EhOR: Max Webster Brought Weirdness to the Mainstream

Written by EhOR, Music

Editor’s note: In this installment of EhOR, Jay Kumar examines the career of Canadian prog-rockers Max Webster, who could never escape the shadow of their friends and tourmates Rush.

The mid-1970s were an interesting time for music. The big dinosaur rock acts were getting bloated, disco and punk were taking root, and soft rock ruled the airwaves. But in Sarnia, Ontario, a different sound was emerging. Formed in 1973 from the ashes of several Toronto-area bands (Zooom, Rock Show of the Yeomen, Family at Macs and Sally and the Bluesman), Max Webster was formed by singer-guitarist Kim Mitchell and bassist Mike Tilka. The name was inspired by Jethro Tull’s idea of using the name of someone who was not in the band; Tilka has said in recent interviews that the name was taken from his old band Family at Max (which featured future Genesis touring guitarist Daryl Stuermer) and their tune “Song for Webster.”

max webster poster

Augmented by drummer Paul Kersey and keyboardist Jim Bruton, the band started out doing Who and Jethro Tull covers in local bars. Bruton was soon replaced by Terry Watkinson and the band played gigs all over southern Ontario for the next few years. But it wasn’t until 1976, when the band moved to Toronto and began working with Pye Dubois, a poet/psychologist, that Max Webster’s style began to gel. Dubois became the band’s lyricist (similar to how the Grateful Dead worked with Robert Hunter) and an unofficial fifth member, featured on album sleeves but never actually playing a note. Between Dubois’ fantastical, non-linear lyrics, Mitchell’s propensity for odd time signatures and blazing hot solos, and the rhythm section’s ability to turn on a musical dime, Max Webster developed a truly unique sound that author Martin Popoff (who wrote Live Magnetic Air: The Unlikely Saga of the Superlative Max Webster) calls “92% Blue Oyster Cult crossed with Cheap Trick, topped by 4% Kansas and another 4% Zappa.”

In ’76, the band caught the eye of Rush manager Ray Danniels, who signed the band to his label Taurus Records. The self-titled debut album came out that year and it was all over the map: the album opener “Hangover” rocks most steadfastly, “Blowing the Blues Away” and “Summer’s Up” have an airy AM gold feel, “Here Among the Cats” was an anti-authoritarian rant, the sheer insanity of “Toronto Tontos” and “Lily” was a 7-minute guitar workout. Produced by Terry Brown (better known for his work with Rush), the album was a blueprint for the next few years of the band. In the U.S., the album was repackaged and called “Hangover,” with a different cover.

Alas, success in the States was not to happen for Max Webster. The band never charted with a song or album south of the border, but in Canada, Max had plenty of rock radio airplay and chart appearances. In the U.S., Max is best known for their association with Rush, with whom they toured often. Ultimately, Max Webster was just too damn weird for radio programmers to get on board with.

Kersey left after the recording of the first album and was replaced by powerhouse drummer Gary McCracken, who joined in time to tour the first album and then record 1977’s High Class in Borrowed Shoes. The band’s label had now become Anthem Records (Rush’s label), with U.S. distribution handled by Mercury. The album not only found the band refining its sound, but also its look. The cover features a shot of the band looking about as prog rock as they possibly could: Watkinson in face paint, flares and platform shoes, Mitchell in a halter top, purple shorts, floral leggings and platforms, Tilka in cult leader mode wearing a flowing white robe and McCracken looking ready for a “HAIR” audition in polyester hippie wear. Musically, High Class featured some classic Max Webster tracks: the rollicking title track, the Beach Boys-esque “Diamonds Diamonds,” the anthemic “Gravity” and “America’s Veins” and the progtastic album closer “In Context of the Moon.” But on an album of standouts, it was “Oh War!” that really hits home: a dark, ominous beast that hammers against the American military industrial complex, featuring the lines “Because I’d say fuck you, not thank you, rejoice under your breath/Oh say, go to hell, I’ll go American Express.” To top it all off, Mitchell unleashes a screamer of a solo.

Max Webster was also honing their live chops, opening throughout North America for the likes of Rush, Styx, Cheap Trick, Rick Derringer and Angel. Visually, the band was striking, with the long-haired, rail-thin Mitchell running and leaping all over the stage, dressed in androgynous/ridiculous outfits, while Watkinson in his space traveler makeup and the hulking Tilka carved out their own areas with McCracken pounding away on his massive kit.

