Honoring Philly’s Finest: Gamble and Huff

Claudrena N. Harold
Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble

Few producers in the history of American music moved bodies, warmed hearts, and inspired souls as effortlessly as Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. Befitting their achievements, Gamble and Huff head this year’s class of inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

If you’re more than vaguely familiar with the history of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you probably know that Atlantic Records’ legendary founder Ahmet Ertegun spearheaded its formation 25 years ago. Feeling as if music was one of the world’s most valuable resources, Ertegun wanted to create an institution committed to celebrating pioneering performers, songwriters, and producers in the fields of rhythm and blues, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll.

A crucial aspect of Ertegun’s historical project was recognizing the immense contributions of African American artists. Such a commitment and goal was hardly surprising to those familiar with the music mogul. Even though Ertegun had shepherded the careers of white and black artists from both sides of the Atlantic, he always appeared most proud of his connections to African American cultural giants like Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, Ruth Brown, Solomon Burke, and Aretha Franklin. Conversations about his place in music history seemed to invariably return to the souls and gifts of black folk. When questioned about his legacy in an interview conducted before his death in 2006, Ertegun asked to be remembered for one endeavor: “I’d be happy if people said that I did a little bit to raise the dignity and recognition of the greatness of African-American music.”

Surely, the man with the utmost respect for black artistic creativity and genius would have been proud that the first recipients of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Ahmet Ertegun Award are Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff.

Legendary entrepreneurs, producers, and songwriters, the dynamic duo stands out as one of the most formidable tandems in popular music history. Enjoying their greatest success in the 1970s, Gamble and Huff created mesmerizing music which not only moved bodies, but inspired souls. Strikingly manifest in many of the timeless anthems (i.e. the O’Jays’ “Love Train” and “For the Love of Money”) released on their legendary label, Philadelphia International (PIR), was an unwavering love for humanity, as well as an unflagging commitment to confront the world in all of its complex beauty and chaotic ugliness. To an increasingly fragmented society burdened by racism, economic exploitation, and war, Gamble and Huff’s music illuminated the possibility of a new human paradigm and a new world order in which equality, fairness, and justice reigned supreme.

Of course, the sound of Philly extended beyond the protest vein. Anything but one-dimensional, Gamble and Huff created aural masterpieces ideal for the bedroom (Teddy Pendergrass’ “Turn off the Lights” and “Close the Door”), the dance hall (MFSB’s “TSOP” and the Jacksons’ “Enjoy Yourself”), and even the sanctified church (The O’Jays’ “Put Your Hands Together”).

Such broad range contributed immensely to Gamble and Huff’s commercial success. Endearing themselves to fans of soul, rhythm and blues, pop, and disco, the duo crossed racial and generational boundaries. Consistent buyers of their music included blue-collar African Americans, members of the expanding black bourgeoisie, gay men who frequented the nation’s discothèques, and a rainbow coalition of women enamored with the Satin Soul of Philadelphia International’s leading balladeer, Teddy Pendergrass.

The music of Gamble and Huff had universal appeal, but love for PIR ran especially deep in black America. Stacked on the consoles of many stereos in African American households were singles and albums by Pendergrass, the O’Jays, Lou Rawls, and the Intruders, among others. Numerous factors accounted for this success in the black community. Sure, the social commentary found on message songs like “Wake Up Everybody”, “Give the People What They Want”, and “Bad Luck” struck a chord among African American listeners, but Gamble and Huff’s voyages into the private spaces of everyday life also contributed to their popularity. Such PIR classics as “We Cry Together", “I Don’t Love You Anymore", “Love T.K.O.”, and “Stairway to Heaven” provided a window into the interiorities of black familial and romantic lives, those private spaces where women and men caressed, loved, quarreled, sinned, forgave, reconciled, or moved on.

If Motown was the sound of Young America in the transformative '60s, Philadelphia International was the sound of two talented individuals seeking to grapple with the changes, challenges, and possibilities of the '70s.

