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Archive for January, 2012

This Week in History: January 30 to February 5

Posted on: January 30th, 2012 by Ripple Creative Strategy No Comments

By David Ball

February is Black History Month, so how about celebrating by listening to some Oscar Peterson, Maestro, K’Naan, Salome Bey and Divine Brown, or by reading Michael Ondaatje’s Buddy Bolden jazz novel Coming Through Slaughter and Esi Edugyan’s Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning Half-Blood Blues.

Squires reunion perhaps?

The evening of Feb. 1, 1963, saw a 17-year-old transplanted Torontonian by the name of Neil Young (seven-time JUNO Award winner, Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee, Allan Waters Humanitarian Award recipient and Officer of the Order of Canada) perform his first paid gig at a Winnipeg country club with one of his earliest bands, The Squires. I couldn’t unearth a set list, but you can bet the folks at the club heard a bunch of the Ventures and Shadows covers that Neil Young & The Squires were wont to perform at the time, along with a smattering of surf and garage rock originals highlighted by their 1963 regional hit “The Sultan.” Speaking of that song, only 300 copies of the 45 were ever pressed, and they were sold only at their Winnipeg gigs circa 1963. According to the Neil Young fan page Thrasher’s Wheat, the whereabouts of only eight to 10 of the 45s are known today, making “The Sultan” one of the rarest 45s in the world. Young himself doesn’t even own one. The last known copy to be auctioned off sold for $3,000 in the late 1990s.

Neil Young & The Squires split up in 1965, at which point Young embarked on a brief solo career that landed him back in Ontario where he joined future funk legend Rick James’ R&B band, The Mynah Birds. The twosome also became unlikely roommates; if memory serves me correctly, I believe they shared a flat in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood (back then the now-swanky district was a bohemian music mecca). After James’ group disbanded, Young and Mynah Birds bassist Bruce Palmer relocated to California in the spring of 1966 and hooked up with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay, and Buffalo Springfield was born.

Thanks for yanking the blues back from the dead and scuffing the sheen off of rock ’n’ roll…

The faux brother-sister garage blues act The White Stripes announced they were breaking up on Feb. 2, 2011. Sure this was a tragedy, but you have to admire Jack and Meg White’s timing: The Detroit ex-married couple got out at the height of their powers. At the time of the announcement, the guitar-drum duo were one of rock’s biggest acts and, incredibly, were still managing to combine being edgy and influential with critical and commercial success. The White Stripes were one of the few acts of their era to rise to rock superstardom, a far cry from their modest late ’90s beginnings playing small clubs to sparse crowds. (Anyone who says they caught their gig at the Rivoli in Toronto in the late ’90s is either one of the lucky ones, or a fibber, since Jack White himself said there were only a few witnesses in the club.) During their 14-year run, the Stripes released six acclaimed, genre-bending studio albums, attracting an impressive fan base to their devolved rock-blues hybrid. Their breakthrough came in 2001 with the release of White Blood Cells – along with Michel Gondry’s incredible Lego-animation music video for “Fell in Love with a Girl.” But it was theirfourth LP that made the band a household name. Released in 2003, Elephant went double-platinum, won two Grammy Awards, reached Billboard’s Top 10 and received glowing praise from critics on both sides of the pond. The album’s loose, rock-heavy arrangements allowed Jack White plenty of room to shine, effectively introducing a brand-new guitar hero to the rock world. As great as all of The White Stripes’ albums are, including the quieter experimental effort Get Behind Me Satan, the pair were equally well known for their electrifying live prowess, as anyone who witnessed one of the shows from their landmark 2007 cross-Canada tour can attest. Captured on the acclaimed documentary and accompanying live CD, The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights, the massively ambitious and unprecedented rock expedition, in support of their swan song Icky Thump, was conceived as a kind of love letter to all of Canada. The duo performed in every province and territory, with surprise impromptu gigs along the way.

Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio” stalled at No. 25 on Billboard’s pop singles chart on Feb. 3, 1973. But far more significant than the modest ranking was that the single marked Mitchell’s first big hit as a solo artist. Before its release she was known primarily as a songwriter, with some of her tunes becoming more famous recorded by other acts such as “Woodstock” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and “This Flight Tonight” by Nazareth. The song’s lyrics are “an extended metaphor where the narrator compares herself to a car radio and a radio station, hoping to please her listeners. The music mirrors the words – just as the singer notes that she’s a country station, the song has a country feel, and its romantic/sexual connotation is emphasized by the tune’s lazy sensuousness” (William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide). Mitchell said in an interview that she wrote the song in a deliberate attempt to get a hit. Mission accomplished! David Crosby, Graham Nash and Neil Young took part in the original recording session, but only Nash made the final cut (he is credited with playing harmonica). “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio” was released in October 1972 as the leadoff single for For the Roses, preceding what would be her fifth studio album by a month. The single peaked at No. 10 on Canada’s RPM singles chart, but it wasn’t the Saskatchewan folk singer’s Canadian chart breakthrough. In 1970, the multi-JUNO Award-winner and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee’s best-known solo song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” cracked RPM’s Top 15, although it originally only managed to grab No. 67 on Billboard.

Better late than never…

 

Billboard Hot 100’s No. 1 single on Feb. 4, 1989, was “When I’m With You,” a seven-year-old power ballad by defunct Toronto band Sheriff. As the royalties began pouring in (by the millions), Arnold Lanni, the song’s writer and Sheriff’s keyboardist, restarted his music career with the formation of Frozen Ghost. The third single from Sheriff’s self-titled – and only – album was a No. 8 hit in Canada in 1983, but mustered a measly No. 61 stateside. How did it finally rise to greater heights in the United States? The story goes something like this: A Las Vegas DJ began spinning the tune in 1988 and other stations started doing the same. Capitol Records caught wind of this and decided to rerelease the single, but the delayed success didn’t rekindle a reunion. Lanni and Sheriff bassist Wolf Hassell were busy with Frozen Ghost while the other two Sheriff members, vocalist Freddy Curci and guitarist Steve DeMarchi, formed the band Alias.

Next week: Corey Hart and “Tears Are Not Enough”

“You Turn Me On I’m a Radio” by Joni Mitchell

The Small World of Canadian Music: Rufus Wainwright, Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen

Posted on: January 25th, 2012 by Ripple Creative Strategy No Comments

By James Sandham

The music world – let alone that sub-sphere known as the Canadian music world – can be an extremely small place. Six degrees of separation can easily become four, even three or two. Take the example of Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley. While both men came from renowned musical lineages (Wainwright being the son of folk singers Kate McGarrigle, a two-time JUNO Award winner, and Grammy Award-winning Loudon Wainwright III; and Buckley being the son of his famous father Tim), they were born in separate decades (Wainwright in ’73 and Buckley in ’66) and on opposite sides of the continent (Rhinebeck, New York, and Anaheim, California, respectively).

Wainwright’s parents would divorce when he was three, and he would then move to Montreal with his mother, where he spent most of his youth. Wainwright was touring by the age of 13 with The McGarrigle Sisters and Family, a folk group featuring him, his mother, his aunt, Anna, and his sister, Martha. Buckley, on the other hand, was moving around Orange County at that time, an upbringing he referred to as “rootless trailer trash.” He graduated high school and moved to Hollywood at the age of 19, and spent the next six years working in hotels while playing guitar in various struggling bands.

Nonetheless, the two men’s lives were fated to cross, and that happened in 1996, when both found themselves living in New York City. By this time, Buckley was already an established musician, having released his Live at Sin-é EP in 1993 and his Grace LP in 1994, and had toured internationally to promote them. Wainwright, on the other hand, was just an up-and-comer.

