Sometimes the Snow Melts Too Soon

Canada, like every other country that spits out tons of cool rock and roll, has a huge amount of criminally neglected rock and roll bands that haunt it’s past. Now this shouldn’t seem at all unusual since rock and roll has a rich and varied history of one hit wonders and bands that got tantalizingly close to the flame of success but then crashed and burned. I thought about this one morning last week on my way to work while blasting away a greatest hits anthology by The Northern Pikes. Never heard of ‘em? Well if you don’t live in Canada that’s not surprising but even within this country a great band like this tends to be forgotten by most and only remembered by few. Bands like The Northern Pikes have followed the same sad tradition of other great Canadian “could have been a contenda” bands if only record label politics, poor support and promotion or interband strife hadn’t struck them down in their prime (although the Northern Pikes story has a happy postscript). Now, my list is endless and I’ll highlight only a few bands here but to me it really started with Max Webster.
Ugly stepchild to Rush, Max Webster from Sarnia, Ontario to me had a kind of Captain Beefheart/Mothers of Invention vibe to them yet were more accessible and fun. Led by Kim Mitchell and writing partner Pye Dubois, Max Webster were huge in Ontario, quite popular in the rest of Canada, and a cult band (with all the negative aspects that entails) in places like Britain, Germany and the U.S. When the frustration of a lack of record label support combined with band tensions hit their peak, Kim Mitchell pulled the plug on them in the middle of a tour support slot opening for Rush. Mitchell went on to greater success as a solo artist (Go For Soda was on Miami Vice that barometer of ’80s cool for cryin’ out loud!) yet outside of Canada he is pretty much non-existent and his output and tour schedule have dropped considerably in recent years. Hard to pick a favourite Max Webster or Kim Mitchell album so I’ll cop out and recommend their Best of Max Webster featuring Kim Mitchell (which features both their collaboration with Rush, Battlescar and a cut from Kim’s first solo record Kids in Action) and Akimbo Alogo for starters.
The Northern Pikes formed in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1984 and originally bowed out in 1993 but they left a great legacy of really great pop/rock tunes that I have been humming in my head all week. Your typical indie band made good, the Northern Pikes hit their stride with the hugely popular and quite excellent album Snow In June
in the early ‘90s and seemed ready to hit the big time when they kind of sputtered and died after their follow up album Neptune didn’t quite live up to it’s predecessor. Their greatest hits Hits & Assorted Secrets: 1984-1993 is the CD I have been listening to all week and is an excellent introduction to this band, ‘80s production gloss notwithstanding. They are back at it and ready to give it another kick at the can with a new album called It’s a Good Life so catch them on tour if you can!
I was a huge Grapes of Wrath fan in their prime and still think these guys had it all. Catchy, hook laden tunes, great chiming vocals and impeccable musicianship made this one of those bands that you loved to see live just so you could sing along at the top of your lungs to song after song after song. If you are looking for a rockin’ pop band in the Beatles mold, none did it finer than Kelowna, BC’s The Grapes of Wrath. Led by close friends, bitter enemies, close friends and now just friends Tom Hooper and Kevin Kane, the Grapes of Wrath were another indie band signed to the record label of their heros EMI with a hugely promising future. I think what ultimately doomed them were unrealistic expectations in that everybody started to expect them to be the next Beatles. To say the least, this is a tad bit of a burden to bear but they produced some incredibly great songs in their approximately 10 year existence. Their last group album before Hooper and Kane reunited briefly was These Days which was even mixed at Abbey Road studios and their single off that album I Am Here certainly sounded like something that might have just come off of Revolver so the pressure was on. When Hooper and Kane reunited briefly in 2000 and released Field Trip they even included a bonus EP (Extended Field Trip) of covers with a very cool rendition of their hit All The Things I Wasn’t done Tomorrow Never Knows style so it’s not like they were denying the connection. Although you can go the infamous “greatest hits, B sides and alternate takes” route with Seems Like Fate (1984-1992) you should also pick up they’re first “big” album Now & Again as well.
Songs by The Pursuit of Happiness are the epitome of the hard pop nugget. Relentlessly catchy, great lyrics by one of the coolest dudes in Toronto, Moe Berg, The Pursuit of Happiness had me hooked with their single I’m an Adult Now (“I can’t take any more illicit drugs. I can’t afford any artificial joy. I’d sure look like a fool dead in a ditch somewhere. With a mind full of chemicals. Like some cheese-eating high school boy.”). Start with Love Junk and One Sided Story and get ready to smile as this is a perfect example of a band that could have, should have made a bigger splash. They also have a greatest hits available called Sex & Food: The Best Of The Pursuit Of Happiness. I think they have performed a couple of one-offs in the past but for all extents and purposes they are done as a band. Moe Berg has gone off to write some books and two members of the band had split off to form the excellent Universal Honey, another sadly overlooked gem of a band who play one of my all time favourite singles Upfront With You featured on their first album Magic Basement.
I first became of aware of The Odds when I heard Eat My Brain and I instantly perked up and thought “Who the hell is this?” You know that feeling when you hear a song and you immediately are on the hunt for more info on a band that you know you already like even though you’ve only heard one song? That for me happened with The Odds. After seeing them open for The Tragically Hip on their Day for Night tour they just confirmed what I had discovered on my own, they are (were unfortunately) a great band. Funny yet with a great sense of “pop” sensibilities, The Odds deserved a better fate then what they got. Start with Good Weird Feeling and check out Nest for a tasty follow up. You can also go the “Greates Hits” route with Singles: Individually Wrapped which is a worthy addition, especially Heterosexual Man but as with many of my favourite bands I allways recommend trying to buy all the albums to get the full effect. These guys weren’t odd at all, just great rock and roll.
Finally I bring to you Coney Hatch. Their first album was produced by Kim Mitchell and featured the great track Monkey Bars, a song that one of my high school rock bands blasted away at at every opportunity. Great band name, cool hard rock without excuses, pick up their greatest hits CD Best of Three and turn up the stereo (that’s right stereo. I long for the days of cool, blue led flashing stereos with 4 foot high speaker columns but I digress) LOUD.
And Canada is not alone. This is just a very brief sampling. I could rhyme off a list of bands from the US and Europe that could have “made it” and should have made it but didn’t. The list is unfortunately endless. Everybody has a list of bands that they think should have made it or that they think they were the only ones who really “got” that band. These are a couple of mine, let me know some of yours.
Later.