MUSIC

CANADIAN ROCK ROLLS SOUTH

Thomas Hopkins June 14 1982
MUSIC

CANADIAN ROCK ROLLS SOUTH

Thomas Hopkins June 14 1982

CANADIAN ROCK ROLLS SOUTH

MUSIC

Thomas Hopkins

The stage in Saginaw, Michigan’s hockey arena is a throbbing, winking black box. Circling over it like a demonic halo is a bristling ring of light pots, laser machines and brooding squares of amplifiers. Almost dwarfed by the technology, Loverboy’s Mike Reno sings like a menacing choirboy—all pout and eyelashes. Guitarist Paul Dean peppers guitar riffs into the dark.

Around them 8,000 screaming kids from such small American Midwest towns as Grand Blanc, Mount Pleasant or Beaverton spread out like a steaming fan. Reno wraps himself in a shimmer of emerald laser effects and flings them a sopping headband. Behind him, two guitars, a Wagnerian organ and drums twitch, and the speakers explode in a monstrous flood of ground-zero rock. The show is loud, exquisitely timed and sleek as a Vegas act.

For the mid-American moppets standing on their chairs, the members of Loverboy are tonight’s rock ’n’ roll heroes. Their records, Turn Me Loose or The Kid Is Hot Tonite, spill out of car radios in central Michigan with the regular tick of a metronome.

Ironically, many don’t realize Loverboy is Canadian or that much of the good mainstream North American rock they have been hearing and buying in the past year is being made north of the border.

In fact, after a decade of head-banging, Canadian rock musicians are riding a wave of pop success that has become the entertainment story of the year. As well as enjoying surging sales at home, Canadian rock has crossed over the 49th parallel and into the demoralized, recession-dampened U.S. music scene. Such groups as The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive have already stormed the United States, but the past year saw an unprecedented concentration of Canadian rock bands

making it at home, and especially abroad. Says David Farrell, editor of the music trade publication The Record in Toronto: “It’s a Canadian invasion.” Leader of the current assault on the United States is Vancouver’s saucy fiveman Loverboy, who recently won an unprecedented six awards at the Canadian music Juno Awards. Close behind is the grinding, towering rock of Toronto

power trio Rush. Their young jean-jacketed male followers made them the only group in the world to earn three U.S. platinum records (one million records sold) last year. Snapping at their heels is Toronto’s brassy veteran band Triumph, currently recording a successor to their 1981 hit album, Allied Forces. From Vancouver, Chilliwack, known in the 1960s as The Collectors, resurfaced to hit big with the single My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone). And in Montreal, April Wine, after a decade of Canadian star status, finally slipped across the U.S. border last fall with their platinum album Nature of the Beast.

The newer, younger faces that have

suddenly acquired fame include handsome 22-year-old Bryan Adams, managed out of Vancouver by music kingmaker Bruce Allen, and personable songwriter Eddie Schwartz, whose pounding Hit Me With Your Best Shot was a major hit in the United States for torch-rocker Pat Benatar. Indeed, Canadian newcomers are so hot that the debut rock album by Montreal studio guitarist Aldo Nova has already followed Loverboy into the Top 10 of the North American record charts.

The sheer number of records sold by Canadian rockers, especially in the United States, has been dazzling. At one point earlier this year, no fewer than 11 Canadian albums were lodged in the Top 50 of Billboard magazine’s authoritative rock music charts. Bald rankings translate into sales, and, although Canadian numbers have been healthy (some seven million sold here last year), American record buyers have been even more eager, snapping up more than seven million records by Canadian rock bands in the past 12 months. The I sales are particularly ¿ striking in a dismal year I for the U.S. industry, "which saw record pur0 chases in all classifica\ tions tumble from 534 « million in 1977 to 419 million last year. American radio programmers and consultants, the kingpins whose ears and instincts decide what gets on the air from Des Moines to San Diego, are delighted with the fresh breeze from the north. “I’m really thankful they’re around,” says John Sebastian of Phoenix-based consultants Sebastian, Casey and Associates Inc. “If we just had American and British music to play right now I’d be concerned we didn’t have the best possible music on the air.”

Sniffing the rarefied air at the summit of pop sales along with Canada’s surprising rockers are SCTV spin-offs Bob and Doug McKenzie. Their album, The Great White North, is on its way to

platinum in the United States.

The match-up is appropriate. Bob and Doug symbolize the cementhead look and feel of the current wave of Canadian pop. In the 1960s Canadian music was synonymous with coffee-house introspection as in the ballads of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Today, Canada’s strength is straight, uncomplicated beverage-room fare—hoser rock. Its dabblings into profundity are embarrassing, but it succeeds when it pumps pure volume and beat out of the dark interiors of low-skirted vans or emerges, tinny, from the windows of rusty Camaros with a “two-four” in the back seat. “Our music is for beer drinkers,” laughs Triumph’s Mike Levine. The “eh?” though silent, is understood.

