Prepared 29 November 2006 for Prof. Joanne Saul (UNI320Y1Y, University of Toronto).
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It was always a dicey proposition to embark on a career in the music industry. Job security was never a given. A healthy dose of courage and ego was essential to fuel the journey for these troubadours and songwriters, but factoring the music industry’s cutthroat politics and favouritism, success was slim at best — that is, of course, provided they were getting started in a place like England or America. In Canada, meanwhile, it was all but assured that musicians would have to pack and leave the country, even emigrate, because there was virtually no domestic infrastructure to enable one to find their way to record stores or local radio. It was, for many, “America or bust.”
But by 1971, Canadian songwriters and performers were empowered with a new way to speak to a national audience — a Canadian audience. For the first time, a cultural monopoly over Canadian music outlets by American and English interests was being regulated. A triumvirate of currents converged to make hearing Canadians on the radio possible: for one, an act of quiet rebellion; for another, a collective expansion of horizons which challenged many notions of what used to be accepted at face value; and a growing discourse on national identity offered tangible differences between Canada and its imperial relatives. While some was politicized and others not, Canadian music after 1971 departed in how it was produced, presented and recognized. What remains, however, is whether musicians who emerged afterwards helped steer this nationalistic shift, or whether an increased presence of Canadians on the air was an unintended by-product behind a larger narrative on Canadian identity.
Commercialized, recorded music began shortly after Alexander Graham Bell’s patenting of the Graphophone wax cylinder in 1889 (Melhuish , 28). Many early Canadian record companies were opened as branch outlets for larger American companies to import their content and to side-step tariffs, rather than to serve as publishing nodes for Canadian talent (Edwardson , 57). In May 1920, Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless radio signalled the age of commercial broadcasting when Montréal’s XWA-AM began scheduled programming (Ibid, 59). By 1932, however, many of the 60 or so licensed Canadian radio stations were allocating up to half of their daily air time to retransmissions of American programming, which was entirely exempt from tariffs (Ibid, 60). Such passivity toward national trade and cultural policy directed renewed focus upon America’s push for freer trade, which played directly into U.S. House Speaker Champ Clark’s unambiguous goal of “hop[ing] to see the day when the American flag will float over every square foot of the British North American possessions, clear to the North Pole” (Crichton, 92m24s).
Efforts to initialize a nationalized broadcasting infrastructure were raised as early as 1932, when the Aird Commission justified state intervention (Edwardson , 61). It recommended the formation of a publicly-licensed, but commercialized broadcasting service — not unlike crossing the BBC with advertising found on American networks (Keene, 5). Using the Aird findings, Ottawa created the CRBC charter — progenitor of the CBC — which was intended as a venue for Canadian “music, drama, and voices” (Ibid, 17). Still, a single, semi-public network was ill-suited to counter the volume of American programming being picked up by Canadian radio sets. Further, the CBC’s mandate zeroed in on “high-cultural” content, leaving wide open all other mass- cultural nodes of entertainment to private and American interests (Edwardson , 76–78).
For the next three decades, little in the way of initiatives to foster a fertile environment for Canadian performers inside Canada were promulgated. Canadian performers — like Hank Snow, Guy Lombardo, and Percy Faith — paved their success by signing to American record labels and performing at major venues across the United States (Melhuish , 36, 44, 52). These performers were less interested in a Canadian audience than they were to quench and secure their fame in show business, and that fame was being sated south of the border.
By 1964, rock ’n’ roll had affirmed itself as an entertainment force, and a “British invasion” of bands was furiously reshaping the culture of pop music. A burgeoning folk music scene was beginning in Toronto’s Yorkville district, while rock ’n’ roll found its way to Yonge Street’s live venues (Jennings, 19–21). Despite hosting the likes of Joan Anderson (later Joni Mitchell), Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Ronnie Hawkins, music heard in Canada was still and mostly an imported affair (Melhuish , 66, 69). Even as these musicians gathered audiences for their shows, Canadian broadcasters expressed their indifference to domestic talent (Green, ¶5). This was underscored when Hawkins, an American expatriate, explained to his former band — having named themselves the Canadian Squires — that they were “gonna have to forget this Canadian Squires thing, because [the broadcast industry] won’t touch a Canadian group. They know the Canadian market is so small they won’t get their money back” (Jennings, 59).
This was not lost on other musicians, and quietly, the likes of Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Leonard Cohen, and Ian & Sylvia were turning to America for exposure (Melhuish , 90). In fact, when Young tried to record his first solo material, he drove to New York City, where the studio facilities far outweighed the “inadequate[,] even by the crude standards of the 1960s” recording facilities available in Canada (Jennings, 107–108).
Then Yorkville came into its own. What was originally a tucked-away quarter near downtown, peppered by European-style coffeehouses, rapidly morphed into the epicentre of Canada’s first popular music scene (Melhuish , 65). Many names that would later become founders of a Canadian music narrative resided and began their journey in this late Victorian-era neighbourhood.
