Anglo-Canadian Rock 'n' Roll and Rock Music | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Anglo-Canadian Rock 'n' Roll and Rock Music

Rock 'n' roll and rock music emerged in the 1950s and 1960s from roots in African-American musical styles (such as jump blues, rhythm and blues, and electric blues), and in white styles (such as swing, western swing, and country music).

The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll in the 1940s and 1950s

Rock 'n' roll and rock music emerged in the 1950s and 1960s from roots in African-American musical styles (such as jump blues, rhythm and blues, and electric blues), and in white styles (such as swing, western swing, and country music). The term "rock 'n' roll" originated in certain US R&B songs of the late 1940s. In the early 1950s, white US disc jockey Alan Freed (1922-65) began to apply it more broadly to music for the newly established socio-economic category, the "teenager." The best-known rock 'n' roll stars of 1955-9 included African-Americans such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and Little Richard, and white Americans such as Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Rock 'n' roll became an international phenomenon, including a substantial following in Canada, but until the 1960s and the development of rock music, nearly all of its stars were from the US.

Stylistic Features of Rock 'n' Roll

Lyrically, rock 'n' roll often includes songs about such comparatively youthful topics as dating, cars, and school. Musically, it often features an energetic, 4/4-time, backbeat-driven style, centred around one or more electric guitars, upright string or electric bass, and drums. Some performers also prominently used the piano and/or retained saxophones and similar instruments from earlier forms. Many rock 'n' roll songs follow highly regularized applications of the three-chord, 12-bar blues form or, sometimes, alternate that form with a musically distinct chorus or verse section. Unlike with Tin Pan Alley pop music, rock 'n' roll musicians often wrote their own songs (Presley was an exception) or established highly individual vocal, guitar, and/or piano styles. Certain pop styles of the 1950s and early 1960s (such as vocal-oriented groups and "teen idols," including such Canadians as the Crew-Cuts and Paul Anka) were, at the time, also considered a part of "rock 'n' roll."

Early Canadian Rock 'n' Roll, 1958-63

The first Canadian-based rock 'n' roll star to show promise internationally was US expatriate Ronnie Hawkins. His 1959 US recording of "Mary Lou" and his cover version of Chuck Berry's 1955 hit "Forty Days" (which Hawkins recorded 1959 in the US) were quite successful on the early Canadian radio charts of 1959-60. Although Hawkins never really succeeded as a major star, even in Canada, he and his various bands became best-known as hard-working "talent scouts" for promising young Canadian musicians. An early version of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in 1963 recorded a cover version of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" That version of the Hawks later became The Band, including Robbie Robertson.

The Asteroids made ca 1958 the first rock 'n' roll record in Atlantic Canada ("Shhhhh Blast Off" and "Don't Dig This Algebra" on Halifax's Rodeo Records), and in 1959 Montreal's the Beau-Marks recorded the first internationally successful Canadian-made rock 'n' roll hit ("Clap Your Hands" for Quality Records, released in 1960). Bobby Curtola also recorded his earliest Canadian hit ("Hand in Hand with You" for Tartan Records, also released in 1960).

The Emergence of Rock Music, 1963-9

Various developments led to "rock" music by the mid to late 1960s. These included increased complexities of song construction and lyrics, as well as expanded interest in earlier US blues forms and in recording songs and/or albums as cohesive artistic statements. This also involved exploring more extensive chord structures, modal harmonies, increasingly sophisticated instrumental and vocal palettes, and even the occasional use of early 20th-century pop song styles. British musicians became so successful in exploring these and other areas that North America experienced a "British Invasion" by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, the Yardbirds, the Hollies, Gerry & the Pacemakers, and Cream. Numerous Canadian bands emerged in their wake, such as Little Caesar & the Consuls, Ritchie Knight & the Mid-Knights, and Jon & Lee & the Checkmates. A number of important rock clubs emerged in Toronto in the 1960s, such as the Le Coq D'or, the Rock Pile, and the Electric Circus.

