- Is This Live?
- Christopher Ward
- Random House Canada
These days, Blue Rodeo can reliably fill large theatres and arenas in Canada with fans who love their music, including their iconic song, Try.
But according to Christopher Ward's new book Is This Live?Inside the Wild Early Years of MuchMusic: The Nation's Music Station, back in 1987, radio wouldn't touch the aching ballad, almost killing the band's career before it really started.
"Crickets," former Warner Brothers promo man Kevin Shea tells Ward, describing the response to the band's first single. "We thought this was a magic track. We couldn't get the radio stations we needed. Then MuchMusic added it into significant rotation."
Like other Canadian artists of the time – including Alanis Morissette, Bryan Adams, 54-40, the Tragically Hip and Maestro Fresh Wes – Blue Rodeo cite exposure on Much as a career and life saver. The medium was still young and its impact somewhat unnerving for artists who might go from anonymous to mob-worthy overnight, just because of a silly, viral music video.
Ward captures this somewhat weird and definitely prescient media moment in time in his open oral history of Much, told by virtually every key living player. Ward, a successful songwriter (Black Velvet by Alannah Myles is his biggest hit), bears the distinction of being the first-ever Canadian on-air video jockey (VJ) when Much launched on Aug. 31, 1984. He was there, he might be biased, but it generally doesn't show. In fact, Ward seems about as surprised about what Much got away with as anybody else.
The network emerged when Moses Znaimer and John Martin put their heads together to fill a void in the Canadian television landscape, successfully applying for a licence to establish a 24/7 music channel. It was not Znaimer's first attempt to do so.
"I was irritated that we had to go [on] after the Americans because I was ready to do it in '77, '78, '79 and '80, and it was the dullness of the regulator not to be able to see what seemed obvious, and so we had to wait while MTV [launched in 1981] became a phenomenon and then the Canadian regulator could understand it," Znaimer says.
At the time, both he and Martin were brash, blunt, instinctive iconoclasts with a disdain for pretentiousness, polish and authority.
They each did stints at CBC that left them disillusioned and unappreciated, eventually finding each other after Znaimer had established Toronto's loose, open-format news and entertainment channel, CityTV. Martin caught his ear with a pitch for an edgy, music magazine show and was soon producing the pioneering program, The New Music. That, and an overnight music show called City Limits, hosted by Ward, served as the template for Much.
Actually, template might be a strong word.
"John's only directive to me was, 'Do what you want, just don't spend any money,'" current CBC Radio host Laurie Brown recalls about initially taking on hosting roles on The New Music, and then Much.
Ward's book doesn't depict a total free-for-all at Much and, aside from a Worst Interviews chapter, it's not gossipy. But it's implied that, if the lunatics were running the asylum, they all felt compelled to do almost anything they wanted, as long it hadn't been done before.
Looking back at Much, with its no frills studio "environment" sets, its balance of serious, insightful megastar interviews with things such as an annual Christmas tree toss from the high roof of 299 Queen St. W., there's a sense that people with good instincts were permitted the freedom to experiment with TV in front of millions of people.
Before social media enabled so many of us to liberate our first ideas in the moment they occurred, Much seemed to be doing that every second of their broadcast day with an eclectic array of cultural and music content. In its prime, it was one of the wildest, most suspenseful broadcasters to engage with because the whole enterprise was built upon a rare kind of candour.
"Is that a fire alarm?" La Toya Jackson once asked Ward mid-interrupted-interview. "Is this live?" The answers were "yes" and "yes." It wasn't unusual for guests to defer to conventions of professionalism after a few moments at Much.
Ward celebrates all of this raw, forward-thinking, multicultural, multigender produced content by finally freezing it in a compelling book where, occasionally he himself wonders, "How the hell we'd do that?"
The answer, it seems, was simply trusting its programmers, producers, hosts, artists and viewers to appreciate that polish of any kind is a cover-up. If you lived in this MuchMusic universe and processed pop culture, you were encouraged to dig deeper than beauty. And, as the network so often proved, that's where the real treasure was waiting.
Vish Khanna is an assistant editor at Exclaim! Magazine and hosts the Kreative Kontrol podcast.