The Great White North

In late 1959, the Second City Theatre opened in Chicago (a city in the United States), showcasing improvisational comedy. A Second City theatre was opened in Toronto in 1973. Three years later, the Toronto troupe, which consisted of John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Harold Ramis, and Dave Thomas, began a television show called SCTV (Second City Television). The basic premise of the show was that SCTV was an independent television station in the fictional city of Melonville. SCTV created its own funny commercials, soaps, game shows, news reports, and movie shorts, many of which were parodies of real shows. They created their own characters but also did impersonations of famous actors.

SCTV ran until 1984 and served as the primary launching pad for some of the most famous Canadian comedic actors. Tony Rosato, Robin Duke, Rick Moranis, and Martin Short joined the show in later seasons.

In order to promote Canadian arts and culture and protect Canadian programming from American cultural imperialism, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) requested that SCTV have more identifiable Canadian content. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas (the real-life brother of rock star Ian Thomas) responded to the request disdainfully by creating the ultimate stereotypes of Canadian characters: two dim-witted, toque-wearing, beer-chugging brothers named Bob & Doug McKenzie who ended every sentence with eh. A two-minute sketch was created called The Great White North featuring the brothers. Ironically, this throwaway unscripted filler became in the words of late-night host David Letterman “the runaway hit of decade”.

The McKenzie Brothers were featured in ads, made cameo appearances, and starred in a feature film called Strange Brew. A comedy album was released in 1981—The Great White North. The album spawned two hit singles: “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and “Take Off”, the latter featuring Rush vocalist Geddy Lee. The Great White North entered the RPM charts at #3 on December 12th 1981 and hit #1 the following week where it remained until January 23rd, 1982. It was certified triple Platinum in Canada and sold a million copies in North America.

Transcription of the lead up conversation to the song “Take Off”:

Bob: Okay, be real nice to him, eh.
Doug: Okay, eh.
Bob: Okay. This is, uh, the hit single section of our alb’m.
Doug: Good day.
Bob: Good day. Uh, Geddy Lee is here from Rush. Hi, Geddy. I’m Bob McKenzie; this is my brother Doug.
Doug: How’s it goin’, Geddy?
Geddy: Oh, it’s goin’ pretty good. Good day, eh.
Bob & Doug: Good day.
Bob: Uh, thanks for comin’ down to do our hit.
Geddy: Well, it’s my pleasure, eh.
Bob: D-did our lawyer call ya?
Geddy: Ya, I’m a – yuh know – ten bucks is ten bucks.
Bob: Uh, we were, uh, I hope you don’t mind but there’s a photographer that’s gonna be takin’ pictures of us together to prove that you were here doin’, uh, the record.
Doug: Yeah, in case people don’t believe us—
Geddy: How come he’s not wearin’ a toque?
Doug: Oh, he’s not from The Great White North, eh.
Bob: Okay, so if you’d like to, uh, put on, uh, a toque and some headphones, we can, uh, do the hit single now.
Geddy: Sure. I—that’d be great.
Bob: Do you have the lyrics sheet?
Geddy: Oh ya. I memorized them.
Bob: Oh, great! Beauty!
Doug: How did, how did you do that so fast?
Geddy: I’m a professional, eh.
Bob & Doug: [Snickering]


New Wave and Electronic Rock (1980-84)

In the early 80s, dance music became less popular in the English-speaking world. It was to be reborn several years later. Punk rock whose appeal was confined for the most part to the United Kingdom morphed into new wave. The synthesizer, Bob Moog’s 1963 invention, had made appearances in rock throughout the 70s, but a number of British artists began experimenting with using the synthesizer as the lead and sometimes only instrument. This new electronic rock helped spawn a second British Invasion. Arguably, with acts like Images in Vogue, Strange Advance, Rational Youth, Blue Peter, Moev, The Spoons, and Rough Trade, Canada was more keen on developing synthesizer-driven pop than the United States. The most popular new wave act was perhaps Vancouver-based The Payola$.

With the new styles in music, radio was friendlier to some artists than to others. The so-called underground music scene became exceptionally popular as did college radio which picked up the slack. In order to help promote and recognize more experimental music, the CASBY awards were established in 1981 to honour excellence in independent or “alternative” music and artists.

