People often lump all ten years of the 80s together when talking about music. But the late 80s was very different from the early 80s. While the United States was celebrating Madonna’s fusing of new wave and disco in the birth of modern dance music, Canadians, despite an occasional dabble, were moving away from new wave into bare bones rock, perhaps encouraged by Bryan Adams’ success. Things took a sudden sharp turn backwards in 1989 with a veering away from progressive music to more traditional blues, rock, folk, and country. Suddenly, to be “unplugged” with sqeaky acoustic guitars was fashionable, an unexpected move celebrated by some and lamented by others.
The late 80s saw the first (as far as we can remember) French song played on English radio stations, the rise of the first female Canadian rock star, which changed the musical landscape up to the present day, the first French-language Canadian album to be certified Diamond in France (and, no, it wasn’t one of Celine Dion’s!), and one of the most successful Canadian singers of all-time internationally, who remains unknown to most Canadians.
Although the biggest Canadian song of the year was a cover tune (Corey Hart’s rendition of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love”), the year was the second most important of the decade (after 1985) for Canadian music, as twelve domestic ditties made the year-end Top 100 chart. Besides artists we’ve already profiled, there was Winnipegger Joey Gregorash, who had scored some hits back in the early 70s, his biggest being “Jodie”, a #3 hit in 1971. After years of inactivity, he suddenly surfaced again with “Together (The New Wedding Song)”, the second biggest Canadian song of the year. The most important newcomer in 1987 was a country-pop band from Toronto called Blue Rodeo. Their “Try” was the third most popular Canadian song of the year and won the Juno for Song of the Year. Blue Rodeo won the Juno for Best Group of the Year three years in a row.
Newcomers with significant hits that did not quite make the year-end chart included Ottawa’s one-hit wonder band Eight Seconds (“Kiss You When It’s Dangerous”). Sheriff (“When I’m with You”) members had split in half and formed two spin-off groups. The first, Frozen Ghost, came out with hits “Should I See” and “Round and Round”. The second was Alias which scored a megahit in 1990. (Glen) Johansen had played keyboards for Ronnie Hawkins after which he worked as a producer (M+M, FM) especially for reggae acts like Guyana’s Eddy Grant. He enjoyed his own hit single this year: “Walkin’ a Fine Line”. Saskatoon’s The Northern Pikes had their first Top 30 hit this year (“Teenland”). We’ll talk a bit more about them in the early 90s when they saw their biggest success. One of the most popular club bands in Toronto, The Jitters, managed a hit (“Last of the Red Hot Fools”). Another Toronto outfit, the twin DiBlasi sisters, as Tu, made the Top 20 with “Stay with Me”.
She never scored a Top 40 hit … on the pop charts, but Cape Bretoner Rita MacNeil‘s hits on the country and adult contemporary charts enabled five of her albums in row to achieve multi-platinum sales. 1987’s Flying On Your Own was the first to do so. In Quebec, Celine Dion had become a force to be reckoned with; her “Incognito” won the Felix for Song of the Year. Brother and sister René and Nathalie Simard‘s beautiful “Tourne la page” was popular as well.
A treat, especially for those who grew up in the 60s, appeared “somewhere down the crazy river”. The Band’s Robbie Robertson came out with a solo album with contributions from Canadian producer Daniel Lanois, U2, and Peter Gabriel. Robertson won the Juno for Male Artist of the Year. The album, certified 2x Platinum, won the Juno for Album of the Year. Robertson was the principal songwriter for The Band and is ranked as one of the 100 best guitarists of all-time by Rolling Stone magazine.
The next two years are difficult to summarize because RPM weekly charts from October 1988 to May 1989 are missing, and there is no year-end chart for 1988. No songs from Canadian artists appear to have made Billboard’s year-end Top 100 singles chart. We do know that at the end of the year, Tom Cochrane and Red Rider released the album Victory Day finally seeing their big breakthrough: two Top 5 hit singles. It was a long time coming but they finally hit their stride with a driving rock sound. “Big Leauge” was about the death of a promising Canadian ice hockey player and gives the message that exporting Canadian talent to foreign lands is ultimately unsatisfying. New Order-sounding Kon Kan had a big international hit at this time as well: “I Beg Your Pardon”. Punky National Velvet dazzled with “Flesh Under Skin”.
Prior to mid-October…
Regina’s Colin James made a name for himself with “Voodoo Thing” becoming more successful in the 90s with a few Juno Awards. Andrew Cash, before a politician, had a hit single called “Smile Me Down”. A couple of Calgarians teamed up with a Seattle vocalist and recorded two albums in Vancouver with the assistance of Bob Rock and Mike Fraser. The result was four Top 40 hits, their first being “Never Give Up”. The band’s name was BLVD and they opened for Glass Tiger touring Canada. Barney Bentall scored his first hit: “Something to Live For”. Joe Bocan had a hit: “Repartir à zéro”. Richard Seguin was becoming popular (“Tu reviens de loin”). He had performed in previous years with his twin sister Marie-Claire as Les Séguins.
In the world of country music, small-town Alberta native k.d. (Kathryn Dawn) Lang, created a stir with “I’m Down to My Last Cigarette” off her (Platinum) Shadowland album. She was named Female Artist of the Year at the Junos. The following year, she topped the country charts with “Full Moon Full of Love”. In the 90s, she crossed over to pop and won a Grammy Award (U.S. equivalent of the Junos). Lang helped set the stage for the rising popularity of country music in the 90s which saw one of the genre’s top stars arise from Canada, scoring three 2x Diamond albums!
