The stories behind great Canadian songs that mention great Canadian places.
If you are familiar at all with the history of modern music then you will know that musical innovation and change has appeared at regular intervals over the last seventy-eighty years. Here is a general overview that I paint with very broad brush strokes.
Modern Rock n’ Roll all began with Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her introduction to the world of a Blues-based form of guitar rock that would be emulated by the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and others. In the 1950s and into the 60s, Rock n’ Roll became the dominant music genre with folks like Elvis Presley taking the lead. As the 1960s unfolded, musical innovation came in the form of longer songs and the use of a wider variety of instruments under the stewardship of folks like The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. The 1960s gave way to psychedelic and prog rock of Early Genesis, Rush and Pink Floyd and the rock operas of The Who. In opposition to a form of music that was viewed as bloated and pompous, Punk Rock emerged and shook the world out of its complacency. As the 1970s ended and the 80s unfolded, more and more forms of musical expression came forth such as Hip Hop, New Wave, Alternative and Goth. Before we knew it, the musical landscape was a varied and exciting place indeed.
As the decade of the 1990s began, “the next big thing”, according to the music industry, came out of Seattle, Washington. The media labeled it as Grunge. Bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney and so on all burst on to the scene and raced to the top of the musical charts. These bands rose to the top in tandem with a record label that seemed to eschew traditional music industry practices and, instead, was integrated into the fabric of the very Seattle music scene, itself. That record label was known as Sub Pop. Like all emerging music scenes, the Seattle scene felt organic and true to the spirit of artistic expression. But, like all emerging music scenes, the greedy fingers of corporate rock eventually took hold and it all became a business scene. While we may never truly know what drove Nirvana lead singer, Kurt Cobain to take his own life, one of the things we do know for sure was that he was dismayed that the price tag for Nirvana’s success was having to deal with “the suits” who promoted music based upon financial considerations, first and foremost. I mention all of this because that is how the world of rock n’ rock tends to be. For every fresh-faced innovator, there are countless others sitting behind desks figuring out ways to turn that new form of magic into money. It is sad, in a way that Art and Commerce are so intrinsically intertwined but, they are.
As the Seattle Grunge scene exploded in the early 1990s, record executives scoured the planet for similar, local scenes that were quietly incubating, ready to emerge. In the UK, that saw the creation of the media-inspired sensation known as Britpop. Britpop gave us bands such as Blur, Oasis, Suede and Pulp, along with a boatload of rivalries and controversies, many of them contrived and staged. Britpop aimed to be the antithesis of the supposedly dour nature of what many perceived Grunge to be. To paraphrase Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher said when asked for his views on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, why does it have to be all doom-and-gloom?! We’re effing rock n’ roll stars! Have a little fun, why don’t ya!? So, while Britpop attempted to answer the challenge laid down by Grunge, elsewhere in the world, record executives were scouring the rest of the world for pockets of creativity and enthusiasm. This is how a record executive from Seattle-based Sub Pop Records found themselves in, of all places, Halifax, Nova Scotia…which is where our story begins.
In the early pre-Internet 1990s, Halifax was still relatively isolated in terms of its geographic location. When bands set out on cross Canada tours, that often meant traveling from Vancouver to Montreal. Halifax was considered a smaller market so not many bands made the extra effort to travel another fifteen hours east past Montreal to get to Halifax. As a teenager who grew up on Cape Breton Island, I remember how grateful we all were to bands such as April Wine, Trooper, The Stampeders, etc., who played in our biggest centre, Sydney. Not many others did. There are pros and cons to this, as there are with all things. For Halifax, it meant that their music scene was allowed to develop in relative freedom, emerging almost whole and intact when it was finally “discovered” by Sub Pop and brought forward to the rest of the world. Of course, to anyone familiar with this scene, giving Sub Pop all of the credit for putting Halifax on the musical map is a gross oversimplification of what really happened. But, for the sake of brevity, I will start there.