To understand how Gamble and Huff help define an exciting era of music, you must begin with their humble roots in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Camden, New Jersey.

Much of the detail about Gamble and Huff’s early lives is assiduously documented in John Jackson’s brilliant study, A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul, but a few basics deserve repeating. A product of a single-parent, female-headed household, Kenny Gamble was born in the city of brotherly love on August 11, 1943. Taking an interest in music at an early age, he grew up with the sounds of gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues in his ears. Endowed with a beautiful voice, but unable to read music or play an instrument, the young singer had the propitious sense to forge relationships with individuals gifted in those areas where he lacked proficiency. One of those individuals was a youngster named Thom Bell, a very gifted pianist with whom Gamble started writing songs.

Not long after their encounter, Bell and Gamble recorded a song (“I’ll Get By”) with Jerry Ross, an independent producer and promoter in Philadelphia. Enamored with Gamble’s lush baritone, Ross saw great potential in the ambitious youngster. The producer’s unwavering faith in Gamble -- even after “I’ll Get By” flopped -- paid huge dividends in 1963, when two of Ross and Gamble’s compositions, “Everybody Monkey” and “Who Do You Love” landed on the radio. Written for one of Ross’s recent acquisitions, the Sapphires, the latter was a top 25 hit.

Enthused about the possibility of even greater success, Gamble spent a considerable amount of time honing his craft at Ross’s offices in Philadelphia’s Schubert Building, which, like New York’s famed Brill Building, housed some of the city’s leading publishers, writers, producers, and so forth.

Among the talented musicians occasionally working in the building was Leon Huff. One year Gamble’s senior, Huff was born in Camden, New Jersey, on April 8, 1942. His remarkable skills on the piano enabled him to make a modest living as a session player for some of the biggest producers (Phil Spector) and songwriters (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) in New York City. Eventually gaining respect for more than his skills as a pianist, Huff really grabbed the attention of some of his peers when Patty and the Emblems scored a top 20 hit with one of his earliest compositions, “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl”.

All of the skills Huff acquired and sharpened during his tenure in New York proved monumental when he and Gamble began their music partnership in the mid-'60s. Huff’s deftness on the piano coupled with his strong sense of groove perfectly complemented Gamble’s lyricism. Possessing remarkable chemistry, the tandem poured their energy into their songwriting. Their efforts would be rewarded in 1965, when the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart” gave the duo their first top 5 hit.

Over the next five years, Gamble and Huff worked with such respected singers as Chicago legend Jerry Butler, the mercurial Southern soul man Wilson Pickett, songstress Dusty Springfield, Archie Bell and the Drells, along with the Intruders. Proving early their ability to achieve commercial success with a wide range of artists, the duo scored gold certifications with Butler’s “Hey, Western Union Man”, the Intruders' “Cowboys and Girls”, and Pickett’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You”.

Fairly soon, Gamble and Huff gained as much respect for their business acumen as their hit-making abilities. Entering a business arrangement that would become a model for other enterprising blacks, Philly’s hottest producers linked a distribution deal with Columbia Records at the end of 1970. Each party’s duties were relatively simple. Gamble and Huff had full control over the signing and recording of their artists, while Columbia’s subsidiary, Epic, handled product marketing and financing. So far as Gamble was concerned, this was the perfect situation for all involved. “I think we made a very good move,” he later explained to Rolling Stone. “They’re strong where we’re weak, and we’re strong where they're weak.”

Choosing Philadelphia International (PIR) as the name for their company, Gamble, Huff, and their expanding staff prepared to conquer the world of popular music. Commercial success eluded PIR during its first year of existence, but things changed dramatically in 1972. That year, Philadelphia International celebrated three gold singles: Billy Paul’s salacious tale of adultery, “Me and Mrs. Jones”, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ riveting “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, and the O’Jays chart topping “Back Stabbers”.

