Thursday, September 03, 2009

Nicholas Jennings

Canadians are not good at mythmaking, and it can be argued that we suffer from an abnormally high cultural amnesia. It’s always been hard enough for Canadian culture to jostle for position next to American and British imports, and now we have greater access to even more art from around the world.

So who wants to watch a movie about Harmonium, the Dishrags, Handsome Ned and Dalbello?

Veteran music journalist Nicholas Jennings steps up to the plate with two new TV documentaries about decades in Canadian music that link tales of mainstream legends and underground icons; the second part of his look at the ’70s, The Beat Goes On, airs tonight on CBC; his look at the ’80s, Rise Up, airs in two parts on September 10 and 17. Both films will repeat on Newsworld.

These films are sequels to his first collaboration with director Gary McGroarty, Shakin’ All Over, which itself was a companion to Jennings’ 1997 book Before the Gold Rush. Their style is egalitarian: every artist gets approximately five minutes of screen time, which is a bit scattershot, but crucial to covering maximum ground in the time allotted. It’s to their credit that the films feel both comprehensive and yet leaving the viewer insatiable for more—even the most colonized cultural naysayer will be caught off guard by the wealth of material to work with. They unearth a treasure trove of footage that many fans would have no idea even existed, along with clips of Juno performances and a wealth of new interviews.

I’ve long admired Jennings’ work; I grew up reading him in Maclean’s, we both wrote for Eye Weekly, and Before the Gold Rush was an inspiration for Have Not Been the Same. Yet this was our first conversation, spanning four decades of Canadian musical history in less than hour. Needless to say, it’s entirely geeky.

Nicholas Jennings
September 2, 2009
Locale: phone interview from his Toronto home

Unlike Shakin’ All Over, this was not preceded by a book. Is that due to the success of Shakin’ All Over?

Yes. It took CBC by surprise. It got very positive reviews in mainstream and alternative media. It got very good ratings—almost unheard of for a music documentary. Because we’re independent producers, we didn’t have the benefit of any in-house CBC publicity. Between the two airings of the film—on the main network and on Newsworld—it got close to a million viewers. The CBC couldn’t believe it; those are rare numbers these days. When we asked if they would like a sequel, they leapt at it. We shot both the ’70s and ’80s films simultaneously. Before I could even think about companion books, we were off and running and deep into production.

There’s an obvious thesis to each of these films. How would you define the thesis of Before the Gold Rush?

It was about the birth of Canadian songwriting. Ian and Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds” was the point when songwriting took root and blossomed in Canada. That song was cited by so many musicians as being a watershed—and not just in Canada, because they were international stars—and that song is often referred to as Canada’s unofficial national anthem. Canadian musicians thought it was a new approach, a new yardstick to measure how we measure our own music, that you can write about this country and you don’t just have to cover traditional folk songs. In all my research for the book, I found that contemporaries of Ian and Sylvia took great inspiration from their success and that song in particular. I used that as the starting point, and then followed the trajectory from there.

The Beat Goes On is about the birth of the industry in the ’70s, and Rise Up is about video’s influence in the ’80s.

Yes, and the birth of the star system. Through music television, we had these recognizable pop stars. It’s timely that Rise Up is airing on CBC so close to the anniversary of MuchMusic.

Ssshhhh—you mean there’s an anniversary?

(laughs) Exactly, is there? One wouldn’t know! You would think it would be marked and celebrated.

It’s very conscious: in interviews with MuchMusic executives I’ve seen in the past week, they’re avoiding the entire topic.

Because they have to. If they were to celebrate what they were, it would underscore what they’ve become, which is a pale form of themselves. It was a huge launching pad at one point for Canadian music—and now you’d be hard pressed to see any music on it.

They would say that people don’t watch music videos on television anymore, that people can see any video they want any time on the Internet. Why would they wait through five videos to see one they want to see? But I would argue that although the media context has certainly changed, if MuchMusic actually made exciting television, people would be excited about it.

The best music show on Canadian television right now—which admittedly skews to my personal taste—is Elvis Costello’s Spectacle; that to me is what MuchMusic could be doing. Intelligent interviews with live performance, or retrospectives—which they used to do—on artists. It could be stepping up to find a way—like the rest of us have to do—to stay relevant with the Internet.

Speaking of new ages, you are two generations older than me, and right now we are both talking about a target audience that is two generations younger than me.

I do have the benefit of having two sons: one is 19 and one is 23.

I have a stepdaughter who is 14.

Okay, so you have the benefit, as I do, of seeing the media and the world a little bit through their eyes. I know that their viewing habits are a lot different than mine were. But I know that they and their friends are huge music fans, of all different genres and eras.

My stepdaughter listens to the radio, finds new bands she likes, and then watches stuff online. So oddly enough, she’s gone back to the radio and skipped video television altogether.