Guitar-oriented new wave group Corbeau was somewhat successful in Québec. When it disbanded in 1984, female singer Marjo embarked on a solo career. Québec never grew tired of dance music. With the new interest in synthesizers, electronics were added to the genre care of acts like Trans X and the hugely successful Men Without Hats. English Canada experimented with dancier new wave and came up with male/female combo outfits like The Parachute Club and Martha and the Muffins, which later became known as M+M.

After new wave, the second most popular genre in the early 80s, which did not receive as much radio airplay, was heavy metal. A few artists in Canada dabbled in this, like Helix, Toronto, and Chilliwack spin-off The Headpins, and some combined electronics with hard rock, like Aldo Nova and supergroup Loverboy.

Curiously, a backlash against this new-fangled music emerged in parallel. A number of groups performing more traditional blues rose to prominence, the most notable of which were The Powder Blues Band, Doug and the Slugs, and a cappella group The Nylons. Medicine Hat (Alberta) risqué country band Showdown debuted in 1980 and Montréal fusion-jazz outfit UZEB in 1981. Scottish import Eric Robertson, a composer, pianist and organist scored a multi-platinum album entitled Magic Melodies.

A number of acts did not deviate from straight-forward pop: The Kings, Teenage Head, Straight Lines, Sheriff, and Red Rider (whom we’ll feature later in conjunction with front man Tom Cochrane’s solo career). But it was primarily the solo artists who performed mainstream pop and a few of them were to become the biggest names in Canadian music history.

Diane Tell (who also performed with aforementioned UZEB), Véronique Béliveau, and Martine Saint-Clair made headways in French Canada. René‘s little sister Nathalie Simard became a child star in the early 80s. In 1983, Céline Dion emerged and blew everyone in the province away. We’ll talk about her later when she achieved international superstardom.

In English Canada, debuts from women were notably absent during this period. For the men, however, it was a very different story. From Montréal, an English singer who liked to wear sunglasses at night released a sleeper hit album in 1983. No one knew just how popular he was to become by the middle of the decade. His name was Corey Hart. An ex-Sweeney Todd Vancouverite singer got some attention with his “Let Me Take You Dancing” in 1979. But, frustrated with his lack of big success, he teamed up with songwriter Jim Vallance, changed his singing style from smooth to gravelly, and released Cuts Like a Knife in early 1983. For Bryan Adams all hell broke loose, and he captivated the nation eventually becoming the most successful Canadian artist of all-time. The biggest male name in French songs was perhaps Manitoba-born Daniel Lavoie. Although he started out in the 70s, his popularity skyrocketed in the early 80s, and he garnered a few Félix Awards. In 1998, he teamed up with two other singers and released the third best-selling single of all time in France.

The best-selling albums during the period were those from Anne Murray, Loverboy, Ginette Reno, and the aforementioned Eric Robertson. Another big-seller was the novelty comedy record Bob & Doug McKenzie‘s Great White North responsible for a couple of hit songs, including the Geddy Lee (Rush) led “Take Off”.

It is also worth noting that, outside of Québec, which had a very productive year, significant Canadian music was practically non-existent in 1984. Sherry Kean scored a Top 20 hit with “I Want You Back” and Italy-born Zappacosta became known in some circles with his debut release. But no Canadian song made the weekly Top 10 in the RPM charts throughout the entire year. Furthermore, no Canadian song made the year-end CHUM chart, and the Juno Awards were delayed. What happened in 1985, however, was to more than make up for it.

With the ever-increasing popularity of music videos, Canada launched a national channel called MuchMusic at the end of August in 1984. Although criticized for focussing too much on music from and that appealed to Torontonians (where the station was based), and showcasing too much American-style black and Spanish music, it enabled a number of Canadian artists to gain exposure and make breakthroughs. Two years later, a French language version was aired called MusiquePlus.

MuchMusic was also criticized for airing too many movies, game and reality shows when most people tuned in to see the MVs. The channel responded to all the criticism by launching MuchMoreMusic in 1998 which played more MVs and music that appealed more to adult Canadians.

Eventually, MuchMusic replaced CBC’s Good Rockin’ Tonite which was broadcast from Vancouver.

Coming up, we’ll provide a list of significant Canadian songs in the early 80s, followed by a special feature on Bob & Doug McKenzie’s The Great White North album, and then mini-profiles on semi-major acts Martha and the Muffins, The Parachute Club, Martine St-Clair, and Toronto, and finally individual profiles on major artists Men Without Hats, The Payola$, Loverboy, Diane Tell, Véronique Béliveau, Corey Hart, Daniel Lavoie, and Bryan Adams.