The lyrics are redolent of the street, aimed at the 18to 24year-old working stiff or student.

In (Don’t Wanna) Live For a Living, Chilliwack bellows: Nine to five is useless/So long it ’s really endless/I’m workin’ night and day/To meet the bills I can’t pay/Irritate, discriminate/Al-

ways trying to dominate/With all due respect/Kiss my ass! But on closer inspection the words portray a strangely theatrical anger. Despite the West Side Story sneering onstage, offstage the musicians are polite, the hairlines receding. There is a sniff of greasepaint in the air. Unlike the alarming young practitioners of new wave, hoser rock is deeply conservative, representing a threat to no one. With the exception of occasional swatches of rock ’n’ roll savagery from veterans Chilliwack and April Wine, the songs tend to be glib dispatches from the sexual wars, smirking celebrations of the randy young male (there are few women playing hoser rock). Songs contain no political messages other than perhaps one more rework of rock’s standard warning to parents: leave the kids alone. As Loverboy sings in Turn Me Loose: “I’ve gotta do it my way/Or no way at all.”

No fey new-wave keening here, the Canadian invaders play knee-capping rock forged in the legion halls and among the backed-up toilets and soursmelling alleys behind Toronto’s Gasworks, Vancouver’s Body Shop and Halifax’s Misty Moon. Rubbed and polished in Canada’s new array of state-of-theart recording studios, the rough edge of the bars has been ground off and the music has been tamed. The result is a mass of perfectly packaged melodic rock that has found a seemingly bottomless market in the exploding number of Canadian and U.S. Album-Ori-

ented-Rock (AOR) FM radio stations, which in many places have overtaken AM Top-40 formats.

One reason for the change is that young listeners have been turned off by the faded hype of discos and urban cowboy and the Bel Air arrogance of “gone-Hollywood” pop stars such as Rod Stewart and Fleetwood Mac. They

American radio programmers, who decide what is played y are delighted with the fresh breeze from the north

are streaming back to the true grit of hard rock. The Canadian invasion fleet, along with its big-selling and almost identical American cousins such as Styx, Foreigner, Journey and REO Speedwagon, play pop with no ideological quirks or art-rock atonality. It is stock rock, driven straight from the factory, with none of the glittery options other rockers use to disguise short shows and self-indulgent albums.

Often ignored by the music industry and the press in the initial stages, the bands are cast as underdogs by fans who cherish them all the more. In re-

turn, the loyalty of the bands to the young people who come to see them is almost evangelical. Rush struggled through 10 years of media and industry indifference that was finally overcome only by mounting fan pressure to see and hear them. “We keep a press person on now, but we don’t really need the reporters,” says Rush manager Ray Danniels. “The only people we owe anything to are the kids.” The debt is paid in regular albums, long, hit-filled stage shows and constant touring.

Not surprisingly, hoser rock is controversial. Nationalists argue it is as Canadian as a Kansas City Exxon station. Aging rock critics, weaned on the erratic and explosive rock legends of the 1960s, dismiss it as franchise rock, the bands as faceless and standardized as McDonald’s restaurants. “Bland s—t,” sniffs Roman Kozac, rock music editor of Billboard magazine. Critics accuse the bands of cynicism, ridiculing the 35-year-old players who pander to the dimly remembered lusts of 17year-olds. They argue that the bands are dishing up the hollow forms of oldtime rock but sucking the danger out of it to please timid programmers. Toronto Star rock critic Peter Goddard recently wrote of Loverboy: “The rocker once saw his role to intimidate. These rockers want to ingratiate.”

But it is the premeditated packaging of many of the bands that sets aging rock purists gnawing at the edges of their Jimi Hendrix albums. Certainly Loverboy was no accident. Tired of being in rock bands that were noble failures, guitarist Paul Dean, 36, (Loverboy is his 14th band) and singer Mike Reno, 27, formed Loverboy in 1979. The band was planned right down to the hot reds and yellows the group wears onstage. Band members still refer to Loverboy as “The Project.” Knowing they wanted to aim their appeal at young girls and realizing the looming importance of video in the pop of the future, Dean and Reno chose the rest of the band for their good looks in addition to their ability to play. Significantly, features in 16 Magazine and a spot on the afternoon soaper Guiding Light have resulted.

