THE JOURNALS OF ALAN RHODES
part II 1971-1977
From the Montreal Gazette, September 30, 1995
by Brendan Kelly
Marching to our own beat
Quebec's love affair with progressive rock
When 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 sales.
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 albums.
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 carrying country-and-western.
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 $25 range.
" 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 scary."
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 for Supertramp.
" 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 any more."
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 since."
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 recent albums.
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 Wall.
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."
The 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 in 1974.
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 ever again.
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 lowbrow.
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 guitarists.
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.
On 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...