Music television in the ’80s played the role that FM radio had in the ’70s but had lost the plot. MuchMusic could be staying relevant if it was trying to stay ahead of the rapidly changing environment.

But every marketing guru will tell you that it’s all niche audiences these days: find your niche and target only that niche. MuchMusic in the ’80s was a common ground, a meeting place. It was Voivod and the Rankin Family and Michie Mee. As a teenager watching it, even if you didn’t like some of those artists, you would at least be aware of them and have a reaction to it—and maybe come around to those genres of music eventually. They would all be a part of the common parlance.

I think that’s so much healthier, to be exposed to a wide array of subject matter and be better positioned to make critical choices. I do think that MuchMusic lost a visionary when John Martin passed away.

You dedicate Rise Up to him.

Yes. He came to Canada from England where he had been involved in music television. When he joined CITY-TV, he convinced Moses Znaimer that music was something they weren’t covering, and he got The New Music on the air in 1978. That was five or six years before MuchMusic launched. That really paved the way for MuchMusic.

Martin had left Much before his death, didn’t he?

Yes, and he went into television production himself. He did a couple of documentaries, one on Lenny Breau and another on either Hank Snow or Wilf Carter, I can’t recall. Maybe MuchMusic was losing its course before he left, but it really went off the rails after he left.

Speaking of common grounds, it’s extremely telling in your films that Matt Minglewood and the Pointed Sticks get the same amount of airtime as Rush or Corey Hart.

We may be castigated for that.

But there’s no other way to do this, really. If you want to see a Rush documentary, go see it.

It’s the same format as Shakin’ All Over, where the Ugly Ducklings got the same treatment as Neil Young. Hopefully these documentaries will give audiences the full sweep, and if any of these artists tickle anyone’s fancy, they can go off and look into them deeper. Which is how music is best discovered anyway: you stumble onto a sound or an artist and you start exploring that work and it leads you down other roads. We tried to cover as many people as possible. There will always be those who say, “Yeah, but you left out so-and-so…”

I’m very familiar with that sentiment.

I’m sure you are. To which I say is, if you want an encyclopaedia, go out and get one.

That was my response.

This isn’t about being completist; it’s about being representative and as inclusive as possible, giving a full picture of the range of music this country has produced.

I’m really torn on one technique in the film, which is using quotes from modern artists as a chorus of validation and affirmation. Perhaps it’s my own taste: if it’s an artist I love talking about the first band they ever saw, then that’s great. But there are a lot of people in the film who I don’t feel have reached an artistic pedigree of their own, so I’m less interested in their opinion. Or, often, I think they’re not saying anything of value at all, other than “Yes, great band.”

It’s true. We tried as much as we could to get the younger artists to be expansive and to tell us a story. Someone would say, “I wouldn’t have picked up a guitar if it wasn’t for so-and-so.” And we’d say, “Tell us more!” And sometimes they couldn’t deliver. In other cases, where we used a short “I love that song” or whatever it was because we needed one more note from anyone to set up a song or artist. And sometimes it wasn’t the best note, just a simple one. Just to get a chorus of voices wherever possible helped to establish that. I agree with you that all the artists may not be to everyone’s taste, and some people will find them irritating.

I wanted to throw my glass at the screen a couple of times.

Sure. Gary and I wanted to make links and show connections. This isn’t museum stuff behind a glass case. This is art and culture, something that is constantly evolving and influential now as then. We wanted to show that a lot of great Canadian music is still viable across eras and genres.

It’s also a testament to the broad cultural meeting ground that there was during those decades, to hear Maestro talk about Burton Cummings. It’s one thing for him to sample “These Eyes,” which is so iconic and unavoidable, but it’s something else to hear him go to bat for “Stand Tall.”

And he also stands tall for Gowan’s “A Criminal Mind.”

This is the guy who sampled Haywire, so it shouldn’t be that surprising.

What I like about that is that it shows how broad Maestro’s listening was growing up. And you also have Brendan Canning talking about how he can recite all the words to “Let Your Backbone Slide.” What blew my mind was Mitsou talking about how proud she was of Rush; I didn’t think that would even be in her universe. Those kinds of connections are the ones we wanted to make.

Watching a lot of this footage—which I not only hadn’t seen before, but which I often didn’t even assume existed—there is a lot of Juno performances, including wonderfully weird things like Dalbello with Platinum Blonde, or Rough Trade with a drag queen on stage.

