The Canadian rock music scene has been thriving over the last few decades but gets scant recognition due to all that noise south of the border, and from across the Atlantic with our British cousins. Today we will lift the hood and see what the Great White North has to offer rockwise and bandwise, to match already internationally famous solo acts like Neil Young, Bryan Adams, Leonard Cohen, Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell, K.D.Lang and Matt Anderson, to name a few.
So let’s take a look at 10 of the more prominent ‘Canuck’ bands from the 60s to the present.
The Guess Who
This Winnipeg, Manitoba outfit was first called Allan and the Silvertones, after the founder Chad Allen, then changed to Allen and the Reflections, then ...Allen and the Expressions until they reached the charts in 1965 with the hit, a version of Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd & the Pirates. It reached #1 in Canada, #22 in the U.S. and the label, Quality Records decided to play along with the game ‘You Know The Group’ and credited the song to Guess Who?, and the name stuck. This lineup included included Randy Bachman/lead guitar, vocals, and Burton Cummings/lead vocals and piano, who would become household names from coast to coast. The Guess Who (dropped the ?) was the first Canadian rock band to go international with the single These Eyes in 1969 which reached the top 10 on the U.S charts (RCA Records). They would go on from there with the gold album Canned Heat which housed hits such as Laughin’/Undone and No Time. They then hardened things up with American Woman and No Sugar Tonight which charted at #1 on Billboard Hot 100. The band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1987, and 5 years later the band with Bachman, Cummings, Gary Peterson, Donnie McDougal, and Bill Wallace received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for their contribution to popular music in Canada.
Bachman Turner Overdrive (BTO)
For a look at the quintessential Canadian rock band (1974-79) we turn our eyes and ears to Bachman-Turner Overdrive -Randy Bachman and Fred Turner (BTO), who had a steely grip on 3 & 4-chord rock from the get- go, and still get radio rotation time worldwide. Their hit Takin Care of Business ranks number 10 of the 100 most covered songs in history. They had 5 albums in the top 40 for the decade, and 6 of 40 top singles in the U.S., same decade, and have sold some 30 million albums globally (and counting). (Bachman, the guitar enthusiast likes to play many guitars such as the Epiphone Les Paul Ultra, and Fender LTD, and Strat. In fact the man has a collection of over 500 guitars, but his favourite, or most prized is the Gretsch G6134 White Penguin, which he says is worth $200k). On the hit track Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, Randy offers a funny story on the most famous line in the song.Turns out he was just teasing his brother for his stuttering in the rehearsals, “b-b-b-baby you ain’t seen nothing yet…”, and the producer heard it, thought it was orgasmic, and it stuck! (ahem) A clever ploy, for the whole world sings it that way! It became the #1 hit in 21 countries! When we said it was quintessentially Canadian, we meant ‘road music’. Canada is a vast land with few cities, very far apart, connected by, you guessed it: roads. BTO pulled the country together with their arena rock; the arena is also home to hockey, the national sport/ religion. Put this, and the simple ‘get it done’ nature of the people together, and you get the tracks Free Wheeling and Roll On Down the Highway to attest to this.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Rush, comprising Alex Lifeson/guitars, Geddy Lee/bass, and Neil Peart/ drums, burst onto the Canadian scene in bombastic style with skilled musicianship, complex compositions, drawing on sci-fi and fantasy motifs, carved a groove into progressive blues/metal/rock that still resonates and is recognised as some of the cleanest, yet rawest sounds ever put to vinyl. They were a heavy influence on acts like Foo Fighters, Alice in Chains, Pixies, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Dream Theatre just to mention a few. Lifeson’s weapons of choice during the early Rush years were a Gibson ES-335, mostly, plugged into a Hiwatt amp. His acoustic pick was usually a PRS signature model and had a signature model made by Gibson called the Alex Lifeson R40 Les Paul Axcess. They are most remembered for their 1976 magnum opus 2112, which is some of the finest prog-rock ever. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.
Out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, April Wine rocked the airwaves from coast to coast with 16 albums spanning 35 years, including Stand Back, (1975) which was the first record to reach platinum sales heights for a Canadian band in Canada. It also contains some of the band’s biggest hits like Tonight Is a Wonderful Time to Fall in Love, I Wouldn’t Want to Lose Your Love and Oowatanite. Their 6th album Forever For Now (1977) also hit platinum and features the hit You Won’t Dance With Me. One of this writer’s favourite efforts was Harder...Faster (1979) which sold well both at home and the USA, pushed by the lively tracks Say Hello and I Like to Rock. They are another splendid example of ‘arena’ rock or ‘road rock’ that ruled the day and cold cold Canadian nights.
The original lineup for legendary The Band included Canadians, Rick Danko/bass, vocals, Garth Hudson/keyboards, sax, Richard Manuel/keyboards, vocals, Robbie Robertson/guitar, vocals, and American Levon Helms on drums. The Band mixed various styles mostly country, early rock, and a rhythm section that sounded rather Motown rhythm & blues. Their first album Music From Big Pink (1968) was widely praised, with 3 songs written by Bob Dylan, This Wheel’s On Fire, Tears of Rage, and I Shall Be Released, but the heaviest song of all was The Weight, which made them a name in the film Easy Rider. They would perform at 2 legendary concerts, the Woodstock Festival (‘69) and with Dylan at the Isle of Wight Festival in the same year. Their body of work and collaborations pile up over 30 years and is a book in itself, so let’s fast-forward to their most famous gig, the farewell concert called The Last Waltz. It was held at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, on Thanksgiving Day in 1976 (the crowd of 5000 was served turkey for supper). A plethora of stars were invited, even Alain Toussaint’s arrangements on horns, and included such gilded names as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Ronnie Hawkins, Dylan, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Bobby Charles, Neil Diamond and Paul Butterfield. It was made into a film by Robertson's friend Martin Scorsese, and is acclaimed as one of the greatest documentary concert films ever made.
