Saturday, 1 May 2021

                                                                    Blue Peter





"Don't Walk Past"



With the recent tragic and untimely passing of Blue Peter lead singer and frontman Paul Humphrey, the timing is right for a review of their iconic single, “Don’t Walk Past”. Both the song and its accompanying video were ubiquitous during the summer of 1983 here in Southern Ontario. The song itself was a classic in the New Wave genre featuring soaring vocals and synthesizer; one of those tunes that once heard is instantly recalled by the listener. 

Hailing from Markham Ontario, the band started during the later part of the 1970’s when high school chums and band co-founders Paul Humphrey (lead vocals) and Chris Wardman (guitarist and songwriter) began practising and writing songs in Wardman’s basement. According to the biography section from the band’s excellent website (bluepeterband.com), during this period as the band began take shape and play out, “Humphrey remembers that the era was one in which many new bands faced certain challenges that made the going difficult. "In those early days, there were no places for a band who did original material to play. In a lot of bars, you had to play cover tunes, so we came up with our own treatments of the Stones, Iggy Pop, Led Zep, and the like, but we really wanted to have a way of exposing our songs. Besides," Paul continues, "we really couldn't play a lot of those covers 'cause we found it just didn't work that well with our energy." Times did change, however, and the live venue scene in Toronto started to open up, providing more opportunities for young, up-and-coming bands to get a shot at playing gigs. "It was an exciting time," recalls Humphrey. "Clubs like The Edge and Larry's Hideaway opened up and a lot of good bands with original music got a chance. There's a certain musical historical element to those days, and we were part of it." 

The first several years of the band (1979 -1983) were spent in sorting out personnel and honing the group’s identity. Their trajectory was not meteoric, but it was a steady progression of recording and performing. Blue Peter were a popular draw on the local club scene, with their visibility being boosted when they were selected to open for British New Wave acts that were touring here in Ontario. During this time period, the unique sound they were developing was being recognized locally with support from independent FM radio station CFNY and the weekly music and cultural television newsmagazine “The NewMusic”. Having your songs played on the radio is crucial in generating record sales, and prior to the release of “Don’t Walk Past”, the band had recorded and released a few singles, a couple of EP’s and a full fledged album, “Radio Silence”. In 1983, the band recruited English music producer Steve Nye, whose credits included work with Japan and Bryan Ferry, to work on their new material. Out of those sessions they released what is generally considered their signature song, “Don’t Walk Past”.  

The version of the band that recorded “Don’t Walk Past” consisted of mainstay’s Humphrey and Wardman, as well as Rick Joudrey (bass), Jason Sniderman (keyboards), and Owen Tennyson (drums). The single was released on the Canadian label Ready Records in both seven inch (catalogue number SR 331) and a twelve inch (catalogue number SRB 033) versions. It was also part of their album Falling. The accompanying video of the song has been recognized as one of the top Canadian music videos of its time, winning the “Best Video of 1983” award from the Canadian Film and Television Association. In addition to Paul Humphrey's passionate vocals, the song had a strong groove, with keyboards providing most of the melodic structure, a simple but punchy bass line and minimal but effective guitar. It is easy to see why the song and its accompanying video have had such an impact on the Canadian music scene. For better or worse, in the age of music videos, appearances became crucial in breaking a band and getting their videos played. Besides Paul Humphrey’s talents as a vocalist, he was very telegenic. As well as being aired in Canada, the video was picked up by MTV and broadcast in the United States. It should be noted that with his untimely passing, several Canadian artists who were part of that scene, (or were up and coming), have acknowledged the influence of the band and Paul in particular. Gord Deppe of Spoons fame stated that “Paul was one of the kindest and most talented people I ever met”.

