Music From The Great White North!

Eh, hoser, you think you know a thing or three about Canadian rock?

Those neighbors upstairs sure know how to party!

If you’re only familiar with the platinum artists like Rush, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Triumph and Loverboy, then you’re for sure missing out on scores of B-level (and C, D and E- level, all the way down to Zed-level) artists from the Great White North. Canada has been a fertile ground for delivering classic artists since the 1960s. Early pioneers include the critic’s darlings Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Robbie Robertson and Gordon Lightfoot, among many others.

One thing about Canadian rock is that there is a great musical variety. (But technically isn’t that the case everywhere?) OK, so the music scene is no better or worse in Canada than anywhere else. (It’s just colder up there and they drink more beer.) That said, the artists that broke through at some level and filtered south were a diverse bunch: There were pop/rock one-hit wonders (Glass Tiger)*, hard rock posers (Aldo Nova), sensitive singer/songwriters (Sarah McLachlan), early MTV synth-pop favorites (Men Without Hats), bands with names that mean nothing except to the most geographically-sophisticated Americans (Chilliwack), singers who never surrender the right to wear their sunglasses at night (Corey Hart) as well as dreadful artists you’re sorry you ever heard of because psycho ex-girlfriends found life-altering meaning in the lyrics and ended up stalking you (Alanis Morissette).

77% of the world’s maple syrup supply is sourced from Canada.

Wow. So today, let’s talk about three songs that made some noise in the lower 48. Unfortunately, these acts weren’t able to deke it out with their American and British counterparts and become household names. Funny thing about radio airplay (at least back then); many stations didn’t play these types of bands during daylight hours, but slotted them in later, after 9 pm or so. I have memories listening to these musical Canuks on my local radio station (WRKI I-95, Brookfield, CT – the home of rock and roll!), late at night with headphones, all while dreading the math test I had to take the next morning, no doubt.

So put on your toque, grab a Tim Horton’s donut and a double/double, put a two-four of Molson in the snow and head’r to the Great White North!

*I don’t want to instigate a kerfuffle, but, I know Glass Tiger had more than one hit. But I defy you to name any of their songs besides “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)!”

Red Rider –“ Lunatic Fringe”
From As Far As Siam

Led by guitarist/vocalist Tom Cochrane, Red Rider achieved considerable fame in Canada, but never made it beyond cult status down here. Between 1979 and 1984, the original band released four albums, each of which spawned at least one tune that had some success south of the border. Red Rider’s enduring song, “Lunatic Fringe” which is included on the 1981 release, As Far As Siam, is a cautionary tale about the rise of anti-Semitism.

After the initial success following its release, “Lunatic Fringe” showed it still had some life left in it, judging from its inclusion in the television series “Miami Vice” as well as the 1985 film “Vision Quest.” “Lunatic Fringe” remains a staple of classic rock radio to this day.

Trivia: Red Rider bassist Jeff Jones was a member of a pre-Geddy Lee version of Rush in 1968, playing alongside guitarist Alex Lifeson and original Rush drummer John Rutsey.

(Self serving) trivia: I saw Red Rider open for The Kinks at Madison Square Garden in the early 1980s.

Prism – “Don’t Let Him Know”
From Small Change

Prism started life as an obscure band in the mid-1970s, and pretty much spent its entire career in that zone, in America, at least. The band had several albums to their credit, but never broke through. They brushed the top 100 on a few occasions, most notably with “Don’t Let Him Know” (co-written by a then-unknown Bryan Adams), which just made it into the Top 40, peaking at #39 in early 1982.

Tragically, lead singer Ron Tabak died in late 1984, putting an end to the band’s career. One of the founding members, Bruce Fairbairn, made a name for himself as the producer for many of the era’s best-selling albums, working with artists including Loverboy (Loverboy, Get Lucky, Keep It Up), Bon Jovi (Slippery When Wet, New Jersey), Aerosmith (Permanent Vacation, Pump, Get A Grip), AC/DC (The Razor’s Edge, AC/DC Live), Scorpions (Face The Heat), Van Halen (Balance) and many, many more. Another Prism alum, Jim Vallance, became Bryan Adam’s songwriting partner, penning most of Adam’s best-known songs. Vallance also co-authored a few later-day Aerosmith classics (isn’t “later-day Aerosmith classic” an oxymoron?), most notably “Rag Doll.”