If these docs steer people down alleys they’ve never been down before, maybe it will steer other documentary filmmakers to expand on parts of this. We found all sorts of amazing stuff: a Teenage Head performance from a Montreal cable company, and my favourite is the Mainline bump’n’grind revue and burlesque at the Victory Theatre that TVO recorded. The Pointed Sticks performance is from a now out-of-print cult movie that Dennis Hopper made in Vancouver. We had to go the extra mile sometimes to get the masters and license them. But Gary and I were convinced that the success of these two shows would be from following the same approach as Shakin’ All Over: a mix of mainstream hits and cult classics, or lesser-known but equally important songs, and to surprise people with footage they hadn’t seen or had forgotten.

I’m curious about the Quebecois component in the ’70s, which is primarily prog rock artists.

Which is what Quebec was producing in those days, other than disco.

They still do. I think a lot of people don’t realize how big those acts were across Canada. Do you think their success had more to do with prog rock itself? This was not pop music, with a focus on the lyrics. People drawn to prog rock are listening more for instrumental dexterity or complexity.

It had a lot to do with the taste of the times, but also FM radio. Harmonium was being played on FM radio from coast to coast, and they were able to tour. They had a following in Vancouver—and how unusual is that today, for a francophone band to play concert halls on the West Coast? Same with Cano, from northern Ontario. Beau Dommage was very successful, but they didn’t have the ability to tour outside of Quebec. Their success was largely because they were embraced so heavily by Montreal.

Only in the last three years has any francophone music registered in English Canada at all, starting with Malajube—and that’s a very modest success at best. And in the last six months there has been Coeur de Pirate. But that’s a 30-year gap.

I don’t want to sound schoolteacher-ish, but Gary and I wanted to remind people what had come before, and how a francophone group could find a following among English audiences. It’s important for music fans, but also sociologists and young musicians.

Even more shocking—could something like Kashtin happen today? Or would it actually be more likely, with increasing acceptance of non-English-speaking music?

Gary and I have every intention of making sequels to these two. You covered the ’90s so well in Have Not Been the Same, so you know this, but the ’90s was a period when so-called world music had quite a presence in Canada. You had artists coming up from African, Asian and Caribbean backgrounds who were getting a lot of mainstream attention.

Really? I don’t see that at all. Not on a mainstream level. On a live music level, those acts were starting to fill clubs and were big on the festival circuit, but I can’t think of any recordings that made an impact or any acts that graduated from clubs.

But they were definitely breaking out from their communities. I followed a lot of African music in the ’90s, and the Afronubians from Toronto were booked on several cross-Canada tours where they were playing cities, small towns, festivals in the Yukon—all over the place. Personally, I find that really fascinating that this new aspect of Canadian music evolved in the ’90s. It wasn’t just about the new alternative bands or the big divas that dominated the pop charts. It was also about artists like Lhasa or Punjabi by Nature—weird and wonderful stuff that you weren’t hearing previously in Canadian music.

The ’90s was definitely when Canadian music diversified, whereas in the ’80s even hip-hop was just a niche. There is a significant focus in both films on Jamaican music…

I wish there was more.

Why do you think other cultures didn’t have as much of an influence on the Canadian mainstream during that time? Or did they?

The Jamaican influence is significant. In one instance, Leroy Sibbles played a role in Bruce Cockburn’s biggest hit. That had a lot to do with how reggae music in Toronto in the late ’70s and through the ’80s—it was an uptown phenomenon, focused on the Jamaican community in Malton and in the Oakwood/Eglinton area. Then thanks to clubs like the Bamboo and the Horseshoe and people like The Garys started featuring bands that previously were only playing out by the airport or in Jamaican clubs on Eglinton. That’s a huge shift. It meant that an artist like Leroy Sibbles was playing regularly at a popular club like the Bamboo, where Bruce Cockburn stumbles in one night, loves this music, meets Sibbles and gets him to sing on one of his records, and then Leroy lends him his rhythm section which leads to “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” Another story we didn’t get to touch on was how a reggae artist like Mojah met Handsome Ned on Queen Street and together they started making this kind of cowboy reggae music that had to be heard to be believed. All that cross-cultural merging of sounds and influences is fascinating.

The thesis of The Beat Goes On focuses on CanCon and how it developed the industry. Almost 40 years later, CanCon is still a contentious issue, and there’s often talk about either upping it or revising it. There’s still a dismissive attitude toward the “Beaver Bin” full of Canadian CDs tossed aside. I remember when I started listening to the radio around 1982, 1983, that after 10 p.m. that 1050 CHUM would play tonnes of Canadian music—Rough Trade, Blue Peter, Martha and the Muffins—that I loved. I don’t know if that still happens today, but what does happen is the ad nauseum repetition of popular Canadian artists on the playlist: Nickleback is the new Guess Who, and I’m sure CanCon is part of the reason for not necessarily their success, but certainly their ubiquity. And there are still ongoing questions about CanCon’s efficacy in breaking new artists.

This all stems from the age-old and dreaded inferiority complex that Canadians had—or have. I’d hoped it had gone.

