Inspired by the recent release of Rolling Stone's lists, I was recently revisiting various ‘top songs’ lists, including one purporting to be the 500 greatest Canadian songs of all time. In doing so, I was struck by how many of them I took for granted as being just great rock songs. I realized that I was operating under the assumption that they would all be part of the sonic tapestry making up the backdrop to any North American’s life, just as much as monster hit songs like, say, Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ or The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’.
It came as a bit of a shock to realize that for my American friends – poor deprived souls – it ain’t necessarily so.
Let’s be clear here…I’m not talking about the huge Canadian post-CanCon artists who’ve become (for good or for ill) massive international artists – Celine, Avril, Alanis and Shania top the list. Nor am I talking about the Canadian rock legends who transcend international borders, having become classic citizens of the rock'n'roll world – truly legendary artists like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Cockburn or groundbreaking acts like The Guess Who, The Band, Rush or Steppenwolf. I’m not even thinking here about contemporary bands like Arcade Fire and Metric, who show every indication of becoming as influential as the classic rockers of a generation before.
No, what I’m thinking of here are songs that thousands of Canadians will take for granted as major musical milestones, but which may have been totally overlooked by American radio. These are songs whose absence is a real gap in the musical repertoire of my American friends – a void this article is intended to fill.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and could easily have been trebled. Instead, I’ve tried to come up with a short list that represesnts a fairly broad temporal range, from the Sixties through to the 21st Century, while at the same time covering genres from folk to pop to alternative. Some of these may be more well-known that I am currently aware, particularly to those of you living in border cities like Buffalo and Detroit (or Minot, North Dakota, for that matter!), but I hope that I have come up with a few unknown gems for you.
THE TOP FIVE
Those Old Emotions (1983) - The Spoons
The Spoons are so solidly cemented in my mind’s eye as part of the early 80s synth-pop wave that I was almost surprised to be reminded that they were Canadian and not part of the new British Invasion that included Talk Talk and Thomas Dolby. Their first album, Stick Figure Neighbourhood, while produced by Daniel Lanois, didn’t produce any huge hits, but their follow-up disc, Arias and Symphonies produced ‘Nova Heart’. Its success on dance floors in Canada got the Spoons a gig backing up Culture Club, which is where Nile Rodgers found them, and was moved to produce their third album, Talkback. It produced a major New Romantic hit in ‘Those Old Emotions’, and was followed shortly thereafter by ‘Romantic Traffic’.
You and Me in Mexico (1972) – Edward Bear
Named after Winnie the Pooh’s formal name, Edward Bear was made up of Toronto rockers Larry Evoy, Craig Hemming and Paul Weldon. They had monster hits and Juno wins in Canada, with several songs in reaching the Top Ten, but only the sentimental 'Last Song’ made any real dent in the U.S., selling over a million copies and hitting number three on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Northwest Passage (1981) - Stan Rogers
Named ‘Canada’s Alternate National Anthem’ by CBC’s Peter Gzowski, ‘Northwest Passage’ is possibly the nation’s greatest folk song, written and performed by the man who is arguably Canada’s greatest folk singer (sorry Stompin’ Tom). The ability of songs such as ‘Northwest Passage’ and Barrett’s Privateers to penetrate to the very core of the Canadian experience are even more remarkable given Rogers’ relatively young age – he was just 33 when he perished in an airplane fire in 1983.
New York City (1979) – The Demics
A punk anthem made into a hit by airplay on Toronto’s legendary CFNY which was then still ahead of the ‘New Music’ wave and boasted a playlist that had more in common with college radio than commercial FM. London, Ontario’s The Demics parlayed their DIY yearnings into an icon of the early punk scene that made ripples across the country, making itself felt even out on the frozen Canadian prairies where it reached me.
Falling On (2007) – Finger Eleven
I saw these guys play at Call the Office back when they were still called The Rainbow Butt Monkeys. Having a beer with them after the show, I remember thinking that they were going to be big, but I wasn’t sure if it would be “Canada big” or something more. I think I’m kind of glad that they have made it reasonably big, but not so big as to become total sellouts. It’s an agreeable fate that many mid-level Canuck bands (Our Lady Peace, Sloan, Matthew Good, The Watchmen, Moist) have managed to achieve.
The following tracks may not be totally obscure, but if you’re not familiar with any of them, I recommend you check them out:
54-40 – I Go Blind (1986)
Canada’s answer to Joy Division!
Teenage Head – Picture My Face (1978)
Canada’s answer to The Ramones!
Pro-Test Song – Skinny Puppy (2004)
Canada’s answer to Nine Inch Nails!
Daddy Don’t Know – Toronto
Holly Woods' vocals, by way of The Headpins' Darby Mills, provided the template for every hair band singer of the 1980s!
High School Confidential – Rough Trade
Carole Pope and Kevan Staples doing some pretty boundary-breaking subject matter back in the day….