Climbing to the top of the charts in the summer of ’72, “Back Stabbers” sustained the attention of music listeners for the entire year. Frequently referenced as evidence of how the positive outlook of the 1960s had given way to the cynicism of the ‘70s, the song’s narrative encapsulated the brutal realities found in the inner city blues of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and the increasingly despondent Sly Stone. Anything but casual music, the haunting groove demands that one deals with the hurtful truth of foes camouflaged as friends and smiling faces telling lies.

Seemingly Gamble and Huff had given the people exactly what they wanted, for “Back Stabbers” moved one million units by the fall of that year. Much to Columbia’s delight, PIR artists not only moved singles, but they also sold albums. The first half of 1973 witnessed gold certification for the O’Jays Back Stabbers and Billy Paul’s 360 Degrees, along with strong album sales for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

Not just pulling fans to the record stores, Gamble and Huff drew tremendous praise from critics who loved the producers’ work with PIR artists and outside acts like Joe Simon (the producers wrote and produced his million-seller “Drowning in the Sea of Love.”). “Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff,” raved writer Daniel Goldberg in 1972, “are the current grandmasters of R&B production.”

Not resting on their laurels, Gamble and Huff remained on the grind, spending long hours in their new PIR offices and in engineer Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Studio. Lending great support to their efforts was a talented stable of writers, arrangers, and musicians. To compete in the fast-paced world of soul and pop, Gamble and Huff relied on the deft arranging skills of Bobby Martin, Norman Harris, and Thom Bell, the magnificent writing of Bunny Sigler, Victor Carstarphen, Gene McFadden, and John Whitehead, and talented individuals like keyboardist Lenny Pakula, drummer Earl Young, bassist Anthony Jackson, and guitarist Bobby Eli. Supported by some of the best talents in the business, Gamble and Huff maintained a high-profile presence on the pop and soul charts.

The sound of Philly became even more popular when Don Cornelius, the host and creator of the popular dance show Soul Train, elicited Gamble and Huff’s services in 1973. Notwithstanding their unfamiliarity with the television program, the duo obliged Cornelius’ request for a theme song. Fittingly titled “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)”, the dance track featured instrumentals from PIR’s house band, Mother, Father, Sister, Brother (MFSB), along with backing vocals from the female trio the Three Degrees. Considered by many to be one of disco’s foundational texts, “TSOP” and its driving high-hat drum pattern put bodies on the dance floor. Occupying the number one position on the pop and rhythm and blues charts for two weeks, the song moved more than one million units, and added greatly to both MFSB's and the Three Degrees' popularity (selling two million copies worldwide, the latter’s “When Will I See You Again” was a smash on white and black radio, domestically and internationally.).

Shaping established and emergent genres, PIR could seemingly do no wrong. Commercial success, however, never dulled the company’s political sensibilities -- especially as long as Kenny Gamble remained in charge. Like Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and other cultural workers who viewed art as an instrument of change, Kenny Gamble infused his lyrics with social commentary. “Instead of just giving them [music listeners] a beat,” Gamble remarked during the height of his success, “we try and deliver a message that will uplift their minds.”

Embracing the opportunity to reach minds and souls through music, Gamble interjected his opinions on race, poverty, masculinity, the family, and spiritual dislocation on numerous PIR releases. Consider, for instance, his work on the O’Jays' Ship Ahoy. On this 1973 classic, Gamble revisited the horrors of the African Miafa/Middle Passage (title track), pointed out the dangers of greed and crass materialism (“For the Love of Money”), and raised fundamental questions about the ethical dimensions and intraracial responsibilities of Black Power (“Don’t Call Me Brother”).

Even though Huff left social commentary to his more politically-engaged partner, his importance to the popularity of PIR’s message songs should not be overlooked. His moving work on acoustic piano and the Moog synthesizer added dimensions, texture, and depth to Gamble’s lyricism, communicating heartfelt emotions and feelings. Take a listen to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake-Up Everybody” and consider the degree to which Huff’s memorable solo at the beginning provides the perfect segue into song’s uplifting lyrics (written not by Gamble, but by Gene McFadden, John Whitehead, and Victor Carstarphen).