The Paupers (of the recording Magic People) were the first Canadian rock band with a US recording contract, and the Ugly Ducklings, who had an international hit with "Nothin'," opened in 1966 for the Rolling Stones at Maple Leaf Gardens.

The Psychedelic Era, 1967-9

By 1967, recent US experimental and psychedelic rock (such as the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead) influenced various Canadian bands, including Luke & the Apostles, the Mandala (including guitarist Domenic Troiano), Robbie Lane & the Disciples (who had recorded in 1964 with Ronnie Hawkins), Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers (which included future comedic actor Tommy Chong), Motherlode, the Haunted, the influential but short-lived Kensington Market, and the seminal jazz-rock orchestra, Lighthouse. Stylistically, such groups explored expanded live performances (often through improvisation), influences from non-western culture or drug experimentation, and/or the use of recording studio and instrumental (especially guitar) effects. Important larger-scale events and venues included free concerts at Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square (usually in combination with major US groups, such as the Jefferson Airplane, but also featuring Lighthouse in 1969), a week-long series of concerts in 1967 at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre (with Luke & the Apostles opening for the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead), Montréal's Expo 67, and 1969's Toronto Pop Festival and Rock 'n' Roll Revival Show (both held at the University of Toronto's Varsity Stadium). The latter included John Lennon in one of his earliest appearances outside the Beatles.

US-Based Rock Music Involving Canadians, 1965-72

The folk/pop-influenced rock group the Lovin' Spoonful included Zal Yanovsky, and the similar group the Mamas and the Papas included Dennis Doherty. Both musicians formerly had folk-oriented bands in Canada (including, together, the Halifax Three Plus One), and both had participated in similar US groups (such as the Mugwumps and the Journeymen). Neil Young played guitar, sang, and wrote songs with several groups in Canada 1963-6 (especially the Squires and the Mynah Birds), participated in 1966-70 with several highly successful US-based folk-rock groups (Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), and also established his solo career by 1968-70. Galt MacDermot wrote the music for the rock musical Hair (1967). Levon and the Hawks (named after Levon Helm, the group's Arkansas-born drummer, and all formerly members of Ronnie Hawkins' Hawks) 1965-6 worked with US singer-songwriter Bob Dylan during his transition to electric folk-rock. They established a highly influential roots rock style and changed their name to the Band. The counterculture rock band Steppenwolf ("Born to be Wild") formed in 1967 but had earlier been based in Toronto as the blues-rock band, the Sparrow.

The jazz-influenced rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears from 1968-72 included UK-born, Canadian-raised singer-songwriter David Clayton-Thomas, who had previously performed in Canada with the Bossmen and as David Clayton-Thomas and the Fabulous Shays. The only Canadians (all US-based) to play at the 1969 US Woodstock festival were Neil Young (with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), the majority-Canadian the Band, and David Clayton-Thomas (with Blood, Sweat & Tears).

Canadian Content and International Successes, 1969-77

In the 1970s, a more substantial Canadian recording industry emerged, as did the influential Canadian content broadcast regulations and the use of multi-purpose halls, sports arenas, and amphitheatres for popular music concerts. Thus, popular musicians increasingly found it possible to find substantial audiences within Canada and/or internationally without permanently moving to the US. The most successful Canadian band of 1969-72, and one of the most successful in the world, was the Guess Who, with various major international hits including 1970's "American Woman" (the first US #1 hit by a Canadian rock band). The group's guitarist-songwriter, Randy Bachman, then formed Bachman-Turner Overdrive, which had similar international successes, especially 1973's "Takin' Care of Business." The jazz-rock orchestra Lighthouse had some international successes (such as "One Fine Morning," 1970), and the Five Man Electrical Band (formerly the Staccatos) had a major international hit with the 1971 anti-establishment song "Signs." A version of Ronnie Hawkins' Hawks formed Crowbar, which had some Canadian successes (especially "Oh, What a Feeling," 1971).

