By Adam Bunch
THE MUSIC OF “FRAGGLE ROCK”
In the early 1980s, with “The Muppet Show” ending and the Cold War still in full swing, Jim Henson decided to make his most ambitious children’s television program ever. The goal of the show would be nothing less than world peace. It would use colourful underground creatures called Fraggles – as well as terrifying Gorgs and tiny Doozers – to teach children about empathy and the interconnectedness of life. And with those multicultural values in mind, “Fraggle Rock” would be filmed in Canada.
Music would play an especially important role on the show and each episode would feature multiple songs. However, finding the right songwriters to capture the silly-yet-serious spirit of the Fraggles wasn’t an easy task. Children’s entertainers from all over Canada submitted their demos. The producers sifted through an enormous pile of cassette tapes, but in the end, they settled on a duo from Toronto who hadn’t even applied for the job. The Fraggle songs would be written by poet Dennis Lee (already famous for writing the children’s book “Alligator Pie”) and his songwriting partner, Philip Balsam.
Over the course of the next four years, they produced a stunning body of work for the show – hundreds of songs, an average of about one song a week every week for the entire run of the series. And they were good, too. The “Fraggle Rock” theme song even became a Top 40 hit in the United Kingdom.
Even more importantly, Lee and Balsam played a central role on a show that may very well have brought us one small step closer to world peace. By the end of the 1980s, “Fraggle Rock” had aired in more than 90 countries and been translated into 13 different languages. An entire generation of children around the world was brought up on Henson’s message of empathy and understanding. In 1989, “Fraggle Rock” became the very first North American television show to air in the Soviet Union. By the end of that year, the Berlin Wall had come down. The Cold War was over.
THE “FRAGGLE ROCK” THEME SONG
ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST ROCK AND ROLL PRODUCERS
It was during this week in 1949 that the story of one of the greatest producers in the history of rock and roll began. That’s when a brand-new baby boy was born in Toronto. His name was Bob Ezrin.
It was 22 years later in the early 1970s that Ezrin started to make a lasting mark on the music world. That’s when he produced Alice Cooper’s breakthrough album, Love It To Death, quickly followed by Killer and the super-massive hits School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies. Cooper once called Ezrin “our George Martin.” And that was just the beginning. Ezrin would go on to produce some of the greatest albums of all time, including Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Lou Reed’s Berlin. He has worked with KISS, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Gabriel, Jane’s Addiction and 30 Seconds to Mars, among many others.
With a career spanning five decades, Ezrin has a long history to be proud of. But some of his most exciting and important work has come in recent years. He’s teamed up with a new generation of young artists, including Taylor Swift and Canada’s own K’naan. He’s invested in education for new producers and engineers, co-founding the Nimbus School of Recording Arts in Vancouver. And he’s dedicated himself to the cause of social justice, working hard to raise money and awareness in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, as well as promoting music education for schoolchildren. He has truly built a lasting legacy.
Bob Ezrin was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2004.
“SCHOOL’S OUT” BY ALICE COOPER
By James Sandham
I think we can all agree that this has been a long, hard winter. Fortunately, though, there’s something to look forward to at the end of it all: the 2014 JUNO Awards. Oh yeah, and spring – sweet, sweet spring – but who knows how long that’ll take to arrive.
In the meantime, let’s look ahead to the end of the month – March 30, to be exact – when they’ll be handing out the hardware for excellence in Canadian music. Since there’s a bevy of deserving artists, I thought this week we’d take a look at a few of the contenders.
ARCADE FIRE – “REFLEKTOR”
Montreal’s well-connected band of human-size bobbleheads is one of the biggest names to be fêted at this year’s awards. Arcade Fire has received nominations in a whole slew of categories, including JUNO Fan Choice Award, Single of the Year (for “Reflektor,” above), Album of the Year, Group of the Year, Songwriter of the Year and more. While the band won’t be on hand for the ceremony itself (they’ll be performing at Santiago, Chile’s Lollapalooza festival that day, before heading on to California, Louisiana and then Europe), it seems probable that they’ll come home from their tour to find at least one of these awards.
DRAKE – “HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME”
Another of Canada’s superstars – the man once referred to as Aubrey Graham, but now known around the world as Drake – has nominations in the categories of JUNO Fan Choice Award, Artist of the Year, Rap Recording of the Year and Album of the Year for Nothing Was the Same, which came out last September and from which the above track comes. Currently reputed to be dating pop superstar Rihanna, Drake is one of the most successful contemporary performers to come out of Toronto and certainly makes for some stiff JUNO competition.
