Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Niut Blanche 2009 review

I finally got around to doing the whole Niut Blanche thing. For those who don't know, it's a whole night of various art pieces throughout the city from dusk to dawn, and it's free. It's been around for a few years but I was always busy or whatever and I wasn't real clear on what it was. But Alisa does the whole experience every year and invited me so we stocked up on water, munchies, comfortable shoes and an umbrella and made a night of it.

7pm ~ Nuit Blanche officially starts, I haven't left home yet but CIUT is playing an electronic soundtrack while the lights on the CN Tower change and pulsate to the beat. It's not dark enough yet to get the full effect though.

8pm ~ Meet up at The R.O.M. where they are showing an exhibit of photos and covers from "Vanity Fair" going back to 1913. This isn't really an actual Nuit exhibit but rather an ongoing one that they are including in for free. Fairly crowded but the line up moves quickly. Not surprisingly we prefer the old black and white photos, Louise Brooks and her shining black do, James Joyce and his eyepatch, Cary Grant, Albert Einstien, Sergi Eisenstien, H.G.Wells, Picasso, Jean Harlow, Kate Hepburn. Someone wonders aloud if Kate is related to Audrey and if Jean Harlow copped her look from Marylin Monroe. Time to move on. By the time we get outside the line is winding around the corner.

9:15pm ~ The Royal Conservatory; Now we're talking, a sound college made up of musicians on three floors playing sustained notes with plenty of echo and coloured lights. In the auditorium there are eight singers exchanging more sustained notes. Eerie. Sounds like the soundtrack from Kubricks "2001". I would have turned the lights down for more atmosphere though. The Royal also has a collection of cool antique instruments behind glass. Outside a large group of buskers have shown up to take advantage of the crowds provided by the now long lineups. The usual jugglers, giant unicycle rider and a troop of Morris Dancers. For those who don't know Morris Dances are English folk dancers who wear baby blue hats, vests, kneepants and bells on their legs and shoes while dancing in circles while waving sticks and hankies. They look like the Tetley Tree Folk from the old commercial. Why the English who had the worlds greatest empire and body of literature also produced the world's silliest folk dance I'm sure I don't know. Afterwards we stop off at Subway to polish off a quick hogie. I mention this because it's almost the only money I had to spend all night.

11:30 ~ Hart House; Heading south we reach U of T where CIUT's new digs are, they're not actually home since they are broadcasting from the CN Tower. However in the courtyard the Foodjammers have a giant wheel offering coffee snowcones, which we pass on thanks, seems somewhat less than hygenic. There's also a blasting techno soundtrack which we also pass on. Inside there are several photo exhibits which are rather dull and we pass through quickly. However there are also some more interesting video art pieces which we spend more time on. There's one of a mirror image of a woman banging her head against a wall (with sound), and another of a guy hyperventilating loudly. There are also some silent ones from 1970 with some guy standing in a barn and dropping stuff and another guy walking down the side of a building, those look they belong in the creepy video from "The Ring". Speaking of creepy some group called Cry School Yearbook are taking photos of people done up in zombie goth make up for an imaginary school yearbook. There's a bit of a wait so we make an appointment for 5:30am, which is quite a commitment and decide to come back. Outside The CFS is protesting tuition fees by showing "V for Vendetta" on the side of a building and giving out free popcorn, cotton candy and hot chocolate. I'm no fan of CFS grandstanding but we'll take their free munchies though.

12:30am ~ The Polish Veteran's Hall; Outside is some kind of rickety stick canopy while inside another dull photo exhibit along with a short film about a guy who graphically kills his plumber so he can take his job. I assume this is supposed to be some kind of comment on the economic meltdown but it's mostly just gratuitous violence. There is also a photocopied zine handout which conjures up fond memories of the 1980's art zines. They also have some kind of interactive piece but we judge the lineup as being too long. All in all fairly dull stop so why does the Polish Art exhibit have a good size crowd? Because they have the best food (Yay! perogies and cabbage rolls) and they have beer (Yay! Polish beer) that's why. A few doors over is Steelworker's Hall on Cecil street which has a Caribana related display of large dayglo dolls made up like Caribana parade dolls looking like a lightbrite game. They loudly ban cameras from this one but Alisa sneaks a pic anyway before we make a beeline out of there.