Although “Don’t Walk Past” was crucial in increasing its popularity, the band would call it quits in 1985. They will always be closely identified with the song though, and its success cemented Blue Peter’s importance as part of the Canadian New Wave music scene.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

FM - Phasors On Stun

 


“FM” was the name of a band formed in Toronto in 1976. The first version was duo featuring Cameron Hawkins (keyboards, bass guitar and vocals) and Jeff Plewman (violin, mandolin, vocals), better known by his stage name “Nash the Slash”. Although Nash the Slash would later become better known for his stage persona which featured him having his face completely covered in wrapped bandages, sunglasses, top hat and tuxedo, at this point he was just wearing the sunglasses, tux and top hat. From the start the band performed their own original compositions. On of their first public appearances would be on the Ontario public broadcaster TVOntario (better known through its acronym “TVO”) as featured artists in the network’s Nightmusic concert series. This specific performance is currently available for viewing on-line for those who may be interested. The band had a unique sound, featuring layered keyboard textures and creative synthesizer melodies from Cameron Hawkins alongside Nash’s ethereal violin and mandolin playing. Both band members also sang. An early version of one the band’s best known songs, “Phasors On Stun”, was performed at this time.

  

In early 1977 Martin Deller (drums) joined the group making it a trio. His addition provided a propulsive drive that cemented the band’s sound. It was this lineup that was invited to appear the CBC television variety show “Who’s New”, resulting in the CBC offering to pay the band for an album length recording session. It was out of this process that the band’s first album was created. Included in this process was the release of a promotional single, “Phasors On Stun”. The album, “Black Noise”, was released by the CBC, although it was only available in limited quantities, and in 1978 was re-released on the GRT/Passport label domestically (and was readily available for purchase). Black Noise became a good seller, with the single Phasors On Stun a staple on FM radio. The album has stood the test of time quite well, being ranked as number 48 by Rolling Stone magazine as one of their top 50 in the category of progressive rock. I would not describe the album as being overtly “spacey”, although it does have a futuristic feeling with an overtone of science-fiction, and for a prog rock album, is quite accessible.  


As a 7 inch single, Phasors On Stun was released in two different versions. The promotional version featured a stereo version on one side, and a mono version of the other. The version that came from the GRT/Passport release of Black Noise was a later take, and featured another song from the album as the B side. The first version was about 30 seconds shorter than the later release. The later version would be the one most closely identified with the group. The song starts with a series of keyboard and mandolin figures, joined by the drums before the first verse is sung. The actual words Phasors On Stun never appear in the song, although a sound effect meant to simulate the discharge of a phasor (the science fiction version of a handgun from the 1960’s Star Trek television show) can be heard in the background during the final verse. The song has a push/pull feel from the bass line and the vocal phrasing, and like any good single, instantly imprints itself on the listener. As I have indicated earlier, it was a popular song on rock FM radio throughout Southern Ontario, and was the song that would be most closely associated with the group. Shortly after the album’s release, Nash the Slash decided to leave the group, and was replaced by Ben Mink. This trio was the one that I recall seeing in the Toronto club scene in the early 1980’s. 


FM would continue to perform, albeit with a number of personal changes. Cam Hawkins has been the consistent member throughout the various versions of the band. Nash The Slash would also perform as a solo act. To “dial in” a classic song from one of Canada’s 1970’s most accessible progressive rock groups, tune in your radio to FM, and enjoy Phasors On Stun.  





Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Wheatfield Empire - A Listener’s Guide to The Guess Who






Robert Lawson’s new book, “Wheatfield Empire The Listener’s Guide to The Guess Who” is a welcome addition to the literary history of one Canada’s foremost bands, a history that is surprisingly thin. The Guess Who, a Canadian group that should need no introduction, have been around in various incarnations since the early 1960’s. Starting out in Winnipeg, they became international successfully, and are best known for their 1970 hit “American Woman”, a number one single in both Canada and the United States. The band is also known as the launching pad for two of Canada’s best known rock stars, Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman. 


Robert’s book is valuable compendium for fans of the group providing exceptional detail not only of their recording history, but also of the different musicians who over the years were part of the Guess Who. The author is described on the book’s cover as “a life long fan of The Guess Who” who “has spent years tracking the band’s recording history and consulted closely with many Guess Who experts to compile this comprehensive guide”. This is certainly borne out in the thoroughness of the detail contained within. 