This epicentre attracted a restive Carole Pope, who made her escape from the “insipid cultural vacuum” of Don Mills, north of Toronto. Yorkville was Pope’s sanctuary from a suburban void, and it enchanted her as “Toronto’s little slice of sixties bohemia.” Soon after, she empowered herself to leave her parents’ home and into the Annex neighbourhood next to Yorkville (Pope, 9).
Pope eagerly immersed herself in a bacchanal milieu of exploration, experimentation and erotica. While an emergence of Canadian music and art was Yorkville’s melody, its accompanying rhythm reverberated around prevailing ideologies of sexual liberation and freeing one’s mind — misplaced as such well-meaning, but naïve intentions were (Ibid, 12–14). During the next torrid year, Pope saw some of the era’s biggest touring musicians pass through her haven; she stumbled into Marshall McLuhan, the University of Toronto’s eminent professor of communication; and she came to befriend someone named Kevan Staples (Ibid, 16, 23). The immediacy of her Yorkville surroundings — and concurrent manoeuvrings of lofty politicians in Ottawa — were converging to change Carole and Kevan’s life. This juxtaposition would not become apparent for a few years.
Incidentally, it was neither government provocation nor deliberate strategizing by the recording industry which triggered a formal recognition of Canadian talent as a cultural asset. When Walt Grealis, a Toronto-based promoter for London Records, was speaking in 1964 with Buffalo, NY, disc jockeys and promoters, his hosts suggested that Canada should have its own “tip sheet” to alert its radio stations of upcoming new singles with hit potential (Green, ¶6). Naturally, these Buffalo promoters had American talent in mind, but Grealis parsed it as a way of bringing attention to Canadian artists in Canada. Within weeks, Grealis left his job to launch the trade publication, RPM Weekly — RPM for “Records, Promotion, Music” (Ibid, ¶6).
By 1968, Grealis and his partner, Stan Klees, cited broadcaster reluctance to Canadian talent and called for “government intervention to force broadcasters to play Canadian records,” in an RPM Weekly series titled “Legislated Radio” (Jennings 219–220). The Maple Leaf System (MLS) was an attempt by Grealis to coax Canadian radio programmers to include “indigenous” discs (labelled with an MLS logo) on their playlists (Ibid, 220). But fierce broadcaster resistance against adding Canadian artists — led by a consortium called the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) — reached a threshold where Pierre Juneau, CRTC chairman during Pierre Trudeau’s first government, authorized quota regulations in 1970 called “Cancon”. It required radio broadcasters to air no less than a thirty percent share of Canadian-originated content (Ibid, 220, 232).
The music paradigm had changed. Winnipeg’s The Guess Who — having earned an American hit in April 1969 with “These Eyes” — noted absurdity in CHUM-AM’s claim that the Toronto station had “broken” The Guess Who in Canada, but only after the single reached gold sales status in the U.S. — eight months after CHUM had flatly refused to play it (Ibid 189; Whitman, 249). Also, The Guess Who were on centre stage during Juneau’s CRTC hearings in April 1970, when his opponents pressed him to identify Canadian music that Canadians would listen to; he pointed to “American Woman”s current position of #1 on U.S. and Canadian charts — confusing a Tory naysayer who presumed that Juneau was referring to an American band (Edwardson , 344).
The song, a quiet rebellion against what members Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman witnessed when they toured America, became an accidental anthem against U.S. policy in the Vietnam conflict, and was a lyrical “embodiment of American society, bringing with her militarism, poverty, and superficiality” (Ibid, 345). It had helped to define, in a Renanian* sense, an aspect of what Canada was not — something particularly poignant given the attendant political climate.
What some have argued in Juneau’s Cancon regulations was that he was “imagining a nation” predicated on a cohesive pop culture during a time when a maelstrom of discourse was challenging whether Canada even had an autonomous cultural identity (Jackson, 27). Since 1965, George Grant’s Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, had provoked a heated (albeit largely academic) debate on the relevance of Canada-as-colony in America’s steep shadow (Clarke, 35). One might posit that Grant’s thesis was transferable to the pre-1960s face of Canadian pop culture, while the reverberations which ran through Yorkville was its riposte.
Dennis Lee, a burgeoning writer from Toronto, began to recognize just how entrenched the Canadian psyche had become in its assimilation and acceptance of American culture: for Lee, he was gobsmacked by this epiphany — seeing the U.S. for what it really was in its complicity behind the Vietnam conflict, and in the Canadian media’s complicity to duplicate what American media reported (Lee , 50). He recognized that much of his cultural lexicon heretofore had been moulded by American continentalism; in its absence, few ideas could articulate his literary self as a Canadian: his lexicon had been colonized (Ibid, 53). Grant was right, it seemed. For four years, Lee was effectively muted from articulating the gravity of what he had acknowledged (Ibid, 56).