Trivia: “Don’t Let Him Know” was fellow Canadian Bryan Adam’s first involvement with a record that made the Billboard Top 40 Singles chart.

(Art major) trivia: The artwork for both the Small Change album and the single featured Norman Rockwell’s 1954 painting, Girl at Mirror. Rockwell didn’t live to see this appropriation of his work; he died five years before its release.

April Wine – “Sign Of The Gypsy Queen”
From Nature Of The Beast

April Wine was Canada’s version of Boston, a quintet that delivered hook-filled melodic hard rock music with plenty of guitars and vocal harmonies. Like so many of their fellow Canadians, they were huge in their native land, but only had minimal success in the States. Best known for the power ballad “Just Between You And Me,” the Miles Goodwyn-fronted unit also scored an FM radio hit with “Sign Of The Gypsy Queen,” which, like “Between,” was taken from 1981’s Nature Of The Beast.

The band slugged it out for a few more years before Goodwyn called time and ended up in the Bahamas. After spending a few years sipping tropical drinks on the beach and missing the business, he traded the sun-soaked island for the tundra life once again and now divides his time between performing with a reformed April Wine and his solo career, along with his side hustle of composing film scores.

Trivia: “Sign Of The Gypsy Queen” was one of the few April Wine songs not composed by Goodwyn. It was written by Lorence Hud. (Who?)

(Naming) trivia: The two words that comprise the band’s name don’t have any special meaning; the band simply felt they “sounded good together.”  For sure!

Three Unlikely 1980s #1 Hits That I Really Like

Sure, I’m more of a hard rock and metal guy, but do possess the ability to appreciate a classic pop song when I hear it. It’s all about the hook, melody and performance, and in some cases, the music video. Today, I discuss three hits that contain all of the above elements. And in two cases here (NOT Chicago, however), the videos are state-of-the-art.

So here are three #1 pop hits of the 1980s I’ve always liked. All of them have staying power, as aptly demonstrated by continued airplay on adult contemporary radio and/or successful cover versions.

Roxette – Listen To Your Heart
Look Sharp! (1988)
#1 for one week – 10/29/1989 through 11/4/1989

Roxette – no turntable required!

Sometimes the Swedes can do what others can’t. For one thing, they (like Switzerland) were able to stay the hell out of the way of World War II (for the most part). And if they didn’t invent the affordable-chic Euro assemble-it-yourself furniture superstore that also serves meatballs in gravy, they sure did a fine job of stealing and running with the idea. And finally, they produce the only fish that American children will eat.

But as far as music is concerned, it’s entirely another story. Apart from ABBA and Europe (that’s Europe the band, as in “The Final Countdown”), Swedish music has been avoided like husmanskost by those of us in America. But apparently in the underside of Scandinavia, there has always been a thriving music scene. Problem is, most of what happens in Sweden stays in Sweden. (When was the last time you heard E-Type on the American airwaves? Me neither.) Predictably, Roxette, a male/female duo that consisted of songwriter/guitarist/sometimes vocalist Per Gessle and vocalist Marie Fredriksson (and their great hair) were having trouble getting noticed outside of the polar region.

As the story goes, Look Sharp!, Roxette’s second album was brought home by an expat college student, he gave it to a friend at a Midwest radio station and the rest is history. Four hit singles (two #1s, a #2 and a #14) were issued from a platinum-selling disc that the American division of the record company initially declined to release over here, declaring the material “unsuitable” for consumption in the States. So much for the experts being experts.

