Editorâ€™s note: In this ongoing series of posts about Canadian AOR acts of yore, Jay Kumar looks back at Toronto hard rockers Coney Hatch.
The hard rock and metal scene in the early 1980s was jam-packed. In the U.S., Van Halen led the way, providing inspiration for a slew of homegrown bands featuring flamboyant frontmen and virtuoso guitar gods. In Europe, mainstays like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest competed with upstarts like Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Scorpions and many others. And in Canada, Rush, Triumph and April Wine were the pacesetters. It was from that last scene that Coney Hatch emerged, quickly gaining notice in their homeland but never progressing beyond footnote status south of the border.
Coney Hatch was a four-piece out of Toronto named after the London mental asylum Colney Hatch. Formed in 1980 by bassist-singer Andy Curran and drummer Dave Ketchum, the band didnâ€™t really pick up steam until singer-guitarist Carl Dixon and lead guitarist Steve Shelski joined a year later.
The band caught the eye of Pye Dubois, who made his name as lyricist for Canuck odd-rockers Max Webster (and co-wrote Rushâ€™s â€œTom Sawyerâ€ with Neil Peart). He connected Coney Hatch with former Max Webster frontman Kim Mitchell, who helped the band secure a record deal with his (and Rushâ€™s) label Anthem Records (and Polygram/Mercury in the U.S.). Mitchell produced Coney Hatchâ€™s self-titled debut, which was released in 1982. I picked it up in a record store in Kennewick, Washington, not having heard anything on it, but as a big fan of Max Webster, I was intrigued because of Mitchellâ€™s role.
The album was a tight collection of melodic hard rockers that wasnâ€™t out of place in the AOR landscape at the time. Dixon, who sounded like a harder-edged version of Lou Gramm, handled half of the songs while Curran provided an interesting counterpoint with his quirky, speak-singing style on songs like â€œStand Up,â€ â€œLove Poisonâ€ and â€œMonkey Bars.â€ Lyrically, the band wasnâ€™t saying anything new, sticking with your standard hard rock cliches. On the one hand, songs like â€œHey Operatorâ€ were extremely radio-friendly and could have been interchangeable with Foreigner or Rainbow or any number of similar acts of the early â€™80s. But it was the heavy riffs and strong lead work of Shelski that helped the band appeal to metal fans, especially on â€œWe Got the Nightâ€ and â€œDevilâ€™s Deck.â€
The band was an immediate hit in Canada, but couldnâ€™t gain any traction stateside. The first single, â€œHey Operator,â€ didnâ€™t go anywhere but was covered by Aldo Nova a year later. The band got some buzz when the video for â€œDevilâ€™s Deckâ€ was picked up by MTV, which played a lot of hard rock in its early years. It didnâ€™t result in much in the way of sales or chart success but Coney Hatch nevertheless were drafted to open up tours for big-name acts like Judas Priest and Triumph.
The bandâ€™s second release, Outa Hand (that single â€œtâ€ in â€œOutaâ€ still drives the editor in me nuts), was produced by Max Norman (Ozzy, Y&T, etc.) and released in 1983. Coney Hatch was primed for U.S. success; I remember hearing radio ads for the album on Boston rock stations. The lead single â€œFirst Time for Everythingâ€ was tailor-made for AOR, but I think I only heard it once or twice on the radio. Again, the vocals were split between Dixon (five songs) and Curran (four), with the latterâ€™s â€œShake Itâ€ also getting the video treatment.
The band ended up supporting Iron Maiden on its Piece of Mind tour, but ultimately was hurt by the lack of a strong second single and the decision of its label to go all in on promoting Def Leppardâ€™s breakthrough Pyromania. The album peaked at 186 on the Billboard 200. After the tour, drummer Ketchum was made the scapegoat and let go as the band regrouped.
In 1985, Coney Hatch returned with another Max Norman-produced record, Friction, which saw the band emphasizing Dixon as frontman by having him sing all but one of the albumâ€™s nine songs. Barry Connors (formerly of the band Toronto) took over on the drums. Friction was all about the AOR, with more keyboards, more power ballads, less emphasis on the metallic crunch of the first two records. Essentially, the band was being Leppardized, but it didnâ€™t matter. â€œSheâ€™s Gone,â€ â€œGirl From Last Nightâ€™s Dreamâ€ and â€œFantasyâ€ were all songs that could have been top 40 mainstays but are now mostly forgotten.
Friction sold less than the previous two albums (although sold better in Europe) and Dixon left the band. Anthem subsequently dropped Coney Hatch, which continued playing live shows with other vocalists (including James Labrie, who went on to front Dream Theater) before breaking up in 1986.
The bandâ€™s members went their separate ways, with Curran releasing a solo album in 1990, Connors joining Lee Aaronâ€™s band and Shelski getting into composing music for movies and TV and later touring with versions of Canadian acts Goddo and Toronto (along with Connors on drums). There were a few reunion shows in the early â€™90s to promote a compilation release, but that was about it for the band.
In 2004, Curran began working in A&R for SRO/Anthem, the very label that signed and dropped Coney Hatch back in the day. His job primarily focuses around working with the labelâ€™s biggest client, Rush, in addition to other acts.
But Dixon has had the most interesting post-Coney Hatch career. After releasing a solo album in 1993, he joined a reformed Guess Who (minus Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman) in â€™97 as the bandâ€™s vocalist. That gig lasted a few years until the original lineup reunited. In 2000, Dixon joined veteran Canuck rockers April Wine to play rhythm guitar and keyboards. Four years later, he rejoined the Guess Who after Cummings left. In 2008, Dixon took a two-week break from the band and was in Australia visiting his family when he was in a serious head-on car accident. It took rescuers 100 minutes to free Dixon from the wreckage and he sustained a litany of injuries (including losing an eye and multiple broken bones) and was in danger of losing his sight as well as an arm and a leg. Eventually, after five months in the hospital and multiple surgeries, he was able to make a full recovery.
And after all that, Dixon reunited with the original lineup of Coney Hatch to make a new album, Four, and do a series of tour dates in 2013-14. The bandâ€™s sound on Four is pretty similar to the first two albums, but after the tour ended, the members appear to have gone back to their solo endeavors.
Dixon has forged ahead, releasing a book about his near-death experience and recovery and touring with a one-man show that combines motivational speaking with a solo rock show. Heâ€™s also working on a country album.
Ultimately, Coney Hatch was a blip on the AOR radar in the U.S., but they had a short, interesting ride along the way.