Saturday, January 9, 2010

Music helps define Canadians


As we all cry in our collective beers about our junior hockey team just missing the gold medal, we can take some comfort that hockey isn't the only thing that defines our elusive national identity.

Many cultures define themselves with their music, and we can, too. It is difficult in a country like ours, diverse as it is, yet we have managed to build a very robust music industry here.

This column is about collecting artifacts of the music business, mostly records. The way the hobby of collecting Canadian records has grown and developed reflects the way our music has done the same.

Records have been manufactured in Canada right from the beginning of the last century, but there was very little recording done here so, to some collectors, early Canadian records are just inferior copies of the U.S. or European originals.

You might find interest if the Canadian company issued an alternate take of a jazz recording or if they used a label design not found elsewhere, but recorded Canadian music was virtually non-existent.

Later, RCA built studios in Toronto and Montreal. They recorded jingles, a few bands like Mart Kenny and a lot of great fiddle players.

There was talent here; Hank Snow made some records in Montreal in 1936 but soon left for the U.S.A., because that's what you had to do to earn a living in music.

One country star, Wilf Carter, made many records here and remained proudly Canadian although he very cannily recorded in the U.S. as Montana Slim. His 78 RPM records are highly collectable today.

In the post-war period, a new type of Canadian record company emerged. A lot of small, independent labels had sprung up in the U.S. They produced many hits that were heard on radio here, but these labels did not have a distribution network here, so large Canadian companies like Quality and Reo and smaller ones like Barrel and Zirkon made arrangements with as many U.S. labels as they could for Canadian distribution rights.

It was a great business model but not very creative. These companies hardly ever recorded or released Canadian material. Talented Canadian artists still had to go south to make a career. Canadian records from this period are collected mostly by Canadians and mostly for nostalgic reasons; these are the labels they remember as kids. Most U.S. collectors dismiss them as cheap knock-offs, however Europeans take a different view. They consider them original American issues on a different label, so there is a market for them outside Canada.

I think these records, for better or worse, reflect the Canadian psyche of the time. These companies followed a safe, predictable plan.

They simply manufactured and distributed product, letting others take all the risks. However, besides the label design, there is a distinct difference between a Canadian and U.S. pressing of the same recording.

One difference is the physical material. In the highly competitive

U.S. market, companies often melted down unsold records to re-use the vinyl, which adversely affected the playing surface. Canadian companies only used virgin vinyl, no lumps.

Later, many U.S. companies abandoned vinyl altogether and went for a cheaper plastic called styrene. Styrene had a harder surface and sounded great for the first few plays but wore out very quickly. No Canadian company ever used styrene.

Finally, there was the sound. U.S. companies liked to push the volume and boost the bass and treble to give the record a "hot" sound. That also caused a lot of distortion.

Canadian companies kept everything within limits; the records didn't "jump off the turntable" quite as much, but to discerning ears, the sound quality is better and many collectors, even in the U.S., collect them for that reason alone.

So, just like Canadian banks in the great recession of 2009, Canadian records from the 1960s are valued for not taking too many risks.

Quality Records did take one risk by recording an unknown band from Winnipeg

called Chad Allen and The Expressions. Even then, they didn't think a Canadian band would sell so when they distributed the promo copies to radio stations, they put a big question mark on the label with the words Guess Who? hoping programmers would think it was The Beatles.

That first Guess Who record,Shakin' All Over,is now worth a fortune and for many people it marks the beginning of the Canadian music industry.

For a lot of reasons, the pop music business exploded all over the world in the late 1960s, but probably more so in Canada. Recording studios sprung up like dandelions in spring; all of a sudden we had hundreds, even thousands of artists making music here and on the international stage.

Orillia played a big part in that explosion. Besides giving the world Gordon Lightfoot, there was Danny Harrison, lead singer of the Count Victors who had many hits in the early 1960s.

The Pav dance hall at Couchiching Beach Park played host to almost every Canadian rock band of the era, including the Guess Who. Local favourite Bobby (Blue) Branch made a fine record on his own label. It was a crazy time for Canadian music.

Demographics played a big part. Baby boomers were coming of age and those same boomers are behind the thriving collectors' market for Canadian records made in the late '60s and early '70s. Quite frankly, a lot of them are pretty bad, but that doesn't matter. They were made here by Canadians; it's our sound.

Today, Canadian music stars have a disproportionately high presence internationally. What's more, musicians can, if they chose, have a good career living and working only in Canada. We also have musicians coming from all over the world to live here, giving us a thriving "world music" scene. Name just about any style of music and you'll find first-class Canadian musicians performing and recording it right here.

If you doubt that, just check out CBC Radio 2 (90.7 FM in Orillia). Despite all the criticism, they do showcase a lot of Canadian popular music, and it's pretty darn good.

Makes me think we should have a Canadian Music Festival here in Orillia with all kinds of music from classical to native drumming, pan pipes to hip-hop. Make it a true festival, with a free stage in the park and paid admission shows all over town.

