[11 July 2011]
Music Editor - Canada
During the winter of 2001, I wound up interviewing an author and his publisher – all of us based in Ottawa, Canada – at a local pub, profiling them about the new Ottawa-centric publishing house that the latter was in the midst of setting up. After the interview was over, we wound up ordering some drinks and, myself being a bit of a struggling short story fiction writer on the side at the time, eventually wound our way into a discussion bemoaning the state of the Canadian publishing industry.
I recall lamenting the fact that nobody was really taking chances on outsider fiction and that a whole whack of books were being published in Canada that nobody wanted to read. I brought up the title of a non-fiction book on the Canadian music scene called Have Not Been the Same, which had just been recently published at the time, and dryly noted that the book, which I hadn’t yet read, seemed to be something of a firebrick or a doorstop: roughly 700 pages plus about Canadian bands that existed in the decade between 1985 and 1995. I pondered, “Who would want to read that?” To this, the publisher took a swig of his drink and replied something to the effect of, “Exactly. The only people who would be interested in that are a very select core of academics and music nerds. It won’t sell.”
Well, I guess we were both wrong, because Have Not Been the Same is now in its second (and, as its authors note in the introduction, final) edition after being out of print for a few years, proving that there must have been enough of an audience during the first go-round to warrant this brand-spanking new 10th anniversary edition with additional content to bring it up to date. Meanwhile, that Ottawa publisher only wound up publishing one book before deciding that Canada’s capital city wasn’t a lucrative enough market and, I believe, quickly left town. Final score: Ottawa publisher, one; Have Not Been the Same, two.
After reading this new edition, I have to admit that I’m slightly embarrassed to have judged a book merely by its weight ten years ago. Have Not Been the Same, which is the cumulative effort of no less than three Canadian music journalists – Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider – and so named after an 1985 song by Vancouver proto-grunge band Slow, is an addictive and exhaustive (and I would even say, exhausting) read. The book is a nearly complete look at the Canadian indie rock scene in its formulative, post-punk years, and reading it is a little like going on a cross-country tour of your favourite band of yesteryear. Seriously, you’ll need to book time off work or school just to get through the densely packed tome, and reading it is a little like having a day job in and of itself.
However, it’ss an insightful and penetrating look at the roots of the Canadian underground rock scene, and if you appreciate Canadian independent bands of today such as Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene or the New Pornographers, Have Not Been the Same is an essential read, because it provides context behind the success of these bands and shows that their ability to crack the American market didn’t come out of a vacuum. If you grew up in Canada and came of age during the 1985 to 1995 time period covered by the book, it’s a bit of a time capsule that will have you reliving your cultural salad days of yore. If you didn’t grow up in Canada, this book still comes recommended as it will open your eyes to the sort of hardships bands had to endure to “make it” at a time when generic keyboard-led arena rock bands like Platinum Blonde, Honeymoon Suite, Glass Tiger and Loverboy were pretty much all the rage.
That said, Have Not Been the Same is also a bit of a depressing read and one that might wear on you a bit if you attempt to read the book cover to cover – which is recommended, though fans of certain bands or musicians can certainly hopscotch to particular chapters of interest without losing anything in the process. The thing is, the underground rock story of Canada, as this book shows, is essentially the same sad narrative repeated ad nauseum. The essential template of just about any band or act featured in this book goes something like this: band forms and comes of age in the mid-‘80s, developing a slavish following on the underground touring circuit; band makes an influential independent record which attracts major label buzz; band gets signed to a major label (or major label affiliate or major indie label like Sub Pop) but the subsequent album or albums fail to capitalize on the band’s previous success (usually due to the label not promoting the record for various reasons); band gets dropped; band breaks up after hitting this brick wall since indie labels and distribution companies were going bankrupt by the mid-to-late ‘90s; breakup is usually coupled with the impact of poor inter-band dynamics, or the effects of too much drugs and alcohol. The end.
After reading about 500 pages of the same story told over and over, just with interchangeable band names or musicians, the effect isn’t quite as potent and gets a little wearying. While Have Not Been the Same is certainly exhaustive, covering perhaps 95 percent of the underground acts that were significant in Canada during this period, I would argue that perhaps a little pruning could have been done, getting rid of some of the lesser known bands such as Jr. Gone Wild or, puzzlingly, groups such as Men Without Hats – whom had their biggest international hit (see “The Safety Dance”) before 1985 even rolled around, and were hardly independent or underground as they got scooped up by a major label after putting out a single indie EP, making their inclusion in this book a bit of an oddity.
However, Have Not Been the Same is a compelling read – it even has a bit of a narrative arc to it, like a good novel – and it reads as though one singular person, not three, contributed to it, which is a kudos to the editing staff who worked on this to make it seamless. I’m in awe at the fact that there’s actual foreshadowing in the book, with names dropped earlier on that crop up and appear again and again in the later chapters. The book’s chapters also usually deftly examine multiple bands and expertly juggle the narratives of groups that are thematically connected to one another. While its appeal might be limited to the aforementioned academics and music nerds, anyone with a curious interest in Canadian music will appreciate this well-researched book, which is largely culled from players in the scene at the time, and it’s a credit that the authors were able to gain access to so many people in compiling the book.
