Jesus of Cool: Jon’s Singles File, Vol. 34

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music, Popdose

Actually, it’s only Volume 2, but who’s counting?

This is an all-Canadian edition of my occasional series sorting through the wreckage of a vinyl collection that focused heavily on minor hits and gone-but-not-always-forgotten acts. The bands featured here shared not only a home country, but also a home city (Vancouver), a bass player (Ab Bryant), and a rockin’ (but not too hard-rockin’) sound that scored them a series of minor U.S. hits before their brief early-’80s journeys to Kasemopolis. Oh, and one other thing: Both these songs skimmed the bottom of the Top 40 during the same weeks in March 1982.

Chilliwack – “I Believe”

I’m pretty sure I don’t have any more voices in my head than the average person, but during the fall of 1981 one of those voices was running a particular phrase on a perpetual loop: “Gone gone gone, she been gone so long, she been gone gone gone so long/Gone gone gone, she been gone so long, g-gone gone gone gone so long.”

ChilliwackChilliwack formed around 1970 and named themselves after a city east of Vancouver, in the Fraser Valley region of southern British Columbia; the name means “going back up” in one of the nearly dead Salishan languages once spoken by the region’s Native Americans. And now that you know that, know this: “My Girl (Gone Gone Gone)” not only wasn’t Chilliwack’s sole American hit, it wasn’t even their first. Four other songs, all major Canadian hits, had charted here during the ’70s – the biggest being the #67 smash “Arms of Mary” from 1978.

None of those songs, however, had inspired anything like this:

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While “My Girl” certainly seeped into the consciousness on both sides of the 49th parallel – I believe I chanted myself to sleep with it for at least six months – it only reached #22 on the Hot 100, and #6 on the Canadian chart. Nevertheless, Mushroom Records decided that a near-top-20 hit deserved a follow-up, and “I Believe” was it. Clearly not the hookfest that “My Girl” had been, “I Believe” still had a nice bossa-nova(ish) groove and a falsetto vocal by group leader Bill Henderson that never veered too far off key. Henderson later explained the song’s genesis thusly:

“Well, really [it was] just a whole background of years of playing standards. I learned guitar and chords and the beginning of songwriting by playing ‘casuals’ – gigs where you play with different guys every time out. Doing weddings, banquets…all of that stuff. This was a long time ago – early ’60s. Latin music, bossa novas, cha cha cha, tangos, rhumba, as well as stuff like ‘Misty,’ ‘I Only Have Eyes for You,’ ‘Moon River’…poppy, schmaltzy stuff was what you had to be able to play. That’s how I made a living. ‘I Believe’ has some of those poppy, Latin roots in it.”

Way to place your Top 40-scraping semi-hit in the MOR pantheon, dude! I’m pretty sure “I Believe” found its way into my collection only because I was still smitten with “My Girl” and it had fallen off the chart too soon – and because the pop station I listened to at the time, K-92 in Roanoke, Va., had a welcome habit of giving low-charting songs a week or two of decent airplay before dropping them completely. Anyway, Chilliwack hung around for a spell after “I Believe” peaked at #33; in fact, at Christmastime in ’82 the band nearly scored another American Top 40 airing with “Whatcha Gonna Do (When I’m Gone).” Alas, the single stalled at #41, which means that you can look forward to hearing it in a Dave Steed “Bottom Feeders” column in about a month.

Wikipedia records Rolling Stone as having once written that “at their best, Chilliwack was the finest Canadian rock band, outrocking BTO and outwriting Burton Cummings. But a lack of consistency kept [the group] from international success.” The quote serves, if nothing else, as a reminder that Rolling Stone never thought much of Rush.

Buy Chilliwack music from Amazon or eMusic.

Prism – “Don’t Let Him Know”

The reason this song sounds so much like early Bryan Adams is because it is early Bryan Adams. “Don’t Let Him Know” holds the distinction of being the first Hot 100 hit written by the team of Adams and Jim Vallance, who would go on to become schlockmeisters extraordinaire – and the biggest tunesmithing duo in Canadian history.

PrismVallance had been the drummer on Prism’s debut album in 1977 and had written the band’s first two minor U.S. hits, “Spaceship Superstar” and “Take Me to the Kaptin” – all while using the pseudonym Rodney Higgs. (Sample lyrics from “Spaceship Superstar”: “On Mercury they’re crazy about my stellar rock and roll/And I always sell out in advance at the Martian astrobowl.”) A distaste for touring had led him to resign the band, however, and soon after he decided to make a go of it as a songwriter he hooked up with the adolescent Adams. The boy wonder soon proved himself a serviceable rocker – it’s not for nothin’ that How I Met Your Mother’s onetime Canadian pop ingénue, Robin, identifies Bruce Springsteen as “the American Bryan Adams.” He and Vallance entered the ’80s on a dual career track, collaborating on Adams’ debut album while co-penning several Canadian hits for Prism.

Prism had risen from the ashes of late-’60s/early-’70s bands with brilliant names like the Seeds of Time, Sunshyne and Stanley Screamer, and for most of its career was led by vocalist Ron Tabak. The band had released four Canadian studio albums and even a greatest-hits set by 1980, when Tabak was shitcanned because of what the band’s website calls “personal demons” – just as the band finally got a major-label U.S. deal with Capitol. (Ain’t that always the way?)

Tabak was replaced by Henry Small, who sang lead on “Don’t Let Him Know” in a vaguely Mike Reno-esque manner. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Adams and Vallance also had placed a couple tracks on Loverboy’s debut album the year before.) It’s a cheatin’ song, pure and simple, with some driving corporate-rock guitars and a couple of silly turns of phrase, the likes of which would become staples of Adams’ early hits (“And as problems go, I’d say we got one here”; “If I were you I’d be wonderin’ when he’s gonna get even”).

Ironically, while “Don’t Let Him Know” became Prism’s biggest American hit (peaking at #39), it was the beginning of the end for the group’s longtime Canadian fans, who remained loyal to Tabak and criticized the band’s new, somewhat softer sound. The follow-up single, “Turn On Your Radar,” sounded more like an early-’80s Cliff Richard number (not that there’s anything wrong with that); it rose only as high as #64 (look for a Steed posting sometime next winter), and by the end of 1982 all of Prism’s original members had left the group.

They began discussing a reunion two years later – and then… (Prism would make a great Behind the Music episode if anybody could identify them in a lineup) …tragedy struck. Tabak, who had been struck in the head during a mugging in mid-December, was cycling to a bandmate’s home on Christmas Eve when he was brushed by a passing car and took another shot to the head. When doctors could find no major injuries and tried to send him home, Tabak became abusive and was arrested. On Christmas morning, police found him unconscious in his jail cell; by the next morning he was dead from a blood clot in his brain.

After another hiatus, Prism returned in 1988 with a tune called “Good to Be Back,” which attempted to sum up the band’s 13-year rise, fall and rise over four Adams-and-Vallance-penned minutes. That single, and an album four years later, had little impact, but Prism soldiers onward on the Canadian oldies circuit. If you happen to be in Winnipeg on June 27, you can catch them at Silverado’s with the Headpins – a band formed in the mid-’70s as a side project by members of…Chilliwack.

Now that we’ve come full circle, here’s a suitably ridiculous video for “Spaceship Superstar”:

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