By James Sandham

Well, music lover, this week marks the 80th anniversary of Glenn Gould’s birth (September 25, 1932), and next month will be the 30th anniversary of his death (October 4, 1982), so I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect back on the man, his music and his career. The question is: Where do we begin?

Despite dying at a mere 50 years of age, Gould was nonetheless recognized internationally as one of the 20th century’s great musicians, one of the era’s most well-known and celebrated pianists, and a renowned composer, conductor, broadcaster and writer.

We might as well start at the beginning, way back in September of 1932, when Gould was born to Russell and Florence Gold (they changed their name to “Gould” in 1939), right here in Toronto. He grew up in the city’s east end (32 Southwood Drive, to be exact, which is now recognized by the City of Toronto as an official historical site), and his musical talents were clear from the beginning. It was reported that as a baby he hummed instead of crying and wiggled his fingers as if he was playing chords.

By age three Gould’s perfect pitch had already been noticed, and he could read music before he could read words. Of course, both his parents were musical – especially his mother, who had planned to become a professional musician and helped establish Gould’s early musical habits, including that of “singing” everything he played, which manifested throughout his career as subconscious humming (much to the bane of his sound engineers). Still, the young Gould’s talents seemed almost preternatural. For example, by the age of six he was already performing his own compositions at the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, and by age 10 he was attending the Royal Conservatory of Music. He would pass his final conservatory examination in piano two years later, receiving the highest marks of any candidate.

Gould went on to perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, making his first appearance with them in 1946. They played the first movement of Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4.” His first solo recital was the following year. Ten years later, in 1957, he embarked on his tour of the Soviet Union, the first North American to play there since the Second World War.

In spite of these early successes as a performer, Gould eventually came to see the public concert as “a force of evil,” and later stopped performing them completely, arguing that they devolved into a competition with a non-empathetic audience primarily attendant to the possibility that the performer would err or fail meeting critical expectation. Gould also had a pronounced aversion to what he termed the “hedonistic” approach to music: superficial theatricality, the cult of showmanship and gratuitous virtuosity. The institution of the public concert, he felt, encapsulated all of this, thereby degenerating art into a “blood sport.”

Thus it was that on April 10, 1964, Gould gave his last public performance, playing in Los Angeles at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. He’d performed fewer than 200 concerts over the course of his career – which, to put that in perspective, is about the equivalent of two years of touring for one of his contemporaries, like Harvey Van Cliburn. In addition to the aforementioned reasons, Gould said he abandoned live performance because he simply preferred the control of the recording studio, where every aspect of the final musical product could be tweaked to his specifications. He subsequently chose to spend the rest of his life focused on the recording, writing and broadcasting of music, as well as writing and lecturing on musical critique.

After years of prolific output, Gould suffered a stroke on September 27, 1982, that paralyzed the left side of his body. He was admitted to the Toronto General Hospital, where his condition deteriorated quickly; by October 4 there was evidence of brain damage. Gould’s father decided that his son should be taken off life support. He now lies next to his parents in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the first few measures of the “Goldberg Variations” carved onto his marker.

Extract from �The Art of Piano� � Glenn Gould playing Bach�s Partita No. 2


By David Ball

Classical pianist par excellence, master of performance and modern composition, foremost interpreter of Bach, media visionary, perfectionist, genius, icon – yes, David Hasselhoff is indeed all of these things. But these characteristics also apply to the late, great Glenn Gould.

I’m a pop, blues and rock guy at heart, so I won’t attempt to wax philosophic on the intricacies of Mr. Gould’s legacy, lest I offend any classical-loving folk with a few misplaced, but well-meaning notes. But I do know this truism: Glenn Gould is one of the most influential and important musicians of the 20th century.

A young Glenn Gould.

Born in Toronto on September 25, 1932, the only child of middle-class parents, Gould showed extraordinary musical promise at a very early age. He enrolled in Toronto’s prestigious Royal Conservatory of Music in 1943, where he was taken under the wing of renowned instructor Alberto Guerrero, whose own style was partly the basis for Gould’s own sensitive touch. Gould once described Guerrero’s keyboard technique as not so much striking the keys as “pulling them down” (Mark Satola, All Music Guide). Gould was also influenced by the nuanced finger pressure methods used in playing the organ.

Gould made his first public appearance at age 16 in Toronto and toured Canada shortly afterward, all the while making frequent appearances on the CBC. He was a concert pianist phenomenon by the age of 22, and a legend before he was 30. His audacious 1955 debut of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” shot to the top of the charts as it turned the classical music world on its traditionalist head, and continues to be the best-selling classical instrumental album of all time.

Despite his profitable headlining concert career and the continuing notoriety stemming from his remarkable interpretation of the “Goldberg Variations,” Gould abandoned his public performances in 1964, in part to focus his creative energies toward discovering inventive new ways of communicating music through mass media (though other more simple reasons included that he disliked being looked at while on stage and was growing more reclusive).