What developed was a feud that now features in most commentaries on the two men. Ostensibly, it came about through Wainwright’s jealousy – he was thrice denied the opportunity to play at Sin-é, the East Village music venue where Buckley regularly performed among the likes of Sinéad O’Connor, Marianne Faithfull and Allen Ginsberg. Wainwright, known for his emotional virtuosity, took this putative slight to heart.

From this initially cool rapport, however, grew a brief but now almost legendary relationship, due to Wainwright later immortalizing it in song. The two men met again in 1997 at a show where Wainwright was performing, and Buckley reportedly helped him overcome some technical issues. They had beers afterward, over the course of which Wainwright is said to have revised his initial enmity. As Patrick Zimmerman has written, he recognized in Buckley “another beautiful boy blessed with more than mere attitude and exhibitionism.”

Tragically, that beautiful boy would die a few months later, his life ending in May 1997, of accidental drowning in Memphis, Tennessee’s Wolf River Harbour. Wainwright would go on to memorialize their short relationship in his 2004 song “Memphis Skyline,” lamenting that he “always hated him for the way he looked/In the gaslight of the morning” but “then came Hallelujah sounding like Ophelia” – a reference to Buckley’s heartfelt cover of “Hallelujah,” considered by Rolling Stone to be one of the 500 greatest songs of all time. Wainwright would later cover the song himself, providing a stirring interpretation of what has become, since its 1984 inception, a contemporary classic, and drawing yet another Canadian musician into this story: “Hallelujah” writer, Leonard Cohen. Wainwright’s interpretation, described as “liturgical” and bespeaking purity, would eventually be featured on the soundtrack to the film Shrek, thus weaving yet another Canadian voice into the saga, Scarborough-born actor Mike Myers, who voiced the movie’s eponymous lead character.

Yes, it’s a small world indeed. And that’s where today’s dose of serendipitous Canadian trivia ends. It goes to show that often, it’s not what you know, but who you know. Especially in this tiny world. And especially in Canada.

Video: “Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright

This Week in History: January 23 to 29

Posted on: January 24th, 2012 by Ripple Creative Strategy No Comments

By David Ball

Canadians won BIG but surprised NO ONE at the American Music Awards…

Two of Canada’s hottest stars, Shania Twain and Alanis Morissette, took home trophies at the 24th annual American Music Awards, televised worldwide by ABC on Jan. 27, 1997. Twain won for favourite female country artist, handily beating out two of her rivals, Wynonna and Faith Hill. I said “handily” because the AMAs are decided by a music buyers’ poll. Nominations are based on sales, radio play and music video views, and nominees only qualify if their projects are released between December 1 of the previous year and September 1 of the current one. Although it was a full year since Twain’s mega-selling album The Woman in Me was released, the album was still going strong in 1996 with three singles reaching No. 1. Incidentally, the Timmins native lost to George Strait in the category for favourite country album.

Morissette’s breakout LP, Jagged Little Pill, won favourite pop/rock album, and the Ottawa-born singer-songwriter also walked away with the statue for favourite pop/rock female artist. Aside from collecting the 1992 JUNO Award for most promising female vocalist of the year, Morissette’s AMA twofer represented her first-ever honours outside of Canada. However, later in 1996, she went on to win four Grammy Awards, including album of the year and a whopping five JUNOs. Not to be outdone, Twain earned 36 other awards in 1996, including a Grammy for best country album and JUNO Awards for country female vocalist of the year and entertainer of the year.

Speaking of birthdays… I could devote several pages to one of Canada’s greatest exports, but alas, I’m not allowed to. So here’s a condensed bio.

