Arts & Life
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This article was published 4/1/2014 (2481 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Until Winnipeg-based musical comedy duo MacLean & MacLean won a landmark Supreme Court decision, it was illegal to utter the F word onstage in an Ontario pub or club. The self-styled "Toilet Rockers" forced the province to rewrite its antiquated liquor laws and struck a blow for free speech and the right of club owners to hire whomever they choose.
"Everybody said only we were doing it onstage," Blair MacLean said in an interview I did with him in 2005.
Hailing from Glace Bay, N.S. (immortalized in the Guess Who recording Glace Bay Blues, co-written by the MacLeans), Blair and younger brother Gary grew up around music.
"On Saturday nights, the folks would all go to the armoury for a dance, then come home, drink moonshine and sing songs," Blair said. "We used to listen at the top of the stairs. Gary and I would listen to all these cheesy records, like Mario Lanza, and imitate them."
A stint in the air force brought Blair to Manitoba in 1960 during the folk music boom. Learning guitar, he teamed with a fellow recruit as The Glee Men, winning CJAY TV's Talent Show. The friend was soon replaced by brother Gary on banjo, and together with Victor Pasta and Cathy Hunter (and later Mike McMahon), they formed The Vicious Circle. Mixing comedy with song, the group was one of the most popular attractions in the local pubs by the late '60s.
"We heard a Don Rickles album, entitled Hello Dummy, insulting the audience, and we borrowed stuff from him," Blair said. "But we also had really good harmonies and people loved our songs, too."
By the early '70s, the Vicious Circle included former Mother Tucker's Yellow Duck guitarist Donnie McDougall (later in the Guess Who) and drummer Gord Osland. Burton Cummings, a fan of the group and roommate with the brothers, took them to Chicago to record an album, which remains unreleased. In 1972, Blair and Gary struck out on their own as MacLean & Maclean.
"It was the same idea as in the Vicious Circle, with descriptions of songs, then the tune, only the descriptions got longer and longer and the introductions became stories and bits," Blair said.
Their 1974 debut album, Toilet Rock, was recorded live at Toronto's Chimney Club and produced by Lighthouse drummer Skip Prokop. "We were supposed to do a hundred tour dates with Lighthouse, but we got as far as Swift Current when some reverend's son heard us say f onstage and went ballistic. The minister got everybody involved -- the morality squad, the newspapers. That was our first national story." And the start of several legal battles.
The Ontario Liquor Board prohibited pub owners from hiring the duo after inspectors caught their profanity-laced set, which included such crowd favourites as I've Seen Pubic Hair and F%#& Ya in London, Ont. The brothers determined to challenge the edict on the grounds it denied not only freedom of speech but their ability to work.
"They sent out cops with tape recorders in their purses and then had a linguistics expert translate the tape as evidence in court," Blair laughed. "We heard it, and it had no resemblance whatsoever to what we were saying. It was hilarious. So we had to get linguistics experts to define what we were doing."
Noted civil rights litigator Clayton Ruby became their lawyer. "We had to go out and keep committing the crime in order to pay the lawyers," Blair said. After appealing an earlier guilty verdict before the Supreme Court, Blair and Gary won their case. "We were pretty infamous."
MacLean & MacLean toured Canada to packed houses wherever they appeared and released seven albums, including Locked Up For Laughs and a best-of Dirty Thirty. They performed at Montreal's prestigious Just For Laughs comedy festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The two even enjoyed a U.K. hit with their original composition, Dolly Parton's Tits, after it was used as the theme song to a Scottish television show. Burton Cummings joined them in the early '80s for a seven-week Canadian tour.
After 26 years on the road, Blair and Gary called it quits in 1998. As Big Daddy, Gary became a popular CKY radio deejay while Blair focused on his art, which besides painting, included elaborate works of art created with grain. His unique grain art remains on display around the world. Gary died of cancer in December 2001 and Blair in 2008 from a heart attack. At the time of his death, Blair had been working on his memoirs, which were published posthumously by his wife, Marcia, in 2012 under the title Was It Something We Said? (available at macleanandmaclean.com). The book describes in colourful and hilarious detail their legal case and includes a foreword by Clayton Ruby.
As for the dreaded F word, "You hear it now on television, and even worse," mused Blair. "By that time, community standards were catching up to us."
Sign up for John Einarson's 2014 Off The Record music history classes at mcnallyrobinson.com
Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.
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