Glenn Gould circa "Goldberg Variations," 1955.

Friends and colleagues thought his radical new path would ruin him, but Gould proved his naysayers wrong when he embarked on a fruitful recording career with CBS Records while continuing to collaborate with the CBC, performing recitals, creating television essays and producing documentaries for both TV and radio.

Perhaps because the stodgy classical elite perceived him as a polarizing figure – too avant-garde and afflicted with distracting highly publicized eccentricities – Gould won few international accolades during his lifetime, although he did receive several awards posthumously, including his induction into both the Grammy Hall of Fame and Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Suffering from hypertension, Gould suffered a stroke and died on October 4, 1982, just a week or so after celebrating his 50th birthday.

Ruth Abernethy's bronze statue of Glenn Gould in Toronto.

If you find yourself walking past the CBC headquarters on Front Street in downtown Toronto, be sure to quietly pay your respects to Glenn Gould. You can’t miss his bronze likeness lounging on a bench, at peace, as the ignorant and oblivious trudge on by. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” from the 1969 album This Way Is My Way, couldn’t climb any higher than Billboard’s No. 8 on September 26, 1970, but for most of her fans – and there are millions of them worldwide – it’s easily No. 1 in their collective hearts. The Nova Scotia songstress has had plenty of tracks that went on to greater chart success in the United States, but “Snowbird” is her signature song and, more importantly, one of the most beloved singles ever produced from this country, hence its inaugural induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame when the shrine first opened its doors, figuratively speaking, in 2003. The appeal of “Snowbird,” written by Canuck songwriter Gene MacLellan, brought Murray international fame and officially kick-started her long career.

Although the tune cracked the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100, it placed higher in Canada, becoming RPM’s No. 1 country single and runner-up on its pop chart. Incidentally, “Snowbird” was a Top 10 Billboard country hit, topped the U.S. publication’s easy listening chart and was the first single ever to be certified gold in the U.S. by a Canadian female artist.

 

I know exactly where I was on September 30, 1989: in front of my old tube TV, enduring yet another punishingly unfunny “Saturday Night Live” episode, all in the name of witnessing what would be Neil Young’s historic musical guest slot. His jaw-dropping five-and-a-half minute rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World” remains not only one of the best one-offs in the iconic NBC sketch comedy’s history, but it easily ranks up there in the greatest balls-to-the-wall live rock performances ever in the annals of the small screen. Others on this informal list include The Who’s epic “A Quick One, While He’s Away” from the made-for-TV “Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” special from 1968; Patti Smith’s “Gloria” on the first season of “Saturday Night Live” in 1976; My Morning Jacket’s “One Big Holiday” on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in 2003; and Jimi Hendrix doing anything on any show ever.

Neil Young on "Saturday Night Live," September 30, 1989.

Young was mired in a battle with his record company through most of the 1980s, which subsequently found him producing a series of poor-selling non-mainstream albums (some believe intentionally). But in 1989, freed from his crippling contract with Geffen, Young triumphantly returned to his late ’70s rock prime with the release of Freedom, and his guest appearance on the second episode of the sketch comedy’s 15th season was seen as his unofficial re-launch. Dressed in ragged jeans, an Elvis T-shirt and a black leather jacket, Young literally destroyed the SNL stage, sneering like he had something to prove. Perhaps he did. It really didn’t matter that he performed two more songs during the broadcast – a solo version of his classic “The Needle and the Damage Done” and another Freedom standout rocker, “No More,” – because Neil Young was back with a vengeance even before “Rockin’ in the Free World'”s final screaming guitar solo ended.

Next week: Alanis Morissette and the O’Keefe Centre

Bach’s “Partita No. 6 in E Minor” performed by Glenn Gould


By James Sandham

Well, music lover, it’s Leonard Cohen’s 78th birthday this week (he was born on September 21, 1934), so to celebrate the prolific, multi-JUNO Award-winning artist and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee, I thought we’d look back at some of the highlights of his life and career.

Leonard Cohen

Now, for any other artist these highlights would be events like record releases or big music award wins, but for a man like Cohen, who has had one of the longest and most varied careers of anyone in the music business, there’s a whole other realm of alternative experiences to draw from. So, without further ado, here are five things you may not have known about the famous Canadian troubadour.

1. He lived in quasi-seclusion on a small Grecian isle

Yes, back in the heady 1960s, when Cohen was a just a young McGill University grad launching his poetry career, he bought a house on the small (about 25 square miles) Greek island of Hydra. It was while living there that he published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964) as well as the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966).

Hydra - Photograph. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Web. 10 Sep. 2012.

