Every music scene has its ground breakers, one-hit wonders, and stars that seem to last through every change thrown at them. This edition of Haletunes focuses on some classic Canadian musicians who have stood the test of time, and who either keep making new fans or keep at least never seem to get too old to listen to. Of course this is somewhat subjective, and certainly can’t represent all of the incredible Canadian musicians — that could be a whole new series of blog posts! Regardless, like Don Cherry says, I’m good Canadian boy who keeps his stick on the ice. This post is all about Canada and some of the lasting musical impact our musicians have made over the years.
In the 1968 by the Government of Canada, led by Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, created the Canadian Radio -Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to support and highlight Canadian musicians, writers, and actors. While that mandate has not always been as successful as hoped, the idea that Canadian broadcasters should be required to dedicate a minimum 30% of air time to music and television with a distinct Canadian connection is significant given the mammoth broadcasters of our southern neighbours. Do I think Canadian artists would never have a chance to be heard or seen without the CRTC? Of course not, but why not support our own just a bit? But can bureaucracy really foster a sense of cultural pride or awareness? Certainly this mandate has not always proved successful or popular. Consider reading Ryan Edwardson’s Canadian Content: Culture and the Quest for Nationhood (http://books.google.ca/books?id=IxVuSFLo8fAC&lpg=PP1&dq=Canadian%20content&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=true) for more information on this topic.
While this post is not an ode to the CRTC, it is a celebration of some early Canadian rock musicians. Of course each region of this vast nation will have it’s own favourites, as will different generations, so this brief list will not come close to highlighting some of the incredible talent who have come from the great white north. While putting this list together, I had to consider and ultimately discard artists like Bryan Adams (http://www.bryanadams.com/), Tom Cochrane (http://www.tomcochrane.com/), Loverboy (http://www.loverboyband.com/), and April Wine (http://www.aprilwine.ca/) to name just a few. This list, in no particular order or from any given region, represents some of the best Canadian music that time and time and time again is recognized as great music.
It’s hard to believe this trio has been together for 40 years. In that time, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart have sold more than 40 MILLION albums worldwide, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, invested as Officers of the Order of Canada, and stayed friends through it all. On their own, these men have written books, had solo projects, and been guest musicians on other albums. There is even a popular documentary about them. They even recorded a record of covers which paid homage to the songs that influenced the band. As a group, the music of Rush has moved from prog rock of the early 1970s into synth and guitar classics of the 1980s and 1990s. Into the 2000s, their music didn’t lose a beat with complex guitar and bass, and thundering drums.
In 1981 Rush released their eighth and most successful record, Moving Pictures, from which some of their most recognizable and certainly most commercially successful songs come. Telling the story of teen angst and frustration, and borrowing from Mark Twain, the song “Tom Sawyer” is still a radio favourite. Filmed in the Quebec recording facility Le Studio, this video of “Tom Sawyer” gives a hint at the complexity of Peart’s drum kit, as well as some of the energy the band brings to their recordings.
Neil Young (www.neilyoung.com)
How do you start to discus Neil Young? While he is not everybody’s cup of tea, his musical output has spanned more than 50 years. Where do you begin? The early years with Buffalo Springfield or CSNY? His solo work that has ranged from folk to 50’s retro pop to electric and grunge? Or even his most recent work with an orchestra? Or maybe you have to consider his political and social activism or philanthropic interests? There are few musicians who have continually taken up against a cause and held their beliefs so firmly and publicly. Neil Young has recorded with some of the biggest acts, such as Bob Dylan, The Band, and Eddie Vedder. Additionally, his work has be covered by numerous musicians such as The Cowboy Junkies and Johnny Cash. As further indication of his influence and staying power, Young was even part of the MTV Unplugged series.
Described by CBC Radio2’s Tom Powers (@TomPowersCBC) the song “Old Man” as a such an essential Canadian song that people are/should be given the lyrics when they get their citizenship. While this is typical if Tom’s humour, it doesn’t underestimate the social power of the song. This video is a recording of Young’s influential set at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1971.
The Tragically Hip (www.thehip.com)
For a certain segment of Canadian society, The Tragically Hip (The Hip for short) represents the best of Canadian music from the late 1980 through to the early 2000s. With a devoted following some what akin to the Grateful Dead, The Hip create energetic and insightful music that people can’t seem to get enough of. Their live shows consistently sell out, whether it be small bars from their hometown of Kingston, Ontario to major stadiums like the Air Canada Center in Toronto. But their following isn’t restricted to Canada. These guys are just as popular south of the border, with shows in Chicago, Boston, or New York City on their most recent tour. In 2005, The Hip even asked the fans to select the songs which would best represent their best work for the 2005 double album “Yer Favourites”.
With song lyrics that ranged from telling stories of prison breaks (“38 Years Old”), to an homage to Bill Barilko and the Toronto Maple Leafs (“Fifty-Mission Cap”), to the beauty of Ontario’s cottage country (“Bobcaygon”), The Hip transcends social barriers. Part hard drive electric rock and part art, The Hip are as relevant today as they were in 1988.
The Hip’s first full length album Up To Here (1989) contained the hard driving hit “New Orleans is Sinking”. This classic has been played in bars and kitchen parties ever since.
Gordon Lightfoot (www.lightfoot.ca)
Why asked about classic Canadian rock artists, few people would suggest balladeer Gordon Lightfoot, but it’s worth recognizing that the former Elvis impersonator from Orillia, Ontario, has been making music and influencing musicians since the 1960s. While Lightfoot’s early career was primarily folk and light country, some of his biggest hits were clearly rock songs. The best example of this is probably the politically motivated song “Black Day in July” which was Lightfoot’s reaction to the 1967 Detroit race riots. Consider also that the classic “Sundown’ has been covered by Hip-Hop artist Elwood, country singer Toby Kieth, and Canadian Indie rocker Luke Doucett.
Regardless of you musical taste, it seems that Gordon Lightfoot has recorded something that fits your fancy.
The Guess Who
The Winnipeg band who may be best know for its mega-hit “American Woman”, The Guess Who were also responsible for a string of classic rock hits in the 1960s and 70s such as “These Eyes”, “No Sugar Tonight”, and “Running Back to Saskatoon”. This guitar and piano focused band was made up of excellent musicians and songwriters. Of course with so much talent, it was hard for the band to stay together. Burton Cummings left the band for a successful solo career, and Randy Bachman left to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO). Both ventures lead to further successes with hits for Cummings like “Stand Tall” and “My Own Way to Rock”, and hits like “Takin’ Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” for Bachman.
Well this list wouldn’t really be complete without something from The Band. Although this group originated in Toronto, The Band was not an entirely Canadian act as its members came from both sides of the border. The original line up of Robbie Robertson (guitar, vocals), Levon Helms (drums, mandolin, guitar, vocals), Garth Hudson (keyboard instruments, saxophones, trumpet), Rick Danko (bass guitar, double bass, fiddle, trombone, vocals), and Richard Manuel (piano, drums, baritone saxophone, vocals) first found success as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. When they moved to the front of the stage, it only seemed appropriate that they keep the simple moniker under which they had been know — The Band. The TV show Happy Days even paid homage to their success as Richie Cunningham’s band played under the same name when they backed guest musician Ronnie Hawkins.