Serious music fans appreciate Canada’s rich contribution to popular music. With a sparse population and world class recording artists in every genre, our northern neighbor has produced a bounty of great music enjoyed by audiences on every continent.
Celine Dion, Justin Bieber, Gordon Lightfoot, Bryan Adams, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrissette, Anne Murray, Bachman Turner Overdrive, The Guess Who, Rush, Nickelback, The Tragically Hip, Drake, Paul Anka, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young enjoy worldwide recognition and need no introduction.
Outside of Canada, music lovers are largely unaware of their more nationally and regionally loved artists whose work is no less noteworthy and is, in many cases, more culturally significant. Patriotic Canadians feel a duty to share these great works.
In showcasing these lesser known artists, a little characteristically unCanadian bragging is due. Like the bounty of natural resources in their homeland, there are great musical treasures to be found beneath mighty glaciers, forests, lakes and mountains.
While Rough Trade went through many lineup changes since its 1969 inception, one constant was the creative pairing of singer Carole Pope and instrumentalist Kevin Staples. Their first glimmer of commercial success was “High School Confidential” which is credited as the first pop song that openly expresses lesbian love.
Much of Rough Trade’s catalog concerns sexuality extraneous to the hetero-normative world. Pope regularly wore bondage themed attire on stage. She sang about fluidity in sexual orientation and gender long before it was safe or accepted. She fused her sexual passion into a universal language and did so without vulgarity.
“Deca-Dance” (19:08 in this clip of the Weapons album) is in the discussion for sexiest song of all time.
“All Touch” captures Pope’s vocal power in all her androgynous glory. Carole continues to advocate for the rights of sexual and gender minorities in media and print.
Four Sarnia, Ontario area friends formed this quartet whose lyrics were authored by Pye Dubois. As to the origin of the band’s name, there is no person named Max Webster. Founding members recall seeking a name in the vein of Jethro Tull. After signing with Taurus records, their second album “High Class in Borrowed Shoes” produced the single “Diamonds, Diamonds”.
Eclectic, eccentric and uniquely Canadian, the zany vibe emanating from Max Webster is a progressive rock mélange of Frank Zappa and Cheap Trick. While their musical output was prolific, authentic and enduring, they never made a meaningful breakthrough beyond their loyal Canadian following.
“Paradise Skies” charted at #47 in the UK but that would be as close as Max Webster would come to a commercial hit. Their collaboration with Rush on “Battlescar” is an epic of history making heavy metal proportions. “On The Road” wistfully captures the life of a perpetually touring band.
Max Webster alumnus and principal singer/songwriter Kim Mitchell decided he had a lot more music in him and went solo after the band shut things down in 1981. Our nation’s body of rock and roll music is much better for his decision to keep going.
Mitchell dropped all of the progressive sound that characterized Max Webster and went full throttle with guitar based rock. His first solo LP Akimbo Alogo spawned the hit “Go For Soda” that went to #12 on Billboard in the US. The album went platinum in Canada and featured an engaging mix of rockers and ballads and stands tall as a legacy guitar rock album.
He would score subsequent hits with “Patio Lanterns” and “Rock and Roll Duty”. As with Max Webster, success outside Canada proved elusive. Mitchell continues to perform on Canada’s summer concert circuit and retired from recording in 2001.
David Wilcox has been playing music for so long it’s hard to say what part of Canadian rock music history he hasn’t been a part of. He’s toured with Ian and Sylvia Tyson and played Carnegie Hall. Along the way, he evolved into one of Canada’s eminent blues musicians.
Since becoming a solo artist, he carved out a unique vocal and guitar style of his own that is faithful to the blues without taking himself too seriously. He was once on such a torrid pace of performing, he played an average of three hundred shows a year, mostly on the Canadian college and university circuit.
The excesses of life on the road figure prominently in his best known songs. If you went to a Canadian university in the eighties, you likely saw Wilcox live on campus. Whether you remember it or not is your own business.
This band started as a side project for members of Chilliwack and Loverboy. The first lead vocalist chosen was American singer/songwriter Denise McCann whose background tilted toward disco. She was eventually replaced by the distinctive and powerful voice of Darby Mills. The Mills fronted band gained a loyal following on the Vancouver live music circuit and soon secured a record deal. Their debut album “Turn it Loud’ went double platinum.
They began touring with the likes of KISS, Eddie Money and ZZ Top. Their recording contract evaporated when their label, Solid Gold Records, went bust. MCA bought their back catalog but by then their founder, Brian McLeod, of Chilliwack died of cancer.
Darby Mills took her vocal chords and went solo. The remaining members have regrouped and rallied around new singer Chrissy Steele. Despite these ups and down, the Headpins can still be heard with frequency on Canadian rock stations.