1:00am ~ The AGO; They have a display out front of discarded computer consoles covered with flower stickons. Don't know what's inside since they also have another long line up so we head down to OCAD where they have giant stuffed white Casper looking toys scattered about while smoke machines belch away. Around the corner is the inevitable impromptu rave. Down at the Music Gallery they have...no music. But they do have a ten foot wedding cake with a trampoline on top that you, yes you, can jump on with a bouncing bride while more annoying techno music plays. Yet another line up for that one of course.

2:30am ~ City Hall; At the Armory st. entrance there is a "12 Hour interpretive dance piece" about dead philosophers or whatever. Yeah, OK, whatever you say. Moving right along to Nathan Phillips Square they have giant flashing lights spelling out random four letter words while white noise blares. It's ok but we wonder if better use could have been made of such a large central place. On the other hand back in the nineteen sixties when Mayor Phill Givens bought the Henry Moore sculpture and put in on display some people were so outraged that he lost the next election, now city hall is being used to blast out Throbbing Gristle while people wait to see if an obscene word will inadvertently pop up. Toronto certainly has come a long way baby.

3:00am ~ The Royal Bank on Bay st. in the financial district; Midway rides on Bay St! I know this is supposed to symbolize the stockmarket rollercoaster and all, but more importantly; Midway rides on Bay St! Actually there's just two; a giant slide and the Avalanche ride ( it's kind of like the Pirate ship at Wonderland), and there's the usual linups, but thank God for artful butting in line at least at the Avalanche ride which wakes me up nicely thanks.

3:45am ~ Old City Hall has another lineup? At 3:45am? Go home already people. Trinity Spadina Church (where the Cowboy Junkies recorded) has an even longer one. I'd like to see the interactive music experience at Massey Hall but I'm told that the lineup there is even worse. So heading back west we pass through that tiny park behind City Hall where there's supposed to be a ghost walk. Actually it's a group of people in white sheets reading some sort of chant. The photo in the guide shows them glowing green but it's just guys in sheets. Alisa likes it but I think it could have used some dry ice.

4:15am ~ The AGO is now closed but the Cinemateque is still open. They're showing the 1903-04 silent films of George Melies including the classic "Voyage to the Moon" accompanied by live piano to a full house. I love silent films but I don't usually get to see them on a big screen. It's good chance to take off our shows, polish off some chocolate and take a load off for a bit. It's 5am and the theatre is still packed when we leave.

5:15am ~ Passing through King's College Circle on our way back to our Hart House appointment (remember?) we run into some die-hards passing out sparklers. Much spinning and twirling about while snapping blurry photos ensues.

5:30am ~ Back at Hart House; Exactly on time to the second with the afore mentioned diehards in tow to get our gothy pictures taken. No more lineups, no more wheel of coffee snowcones, no more free cotton candy and popcorn. But we do get our photos done and leave with goth makeup intact after hanging out and making shadow puppets on the video screens. We have officially been up too long.

6:40am ~ St. Thomas Anglican Church on Huron St.; There was supposed to be a hologram display with music, but by the time we get there they are packing up equipment and the music is done. There are still a few holograms though and a strange collection of portraits of famous people burned into pieces of toast. I guess the message is that Charles Darwin and Karl Marx are toast. But then why is Tim Allen here praytell? Anyhow there's also lots of free cookies and tea to stock up on for the trek home.

7:00am ~ Bloor St.; Walking back to the car and wondering if anything is still open. Nope, The Bata Museum is dark as a tomb and the ROM and Conservatory are locking up. However turn on the car radio and CIUT is still playing an electronic drone while the lights still pulse on the CN Tower.

7:30am ~ Home; And so to bed. Over and out.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

The unspoken legacy of Much Music

2009 marks the 25th anniversary of Much Music, Canada's answer to MTV and oddly nobody seems to have noticed, including Much itself which has chosen to downplay this event for some unknown reason. Perhaps they fear their core audience of fifteen year-olds will be creeped out by old footage of Terry David Mulligan or Kim Clark Champnis interviewing Bryan Adams in 1985, I know I am. Perhaps they know that anyone who was a fan back in the day (as I was) stopped watching Much over a decade ago and could not possibly care less if the station was there or not anymore.

