'We can rock with the best of them'
When the casual 80s fan thinks of Canada, their minds generally sway gently over the likes of Rush, Bryan Adams and Loverboy. (Hopefully not Celine Dion.) But Canada was the home to dozens more great bands that didn't get much exposure south of the border.
Acts like Tragically Hip, Helix, Platinum Blonde, Honeymoon Suite and Bruce Cockburn dominated the airwaves during the decade. And while their peers in America had a near-lock on MTV and Friday Night Videos, these bands found a warm welcome on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s "Good Rockin' Tonight."
One of the best-known veejays of the show, Stu Jeffries, still fondly recalls the music and magic of those years in Canada. These days, Jeffries is a morning personality on EZ Rock 97.3 FM in Toronto. He spoke with the Stuck in the 80s podcast recently about Canada's place in the decade.
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Here are some highlights from the Stu Jeffries interview.
Stuck in the 80s: Canadian fans of our podcast say you're the guru of music scene up there in the 80s.
Jeffries: "If you're going to be an expert on something, 80s music is fine with me. I'm glad they think of me as some sort of expert. My mom would be so proud."
What are your earliest memories of the Canadian scene?
"When I first started to listening to radio, I didn't realize some of the acts I was listening to were Canadian. When I started radio in '79, I championed the Canada cause as much as possible to try to get these guys on the air a little more. But in the 80s, it just seemed to blossom. There was an introduction of an international wave kinda sound and it kind of opened the door for bands to say 'You know what -- we don't necessarily have to just have a couple guitars and drums. We can throw in some keyboards as well too.' In Canada, I think keyboard acts were a little more prominent than anywhere else."
Who caught your attention first?
"As far as early successes in Canada, you have to give the nod to Bryan Adams, to Loverboy, to Rush. These guys were really conquering the borders as well as their own country at the same time."
Loverboy really rocked. I saw them in '81, opening for Journey. Epic show.
Was their success typical of Canadian bands of the early 80s?
"Well, guys had a ton of hits in this country and maybe only one or two south of the border. And it's kind of a frustrating thing as a fan of Canadian music to say, 'You know what, you're missing out on so much.' "
We interviewed Loverboy last year before a show here in Tampa Bay. It was a blast. I think a lot of '80s fans could name at least a half dozen of their tunes. I know I have their greatest-hits disc.
"You're one of only a few. Their catalog is great. ... They're good guys, eh? What I love about them is that they still love to rock. They look like everybody's dad right now, but they still love to rock."
What's the difference, if there is any, between the Canadian music and American music of the 80s?
"It wasn't so much a sound -- it was music that kind of spoke to us as a country. I guess by that -- God, you know I'll get nailed for this by Canadian music fans -- but we're an unassuming bunch. And although we can rock with the best of them, we're pretty quiet about it. And that's not only on the band side, but also on the marketing side.
"We can match band for band and go on talking like this for two hours. You had your Poison, we had our Platinum Blonde. Any progressive rock band you had in the states, we had Rush. I think we were as diverse as any American act. It's just that we're quiet. ... We don't build them up to knock them down, but we don't like our guys to get too big."
Name a couple bands that you thought should have been bigger outside Canada.
"You guys ever hear of the Payolas? 'Eyes of a Stranger' (from the 'Valley Girl' soundtrack) was a huge hit for them. They were blowing the doors off radio stations with single after single and never quite made it stateside. And I'm not exactly sure (why). Sometimes the guys get labeled with a campus following, and if you get labeled with a campus following suddenly you're too cool for the room.
"Tragically Hip is a great example of that. The Hip have this unbelievable university following and yet can't get arrested on the Top 20 chart. Maybe it's their own fault, but this is something they're quite proud of -- they sing about Canadiana. ... Nobody south of the border gives a flying you-know-what about that kind of stuff."
What about someone like Bruce Cockburn?
Talk about the 'Good Rockin' Tonight' experience.
"That show was on for 10 seasons. For CBC, a 10-season show was an oxymoron. I'm real proud of it. We were a presenter, we weren't critics. We called ourselves a rock journal. ... It made me proud to be Canadian to be a part of that show."
Any musician interviews stand out in your memory?
"This is totally non-Canadian, I know, but I got to sit down with Paul McCartney for 20 minutes. And he talked about the Canadian music scene with such love. He thought it was just wonderful that this country supported their acts with our Cancon rules (which require that radio stations play a certain amount of Canadian music.)"
Any encounters with Rush?
"In all the years that I've done this in radio and TV, I've never had a chance to interview Rush. They're almost like Canada's mystery, and yet every album they put out goes Top 10 immediately. These guys are the ambassadors to the country. They'll always be really cool, down-to-earth Canadian guys."
Why do you think they're so reclusive?
"I just feel like Geddy (Lee) doesn't feel like he has to explain himself or he doesn't feel like anything he says is all that important. And yet he is willing to make fun of himself. He teamed up with Bob and Doug McKenzie for "Takeoff" and it was a runaway No. 1 hit."
I've always wondered how Canada reacted to that tune.
"We LOVED it!"
As a morning radio personality, you probably still get to spin the old tunes from time to time. What goes through your mind when you hear the classics from the 80s?
"It was just such a really cool time. Yeah, you get all the comments -- the parachute pants, the big hair and blah blah blah. But you know what? Let's not forget that some of the best ever was made in that decade.
"I know this isn't Canadian, but -- excuse me. If you saw the finale of Sopranos and heard 'Don't Stop Believing' from Journey -- tell me that didn't just send a shiver right up your spine. ... That song is frickin' brilliant. And it is just a small sample of some of the stuff that was coming out of the studios in the 80s and will never be equaled again. ..."
I'm proud of (the Canadian bands). It's kind of like they're your kids, you know what I mean? And you kinda go, 'Wow, you guys did really well. You did this country proud, and you did the decade proud.' "