WALK OFF THE EARTH – “ROYALS”
Walk Off the Earth started out in Burlington, Ontario, primarily as a cover band. Through the magic of the Internet, however, their low-budget music videos (including a memorable cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”) came to be disseminated worldwide and lo and behold, seven hectic years after their formation, they’ll be performing at this year’s JUNO Awards. The group has been nominated in the categories of JUNO Fan Choice Award, Group of the Year and Pop Album of the Year for 2013’s R.E.V.O.
DANIEL ROMANO – “OLD FIRES DIE”
Lesser known – yet, no less noteworthy – is singer-songwriter Daniel Romano, who’s been nominated in the Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Solo category. The nomination is for his 2013 release, Come Cry With Me, which is his third studio album. Honest, poignant and obligatorily lachrymose, it’s everything a classic country album should be and one of the hidden gems of this year’s JUNO Awards.
MONSTER TRUCK – “THE LION”
Last but not least, I had to share this great music video by Hamilton, Ontario’s Monster Truck. They’re nominated for Rock Album of the Year (obviously!) and if this track is any indication, it seems like they’ve got a pretty good chance to win it. Turn it up (preferably from the speakers of a Camaro) and be sure to tune in for the awards on March 30!
By Adam Bunch
NEIL YOUNG’S FATEFUL DRUG BUST
It was during this week in 1968 that Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Neil Young made the mistake of turning his amp up too high. He was just outside of Los Angeles, in Topanga Canyon, hanging out with Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills and some other members of Buffalo Springfield, and the noise from their jam session was apparently getting a bit out of hand. As one friend later described it, “the mountains were ringing.” Neighbours complained and, eventually, someone called the cops.
This, of course, was a problem. The rock stars living in Topanga Canyon in 1968 were even more notorious for their drug use than average musicians. By then, another Canadian member of Buffalo Springfield, Bruce Palmer, had already been deported for drug possession – twice. When the cops showed up, the band’s road manager tried to flush the pot down the toilet, but the toilet backed up. While Stills crawled out a window and fled, the others were caught red-handed. Young, Clapton and all the rest were arrested and taken to jail.
Young avoided getting kicked out of the country – he only had to face a minor charge and pay a fine – but the stress of the incident took a toll. It helped convince the band that it was time to break up. The era of Buffalo Springfield was over. Neil Young’s solo career was about to begin.
“For What It’s Worth” and “Mr. Soul” by Buffalo Springfield
THE FIRST AMERICAN SWING BAND’S CANADIAN CONNECTION
Casa Loma is best known as one of the most famous tourist destinations in Toronto. The castle was built back in the early 1900s as the home for a corrupt millionaire knight by the name of Sir Henry Pellatt. When his sketchy investment schemes finally caught up with him it caused the collapse of one of Canada’s biggest banks. Pellatt lost his fortune and was forced to move out of his castle. The city eventually seized it and during the 1920s a private interest briefly turned it into a hotel. That’s when The Orange Blossoms were hired to be the house band.
By then, the group already had a long history. In fact, they’re considered by some to be the very first American swing band. The group had featured some of the greatest jazz musicians of their time, including the alcoholic trumpet genius Bix Beiderbecke and the Dorsey Brothers. But the eight-month stint at the castle in Toronto was the beginning of a new era for the group. They soon moved to New York City, changed their name to The Casa Loma Orchestra and turned the band into a business: incorporating the group and turning all of the members into official stockholders and board members.
It was under their new name that they became one of the most popular swing bands on earth. They recorded for wildly successful labels, such as Okeh, Victor, Capitol and Decca. Songs like “The Casa Loma Stomp” and “Maniac’s Ball” made them famous. They continued to play for decades to come – the band didn’t call it quits until 1963.
It was during this week in 1948 that they recorded one of their biggest hits, “No Name Jive.”
By Adam Bunch
A PLATINUM RECORD BEFORE THERE WERE PLATINUM RECORDS
It was one of the most popular songs during the terrible years of the First World War and it was written by a Canadian from Chatham, Ontario. Geoffrey O’Hara was born there in the late 1800s and seemed destined for a career in the military. As a teenager, he enrolled at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, and trained with the 1st Hussars. Before long, many of the men in that regiment would find themselves on the front lines of the First World War, fighting at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. However, the world had another fate in store for O’Hara: music.
