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Whatever happened to the Canrock revolution?

Jon Dekel

"This was not the reclaimed nationalism of Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, nor the patriotic embrace of the Tragically Hip. Rather, it was a youthquake. One that Canadians could finally call their very own."

Mention the summer of 1995 to Raine Maida and his olfactory system springs to life with the pungent stench of Lake Ontario. For Maida, 25 years old and fronting the up-and-coming group Our Lady Peace, that summer signifies a turning point in his nascent music career. But never more so than the evening of May 12, when he got to share an Edgefest bill with British bands Blur and Elastica.

“That was a huge deal,” Maida, now 46, recalls of the show, held at Toronto’s newly constructed lakeside amphitheatre. “These bands were the reason we're playing music and now I'm sharing the stage with them?! That was monumental for us.”

The headliners, at the height of Britpop fame, managed to draw 9,000 fans that night. One year later, nearly four times that — a sold-out crowd of 35,000 — would take in Our Lady Peace’s headline set at the same festival, alongside compatriots the Tea Party and I Mother Earth.

Two decades on, we can track the change that occurred that summer. Though it’s still fair to say Canada’s greatest cultural shackle is its inability to view itself equal to either the U.S. or U.K., some 20 years ago a movement swelled that, for the first time in our musical history, ran antithetical to that long-held belief.

From 1995 through to the turn of the millennium, young Canadians championed a group of artists that reflected their own tastes, without the caveat of lyrical geotagging. Fronted by charismatic lead singers and nimble musical players, the Canrock revolution became a generational imperative. An imprint of young, media-savvy Canadians seeing themselves reflected in their musical tastes; buoyed by a fledgling national music television station, burgeoning alternative radio, a suddenly thriving industry and a drive to stake a claim against conformity. Together, but without collusion, a group of bands from across the country — including Sloan, I Mother Earth, the Tea Party, Matthew Good Band, Moist, Age of Electric, Rusty, Holly McNarland and Econoline Crush — built on the groundswell of the independent music scene of the late 1980s and early ’90s to headline cross-Canada festivals, top the charts and sell millions of albums. This was not the reclaimed nationalism of Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, nor the patriotic embrace of the Tragically Hip. Rather, it was a youthquake. One that Canadians could finally call their very own.  

“It’s the only time I can think of in Canadian music history where Canadian bands headlined Canadian festivals and sold out Canadian arenas,” Matthew Good told me last year. “And there was more than one band doing it." 

According to George Stroumboulopoulos, at the time a morning DJ on Toronto’s alternative rock station the Edge, the rise of the movement had a lot to do with the evolving musical zeitgeist. Following a decade of posturing hair metal — with its big-budget, flashy imagery — the grunge movement seemed tailor-made to the Canadian aesthetic.

“The '80s were coke and yuppies and Wall Street, and everybody pretending to be a little more grand than who they were,” Stroumboulopoulos recalls. “That didn't ring true with guys like me. That's why Metallica was so big. Metallica seemed authentic because those guys were just these dudes. And I looked at Sloan the same way. Those guys were just those guys. They don't change their outfits before they go onstage. That actually mattered. Authentic is the key word. That generation was ready for it.”

Maida agrees. “I remember seeing Nine Inch Nails and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Watching that scene explode you just felt like you could be who you were. You could do that and have a chance to reach the fanbase, whereas before that things seemed so heavily marketed. For bands like us, that [level of success] seemed untouchable. Not having to get dressed up and make the fancy videos, it felt like you could be real.”

Reared on a diet of classic rock and 1980s indie, coupled with the fast-rising '90s grunge and Britpop scenes, a wide-ranging group of artists began popping up across the country in the early 1990s. At first blush, the grouping had little in common — Sloan, a four-headed hydra of Beatles-esque jangly pop shared little musical DNA with the brooding, Eastern-tinged sounds of the Tea Party or the melodic melancholy of Our Lady Peace — but what bonded them was a sense of self, geography and an industry structure discovering its sea legs.

“It was a really good time to be promoting being Canadian,” says Sloan’s Patrick Pentland. “Canadian major labels were never set up to sell Canadian music. Their whole job was to sell American records in Canadian music stores. But the weird thing was [at that time] they started to sign Canadian bands.”

With big-label backing and a Cancon mandate, releases by Sloan, Our Lady Peace and the Tea Party began receiving heavy airplay on MuchMusic and alternative radio stations, driving up demand across the country.

“It was a tipping point in Canadian music,” Maida says. “It was one of those catch-fire situations where there was money in the music business and everything was healthy. And then all of a sudden you had 10 or 15 amazing Canadian bands that were really happening and being supported. It was so robust.”

