Cameron Carpenter: The ABC’s Of Rock’n’Roll – C2
I never got to work with Lionel Richie when he was in The Commodores but did have the chance to work with the group during their “Nightshift” period. From first listen there was something magical about the song. After Lionel had left for a very successful solo career, his replacement J.D. Nicholas seemed a rather odd choice. J.D. was a Brit and had recently been in the band Heatwave who had supported the Commodores on their European tour.
The song was a love letter to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson and soon charged to the top of the charts. Two distinct rock’n’roll moments stand out for me during this time. The first was when the band played the old Ontario Place Forum. It was a beautiful summer night and the place was packed to the back of the hills. It was decided that I was going to interrupt the show during one of the song intros and walk on stage and surprise the band with their gold records for the album. With mic in hand I walked on stage and brought the show to a screeching stop much to the surprise of the seasoned Motown veterans. Being one who suffers from extreme stage fright this was no easy task. I have no idea what I said but before I knew it I was back in the tunnel still trembling but would always be able to say I had been part of a Motown show.
We did a more formal record presentation with the label executives later in the trip. Back then I was always taking Motown artists to Roots on Avenue Road as Michael and Don, the founders of the prestigious Canadian company, were Detroit natives and grew up on that Motown sound. They loved their Motown artists and would gladly outfit their heroes in Roots gear. Frankie Gaye (upper right hand corner), Marvin’s brother, was in Toronto at the time and we decided to have him present the record on behalf of the Gaye family. Frankie was the inspiration for the song “What’s Going On” as he recounted his Viet Nam experiences to his brother Marvin. It was a pretty special moment and sadly we have since lost Frankie as well.
This was my rock’n’roll bible as an impressionable teen. It was Mad Magazine meets National Lampoon, Esquire meets Rolling Stone and everything in-between. It brought rock to my front door and made it fun. I would read Rolling Stone for the record reviews but I was still too young to understand the brilliance of Hunter S. Thompson and his political rants or how good a writer Ben Fong-Torres was. (For an emotional read I recommend his memoir “The Rice Room” and his Gram Parsons biography “Hickory Wind” is pretty well mandatory reading) If I needed song lyrics (hey there was no Google) I would pick up the latest issue of Hit Parader, and Circus Magazine was the place to go for new posters for your bedroom or locker. Crawdaddy always seemed to be a little too hippy for me so I usually avoided it unless there was a cover story on someone I really loved. With Creem I could look at pictures of Patti Smith drinking Boy Howdy! beer and I could read her musings on music as well. The magazine introduced me to the Hall of Fame of rock journalism: Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Cameron Crowe, Greil Marcus, Lisa Robinson, Robert Christgau, Nick Tosches and a host of others (including local scribes Alan Niester and Jeffrey Morgan) showed me that writing about music could be both intelligent and funny (still learning). Although the magazine could be critical it was usually the easy targets they went after and for the most part they were a loving fanzine. The musicians were willing participants and seemed to have no problem laughing at themselves when they were the subject of an infamous “Creem’s Profile”. These were a direct steal of “Dewar’s Profile” which was a thumbnail sketch of the pretentious and their choice of scotch. Creem’s choice of intoxicant was Boy Howdy! beer with it’s famous Robert Crumb illustrated label (rumour has it Creem only paid him $50.00 for the design). Star’s Cars was another recurring pictorial as our heroes showed off their often fictitious rides. Another staple was “Backstage – Where The Stars Tank Up & Let Their Images Down”. This was a group of candid photos of rock stars hanging out with each other at CB’s or Max’s or The Roxy and the captions usually took the piss. It was long before corporate logo encrusted backdrops and pre-paid meet and greets. There seemed to be a honesty to it and no one seemed that enamoured with their own image or had a publicist pinned to their side trying to spin everything. Those were the first three sections I would check out in every issue, then head to the letters section (sent by mail! with stamps!) and the snarky sarcastic comebacks. These were the fun part of the mag but it was there in-depth and insightful band profiles that turned me on to so much music.
