By Adam Bunch
THE BIRTH OF THE LOVIN’ SPOONFUL
It all started in the basement of the Albert Hotel in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It was the early 1960s. A Toronto guitarist by the name of Zal Yanovsky had been living there with some friends and former bandmates, but most of them were gone now – they’d recently dropped acid, thrown a dart at a map and headed off to the Virgin Islands to become The Mamas and The Papas. Yanovsky stayed behind. Instead of becoming Papa Zal, he teamed up with another friend – a harmonica player named John Sebastian – and they started to write some songs together. When their neighbours complained about the noise, the pair was forced down into the hotel’s basement, where they rehearsed their upbeat pop tunes surrounded by cockroaches and puddles.
It was a humble beginning for one of the most popular bands of the 1960s: The Lovin’ Spoonful. But they would soon leave that basement behind. The band’s very first single, “Do You Believe In Magic,” headed straight up the charts, all the way to the Top 10 – and that was just the beginning. Their second single was called “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice.” It was released during this week in 1965. After that, they did it again and again and again. The Lovin’ Spoonful put every single one of their first seven singles into the Top 10 – a better start to their career than even The Beatles or The Rolling Stones had enjoyed. Three decades later, Zal Yanovksy would be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
“YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO BE SO NICE” BY THE LOVIN’ SPOONFUL
CANADA’S FIRST VIOLINS
The story starts in the 1530s. That’s when the French explorer Jacques Cartier led an expedition up the St. Lawrence River – with more than a little help from the local First Nations – to become the first European ever to set eyes on that part of Canada. At the very same time that Cartier and his men were spending a winter stuck in the ice not far from where Quebec City is now, a new musical instrument was becoming popular back on the other side of the Atlantic. The European violin had gradually evolved from a series of Middle Eastern stringed instruments and now it was catching on.
It would be another few decades before Quebec City was founded, but when it was, the violin followed close behind. There were still only a few hundred people living in town when the first violins arrived. Many of those early inhabitants were Jesuit missionaries, and it was one of them who made an interesting note that has been passed down to us nearly 400 years later. It was during this week in 1645 that two violins were played at a wedding in Quebec City. It was, as far as we know, the very first time the sound of a violin was ever heard in Canada.
“O CANADA” ON VIOLIN
By James Sandham
Any writers out there? If you count yourself among this long-suffering lot, then you probably know what month it is: NaNoWriMo! That’s National Novel Writing Month for those of you not in the know, a frantic 30-day period during which writers around the world take pen to pad in the hopes of crafting a fully formed novel. To everyone else though, it’s just November – and it’s rapidly drawing to a close. Before it does (and whether you’re a writer or not), perhaps these book-inspired tunes will help stimulate your literary sensibilities, while also tickling your ears.
1. DAVID BOWIE – “1984”
This track comes from David Bowie’s 1974 album, Diamond Dogs, and was inspired by George Orwell’s iconic novel of the same name. Like most of the songs on Diamond Dogs, “1984” was originally intended to be part of a 1984-based stage musical, a dream that unfortunately never took flight for Bowie due to a veto by Orwell’s estate. While the production may never have happened, at least its musical element came to see the light of day.
2. THE STROKES – “SOMA”
Speaking of dystopian literary futures, I think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World warrants mention – especially since its fictional drug of choice, soma, was the influence for this masterpiece of garage-rock revival. This tune comes from The Strokes’ 2001 debut, Is This It, an album that for many heralded a much-needed break from a long-uninterrupted era of boy bands.
3. RUSH – “RIVENDELL”
Rush, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame’s 1994 inductees, have several songs based on works of literature. The group’s 1976 album, 2112, for example, is reputedly based on Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem. However, this song is probably my favourite. Drawing from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, “Rivendell” pays homage, of course, to the fictional elven outpost of Middle-earth. In the video below, the song has been paired with scenes from director Peter Jackson’s cinematic interpretation of the place.
4. RICK WAKEMAN – “JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH”
This isn’t just a song that’s been inspired by a book, but rather an entire album, which makes it all the better! A symphonic prog-rock re-interpretation of Jules Verne’s classic novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, this concept piece by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman epitomizes a certain era in rock music: epic, decadent… and perhaps a bit indulgent. I guess you can thank projects like this one for eventually birthing us the backlash genre of punk!
5. RAMONES – “PET SEMETARY”
The indulgent prog-rock of composers like Rick Wakeman may have given rise to the musical backlash that came to be known as punk rock, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be any overlap between the genres. The Ramones, for example – punks par excellence – were just as happy as Wakeman to look to literature for inspiration for their songs. Granted, in this case they’re drawing from a dime-store paperback horror novel, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, as opposed to a Victorian classic, but perhaps therein lies the differential crux of these two genres. Either way, the music turned out great!
What other literary-inspired songs do you know of? Feel free to leave us some links in the comment section.
By Adam Bunch
ANNE MURRAY’S “URBAN COWBOY” NO. 1
John Travolta was still a fresh-faced young actor back in 1980. He’d only played a leading role in two films at that point, but they happened to be two of the biggest films of the 1970s: Saturday Night Fever and Grease. They helped to make him an international superstar – and music played a very important role in both of those movies.