The information is provided in a chronological order, including the earliest iterations of The Guess Who, and the various reunions that have taken place after the demise of the band in 1975, and also includes details about Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings’ solo careers. Robert also includes details about specific live performances made by the band such as appearances on television shows, and “bootlegs” from concerts performed by the group.  


Each of the dozen albums released during the band’s golden period (1969 - 1975) has its own chapter, including details about the recording studio, the producer and engineer, and release date. The description of the album includes a background, an overview, details concerning the release and reception and the subsequent reissues and remasters of the recording. Complimenting the above are reproductions of promotional materials pertaining to the release of the record and other relevant documents of historical relevance, as well as commentary from band members (including Burton Cummings), individuals closely associated to the recording and those with insight into what was going on at the time. As to be expected, the book also contains a complete discography. 

 

I found the book to very entertaining and an easy read, containing all of the kind of detail a fan of the group would be interested in. The commentary provides interesting context about the what was going on with the band at the time the records were being made, with many humorous asides. It goes without saying this book is a must for fans of The Guess Who, especially when one considers the scandalous paucity of written material about this seminal band. Definitely recommended.    


Saturday, 6 February 2021




Coyote 


Reaching that elusive brass ring of commercial success can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the music business for many talented artists. In the golden age of Canadian rock music (generally considered the 1970’s and 80’s), this meant selling records. Although experts could make an educated guess about which bands would “make it”, it was difficult to explain why one single could break a band and propel them to stardom, while at the same time, other groups could record and release great music, and yet toil in obscurity. While it may seem to casual observers of the music scene that having a recording deal with a label meant that a group had finally “made it”, the truth is that it was merely the first step. Radio had to be convinced to put the song into rotation (so that the listeners could hear it), artists and repertoire (A&R) representatives from the label had to promote the record and ensure that it was in stores (so the public could buy it), and crucially, the record label itself had to decide to release the record in the first place (before any of the aforementioned actions could take place). You would think that if a band had a record deal, (and they actually went into a studio and laid down enough tracks for an album), then the label would release same and offer it to the public for purchase. However, the truth is that in many cases, for reasons known only to the label, the recordings never see the light of day. While the band may have had a devoted following based on their live performances, commercial success relied on selling records. Coyote, a mid 1970’s Canadian group, had this unfortunate experience.


Coyote was comprised of a number of veterans of the Eastern Ontario music scene. I contacted Gary Comeau, one the original members and through some text messages, he graciously provided me with the band’s story. In the summer of 1974, Gary was in Kingston with his girlfriend. He had just finished playing with Cliff Edwards (of the Bells fane). While in Kingston, Gary renewed acquaintances with two old friends, Richard Patterson and Colleen Peterson. Colleen told Gary that a friend of hers was starting a band, and that maybe Gary should talk to him. She arranged for Gary to meet with this friend whose name was Paul Lockyer. The meeting went well, and the boys started work on putting together a new group. The first bassist was Brian Edwards (lead singer with Mashmakan), but he left and Gary recommended his old friend Charle Bergeron. Gary and Charles had worked together previously in a group named James Leroy and Denim. This was for the next two years the lineup for what would be known as Coyote. The band was comprised of Al Manning (guitar & vocals), Paul Lockyer (keyboards & vocals), Gary Comeau (guitar & steel guitar), Glen LeCompte (drums) and Charles Bergeron (bass). In 1974 the band got off the ground and started working around Southern Ontario. The quickly became popular on the club circuit and soon developed a following. Gary advised “four of the guys were singers so we had good vocals. Al and I did a lot of two guitar harmony tracks when I wasn't playing pedal steel; it was a very musical band. Capitol reps saw us in Toronto, since we played there a lot”. These people liked what the heard, and recommended that head office in Los Angeles should take notice. After hearing the band, and some “demos” they had recorded, in late 1975 Capitol signed the group to a recording contract. Coyote recorded its songs for the proposed album in Toronto at Thunder Sound and at Le Studio In Quebec. The producer was Spencer Proffer, and the engineer was Larry Green (both from Los Angeles). Gary recalls that “we had a lot of fun in the studios, it was really pretty easy”. Mixing the tracks as well as some of the overdubs also took place in Los Angeles. 


