Another instalment of the summer look at great songs over at Hanspostcard’s site, which I’ve been lucky enough to contribute to.
Well for this round of the Song Draft, I decided to go in a bit of a different direction. I had tentatively planned on picking Gerry Rafferty’s brilliant “Baker Street” but Hinoeuma beat me to the punch… which was not only fair but kind of encouraging to me, confirming that some great songs are great songs that appeal far and wide. I’d already picked a song by the biggest American alternative act of their generation, R.E.M., one of Canada’s internationally best-known acts in Rush, and one from the granddaddies of rock, arguably the biggest band ever – The Beatles. So for this one I decided to go the other direction and pick one very few here (probably none) have heard – “London Baby” by Slave to the Squarewave.
Slave to the Squarewave are veterans of the Toronto scene, a band led by a couple of creative, flashy friends, Colin MacPhail and Rob Stuart. Back when this song was done, they were a quartet with drummer Doug Lea and guitarist Andrew Starr being a part and adding to the prominent and classy keyboards of Stuart. Once in awhile, Rob’s wife Kim lends a hand or a voice; unlike the Beatles, the presence of a wife didn’t seem to affect the band much for the worse. MacPhail is the frontman in every sense of the word, the main lyricist, with a powerful voice and a flair for the theatrical on stage.
By 2005, when they first recorded “London Baby”, they’d been around for four or five years and put out a couple of indie releases. They had a loyal following around Toronto and one DJ – David Marsden, whom I’ve written about before – backing them and playing them alongside bands that sounded a bit similar but enjoyed immensely bigger budgets and more acclaim – Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, The Cure at their most playful, Echo & the Bunnymen at their most radio-friendly.
I can’t remember when I first became aware of them, but hearing their songs on radio, albeit only on one show, and seeing them billed on events around the area, I became a fan and often went to their shows. They were always a full-blown party; drinks flowed freely, faces became familiar, people sang along, not totally infrequently some of the ladies in the crowd ended up dancing on stage and Colin as oft as not ended up half-stripped out of his fancy suit that he began the show in. The songs were upbeat and sounded great at home, but really came to life in a bar or small nightclub setting.
“London Baby” was a particularly catchy bit that just about dared you not to get up and move, and sing along. It had the brash “in yer face” approach of Oasis from the decade before and the dance sensibilities of New Order the decade before that. Rob – he of British origins and accent – tells me it came about fairly organically at a Sunday afternoon jam session. Colin tried to write lyrics that were “everything that was typically British.” They even managed a suitably British video, after they signed a contract with Sparks Music in Canada. No Warner Brothers or Sony were Sparks, but at least it was a label with some distribution throughout the country. One could find Slave’s Big Change album racked up in record stores right by those of Sting or the Smiths. One song from it squeaked onto the national dance chart, and this song was used by the TV show Fashion Television in one of its segments (in all likelihood looking at British fashions.) But the lads were smart enough to not quit their day jobs. Big Change wasn’t really a big change in terms of their international status or bank account bottom lines.
The Slave to the Squarewave continue to record sporadically and play when the pandemic will allow; mostly now they’re just to core duo of MacPhail and Stuart. The latter has another hand in music now, being a DJ on an internet radio station besides his 9-to-5 office job.
So here’s to the Slaves, as the fans call ’em, and here’s to “London Baby”, a thoroughly likable little ditty. Maybe not one of the ten or twelve best ever, but hey, one that deserves to be heard and a big reminder for us. Great bands we hear on radio or see displayed prominently at Walmart are fine… most of the time they have that level of success for good reason. But let’s hear it for the others – local music and local musicians, working away to make music and entertain us day in, day out, struggling in obscurity. Playing music more for the love of it than the gold in it. Cheers to all of you who fit that category. Besides, U2 and R.E.M. are fantastic. But they never hung out with me at a late-night restaurant after a show and drove me home because I was a tad tipsy! So thanks for that Rob and Colin, and thanks for making music for the love ot it. And thanks to all you unsung musical heroes in every city.