The Canadian music scene has been home to a number of international superstars, from divas such as Celine Dion to country artist Shania Twain. But in a newly published, meticulously crafted look at the Canadian rock scene from 1985 to 1995, neither artist is mentioned, except for a picture of Dion with the word “Missing” in the disclaimer.
“Celine Dion is known around the world, she doesn’t need us to tell her story,” says author Michael Barclay, one of three music journalists behind “Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance” (ECW Press). “It was important right off the top to say you’re not to going to read about everybody you think you might. This book isn’t about Juno Awards [Canada’s Grammy Awards equivalent] or how many records you sold. Celine Dion, her English recordings sound like they could come from anywhere. There are a lot of artists who make faceless global pop music.”
Barclay, along with Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider, began the project in January 1997 as a means to have a permanent record of this musical period. Over the course of four years, hundreds of interviews, and endless research, what resulted was a 760-page journey through more familiar Canadian acts such as Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, and the Tragically Hip. It also includes artists with a larger international following than at home, including Ron Sexsmith and Cowboy Junkies.
“I think it is important because it was an extremely productive period,” Barclay says. “I think when people make a list of the 50 greatest Canadian albums, a good portion are going to come from this time period. It was a very creative period and a lot of timeless things come out of it but also it happened to be commercial in spite of itself.
“Like the Cowboy Junkies’ ‘Trinity Sessions’ [an album recorded in a church for only $250],” he continues. “To me that is one of the most interesting stories just from a business standpoint. These people weren’t trying to be commercial or trying to emulate mainstream trends. They did what was true to themselves and by some sheer series of coincidences became popular or accessible to people.”
A major issue that faced Canadian bands at the time was measuring success in terms of cracking the American market. But as national sale figures skyrocketed for some groups, the identity crisis seemed to subside.
“Bands like Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip and Sloan proved they could be very successful in Canada without having success outside,” Barclay says. “It led to a bit of a myth among Canadian bands that you didn’t have to go anywhere else. A lot of bands learned how to have reasonable expectations and maintain control of their own things and then license it out when it becomes more lucrative.”
Barclay says the book isn’t the definitive statement on the decade and believes each chapter could be extrapolated into a book. The book has also drawn positive response from fans and musicians alike.
“If somebody didn’t stand up and say that this was a great record or sent shockwaves throughout the underground, I didn’t see anyone who was going to,” he offers. “Especially in this country with a smaller population base and the economies of scale are smaller. It’s important to establish a Canadian canon of work because music culture is a global culture. If we don’t stand up for our own records, nobody else will.”