Never underestimate it.

The effect of that inferiority complex at radio meant that there was a prejudice against Canadian music: if it’s from here, it can’t be any good. Thus the Beaver Bin. Radio had failed at supporting Canadian music; there’s a good reason why the CanCon law came into effect. Radio wasn’t playing indigenous music. It simply wasn’t. The programmers can cry all they want about regulation—and they did…

And they do.

But why was that quota imposed? Because musicians and record company people went to Ottawa and complained that they weren’t getting a fair hearing on radio. I have transcripts of the CRTC hearings, and it’s phenomenal to read them and hear both sides. You hear the radio broadcasters arguing that it’s unrealistic, that there isn’t enough good quality music from Canada to warrant the quota, that this is socialism. All sorts of outrageous things. On the other side, artists like Skip Prokop of Lighthouse speaking passionately about Canadian musicians deserving to make a living in their own country. The back story was that there was a whole generation of artists who had to leave Canada to have a career.

But let me be Bryan Adams for a minute, and argue that many of the subsequent CanCon-supported artists didn’t leave Canada at all, and were trapped by domestic success. And the people who remain huge Canadian legends today—Neil, Joni, Leonard, Gord, The Band, The Guess Who—were established before CanCon was ever enacted. They didn’t need CanCon to become the legends they are. Fast forward 40 years, and Feist or Arcade Fire or other international successes owe nothing to CanCon, because once again they broke internationally first and Canadian radio was left playing catch-up.

I would say that CanCon has built the industry that produced them. CanCon didn’t succeed just in getting artists on radio: it got recording studios built, it gave rise to record labels, it created an infrastructure and a business environment that hadn’t existed before. For the first time, in the ’70s you had people who could step into management or agent roles that were so essential to build careers. It’s so easy to say, after someone is an established star, to say: “I don’t need CanCon; radio will play my music anyway.” But there are so many artists in this country who have benefitted from CanCon. The whole industry would not have been able to support the artists that have come up in the decades since.

I don’t disagree with you, but I would say that many CanCon champions dig their own grave by citing examples like Arcade Fire or Feist as CanCon success stories, seemingly only by virtue of citizenship, not any kind of embrace from radio.

What has to be remembered is that the landscape has changed dramatically. In the late ’90s and certainly in this decade, the rules have changed. Artists careers are established and built in very different ways than they were in the ’70s and ’80s.

It’s very interesting to read Stuart Berman’s Broken Social Scene book, especially the first couple of chapters, and recognizing the very same “urge for going” that exists in the early chapters of Before the Gold Rush. People felt like the Canadian industry had collapsed in the late ’90s, nothing of any good was going to supported, major labels were bled of any relevance, and when you have nothing to lose then everything gets exciting again. And even looking at the ’90s mainstream, I see it now as largely desolate, with the exception of a handful of artists.

I think I agree with you. It’s all about the independent scene in the ’90s. The old infrastructure that came up as a result of CanCon, ceased to be as significant and instrumental in artists’ careers as it had been. But getting back to your question—do we still need CanCon?—I don’t see it hurting. It’s not as if radio will say they have trouble filling the quota anymore. (laughs) Canada is not the only country in the world that felt the need to put in a cultural quota like this. It’s common in Europe, in Australia—it came about for a good reason. Given Canada’s position—geographically, politically and culturally—CanCon serves a very useful, supportive role for Canadian music.

And it’s unfortunate that it’s necessary.

It would be nice if it wasn’t. But it is. There are people who say it should be 50 percent, and I’ll let others argue the merits and demerits of that.

I don’t agree with that idea at all.

Thirty percent seems a comfortable amount of music to fill.

I got great insight into cultural insecurity when I read Peter Guralnick’s Elvis biographies. He tells the story of Memphis radio stations refusing to play early Elvis records because they figured if he was a local artist, he couldn’t be very good.

There you go! Canada has that problem in spades. Ronnie Hawkins famously said that Canadians have to work 10 times as hard as anyone else, because we’re one-tenth of the American population. All of that is still true. As healthy as I believe Canadian music is in 2009, having that support is justified.

These films bring a lot of great stuff to light: stuff that’s almost forgotten, has been forgotten, and maybe in some cases should be forgotten but still deserves a historical place.

Nostalgia is one thing. I don’t deny that these shows have nostalgic value, and people tell me that these films send them rushing back to their record collections. Not to sound too grandiose, but it serves to remind people that this little country—and it is a little country, comparatively—has produced an astonishing amount of music over successive decades. That’s something worth remembering or rediscovering—or discovering. It wasn’t just a handful of Top 10 superstars; it was a wide-ranging and diverse pantheon from every corner of the country.


1 comment:

Dacks said...

Great interview Michael. Is this going to make it into print anywhere?