Dean and Reno also knew that no band survives in the lean 1980s without tough, well-connected management. Dean went after the best, Vancouver’s Lou Blair and the mercurial Bruce Allen, 36, who had cursed and pushed Vancouver’s Bachman-Turner Overdrive to North American pop stardom in the mid-1970s. Allen is no romantic. Leaning across his desk in a plant-filled Vancouver office, he rumbles: “I’ve got two

sayings I go by. One is Tn the music business the least important thing is the music.’ The other is ‘Let’s dance.’ If you can keep those in balance, then you’re fine.” As part of taking care of business, Allen, drawing on his BTO experience, told Loverboy how to dress, the order in which to play its songs and even what to say as between-song patter. Going with Allen meant that the band members stayed fit, with no spreading bellies, and it meant that they worked hard—very hard. While the band’s first album, Loverboy, was climbing toward platinum in Canada and the United States, the band toured 250 days a year, working cold arena floors as an opening act in Boise,Idaho, Bismarck,N.D., and Little Rock, Ark. It also meant doing the same, exact show night after night. Says a sanguine Dean: “I guess it is a formula, and good on us for finding it.”

In a 1980s variation on the “tour-until-you-drop” salesmanship of Loverboy, Montreal’s Aldo Nova is battling in the Billboard Top 10, thanks, in part, to a concept called “total marketing.”

Last year, Nova was a largely unknown guitarist. His music publisher, A TV Music Publishing Co. of Canada Limited, in an unprecedented move, underwrote the

$25,000 cost of a sophisticated-

“demo” tape of the singer’s music and undertook to find him a manager. The tape was “shopped around” by ATV to large record companies, who testplayed it for their salesmen and international affiliates. When America’s CBS Records finally agreed to sign Nova, they selected the songs to appear on the debut album. Only now is he playing for a mass audience. Shrugs Loverboy’s

Reno: “Sometimes the -

record industry is like the fashion industry—or like marketing dog food.”

Nonetheless, this new pragmatism fits the current lean mood of the Canadian music industry.

Many credit the current abundance of Canrock, at least in part, to the 1971 introduction of controversial federal legislation that required radio stations to play at least 30 per cent Canadian music during their broadcast day. Prior to that, Canadian content (Cancón) had hovered at about eight per cent.

From that point, bands and independent record companies could at least survive, if not flourish, on the strength of royalties from “mum” Cancón. Although initially it was met with howls of outrage from radio stations claiming there wasn’t enough good Canadian music to warrant 30 per cent of a station’s air time, Cancón is now grudgingly conceded to have helped build a Canadian

base camp for the current attack on American radio.

Duds and dilettantes were propped up of course, but hard times and musical Darwinism in the industry have shaken most out. Unlike its larger American cousin, the Canadian music industry has remained relatively buoyant throughout the recession. Canadian platinum records (sales of 100,000 units) jumped to 69 from 47 in 1981, gold records (50,000) to 123 from 93.

Even as Canadian programmers were swamped with good AOR music this year, American radio stations complained about a drought of usable U.S. “product.” Worries Dwight Douglas of Atlanta radio consultants Burkhart, Abrams, Michaels, Douglas and Associates Inc.: “The complexity of L.A. and the incredible use of cocaine is sapping the creativity of a lot of great American musicians.” It was a window of opportunity that a mature Canadian industry was poised to exploit. Such new radio-station consultants as Toronto’s Joint Communications Corp. made contacts with their American counterparts to tell ithem of the Canadian cornucopia. ¿Similarly, such veteran Canadian managers as Bruce Allen, oRush’s Ray Danniels and April Wine’s Terry Flood flexed the

credibility they had built over the

past decade to get the Canadian music played. Says Vancouver Province rock writer Tom Harrison: “Bruce Allen is one of maybe five Canadian managers who can phone up the head of a U.S. record company and get him on the line.” Just as important, Canadian records are now technically world-class. In the past decade, recording studios have blossomed from 12 in 1971 to 120 in - 1981. The explosion ensures that Canadian records are now as slick as those produced anywhere. Says Danniels: “It’s going to be a long, long time before young bands are penalized just because they come from Canada.”

For many of the groups the costs of North American-wide success will be high. Loverboy will be on the road for an estimated 240 days this year. Private life, like that of a sailor, will suffer. Home will be the artificial bubble of an elaborate tour bus called “The Stallion,” a van

customizer’s vision in yards of fake fur and electronic “home entertainment” gimmickery. Ingested hazards will be less of a problem. The hoser brigade, being generally older, is notably restrained about drugs. “I want to be around to have grandchildren like everybody else,” says Reno, looking more like a fraternity pledge than a seasoned rocker. Elaborate contract riders specify precise quantities of health food, milk or Gatorade before every concert. Each stop will become a tear-down mini-city for the band. Lights will be hoisted, enough power consumed to light a small town. (Canadian tour costs are defrayed by a $l-million sponsorship arrangement with Nissan-Datsun.) Security systems are installed with multicolored badges that would not be out of place in NASA headquarters. Even groupies, those mixed delights of an earlier generation of rock mariners, are screened from the stars by layers of functionaries. Unlike the cheerful anarchy of the 1960s, the efficiency of 1980s rock is dazzling.

