of the best singer/songwriters of all-time. And Joni Mitchell is talented. Her much acclaimed fourth album, Blue, came out this day in 1971.

Canadian by birth, but happily residing in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon at the time, Joni liked men…but wasn’t great at relationships, it might seem. That’s the basic background to Blue, a record Pitchfork calls “possibly the most gutting breakup record ever.” While she was preparing it, she’d just broken up with Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills & Nash), so she decided to take a break and sightsee across Europe for a little. While there she met Cary Raditz, a hot-tempered Greek variously described as a hippie and a cook. She wrote “Carey” , the album’s hit, for him, but soon tired of him, scorning him as a “red red rogue” in “California.” “He seemed fierce,” he’d later recall. “He was a bit of a scoundrel.” Raditz for his part said “I liked Joni a lot and didn’t like losing her company. But on the road you already know the friendships you develop will be short-lived.” She soon returned to California, hooked up with James Taylor (one of the few musicians to help out on this self-produced record; Joni even learned to play the dulcimer to add a bit of that to “Carey”) while recording it.

The result was a mainly acoustic, ten-song folk record that can’t be described as anything but “open” or “honest.” Mitchell said “there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals…I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world.”

The quiet and revealing sounds won her a whole batch of new fans. Songs like “Little Green”, “My Old Man” and the pair of singles, “Carey” and “California” became fan favorites and she discovered fans in an unexpected place when Nazareth turned a very rockin’ version of her “This Flight Tonight” into a European hit. Apparently they liked listening to Blue in buses on the road and she approved of their treatment of it.

Although “Carey” was the biggest hit on it, and only got to #27 in Canada (faring less well elsewhere), the album was a must-have for folkies and college types, making it to #3 in the UK, #9 in Canada and #15 in the States where it soon went platinum.

Reasonably well-reviewed when it came out, its impact has grown steadily though the years. The New York Times ranked it among the “25 albums that represented turning points or pinnacles in 20th Century music.” The NPR rank it as the finest female album ever, something now echoed by Rolling Stone which jumped it up to #3 on their greatest albums of all-time in 2020, up from #30 the previous time they did a similar exercise. Entertainment Weekly put it at 11th greatest ever, sandwiched between the Beatles “White Album” and Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Pitchfork and allmusic both give it perfect-scores. The former “the album’s suffused with melancholy for all that’s missing – her daughter (“Little Green”), innocence (“The Last Time I saw Richard”) and connection (“All I Want.” ) Allmusic call it the “quintessential singer/songwriter album.”

Interestingly, for an album so deeply personal to her, she veered a little on the album cover itself. The photo by well-known album cover designer Gary Burden was the first one of hers not to feature a painting by her on front.

June 22 – Steven’s Managed To Turn The Page Well

Hope it’s a happy birthday for a guy who has had troubles with being happy – Steven Page. the former Barenaked Ladies main man is 52 today.

Steven founded the BNL in Toronto with Ed Robertson in 1988 after meeting at a Peter Gabriel show. He quickly took the reins as chief songwriter (97 of the first 117 songs by the band were written in part by him, many he did entirely himself) and singer, being the lead singer on their standards like “Brian Wilson”, “Jane” and “The Old Apartment.” however, he and Ed had increasing tensions, leading to Page quitting the band in 2009. That was at a time when the band was trying to promote a kids’ album (that Page didn’t think they should’ve done) and shortly after he was arrested for cocaine possession with his future wife in New York – not exactly the image a fun-time band morphing into children’s entertainers wanted. Since then, he’s put out several solo albums following up his collaboration with Stephen Tin Tin Duffy (an early member of Duran Duran who’d helped out on “Jane”) on the under-rated Vanity Project album. Of late, he’s seemingly managed to develop a comfort level as a busy, minor star. Since the pandemic began, he’s frequently played online shows from his home and this summer he’s venturing out for a tour hitting farflung locales in North America and Britain. Perhaps he’ll be showing off some new material; as he recently put out two new songs on his website including one with the Odds called “Canada Loves You Back.”

Outside of music, Page has become something of a spokesman for mental health awareness in Canada since “coming out” as bipolar, and is also an avid environmentalist, being a director of World Wildlife in Canada for years.