Because the magazine was based in Detroit it seemed so much closer to home than the magazines who called New York or Los Angeles home. Toronto was closer in attitude and distance to Detroit than it was to NYC or LA and there was more of a working class mentality and spirit that permeated our Michigan neighbours. Also, because of the physical proximity a lot of the bands that Creem first unleashed on the world were locals and the often made the trek across the 401 to Toronto. I am sure we had much more access to Iggy, Bob Seger and The Romantics than our friends from Calgary.
Started in 1969 Creem was at its peak during the seventies as both rock and journalism both mutated and found their own levels. The tone of the magazine seemed to change in the eighties, or maybe it was me dealing with jobs, kids and responsibility. In the early 2000’s it looked like the magazine was going to make a return and for a couple of years they could be found on-line and writing about current bands. The site is now gone and the push to re-introduce the brand seems to be a battle left for the courts.
For a great overview of the glory days hunt around for the coffee table book written by Robert Matheu and Brian J. Bowe.
There are literally thousands of bands out there who have released one, two or three great songs and you were sure they were going to be the next thing. Today it seems like you can breakthrough on one song and be headlining arenas, and, just as quickly, been thrown aside to the one-hit wonder scrap heap and relegated to the used CD pile (will there ever be a used digital pile?) Maybe it is better not to make the quantum leap and having the opportunity to make some semblance of a living slugging it out on the road, seeing the country and meeting a few passionate fans every night. I didn’t know too much about The Connells when I got our package of prospective new releases from TVT Records (we distributed the label when I worked for MCA). It contained the album “Fun And Games” and was sent as more of a courtesy of what was in the catalogue than a request for release. It was a fun little record and their Ricky-inspired sound was reminiscent of a less wordy R.E.M. or another of those great “shoulda” been bands The Long Ryders. It was the next record when they made their mark. “One Simple Word” contained one of those songs that stops you dead in your tracks “Stone Cold Yesterday”. Great lyrics, a deadly guitar line and a sing along chorus add up to a perfect song for me. From Raleigh, North Carolina the band did come up to Toronto a couple of times, and because knowing all true Canadians were stick-waving hockey fans bestowed the nickname “Gump” upon me (Habs fans will know who I am talking about). The band did it again on their next record “Ring” with another stunningly perfect pop songs “Slackjawed”. Love that word almost as much as “gobsmacked” which I’m sure the British invented after the War Of 1812 as they were sick of saying slackjawed. They had a hit in Europe with another song from the “Ring” album “74-75” which pre-dated a similar style hit by The Verve Pipe “The Freshmen”. The Connells still put out the occasional song and play a show or two. Bands like these are the foundation of what was great with rock’n’roll and if we want it to continue we all need to turn up at a couple of shows and show them all support. Check out Frank’s column every Wednesday at DBAWIS for his impressive lists of undiscovered and painfully neglected rock’n’roll heroes. Actually, you should be reading everyone’s weekly passionate pleas on music and movies. I do.
The wait is over and you can now pick up Cobra’s new album on iTunes or her Bandcamp page (http://cobraramone.com/ ). Imagine a slightly more mature Runaways fuelled by Jack Daniels and a bad attitude. Our west coast friends should be able to see some Vancouver area shows very soon.
Cam’s column appears every Thursday.
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The Shanghai Cowgirl ( 538 Queen Street West) still remains my fave rock‘n‘roll hang in Toronto. There is nothing better than sitting on the back deck in the sunshine, or, when the weather does not permit, the front table where you can watch the world go by. It’s the kind of place I have no qualms about walking in to alone as there is always someone there that I know. Can’t beat the chicken fried steak and on my visit last week noticed a few new menu items. Love it.
Cameron Carpenter has written for The New Music Magazine, Music Express, The Asylum, The Varsity, The Eye Opener, The New Edition, Shades, Bomp!, Driven Magazine, FYI Music News, The Daily XY and Don’t Believe A Word I Say.