The Tragically Hip
Simply called The Hip, this Kingston, Ontario group became one of Canada’s go-to bands for 33 years, putting out 13 studio albums, nine of which won Juno Awards (the Canadian Grammy). They were extremely popular in all corners of the country for their unique sound, typically called ‘dark and enigmatic’, (like the Canadian winter) and powerful lyrics by frontman Gord Downie had its finger on the nation’s pulse, singing about Canadian geography /character/history/water/land that the people truly felt and adored. This is likely why they didn’t break into the American scene except in across-the-border cities like Buffalo, Seattle, Detroit and New York. Nevertheless, they still released some beauties such as the album Fully Completely (1992) which carry 3 songs that define their raw, beautiful sound, Locked in the Trunk of a Car, Courage, and At the Hundredth Meridian. The vocal harmonies, oft sounding against the grain, especially highlight Downie’s voice which at times sounds like he’s singing into a strong wind, and yet can get so soft and moving. Check out singles Nautical Disaster, Grace, Too on Day For Night (1994) or Ahead By a Century and Butt’s Wigglin’ from Trouble at the Henhouse (1996). You’ll hear what I mean. On May 24, 2016, the news that Gord Downie had terminal brain cancer brought the country to its knees. Despite the news the band wanted to do one last tour. The final show at the Rogers K-Rock Center in Kingston was broadcast nationwide by CBC as a live platform broadcast. It featured 30 songs, 3 encores and was watched by 11.7 million people, ⅓ of Canada’s population. Downie died on October 17, 2017. He is survived by band members Paul Langlois and Rob Baker/guitarists, bassman Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay. In June 2017 the band received the Order Of Canada, the second highest honour for merit in the nation. Other accolades include receiving the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. As sung in their by Downie in the ballad Sacred, “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you”. Yes Sir! The Tragically Hip were one of the truly great Canadian bands.
From Montreal, Quebec, the indie rock band Arcade Fire gets the spotlight for their extraordinary style of composition, called art rock, dance-rock and baroque pop. They have their hands full of instruments, such as the guitar, bass, piano, violin, viola, cello, xylophone, glockenspiel, synthesiser, French horn, accordion, harp, mandolin and a hurdy-gurdy. Arcade Fire are all multi-instrumentalists starting with founders Win Butler and Josh Deu, then Butler’s wife Régine Chassagne, his brother William Butler, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury and Jerry Gara. They have released 5 albums in 14 years, starting with Funeral (2004) nominated for a Grammy, then Neon Bible (2007), also nominated, The Suburbs (2012) which collected 2 Grammys (album of the year, and best recording package), Reflektor (2013), and Everything Now (2016). William Butler and former member Owen Pallett received Oscar nominations for Best Original Score in a Spike Jonze film Her in 2013.
Blue Rodeo, out of Toronto, are a country/rock band formed in 1984 by Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy on guitars, and were soon joined by keyboardist Bob Wiseman and drummer Cleve Anderson. They have spun out 15 studio albums, 4 live records, 2 video/DVDs, and have collaborated with just about everyone in Canadian music. The hit single Try from their debut album Outskirts (1987) was an instant success charting at #1 on the RPM Country Tracks, making them the new Canadian thing and went 4x platinum in sales.In 1992 the single After the Rain was the most-performed song in the nation, selling more than 2 million copies. Their music has found its way into films like, Postcards From the Edge, where they make a cameo appearance, single Flying is heard in the TV series Due South, other singles Try and Heart Like Mine appear in the TV series Friday the 13th, among others. Blue Rodeo have collaborated with such notable Canadian artists as Sarah McLachlan, The Tragically Hip, Great Big Sea, Cowboy Junkies, and Jill Barber to name a few. The band has collected 7 Juno Awards and 7 SOCAN prizes (Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers of Canada).
All the way from Calgary Alberta, the Stampeders were a light country/rock trio comprising Rich Dodson/guitar, vocals, Ronnie King/bass, vocals, and drummer/singer Kim Berly. Their most famous single which appears on their debut album Against the Grain in 1971 was Sweet City Woman, featuring the banjo as lead instrument, and won them a Juno for best single, charted #1 on RPM Magazine, and #8 in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts. Other charted singles include O My Lady, their version of Hit the Road Jack with Wolfman Jack, catchy rocker Wild Eyes, Carry Me, and crowd-pleaser Devil You. They were adored both in Canada and the U.S. for their light country/rock approach, back when radio was mostly A.M. band. They still tour across Canada at festivals, casinos, and theatres.
This legendary outfit was mostly ‘Made in Canada’ but did have 2 American players, but who’s counting? The band was formed by singer/songwriter/guitarist John Kay, keyboardist Goldy McJohn, Jerry Edmonton on drums, and Americans Michael Monarch and Rushton Moreve on guitars. They were a magnificent rock band albeit for just 4 years, 1968-1972. They reunited later on but their impact was made from the start. Who can forget their 3 top 10 songs: Born to be Wild (also used in the film Easy Rider), Magic Carpet Ride, and Rock Me. The group has sold over 30 million records, put out 8 gold records, 12 Billboard Hot 100 singles, 6 top 40s and still get radio play worldwide.
So that’s our roundup of outstanding Canadian rock bands. There were so many to choose from, we hope you enjoy our selection, eh?