Let's not take up time stating the obvious, Much is manifestly superior to MTV in every conceivable way. Actually let's take some time on this because Much in fact played an important role (along with some other factors) in the way that the Canadian music scene evolved in the 1980's and 90's in ways that Canadians barely notice.


We all should know by now about the role that CanCon played in fostering a serious domestic music industry in the 1970's by literally forcing radio to play Canadian music, which in turn made homegrown record labels a viable concern. Positive as these steps were this was only a step (or two) in the journey. In spite of what the CBC's various worship-full documentaries say, and with all due respect to some notable exceptions, much of the music put out by Canadians in the 1970's were bland, derivative versions of American AM radio fare. What was still lacking was the kind of variety that would require a nationwide underground, eclectic, alternative scene that could go in a dozen directions at once while still holding the center in a country that is fiendishly difficult to tour in ways that British or even Americans can hardly understand. This would also require an openness to the new sounds coming out of England and the USA.

It is with this last point that Much Music proved it's worth from the start, inheriting the tradition already set by "The New Music", a groundbreaking music news show also owned by City TV (who owned Much) which had been going for a few years already, and who would share many hosts and VJ's in the early years, Much started out with a very different mindset than the American MTV.


MTV was built on the vomit-inducing model of American top forty radio, "All the hits, all the time", with vapid VJ's bantering meaninglessly in between short sets of video clips which came from a limited playlist. Nothing surprising, nothing off-center, nothing new, nothing that might offend the folks in Utah. And in the beginning, absolutely nothing black, at all, literally, until Micheal Jackson's clout forced them to open up ever so slightly.

"The New Music" was the first attempt at creating a music magazine like Rolling Stone for T.V. And it happened in Canada. America had MTV and before that, lip-synched performance shows like "Solid Gold" and "Midnight Special" along with Casey Kassem's "America's Top 40". Britain had their own performance shows like "Top of The Pops" and "The Old Grey Whistle Test". These all were just variations on the templates laid down by Dick Clark in the fifties, and by the punk and post punk era they were dangerously out of touch and as credible as the "Muppet Show", and not nearly as funny. But we had "The New Music" which did serious and semi-serious interviews with artists and entire genres that would never be heard elsewhere; New Wave, Post-Punk and Metal bands from England, Roots Rock, Hardcore and Thrash bands from America, Euro-techno and Industrial from Germany, Reggae, World Beat and later Hip-Hop as well.


Both "The New Music" and "Much Music" were owned by CITY TV/CHUM Radio and therefore Much could build on the foundations laid down by New Music. So right from the start Much was far more eclectic than MTV ever would be, playing the whole variety of musics that New Music had already blazed a path for. Much also followed the same CanCon regs that radio had to follow, but unlike commercial radio they were not satisfied to simply play the token top forty CanCon hits, Much even had the "Indie Street" show to focus on low budget indie videos by unsigned Canadian bands. The cause of indie and alternative CanCon was helped by the support of Video Fact grants that help fund the making of low budget videos that could actually have a chance to get played thanks to Much and New Music. There was simply no equivalence to this on MTV or BBC, still isn't actually. This meant that bands like Deja Voodoo, The Gruesomes, Slow, Ray Condo, Blue Rodeo, The Razorbacks, 54-40, The Grapes of Wrath, Skinny Puppy, Change of Heart, The Shadowy Men, Martha & The Muffins, Breeding Ground, The Payolas, Sturm Group, Death Sentence and Voivod could get their videos, which ranged from the fairly cheap to the laughably cheap played as if they were almost as important as top 40 fare. And clearly way more cool.


Remember the cheapo videos like The Shadowy Men's puppet shows? Or Ray Condo's cartoons? Or Sturm Group running around the Scarborough bluffs waving swords looking like a pasty Conan The Barbarian? Or Skinny Puppy's morbid super 8 performance art bloodfests? They must have cost all of two hundred dollars to make, not counting the pizzas and beer. Then there was the ultimate in clueless Canadiana; April Wine's video for "I like to rock" in which our boys take time out from a busy day in the studio to play some tabletop hockey and brew some coffee. Only in Canada you say? Pity. God how I miss them all.