Singer Ra McGuire and Guitarist Brian Smith started playing together in the Vancouver club scene in 1972. Their band names went from Winters Green then Applejack before settling on Trooper. Randy Bachman of Bachman Turner Overdrive spotted them and signed them to his Legends record label.
Studio albums “Two For The Show” and “Knock ’Em Dead Kid” followed. Both albums went platinum in Canada and a Best New Group Award was bestowed at Canada’s Juno awards. Extensive tours of Canada and the US followed with many Canadian dates sold out.
The relationship with Bachman soured but not before the release of a best of compilation called “Hot Shots”. It sold 450,000 copies and is estimated to be owned by one in every thirty Canadians between ages 25 and 45. Trooper is still actively recording and touring. “We’re Here for a Good Time” and “Raise a Little Hell” have achieved party song immortality.
Stan was a big man, standing six foot four with a poet’s heart and sensitivity. He grew up in a musical family. His brother, Garnet, is an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right. Stan’s creative vision was to write a national folkloric narrative to capture the majesty of Canada’s culture, geography and people. His artistic legacy is found in his songs about Canada’s Maritime provinces.
Returning from a folk festival on a stopover in Cincinnati, the airplane he was in caught fire. He and twenty three other passengers perished of smoke inhalation. Stan Rogers was 33. It is said that part of Canada’s soul died with him. His son, Nathan, keeps Stan’s music alive with tribute performances.
Considered Canada’s greatest folk singer, Rogers wrote passionately about the lives of working people who toiled in the mines, farms, forests and fisheries. Every Stan Rogers song has a great story or lamented lost love. His “Northwest Passage” is regarded as Canada’s other national anthem.
Vocalist Ron Tabak was the catalyst for the sound that became Prism. This amalgamation of Vancouver area bands signed with GRT records. Their self titled debut album spawned three songs that cracked the Billboard 100. They toured on the strength of second album “See Forever Eyes” and scored a top ten Billboard hit in “Flying”.
Successful Canadian and American tours followed. Their third album “Armageddon” sold over a million copies but that didn’t stop record label GRT from going into receivership. Undaunted, the band released its fourth studio album “Young and Restless” to critical and commercial success.
Internal tensions resulted in Tabak’s hasty departure. Their last recording was the hit single “Cover Girl” dedicated to murdered Vancouver beauty queen, Dorothy Stratten. A replacement lead singer, Henry Small, was recruited but fans didn’t buy in and he quit. A reunion was planned until Tabak suffered a fatal aneurysm in 1984. The band tours today with Al Harlow on lead vocals.
It’s debatable to add the Stampeders to a list of nationally or regionally known artists when they have enjoyed considerable success beyond Canada’s borders. The Calgary based band enjoyed four songs in the American Top 30 between 1971 and 1976. “Sweet City Woman” and “Minstrel Gypsy” are classics that enjoy frequent airplay on oldies and classic rock stations.
They have toured the US with the likes of The Beach Boys, The Eagles and ZZ Top. There is not a Canadian Music award that the Stampeders have not won. Various members have left the band at different times but the original lineup of Rich Dodson, Kim Berly and Ronnie King reunited in 1992.
Uniquely, every member sings lead vocals on select hits. They record today on Marigold Records and are one of Canada’s longest surviving bands. They continue to perform as a trio and tour Canada extensively.
Originally formed in Montreal as The Five Bells fronted by singing sisters, Anne and Jackie Ralph, their first single “Moody Manitoba Morning” charted in Canada in 1969. Anne left the band to pursue farming and family after the birth of her first child. Their next single “Fly Little White Dove Fly” made the Canadian top ten.
International success came with a duet sung by Jackie Ralph and Cliff Edwards entitled “Stay Awhile”. The song went to #1 in Canada, #7 in the US and #9 in Australia. The single sold four million copies and lead to appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show.
The band split when Cliff Edwards left to pursue a solo career. Their last album “Pisces Rising” produced three hits that charted in Canada. Jackie Ralph recruited replacements and the band plays live sporadically. Jessica Edwards, daughter of Jackie Ralph and Cliff Edwards, produced the documentary “Stay Awhile” about the band’s career and interpersonal relationships.
His music career began in Vancouver in 1972 with Seeds of Time whose members would go on to form Prism. Doucette continued with area bands that always seemed to split up. He retreated to his basement but not before submitting a demo tape to fledgling Mushroom Records.
Mushroom liked what they heard and asked for enough material to fill out an album. Jerry collaborated with fellow songwriter and manager John Hadfield. The result was “Mama Let Him Play”. It went platinum in Canada. Stateside tours with the Doobie Brothers, Atlanta Rhythm Section and The Beach Boys followed.