Let's face it, every city has a jazz and blues festival, but a celebration of Canadian music would be unique and this is the place to have it: at Couchiching Park in the empty lot across from the water treatment plant where the Pav used to be.

Lorne VanSinclair is organizer of the Toronto Musical Collectables Show & Sale, Canada's largest record collectors' event. Email him at or follow "record_shows" on Twitter


This Date In Music History-January 9


Joan Baez (1941)

Kenneth Kelley - Manhattans (1943)

Dick Yount - Harper's Bizarre (1943)

Jimmy Page - Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin (1944)

Scott Engel - Walker Brothers (1944)

David Johansen - New York Dolls (1950)

Crystal Gayle (1951)

Kenny McLean - Platinum Blonde (1959)

Eric Erlandson - Hole (1963)

Dave Matthews - Dave Matthews Band (1967)

Steve Harwell - Smash Mouth (1967)

Carl Bell - Fuel (1967)

A.J McLean - Backstreet Boys (1978)

They Are Missed:

Born on this day in 1929, Bill Cowsill of the Cowsills - TV's Partridge Family was based on the Cowsills family (died February 17, 2006).

Irish singer, songwriter David McWilliams died of a heart attack at his home in Ballycastle, County Antrim in 2002 (age 56). Released over 10 solo albums.

In 2009, Dave Dee died at the age of 65, following a three-year battle with cancer. The UK singer had eight top 10 hits, with Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich including a UK number one single in 1968 with "The Legend of Xanadu," in which Dee famously cracked a whip. The singer, whose real name was David Harman, was originally a police officer and as a police cadet was called to the scene of the car crash that killed Eddie Cochrane during a UK tour in 1960.


In 1941, Muddy Waters first recordings were made by Alan Lomax and John Works for the Library of Congress. "Country Blues," "I Be's Troubled," and Burr Clover's "Farm Blues" were his first recordings.

Dion & The Belmonts performed "A Teenager In Love" on American Bandstand in 1959.

In 1960, Eddie Cochran arrived in England to begin a tour (he will die there in an April 17 car crash).

Bert Kaempfert started a three week run at #1 on the US singles chart in 1961 with "Wonderland By Night." Kaempfert produced The Beatles first recording session when they were in Hamburg.

Bob Newhart went to #1 on the US album chart in 1961 with 'The Button Down Mind Strikes Back!'

In 1963, drummer Charlie Watts joined the Rolling Stones after leaving Blues Incorporated.

The Beatles started a nine-week run at #1 on the US album chart in 1965 with "Beatles 65," the group's fourth #1 album.

In 1973, Mick Jagger was refused a Japanese visa on account of a 1969 drug bust, halting the Stones' plans to tour the Orient. Asked by a reporter about his personal drug use, Jagger replied, "I don't take drugs. I don't approve of drugs and I don't approve of people taking drugs, unless they're very careful."

C.W. McCall's recording of "Convoy" reached the top of the country music charts in 1976. It's success leads to a long string of CB radio-related novelty records during the next year and a half.

The music for UNICEF concert took place in New York City in 1979 featuring Rod Stewart, The Bee Gees, Earth Wind and Fire, Abba and Donna Summer.

In 1981, Terry Hall and Jerry Dammers from The Specials were both fined $680 after being found guilty of using threatening words during a gig in Cambridge, England.

Singer Frank Sinatra was paid one-million dollars for a single performance to help launch a new resort on Australia's Gold Coast in 1988. It was Sinatra's first performance in the country in 14 years. He had been banned by Australian unions in 1974 after calling female reporters "hookers" and male reporters "drunks."

In 1988, Whitney Houston scored her sixth consecutive #1 in the US with "So Emotional."

In 1997, David Bowie performed his 50th Birthday Bash concert (the day after his birthday) at Madison Square Garden, New York with guests Frank Black, Sonic Youth, Robert Smith of The Cure, The Foo Fighters, Lou Reed, and Billy Corgan and Placebo. All proceeds from the concert went to the Save The Children fund.

DMX were at #1 on the US album chart in 2000 with ‘...And Then There Was X.’

Winners at the 28th annual American Music Awards in 2001; Favourite Album, Creed, 'Human Clay', Male Artist, Kid Rock, Favourite Female Artist, Faith Hill, Favourite Group, Backstreet Boys, Favourite New Artist, 3 Doors Down.

A grand piano once owned by Elvis Presley was sold for $685,000 in 2003. Music producer Robert Johnson and partner Larry Moss sold the piano to the chairman of the Blue Moon Group, Michael Muzio who was planning to take the piano on a casino-sponsored promotional tour. He was then planning for the piano to be shown at the proposed rock museum at Walt Disney World.

Britain's Royal Mail issues a series of Beatles postage stamps in 2007.

Bon Jovi and Nickelback are winners at the 33rd annual People's Choice Awards in Los Angeles in 2007. The Favorite Rock Song is Bon Jovi's "Who Says You Can't Go Home," while Nickelback takes home the Favorite Group trophy.