But for those who persist, the rewards are plentiful. Fronted by a $300,000 stage show, singer Geddy Lee’s needling falsetto and spacy Star Trek lyrics, Rush has used a decade of endless tours and the canny management of 30-yearold high school dropout Ray Danniels to create a lucrative rock empire (Bob and Doug are on the Rush record label Anthem). Co-manager Vic Wilson mortgaged his house in the early 1970s to give the band a grubstake when no record company would sign it. He recently cashed in his percentage of the organization in favor of a genteel retirement raising Belgian horses in Stouffville, Ont., north of Toronto. Reported return on a decade’s investment: $3.5 million. But like other examples of the new no-name stars, Rush aggressively downplays its stardom. In the 1980s it is neither necessary nor smart to affect the role of pop star. Pleads Danniels: “Look, this is a job for us. These guys still take out their own garbage. Not one of them has a servant.”

The rock ’n’ roll crapshoot paid off for Loverboy only recently. None of them owns a house yet, and although he has his eye on a $40,000 Morgan, Reno still

potters around Vancouver in a white Beetle. Dean demurs during talk of his net worth but takes elaborate care to add he knows exactly what the figure is—to the penny. Burned by a string of managers, Canada’s aging rockers trust their money to no one. Dean, for example, employs a clutch of four lawyers, two accountants and a bookkeeper to watch his balance sheets. Similarly, Toronto’s Triumph celebrated its breakout' into the United States last year by sinking $500,000 into a new 48-track recording studio, The Metalworks, in Mis-

sissauga, Ont., outside Toronto.

The future for these new success stories is not clear, however. The music industry is facing drastic changes. At recent CRTC hearings into the future of radio regulations, Brian Robertson, president of the Canadian Recording Industry Association,warned that the Canadian record industry is losing $90 million a year, both to the unauthorized sales of illegally taped “bootleg” music and to home recording. Throughout North America, competition from personal and arcade video games is draining revenues of record companies, hampering their ability to develop and promote new talent. Says Toronto radio consultant Dave Charles: “In Chicago, in a week there are enough quarters shoved into video games to buy every

person in the city an album.”

As well, Canadian talent may be drying up. Says Allen: “The West Coast scene is pretty well picked over now. There’s not much of any significance left that doesn’t have a record deal.” Others warn that the knot of hosers at the top of the American charts is only pleasant coincidence and that tougher times are ahead. “It’s like the Jupiter Effect,” cautions John Parikhal of Toronto’s Joint Communications. “When they all line up at once, people get all excited and start talking about it.”

The talk will continue, and inevitably some of it will be negative. It is a certainty that infuriates Triumph’s voluble Mike Levine, because, in his view, it comes from critics who are out of touch. “There’s a whole new generation of fans out there who want to hear rock that isn’t 15 years old. Ask the kids.”

In Saginaw, the kids look as if they have scuttled straight from French class. Unlike the legions of Rush and Triumph followers with their jean jackets, bitten fingernails and black Tshirts, Loverboy’s fans sport Farrah Fawcett flip hairdos and white Nike basketball shoes. There is no earthen breath of marijuana there, just apple-red cups of Coca-Cola and stiff, new blue jeans

0 skinny as pipe cleaners.

1 “I like their bodies,” gig¿gles Gloria Dondero, 18. z“The music is softer than 9 acid rock,” yells Lisa

Hemmerly, 17. “They don’t just get up there and spit blood.” Onstage, Loverboy is ransacking the attics of rock, skipping through a llé-hour show as tight and orchestrated as a James Brown revue, and several times as loud. Hands slap, bums twitch. Paul Dean, mannered and steaming in a Stanley Kowalski sweat shirt, rubs a red guitar on black leather pants. Pert breasts flatten against heaving barricades, and Reno’s sweat drips like an offering onto outstretched hands. Afterward, in the warm Michigan spring, fan Steve Jessmore agrees it was a good show—“Worth the 10 bucks.” In a meagre age, good value from Canada is as good a return as any. Better than most.

With John Masters in Vancouver, Ruth Meenan and Nicholas Jennings in Toronto.

John Masters

Ruth Meenan

Nicholas Jennings