 

2. Phil Spector threatened him with a crossbow

Strange but apparently true. After his 1976 European tour, Cohen decided to change his style and arrangements, and subsequently enrolled Phil Spector, synonymous with the Wall of Sound production technique as well as the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson, who he was convicted of killing in his California mansion – to co-write and produce his 1977 album, Death of a Ladies Man. The recording of the album was fraught with difficulty. Spector barred Cohen from the studio before the vocal tracks were finished, then went ahead with the mixes using guide vocals. At one point he even held Cohen at crossbow-point, urging him to sing as though his life depended on it.

Phil Spector

 

3. “The Partisan” was the practical theme song of the Polish Solidarity movement

After Columbia declined to release Cohen’s 1984 album, Various Positions, in the United States, Cohen took things into his own hands and went out to promote it with his biggest tour to date. This included a series of highly emotional and politically controversial concerts in Poland, which at the time was still a Warsaw Pact country and under martial law. There, “The Partisan” came to be regarded as the hymn of the broad anti-bureaucratic social movement that was occurring, and during the ’80s almost all of Cohen’s songs were performed in Polish by Maciej Zembaty, a Polish artist, writer, journalist, singer, poet and comedian.


 

4. He is an ordained Buddhist monk

In 1994 Cohen retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Centre in the San Gabriel Mountains, forty miles east of Los Angeles. Thus began five years of seclusion at the center. He was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk in 1996, and took the Dharma name Jikan, which means silence. There was a subsequent impression that Cohen would not resume recording or publishing but he did, returning to Los Angeles in May of 1999.

Mt. Baldy Zen Center

 

5. Despite making millions of international record sales, he has almost gone broke (through no fault of his own)

In October 2005 Cohen alleged that his longtime former manager, Kelley Lynch, had misappropriated more than $5 million from his retirement fund. This left Leonard with a paltry $150,000. Though he won a 2006 civil suit awarding him $9 million, Lynch ignored the ruling and did not respond to a subpoena. It has been consequently questioned whether Cohen will ever be able to collect the awarded amount. Needless to say, he’s been under new management since then.

Happy birthday, Cohen!


By David Ball

“The Kids in the Hall” debuted on American national television on September 18, 1992. CBS picked up the rights to the popular CBC/HBO sketch comedy, airing repeats of Seasons 1 through 3 as part of its late-night Friday schedule. Already treasures in Canada and on HBO, cult heroes Scott Thompson, Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch and Kevin McDonald and their brand of hilariously irreverent humour finally blew up across the United States via the partnership with one of the Big 4 broadcasters.

The Kids in the Hall

Although scripted dialogue dominated most episodes, house band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s unforgettable theme song, “Having an Average Weekend,” plus the JUNO Award-winning trio’s omnipresent rock instrumental music score played a key role in the show’s overall production. I was fortunate enough to attend a live taping of “The Kids in the Hall” in the early ’90s (at the decrepit CBC studios on Mutual Street in Toronto), and watching Shadowy Men perform live throughout the taping was really freakin’ cool.

Some of the best-loved skits over the program’s 111 episode run were music-related, including the video starring a plaid-shirted Bruce McCulloch singing “These are the Daves I Know.” Since my name is David, people still sing this cursed song at me from time to time. (In case you’re interested, I’m mostly a Dave, but always a David in writing. The odd time I’ll answer to Davey and, for some unknown reason, far too many people call me Dave Ball, including my wife.)

The Kids in the Hall

Other memorable music-related skits included the recurring character “Tammy” (McCulloch as a vapid Britney Spears–like teen pop-tart known for would-be hit songs “Perhaps” and “Ain’t Gonna Spread for No Roses”) and “Bobby versus the Devil,” a skit involving a mullet-haired teenager’s metal guitar solo duel to the death with Satan – no doubt inspired by the cheesy Ralph Macchio movie Crossroads and/or the mythological Highway 61 and Highway 49 intersection in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Delta blues great Robert Johnson allegedly damned his soul to Hades in exchange for fame and glory. In case you were wondering, Bobby more than held his own against the horned, red-skinned gunslinger.

 

Happy Birthday!

Revered poet/novelist turned influential singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal on September 21, 1934. The Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, companion of the Order of Canada and all-around Canadian icon grew up in the English-speaking Montreal neighbourhood of Westmount. It was Cohen’s mother who sparked his creative fire in early childhood, encouraging her only son to explore poetry and music in school. Although he played guitar throughout his teen years, even forming a country-folk band, it wasn’t music that was his first calling.

During Cohen’s tenure at McGill University from 1951 to 1955, he won a prestigious creative writing award for a series of four poems titled “Thoughts of a Landsman.” Influenced by Irish poet W.B. Yeats, Canadian poet Irving Layton, American poet Walt Whitman and even writer Henry Miller, Cohen published his first book of poetry in 1956, the bulk of which was culled from writings from his teens and early 20s. After completing his undergraduate degree, Cohen studied law for a year at McGill and then briefly attended Columbia University in New York City before returning to his hometown in 1957 to focus further on his writing.