Complementing each other beautifully, Huff and Gamble created magical moments, as well as inspired many artists coming in and out of their studios. One of their greatest admirers was pop megastar Michael Jackson, who worked with the production team after he and his brothers departed Motown in 1975.

Convinced the new addition to their musical family could dominate the pop, soul, and dance charts, Epic assigned the Jacksons' production to Gamble and Huff. No one was more excited about this arrangement than brother Michael: “We'd always had great respect for the records that Gamble and Huff had overseen, records like "Back Stabbers" by the O'Jays, "If You Don't Know Me By Now", by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (featuring Teddy Pendergrass), and "When Will I See You Again", by the Three Degrees, along with many other hits.” Very attentive to Gamble and Huff’s creative process, Jackson learned a great deal about songwriting from the two men. “Just watching Huff play the piano while Gamble sang,” the superstar later recalled in his autobiography, “taught me more about the anatomy of a song than anything else. Kenny Gamble is a master melody man. He made me pay closer attention to the melody because of watching him create.”

To Michael Jackson and many others, Gamble and Huff elevated pop and soul to a level of unprecedented sophistication. Love for the architects of Philly soul, however, was not universal.

Complaints that PIR, with its lush orchestration, sprawling arrangements, and excessive sentimentality, had taken the grit out of soul intensified during the second half of the 1970s. “Most recent Philadelphia International records,” critic Russell Gersten bemoaned in a 1977 review, “have sounded over-refined and almost emotionless.” Coupled with complaints about PIR’s antiseptic sound were broadsides against Gamble’s political rumblings. Of concern for some writers, including Robert Christgau and Robert Palmer, were the heavy dosages of testosterone and patriarchal impulses found in some of the lyrics.

Complaints from critics, however, hardly kept fans from the record stores. Sales of PIR artists remained solid during the second half of the '70s. Still connecting deeply with their base of supporters, Gamble and Huff scored number #1 hits with the O’Jays (“I Love Music” and “Use Ta Be My Girl”), People’s Choice (“Do It Any Way You Wanna”), and the newly acquired Lou Rawls (“You’ll Never Find (A Love Like Mine”).

Gamble and Huff (outsides) with Teddy Pendergrass

(center) during contract signing

Considerable magic was also created with PIR’s leading man, Teddy Pendergrass. Leaving Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes in 1975, Pendergrass embarked on a hugely successful solo career. Thanks to classics like “The Whole Town’s Laughing at Me”, “You Can’t Hide from Yourself”, “Life Is a Song Worth Singing”, “Close the Door”, “Come Go with Me”, “Turn Off the Lights”, and “Love T.K.O”, Pendergrass ascended quickly to superstar status in the music world. His albums regularly reached platinum status, his songs received constant airplay, and his legendary ladies-only shows packed venues large and small.

Everything seemed in its right place -- until March 18, 1982, when a horrific car crash in the Germantown section of Philly left Pendergrass paralyzed from the neck down. Emotionally devastated, Gamble and Huff struggled to deal with the questions and emotional pain brought by this mind-numbing tragedy. A man who had contributed immensely to the success of their empire was in the fight of his life.

Small surprise given Pendergrass’s importance, PIR’s future was also in question. A major concern was the company’s relationship and distribution deal with Columbia/Epic. Now with a roster boasting talents like Earth, Wind and Fire, the Isley Brothers, Luther Vandross, and Michael Jackson, the Columbia family no longer relied on PIR as a gateway to black dollars. Considering the changing circumstances, few were surprised when Columbia/CBS/Epic suspended its deal with PIR in November of 1982.