June 11 – Tiger Jumped On Line Between Rock And Pop

All the elements for a hit were there…star producer, basic, hummable melodies, guest star singing on first single, just enough synthesizers to sound current, spots on big tours around the world… and that’s what Glass Tiger delivered this day in 1986. That’s when their first album, The Thin Red Line, came out internationally, about four months after it had debuted in Canada.

Glass Tiger were a metro-Toronto band which had formed about three years prior, led by lead singer, occasional guitarist Alan Frew. Frew lent a distinctly Scottish flavor to the proceedings, because he was actually born there, before his family came to Canada when he was a teen. Toshiba oddly enough found them and put out an EP of theirs on CD just before the album – but only in Germany. But Capitol Records signed them and brought in some big name talent to help the cause. For instance, Jim Vallance was brought in to produce the record, and tweak their writing. Vallance was beginning to be known for his extensive work with Bryan Adams, speaking of whom, he came by to add some backing vocals to their first single “Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone.” And the guitarist from his backing band, Keith Scott added a few riffs as well.

Frew said working with Vallance was “great.” “He didn’t change the sound of the band at all. He let us experiment, but wasn’t afraid to get heavy-handed when he had to.”

Their sound came in somewhere between mainstream rock, adult-contemporary pop and new wave…and amazingly, found a home on all of those sorts of radio stations, in North America at least. Frew admits “we weren’t rewriting musical history by any means, but our melody lines are strong and mature.”

It came out domestically to mediocre reviews. The Ottawa Citzen, for instance, compared them to Duran Duran ( a bit of a stretch, no matter how you look at the comparison) and figured they had “yet to find their musical direction.” Later reviews were a bit kinder; allmusic for one gave it 3.5-stars, complimenting it’s “sturdy pop foundation” and approving of Bryan Adams presence. “Adams gravelly voice in the chorus (works) to balance out the sharpness of Frew’s” although they figured the title track was “better than any of the charted singles.”

And charted singles it produced, particularly in their homeland, where five ended up making it onto the lists. Elsewhere, helped along by opening on a major tour for Journey in the States and Tina Turner in Europe, the record still did quite well, thanks largely to “Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone.” Their first single, with its curious rare “anthemic pop ” sound (which a few other hits of the ’80s seemed to master like “Eye of the Tiger” or “St. Elmo’s Fire”) went platinum at home and was a #1 hit; in the U.S. Billboard officially put it at #2 although curiously it was listed as the best-selling single one week, which actually made entertainment headlines in Canada. It also made it to #9 in Australia, and #29 in the UK. The follow-up, the emphatic ballad “Someday’ actually was more popular south of the border than at home, getting to #7 in the U.S., and #14 in Canada. “You’re What I Look For”, “I Will Be There” and the title track (which actually was put out as a single in Canada, but not elsewhere apparently) all cracked the Canadian top 30 and kept the album on the charts in the Great White North for 67 weeks. When all was said and done it was 4X platinum. It’s American popularity couldn’t compete with that, but it did go gold there.

It also earned them some nice hardware. Although it got them nominated for a Grammy, for Best New Artist, they lost to Bruce Hornsby and the Range. However, at home, they won four Junos, for Best Album, Best Single, Most Promising Group and Best Composer, which was given to Vallance (although Frew and guitarist Al Connolly had done the lion’s share of songwriting on it.)

That was the loudest roar of the Tiger though. Their next two albums didn’t match the success of The Thin Red Line, but did go platinum at home, but more or less flopped elsewhere, leading them to break up for a few years. They’ve now been back together for at least 15 years with four of the five original members (only the drummer’s been changed), but they haven’t recorded any new music.

May 31 – Potvin & Pikes Still Swimming Against The Current

If you run into Bryan Potvin today, you might want to buy him a cake. Or at least a good Tim Horton’s donut, because it’s his 59th birthday today and he’s still one of the main men in one of Canada’s sadly under-appreciated bands, the Northern Pikes.

Bryan and singer/songwriter Jay Semko (whom we had a great interview last year) grew up in Saskatoon, a remote Prairie city whose only previous ties to music were being immortalized in a 1970s Guess Who song. They and a couple of other friends who’d been in school or bar bands around that city formed the Northern Pikes (yep – named after a fish found in those lakes around there) in 1984. Potvin recalls growing up in that town halfway between the Dakota border and the Arctic Circle, in the ’70s and early-80s: “ Saskatoon was a relatively sheltered place in those days,” he says. “We relied on certain lifelines like Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, which aired Friday evenings at 11:30, and on places like Records on Wheels where we’d go to pick up old copies of NME… they’d give us an idea of what was going on not only in places like Toronto and Vancouver but across the ocean.”

