35 Canadian 80s Songs

My second 80s countdown, to Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World's Canadian release date of May 7, 2013. All Canadian, all the time. Sample it if you dare.

CND Song 1

Neil Young - Rocking in the Free World, 1989 (Toronto, Ontario)

'But there's a warning sign on the road ahead. There's a lot of people saying we'd be better off dead...' What else was I going to finish with? 'Rocking in the Free World' was released in the last weeks of 1989, when the decade of large hair and big spending was creaking to a close. Within a few months the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War was over, and it was the 90s. And this anthem, I'm pleased to say, was first on the soundtrack.

So, after a hundred songs in total, here's the closing number. Big thanks and loving smoochies to anyone who was a guest poster, left a comment, or just stopped by for a tune. Now it's time for me to get on a plane and head for Canada, where I've heard that a certain novel set in 1987 is available in fine book stores, starting today.

CND Song 2

Leonard Cohen - Take this Waltz, 1988 (Montreal, Quebec)

"Look, Leonard, we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good." - Walter Yetnikoff, president of Columbia Records

Leonard Cohen, first-rank poet and unlikely pop star. In the 80s he was regularly mobbed in the streets by his European fans, but back in Canada and the U.S., we tended to focus more on the 'unlikely' part of the description. The songs were beautiful. It was Leonard's singing that was seen as the stumbling block, and nobody knew how to sell him - the quote at the beginning was alledgedly a reaction to Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions (the track list contains a nice little song called 'Hallelujah') which Columbia refused to release. I remember Cohen didn't get serious radio attention in North America until Jennifer Warnes' 1987 cover album Famous Blue Raincoat. But the album was a hit, people started to take notice, and now we can't get enough of him. I could have chosen anything from I'm Your Man (1988) or Various Positions, but this is my favourite of Leonard Cohen's 80s-released songs, a translation of Federico Garcia Lorca's Little Viennese Waltz. The video consists mainly of Leonard staring disconcertingly into the camera and lip synching in front of postcard backdrops of Grenada, so I decided to go for concert footage from 1988 instead. Apologies that we're cut off abruptly in mid 'la, la, la'.

 

CND Song 3

Men Without Hats - The Safety Dance, 1983 (Montreal, Quebec)

Yes, I'm running this one from my last countdown again, and at number three, no less! Sorry, but the dance compells me.

'...Cause your friends don't dance and if they don't dance, then they're not no friends of mine!' - Men Without Hats

'Well, what do you expect? They're Canadian.' - South Park Movie

It's difficult to isolate the most embarrassing aspect of this post for me. Is it because I bought Rhythm of Youth in 1983 and loved it, without any irony or distance? Was it the expression of amazement and distaste on my dad's face as he watched the 45 of 'Safety Dance' revolving on my record player? Is it the fact that I still find Ivan attractive in that outfit, in a D&D kind of way? Perhaps it's because for years I thought the daft peasant girl popping onto the screen with her exclamation of 'Danser!' was really saying, 'Don't say!' No. I'm most hideously ashamed for this reason: I still like this song. Apparently Ivan wrote 'Safety Dance' after being thrown out of a club for his extreme New Wave dancing, though the brief shots of nuclear missiles at the end are not an explicit reaction to this. Today, I'm watching this merry medieval scene and all I can think of is - Wicker Man. Stay out of the burning man, kids! Stay safe and dance!

 

CND Song 4

K.D. Lang - Crying, 1989 (Edmonton, Alberta)

'I was alright, for a while. I could smile, for a while...' I'd almost forgotten about Kathryn Dawn Lang, but then I stumbled onto this clip from the 1989 Roy Orbison tribute at the Songwriters' Hall of Fame, and...holy #$%@! This is &%@#ing magnificent. Honestly, the woman almost makes Sinead at the Grammys the same year look like a Britney Spears rip-off. K.D. Lang burst onto the Canadian country scene as a wacky novelty act in the mid-80s, in horn-rimmed glasses and a big granny skirt, dragging chuckling audience members out of their seats at the Junos for an impromptu square dance. But she grew up fast and became an international sensation, spurred by her iconic duet with Roy Orbison, which was actually commissioned as part of the soundtrack to a now-forgotten 1987 John Cryer film called Hiding Out. (Watch Roy and K.D. on the link if you're brave - the footage of the young Cryer is a particularly saddening example of time's cruelty. It happens to us all.) Like the Junkies and the Hip, K.D. is an artist I'd associate more with the 90s, and it's the time when she really came into her own. But this performance was probably the beginning of it all.

 

CND Song(s) 5

The Cowboy Junkies - Misguided Angel, 1989 (Toronto, Ontario)

...and The Tragically Hip - New Orleans is Sinking, 1989 (Kingston, Ontario)

'I said, Mama, he's crazy and he scares me, but I want him by my side...'

'Bourbon blues on the street, loose and complete...'

