the Montreal Gazette, September 30, 1995
to our own beat
love affair with progressive rock
Quebec nationalists refer to the distinct society, it's
unlikely they're thinking of the province's long-standing
love affair with progressive rock music.
But la belle province's fanatical devotion to the work of
'70's Brit-accented art-rock outfits like Genesis, Pink
Floyd, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Supertramp and Yes has
been one of the defining elements of the music scene here
for more than 20 years. And the enthusiasm for this complex,
musically sophisticated style of rock has hardly diminished
at all over the years.
Last year, Pink Floyd held court for three nights at the
Olympic Stadium, pulling in just under 200,000 fans, setting
a consecutive-night record for the entire tour.
The Floyd also still sell an inordinate amount of albums
in Quebec compared with the rest of the country. The English
supergroup's last album, PULSE, a specially packaged, double-CD
live set that retails for around $50, sold 187,000 copies
in all of Canada, Quebec accounting for 106,000 of those
Roughly 57 per cent of the Canadian sales of PULSE were
in Quebec. That's an astonishing figure, given that Sony
Music Canada, Pink Floyd's record company, averages around
18 per cent of its national sales in Quebec for most English-language
Nat Meranda, national promotion director at Sony in Toronto,
says the Pink Floyd albums average 40 per cent of their
Canadian sales in Quebec.
Albums by the classic British progressive artists are still
hot sellers across the province, said Shelly Stein-Sacks,
Sam the Record Man's Quebec vice-president.
" In Quebec, we have special sections that highlight
progressive rock, and that's something we wouldn't do in
the rest of the country," Stein-Sack said, "You're
getting kids in their teens who are into it in a big way.
It's a cornerstone of what musical buying is in the province
of Quebec. It's like opening a store in Alberta and not
Long-haired arty folkie Shawn Phillips was another of the
distinct-society faves, and the region remains one of the
few places on the globe that still embraces the quirky Texas
singer-songwriter. Phillips can still mount full-scale club
tours of Quebec, and his most recent album, The Truth if
It Kills, was released worldwide by Sainte-Sauveur-based
indie label Imagine Records.
Genesis, perhaps, the progressive group that had the most
influence in Quebec, also garners impressive sales stats
here. On average between 23 and 26 per cent of Canadian
sales for Genesis albums are in Quebec, and that figure
had not dropped significantly in the past couple of years.
According to sources at Warner Music Canada, which has the
entire Genesis catalogue, Quebec usually accounts for around
14 per cent of sales across the country for most other artists.
The latest testament to the enduring appeal of Genesis here
is the Musical Box, one of the stranger concert success
stories in recent memory. The Montreal-based band formed
three years ago to pay tribute to vintage Peter Gabriel-era
Genesis, and, in its first incarnation the group lovingly
re-created every sonic and visual detail of the concert
Genesis performed at the Université de Montréal
on Nov. 10, 1973.
After pulling in big crowds in Montreal and Quebec City
with its version of the Selling England by the Pound show,
the Musical Box returned this summer with a new/old Genesis
double bill, reviving the Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot tours.
That show had its local premiere during a four-night run
at the Spectrum three weeks ago, and it was so successful
that the group is back at the Spectrum Oct. 14 and 15. The
Musical Box has headlined the 1,000-capacity club a mind-boggling
21 times, and that's with tickets selling in the pricey
" It's very surprising that we can do the Spectrum
20 times." admitted Sebastian Lamothe, who "plays'
the role of bassist-guitarist Michael Rutherford in the
band. "That's more than almost any other artist. There's
a religious aspect to Genesis (in Quebec) that's almost
Lamothe isn't far off the mark when he says that support
for Genesis is almost a religious thing in Quebec. Oddly
enough, religion might have something to do with the province's
devotion to the majestic, mythic sounds of bands like Genesis
and Gentle Giant.
Former Montreal Star and Gazette rock critic Juan Rodriguez
suggested that French-Canadian kids loved the sounds of
Genesis, Pink Floyd and Gentle Giant because the heavy,
booming organ riffs on those albums reminded them of the
church music they grew up with.
The religious aura of prog rock was brought home with suitably
bombastic style by Montreal progressive rockers Offenbach,
who staged an infamous "black mass" at St. Joseph's
Oratory in 1972. The concert, dominated by Gerry Boulet's
ethereal organ playing, was broadcast live on CHOM and later
released as an album.
The progressive sounds of the era also has a pronounced
impact on other Québécois musicians, most
notably Harmonium, the top arty ensemble then, and much
later, on Quebec bands as different as the Crimson-tinged
popsters Men Without Hats and progressive punkers like Grim
Skunk and Groovy Aardvark.
The theory about the music triggering off dusty old Catholic
memories makes as much sense as any other - most musicians
and industry types have a tough time explaining why Quebeccers
fell head-over-heels for this curious sub-genre of rock
that has little in common with classic French pop.
It makes even less intuitive sense on a linguistic level
because classic epics like Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down
on Broadway or King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson
King also featured dense, intellectual lyrics that managed
to puzzle even English-speaking listeners.
" Politically, it's quite bewildering that this British,
aristocratic sound happened here," said Donald Tarlton,
head honcho of Donald K. Donald Productions.
Tarlton produced many of the pivotal prog-rock concerts
of the era, notably the first Pink Floyd extravaganza at
the Big O in 1977, a Supertramp two-nighter at Jarry Park
that attracted 65,000 Montrealers, and a Forum double bill
with up-and-coming Irish balladeer Chris De Burgh opening
" I was selling out the Forum when these acts were
playing nightclubs in America," Tarlton said. "Phenomena
like this, in that era, happened in a lot of markets. Texas,
for instance, was just heavy metal madness. It was prior
to mass communications, and there were a lot of regional
breakouts. It could not happen today because most stations
are rigidly programmed by national networks."