When they formed the Northern Pikes, the beginnings weren’t glamorous. “We did countless engagements all over Saskatchewan, in small, bizarre backwater towns like Weyburn and Fort Qu’apelle…we’d go out and play a bunch of songs by the Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks and then we’d blend our own stuff into the mix. We’d tell the crowd, ‘Hey – here’s something new by so-and-so, and we’d just make up some fake artist and it would be our own. Nobody had a clue.” Although that seems a terrible way to get on the road to success, Potvin, usually the band’s lead guitarist sees an upside. He says “in the end, it worked to our advantage. In the big city you get swept up by what’s happening and lose yourself.”

It did work out fairly well, but some might say not as well as it should have. By the mid-’80s they put out a couple of indie records that sold well locally and well-enough to get some airplay elsewhere in Canada and a handful of cities in the U.S. like Cincinnati. They were smart enough to even write to the Library of Congress in Washington DC to request a list of U.S. college radio stations. “We had piles of records, envelopes, postage and mailing addresses and we turned Jay’s basement into a mailing room.” If that didn’t pay off in becoming the next R.E.M. south of the border, it at least got Virgin Records to sign them in Canada.

Their first three albums all did quite well in Canada, made them Much Music (the Canadian music channel equivalent to MTV) mainstays and yielded six top 40 hits including “Teenland”, “Girl With A Problem” and their biggest, “She Ain’t Pretty.” That one was written by Bryan, after staying up late with his girlfriend (now wife) watching an old re-run of Rhoda. “One woman said ‘look at you, what could possibly be wrong with your life? ‘and the other replied ‘I’m not really beautifully, I just look that way.’ I thought that was pretty funny and I wrote it in my little notebook.” He also wrote their hit “Dream Away.”

Unfortunately for the Pikes, despite two gold albums to start their career at home, and opening for the likes of Duran Duran and Robert Palmer on tours (Palmer apparently hand-picked them for his ’89 tour), the American success never happened. Remarkably, Virgin Records never even released their third album, Snow in June (a Saskatchewan thing no doubt!) in the U.S. despite it going platinum in Canada. He and the band did the theme song for the TV show Due South and then took a break for the latter-’90s. Potvin spent six of those years as the head of A&R for Polygram Records, ironically in all likelihood not finding any new talent as good as his own band.

Lately they’ve been back together, and even put out a new album, Forest of Love, in 2019. their latest incarnation includes Kevin Kane, a member of another criminally-under-rated Canuck band, the Grapes of Wrath.

Is he bitter that the Pikes never hit the bigtime like fellow Prairie acts like the Guess Who or “alt rock” ones like the Barenaked Ladies? No. “That portion of the (Canadian) population that is 40 to 60 years old, they’ve decided that our music is a part of that magic playlist they want to hear over and over,” he said recently. “In the end it worked out.” It did, and Canadians can remind themselves of that this summer, with the Pikes touring the land again , beginning June 24 in Newfoundland.

May 16 – Forgotten Gems : Jane Siberry

Well, the Texas heatwave is supposed to spread right the way to the Atlantic this week baking places from Lubbock to Long Island, nature’s impromptu way of saying “summer’s here!”. And with high schools getting out around this time, we can bet that a lot of people will be heading to whatever beach they can find, which brings us to this month’s Forgotten Gem : “Mimi On the Beach.” The odd song was the masses introduction to the equally unusual Jane Siberry back in 1984.

With changeable hair styles and colors that seemed to originate from a base of Annie-style red, an eclectic style of dress that was the antithesis of the likes of Madonna and an obvious sense of humor, at the time some made an obvious comparison to another newcomer and called her “the Canadian Cyndi Lauper.” Soon though, it would become obvious that if comparisons were to be made, experimental femmes like Kate Bush or Laurie Anderson were more appropriate, although really Siberry was her own unique artist. As the Smith Center billed her, Jane is nothing if not “quirky, mysterious, spiritually inquisitive and fashionably avante garde.”

