Thursday, July 9, 2015

Simply Chronicling: The History of Canadian Rock by Bob Mersereau

Bob Mersereau is a producer with the CBC. Alongside thousands of reviews for various newspapers and magazines he has authored two of the most entertaining and informative books on Canadian Rock and Roll. The Top 100 Canadian Albums and The Top 100 Canadian Singles are must have volumes for the maple leaf music lover. They are smart, well designed, and just plain fun. Open either of them to any page and you’re drawn immediately into an argument about which single didn’t make the cut, which should have, why is Neil Young so heavily represented, where is Pagliaro in all this. I regularly return to these volumes to remind myself of albums or singles I bought, lost, traded, hated and loved. Unfortunately Mersereau’s new book, The History of Canadian Rock (Backbeat Books), is not the sequel I’d hoped it would be. It’s not his fault, though. It’s incredibly difficult to maintain that level of sport when you’re just chronologically reporting on act after act, single after single. The same is true of The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. It was called Rock of Ages and had three authors (Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes and Ken Tucker). It dealt with the whole international history of rock & roll (well, essentially American, including the British Invasion[s]), but suffered because you just can’t include everybody.

Mersereau tries. After an appreciative introduction from Neil Peart, Mersereau starts with the early days. Did you know that “Istanbul, not Constantinople” was by a Canadian group? It was The Four Lads, who were first recorded singing the “oohs’ behind Johnny Ray’s “Cry.” The Lads were from Toronto, and at one time had called themselves The Otnorots! Then came the Crew Cuts who covered “Sh-Boom” and doo-wopped their way to fame and fortune. And then The Diamonds, whose version of “Little Darlin’” was a big hit. Jack Scott, who was the rockabilly pioneer from Windsor, delivered “My True Love” and made the charts in 1958. Then there was Paul Anka, the 16-year-old Canadian boy wonder, who started his career in rock & roll. Paul Anka? Rock & roll? Well, when I saw A Hard Day’s Night at the Palace Theatre in 1964, they played the NFB’s 1962 documentary Lonely Boy, about Anka's rise to fame as a pop singer, as the first part of a double bill! So somebody thought Anka was R&R. After all, didn't he did write Buddy Holly’s last recorded song, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”?

Even from the beginning Canadian singers were crossing the border to find success. Mersereau says, “The biggest stars in early Canadian rock’n’roll had made their names by leaving the country, but there were plenty of rockers at home. Young people were actually crazy for it—there were bands everywhere…” So there was money to be made. The book is divided into a dozen chapters most of which are named after songs, but not all. The first chapter is called "Moments to Remember" (the Four Lads), then "Four Strong Winds" (Ian Tyson), "Shakin’ All Over" (The Guess Who), "Urge for Going" (Joni Mitchell) and so on. One chapter is called "Ugly Ducklings." They were a Toronto band that were part of the Yorkville scene in the late Sixties. Another is "Canadiana" a word I’m glad to see here, because so many times the rootsy music is labelled Americana, and to be honest much of that style comes from North of the border! The Band, kings of roots music, who played with Ronnie Hawkins, and Bob Dylan, and made such an impact on the music as a whole that even Eric Clapton and George Harrison wanted to play with them.

The book has so much to cover from Joni Mitchell to Blue Rodeo, Rush to Celine Dion, Alanis to Arcade Fire that I can’t be too critical, but Mersereau really skims the surface. I’d love to read more about the great Quebec rocker Michel Pagliaro, who gets 5 mentions, but none in depth. Luke & the Apostles, Mashmakhan, McKenna-Mendelson-Mainline, and many more only get a quick mention, maybe a sentence, and then it’s on to the next big thing. Even the big things are dealt with quickly, Rush gets a couple of pages. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen get the most coverage, and that’s fair, but I’d like to see an expanded work illustrated throughout (not just two insert sections with promo shots). I should also mention that the book does include several Quebec artists. As it is the book is a handy quick reference. Mersereau provides a reasonably complete appendix of other books for further study including Nicholas Jennings book on Yorkville, Before the Gold Rush (1998), Liz Worth’s epic look at Canadian punk Treat Me Like Dirt (2011), and John Einarson’s entire ouevre.

I’m glad to add The History of Canadian Rock ‘n’Roll to my library but I'll spend more time with Mr. Mersereau’s other books. For now, I'm still waiting for the ultimate guide to Can-con!

 – David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife. 

1 comment:

  1. Really skims the surface is a bit charitable given the space lavished on some Toronto-centric doo-wop covers and crooner pop as opposed to actual any Rock 'N' Roll, Canadian or not, which Toronto in general opposed into the late 1960s. The early days started elsewhere, it's rude how he footnotes the vital Vancouver scene of the mid '50s in at the tail of a chapter subtitled 'The Whole Country Joins In' as if somewhere else actually lead until forced into it by law. :^)