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- Posted on Jun 10th 2011 4:30PM by Have Not Been The Same
Image From 'Have Not Been the Same'
'Have Not Been the Same,' first published in 2001 and now out in a revised 10th anniversary edition, focuses on the years 1985 to 1995, a decade that spawned the likes of revolutionary national heroes like the Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, Grapes of Wrath, Rheostatics and Change of Heart, as well as artists who made influential waves around the world while pushing creative boundaries: Sloan, Mary Margaret O'Hara, NoMeansNo, Daniel Lanois, Eric's Trip, Skinny Puppy, k.d. lang and others. It was a fertile time fuelled by the dawn of Canada's music video station MuchMusic, campus radio and entrepreneurial indie labels. A garage band like Cowboy Junkies, rejected by every Canadian major label, went on to sell more than a million copies of an album recorded around a single microphone.
This wave of Canadian artists redefined the way the country's music sounded and its relationship with its audience. Musicians became more adventurous, lyricists celebrated their country in song, and there was no shortage of colourful characters who helped build the country's tower of song. Together, they made music that defined a generation, music that deserves to be revisited by a new generation swept up in the giant gains Canadian music has made in recent years.
In 1985, the landscape of Canadian music was changing. The boomers were washed up. Punk had exploded and crashed. The remains were a messy morass of largely embarrassing cultural icons and an endless parade of "hoser rock." Commercial viability seemed to mean Loverboy and nothing else. By 1985, it was time for tabula rasa: this generation would take classic rock, synth pop, country music and art-school approaches to crafting a new canon of creative, vital music that would create a new legacy from which future generations could extrapolate their own explorations. In 1985, it was clear that Canadian music was not going to be the same.
By 1995, this era was beginning to fade. Audiences were declining, indie labels were folding, and major labels were dropping quality acts and signing derivative ones sure to make a quick buck. Although there was no shortage of great music, it became harder to hear, and the polarized mainstream musical climate began to look a lot like 1985 again. So many things had regressed that the 10 years between '85 and '95 could be seen as a defining moment. This is a book about a time and a place that deserves to be celebrated, even more so because the music in question was created in a climate of cultural bulimia, in a country with a nasty habit of eating both its young and its old and leaving them for dead, a country that believes nothing of any great historical importance ever happens here.
There once was a great book written about the American underground in the '80s, which the post-boomer author (Gina Arnold) began by stating, "I grew up thinking everything had already happened." If the author had been raised in Canada -- "twice removed," to borrow Sloan's phrase, both generationally and geographically -- surely she would have added, "I grew up thinking everything had already happened somewhere else." John K. Samson of the Weakerthans recalls, "Growing up I thought that songs were written about somewhere else. Real life is always elsewhere; life here doesn't matter. Unless you're at the centre of the culture, there is no traction to what you do." After the people in this book hit the road and started to unleash classic albums, future generations wouldn't have to ponder such issues.
There's little question that the late '60s produced a series of artists who laid the template for CanRock as we know it today, although practically all of them had to find recognition in the U.S. first: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, The Band, Gordon Lightfoot, Steppenwolf and others. But for a new generation of Canadian artists beginning to forge their own sounds and identities, Canada was perhaps the last place they would look to for inspiration. Discussing his band's formative influences, Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip recalls, "There were certain Canadian groups that you sort of had to relegate to a different file; it was never considered on the same level as the other stuff you listened to, somehow not as exotic. Not as -- or more -- ambitious, hence making it less exotic."
In 1985, the few heroes of Canadian rock were either extinct (The Band), in stages of irrelevance (Neil Young), in cultural exile (Stompin' Tom Connors), in a separate class of their own (Rush) or rather ridiculous in the first place (Loverboy). There were few young artists creating exciting new music that didn't sound like it came from somewhere else. Even the Canadian punk pioneers were more or less aping records made in New York City, Los Angeles or London, England.
"What's Going On Around Here?" the Rheostatics would ask years later, and before 1985 the answer was negligible. As the Max Webster song goes, "You can only drive down Main Street so many times." And even the main streets of Canada's biggest cities weren't wide enough to accommodate the ambition of a new wave of musicians.
The club scene was devoted to cover bands -- "which now seems like a ridiculous concept to everybody," says Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath. "Half of our [early] shows were in peeler bars, because they're the only ones that would let a band who dared play original songs get up on stage. At the time [powerful West Coast booking agency] Feldman's only had three original acts: Images in Vogue, 54.40 and Grapes of Wrath. Everything else was all Top 40 cover bands. Canadian bands were seen as being watered-down versions of what was happening in England and the U.S."
Gord Sinclair of The Tragically Hip recalls one club they would play in Sarnia, Ontario, where the club owner made each band write out their set list and the artists who originally performed the songs, to ensure no one played original material. Sinclair says, "Original music was Trooper and Prism -- those were the groups that would come to town. That was your perspective on what it was to be an original recording act, and the gap between what they were and what you were was so huge."
A change in attitude stemmed in part from the rise of hardcore punk, a genre of music that by definition was aware that there was zero chance of commercial compromise. Musician Ford Pier, who says seeing NoMeansNo as a teenager was a life-changing experience, recalls: "The first vintage of punk, everyone was looking for record contracts, even people with the best of political intentions like Gang of Four -- they were absolutely interested in being on [television] and having promo shots done. Hardcore represented a wholesale rejection of all of that. The only point was to play the gig that night."
Toronto scene veteran John Borra recalls, "It was truly alternative. It wasn't mainstream. The bands were all alternative in their own way, and the one thing they shared in common was that they didn't sound like Glass Tiger, which left it open; it didn't define it as one type of sound."
"In the '80s some people emerged that really did have their own voice," says Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath, who recalls buying the 1986 debut album by the Cowboy Junkies "practically the day it came out" on the recommendation of a friend working at Zulu Records in Vancouver. "I was really floored. I was so excited. They were Canadian, and it actually gave me pride. It was a special record, it was unique. [So was] Mary Margaret O'Hara. There were a number of people in the late '80s who had an identity. They had nothing to do with [the mentality of] 'Well, we're just going to sell in Canada.'"
And yet the impression that most Canadian bands were merely mimics still prevailed. Martin Tielli of the Rheostatics suggests that part of the problem is the perception that Canadian bands should be beating the Americans or British at their own game, instead of being equally as good with a different aesthetic. "People are looking in the wrong place," muses Tielli. "They're looking for something that they don't realize already exists here. There's something that's equally as intense as the Velvet Underground, except it's not going to be that same thing. It's going to have a completely different face and a completely different expression in almost every way."
By 1995, the Canadian music industry had matured to the point that interesting, innovative works were constantly being released by emerging artists from every region of the country. Some even got played on mainstream radio. And whereas 10 years prior a major label deal would have been the only way for them to be heard, there was now a variety of outlets to help an artist find an audience. Dozens of Canadian albums were certified platinum or better every year, and not all of them fit into the hegemony of what global rock music was supposed to sound like. Uniquely Canadian songwriting was not subject to mockery or ghettoized to the folk scene. While all these things may be taken for granted now, that's just proof that compared to the dire straits of the Canadian music industry before 1985, since the CanRock Renaissance began to blossom we have not been the same.
'Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995' was written by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider. It was first published in 2001.
From 'Have Not Been the Same'