Cohen’s next three poetry collections were published between 1961 and 1966, and included the critically acclaimed The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), Flowers for Hitler (1964) and Parasites of Heaven (1966). He also had time to write two novels, The Favourite Game in 1963 and his infamous masterwork Beautiful Losers in 1966. Unfortunately, financial success didn’t follow critical reaction, so in the mid-1960s Cohen all but abandoned writing and moved to Nashville to pursue what would be his other more fruitful calling.

While in the country music mecca, Cohen hooked up with Judy Collins – the folk star had a 1966 hit with a cover of Cohen’s classic song “Suzanne” – who persuaded the Canadian ex-pat to return to performing. His live debut was at the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, which he followed up with a series of sold-out shows in New York City. The appeal of “Suzanne,” along with his appearance at the Newport festival, caught the attention of legendary producer John Hammond, who signed Cohen to Columbia Records and had a hand in creating his debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, which was released in December of 1967.

Cohen’s soothing monotone voice and highly personal lyrics brushed with a deeply melancholic and nearly whimsical style introduced the folk world to a unique and exciting, albeit low-key new talent. Songs of Leonard Cohen cracked the Billboard album chart and soon developed a devout following in the folk community. In fact, director Robert Altman famously embraced the album, showcasing three of the LP’s songs – “Suzanne” in particular – in his 1971 must-see modern western masterwork, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Cohen followed up his debut with two well-received minimalist efforts, 1969’s Songs From a Room (featuring “Bird on the Wire”) and 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. Cohen’s success and notoriety allowed him to embark on his first tour, with sold-out dates across North America and Europe. In the summer of 1970, he took part in the infamous Isle of Wight Festival; kudos to the Canadian ultra-mellow singer for being neither heckled nor booed during his early morning performance (most acts, including Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell, were jeered at during the event).

Cohen took his act on the road for the better part of 1971, 1972 and 1973, but returned to the studio in 1974 to cut his most pop-friendly album to date, New Skin for the Old Ceremony. He continued to release bestselling albums and embark on sold-out tours throughout the remainder of the ’70s and early ’80s – also publishing several writing collections during this period – and worked on some important collaborations with Jennifer Warnes that further entrenched his mega cult-star status. Even his commercial misstep, Death of a Ladies’ Man, which was produced by Phil Spector, has aged well.

Although his musical output dropped off dramatically from the ’80s through the 2000s (his periods of self-imposed seclusion are legendary) Cohen produced one of his most-praised and eclectic records in 1988, the award-winning I’m Your Man. And the legendary singer-songwriter returned with a vengeance in early 2012 with his 12th studio album, Old Ideas, which became his highest charting release in the United States, peaking at No. 3 on Billboard.

While some may take issue with a few of the particulars regarding the following statement about Cohen by All Music Guide’s Bruce Elder, I think he’s bang-on – though I’d throw Neil Young into the mix as well: “Second only to Bob Dylan (and perhaps Paul Simon), he commands the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the 1960s who is still working at the outset of the 21st century…” Well put!

 

Holy moley!!

Kingston, Ontario–born, Vancouver-raised rocker Bryan Adams’ power ballad “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” was the United Kingdom’s No. 1 single for the 12th straight week on September 22, 1991. Talk about impressive! The hit song was co-written by the Canadian Music Hall of Famer, as well as noted songsmith Michael Kamen and producer John “Mutt” Lange, and was featured on both the 1991 soundtrack for the Kevin Costner Hollywood blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Adams’ sixth studio album, Waking Up The Neighbours.

“(Everything I Do)” was the U.K. singles chart champ (try saying that after a few pints of IPA) for another month (the longest consecutive run at No. 1 in U.K. history) before finally being dethroned by U2’s “The Fly.” The JUNO and Grammy Award–winning single spent nine weeks atop Canada’s RPM chart, rested for nearly a month at the No. 1 spot on Billboard and sold over eight million records worldwide.

Next week: Glenn Gould and Anne Murray

“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen, live at the Isle of Wight Festival (1970)


By James Sandham

Well, music lover, I don’t know why it is, but my mind tends to turn to jazz about this time of year. Maybe with Labour Day having passed and fall on the way, my pace slows down as summer’s frenetic energy passes. Whatever the reason, I was extremely pleased to learn more about Gil Evans, one of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame’s 1997 inductees. Evans was a jazz arranger, composer, pianist and bandleader who was active mainly in the United States, where he worked with some of the genre’s best, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Gil Evans was born Gil Green in Toronto in 1912. This was a different era: The Republic of China had just been proclaimed, the Bolsheviks had just broken away from the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and Eugene B. Ely had landed a plane on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania, the first time an aircraft had ever landed on a ship. The world as we know it didn’t even exist. And musically, it was the age of ragtime and big bands.