The first breakthrough band from Halifax in the 1990s was Sloan. *(I profiled them in a previous post which you can read here). As Sloan became a bigger name in the Canadian music industry, they did their best to help their local music scene develop by touring with local bands as the opening act, as well as playing in as many local venues as possible in order to help create and then solidify the infrastructure of a local scene. Many bands opened for Sloan such as October Talk (in which a young Sarah McLachlan was the lead singer), Eric’s Trip (out of Moncton), Jale (an all-girl band), Hardship Post (out of NFLD) and Thrush Hermit (fronted by singer/songwriter Joel Plaskett). Of these bands, Sub Pop signed almost all of them except for Sloan, who turned them down and October Talk, because Sarah McLachlan’s parents forbid her from leaving highschool before graduation. There were many more bands, singers and personalities behind the scenes in Halifax but, when Sub Pop blew through town and signed some of the most popular bands around, it gave an air of legitimacy to an organic scene that had been developing in fits and starts over the previous decade or so. But, a funny thing happened to the Halifax Pop Explosion, as it came to be known…Sloan moved out of Halifax, settling in Toronto, Sarah McLachlan was courted by numerous labels and ended up moving to Vancouver after signing with Nettwork Records. The bands signed by Sub Pop were all invited into the world of studio recordings and business meetings and tour planning, many of them heading off to the US to do so. As it turned out, Eric’s Trip, Jale and Hardship Post…although they carved out a legendary place in Canada’s Indie music scene, they never survived their Sub Pop experience and, one after the other, they ended up breaking up. The only person who never left Halifax was Joel Plaskett. He stayed behind of his own accord. To his credit, he has gone on to enjoy a solid, successful career operating out of Halifax. To those who live there, Plaskett remaining in Halifax makes a statement that counts for something.
Joel Plaskett started recording as a teenager in Halifax. Initially, he helped form Thrush Hermit with a few friends. Thrush Hermit had a great deal of local success but, as the boys in the band finished highschool, differences in ideas for their future musical direction caused the band to split up. Joel Plaskett then regrouped with some other local players, becoming the Joel Plaskett Emergency. In that band or as a solo artist, Joel Plaskett has made a name for himself as a songwriter of note in Canada. He has won several Juno awards for his music including a number of awards for his biggest selling single, “Nowhere With You”. Plaskett often includes references to local places in his songs. In “Nowhere With You”, he begins with a reference to riding on the Dartmouth ferry. For anyone unaware, Halifax has one of the best harbours on the eastern seaboard of North America. On the south side of the harbour rests the city of Halifax. On the north side of the harbour sits the city of Dartmouth. There are two big bridges that allow people to travel back and forth between Halifax and Dartmouth by car. But for many, the most convenient way to get from one side to the other is by ferry. The Dartmouth ferry is a low-cost service and, as such it allows people of all socio-economic brackets to make use of it. Thus, in “Nowhere With You”, Plaskett taps into a scenario familiar to many young people just starting out in the world, with only a few dollars in their pockets. The practice of “bumming around”, as Plaskett calls it, is a rite of passage for most teenagers. Exploring the world on a pauper’s budget was a factor in the development of the Halifax music scene, as it is with most organic music scenes around the world. Music scenes tend to develop out of the public eye, in small clubs and bars, growing by word of mouth by those with small budgets to live by and all the time in the world to do the living. In “Nowhere With You”, Joel Plaskett captures the freedom inherent in having all the time in the world and no financial constraints limiting your actions and your decision-making process. As such, the song stands as a shining example of a moment in Canadian musical history when Halifax was “the next big thing”.
Of course, claiming that Halifax’s moment in the spotlight is unique is stretching the truth a bit. All major regional centres in Canada can claim their own form of an organically-created and supported music scene. Toronto has had multiple eras where their scene was the most happening in the land. Montreal has always had an interestingly unique and vibrant music scene. Vancouver has produced some of Canada’s best music because of the geography of their location which is similar in many ways to that of Halifax. Winnipeg has had a scene. Alberta has had their own scene. On and on it goes. Music scenes come and music scenes go. What is most important is the music itself. For me, music isn’t about record sales, internet streams or Spotify downloads. For me, music is about sharing stories and building a sense of community. It is creativity and energy and escape. I have always been an Art-before-Commerce kind of guy. Because of that, it puts me in the initial phases on the developmental spectrum of local music scenes. I have always championed bands before they break out into the big time. That having been said, I have no beef for those who get “discovered” and decide to go for it by signing with a major label. I still like Nirvana and respect them as a band. I still love Sloan and respect them as a band. As John Mellencamp once sang, “I’m still hayseed enough to say, “Look who’s in the big town”. But, for those who stay true to the roots of their local music scene and continue to thrive, I have an extra amount of respect and admiration. So, to Joel Plaskett, I salute you, sir! Thanks for growing up in Halifax and believing that all of the beauty you require can be found along its shores.
The link to the video for the song, “Nowhere With You” by Joel Plaskett Emergency can be found here. ***The link to the lyrics version can be found here.
The link to the official website for Joel Plaskett can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Halifax Regional Municipality (of which Dartmouth is a member) can be found here.
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