His new film would be no different. Travolta had already done disco and 1950s pop, now Urban Cowboy would capitalize on the popularity of country music. While the movie raked in money at the box office, the soundtrack would rocket all the way up the Billboard country charts to No. 1 – thanks, in part, to a smash hit by Anne Murray.
“Could I Have This Dance” followed the Urban Cowboy soundtrack on its journey up the country charts, hitting No. 1 during this week in 1980. It was already her fifth country chart-topper and the 10th time she’d broken into the Top 40 on the pop charts. Murray was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1993.
“COULD I HAVE THIS DANCE” BY ANNE MURRAY IN “URBAN COWBOY”
THE GODFATHER OF CELTIC MUSIC IN CANADA
They called him the Godfather of Celtic Music in Canada: a Cape Breton folk singer so popular, in fact, that he was named a member of the Order of Canada and awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the East Coast Music Awards. There’s no doubt that John Allan Cameron left a deep and lasting legacy in folk music scenes from one end of our country to the other.
But it didn’t always look like he was going to have a career in music. In the 1950s, Cameron had started out thinking that he was going to become a priest, changing his mind and getting a papal dispensation only a few short months before his ordination was scheduled to take place. Instead, he found his true calling in the 12-string guitar. By the end of the 1960s, Cameron had released his first full-length album. Nine more would follow by the end of his career. He performed at the Newport Folk Festival and the Mariposa Folk Festival and for Canadian troops stationed all over the world. He also became a fixture on the CBC: first on the famous “Singalong Jubilee” TV program (which also helped to launch the careers of Catherine McKinnon and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Anne Murray) and then, in the 1970s, as the host of his very own shows.
His impressive career spanned an amazing five decades and is remembered by the profound influence he had on more than one generation of Canadian folk artists. It was during this week in 2006 that John Allan Cameron passed away.
JOHN ALLAN CAMERON TRIBUTE
By Adam Bunch
ANOTHER NO. 1 FOR HANK SNOW
It was originally written by an Australian; the 1950s country song “I’ve Been Everywhere” was penned by singer-songwriter Geoff Mack. It was a travelling tune listing off a cornucopia of cities, towns and villages from around Mack’s homeland of Australia. Not long after it was first released, the song caught the attention of one of the biggest country music stars in the entire world: Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Hank Snow.
Snow decided to record his own version of the tune. But first, he rewrote it a bit. This time, instead of verses about Australian places, it would feature places from North America. Instead of singing about spots such as Mooloolaba, Wallumbilla, Woolloomooloo, Tuggerawong and Yeerongpilly, he’d sing about places like Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, Waterloo and Fond du Lac.
It proved to be a very good decision. Snow’s version of “I’ve Been Everywhere” was a smash hit produced by the legendary Chet Atkins. During this week in 1962, it was sitting right at the very top of the Billboard country chart.
“I’VE BEEN EVERYWHERE” BY HANK SNOW
THE BIRTH OF THREE WESTERN CANADIAN SYMPHONIES
Three of Western Canada’s biggest cities can trace the roots of their symphony orchestras back to this particular week in history.
The oldest is the one that started in Vancouver all the way back during this week in 1897 – 117 years ago – when 23 musicians teamed up with a conductor to play classical music at an old theatrical venue called Dunn Hall. They called themselves the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, but they didn’t last very long: the group disbanded after only three performances. The modern version of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra wouldn’t be permanently revived until 1930 and, before long, it had established itself as one of the most successful groups in Canada. By the end of the 1970s, the VSO had more subscribers than any other symphony orchestra on the entire continent. As recently as 2008, the VSO walked away with the JUNO Award for Classical Album of the Year.
By the time Vancouver’s was back up and running, the other two orchestras were well under way. It was during this week in 1913 that the Calgary Symphony Orchestra gave its very first performance. Decades later, it would merge with the Alberta Philharmonic to become the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Today, 101 years after that first performance, it’s still going strong.
The youngest of the three is the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, which turns 94 years old this week. It started off as a community orchestra in 1910, was suspended in the ’20s and revived in the ’50s. In the time since, Edmonton’s orchestra hasn’t been afraid to crossover and collaborate with stars from the world of pop music. It’s performed with everyone from Frank Zappa to Ben Folds and with Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees including k.d. lang and Tom Cochrane. In 1976, the ESO even teamed up with Procol Harum to record Procol Harum Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. The album’s biggest single, “Conquistador,” became the very first “classical” recording ever to go Platinum.
“CONQUISTADOR” BY PROCOL HARUM AND THE EDMONTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
By Adam Bunch
THE LAST WALTZ HITS THE BIG SCREEN
It all started in the early 1960s, when a musician from Arkansas moved to Canada. Ronnie Hawkins brought his backing band, The Hawks, with him to play the raucous nightclubs of Toronto’s Yonge Street strip, but over time most of them returned home and were replaced by Canadians. Before long, drummer Levon Helm was the only American left. He was joined by Toronto’s Robbie Robertson, London’s Garth Hudson, Stratford’s Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko from the tiny hamlet of Green’s Corners.
It was in 1964 that they left Hawkins and struck out on their own. For a while, they were playing as the Levon Helm Sextet, then as Levon and The Hawks, then as the Canadian Squires…. But they would change their name one more time before they became famous. In 1965, a folk singer from Minnesota came to Toronto to see them play. He offered them a job – and so, they became Bob Dylan’s backing group and called themselves, quite simply, The Band.
They spent the next decade as one of the most popular rock ’n’ roll outfits on the planet, but it all came to an end in 1976. They called their final show “The Last Waltz.” The Band took the stage at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco and were joined by a long list of all-star guests, including Hawkins, Dylan and fellow Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. The whole event was filmed by director Martin Scorsese and turned into one of the greatest concert films of all time.
It was during this week in 1977 that The Last Waltz premiered on the big screen for the very first time.
“THE WEIGHT” BY THE BAND IN THE LAST WALTZ
BLOOD SWEAT AND TEARS CLIMB THE CHARTS… AGAIN
The Band weren’t the only future Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees making a name for themselves on the 1960s Yonge Street strip. It’s also where David Clayton-Thomas got his start, serving as the powerfully lunged frontman for rhythm and blues outfits such as The Shays and The Bossmen. In 1966, at the same time The Band was first teaming up with Bob Dylan, Clayton-Thomas followed the legendary blues singer John Lee Hooker to New York City, where he stayed on after their gigs together were over. Eventually, he was recruited to become the new frontman for Blood Sweat and Tears, who had broken up after their first album.
Now, with Clayton-Thomas giving the group new life, they released a second. The self-titled record was a smash hit; it even edged out The Beatles’ Abbey Road for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. The album’s first single, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” climbed all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The second single, “Spinning Wheel,” did the very same thing. And it was during this week in 1969 that the third single, “And When I Die,” broke into the Top 10 on its way to becoming the band’s third straight single to climb all way up to No. 2.
“AND WHEN I DIE” BY BLOOD SWEAT AND TEARS
By James Sandham
Well folks, we’ve already got one autumn holiday under our belts – along with several pounds of turkey and a few thick slices of pumpkin pie. But hold on, because the celebrations aren’t over quite yet. You may have thought it was finally safe to put away the decorative gourds, but no, not so fast! You might as well keep ’em out, because it’s time to carve them into demonic semblances of our worst Thanksgiving table guests, which is to say that it’s almost Halloween. Call it the dessert course to Thanksgiving and give these tunes a spin to help get you in the spirit.
BUCK 65 – “ZOMBIE DELIGHT”
Well, well, what do we have here? It’s CBC Radio 2’s Rich Terfry (a.k.a. Buck 65) and a whole lot of zombies – many of whom appear to be played by Terfry himself. As do the zombie killers. As do the generals and news anchors. This tune has taken a turn for the terrifying, indeed!
ROBBIE ROBERTSON – “GHOST DANCE”
We’ve survived the zombies, so how about we check in with Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Robbie Robertson to see how we do up against the ghosts? This track comes from Robertson’s 1994 album, Music for the Native Americans, which was really his first foray into writing songs inspired specifically by his Mohawk heritage. Suffice it to say that this song isn’t so much about the sort of ghosts that go “boo,” but is more about the historic oppression of indigenous cultures in North America, which is really the more frightening of the two concepts.
WILL SMITH AND DJ JAZZY JEFF – “NIGHTMARE ON MY STREET”
Alright, let’s lighten things up – and what better way to do so than with the musical work of Mr. Will “Big Willie Style” Smith? This track, which bears a striking resemblance to a certain TV theme song, joins a long list of tunes that pay tribute to that king of 1980s horror Freddy Krueger. If you grew up in the ’80s, this will probably still give you the shivers (the vocal presence of Will Smith notwithstanding).
BRUCE COCKBURN – “GET UP JONAH”
Now let’s check back in with our Canadian Music Hall of Fame alumni. This little ditty comes from the CMHF’s 2001 inductee, Bruce Cockburn, and while it’s not exactly “scary” per se (that is, there’s no mention of zombies or ghosts or the suffering of our country’s Aboriginal Peoples), it does have some pretty dark imagery, including these lines: “There’s howling in the factory yard/There’s pounding in my head/I’m swollen up with unshed tears/Bloated like the dead….” And yet Cockburn manages to make it all sound so sweet.
MICHAEL JACKSON – “THRILLER”
Last but not least, what’s a Halloween playlist without Michael Jackson’s macabre mega-hit? “Thriller” is a must-have contemporary classic and it really brings us full circle with our songs: right back to those irrepressible zombies. In fact, I think it’s a safe bet that this song may have been something of an inspiration for Buck 65’s zombie tribute – specifically his line that when it comes to zombies, “there’s very little information and no answers/One weird thing is that they’re excellent dancers.”
Hope these songs get you dancing, too. Happy Halloween!