CHOM-FM, the province's first progressive-rock station,
had an inordinate influence on musical tastes of the day,
and the Greene Ave. powerhouse - at the time a bilingual
station - was must-listening for virtually all of the city's
serious rock fans. The playlist was dominated by the usual
art-rock suspects, including Supertramp, Genesis, Pink Floyd
and Chris De Burgh.
" CHOM, in those days, was the spirit of a new culture
that was developing in this city," said CJAD/Mix 96
general manager Rob Braide, who helmed programming at CHOM
from 1977 to 1987. "CHOM became a town square for English
and French culture to meet. I saw that feeling disappear
when CHOM wasn't allowed to speak French any more (following
a decision by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications
Commission in 1978). It was the only platform.
" The town square is now covered with soapboxes. By
definition, no one radio station can have that position
Record-company executive Nick Carbone, who was a promo rep
at A&M Records in the late '70's, remembers practically
living under a cloud of legal and not-so-legal smoke on
the CHOM patio, hanging out with Supertramp, who were part
of the A&M stable. The A&M roster also included
Chris De Burgh and Shawn Phillips.
" It was theatrical," Carbone said.
" The lyrics were important, but the dramatics were
what got the French into it. De Burgh was a troubadour -
with his theatrics, you'd go back to medieval times."
Braide claims he can't listen to Supertramp any more because
he had to play the band's music so often at CHOM, but many
Montrealers are still happy to hear Supertramp's Scholl
or De Burgh's Spanish Train. CHOM still plays no small amount
of vintage progressive fare, though current CHOM program-director
Ian MacLean is quick to point out that the station plays
contemporary rock as well.
MacLean says the station still receives constant requests
for the old progressive standards, especially for library
items by Pink Floyd and Genesis.
" A classic's a classic and those songs represent a
particular moment in time on the rock soundscape that people
still have a fondness for," MacLean said.
" (With Genesis), it's just a completely unique sound
they have - nobody's ever sounded like Genesis before or
Michel Langevin, the drummer and driving creative force
behind progressive metal group Voivod, says British bands
like Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer had a decisive
influence on the development of his band's off-the-wall
approach to playing hard rock.
The band-members spent their adolescent years living in
Jonquiére studying the guitar techniques of King
Crimson, the keyboard flourishes of Keith Emerson, and the
over-all sonic experimentation of more obscure Brit innovators
like Van Der Graaf Generator.
The sound of those bands still colors Voivod's music, and
the group has group has recorded two Pink Floyd covers on
The English lyrics were not a turnoff for Langevin and his
friends, even though they lived in a totally French part
of the province.
He would often pull out his French-English dictionary and
scour the lyric sheets for albums like Pink Floyd's The
He is happy to report that there is a new wave to teenage
and twentysomething progressive-rock aficionados in Quebec.
" It's young people who're discovering the music from
their parents' album collections," he said. "There's
a new generation of granola types that I really like, and
it's represented by groups like Grim Skunk and Groovy Aardvark."
Big Ten Musical giants of 1970s Quebec
1. Pink Floyd. These space cadets have been international
superstars since Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, and Montreal
has always had a special fondness for the Floyd. This, in
spite of the fact that the gig at the Big Owe in '77 was
one of the worst sonic experiences of the decade. (Great
floating pig, however.)
2. Genesis. Sitting in suburban basements smoking
doobs and listening to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was
one of the quintessential teen experiences in mid-'70's
Montreal. The band has not been of any critical interest
since Peter Gabriel did the right thing and exited the group
3. Supertramp. Some would quibble with the inclusion
of this British pop outfit in the progressive category,
but the band was an essential ingredient of the city's arty
musical landscape in the late '70's. The songs have not
aged well, though, and no one should have to hear Dreamer
4. Chris De Burgh. Prog purists might argue with
this selection too, but the Irish balladeer defined the
folky art-rock mood of the moment with the overblown Spanish
Train. The tale of good vs. evil - an nifty poker moves
- sounded corny back then and still does today.
5. Gentle Giant. The more specialized side of the
prog spectrum, these complex fellows made Genesis look positively
6. Yes. No. Perhaps the progressive band most often
derided by critics, Fragile and Close to the Edge were never
far from suburban Montreal turntables at the time. These
records were essential listening for aspiring neoclassical
7. Jethro Tull. Ian Anderson introduced the flute
to mainstream rock and provided one of the nastier anthems
of the era in Aqualung. The more light-hearted among us
preferred Bungle in the Jungle.
8. King Crimson. Led by great avant-guitarist Robert
Fripp, this ensemble represented the more experimental,
more intriguing school of progressive playing, and that
eccentric edge kept them far from mega-platinum success
of more accessible art rockers like Pink Floyd and Genesis.
9. Shawn Phillips. This native of Fort Worth, Tex.,
was huge 'round these parts in the early '70's, thanks to
pretentious, acoustic-flavoured albums like Contribution,
Second Contribution and Collaboration.
10. Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Another outfit from
the era whose music has not aged well. The catchy hit Lucky
Man still turns up on the radio, but Keith Emerson's over-the-top
keyboard excesses are, thankfully, no longer in vogue.
the topic of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, they did a promotional
film in 1977 for their song "Fanfare for the Common
Man. It was filmed in the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. All
the seats were empty...