One of the most important female singer-songwriters of her generation, Sarah McLachlan was born on Jan. 28, 1968 in Halifax. The multiple JUNO and Grammy award winner, Lilith Fair matriarch and Officer of the Order of Canada spent her early years taking music lessons including piano, guitar and voice. In her late teens, McLachlan finished a year of art training at the Nova Scotia School of Art & Design while honing her musical chops as the lead singer of local new wave band October Gain. The band’s popularity got McLachlan noticed and she signed her first record deal with Nettwerk in 1987. Soon after relocating to Vancouver in 1988, the 19-year-old songstress released her solo debut, Touch. Initially the album didn’t sell well, but it did lead to a new and more lucrative record deal with Arista. Touch was reissued by Arista internationally in 1989 and eventually went gold in Canada. Her follow-up LP and first with Arista, 1991’s Solace, was a mature 10-song effort that became her commercial breakthrough in Canada and included the singles, “The Path of Thorns (Terms)” and “Into the Fire,” the latter of which won the award for best music video at the 1992 JUNO Awards while McLachlan was nominated for female vocalist of the year.

In the fall of 1992, McLachlan, a philanthropist and passionate advocate for human rights, visited Cambodia and Thailand with a documentary crew from World Vision to expose poverty and child prostitution. When she returned home, she went into seclusion near Montreal and began composing material for her next album. The result was Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, her most realized work to date. Released in October of 1993, the album broke McLachlan into the American market. While it stalled at No. 50 on Billboard, it did garner Grammy and JUNO Award nominations and continued to chart for two years.

Her long-awaited fourth album, Surfacing, was issued in the summer of 1997 to coincide with the all-star, all-female Lilith Fair tour, with McLachlan as founder and co-headliner. Surfacing was an immediate hit, reaching No. 1 on Canada’s RPM chart and No. 2 on Billboard. Its success – four hit singles, four JUNOs and two Grammys – placed the singer into the superstar class.

But McLachlan was seemingly not satisfied with mere commercial success. She formed Lilith Fair, one of the most revolutionary tours in music history; a tour produced by a woman and showcasing all female acts. Despite cynical predictions, Lilith Fair grossed $16 million in 1997. After the tour wound down in 1999, McLachlan went on an extended hiatus, in part to start a family with her drummer and husband, Ashwin Sood (the couple later divorced), although she remained busy making one-off performances and collaborations, most notably “When She Loved Me,” an Oscar-nominated duet with Randy Newman from the Toy Story 2 soundtrack. She resurfaced in November 2003 with Afterglow, herfifth studio album; it peaked at No. 2 on Billboard and sold over five million copies worldwide. Wintersong dropped into record stores in 2006, an excellent collection of 11 new Christmas songs and several covers, including the excellent interpretation of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” Also in 2006, she put out Mirrorball: The Complete Concert, containing the entire sets from her final two Portland gigs in 1998, expanding – and improving – upon the original 1999 truncated release. She returned to the spotlight in 2010, performing at the opening ceremonies at the Vancouver Winter Olympics and released Laws of Illusion, her first collection of studio material since 2003.

In the summer of 2010, McLachlan had a second go at Lilith, but the results were disappointing. The tour was plagued with sluggish attendance, cancelled gigs, negative press and the economy. However, she hasn’t ruled out bringing Lilith back at some point in the future. On a personal note, I had the pleasure of working on the crew for McLachlan’s “Intimate & Interactive” television special at MuchMusic in the fall of 1997 and she was professional and pleasant throughout. Also, her tireless and inspirational crusade for animal welfare through the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals inspired me to adopt three cats.

 

Taking the cue from the shout-out TWIH gave to Sir John A Macdonald on his birthday: This is a new shout-out-only category I’m going to call “Not Music-Related, But Too Big to Ignore…”

 

Give it up to Wayne Gretzky, celebrating his 51st birthday on January 26! The Great One was born at the Brantford General Hospital in 1961 and his hockey greatness has been canonized in song by several artists, including The Pursuit of Happiness’s “Gretzky Rocks,” erroneously credited to Canuck music comedy troupe The Arrogant Worms.

 

Next week: Neil Young and Joni Mitchell

Video: “Gretzky Rocks” by The Pursuit of Happiness

 

More “This Week in History” here.

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