My last double bill here on 35 Canadian 80s Songs. Today the theme is 'almost the 90s' because I associate both of these acts with my disgraceful early twenties rather than my hopeless teenage years. But both bands did get their starts in the last moments of the decade that gave us Glass Tiger, and I wouldn't feel right leaving them off the list. The Junkies have appeared on this site before, but while I agree that they did a haunting version of 'Sweet Jane', it's 'Misguided Angel' that really hits the spot for me in terms of pure truck-stop torch. What a song. And The Hip? Well, you can't really say much more than 'The Hip' while nodding wisely, or at least I can't. 'New Orleans is Sinking' was briefly banned from American radio after Hurricane Katrina, and for some reason it pleases me when Canadians cause controversy. As long as it doesn't hurt anyone's feelings, of course.

Here's The Cowboy Junkies:

 ...and The Tragically Hip

...and a flyer advertising the Cowboys in concert for the whopping ticket price of four bucks.

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CND Song 6

Bruce Cockburn - Lovers in a Dangerous Time, 1984 (Ottawa, Ontario)

'One minute you're waiting for the sky to fall. Then you're dazzled by the beauty of it all...' This song was written about young people falling in love under the shadow of the nuclear war threat, but it could be true of any war, cold or otherwise. Bruce Cockburn is one of Canada's most committed and passionate songwriters, and certainly miles removed from the big-haired Canadian rock idols of the day - if you're going by appearances, the only way to tell him from the guy who does your taxes is the fact that he's wearing an earring. 'Lovers in a Dangerous Time' is more lyrical and less angry than some of Bruce's more overtly political offerings like 'If I Had a Rocket Launcher' or 'And They Call It Democracy' and the video is, frankly, kind of goofy. But 'Lovers' has become Cockburn's signature tune, and in my opinion, it's one of the best songs of the decade. 'You've got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.' Is there a better line anywhere? Thanks for this one, BC. 

 

CND Song 7

Glass Tiger - Don't Forget Me When I'm Gone, 1986 (Newmarket, Ontario)

'And when I wake up and you're not there, pain finds me everywhere! Oh, but you don't care!' Sad words considering this is such an upbeat song, and the video is so damn joyous it's almost oppressive - the lads must have been exhausted by the end of the shoot. Even Bryan Adams has regressed to a lovable red-headed urchin with a guitar, transfigured by all that cotton cloud happiness. Oddly, for all the years I've had this clip playing in the background, I don't think I ever sat down and watched the whole thing until now. It's a wedding day. I never noticed. Alan Frew is the groom getting ready at his house, and then gathering with the band in a backyard garden for the ceremony. This is strange, seeing as 'Don't forget me when I'm gone' is fairly low-key as far as marriage vows go, even a bit plaintive. Would you really need to repeatedly ask this of your future spouse on your wedding day? Poor Alan. But what's more disturbing here is that Alan's bride is only visible as a disembodied pair of full-length pink satin gloves. Sorry to break this to you boys, but I've only ever seen those gloves on one entity:miss-piggy

Does Kermit know? 

 

CND Song 8

Jane Siberry - The Walking (and Constantly), 1987 (Toronto, Ontario)

'The walking and constantly, and the stream of endless dreams that wheel and roll just past my shoulder...' I loved Jane Siberry so much back in the day. She was weird. She was spacey. She was artsy. But she wasn't goofy or cute about it. Jane was serious, and even if I didn't always understand her songs - I still remember being at a loss to explain to my dad why I liked an epic called 'Lena is a White Table' - I did my best to absorb them, and there were times when for a second it all seemed to fall into place. Jane never did anything at random. You might watch this video and wonder, 'Wha? Why the apples? What's up with the miniature chair? Shoes? Huh?' But I remember Jane being interviewed about this clip and carefully explaining, in her vague, otherworldly voice, the reason for every shot. The subject of 'The Walking' is not exactly obscure. Jane has clearly just emerged from a devastating breakup, and the sense of loss and confusion is palpable. I listened to this as a dumb kid who'd never experienced anything remotely similiar and thought it was all very sad. Years later, when I went through my own first breakup, I got it. And I had a song ready for the occasion.

 

CND Song 9

Bryan Adams - Heaven, 1985 (Vancouver, B.C.)

'Baby, you're all that I want, when you're lying here in my arms. It isn't too hard to believe we're in heaven...' - Bryan Adams

'The Canadian government has apologised for Bryan Adams on several occasions.' - South Park Movie

Ah, Bryan. One of the highest selling and most instantly recognisable Canadian acts in history is an acne-scarred, scruffy-headed guy in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, weirdly youthful looking right into his forties. What's the secret of his appeal, especially with those love ballads that tore up the international charts through the 80s and 90s? I remember having this conversation with a friend years ago. "See," he said, "as a guy, you might think something like 'I'd die for you,' but you wouldn't come out and say it - you'd sound like a tool. But he can say it, and he doesn't sound like a tool. He just sounds like he means it." Perhaps there's some truth in this. I know I was swept off my feet by 'Heaven' at fourteen - all that raw-voiced emotion, the boy next door under your balcony bawling out his devotion for the world to hear. 'This is what love is all about,' I thought. I still kind of like the song, but now I'm most fascinated by the white dot that appears when the 'TV' in the video is switched off. I haven't seen that dot in too long.

 

CND Song(s) 10

The Spoons - Nova Heart, 1981 (Burlington, Ontario)

...and The Payolas - Eyes of a Stranger, 1981 (Vancouver, B.C.)

'And I'll sleep, sleep in your Nova Heart, as things come apart...'

'In your lips I sense a danger. You've got the eeeeeyyyyyeeesss of a stranger...'

Now, I'll admit that this two-fer made more sense when I originally planned Strange Advance's 'We Run' to be the second song on the double bill. Both are Canadian New Wave hits with plenty of atmosphere and synthesizers, and I loved both in the day and still do. But EMI has cruelly cut 'We Run' out of my Youtube-viewing life here in Ireland. No matter. 'Eyes of a Stranger' was released the same year as 'Nova Heart', and I still have fond memories of Paul Hyde's acting/singing, which here mainly consists of doing bizarre bug-eyed faces at the camera to emphasise that eyes are involved in his dilemma, and strangeness. 'Nova Heart' seems to have aged well, though the hair and clothes on the fellas certainly take me back, and if anyone can explain what is happening in the video with the big glowing egg and all, I'll give you...a strawberry. Or perhaps a clothespin. As a side note, is it just me, or is Gordon Deppe singing with a fake English accent, on this and all Spoons songs? Maybe it's a New Wave accent.

Here's The Spoons:

...and The Payolas:

 

CND Song 11

Roch Voisine - Hélène, 1989 (Edmundston, New Brunswick)

'Seul sur le sable, les yeaux dans l'eau, mon rêve était trop beau...' Oh, Roch! It's the same old story: the star on stage could have any woman in the (very well behaved and seated) audience he wants, but he's singing to only one girl - Helen (or is it Hélène?) the flight attendant who broke his heart flying off to the ends of the earth. And after all that frolicking on the beach! Yet Roch is without bitterness, in fact he smiles, remembering. This one's going out to Jan in Cape Breton, who reminded me of Roch's existence. I'll admit I'd forgotten all about him until very recently, but in the French-speaking world he was huge, and the moment I hit 'play' the song came back to me. A summer of French immersion classes in the town of St-Pascal, QC (population 3,490), green fields, long bus rides, this on the radio. All very wistful and poignant until you get to the English chorus, which I was never mad about. But I'm in the minority - in France 'Hélène' was at number one for nine weeks, and in the Top 40 for the better part of a year. Not bad for an Acadian boy from New Brunswick.  

 

CND Song(s) 12

The Grapes of Wrath - Peace of Mind, 1987 (Kelowna, B.C.)

...and The Northern Pikes - Teenland, 1987 (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)

'Why is the world so damn unkind to one so righteous in her mind...'

'Give me a kiss, give me a kiss. I want to find out what I missed...'

Two very different bands, but I remember them being mentioned in the same breath a lot back in the late 80s: up-and-coming young fellas who had their breakout hits in the same year and often ended up following each other on Samantha Taylor's Video Hits. The Grapes were warm and folksy (check out the lovely guitars and harmonies in the opening to 'Peace of Mind'), with really fantastic quantities of springy hippy hair, while the Pikes were sharp-edged and witty, and looked good in tank tops. I saw both in the early nineties, but I only clearly remember the Pikes at the Misty Moon in Halifax, perhaps because they did an ironic Whitney Houston cover which made me laugh. Irony was still a novelty back in 1990.

Here are the Grapes:

 ..and the Northern Pikes:

 

CND Song 13

Rush - Tom Sawyer, 1981 (Toronto, Ontario)

Rush are one of the most successful Canadian bands ever, even with Americans - I knew they had to be on this countdown. But how on earth would I describe the clip you see here? It was time to call in an expert, or the next best thing: a Rush fan. So let's hear from Dennis Murphy of Berlin, once of Halifax. Take it away, Dennis!

"Rush? I have been accused of being a fan. Here I am, listening to 'Tom Sawyer', and smiling broadly. What's not to love? Okay the funny electronic nipple-twists can go, but the rest is awesome. What a trio of heroes. Who wasn't amazed by Neil Peart's poetic lyrics and nifty beat? Geddy Lee, what kind of a name is that? Playing the awesome bass, singing the crazy sounds, and playing the keyboard with his feet simultaneously. Alex Lifeson. Honestly I don't care about Alex Lifeson. He plays some great guitar. He has some wild wispy hair. I guess he can take a physical beating and give some back.

I like this song but I never understood it. Tom Sawyer what? The River? Mean Pride? I liked the "His mind is not for rent" line, but the "What you say about society..." bit makes no sense at all. It's progressive rock, bitches: just listen and be amazed.

Why do I love this band? Time signatures. They're flipping around between 4/4, 7/4, and 2/4, and it's still groovy. No small wonder I dance so oddly."

Thank you, Dennis. I'm not sure I could dance to this, but anything's possible:

 

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