What’s more, the authors were able to get their interview subjects to really open up and be honest in the assessment of their careers in music, and there are sections of the book that are really page-turning and delightful as the subjects usually have a no-holds barred approach and really divulge about what it was like to either be band members, producers or label honchos. Honestly, there are sections of this book where so much dirt is slung, I had to wonder if the authors were opening themselves up to potential libel suits. Ultimately, if you live in Canada and are thinking of starting a band, this book is a damn necessity as it will open your eyes to the harsh realities of recording in and touring the country.
Have Not Been the Same has an underlying structure to it that, again, makes it seem almost like an epic novel. It starts out by positing that Canadian music was, by and large, pretty washed up in 1985 – which, although this might be true, seems to be a bit of a cliché as any book examining a music scene such as Seattle, Los Angeles or Minneapolis will make the same claim about their respective cities, at least in my experience. However, the book then goes into a lengthy examination of the infrastructure that made it possible for the smaller bands toiling in the hinterlands to be heard: the rise of campus radio, the introduction of MuchMusic (Canada’s answer to MTV, which was mandated to show at least 30 per cent Canadian content), and successful alternative programming mainstream radio shows such as the CBC’s Brave New Waves.
The book then chronicles the rise of the underground in centers such as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Halifax, and the musical acts that populated these areas. The book’s end devotes singular chapters to what are arguably Canada’s most successful bands to come into being in the era discussed: Sloan, Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip. However, despite these successes, Have Not Been the Same is a venerable graveyard of bands that are no more, whose output is likely out of print, and have been largely forgotten about. The spotlight that this book shines on these lesser-known rebels is more than welcome, as it illustrates just how varied and crucial these acts were to forging a Canadian musical identity.
And yet, for the sheer volume of bands and musicians that are covered within these 700 or so pages, the book can take a bit of a knock for being a little too focused on the output of major cities – Toronto, in particular. I realize that Toronto is the center of the musical universe in Canada, and that’s where all of the action really is. However, I wish that the authors had gone a little more regional in chronicling some of the scenes in Canada.
Notably absent from this book is any mention of Ottawa. You might argue that this is simply an inconsequential gripe of someone connected to a particular hometown, but there was a lot going on in my city of current residence during the period in this book that is completely ignored. While I don’t particularly like her music, there is no mention of the success of Ottawa’s Alanis Morissette. Yes, she was a teen idol in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s and hardly qualifies as an “underground” act, but the book chronicles the mainstream rise of people like k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan and Mary Margaret O’Hara and you cannot deny the impact that Morissette had on raising the profile of Canadian music during this tumultuous period, particularly considering that she sold some 33 million copies of 1995’s Jagged Little Pill worldwide – a fact that jives against the authors’ assertion that by 1995 or so the Canadian alternative rock scene was almost dead in the water. If Morissette was too mainstream for the authors’ taste, they could have shifted their attention to an Ottawa indie ‘90s band called Furnaceface, who not only delivered a classic indie album in 1991’s terrific and very funny Just Buy It, but started their own music festival – not unlike the Tragically Hip’s Another Roadside Attraction, which gets ample coverage in this book.
What’s more, band member Marty Jones went on to a career as a noted music producer and the group won awards, so the fact that this book doesn’t even mention this band is just baffling. Plus, there were bands in the area making waves other than Furnaceface: notably Blinker the Star, the Wooden Stars, Starling (you might be noticing an astronomical trend here), the Mystic Zealots and so on and so forth. Note to Barclay, Jack and Schneider: if you’re going to write about Canadian music, at least try to be inclusive to all regions of the country, not just the main metropolitan centers (and Halifax, which was a hip and trendy place to be in the early ‘90s). Writing in your intro that you choose to ignore stuff that just wasn’t of interest to you is very poor journalism, indeed.
You have to put that aside, and focus on stuff that was culturally groundbreaking for a book like this, and Alanis Morissette and Furnaceface easily fit that bill. By ignoring Ottawa (and other areas of the country for that matter with populations of less than a million, save Halifax and Kingston, Ontario, via the Hip), these Toronto-based writers perpetuate the notion that the capital city is a staid, boring scene not worth writing about, when the inverse is actually true. We have and had a diverse and exciting scene, and the authors should have ventured a little further than outside of their backyards in writing about Canadian music to discover that.
Despite this blemish, Have Not Been the Same is one behemoth of a book that deserves to find an audience. It’s a crucial examination of the alternative rock scene in Canada during a particularly fertile period of activity and very few stones are left unturned in its execution. It’s the Canadian version of Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad, which chronicled the rise of the American underground during the ‘80s, and, as a blurb on the back cover suggests, it’s easily a counterpart to Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road, which is an oral history on the rise of Canadian rock. Have Not Been the Same is a fairly complete look at the Canadian music scene some 15 to 25 years ago, and is a timeless addition to any serious scholar of Canadian music’s book collection. Despite the fact that it can be a wearying read at times, Have Not Been the Same is unputdownable, and you’ll be breathlessly carried away by the stories that these Canadian performers have to tell about their troubling and harried lives just trying to be heard above the din.
Aside from my wish that more had been written about smaller musical communities, one thing is for certain: after reading this, I will never complain about this book’s seemingly niche audience again. Have Not Been the Same is an important book that is ripe for discovery for any serious music reader, and I hope that – since this is the final edition and all – it doesn’t go out of print, unlike many of the bands’ output featured within. Canada needs to tell its cultural stories, and on that front, Have Not Been the Same delivers in spades.