CanCon helped bring These Eyes to our ears

Doc follows rise of Canadian pop on '70s radio


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As the health-care reform debate continues to percolate south of the border, it seems like you can't flip your way through a half-dozen channels without witnessing some irate, gun-toting protester railing against the perils of government meddling in places where politics don't belong.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/08/2009 (4730 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As the health-care reform debate continues to percolate south of the border, it seems like you can’t flip your way through a half-dozen channels without witnessing some irate, gun-toting protester railing against the perils of government meddling in places where politics don’t belong.

Tonight’s documentary offering on our public broadcaster takes a decidedly different approach, citing government intervention as the sole reason for robust health, strong growth and longevity — of Canada’s music industry.

This Beat Goes On, a two-part exploration of Canadian pop music during the 1970s that airs tonight at 9 on CBC, argues quite convincingly that the rise of this country’s rock/pop/reggae/punk/new-wave recording industry, and the enduring strength of Canada’s music-making machine, were a direct result of the federal government’s decision to impose Canadian-content requirements on radio stations from coast to coast at the beginning of that decade.

CBC The Guess Who, led by Burton Cummings (left), were on top of the world in the early '70s.

The ’60s had been a period of extreme cultural shifts and wild artistic exploration, but the acts that emerged from the free-love decade found very little in the way of commercial outlets for their musical expression.

"Although plenty of new bands and singer/songwriters arrived on the scene," says narrator Jian Ghomeshi, "the path to a flourishing Canadian music industry proved to be a rocky road."

CanCon was a controversial move, particularly since the legislated requirement mandated much more than a marginal inclusion of homegrown music — in fact, the new regulation forced radio stations to devote a full 30 per cent share of their record-spinning time to songs created and performed by Canadian artists.

At a time when the Canuck contribution to radio playlists was limited to a few well-established hitmakers — Anne Murray, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and the Guess Who, for starters — the new CanCon rules forced radio stations and the recording industry to scour the countryside in search of new music to play.

At first, they had a pretty tough go of it, but as artists and managers and producers and studios started to figure out ways to exploit the new rules, the industry began to boom.

Part 1 of This Beat Goes On opens with Winnipeg’s foremost musical export — the Guess Who — at the top of its game. Despite the departure of founding member Randy Bachman in 1970 and a subsequent constant reshuffling of personnel, the band remained a constant presence on the pop charts.

"Nineteen seventy-two was a hell of a busy year for the Guess Who," frontman Burton Cummings recalls. "We did three albums and toured for nine months."

As Cummings and company continued to make hits, CanCon-fuelled recording of new artists pushed a wave of fresh voices onto the airwaves — including Fludd, Edward Bear, the Poppy Family, Stampeders, Terry Jacks, Ian Thomas and, perhaps most powerfully, Randy Bachman’s post-Guess Who project, BTO.

Part of what makes This Beat Goes On so engaging, and so much fun to watch, is the fact its producers have unearthed so much in-concert footage of the profiled acts. It’s grainy, and blurry, and at times choppily edited, but that just adds to its charm.

The first half of the film examines the rise of FM radio, with its CanCon-friendlier attitudes and playlists, and the emergence of a generation of soon-to-be-powerful managers and producers who pushed Canadian acts onto the road and upward through the charts.

Folk influences, blues influences, jazz influences, francophone-Quebec influences — they all played a part in shaping the Canadian sound. And in the second half of the decade (examined in next week’s instalment), punk, new wave, arena rock and balladeers also made their presence known.

It’s an enlightening trip through a fascinating time. And you can hang around the same timeslot for two more weeks as the followup documentary, Rise Up, continues the musical voyage through CanCon’s version of the ’80s.

Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.

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