His follow up album, “The Douce is Loose”, went gold but met with lukewarm critical response. Mushroom Records floundered financially and was unable to mount a breakthrough promotional campaign. His subsequent releases never had the marketing push needed for greater exposure. Still, the title track from “Mama Let Him Play” is one of rock and roll’s great guitar songs securing Jerry’s musical immortality.
Stompin’ Tom Connors
Canada has had no greater musical patriot than Tom Connors and likely never will again. His life story as a teenage runaway working and hitchhiking across Canada reads like a folk song. No other singer has brought Canadian legends to life on a similar scale. Millions of Canadians came to see and define their love of country through his songs.
At a tavern in Timmins, Ontario he was short money for beer. The bartender asked him to sing a few songs. That led to a fourteen month contract. He earned the Stompin’ nickname as he kept time stomping his cowboy boot during shows. After damaging several stage floors with his signature cowboy boots he brought his own piece of plywood with him. Could anything be more Canadian than that?
No region or town was too small to win Tom’s patriotic attention. As his cross country travels involved performing some of the hardest of hard labor jobs, they provided rich material for his songs. “Big Joe Mufferaw”, “Bud The Spud” and “The Hockey Song” are pure Canadiana.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Edmonton teen Moe Berg grew up seeing his dad play in country bands. He joined forces with drummer Dave Gilby and moved to Toronto. They recruited Saskatoon native Johnny Sinclair and added sisters Tam and Tasha Amabile on vocals. The Pursuit of Happiness was born. Their club shows ended with “I’m An Adult Now” which became a fan favorite and first single.
The next single “Killed by Love” was a regional hit attracting the interest of Chrysalis records and artist/producer Todd Rundgren. Their debut LP “Love Junk” went platinum in Canada and sold 100,000 copies in the US. Several personnel changes later they released their second LP “One Sided Story” to critical praise but lower sales.
After a three year hiatus that saw them leave Chrysalis and get picked up by Mercury, they released two more albums to positive reviews. While the band never formally announced a break up, Moe Berg released a solo album in 1997. Berg’s biting lyrics and TPOH’s grungy sound still sound fresh today even if fans are left wondering what might have been.
If ever an artist was so unique as to defy description, it is Jane Siberry. Her performing career began while studying microbiology at Guelph University. She financed the release of her folk centered first album “Jane Siberry” by waitressing. This led to a three album deal with A&M Records. Her second album “No Borders Here” steered hard away from folk to electronic new wave.
The video for the single “Mimi on the Beach” received strong airplay on Canadian music video channel Much Music. Her second and third albums went further in the direction of electronic art with the seminal songs “One More Colour” and the hauntingly beautiful “The Walking”.
Her duet with kd lang “Calling All Angels” appears in the soundtrack to Wim Wender’s Until The End of The World. “It Can’t Rain all the Time” appears in the film The Crow. As founder of Toronto’s Sheeba Records, Jane continues to take courageous risks as an artist and creative entrepreneur while defying convention and categorization.
While the line-ups have changed many times, April Wine has been one of Canada’s hit making machines for over forty years. The constant has been founding member and principal songwriter Myles Goodwyn. His distinctive voice is heard on most of the band’s signature songs like “Tonight is a Wonderful Time to Fall in Love”, “I Like To Rock” and “Say Hello”.
From 1975 to 1982 they released seven albums, all of which had robust sales from gold to double platinum. Strangely, despite their success and longevity they have never won a Juno award. “First Glance” was the band’s first gold record in the US. It’s single “Roller” was a Billboard Top 30 hit.
The band has had an equal number of ballads and rockers as hits and has toured with the likes of Rush, Styx and Journey. Their ninth studio album, “The Nature Of The Beast” went platinum in the US. The band split for awhile as Myles and family relocated to the Caribbean. They resumed touring in 2010.
The duo of Claude MacKenzie and Florant Vollant are considered the most famous and successful First Nations music group ever. Hailing from the Maliotenam reserve near Sept-Îles, Quebec, they began as a cover band while writing their own songs in Innu-aimun language. After helping found the Innu Mikamu music festival, they were invited to record in Montréal.
Their self titled debut album was a hit in Canada going double platinum. European and Canadian tours followed. Some controversy swirled around the group when Quebec radio stations dropped their music for supporting the Mohawk people during Canada’s Oka crisis. Their second album “Innu” was buoyed by the band’s only English language single “Ishkuess”.
Their third album “Akua Tuta” was released by Columbia Records in 1994. That year, MacKenzie would spend time in jail for impaired driving. Vollant stepped aside to take a break only to re-emerge with a solo record in 1999 entitled “Nipaiamianan”. Mackenzie released the solo record “Innu Town” in 1996. They have since performed together publicly on a few occasions but no recording plans have followed. Kashtin is the Innu word for tornado.