Struggling to remain a force in the industry after the split, PIR released leftovers from Patti Labelle’s 1981 sessions (which included classics like “If Only You Knew” and “Love and Need and Want You”), along with material from the O’Jays, the Jones Girls, and Teddy Pendergrass. Ominous clouds hung over PIR, but not everyone had lost faith in the company. Thanks to their past record of success, Gamble and Huff secured a distribution deal with Capitol-EMI in 1985. Out of this partnership came memorable records like the O’Jays’ Let Me Touch You and Phyllis Hyman’s amazing Living All Alone and Prime of My Life. But though strong in many regards, none of these releases had the commercial success and cultural impact of the music from Gamble and Huff’s golden years.

Gamble and Huff accept Dance Music Hall of Fame Award in 2005

As time passed, new genres emerged, new stars rose to ascension, and the names of Gamble and Huff faded from the charts. But their music has remained a part of our cultural landscape. Their continued influence can be gauged by the mega-corporations (including Gap and Chevron) utilizing their music in commercials, the frequency in which their songs still invade our airwaves, and the profound respect they’ve garnered from some of the industry’s most influential players. "They're not only role models,” producer James “Jimmy Jam” Harris once remarked, “I think of them as road maps.”

Undoubtedly millions of music fans who loved, danced, and cried to Gamble and Huff’s classic anthems share Harris’s admiration and respect, and the Ahmet Ertegun Award is thoroughly deserved.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

69. Arcade Fire - "Creature Comfort"

This is a big, bold statement of intent from Arcade Fire. There is a clear and admirable desire for the band not to spend too long in the same space and to mine their DNA to reinvigorate themselves. The big synths and angular new wave of early '80s the Cure sound fresh and like nothing the band has done before. Despite the retro stylings, the subject matter is refreshingly current as the group deal with the quest for personal validation from family, friends, and strangers, the anxieties of negative body image and the relentless pursuit of fame at the expense of everything else. The band cleverly offer a metaphorical panacea for all of these ills in the form of "Creature Comfort". Something to numb the pain. This is a song that leaves you anything but anesthetized. - Paul Carr

68. Alt-J - "In Cold Blood"

As far as songs about murders at pool parties go, "In Cold Blood" is actually pretty heady. In true alt-J fashion, it's hard to tell what's a red herring and what's actually relevant to the song, but as with the best songs, it doesn't particularly matter when it's this catchy. The random snippets of binary code, the allusion to C.S. Lewis' Caspian, the extended coda of "La la la"s, these are diversions from the subject at hand, perhaps because the gravity of the matter would make for too heavy a song, perhaps because alt-J delights in being obtuse. Still, with imagery as vivid as "Hair the way the sun really wants it to be" and "Lifeless back slaps the surface of the pool", it is still appropriately shocking, and yet morbidly catchy, particularly once the horns kick in. It makes you feel guilty for enjoying it, which is probably just perfect as far as alt-J is concerned. - Mike Schiller

67. The Mynabirds - "Golden Age"

The transition from 2016 to 2017 needed an elegy, an understated anthem of disillusionment and sorrow, and this is it. With its staid piano melody and Laura Burhenn's velvet vocals, the song taps into the sucker-punch trauma of feeling like social progress's trajectory was a bait-and-switch that made the eventual collapse that more crushing. The lyrics read as a litany of topical grief — the deaths of Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, worsening climate change, rampant police brutality, the severing of family ties amid political lines, and, presciently considering when it was written, the emboldening of American Nazism by Donald Trump's presidential election. Dour stuff, to be sure, yet Burhenn isn't ready to seal the mausoleum. Rather, "Golden Age" is the sound of an ideal beaten but unbroken, its swollen eye still focused on the future. It's a rail against complacency and surrender and offers needed comfort and warmth, while still being goosebumps-inducing in its call to arms. It might be a lofty comparison, but "Golden Age" is a spiritual successor to Lennon's "Imagine" in the current climate. - Cole Waterman