The 1970 cross-Canada Transcontinental Pop Festival included several Canadian rock bands: Mashmakhan (which had an international psychedelic hit that year with "As the Years Go By"), Ian and Sylvia Tyson's country-rock band (the Great Speckled Bird), and the Full-Tilt Boogie Band (which was the backing group for US blues-rock singer Janis Joplin). The British art rock band Procol Harum recorded its 1972 live album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Other Canadian bands in this era included Copperpenny, Fludd, and the Quebec groups Beau Dommage and Harmonium.

Blues-Rock and Similar Fusions, late 1960s to 2000s

With the blues providing an important backdrop both to rock 'n' roll and rock music, it is not surprising that many bands and solo artists pursued blues-rock and similar types of fusions. Improvised solos (especially on the electric guitar) and expanded live performances were central to this style. From the late 1960s to the early 2000s, these included McKenna Mendelson Mainline (including future solo iconoclast Mendelson Joe), King Biscuit Boy, the Dutch Mason Blues Band, Colin Linden, Pat Travers, David Wilcox, Matt Minglewood, Offenbach, the Downchild Blues Band (also known as Downchild), the Powder Blues Band (also known as Powder Blues), the Blues Brothers (US-based, but including Canadian comedic actor Dan Aykroyd), and Long John Baldry (British-born, and a Canadian citizen as of 1980). Younger bands and artists exploring these and similar styles included the Jeff Healey Band (including Healey's solo "post-blues-rock" jazz and other work), Colin James, Big Sugar, and the rock 'n' roll revival bands Doug and the Slugs, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (largely instrumental), and the Deadly Snakes.

Hard, Progressive, Heavy Metal, and Album Rock, 1970s and 1980s

Hard rock, progressive rock, and heavy metal formed important album-oriented sub-genres of rock music in the 1970s and 1980s, and many Canadian artists adeptly explored and/or combined them. This eclectic music also sometimes involved lengthier songs (though often fully composed instead of mainly improvised), a certain number of ideological and/or science-fiction lyrics, the possibility of influences from classical music and/or jazz-rock fusion, and (in some cases) considerably expanded metrical constructions. Heavy metal often focused on aspects of power, distortion, high tenor vocals, and guitar virtuosity. Artists working in these various styles included Mahogany Rush (fronted by Frank Marino); progressive/hard rock band Rush (Canada's most internationally successful album-rock band); the progressive/synthesizer bands FM and Saga; and eclectic pop-rock groups (including "power ballads"), such as April Wine, Trooper, Max Webster (with later solo artist Kim Mitchell), Sweeney Todd, and Chilliwack (with origins as the Classics and the Collectors). They also included the hard/"arena" rock artists Prism, Triumph, Harlequin, Streetheart, Red Rider (with later solo artist Tom Cochrane), the Kings, Loverboy, and Bryan Adams in addition to the heavy metal artists Goddo, Helix and Lee Aaron, the influential "thrash metal" band Voivod, and hard rock artists such as the Headpins (including former members of Chilliwack), Toronto (featuring singer Holly Woods), Sheriff, Aldo Nova, Honeymoon Suite, Frozen Ghost (including former members of Sheriff), and Platinum Blonde.

Punk, Post-Punk, New Wave, and Hardcore, late 1970s-early 1990s

Punk rock focused on a raw, unpolished, and sometimes scatological update of the energy and attitude originally demonstrated by certain 1950s' rock 'n' roll stars. Post-punk styles, especially new wave, emerged by combining certain punk elements with a greater emphasis on pop-friendly "hooks." Hardcore groups reacted to post-punk by becoming even more extreme than punk, but this also meant that they sometimes bordered on the virtuosity and intensity of certain forms of heavy metal (especially speed metal and thrash metal). Vancouver and Victoria produced many punk rock bands, such as D.O.A. and the Young Canadians (including future solo artist Art Bergmann), as well as the slightly later alternative/industrial group Skinny Puppy and the hardcore/metal band Dayglo Abortions. Toronto, Hamilton, and London produced such punk and post-punk bands as Teenage Head, the Viletones, the Diodes, the Forgotten Rebels, and the Demics. Post-punk, new wave, and/or synthesizer-pop artists included Martha and the Muffins, Rough Trade (featuring singer Carole Pope), the Payola$ (later called Rock and Hyde), the Spoons, Rational Youth, and Images in Vogue.

