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.