Out of these recordings, in 1976 Capitol released the single “Never Want To Leave You” backed with “Just Want Your Love” into the Canadian market. (As an aside, John Capek is listed on the label as producer. When I asked Gary about this he replied that the single came from their first session at Thunder Sound, and for that session, John acted as producer). The song did receive airplay, although I’m unsure of what position (if any) it received on the local charts. Plenty of copies seem to have been released, as used versions (including promotional ones) are readily available for sale on-line. Although enough songs had been recorded for an album, Capitol decided not to release one. Gary explained “at the time the boss of Capitol L.A. was Rupert Perry, I found out years later from old friend Paul White who was with Capitol Canada that Rupert put us on the back shelf and really didn't care about us, while Capitol Canada thought we would be big in the record world, but thanks to Perry we never got promoted. Capitol Canada was very upset to say the least. We released one single and that was it. One of the reasons Perry put us on the back burner was because we played country, rock and progressive pop. Back then they liked to slot bands in categories and they couldn't classify us.” The band continued to perform all over Ontario to support the singles, and this version stayed together until 1977 (another without Gary would resurface a couple of years later). The quintet were known as a great live act with four lead singers and good instrumentation but without support from their label (in the guise of an album release), the band found themselves treading water, and decided to go their separate ways. Gary has access to the recordings made by the group from those sessions back in the day, and he has been generous enough to make them available on-line.  

     


Tuesday, 26 January 2021

UZEB



“Fast Emotion”


The genre of music that during the 1970’s became known as “fusion” is usually defined as an amalgam of jazz and rock. That definition is perhaps an over simplification that probably has more to do with our insistence on labeling everything as opposed to just letting the music speak for itself. It does need to be acknowledged however that the younger generation of musicians who had been raised on rock and roll wanted to bring those musical sensibilities to the more complex world of jazz. Most importantly, the replacement of acoustic instruments (the normal component of a jazz group) with electric instruments provided opportunities for a new sonic pallette, one that would allow the musicians to create and explore different sounds and techniques. 


One of the better groups to perform this type of music were UZEB, who hailed from Quebec. The band started in 1976 as a duo comprising of Alain Caron on bass and Michel Cusson on guitar. The band evolved fairly quickly into a quartet with the addition of a drummer and keyboardist. They became quite popular in their home province performing a style of music that generally is more of an acquired taste. I suspect that had to do primarily with the band’s superlative musicianship, and to a lesser degree with the parochialism of Quebecois culture. The band has always been exclusively Francophone, although the members have worked with some very prominent musicians such as Michael Brecker. 


In 1982 the band released “Fast Emotion”, their initial studio album, on the Quebec label Paroles & Musique. The album had nine tracks overall, with no song over six minutes, and was an excellent representation of the instrumental prowess and musical sophistication the group possessed. At this time, the members were the two originals Alain Caron and Michael Cusson being joined by Paul Brochu (drums) and Michel Cyr (keyboards). Typical of a fusion album, the music was all instrumental. An interesting aspect of this band was their headlong dive into cutting edge technology, and their enthusiasm for incorporating it into their sound. The album featured lots of guitar based synth as well as the keyboard based synth. Fast Emotion isn’t just a “chops-fest” with hyperdrive tempos and endless soloing by everybody all the time though. This is a record with songs (which may account for the bands popularity, both at home and abroad). Yes, there are lots of opportunities for the boys to strut their stuff (which the do with great virtuosity I might add), but always in the context of what works best for the song and in conjunction with the musical contributions from the other members of the group. Two of the my favourite tracks on this recording are “Slinky” and “Brass Licks”. The aptly named Slinky has Alain Caron on his fretless bass laying down a seriously infectious groove to start the song. Guitar, then drums and keyboard join in as things get underway. Brass Licks is an uptempo number that features Alain on fretted bass displaying his slap technique. The song has a simple but catchy melody, probably played by the guitarist through his synth. This song would easily put people out on the dance floor and is a good example of how accessible this band was to its audience in Quebec and Europe. I had the good fortune of acquiring Fast Emotion after its release, and of catching the band during their appearance at a small club in Toronto back in 1983 or 84. I can still remember watching Alain soloing, especially on Brass Licks.  


