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Screen Shot 2020-06-02 at 1.29.44 PMIn the 1970s and most of the 1980s, I grew up in Vancouver, Canada’s largest city on the country’s west coast. I still love the town’s abundance of Edwardian architecture, kooky downtown neighbourhoods, and even its long stretches of gray, rainy weather. But it wasn’t until I moved away that I realized just how isolated it was from the rest of urban North America. Many was the time that major music acts would skip Vancouver on their tours – it just wasn’t economical for a lot of bands to make the trek so far from touring circuits based out of Los Angeles or Chicago or New York City. Yet this geographic reality, combined with Canadian content laws introduced in the 1970s to help Canadian music get on the radio, contributed to a pretty cool music scene.

Some of the earliest westcoast acts I remember hearing were the Poppy Family and Chilliwack. Terry Jacks would achieve uber fame with his international hit cover of the Brel/Mckuen classic “Seasons in the Sun” in 1974 but I much prefer his earlier Poppy Family recordings with then wife Susan Jacks. The band’s biggest hit was the title track to their 1969 debut, Which Way You Going Billy?, and it is a great song, but check out the smoking cool organ and melodic hooks that animate “Where Evil Grows” from the follow up record, Poppy Seeds. This is an absolutely perfect sonic confection! Chilliwack were a Vancouver music institution, releasing countless hit records in Canada throughout the 1970s and early 1980s under the guidance of creative leader, Bill Henderson. A lot of people only know the band for their biggest U.S. hit, “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone) from 1981 but they had 19 chart entries in Canada from 1970 to 1983. Personally, I’ve always loved “There’s Something I Like About That” from the band’s 1974 album Riding High (which contained the distinctive hit single, “Crazy Talk”). The album is transitional, with the band shifting from hippie folk and long-hair rock to a more catchy, rock and roll singles sound, and it shows on this song with its shifts between a seductive shuffle in the verses and the belt out fun chorus.

As the 1970s gave way to the eighties new wave and punk hit Vancouver hard, without entirely shaking loose the locale’s hippie and dude rock and roll vibes. Such musical contradictions were all over Prism, a band initially put together by soon-to-be-superstar producer Bruce Fairbairn and Bryan Adams songwriting partner Jim Vallance. The band produced a spate of great singles like “Flying,” “See Forever Eyes,” “Armageddon,” and “Young and Restless” but my fave remains the Lindsay Mitchell/Bryan Adams-penned “Cover Girl.” The Payola$ were more straight-up new wave-influenced and the band always seemed a bit too cool for the local scene. Despite that, they couldn’t find their footing chart-wise, with their early albums a bit too indie for the mainstream (e.g. 1982’s No Stranger to Danger) while later bids for commercial success failed to grab radio play and alienated longtime fans (e.g. 1985’s Here’s the World For Ya). Personally, I think 1983’s Hammer on the Drum hit the sweet spot artistically and it should have been the break out hit with jaunty tracks like  “I’ll Find Another (Who Can Do It Right)” and the touching “Where Is This Love.” The record did produce a #8 Canadian hit duet with Carole Pope, the upbeat “Never Said I Love You.”

Something happened in the mid-1980s with the consolidation of a broad, non-mainstream indie music scene, largely supported by college radio and small music venues. Suddenly it seemed that not everyone was going the stadium rock route or topping the AM radio charts, and that was Ok. The most exciting local band working this seam for me were the Grapes of Wrath. Technically a Kelowna band, they set up shop in Vancouver in 1984 and released their debut a year later. September Bowl of Green blew me away. I worshipped these guys. They were like our local R.E.M. They had jangly guitars and great songs and I couldn’t stop playing their first single “Misunderstanding.” Their second release was the Tom Cochrane-produced Treehouse and it was a masterpiece. Really, their whole catalogue (six albums, one EP) is pretty solid, including an incredible comeback record in 2013. Another band proudly wearing the indie banner were 54-40. They’ve released 14 albums since 1984 and, despite a lack of hit singles, they’ve sold a lot of albums in Canada and maintained pretty high standards throughout. I don’t get it – tracks like “One Gun,” “Miss You” “One Day in Your Life,” and “Casual Viewin’” all sound like radio hits to me. But if I had to cut my 54-40 collection to just one song it would be the enigmatic, hypnotic, addictive “Baby Ran.”

I left Vancouver permanently in 1996 and leaving town was hard but, ultimately, good for me. The world is a big place and seeing a bit more of it put my home town into better perspective. I could see how small and contained it was, provincial in many ways. But I could also appreciate how much it accomplished – a pretty vibrant music scene – despite its geographic isolation. So, in honour all of things westcoast, click on the band names to get caught up with these great acts! And if you’re looking for a primer on Vancouver’s music scene from an era prior to this one, the Vancouver Record Collector’s Association have a four volume history of the best local acts covering the 1950s and 1960s, with exhaustive liner notes written by local rock expert Michael Willmore (check out Willmore’s wacky but informative TV show, Rockinitis).

The banner photo is an incredible diorama of a typical Vancouver street block by a fellow I only know as dancecommander. You can read his write up here and see more pics here.