Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Singles Scene #1

Cambridge: What is the singles scene? The singles scene could be simply defined as a look at Canadian music through the eyes of the singles that have brought Canadian music to the world. But it will, I hope, be so much more. It is a search for the heart of Canadian music through those singles. As well, it is a search for those singles. A journey through yard sales, music stores, flea markets, the basements and the dens of the people foolish enough to let me near their homes.The single is an ubiquitous element in popular music from the 1950's to the 1990's. Elvis Presley and Live Aid were both end products of hit singles. And so it is with Canadian music. Canada has never had it's Wagner, it's Verdi, or it's Beethoven. Thirty years ago the term Canadian music would have been a punch line. But through the very singles we are about to search out, from Paul Anka, to the Guess Who, to the Tragically Hip, Canadian music is definable by the singles we used to listen to.

The single is also a physical product. It is what fed the music industry for the 1950's and 60's, and supplemented the albums we remember in "Milk Crate Classic" for the next 30 years. The 7" piece of vinyl (also known as a 45 because they were played at 45 RPM on the record player) was the song your favourite AM radio station played. Today, we would watch the video. Twenty years ago, we went out and bought the single. If the single were still in prominence, if the record companies hadn't been so greedy as to do away with 99¢ music, there would have been no need for Napster. But they are still out there, in some cases wasting away (in those crummy antique shops with old coke bottles and Beatles singles), alive and well heard in others (my basement). And in those piles of antique junk, and personal treasure troves, there lies the heart and soul of Canadian music.

For surely, this is where Canadian music exists; in the singles. Without 7" vinyl would we have ever heard of BTO, Anne Murray or Bryan Adams?

Less obvious, what would the Stampeders, Brutus or Hagood Hardy have done without a hit single. Making money in the Canadian music industry has always been a near impossibility, without singles it would be a complete rout. Canadian music was born, bred and kept alive through the single. And sometimes, the story behind the piece of vinyl, is as interesting and telling as the song itself. So join me in my search for Canadian music as I delve into collections of singles aiming to unearth Canadian gold.

We begin our journey with a descent, not a literal descent, but a physical one. My basement. There sits a few hundred singles, not a few in the field of CanCon. This is a place we will return again and again, examining the old and story telling from the past.

Today I pull out The Stampeders Sweet City Woman.

Now here's a great place to start, the core of Canadian music. My three-year-old son dances happily as I play the song through. Same reaction I had when I was ten. The single looks like it was once owned by a ten-year-old too, although I'm not sure it ever really was. I remember the song, but I don't remember the single until later. The single is scratchy, as singles always were, and has a chip out of the corner, but it can be played; I can't count how many 45's I have owned with a chip out of the corner. Many have complained about the quality of vinyl records through the years, but the record players were made to play whatever you put on them. (Try playing a CD with a chip off the corner some day.) So despite the chip, the banjo comes on anyway; a few bars late perhaps but unmistakably the banjo of Sweet City Woman.

What can you say about this song: "Great Beat and I can dance to it Dick. 4 out of 5!" That about covers it, but there's more. So much more. It has always seemed to me that Canadian music has an ability to deliver pappable pop with a very hard edge. This song does that. Hummable melody, high tempo banjo the like of which has never been done by a hard rock band, yet there is that guitar in the chorus, reminding you that these guys were hard rock. One of the great advantages of 45 (and of Napster, just in case some record company clown is reading) is that a group could switch gears and you didn't have to spend $20.00 to get one song you liked and 8 mediocre ones you would never listen to. So it was that hard rock acts like the Stampeders could do a song like "Sweet City Woman" and everybody would be happy.

The Stampeders had other hits: Ramona and Wild Eye's come to mind, and I distinctly remember the 45 for Hit The Road Jack around the house, although I have no clue what happened to it (hopefully that will be another installment of "The Singles Scene"). But Sweet City Woman is the Stampeders song. One listen to that old 45, and I remember why.