UZEB would work as a quartet throughout most of the 1980’s before paring down to drums, guitar and bass trio. The band decided to take an extended hiatus in 1992. All of the musicians were in heavy demand as session players and as individual artists, which may have contributed to the decision. They reunited in 2017 for a tour, although it doesn’t appear the group has permanent plans to reform. To their credit, the band has received a number of awards; in 1984 and 1989 receiving the FĂ©lix (an award for Quebecois recording artists), as well as Jazz Album of the Year for 1983, 1984, 1986 and 1987, and most significantly the 1991 Oscar Peterson Lifetime Achievement, which was presented to the group that year during their performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival. During their heyday in the 1980’s they were regular performers at Jazz festivals not only here but also in Europe. They also enjoyed very strong record sales in excess of 200,000 copies of their various releases, really quite remarkable for an instrumental jazz fusion group.  




Saturday, 2 January 2021

In Memoriam Tony Rice

 Good morning music afficienados and a Happy New Year to y'alls. Let's hope 2021 is better (let's face it, it couldn't be much worse!). I recently learned of the passing of Tony Rice. I suspect he had not been well for some time; he had vocal issues over the last few years and also some hand problems (with obvious devastating consequences for a musician). I came to be a fan somewhat late in Tony's career, my introduction to his music came after I was "drafted" into a bluegrass band along with my double bass a few years ago (a word of thanks to Sarah, Sean and Dale). To say I developed an appreciation would be an understatement. He was a musician's musician; one of those rare talents that could comfortably perform in different genres at any tempo or time signature. Although primarily noted as being a bluegrass player, his recordings contain some excellent examples of the many influences he had. His instrumental work features Tony playing over standards such as My Favourite Things, Green Dolphin Street and Four On Six. His discography is extensive, and he was a highly sought after sideman, basically being able to chose whatever project he wanted to. However, if I was forced to pick my most cherished examples of Tony's artistry, it would be his interpretations of Gordon Lightfoot's songs. He held Gordon in high esteem, and over his career performed and recorded a number of Gordon's songs. Here is an example. My condolences to Mr. Rice's family on his untimely passing, and RIP Tony. We have lost someone special.


https://www.youtube.com/?gl=CA

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Spoons Nova Heart




The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were fertile grounds for the growth of “New Wave” music here in Southern Ontario. It would seem that the musical requirements for bands of this nature were here in abundance. The young musicians that would form these groups were of the right age group to have heard of the 1960’s rock and roll bands, but not to be overly influenced by them, (unlike the group of musicians a decade or so older) and to have been teenagers when the golden age of Canadian pop music was on the radio (thank you Can Con). Their musical influences were broader and deeper, and consequently their music reflected that. 


Arguably, one of the finest representatives of this group of musicians who performed in this genre were "Spoons" (not “The Spoons”, just “Spoons”) who came together in 1979. This quartet hailed from Burlington Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Ontario just west of Toronto. Like so many other groups, things got started when the four members met and became friends at high school. Although there have been a few personnel changes throughout the band’s history (it should be noted Spoons are still together), two of the original members, Gordon Deppe (lead vocals and guitar) and Sandy Horne (vocals and bass) have been there from the beginning. Gord has been the main songwriter in the band as well, although other members have also contributed. The two other original members of the quartet were Rob Preuss on keyboards and synthesizer and drummer Derrick Ross.


It is common to assume that any successful band has spent years toiling in obscurity before the brass ring suddenly appears on the horizon. Spoons, on the other hand, it would seem, hit the ground running. After releasing an independent single in 1980, in early 1981 they entered Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton and recorded their debut LP (on Ready Records) “Stick Figure Neighbourhood” (recorded by Daniel Lanois). The album received good reviews (in particular from the magazine Canadian Musician in their November/December 1981 issue) and the general consensus was that Spoons were a band to keep an eye on. They couldn’t necessarily be pigeon-holed, although of course musical influences were certainly there for anyone who cared to listen. What stood out though was Gordon Deppe’s guitar, the tight ensemble playing, the great vocals and all around interesting songs. This was a very good first record, especially for such a young band who were still only a couple of years in being. It was a portent of things to come. 


