MUSIC

Vancouver’s rock’n’roll explosion

NICHOLAS JENNINGS March 21 1988
MUSIC

Vancouver’s rock’n’roll explosion

NICHOLAS JENNINGS March 21 1988

Vancouver’s rock’n’roll explosion

MUSIC

As Bruce Allen describes it, Vancouver is still a frontier music town full of rustlers and outlaws, and he is its rock ’n’ roll sheriff. As manager of some of Canada’s top rock acts —including Bryan Adams and Loverboy—and owner of three of Vancouver’s most lucrative night spots, Allen can lay claim to the badge. As he sits in his office, a Fort Knox of gold and platinum record awards that he calls Rock Headquarters, Allen, 42, makes it clear that he has no intention of giving up the position. But with the city’s booming nonestablishment music scene producing some of the freshest sounds now coming out of Canada,

Vancouver is no longer a one-horse town. Faced 3 with bold, new competi| tion from younger man§? agers and artists, the § outspoken Allen says: ï “Those guys are nothing | in this city! They’re a 3 bunch of ignorant Brock (left) of jerks.”

Allen has good reason to appear defensive. For more than a decade he has presided over Vancouver’s rock industry, running his competitors out of town—or underground. But now, the city is experiencing an unprecedented explosion of talent that has nothing to do with Allen, most of it emerging from the city’s vibrant alternative music scene.

Isolated from the established industry and forced to take a do-ityourself approach to the business, promoters, managers and such artists as The Grapes of Wrath and 54 • 40 have polished their skills in a flourishing club scene— and are now bringing the city continent-wide attention. Vancouver’s recording studios are heavily booked, often with out-of-town artists, and record companies in

search of the next West Coast stars regularly send out scouts. Said Deane Cameron, Toronto vice-president of artists and repertoire for Capitol-EMl: “Right now, Vancouver is a real hot-

bed of new music in this country.”

Far removed from Toronto—still the music-business capital of Canada—and cut off from the rest of the country by the Rocky Mountains, Vancouver suffers from an isolation that has proved to be a stimulant for the local music

industry. Said Paul Hyde, lead singer of the critically acclaimed pop duo Rock and Hyde: “There’s not as many sharks in the water here.” Surrounded by natural beauty and graced with a mild cli-

mate, the city attracts artists from across Canada. Said manager Stephen Macklam, one of a number of upstarts who are challenging Allen’s supremacy: “If an artist goes to Toronto, his ambitions might be a little more commercial. Vancouver brings out the romantic ones with strong artistic streaks.” That quality is evident on the impressive talent roster of Homestead Productions Ltd., the young management firm that Macklam and his partner, Larry Wanagas, operate. Along with local Celtic rockers Spirit of the West, they manage Saskatchewan guitar sensation Colin James and Alberta’s eccentric country star k. d. lang, who are both now “ Vancouver residents.

From the wine-producing town of Kelowna, B.C., came The Grapes of Wrath, a feisty young trio with a collection of stirring songs about romantic yearnings and smalltown alienation. After signing with the rising Vancouver independent label Nettwerk, the band quickly became favorites of the city’s club circuit with their jangling pop style. Recalls the group’s 24-year-old singer-guitarist, Kevin Kane: “Kelowna was like purgatory, and we were just waiting to make our way to somewhere. There was no rock radio station, and all I had to get into was my dad’s record collection,

things like The Beatles’ white album and Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel.” Those 1960s influences are evident in the group’s recent international debut album on Capitol, Treehouse. The band is now on an extensive U.S. tour, playing more than 80 club dates.

Another group that has successfully ventured into the United States is 54*40. Once it had risen to the top of Vancouver’s club scene, the band decided in 1984 to try its luck in the United States. Said 54*40’s lead singer, Neil Osborne: “The city was pretty well locked up, with little room for bands that didn’t play Top-40 music.” The group’s rugged, moody sound soon attracted an American following, particularly in Los Angeles. There, in 1985, 54*40 won a recording contract with Reprise Records—the former label of such Canadian expatriates as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. The self-titled album that resulted, featuring the hit singles Baby Ran and I Go Blind, was followed by Show Me, which has sold 30,000 copies in Canada and is now winning listeners in the United States. As

a result of those connections, says 54*40 manager Keith Porteous, who negotiated the band’s recording contract, American labels are now wooing Sons of Freedom and Bolero Lava, two other local bands that he and his partner, Allen Moy, manage through their company, Gangland Artists.

Like Porteous, Mark Jowett has learned how to deal with multinational record companies. A former guitarist with the Vancouver band Moev, Jowett switched to the business side when he and manager Terry McBride decided that the group needed its own label and created Nettwerk Records in 1984. Learning about record pressing, packaging and distribution as they proceeded, Jowett and McBride also branched into artist management and publishing, representing such Vancouver bands as The Grapes of Wrath, Skinny Puppy and AfterAll. Then, in 1986, Nettwerk signed a major distribution accord with Capitol Records and has released more than 25 albums, including Skinny Puppy’s Bite, a dense, macabre debut recording that has sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide. Said Jowett: “We offer Capitol some new artistic blood, and they in turn provide us with the allimportant distribution.”

Beyond the rise of independent labels and management companies, the Vancouver music boom is strengthened by a lively club scene that rivals that of Toronto. On any weeknight, listeners can hear live music at no fewer than 20 downtown bars. Musicians also point to wide media interest in rock, including regular coverage from both daily newspapers, The Georgia Straight weekly and college radio station CITR-FM.

But according to Vancouver Province critic Tom Harrison, who has covered local rock for more than 10 years, the city’s music scene is now experiencing growing pains. “Vancouver is becoming a music-business town,” he said. “The scene is still very supportive, but more and more bands are looking out for themselves.” Last month both Spotlight ’88, a battle-of-the-bands contest, and the Rock Conference seminar series on the music industry illuminated the growing commercial currents in the city’s music culture. Both events attracted large numbers of participants eager to break into the music business,

but there was little evidence of the originality that has made Vancouver an important music centre. In Spotlight, a now-annual event sponsored by Labatt’s Ltd., 18 finalists competed for recording time with a top producer and a national single and video release. The winner was the hard-rocking Innocent ill. Said Kelly Brock, the group’s 20year-old lead singer: “This will give us great exposure. We’re just pressing for that big record deal.”

For now, Vancouver’s music scene is all boom with no sign of a bust. Next month CBS Records is preparing the international debut of Vancouver singer Barney Bentall, a discovery of Toronto’s Bernie Finkelstein, who manages Bruce Cockburn. And in May Britishbased Virgin Records will launch Colin James’s debut album with the kind of treatment usually reserved for their superstars, including Steve Winwood and Rolling Stone Keith Richard. Meanwhile, Bruce Allen has his sights set on Raymond May, a onetime Spotlight contender. To release May’s album and other new talent that he hopes to sign, Allen has thrown his industry weight behind the launch of his own new label, Penta Records. Said Allen, as he leaned back in his chair and hoisted his cowboy boots onto his desk: “Some of these labels might be able to give their artists a leg up, but I can put mine right in the saddle.” Clearly, Vancouver has become a rock ’n’ roll boomtown, and even Allen wants a bigger piece of the action.

NICHOLAS JENNINGS

Vancouver