She grew up in the Toronto area, learning to play piano, then guitar by ear as a child. When she got to university, she says “I started out in music, but switched to science when I realized how much more interesting it was to study.” She got a degree in micro-biology, but sang her own brand of quirky folk music in cafes around the area on the side.

A 1981 indie release got her noticed, barely, in Canada and had her sign to the smallish but nationally-distributed Duke St. Records and the prestigious Wyndham Hill in the States. Her first release with them was No Borders Here, from which Mimi surfed in. Generally upbeat pop-new wave tunes, with Jane playing guitar and keyboards and a host of Toronto session musicians backing her (including her then boyfriend John Switzer who co-produced it with her on bass) , the tunes were catchy but what really made them stand out was her lyrics (as well as her multi-octave voice delivering them). Instead of “I love you so much” or “You went away, I’m sad” sorts of thoughts, she mused about things like self-important Yuppies (“Extra Executives”), or the lot of an actress-cum-waitress (“and I’d probably be famous now if I wasn’t such a good waitress!”) . She says “creativity is just inspiration, and I’m inspired everywhere I walk.”

Presumably she took a stroll down along her city’s lakeshore for this one, seeing the tanned jocks and bikini gals showing off for each other. “(It was) the first song where I had more to say than I could actually put in a song,” she told an interviewer recently, “so I put in two monologues, like bursts of color.”

The song runs over seven and a half minutes, so it’s doubtful she could have put in too much more; the label shortened it to about half that for the single and video. The latter became one of Much Music’s first homegrown Canadian hit videos as soon as it took to the cable listings, the single only hit #68 in her homeland but did get massive airplay on some alt rock or college stations. It also made her known enough for her next album, The Speckless Sky to be instantly popular and generate a legitimate hit single for her in “One More Colour.

Although that perhaps opened the door for her to international stardom, Siberry’s always marched to the beat of her own drums (one of the few instruments she hasn’t tackled on her records) and despite a reasonably popular duet with k.d. lang (“Calling All Angels”) in the ’90s, has seemingly steadfastly eschewed star status, so much so that in 2006 she changed her name to Issa, sold off most of her belongings and traveled.Of late, she’s back to Jane and puts out indie records periodically.

May 10 – Canadians Ate Up The Spoons

On the same day in 1982 that Duran Duran put out their ground-breaking Rio, a band many north of the border thought could be North America’s own Duran Duran put out a key record. Canada’s The Spoons released their signature song “Nova Heart” as a single 40 years ago.

The Spoons formed in the outer suburbs of Toronto around the beginning of 1980, consisting of high school sweethearts Gordon Deppe and Sandy Horne and various other members. Deppe took the majority of vocals and played guitar, Horne added backing vocals and played bass (prompting a few comparisons to Talking Heads). Other members came and went on keyboards and percussion, but the core pair were, and remain to this day, the “face” of The Spoons.

After growing a solid fanbase in Ontario and putting out an indie album in 1981, they brought in John Punter, who’d worked with Roxy Music, to produce their second album, Arias and Symphonies which was still an indie release, but this time with a label that had better distribution in Canada at least. The album went gold at home and was a massive success in their home city. CFNY-FM in Toronto, then run by David Marsden, had it as their #4 album of the year (Rio was #2 on the same list) and their U-Know Awards picked them as Band of the Year the next year. “Nova Heart” became the first of five top 40 hits they had in the Great White North and was still voted among the 200 best songs of all-time the following decade by Toronto radio listeners. The album also got them an opening spot on Culture Club shows, which in turn caught the attention of Niles Rodgers who was impressed enough to ask to produce their third album, Talkback, which would also go gold in Canada.

The band seemed to have the right sound for the time, a synthy new wave with a good dance beat, and the photogenic good looks of many MTV bands (worth noting though that Much Music hadn’t begun in Canada yet so there was no 24-hour music station to play their videos at the time) and contacts with solid producers. But somehow that failed to turn heads – or ears – outside of their homeland and they never had any noteworthy success outside of Canada. They broke up for awhile but have been back at it on and off for the last decade,  putting a new single “Beautiful Trap” on their website a couple of years ago and releasing a compilation album on both vinyl and CD in 2020. Deppe, meanwhile, has recently also been playing guitars for another flashback to ’82 – A Flock of Seagulls.