Hard, "Alternative," Roots, Grunge, and Post-Grunge, late 1980s-2000s

Although many of the bands and solo artists listed above remained active into the 1990s and/or 2000s, numerous younger colleagues joined them. These included hard rock bands the Tragically Hip and the Tea Party and female rock singers Lisa Dal Bello and Sass Jordan. Also, several Canadian singers contributed to important US pop/metal and progressive/hard rock bands, such as Skid Row's Sebastian Bach and Dream Theater's James LaBrie. In addition, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Rolling Stones often undertook their pre-tour rehearsals in Toronto. The numerous "alternative" Canadian rock bands included the Pursuit of Happiness, the Grapes of Wrath, the Northern Pikes, the Skydiggers, 54•40, the Box, the Infidels (including future solo artist Molly Johnston), Crash Vegas (featuring singer-songwriter Michelle McAdorey and, initially, former Martha and the Muffins bassist Jocelyne Lanois), the Quebec Innu band Kashtin, 13 Engines, the Barenaked Ladies, Tal Bachman, Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavigne, the Constantines, Black Mountain, the New Pornographers, Bedouin Soundclash, and the neo-punk bands Sum 41 and Simple Plan. Bass player Melissa Auf Der Maur performed from 1994 to the early 2000s in the US alternative rock bands Hole and Smashing Pumpkins, and she then participated in a number of collaborative projects (including vocals in a Black Sabbath tribute band called Hand of Doom) and in 2004 began a solo career. Eclectic and/or experimental groups included the Crash Test Dummies (including Brad Roberts and Ellen Reid), Rheostatics, I Mother Earth, the Arcade Fire, and Broken Social Scene (including Metric member Emily Haines); and "roots"-oriented bands included the Leslie Spit Treeo (featuring singer Laura Hubert) and Blue Rodeo (including Jim Cuddy).

Grunge music was highly influential in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it focused on the independent ("indie") and underground aspects of later punk and hardcore, but fused with some of the more accessible sensibilities and song structures of earlier pop-rock music (such as the Beatles). Neil Young's music had always veered among these "indie" versus "mainstream" tendencies (perhaps more so than any other artist), and he thus became an heroic "elder statesman" for a new generation of rock stars. From the mid-1990s into the early 2000s, post-grunge artists then retained the emotive vocals and distorted guitars of grunge, but with a much more polished and/or mainstream aesthetic. Grunge and/or post-grunge bands included Sloan, Moist (including David Usher), the Matthew Good Band, Our Lady Peace, Hedley, Billy Talent, Nickelback, and Theory of a Deadman.

Famine and Other "Relief" Concerts

In 1985, some of the rock musicians listed earlier in this article participated, along with pop and pop-oriented rock musicians, as Northern Lights to record the famine relief song "Tears are not Enough." About 20 years later, various Canadian rock and pop artists performed, in July 2003, at the massive post-SARS concert Toronto Rocks; others performed in January 2005's post-tsunami relief event Canada for Asia, and still others in the Canadian wing of the July 2005 relief event Live 8. The latter was a hi-tech, multi-country, 20th anniversary variation of the 1985 African-relief "mega-event," Live Aid. The only Canadians to play at Live Aid were Bryan Adams and Neil Young; by comparison, an extensive Canadian concert (near Barrie, Ont.) was fully integrated into Live 8. These large-scale events and activities confirm the highly successful development of a home-grown Canadian popular music industry from the 1970s to the early 2000s. In parallel with developments in pop and pop-rock music, in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s Canada also produced a substantial percentage of successful female rock musicians. Some of these, such as Alanis Morissette and Avril Lavigne, have been at least as successful internationally as their best-known male colleagues.

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