Gil’s father had died before Gil was born, and the future jazz player spent many of his early years moving around with his mother as she looked for work, often as a cook in logging and mining camps in British Columbia. Mother and son gradually made their way around the Pacific Northwest, and then into the U.S., where they spent time in Idaho, Montana and Washington before eventually settling in California. It was around this time, when Gil was eight, that his mother met his future stepfather, John Evans. Evans was a miner, and it was a friend of his who gave Gil his first piano lesson.

The family moved to Stockton, California, in 1928. Gil entered high school there as a junior, and his love of music continued to grow. He and his school friends started a dance band, performing arrangements of popular tunes copied off of records. It was the first step in a story that would play out over the rest of Gil’s life.

Two years later, Gil graduated from high school, and that fall he entered the College of the Pacific, Stockton. He later transferred to Modesto Junior College, which was a bigger school, but moved back to Stockton after just two years. Gil Evans and His Orchestra, which was now a nine-piece band, quickly became a local favourite. They played regularly at a Stockton dance hall and soon made some of their first radio broadcasts.

Evans soon became known locally as “The Prince of Swing,” and by the fall of 1935 he and his band had been hired as the Rendezvous Ballroom’s house band in Balboa Beach, just south of Los Angeles. It was here that Evans first came in contact with some of the famous touring big bands – including those of Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey – and by 1937 his band was touring too. They were hired as the band for Bob Hope’s nationally syndicated radio show, and when the show itself went on tour in 1940, Evans was able to visit New York City for the first time, where he was exposed to jazz legends such as Billy Holiday, who further piqued his interest in the possibilities of the jazz sound.

In 1943, however, Evans was drafted into the military, serving in Virginia for three years as an instructor in a Band Training Unit. The Second World War really shook up the big band scene. Evans completed his service in February 1946, and returned to California to visit his mother and friends, all the while thinking about music. It wasn’t long before he was heading back to New York City, where he had a job waiting for him. But what he really wanted to do was to check out what had happened musically during the war years.

The answer was bebop, and Evans soon found himself right in the heart of it. He had rented a basement apartment on West 55th Street, and it soon became a gathering place for other up and coming young musicians. Dizzy Gillespie often came by, as did Charlie Parker – and soon a young trumpet player was also gracing the scene. This was Miles Davis. Davis was already playing with Parker’s quintet, and through their mutual association with Evans the Miles Davis Nonet came to form. Evans was talented enough to contribute two custom-made arrangements for the group, which Capitol Records recorded among a series of the group’s singles between 1949 and 1950. These were reissued in 1954 and again in 1957 as what we know today as the classic album, The Birth of the Cool.

Davis would go on to record “Miles Ahead” with the 19-piece Gil Evans Orchestra – their first large-scale collaboration – and the album’s huge critical success led to a series of collaborations between Evans and Davis over the next few years. Among these was a reinterpretation of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, which became one of Davis’s bestselling records ever. Their next collaboration was Sketches of Spain, recorded over four sessions in late 1959 and March of 1960.

From there Evans went on to work with many of the jazz greats. In 1959 his orchestra played at the Apollo Theater, sharing the bill with Dinah Washington and Thelonious Monk’s quartet. The next year they played a six-week gig at the Jazz Gallery opposite John Coltrane’s quartet. Sketches of Spain won a Grammy Award a few years later, and Evans himself won several international critics polls for best composer and arranger. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition in 1968, and in 1972 was named a founding artist of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

In 1983, at the age of 71, Evans was still working, doing a regular Monday night performance with his band at Sweet Basil in New York City’s Greenwich Village. He received an honorary doctorate from the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1985 – the same year he was awarded a Jazz Masters Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. He died in March of 1988, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he’d gone to recuperate from surgery.


By David Ball

Neil Peart, one of the most influential, technically proficient and downright intimidating drummers in rock history, was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on September 12, 1952. Anchoring one of rock’s greatest bands, Rush, for 38 years, his virtuosity and intricate rhythms are nearly unparalleled among his peers – and it is these traits, along with his thought-provoking lyrics, that continue to play key roles in the Toronto prog-rock trio’s ongoing relevance and success.

Rush circa 1975.

Growing up in Port Dalhousie, Ont., Peart took drum lessons in his early teen years, and by the late 1960s he began tackling the more demanding beats laid down by the trail-blazing drummers he idolized: Bill Bruford of Yes, Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Keith Moon of The Who, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and jazz legend Buddy Rich. At age 18, having had little success as a musician in Ontario, Peart decided to move to London, England, in order to establish a career. He returned to Port Dalhousie after only 18 months, broke and disillusioned. However, Peart’s time in London wasn’t a total waste as it was while abroad that he began following the writings of Russian-American novelist and playwright Ayn Rand, which kick-started his interests in philosophy and composition.

