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;

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