Lee did return to write, but he did so with a sobering sense of “what next?” From this new vantage, Civil Elegies, a Toronto lament mirroring his own lament for Canada, was born. Given its timing, published in 1972, Lee doubtlessly witnessed a once hopeful, now vanishing institution of his generation: Yorkville. Its once vibrant scene was since neutralized by a perfect storm of political adversaries, squatting complaints, sensationalized overdoses, property neglect, arrival of the Vagabonds biker gang (a key distributor for substance trade), and a mass-migration to the newly-built Rochdale College on Bloor Street (FitzGerald, 74–75; Pope, 17; Jennings, 179–180).
City councillors, teaming with developers like Richard Wookey (who later built Hazelton Lanes and the Four Seasons Hotel), effectively quashed the arts culture in Yorkville — buying contiguous tracts of artificially devalued property and moving to gentrify the district with upmarket boutiques (Jennings, 194). Lee writes: “In the city I long for, green trees still asphyxiate . . . Heavy developers pay off aldermen still; the craft of neighbourhood, its whichway streets and generations / anger the planners” (Lee , 35). It is hard to dismiss the nagging sense that he had Yorkville in mind — along with its first pang of a vibrant, Canadian music culture whose rise incubated and hatched on those few side streets sandwiched between Bay Street and Avenue Road.
But the 1970s presented a different arena. It was never what the CAB wanted, and they ignited oppositional protest which continues today. Ever since, the CAB have unrelentingly contested Cancon policy and implored that Cancon quotas should be indexed down to the ratio of music sales from Canadian artists, which is typically lower than a thirty percent share (Smallbridge, ¶7). Despite the minority ratio, Cancon invariably altered what Canadians heard on their local stations.
After 1970, a wave of new performers arrived to a Canadian market which, for better or worse, was premiering domestic talent that wasn’t necessarily being aired south of the border first, if at all. Moreover, from where talent hailed also became less beholden to Toronto — unlike the 1960s — as Juneau’s ruling arguably had a nationalizing effect on the entertainment industry. These new performers, later indelible imprints on the Canadian psyche, spanned the nation: Anne Murray (Nova Scotia); Gino Vannelli (Montréal); Bruce Cockburn (Ottawa); The Stampeders (Calgary); and Chilliwack (Vancouver) (Whitman, 108, 118, 408, 548, 604).
This post-Cancon generation of performers were among the first to be awarded the Juno: an annual music awards ceremony initiated in 1971 and named in honour of Pierre Juneau, who “had been the person most responsible for their introduction and after whom the awards are named” (Melhuish , 92). At the third Juno Awards in 1973, Gordon Lightfoot credited the value of this ceremonial institution with his acceptance of two Juno awards: “I’ve been accepted in my native country on a scale I never dreamed possible. I’m going to sing the praises of Canada far and wide for as long as I can” (Ibid, 99). This was a far cry from Lightfoot’s objective in 1967, when he was “obsessed with becoming an American star” (Collins, 147).
Within Toronto, this first Cancon wave introduced Rush and Triumph to Canadian listeners. Both, while domestically establishing their reputation first, also eventually secured support in America. For Triumph, they were fortunate to dodge this challenge when a San Antonio radio announcer promoted their songs on air, compelling enough fan response for a major arena tour within Texas — even though Triumph lacked an American distribution deal (Melhuish , 153). A few years later, a new wave of Martha + the Muffins, Spoons, and a peculiar group by the name of Rough Trade assumed the second generation of Cancon talent (Ibid, 144–145).
Carole Pope and Kevan Staples were the alternating face of Rough Trade (depending how picked up one of their record sleeves) (Pope, 66–67). After befriending one another in Yorkville, they developed a lasting musical partnership which later would be recognizable to many Canadians. Performing first as “O”, then the Bullwhip Brothers and later as Rough Trade, they wended their way through experiences with SCTV comedians and cult cinema legends (Ibid, 30–31, 52). Through persistence, Rough Trade were signed to True North Records (a pioneering label in the domestic market) and in 1981 were awarded two Junos after their first hit, “High School Confidential”, a song with manifest lesbian lyrics that was all but unheard of in the more Puritan American market (Melhuish , 132). Arguably, without Cancon, Rough Trade may never have arrived to commercial radio exposure, especially if they had been forced to travel south first.
Debate persists on just how influential Juneau’s Cancon policy affected the Canadian music climate. Few dispute, however, that it was been favourable to a few domestic artists, opening a path for some of them to mention without repercussion those cultural markers distinctive to the Canadian psyche: “If I Had a Million Dollars” by Barenaked Ladies was rife with them. In this, Juneau affirmed the import of a national narrative and gave the voice for musicians to articulate it.
* Ernst Renan’s, “What Is a Nation?” (1882)
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