[28 August 2003]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It boggles the mind how one of the greatest recordings in Canadian rock ‘n’ roll history originated from the rooftop of a shopping mall. While residents of the Southern Ontario steeltown of Hamilton were shopping at the newly-constructed Lloyd D. Jackson Shopping Centre on a particular Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1975, an unknown quartet of young local musicians were playing a free show for the kids on the rooftop. If curious shoppers over at Eaton’s became distracted by the incessant thumping and screeching, and ventured curiously, cautiously, up to the roof, they would have seen a collection of homely music geeks generating some of the most ferocious, loud, raw, pulse-pounding rock music the country has ever heard, before and since on a peculiar, ten-minute jam (introduced by the weird singer as “heavy metalloid music”) that pummeled the ears, a blend of roaring guitars, electronic noises, and a powerful drum beat that didn’t let up for a second. Had there been an ambitious representative from a major record label present, they would have thought they had stumbled across the second coming of the Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd. Unfortunately, the real Pink Floyd were playing in the city that very day over at the local football stadium, the only grown-ups on that rooftop downtown were probably parents there to pick up their teenaged kids, and that band, who for that short period of time had sounded like Canada’s rock ‘n’ roll saviors, went on to be largely ignored for decades, remembered only by the hippest of rock fans.
That band, named Simply Saucer (partly in tribute to Pink Floyd), was such a deviation from the rule in Canada, whose musical exports had to that point been decidedly more mainstream. Former Mole Records manager Bruce Mowat describes the band as, “something that was (and still is) completely out of step with the progression of popular music in this country.” And because they were so different from the rest of Canadian music at the time, Simply Saucer were not fully appreciated until 1989; for, despite some modest success with a seven-inch single in 1978, the band never put out an official album. In ‘89, though, Mole Records issued the limited edition vinyl LP Cyborgs Revisited, which wasn’t exactly an official album, but more of a compilation of two separate recording sessions: one from a studio with a couple of soon-to-be-famous brothers producing, and one live performance, more specifically, that infamous rooftop set on top of the mall. After a limited release on CD by Fistpuppet Records, the album was able to reach more people, where it was lavished with praise from critics and fans alike. Now comes the final push; Hamilton’s own Sonic Unyon has finally released the definitive version of Cyborgs Revisited, completely remastered, and with loads of bonus tracks as well. There’s no excuse for this band to be underappreciated anymore.
So is this weird little album as good as the drooling critics make it out to be? The answer is, unequivocally, yes. A thrilling blend of myriad influences, such as the art rock of the Velvet Underground and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the frantic garage rock of the Count Five, the loud ferocity of the Stooges and the MC5, and the expansive sounds of Krautrock pioneers Can, Simply Saucer’s brilliantly twisted hybrid just didn’t have the right timing back then. Today, though, the album still sounds fresh, energetic, and visceral—so much so that new listeners will be taken completely by surprise.
Led by singer/guitarist Edgar Breau, and featuring a constantly rotating band lineup, the new re-release of Cyborgs Revisited is a revelation, especially the original “album” portion. Recorded and produced by fellow Hamiltonians Bob and Daniel Lanois in 1974, in their mother’s basement, would you believe, the first six tracks are immediately rewarding, best exemplified on the searing opening cut, “Instant Pleasure”. “Let me sleep inside of your cage / I want to feel your sexual rage”, sings Breau, as the song quickly shifts from a mid-tempo garage rocker to a frenzied jam, bolstered by band member Ping Romany’s Theremin and audio generator, and just like an over-excited teenage boy, it’s all over in less than two minutes. Apparently Breau handed the Lanois brothers copies of the Stooges’ Fun House and the Velvets’ White Light/White Heat as guides to how he wanted the band to sound, and you hear that on “Electro Rock”, with its rough-edged opening section, followed by an explosive jam, and then slowing down again to repeat the first verse. “Nazi Apocalypse” is a sneering, darkly comic punk rocker (“I’m cyanide over you . . . Eva, Eva Braun / Bye bye baby so long”), while the instrumental “Mole Machine”, with its blend of sinister guitar licks and electronic noise, boasts a heavy Can influence. Meanwhile, “Bullet Proof Nothing” is astonishing, a straight-ahead, Velvets-style song (think the Loaded album), with a simple, three chord acoustic guitar riff, and Breau’s charming, Lou Reed-like affectations (“Never had a single thought in my head / Just your face, your pretty face laughing at me / Come on now, treat me, treat me like dirt”).
The original album’s second half is even more stunning. A two-track recording from that rooftop performance nearly a year after those basement recordings, it’s pure, raw, sweat-drenched rock ‘n’ roll, as the band tears through a live rendition of “Here Come the Cyborgs” (preceded on the album by the original studio recording), as well as the very Velvets-sounding “Dance the Mutation” (think “Foggy Notion”). If the album just ended there, it would have been phenomenal enough, but the following track, the monstrous “Illegal Bodies”, catapults Cyborgs Revisited into the stratosphere. A ten minute explosion of rock music at its most orgasmic, it’s utterly glorious, a loud, crazed, Canadian version of “Sister Ray”. “What a fantastic movie I’m in”, howls Breau to the mall-goers (who had to be sitting there, mouths agape), “What a fantastic scene I’m in”, as he mimics Lou Reed’s improvised vocals in “Sister Ray”. Breau’s guitar riffs are reminiscent of Reed’s performance on the infamous Velvets’ “Guitar Amp Tape” bootleg, his solos screaming, wailing in reckless abandon; meanwhile, Kevin Christoff’s bass keeps things from flying out of control, Romany’s electronics are extremely cool, and Tony Cutaia’s drumming is inspired, sounding as if Keith Moon was hired as Moe Tucker’s replacement in VU. This extended performance reaches epiphanic heights, and you have to catch your breath when it ends.
As for the bonus material, it’s mostly fascinating, but ultimately a little disappointing, as Simply Saucer goes for a more middle-of-the-road approach. The band’s four 1977 demo recordings are good enough, as they adopt more of a plain, garage rock sound (“Low Profile” is the most noteworthy), but they lack any of the arrogant, artsy sounds they created two, three years earlier (Romany and his electronics were long gone by then). Three very poorly recorded live tracks from 1978 follow, including a version of “Bullet Proof Nothing”, but it’s more of a by-the-numbers run-through, the energy of the original recording sorely missing. Redeeming the bonus tracks is the first ever CD appearance of Simply Saucer’s one and only single, 1978’s “She’s a Dog” and its b-side, “I Can Change My Mind”. Though they pale in comparison to the ‘74/‘75 recordings, and border on novelty status, they’re great little tunes, especially the goofy “She’s a Dog”, which harkens back to the best elements of mid-sixties garage rock. Still, as shaky as the extra tracks are, they don’t diminish the quality of the first nine songs on the CD, which are what matter most.
Today, Simply Saucer is long since dead, having broken up back in 1979. Breau continues to write and perform music, and they even still hold free concerts atop that shopping mall in Hamilton. Thanks to the efforts of the fine folks at Sonic Unyon, those of us who never got a chance to own the original versions of Simply Saucer’s classic posthumous release now have the opportunity to do some serious catching up. They may have been ignored during their time, but close to 30 years after the fact, their music still sounds as vital as ever, and should be a source of pride for Canadian music fans everywhere. Cyborgs Revisited deserves to be as revered as Rush’s 2112, as ubiquitous as Canadian Tire Money and Tim Horton’s donuts, and regarded as quintessentially Canadian as Medicare and street hockey.