66. Sir Sly - "High"

The premise isn't too groundbreaking: a group of young indie poppers with hip haircuts singing about getting high. What sets Sir Sly's take on getting high apart from many others is how current it is. Sir Sly's "High" nails the mindset of many a millennial as the group sings about "wondering what peace would be like" - drugs as a means of escape from this very specific wave of global turmoil. On top of that, the chorus is mind-blowingly catchy, the beats enticing. This is a social statement you can dance to, an escapist earworm and a party anthem for our times. - Adriane Pontecorvo

65. Taylor Swift - "...Ready For It?"

The essence of pop music is saying the same things over and over again in slightly different ways. This is how life works too. We settle into routines and measure our lives by the degree to which those routines shift or are disrupted over time. Most of Taylor Swift's songs are about what happens when you think about romance the way songs and movies tell us to, but she never seems to run out of new ways to frame that experience.

Usually, it's a matter of melodies or words, but sometimes, it's also a matter of sound, of putting her compositions in an environment that's a little unstable. She does this on "...Ready for It?," which is the most sonically mischievous and audacious song she's released. Over a harsh, sneering rhythm track, Swift covers familiar ground--the rush of new love, the relationship between reality and fantasy--but it doesn't feel that way because the song has a few clever ideas it gets just right: a trio of distorted bass notes that begin and repeat throughout the song; and low-pitched, synthetic brass notes that hit during the pre-chorus. Both signal that something is different, that no matter how many times we fall in love, it will always feel new. - Mark Matousek

64. Carly Rae Jepsen - "Cut to the Feeling"

Nobody has cornered the effervescent side of North American pop music quite like Carly Rae Jepsen has in the past couple years. Arriving on the heels of 2015's triumphant Emotion, "Cut to the Feeling" continues that soaring momentum. Not a whit of the song is particularly groundbreaking; instead it is a classic formula executed to perfection, building from tense verses to a chorus that explodes like fireworks. Nolan Lambroza's production is shimmering and radiant, the perfect backdrop for Ms. Jepsen, who conveys the song's feeling of euphoria with her trademark charisma. It's the type of pop music that puts a smile on your face. - Adrien Begrand

63. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - "Continental Breakfast"

At one point in "Continental Breakfast", Courtney holds up a video of "Kurt and Courtney", the chronicling of the relationship of lead singers Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, two of rock's greatest misfits. The synergy between Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett is less fraught; it's downright amicable. It's not difficult to fall in love with both songwriters as they bounce around their domestic lives, interacting with babies, children, and elders alike, with smiles the whole way through. If you don't find this video endearing, you probably don't have a soul. - Tristan Kneschke

62. Animal Collective - "Kinda Bonkers"

Animal Collective follow up last year's Painting With album with more of the same on new EP The Painters. Like much of their best work, "Kinda Bonkers" is bursting with ideas. Built on tabla percussion, see-saw keyboards and parallel vocals that bounce, ping and collide, the band throw everything they can in to see what cooks. All of these different ingredients are whipped up into a customary, trippy, psychedelic sponge. The whole thing is as irrepressible and energetic as you would expect, but it somehow feels more rounded. More straightforward and undemanding, never feeling like it might collapse under the weight of the hooks and melodies the band has crammed on every tier. - Paul Carr

61. ANOHNI - "Paradise"

ANOHNI's inimitable vocals are like a fixed quantity in her music, ensuring that most anything she sings retains an element of pained, graceful beauty no matter how harrowing or grisly the topic. "Paradise", another collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never following last year's HOPELESSNESS, pushes this principle to its limit. The track is a tortured dirge barely disguised as bass-heavy synthpop, a veil disintegrating at the seams. ANOHNI sings as one caught between global concerns and her own personal, particular pain, lamenting the solipsistic confines of being but a single "point of consciousness". Perhaps the paradise she evokes, a "world without end", is one where the boundaries of the self are dissolved altogether, opening the way for empathy. And yet any clear vision of that utopia is clouded amid the wailing electronics, making it clear that we'll have to contend with our own kaleidoscopes of pain for some time to come. - Andrew Dorsett

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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