They were also helped by the fact that the established acts like Rush, Triumph,Trooper, not to mention earlier dinosaurs like Burton Cummings and Gino Vanelli at first refused to make videos at all, and later only grudgingly and poorly. The same thing was happening in the USA with the likes of Journey and Boston sulking on the sidelines as New Wave and New Romantics bands breezed by them. Some American critics are still bitter about this. It is a fact that relatively fewer American bands of the early eighties bothered to make videos at all, they were too expensive to make if they weren't going to get played on MTV anyway. And there were no Videofact grants for them. The lack of videos from this era is actually a real loss American music, although there were a few exceptions. The Ramones, Fleshtones, Blondie, Cramps, Lords of The New Church, Long Ryders, Iggy Pop, Motels, Talking Heads, Joan Jett and a few others did make some videos as did the Stray Cats after they moved to England, which doesn't count. However for the most part they were ignored by MTV and only got played on Much anyway. The lack of videos of the likes of The Gun Club, Jason and the Scorchers, Mission of Burma, Replacements, Rank and File, Blasters and even early REM is inexcusable and it's MTV's fault. If it weren't for "The Decline of Western Civilization" and "Suburbia" we wouldn't have X, TSOL, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, The Germs and D.I. footage either. In Canada or even Britain and Australia they all would have made videos as a matter of course, and they would have been played too.


Of course Much was hardly alone here. CBC joined in with "Brave New Waves" and a network of campus and community radio stations would grow up including CKLN and CIUT (both of which I worked at) in Toronto. Ironically even though the Chum/City group also owned the most powerful radio stations in Toronto (and a number of other cities), they kept those operations separate from Much and New Music which left an opening for upstart CFNY to fill. There would also be a network of magazines like Nerve, Reargarde (which I wrote for), What Wave and Graffitti and weekly papers like Now Magazine (in Toronto) and in most other Canadian cities. But Much was in the unique position to act as a nationwide unifier and by and large they did.


This openness to music beyond the mainstream meant that most of the Post Punk and New Wave sounds coming out of Britain now actually came to Toronto first to break into North America where they would have once treated Canada as a backwater of the USA. This meant that British bands like U2, Simple Minds, The Cult, The Cure, OMD, the Banshees, Jesus and Mary Chain and virtually every other contemporary hit here first, Aussies like Midnight Oil and INXS would follow as would reggae and world beat. You could even occasionally see the likes of serious weirdos like Cabaret Voltaire, the Severed Heads, The Virgin Prunes, Laurie Anderson and SPK who probably couldn't even spell MTV. It actually got to the point where even some American bands were actually more popular here than they were at home, including REM and Steve Earle.


The spinoffs this had for enriching the scene in Canada are impossible to measure. Once upon a time Canada was a backwater known for crappy cover bands where anyone with real talent and ambition had to go to New York or L.A. to get signed. And where international bands largely ignored or treated as a stopover on their way to New York. That is no longer true at all. Much played a big role in this evolution, they weren't the only player, but they were vital in pulling local scenes together and one shouldn't forget that.


It's true that in the past decade or more Much has become bland, glitzy, commercial and predictable, so has CFNY. Graffiti, Nerve and Reargarde magazines are long dead and were replaced by Exclaim and Chart which in turn also became more commercial and bland. "Indie Street" is long gone and when New Music finally gave up the ghost a couple of years ago few noticed or cared. But it also true that MTV has declined even more to the extent that even the mention of MTV as playing videos at all is considered a punchline. Much branched off into various specialty channels for punk & metal, hip hop, retro 80's, country, latin and french which segregated the audiences and diluted the variety and unpredictability of the original. While Much may be a pale shadow of it's former greatness one shouldn't totally forget that greatness once existed, even if Much seams not to care. Those who grew up with Much can take a minute to reflect on memories that go beyond mere misty eyed nostalgia. Sometimes the old days really were better. So thank you Much Music, glitzy warts and all.


P.S. I planned on including the videos for Sturm Group's "Twenty" but it's not on youtube damn it. However by way of bonus we have this Indie Street segment from 1983;