Canada 1981: All Roads Lead To Chilliwack

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Since I’ve devoted earlier blog posts to the likes of Neil Young, BTO, Loverboy and Keith Hampshire, you might be surprised that it took me until the age of nine before I actually hooked into a Canadian rock act that was topping the charts at the time, rather than discovering their classic hits years later.

I wasn’t quite ready for rock music during my elementary school years, for several reasons. My parents didn’t have much of it in their record collections, the only commercial radio station we could access in our part of Cape Breton had a country-heavy playlist, and the little rock music I got to hear in the late ’70s and early ’80s seemed too aggressive for my tender brain and heart to process.

My classmates at Ecole L’Ardoise seemed to have a bit more of a handle on rock, and proved it in the third grade by bringing in a record player and popping on 45’s of Blondie, Pat Benatar and Bob Seger during recess and lunchtime. (They weren’t especially impressed when, in a desperate effort to fit in, I brought the soundtrack to The Muppet Movie and cued up Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem’s “Can You Picture That?” I can’t remember if I actually said things like “See? That’s rock music! I’m cool too!” out loud that day, but I know I was thinking it.)

Fortunately, with the first wave of music videos getting airplay on my favourite TV show, CBC’s Switchback, I would finally get a friendly nudge into the rock arena (and arena rock, for that matter). And one of the first groups to win me over was a British Columbia band getting what many consider to be its biggest domestic and international success, Chilliwack. 

Now, I have no scientific explanation as to why Chilliwack’s 1981 hit “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone)” grabbed a hold of my nine-year-old heart or why it’s still a favourite of mine today. But I suspect a lot of that has to do with the varied layers of vocals and harmonies found throughout the song, from its deep-throated opening lines (repeated on two occasions later in the single) to lead singer Bill Henderson’s earnest delivery of the main verses and choruses, and particularly the three-part harmony that underscores the last verse. (I’m waiting patiently for somebody, somewhere, to re-do “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone)” as a barbershop quartet number. If that sounds too ridiculous to fathom, bear in mind that The Muppets pulled it off in their 2011 comeback film with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Barbershop, baby! There’s NOTHING it can’t fix!)

I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post that The Bee Gees profoundly freaked out my inner childhood music critic with the high-pitched vocal arrangement on their 1979 hit “Tragedy.” Perhaps that also explains why “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone)” works for me, in that the song’s highest notes don’t drench the musical arrangement but are instead strategically placed, in the form of plaintive wails over the deep-bass “Gone, gone, gone, she been gone so long” repeat lines and Henderson’s tenor-range repetitions of “My girl, my girl” over the song’s closing sequence. (The vocal arrangement is even more striking in a live setting, as you can see by this 1986 rendition; Henderson and company had a little trouble maintaining those high notes in this more recent performance, and especially in this one, but they’re far from the only early-’80s chart-toppers to endure this fate as time marches on.)

(Above: Screen grabs from the video for Chilliwack’s “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone).” Upon seeing the second shot on a CBC Switchback retrospective in 1986, host Stan “The Man” Johnson quipped: “How did they get a camera in a garbage can like that?”)

As much I enjoyed – and still enjoy – “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone),” which spent four weeks at #3 on the Canadian singles chart and reached the #22 slot on the U.S. singles chart in late 1981, it’s not my favourite Chilliwack song. That honour goes to the relentlessly catchy foot-stomper “Whatcha Gonna Do (When I’m Gone),” which trades in their previous chart-topper’s wistful curiosity about a lost love for a defiant statement to an on-again, off-again lover in the late stages of a doomed relationship. (Or so I assume. Maybe it was about Pierre Trudeau’s pending resignation from the Prime Minister’s Office. Music is subjective like that, don’t you know. Oops – “don’tcha know.”)

At any rate, “Whatcha Gonna Do (When I’m Gone)” still gets me fired up, nearly 35 years after I first heard it. It’s bursting at the seams with Chilliwack trademarks, from the snarling guitar riffs that kick it off to the tight vocal harmonies and the subtle-but-definitively-early-’80s keyboard parts. And, in much the same style as “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone),” there’s a late-song a-capella portion that showcases the incredible vocal synergy of Henderson, Brian MacLeod, Dennis Grayson and Glenn Grayson.

Small wonder that “Whatcha Gonna Do (When I’m Gone)” also cracked the Canadian Top Ten (peaking at #9) and reached #41 on the American singles chart. Closer to home, Atlantic Canadian music fans also gave the song their seal of approval, making it the fifth most-requested video for a season-ending all-music special run by the Halifax edition of Switchback in May, 1983. (Topping that list: Fellow Canadian Bryan Adams’ “Cuts Like A Knife.”)

Despite these early ’80s chart successes, and the added bonus of being named after British Columbia’s seventh-largest city, Chilliwack had trouble maintaining consistency and keeping a line-up together. By the mid-’80s, Bill Henderson was the only original member of Chilliwack still touring and performing with the band. (He’s pictured above, on the cover of the band’s 2003 album There and Back – Live, and in a latter-day performance in Merritt, B.C., which is conveniently located only 171 kilometres from Chilliwack.)

That’s a shame, especially given the band’s surprisingly-lengthy original output. I had no idea that Chilliwack was so prolific on Canadian music charts and radio airplay lists over a decade before releasing the early-’80s earworms I so enjoyed as a grade-schooler (and still dig as an adult). I wouldn’t hear some of Chilliwack’s biggest ’70s hits – including 1974’s funky “Crazy Talk” and 1977’s multi-layered, ambitious “Fly At Night” – until I landed my first full-time radio job in 1993, even though both had cracked the Canadian Top 10 singles chart and the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.S.

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Listening to “Fly At Night” alongside “My Girl” or “Whatcha Gonna Do” barely made sense in my early twenties and is still an odd (albeit likable) sensation for the 2017 version of my brain. The earlier song’s chronicle of “four men in a rock and roll band” dreamily describing the cross-continent flights that accompany their touring schedule is most definitely a unique creation. I imagine it stood out like a chocolate-glazed Timbit in a late-’70s musical landscape crowded with progressive rock, the first strains of punk and disco, and ABBA battling it out with Elton John for that elusive #1 slot. Bearing echoes of Steppenwolf, Buffalo Springfield and CSNY in everything from its high-pitched verse vocals to its electric guitar-fueled choruses, “Fly At Night” is simultaneously throwback, tribute and thunderclap; it’s not my favourite Chilliwack song, but – four decades after its initial release – it definitely deserves to be recognized as their signature song.

And, while I’m sure they thought they were in full-on bad-ass mode with their smoke-filled ’80s music videos and extra layers of attitude, I’m grateful to Chilliwack for being my childhood gateway into genuine rock, and for remaining one of my favourite pillars of Canadian rock.

(All that being said, I’m still quite fond of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem and I kept the same copy of the Muppet Movie soundtrack that I defiantly played in my third-grade classroom. Hopefully I’ll be able to supplement that with some Chilliwack the next time we go vinyl-shopping. I’ll bet “My Girl” sounds even more incredible on vinyl.)

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