“MuchMusic and radio are a huge reason why that was able to work,” Stroumboulopoulos adds. “I used to do a show on the Edge, the all-request breakfast. I played 33 songs every week and out of those 31 were Canadian. Every week. You can't do that without some kind of impact.”

Naturally, the exposure also led to commercial and chart success, including multiple platinum albums for I Mother Earth (DigScenery and Fish), Moist (SilverCreature, Mercedes 5 and Dime), Matthew Good Band (UnderdogsBeautiful Midnight), the Tea Party (Splendor SolisThe Edges of TwilightTransmission, Tryptic) and even diamond certification (one million albums sold) for Canrock-featuring compilation Big Shiny Tunes 2 and Our Lady Peace’s Clumsy.

But while fans were happy to group the acts together, the bands themselves were less keen on the concept.

“I know that there was a scene but we were so self-obsessed we were on our own trip,” Moist’s David Usher recalled recently.

Jeff Martin, of the Tea Party, is a little less apathetic. “As far as all those bands were concerned, if you want to call them our peers...” he told me last year. “I think a lot of them looked at us as the black sheep of Canrock and that’s why we didn't socialize that much.”

If there was no love lost between friends, according to Moist’s Mark Makoway, every summer the groups would set aside any vendettas to tour the country. “The summer festivals, that’s when you really got a sense of a coherent scene,” he recently recalled. “Particularly the Edgefests that went across the country. In a way, that really crystallizes that decade for me.”

Held annually by Toronto alternative station the Edge, from 1995 on, Edgefests became a yearly meet-up for the stars of Canrock. Following the OLP-headlined bill, the festival toured nationally from 1997 through 1999, binding all the bands together alongside big-name international groups such as Green Day and Hole. But while the marquee names were added to the bill to generate interest, as Stroumboulopoulos recalls, most fans still came out to support the Canadian groups.

“I remember one Edgefest where Foo Fighters went onstage and crucified a guy and the band after that were Green Day and they set the stage on fire. So we were like, 'How the hell do you follow that?’ Then Moist went on and the crowd lost their mind” he says. “Moist and Tea Party had the bigger crowd. It was a real testament to their relationship.”

Holly McNarland, one of the few women invited to perform, recalls the tours being “debaucherous.”

“It's me and Bif Naked and a big sausage party,” she laughs, adding that, a few bad apples aside, she preferred the Edgefest crowd to the Lilith Fair set. “I used to get 'show me your tits' every now and then and I would just stop and ask, 'Who said that? everybody point!' Then I would just annihilate the person so I think people caught on to that. I was pretty ballsy about that, I just wasn't having it.”  

In fact, the festival culture was so integral to the scene that, when Edgefest scaled back to shows in Toronto, Our Lady Peace used profits generated from their album and ticket sales to create their own touring summer festival, dubbed Summersault, for a limited run in 1998 before going coast to coast in 2000.

“At that point bands just went to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, they would never get to Saskatoon, very rarely get to Winnipeg so there was this huge gap across the country where a lot of bands would never get to,” Maida explains. “So we did it. We went from Halifax all the way to Vancouver and had the sickest roster. It still is a high point in our career.”

As the summer of 1995 was to the scene’s birth, the summer of 2000 was its downfall. Even before the final Summersault date, the groups that highlighted the Canrock era began to fall out of favour — both musically and internally. After replacing their singer in 1999, I Mother Earth’s followup to the double-platinum Scenery and Fish became the band’s first to shift less than 100,000 units. Soon, Matthew Good Band and Moist followed suit. And even the mighty commercial juggernaut of Our Lady Peace barely reached the top five of the Canadian Albums chart with their 2000 concept album,Spiritual Machines.

“Youth culture shifted,” Stroumboulopoulos explains. “The internet took over. Kids stopped listening to guitars. The drugs they took changed.”

Sloan’s Pentland is a bit more pragmatic. “We all know what happened,” he says. “The music business took a severe nose dive and then labels started to downsize so they dropped bands that weren't selling records anymore or weren't selling enough records.”

But Pentland, whose band is set to tour for the 20th anniversary of its seminal One Chord to Another album this spring, concedes there’s an upside to the downfall.

“We used to be a lot more snobby but then you'd meet [the other bands] and they were totally nice guys and then you realize maybe they don't suck, maybe we're just being assholes,” he quips. “At some point you realize maybe we're not the goose who lays the golden album either.”

“Now hopefully you'll hear those bands on classic rock radio,” he adds, allowing a poetic justice to hearing his compatriots’ songs on the radio. “Hopefully they'll get a boost in their SOCAN cheques.”

Click below for a playlist of essential Canrock tracks: