Some undercooked thoughts on Canadian music, scenes and Have Not Been the Same

I first heard of Have Not Been the Same from my friend and coworker, James. I was telling him about this book I had just finished reading by Ryan Edwardson called Canuck Rock, which purported to be a history of Canadian music, but which felt like it shortchanged so much of the Canada that I knew. Its overview of the 1960s—the rise of scenes in Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal and more—felt detailed, narrative, comprehensive, but then it got to the 1980s and that sense of the local just dissipated; it became “Bryan Adams CanCon etc.” There was nothing to indicate how the music I love today came to be; it felt more like ancient history than anything relevant or tangible.

Hearing my complaints, James told me to read Have Not Been the Same. And since it was out of print at the time, he lent me his copy. And in a jerk move I’m completely okay with, I simply didn’t give it back; not until, at least, I managed to pick up the book’s new reissue, now in stores.

(Don’t worry too much about James…he still has my copy of Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, after all)

Revisiting the book a few years later, now with my own copy in hand, my assessment still stands: Have Not Been the Same is probably the longest love letter to Canadian music ever written, an astonishingly detailed overview of the antecedents that inspired the music I love today, and a must-read for any Canadian music fan. Written by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider, it’s the story of college radio and early MuchMusic; of the underground rebuilding of scenes across the country from Vancouver to Halifax; of vital, essential bands like Sloan, Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip.

(For more on the book, check out Barclay’s blog Radio Free Canuckistan, where he’s been sharing stories and thoughts on the book in honour of its re-release.)

As someone who came of age musically in the late nineties, reading Have Not Been the Same was history to me, but it wasn’t (like so much popular music history) caught up in baby boom nostalgia, unable to escape that generational weight. Instead, it was a narrative that reflected the music I actually grew up with, as if I could see the connections and synapses firing that explained how my country’s music ended up the way it was.  I felt the same revisiting it a few years later, but the book also inspired two related thoughts that I didn’t have the first time around.

One is that it got me thinking how the history of my decade—1995 to 2005—is going to read, once someone gets around to writing it.

I suspect it should start with Treble Charger, who do get some play in Have Not Been the Same, but which feel more a part of my story: the late 1990s mainstreaming of CanRock as epitomized by bands such as Our Lady Peace, Moist, the Matthew Good Band and others. For me and my peers, these were our gateway drugs, the starting points for our new generation of listeners, paths that eventually led to better and more daring sounds. But Treble Charger didn’t start in that scene: instead, following “Red’s” breakthrough success, they asked, begged, pleaded and changed to fit in. Their choice to become a pop band not only broke up the group along the Nori/Priddle fault line, and arguably denied Canada of one of its best up-and-coming bands, but it’s a choice that feels very much of its time: by the time 2005 rolled around, radio was stifled, Much(Music) didn’t play rock videos, and an entire generation of new bands were making their own way.

As such, I suspect the 1995-2005 story should end with Arcade Fire and Funeral, representing both the breakthrough of a new Canadian renaissance that had been building for some time and the arrival of a band which, it now seems, will end up ranking alongside Canada’s greatest quite nicely. Not only did Arcade Fire manage to find success almost entirely on its own terms, but those terms are quite different than those that existed a decade earlier: more international (the Butler brothers being from Texas, the band being signed to Merge) and, fittingly, more based in the digital world (blogs, emerging media websites) than in traditional airplay on radio or video stations.

And that leads me to my second observation: I don’t feel as if I could write the story that’s in between. At least, not in the style of Have Not Been the Same.

In their preface, the book’s authors suggest that the story they’re telling is of the bands and artists first and foremost, which is fair enough. But as it goes along, you realize that the narrative being told is as much of scenes – of spaces, places and times where bands and fans, contained and constrained together, support each other and build a localized musical culture. And like in the early days of Canadian rock in the 1960s, these scenes were local almost entirely out of necessity. These were bands with minimal radio play, who only got MuchMusic play because, well, there was nothing else to show on the channel, and who had to travel incredible far to play to new audiences in this vast, gigantic country of ours.

Now scenes still exist, obviously; they’re an essential part of the musical ecosystem, especially in places like here in Halifax where geography remains an issue. But on the audience side of the equation—the one that’s not the focus of Have Not Been the Same, but which still finds its place in the narrativethe role of scenes feels dramatically different. Because mine is the first generation that didn’t need to rely on a local scene to discover great music; we’ve had it at our fingertips, across cyberspace and around the world, anytime we wanted it.

In my case, I’ve never felt as connected to music here in Halifax as I feel like I should. In part, this reflects my decision to spend my university years in a small town, denying me from spending my non-study time bouncing around dives and discovering bands. But I suspect that I’m not alone in feeling like my support of local music, while real and genuine, has never been necessary to have a fulfilling musical life. And, for a music junkie like myself, that may be a new phenomenon, one that wouldn’t have been the case a decade ago, let alone two.

In my academic life, the fundamental issue I’m interested in exploring is how, and to what degree, the Internet changes the cultural experience of music. And my working thesis is “a great deal.” It removes the barriers of scarcity and economics from the access equation, and renders musical geography less relevant than ever before. And as such, the relationship between Canadians and “Canadian music” is entering a different, post-CanCon era, where other mechanisms than radio restrictions and geographic identification are building those relationships.

That’s not to suggest that our musical history need be entirely media-driven in its focus. After all, Have Not Been the Same does an impressive job telling just enough of the media climate story—MuchMusic, college radio—to provide a canvas to explore the bands that ecosystem supported. But at the risk of simplistic McLuhanism, I suspect that my generation’s musical history will, by necessity, be less about the bands and more about the ecosystem; as much the medium as the message. Because I’m not sure that, even a decade removed, that things are quite the same anymore.

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