Last year on the podcast Audiojunkies, Tilka said he was kicked out of the band for Billy Sheehan, who at the time was in the Buffalo band Talas (and later went on to fame in David Lee Roth’s band and in Mr. Big). Sheehan was only in the band for a short while before parting ways, but he’s been quoted as saying he did pre-production work for Max Webster’s next album, 1978’s Mutiny Up My Sleeve. Dave Myles, who had played with Mitchell in the bands The Grass Company and Zooom, took Tilka’s bass spot. Classic tracks from the album included concert favorites “The Party,” “Waterline” and “Lip Service,” which was another Dubois-Mitchell rocker with a political bent. The heavy touring schedule continued, alternating between headlining dates and opening for Rush, Rainbow, Cheap Trick, Genesis and REO Speedwagon.

Having split with producer Terry Brown during the recording of Mutiny, the band went back in the studio with John de Nottbeck to record 1979’s A Million Vacations, which turned out to be their most successful album. The Watkinson-sung “Let Go the Line,” a slow jam that sounded very un-Max-like, was a big Canadian radio hit, as was “Paradise Skies,” “Night Flights” and the title track, which was sung by drummer McCracken.

The spring of ’79 saw Max doing a successful UK tour with Rush, also appearing on the iconic “Top of the Pops” TV show to play “Paradise Skies,” which was a top 20 hit across the pond.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JT93V7tP2Hg

Later in ’79, Max released Live Magnetic Air, a ripping live collection of songs from the band’s first four records, including a definitive “Hangover.” The album captures the aural side of the Max Webster live experience.

But all wasn’t well within the band. During the recording of the band’s next album, 1980’s Universal Juveniles, Watkinson and Myles both left because of “musical differences” with Mitchell. Working with producer Jack Richardson, the band finished the record using some session musicians.

Unstable band conditions aside, Universal Juveniles is an excellent hard rock record chock full of hot guitar solos and off-the-wall Dubois lyrics delivered by Mitchell’s gruff rock yelp. “Check,” “April in Toledo,” “In the World of Giants” and “Blue River Liquor Shine” are all standouts, but the most notable song is “Battle Scar,” a song that the band had attempted to record for years before finally settling on a live band vs. band blowout with Rush, which was recorded in July 1980 before Watkinson and Myles had departed. Both bands recorded in the same room at the same time, with Mitchell and Geddy Lee trading off vocals and both bands creating what Rush drummer Neil Peart called “a Wagnerian tumult.” The song is an epic, brooding beast that sadly went unnoticed by the majority of rock fans. In a just world, it would have been a huge hit.

The song actually led to a bigger hit, as Dubois went on to work with Neil Peart to write “Tom Sawyer,” the biggest song of Rush’s career to date. The two also collaborated on the Rush songs “Force Ten” and “Between Sun and Moon.”

Starting in the fall of 1980, Max played headline dates on the Universal Juveniles, including a few dates in the UK, and opened for Rush throughout North America. At some point, Watkinson rejoined the band as a hired hand and tour plowed on with the band as a five-piece, including a second guitarist. During this time, the band (specifically, Mitchell) felt that its status with Anthem as “Rush’s little brother” led to substandard marketing efforts and an overall lack of support. April 19, 1981 in New Orleans was the last Max Webster show for a decade. Two nights later, Mitchell told the rest of the band he was done and that was that.

Mitchell would release an EP a year later and go on to having a successful solo career (in Canada, anyway; more on that in a future installment of EhOR), garnering far more sales and radio/video airplay that he ever did in Max Webster. Still, in December 1990, the High Class in Borrowed Shoes lineup of the band reunited for an awards show performance. Mitchell, Watkinson, Tilka and McCracken played four songs before leaving the stage, causing a near-riot among the rabid Max fans who were hoping for more.

They’d have to wait another five years, when the band (with Peter Fredette filling in on bass) played 15 shows in 1995 and 1996. The band (with Tilka back on bass) played one more show in 2007 at the 30th anniversary concert of Q-107, the Toronto rock station where Mitchell was a DJ. The band had attempted to record new material on a few occasions after the initial reunion, but nothing ever panned out.

His DJ gig over, Mitchell continues to play solo gigs across Canada. Watkinson is a painter and also plays in a band called Antlers with Tilka that plays the occasional Max Webster tune. After his time in Max, McCracken played drums with the bands Wrabit, Klaatu and even filled in with Triumph briefly before moving back to Sarnia to teach music. After his ouster from the band, Tilka became a label exec with Anthem Records and even helped produce Mutiny Up My Sleeve. Watkinson has had a successful career as a painter, while Myles got into the KFC franchise business.

Although the band’s glory days were short and sweet and decades ago, fans of Max Webster still wonder what might have been.