In 1974 Peart found out that the rising Toronto power-trio Rush was looking for a new drummer to replace the outgoing John Rutsey. At his tryout, Peart was hired on the spot by bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, and the addition of his considerable skill set ushered in a new more musically adventurous and challenging era for the trio – a big departure from the more simplistic hard-rock leanings heard on Rush’s 1974 self-titled pre-Peart debut.

While 1975’s Fly by Night and Caress of Steel, the first two Rush albums powered by Peart (who also assumed lyricist duties), show flashes of brilliance, the band wouldn’t hit its prog-rock stride until the release of its 1976 album, 2112.

According to All Music Guide’s Greg Prato: “The album told the story of a young man’s fight against a future world where rock music is outlawed, with Peart applying Ayn Rand’s writing style and philosophies to the plot’s story line.”

The concept album became Rush’s breakthrough in the United States, while the group’s next five studio albums – A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals – are progressive rock masterpieces.

Rush's 1981 album Moving Pictures.

Rush is one of the most resilient, relevant and successful rock bands of the past 35-plus years and the band continues to stage lucrative tours and release platinum-selling albums. As musicians, all three members have racked up many prestigious awards on their given instruments, and Peart in particular has had an enormous impact on rock drumming.

Neil Peart

Apart from his work with Rush, Peart has written several bestselling memoirs. He is also an avid motorcycle enthusiast and has produced two respected Buddy Rich tribute albums. In August 1997, the future of Rush was put on hold for five years after Peart’s teenage daughter – and only child – died tragically in a car accident. Sadly, his wife succumbed to cancer less than a year later. Peart eventually healed, remarrying in 2000, and Rush released their comeback, Vapour Trails, two years later in 2002.

Though Peart rightly sits either near or at the top of most “greatest rock drummers” lists, he’s the hands-down champion of another far less distinguished category: musicians whose names are most commonly mispronounced. Peart beats out his ’70s rival David Bow-ee, but debauched pop upstart Ke$ha (whose name is often mispronounced as Kee-sha) may one day claim his throne. For whatever reason, I still call the member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canadian Songwriter Hall of Fame and officer of the Order of Canada Neil “Pert,” even though I know perfectly well that his surname should be pronounced “Pea-ert” – but I’m hardly alone in this regard.

 

Wayne who?

Swedish disco-pop sensations ABBA opened their first North American tour in Edmonton, Alberta, on September 13, 1979, sending the 14,000 musically delusional fans (or at least considered musically delusional by yours truly) who were packed into the sold-out Northlands Coliseum into a tizzy. Don’t get too angry at me, all you longtime fans of ABBA (a.k.a. Agnetha Fältskog, Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad) and/or the mega-blockbuster musical, Mamma Mia! I’m a child of the ’70s and have never liked any music that suggests even the slightest passing affiliation with the vile, yet admittedly catchy music known as disco (even The Rolling Stones’ 1979 disco-infused hit “Emotional Rescue” is absolutely sickening to me).

ABBA live at the Northlands Coliseum on September 13, 1979.

Being subjected via radio to ABBA and the scores of big hits the quartet produced during their 11-year run was absolutely torturous to my fragile, impressionable rock-loving psyche (rivalling the carnage inflicted at the hands of The Bee Gees). Even though I was pretty young back when ABBA ruled the airwaves – and rule they did, to the tune of 370 million records sold worldwide – I fully embraced the mottos: “Disco Sucks” and “Death Before Disco.”

Gentle ribbing aside, I find it curious that ABBA waited so long to launch their first North American tour, especially given that the Stockholm-based husband-wife combo were worldwide stars almost since their inception in 1972, with their commercial breakthrough on this side of the pond coming shortly after the release of their 1975 self-titled LP.

Interestingly, the critically acclaimed sold-out 16-city North American stopover was the quartet’s last. ABBA last performed as a unit in the winter of 1982, around the time that both of the group’s marriages were also dissolving. The tour was in support of their platinum-selling sixth studio effort, Voulez-Vous, which of course in English means: “Two goofy guys, two hot women and a Viking longboat full of money.” Through it all, I give ABBA tons of props for continuing to be important and stunningly influential for 40 years. No doubt their legacy will live on well into the next millennium.

 

Back when “I want my MTV” actually meant something…

The first-ever MTV Video Music Awards took place at New York City’s famed Radio City Music Hall on September 14, 1984. The awards were co-hosted by diva of all divas, Bette Midler, and “Saturday Night Live” alumni, Blues Brother, movie star and proud Kingstonian (from Kingston, Ont., that is) Dan Akyroyd. Talk about an oil-and-water combo – check out their awkward lunar/spacesuit routine on YouTube.