The third single, a power ballad called “Listen To Your Heart” was a tour de force in both hooks and by the powerhouse vocal performance by Fredriksson. Equally stunning was the Doug Freel-directed video, shot in Sweden’s Borgholm Castle, featuring a barefooted Fredriksson belting it out in a skintight dress. Fortunately, Roxette was able to capitalize on this success, releasing several more high-charting singles over the next couple of years, including two more #1s.

(Slightly) interesting fact: “Listen To Your Heart” was the first Billboard #1 single NOT released on a 7” vinyl record in America. (Remember the “cassette single?”)

(Slightly less) interesting fact: There are three distinct versions of “Listen” – the original album version, the European single and the remixed American single. And that’s not counting live versions released through the years.

Chicago – Hard To Say I’m Sorry
Chicago 16 (1982)
#1 for two weeks – 9/5/1982 through 9/18/1982

Chicago hits #1 in an era of Men At Work and The Human League. Impressive.

Chicago was one of the biggest rock acts of the 1970s. Between 1967-1977, the original septet released eleven albums (nine studio, one live, one hits), all of which reached the top six (top six?) except for the first one. As far as huge albums and singles go, Chicago was right up there with Paul McCartney, Elton John and the Moody Blues, delivering one of the more impressive winning streaks of the era.

Then things went terribly wrong very quickly. In early 1978, guitarist Terry Kath died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot, and even though the band carried with a replacement (albeit an ill-fitting replacement), sales dried up. By the time Chicago XIV was released in 1980, it peaked at #71, spawned zero hit singles and was their first album that failed to go gold. Adding injury to insult, the record company then dumped the band. (But it issued Chicago XV – a second hits package – shortly thereafter.) The 1970s were history – it was a great run, but life goes on. Maybe it’s still not too late to go back to school.

So in 1982, a Chicago comeback looked as improbable as a Cubs World Series win. Yet, under the tutelage of star maker David Foster, the predictably-titled Chicago 16 (apparently a new decade meant ditching the roman numerals) charted in the top ten and the first single, “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” climbed to the top of the single charts.

For better or worse, the song changed the course of the band. Chicago went on to a successful second act starting with “Sorry;” The next three years saw five more singles peak in the top 20, until bassist/vocalist Peter Cetera bolted for a solo career in 1985. His absence did nothing to slow down the gravy train; the band continued to release hit singles until the end of the decade before becoming a legacy band for once and for all. History does not record whether “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” benefited from placement in the long-forgotten 1982 film “Summer Lovers.”

Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse Of The Heart
Faster Than The Speed Of Night (1983)
#1 for four weeks – 9/25/1983 through 10/22/1983

A 6:59 epic filed down to a manageable 4:30

Prior to 1983, Bonnie Tyler, a Welsh singer with a Rod Stewart-style rasp, was considered a one-hit wonder, based on the country-tinged #3 hit “It’s A Heartache” from 1978. Once the single faded from the airwaves, Tyler seemed to be consigned to the club that included contemporaries Nick Gilder, Debbie Boone and Alicia Bridges.

Fast forward to 1982: Tyler, looking to increase her rock cred (or maybe just to try to make a few bucks), hooked up with songwriter Jim Steinman, who was looking for a new voice to replace the no-longer-relevant Meat Loaf. Plotting for her next album, Steinman dictated that several rock covers be included (Blue Oyster Cult, CCR, Ian Hunter) along with some contemporary offerings and two Steinman originals. The most famous one, “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” clocked in at a lengthy seven minutes (although an edit was released as a single.)

Despite topping the chart, subsequent efforts to continue the momentum proved fleeting. Tyler was only able to graze the top 40 one more time with 1984’s “Holding Out For A Hero” from the “Footloose” soundtrack. But her legacy will always be “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” Truth of the matter is that I could do without the “turn around, bright eyes” part, but that’s an integral part of the song. Sure, there are plenty of better singers out there than Bonnie Tyler, but when she gets to “I really need you tonight, forever’s gonna start tonight” at the end of the song, she’s singing like her life depends on it. Something that very few can do. An admirable trait.