Canada tried its hand at dance music and managed to turn out a couple of hits. “Savin’ Myself” was a dance hit from Hamilton’s Eria Fachin. Sadly, she was diagnosed with cancer while working on her second album. She passed away in 1996, at 36 years old. Candi and the Backbeat had “Dancing Under a Latin Moon”. Her “Love Makes No Promises” made the Top 10 in ’89. Sway covered the European hit “Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart)” from French band Ottawan (not citizens of Ottawa). The cover made the Top 10 in Canada.
On the other side of the world, a Vancouverite had become a sensation. She had recorded albums in English that Canadian radio had ignored. Knowing that the racist Canadian music industry had closed its doors to Canadians of Asian descent (despite its first pop superstar’s belonging to that category), she entered the recording studio and sang from placards of romanized words from the language of her parents—Chinese. The next thing she knew, Sally Yeh was a pop superstar in the most populated country on earth. “Good Luck” was one of the ten biggest songs of the year in China. And from there everything snowballed for her, including playing alongside Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo’s classic masterpiece The Killer. No discussion of Canadian singers who have achieved international superstardom can omit Sally Yeh.
This year saw the first French song played on English radio stations. In an as yet unrecognized national disgrace, the Canadian music industry has contradicted Canada’s policy of bilingualism, that encourages Anglophone youth to learn French, by segregating music based on language. In fact, Canadian English radio stations played two German language songs in the 80s while ignoring songs performed in Canada’s second official language. Although somewhat of a novelty song, the airplay across the country of Mitsou‘s “Bye Bye Mon Cowboy” was the one brief moment that Canada’s music industry showed some nobility.
Just as Anglophone Canadians had always struggled to achieve success in the United Kingdom, Francophones were having equal trouble trying to make it in France. In 1989 fortune came their way as the first French language album from a Canadian became certified Diamond in France. It wasn’t Celine Dion. In fact, it wasn’t a Quebecer. It was an Acadian from New Brunswick named Roch Voisine and his album Helene. (The album was certified 3x Platinum at home). Roch is one of the few Canadians who released successful albums in both official languages. His 1993 English-language album I’ll Always Be There (4x Platinum) spawned four Top 30 singles.
In Quebec, Johanne Blouin was shaking things up with “Dors Caroline”. Outside of French Canada and Chinese-Canadian Sally Yeh’s success abroad, English Canadian music had been dominated by the men whether in terms of soloists or rock bands. The women had been more successful in the folk and country arenas. In the 80s, all eyes were on Luba as one of the first successful women in pop/rock. In 1987/88, she scored a Top 10 hit with a cover of “When a Man Loves a Woman”. This year she did it with an original song: “Giving Away a Miracle”. Arguably, it was Luba who had opened the door for women. And the first one to walk through the door was Toronto’s Alannah Myles, Canada’s first female rock superstar. Her debut album was the third (after Adams’ Reckless and Hart’s Boy in the Box) to be certified Diamond, with domestic sales exceeding a million copies. “Love Is” was the first hit single. The bluesy “Black Velvet” did even better, breaking into the Top 10. Interestingly, the song was received much more enthusiastically in the United States where it went all the way to #1 and finished 18th in the 1990 year-end Billboard chart. Nevertheless it won the Juno for Song of the Year, as did her (self-titled) album for Album of the Year. “Lover of Mine” was her biggest hit from the album in Canada (#2).
Another female who did quite well with a dozen Top 40 hits to her name over the years was Montreal’s Sass Jordan. “Tell Somebody” and “Double Trouble” from her debut album made it to #11 and #12 on the charts respectively. Belleville Ontario rocker Lee Aaron sang “Watcha Do to My Body”.
The biggest Canuck song of the year was Tom Cochrane & Red Rider’s “Good Times”. It peaked at #2 on the charts. Offenbach’s former front man, Gerry Boulet, had the biggest song of the year in Quebec, “Un beau grand bateau”. He died of cancer the following year. Blind blues-rocker Jeff Healey had a hit with “Angel Eyes”. He died of cancer in 2008. Gordon Peterson, under the pseudonym Indio and with the assistance of Joni Mitchell, released one album (Big Harvest) in his career that spawned the Top 10 hit “Hard Sun”, later covered without his permission by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder for the movie Into the Wild. This resulted in a lawsuit.
New bands appearing at the end of the decade included Margo Timmins-fronted The Cowboy Junkies. Their debut album in 1986, consisting mostly of blues covers, did not create much of a stir. But the song “Misguided Angel” off their second album was a minor hit. We’ll talk about them more in the early 90s when they had bigger success. Sylvain Cossette’s Paradox scored with “Waterline”, Niagara Falls’ glam band Brighton Rock with “One More Try”, indie outfit Pursuit of Happiness with “She’s So Young”, and Kelowna BC’s Grapes of Wrath with the hauntingly beautiful “All the Things I Wasn’t”.
Coming up will be a list of big songs in the late 80s, a special on the brother-sister stars Simards and Seguins, mini-profiles on Barney Bentall, The Grapes of Wrath, The Jeff Healey Band, Sass Jordan, kd lang, Rita MacNeil, and Mitsou, and major profiles on Blue Rodeo, Tom Cochrane (and Red Rider), Alannah Myles, Roch Voisine, and Sally Yeh.