If the Spoons debut record put them on the radar, then their second offering, “Arias & Symphonies”, made sure they were now squarely front and centre in the Canadian music scene. Gordon Deppe had indicated during interviews that the follow-up record to Stick Figure Neighbourhood would be more dance oriented, and the commercial appeal of Arias & Symphonies could not be ignored. The album contained three hit singles; “Nova Heart”, “Arias & Symphonies” and “Smiling In Winter”. It was recorded partially in London at Air Studios and at Sounds Interchange in Toronto. The songs on Aria & Symphonies revealed real growth in the band’s musicianship and songwriting. Not only were they radio-friendly, they were tighter and more focused, putting Gordon’s vocals up front. Gordon’s singing was more dynamic, and there was an excellent balance of all of the instruments, with an emphasis on sparse guitar lines, keyboard textures, synthesizer melodies and prominent bass lines. While not immediately noticeable, closer listening reveals carefully layered background and harmony vocals, adding an ethereal quality to these excellent songs. For this recording, noted British producer John Punter (Japan, Roxy Music) was brought on board. He was an inspired choice, and the resulting recording featured a more sophisticated and lusher sound, with a more space between the instruments and a greater use of dynamics in the songs themselves. John Punter was au courant with the New Wave music scene in England, having worked with a number of bands in that genre, making him the perfect choice for producing the music Spoons were recording. (In fact, Gordon has said that some people, upon first hearing the music, assumed Spoons were English). John Punter was also very knowledgeable about the most recent musical technology, allowing Spoons to incorporate cutting edge instrumentation into their songs. For instance, Gordon advised me they were able use instruments which were not really well known to add certain textures to their songs (for example, the hand claps in Nova Heart). In Gordon’s words, “we caught a lot of sounds and new developments just as they were happening, and a lot of that was thanks to the new producer”. 


The standout track from Arias & Symphonies was “Nova Heart”. It was a charting single that garnered the group serious airplay (it was very radio friendly). The song has an infectious beat, perfect for the club dance floor, along with a great keyboard riff which is used as a motif throughout the song. It has a strong backbeat (listen for the handclaps) which, along with the excellent bass playing by Sandy Horne (and Gordon’s tasty guitar licks) gives it a great groove. The format is basically ABAB (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo and chorus). After the synth solo the chorus is repeated and the band uses a fade to complete the song. There is no doubt that it is a great piece of pop music; unique (at least for a Canadian band) at the time of its release, and noted Canadian music writer Bob Mersereau has included it in his book of the top 100 Canadian singles. It also had great lyrics which told a futuristic coming of age story, a perfect complement to the new sound reflected by the song. Through one of those serendipitous acts of fate that seem to occur just when they are needed, the era of music videos had commenced, and Spoons were perfectly placed to take advantage. The group’s members were very photogenic and their video for Nova Heart (which would appear on the initial episode of Much Music), became a staple for the station.


Nova Heart was the first single to be released from Arias & Symphonies. Initially it came out in the standard 7 inch format (Ready Records SR 201X), and after it became a hit, a 12 inch version was released (Ready Records SRB 020). The “B” side  (on both versions) featured a non-album track (always great for collectors!) titled “Symmetry”.


Nova Heart, and Arias & Symphonies were groundbreaking pieces of Canadian music. Spoons' look and sound were perfectly suited for the time, and were it not for some issues with getting their music released internationally, who knows how successful they could have been outside of Canada. Domestically, they deserved all of the success they had, and can certainly be considered in the vanguard of Canadian groups from the 1980’s. It is a testament to the quality of their music that it is still being played on the radio to this day. As stated earlier, the band is still very viable; working and creating music, and their back catalogue is readily available. In fact, a 30th Anniversary Edition of Arias & Symphonies with bonus tracks was released in 2012. If you aren't familiar with the band, I highly recommend them, and if you just haven't heard them for while, they will certainly bring back memories.