1984 MTV Video Awards opening routine featuring Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler.

Jazz great Herbie Hancock was the big winner of the night, capturing five trophies, including the awards for Best Concept Video and Most Experimental Video, both for his crossover hip-hop/fusion hit, “Rockit.” In the latter category, the experimental keyboardist beat out Neil Young’s wonderful jump-cut-styled “Wonderin’” from the Canadian Music Hall of Fame member’s 13th studio album, Everybody’s Rockin’. For the life of me, though, I can’t understand how “Rockit” beat out Michael Jackson’s ingenious “Thriller” in the Best Concept Video category, although the Gloved One did take home three awards for the highly praised John Landis-directed zombie-themed short.

Next week: “Kids in the Hall” and Leonard Cohen

Neil Peart drum solo: Rush 30th Anniversary


By James Sandham

Here on the Canadian Music Hall of Fame blog we often talk about big names and JUNO Award–winning, internationally renowned Canadian talent, but of course there’s a whole other side to the Canadian music scene: the hardworking indie artists who tirelessly plug away at their craft. This week I thought we’d take a look at a few of them and see what they’re producing.

 

Grimes – “Genesis”

This is the tune that got me thinking about the idea for this post. It’s the latest from Vancouver native and Montreal transplant Claire Boucher, who is better known as the experimental musician Grimes.

This song comes from her third album, Visions, which was released in January of this year by British label 4AD. The video has had more than a million views on YouTube so far, so maybe we can’t really consider Grimes “underground” anymore, but it’s an interesting look at what’s happening outside of the mainstream Canadian music scene. Interesting fact: Boucher’s grandparents are apocalypse-ready survivalists who live in the mountains, and it was through them that she developed an appreciation for shooting guns. Apparently her grandparents own a lot of them. Huh.

 

Planet Creature – “Das Pirates”

OK, here’s something a little more legitimately “underground” – a cute little video by Toronto girl-pop band Planet Creature. They’re part of Toronto-based record label Optical Sounds’ psych-garage micro scene, and their video was shot in and around their home base in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Interesting fact: The “bad guy” in the video is ex-Hoa Hoa’s singer/current B-17 member/local indie DJ Richie Volume.

 

The Snips – “Better Part of Never”

The Snips are a punk band that came out of the Rose City Hardcore scene, and their latest album, Highs of Low, was just released through Rival Party Records. The band has been dogging it on the Canadian punk scene for many a year, working hard as hell, and their singer, Ricky Pridmore, owns the screen-printing shop that makes most of their merch. Very DIY. Very worth a listen.

 

Daniel Romano – “Time Forgot (To Change My Heart)”

Here’s another artist who came out of the Rose City scene. Daniel Romano was part of the moderately successful punk band Attack in Black, but ended up going in a very different solo direction, as evidenced by this track. He’s since collaborated with City and Colour (former Alexisonfire member Dallas Green, another figure from the Niagara punk scene) and is a partner in his own independent record label, You’ve Changed Records. This tune comes from his 2011 sophomore album, Sleep Beneath the Willow.

 

Diamond Rings – “Wait and See”

Last of all, here’s one from another Toronto musician: former D’Uberville’s member and North by Northeast favourite John O’Regan or, as he’s now better known, Diamond Rings, one of the latest artists signed to the EMI/Astralwerks record label. A lot has changed since he released this song two short years ago. Even the album from which it came, Special Affections, originally issued by Montreal’s Secret City Records, has been re-released under the aegis of his new label. It just goes to show that Canadian underground artists often don’t stay that way for long. So keep your ear to the ground.


By David Ball

I hear odds were better back when David took on Goliath…

Alan Thicke’s doomed syndicated late-night talk show, “Thicke of the Night,” debuted on select television stations across North America on September 5, 1983. Thicke decided to throw his hat into the American late-night TV ring after ending a successful three-season run as host and producer of CTV’s amiable Canadian daytime program, “The Alan Thicke Show.”

The multi-talented Canadian songwriter and actor’s new comedy-variety program was intended to rival NBC’s late-night king, “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” So I guess you know how the head-to-head Thicke-Carson bout ended, right? If it had been a heavyweight boxing title match, Carson would have knocked out the Kirkland Lake, Ontario–born entertainer in the first round. Aside from his successful work as a TV theme song composer during the late 1970s and early ’80s (he composed the themes of “The Facts of Life” and “Diff’rent Strokes” among others), Thicke was virtually unknown south of the border, whereas Carson was a multi-Emmy Award–winning host and beloved American icon who had ruled the post–11:30 p.m. North American airwaves for over 30 years.

