Music

Workingman’s rock

Bart Testa March 17 1980
Music

Workingman’s rock

Bart Testa March 17 1980

Workingman’s rock

Music

There must have been something disquieting floating in the California air while supergroups The Eagles and Pink Floyd were naming their current albums: The Long Run and The Wall. The titles tell it all. Though both albums are money-makers to soothe the psyches of record companies battered by the slump of ’79, corporate rock ’70s-style is up against it. Under the escalating costs of touring and creating fresh stars, and the growing boredom of those between 20 and 35 with its overpriced product, the star-making machinery itself is breaking down. FM radio, long in tight control of the musicians who made it to the public ear, has loosened its play lists. As Gary Slaight, program director for Q107, one of Toronto’s two big FM stations, says: “We’re playing a much

wider variety now, a whole bunch of new artists we would not have played even a year ago. People can hear Linda Ronstadt on the easy-listening stations and we felt there was a rock ’n’ roll vacuum in radio. A lot of the music we play now is right off the street.”

This freeing up of the airwaves is beginning to have surprising side effects for Canadian rock, and not just the New Wave variety that has recently been capturing headlines. With its change in policy, the age of Ql07’s biggest group of listeners has dropped from near 30 to the early 20s: rock’s big discovery in 1980 is not a new sound, a new face or a new band, but a new audience. Finally revealed behind the demographic bulge of their older baby-boom siblings, teenagers are coming of age in a time of lim-

ited expectations, and they look for their music heroes on the streets close to home. What it takes to reach them is hard-driving, no-frills rock ’n’ roll that can travel from Lethbridge to Cleveland, hitting every town in between. And since nobody’s rock is as pareddown and hard-travelling as Canadian rock, several Canadian bands have suddenly come face-to-face with their big ¿ break.

i Take Rush for example. It has long J been taken for granted that Rush’s space mysteries, overwhelming lead guitar riffs and soprano vocals had won the band as many fans as it was ever going to reach. Having thudded through Canada and the American Midwest year after year, hitting the mill towns and whistle-stops, the biggest success Rush had ever achieved was selling a respectable 740,000 copies of their eighth album, Hemispheres, on both sides of the border. But now those young fans the band has worked so hard to please—playing teen idols on the pages of cheapie rock magazines like Circus while rock’s superstars were posing by their pools for People—have clout. What they like gets played. Since its January release, Rush’s ninth album, Permanent Waves, has been picked up and played on radio stations long immune to the band, and has even climbed into the Top 10 on mainstream record charts like Rolling Stone’s. And on their current tour, Rush is commanding as many as four nights running in sold-out halls in big cities like Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago.

The way to the top seems clear for

other hard-working Canadian groups, too. “Rock ’n’ roll is starting all over again,” says Garry Stratychuk, who isn’t just being overly optimistic about his client, Streetheart, a gutbucket Regina bar band that has risen to headliner status across Canada, with a gold and a platinum album and a coveted American release. Streetheart is typical of the Canadian rock advantage in the industry’s current anti-trend: it can deliver fanatical young fans while working on a low budget. A perfectly terrible group by the “state of the art” standards of corporate rock, Streetheart’s live shows are jangling displays of the swaggering, industrialstrength style critics have been calling dead since 1972. But delivered with the do-or-die conviction that middle-of-thecontinent teen-agers find irresistible, Streetheart’s boogie landed the band a contract with WEA Music of Canada and transmuted its debut album into Canadian gold by the end of 1978.

The musicians’ big break, however, came late last fall when their American company refused to release their second album, Under Heaven Over Hell, and sent Streetheart back to the studio to cut Under My Thumb. This Rolling Stones misogynist hit from the mid’60s was just infamous enough to attract the attention of American disc jockeys. The ploy won Streetheart a huge Canadian hit and gave it enough airplay in the U.S. to look for a tour. While Streetheart’s shows are comparatively inexpensive (featuring none of the special effects, the smoke bombs and rocket ships favored by big rock acts), transportation and equipment rentals still cost $10,000 for each concert date, an amount often larger than the band’s share of the gate. “The best we can do in Canada,” says Stratychuk, “is to break even over the course of the year. That’s including both record and ticket sales.” Touring costs just as much in the U.S. but there Streetheart can reach a more densely packed audience,, especially in the Midwest where heavy rock is a regional taste shared with Western Canada. For chronically under-funded Canadian rockers such an invasion of the American heartland has always been the formula for success. And, all of a sudden, they have the edge on their American and British competitors—who have become just as capital-poor and are not at all used to it.

Splashing over at the other end of Canada’s suddenly turbulent pool of rock bands, Saga is emerging out of Toronto, which has been the North American springboard for the sonorous artrock of Genesis and Supertramp. Where Streetheart takes its cues from the regional thunder of Rush’s great Midwest, Saga turns to that same band’s fast-

growing European following. Saga had been braced for the long hall of high schools. But export sales of their first album, spurred by rave reactions in rock discos such as Munich’s Sugar Shack, quickly climbed to 25,000 in Germany, Belgium and Holland. Their record company, Polygram, rushed the record into late European release last spring, selling another 35,000 and flew Saga to Germany to appear on its top music show, Pop Rock.

What attracted continental kids to this Canadian band was not just the complex, ersatz-classical dazzle of its synthesizers but its propulsive, danceable beat, which enabled Saga to bounce buoyantly in the wake of German stars like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder. The intricacy of art-rock energized by the hustle of the band’s own Toronto background, the music proved particularly popular throughout the industrial centre of Germany. Released last November, Saga’s second album, Images at Twilight, has already sold 70,000 copies and, while now barnstorming Canada in the company of another Toronto artrock band, FM, Saga is preparing for a full European invasion already mapped out by the German promotion firm, MAMA Concerts.

Confusion on the airwaves and depression on the concert circuit have thinned out the jam of big acts and big tours until recently expected to dominate pop music forever. Bands long relegated to the workers’ brigade of rock—like Rush, Streetheart and Saga—are now being fitted into another kind of role, that of hard-travelling compacts headed for the top. And there is every reason to believe the Canadians won’t rust out on the way; they’ve been built for heavy"weather.

Bart Testa