After his father died, O’Hara was forced to retire from the military. He headed south to perform on the Vaudeville circuit in the United States and soon landed a job with Edison Records, working in the recording industry in its very earliest days. The American government hired him to record traditional First Nations songs and then – after war had broken out – to work as an instructor teaching patriotic tunes to the troops. O’Hara’s life was dedicated to music: he lectured about it, taught it, recorded it and performed it. But he’s best remembered for writing and publishing one particular song during this week in 1917.
It was called “K-K-K-Katy.” It told the story of a brave solider with a stutter who fell in love.
“K-K-K-Katy, beautiful Katy / You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore / When the m-m-m-moon shines / Over the c-c-c-cowshed / I’ll be waiting at the k-k-k-kitchen door.”
Today, the song might be considered too disrespectful to catch on, but when an American tenor by the name of Bill Murray recorded it in 1918 it became a hit. This was several decades before the Recording Industry Association of America started certifying bestselling albums as “platinum” if they sold a million copies. But in those early days before record players became a truly household item, “K-K-K-Katy” did the next best thing: O’Hara’s tune sold more than a million copies of sheet music.
A BIG NIGHT FOR BTO
It was also during this week that the 1976 JUNO Awards were held. It was a big night for the Canadian Music Hall of Fame’s latest inductees, Bachman-Turner Overdrive. The band went home with the award for Group of the Year, along with those for Best Selling Album (for Four Wheel Drive) and Best Selling Single (for “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” which also has a bit of a stutter in the chorus). Some other inductees did pretty well, too. Joni Mitchell won Female Vocalist of the Year, Anne Murray won Country Female Vocalist of the Year and Gordon Lightfoot won Folk Singer of the Year.
By Adam Bunch
A ROCK ’N’ ROLL RIOT IN OTTAWA
During this week in 1967, The Eyes of Dawn took the stage in front of 3,000 people at the Ottawa Coliseum. The local R&B rockers had been on the rise, having won a battle of the bands across the river in Hull (now Gatineau) and established themselves with a string of sellout shows during a six-month residency at a coffeehouse called La Petite Souris. Their set at the Coliseum was arguably the peak of their career and it went down without a hitch. It wasn’t until after the band left the stage that things got crazy.
The Eyes of Dawn were opening for one of the biggest rock stars in the world: Eric Burdon. He had a brand-new version of his old band, The Animals, who had become famous all over the world thanks to hits like “The House of the Rising Sun.” But they hadn’t been paid yet. And they refused to play until they had. The promoter refused. The crowd got restless. And then angry. And then violent.
While Burdon and The Animals got the hell out of town, the crowd rioted. According to the Ottawa Journal: “A mob finally stormed the stage, demolished it, smashed chairs and other furniture, kicked boards out of the box seats, smashed light fixtures, set a small fire in a washroom, pulled out telephones, and ripped down flags.” They caused thousands of dollars worth of damage. A few people were injured. Eight teenagers were charged. The Coliseum banned rock ’n’ roll.
It doesn’t seem to have ruined Burdon’s relationship with the Canadian capital, though: he played a set at Ottawa Bluesfest last year.
“LITTLE BY LITTLE” BY THE EYES OF DAWN
PERFORMING AT THE O.J. TRIAL
Canadian classical guitarist Liona Boyd has had a long list of strange experiences. She’s hung out with everyone from Fidel Castro to Henry Kissinger, from Pablo Neruda to Buzz Aldrin, from Conrad Black to the Sandinista rebels of Nicaragua. She’s been pen pals with Prince Philip, and gone skinny-dipping with her then-boyfriend Pierre Trudeau. She’s had a private tour of Air Force One, jumped on Mick Jagger’s trampoline and sat on the Queen’s toilet.
She’s played shows in odd places, too: in Germany the week the Berlin Wall came down, at the Kremlin on New Year’s Eve, a private performance for the King and Queen of Spain, a set at a G7 conference.
But the strangest show she ever played must have been the one she performed during this week in 1995. The murder trial of O.J. Simpson was in full swing. The jury was reportedly bored to tears. So Judge Ito asked Boyd to perform for them. She was smuggled into the courthouse, played her music to the citizens who held Simpson’s fate in their hands and earned a standing ovation.
“CANADA MY CANADA” PERFORMED BY LIONA BOYD