Although MGM launched an extensive advertising campaign for “Thicke of the Night” and the program featured an impressive supporting cast of regulars, including big-name funnymen Gilbert Gottfried, Arsenio Hall, Richard Belzer, Charles Fleischer and Fred Willard, the upstart 30-minute broadcast was routinely (and gleefully) drubbed by critics and ratings were beyond terrible. It also didn’t help that “Thicke of the Night” just wasn’t a very good show. (Making matters even more difficult for R&B singer-songwriter Robin Thicke’s dad was that first-run syndication wasn’t the lucrative and groundbreaking broadcasting outlet it became in the late 1980s and 1990s, highlighted by hit series such as “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Babylon 5,” “Xena: Warrior Princess,” “Jeopardy” and more.)

With reviews going from bad to worse and nearly non-existent ratings, several local TV stations began dropping the program by mid-season. “Thicke of the Night” was eventually put out of its misery on June 15, 1984. But it didn’t take long for Thicke to find more work. In 1985 he landed the role of the patriarch in one of the ’80s most popular family sitcoms, “Growing Pains.” For many kids growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Thicke’s Jason Seaver was their TV dad (mine, of course, came a decade earlier with Archie Bunker).

If you can find the 1983 “SCTV” skit “Maudlin O’ The Night,” a parody of Thicke’s syndicated boob-tube bomb, then do so immediately! Joe Flaherty stars as host Sammy Maudlin, and his guests include a drunken Henry Kissinger played by Eugene Levy and buffoon Howie Soozloff, Martin Short’s thinly veiled send-up of Howie Mandel, complete with the Toronto prop-comic’s then-trademark giant handbag in the shape of a hand.

 

Ever wonder why Canadian rock radio still plays the heck out of early-era Heart?

Dreamboat Annie, the debut album by one-time Vancouver hard-rock band, Heart, went gold on September 8, 1976. This may come as a surprise to some, but for a couple of years in the early to mid-1970s, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson and the music they made with Heart fell under Canadian content parameters (more on this later).

Heart’s original guitarist, Mike Fisher, was a draft dodger who fled to Vancouver from Seattle, Washington, in 1971 and was soon joined by his lead vocalist girlfriend, Ann. The younger Wilson sister, Nancy, also relocated to Vancouver after dropping out of college in 1974 and joined Heart as its acoustic guitarist. The group began gigging around the Vancouver area and recorded a demo in late 1974 with local producer Mike Flicker and session musician and future Heart member, Howard Leese. After several lineup changes (keyboardist John Hannah and drummer Brian Johnstone joined the band, and Fisher was replaced by Leese), Heart recorded Dreamboat Annie in February 1975 at Can-Base Studios in Vancouver (later known as Mushroom Records).

Back to the CanCon: Dreamboat Annie met a couple of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s MAPL System Canadian content requirements. First, the album was recorded in Canada, and second, it was recorded by Canadian citizens/permanent residents. On a related note, some of the music produced by high-profile Canadian international stars who do not compose their own music and collaborate with Americans are not considered CanCon.

Since Dreamboat Annie was considered a Canadian recording (so much so that it won the 1977 JUNO Award for Best Selling Album and the band won that year’s award for Group of the Year), its title track and singles, “Crazy on You,” and “Magic Man,” all benefited from heavy rotation on radio across the country and in turn became domestic hits. Because of the Canadian groundswell in popularity, Heart’s debut achieved even greater success in the United States after it was released on Mushroom Records’ U.S. division (the record cracked Billboard’s Top 10 in the summer of 1976).

Nancy and Ann Wilson circa Dreamboat Annie era.

Heart recorded two more bestselling albums in Vancouver before moving back to the U.S. permanently in the late 1970s, but I can tell you this: Early era Heart destroys newer “comeback” Heart, especially when you compare “Barracuda” and “Little Queen” to the slew of slickly manufactured and over-sanitized – but extraordinarily popular – records the Wilson sisters released during their band’s commercial height in the mid-1980s to early ’90s.

 

For all of you big band chart aficionados (and who isn’t one?)…

Hugo Winterhalter and Eddie Heywood’s “Canadian Sunset” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s big band chart on September 6, 1956. Although neither jazz pianist Heywood nor his composer-arranger partner Winterhalter were Canadian you’ve got to give props to any quality song that pays homage to our great country. The song quickly became a much-covered standard, both as an instrumental and with lyrics.

Eddie Heywood

Crooner Andy Williams’ version, with words by Norman Gimble and Eddie Heywood, peaked at No. 7 on Billboard’s singles chart in the fall of 1956. However, my favourite renditions include jazz master Wes Montgomery’s version and the live performance by late, great country-blues guitar whiz Danny “The Humbler” Gatton, live with Buddy Edmonds from 1977, as well as the 11-minute track from Gatton’s 1978 LP, Redneck Jazz.

Next week: Neil Peart and ABBA

“Canadian Sunset” by Danny Gatton and Buddy Edmonds, live December 1978