My Canada 1984 Playlist: Slugs, Spoons, and a Suite

I thought I’d wrap up the “1984” section of this blog with three snapshots of the eclectic homegrown talent that was filling up my favourite radio stations, music-video shows and homemade mix-tapes as a preteen Canadian in the mid-’80s.

I don’t have anything especially profound to say about any of these groups (of course, if you’re following this blog, the lack of profundity shouldn’t surprise you). I don’t even own a single first-run studio album by any of these bands, only a greatest-hits cassette for each of them. All I know is that they were all creative, original, colourful, and Canadian – and that I had a blast hearing their tunes as a kid, and still do as an adult.

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I discovered Vancouver-based Doug and The Slugs in the spring of 1983, pretty much the same way as most Atlantic Canadians my age – by seeing their videos on CBC’s Sunday-morning youth series Switchback. The show even had a contest that challenged viewers to name as many classic TV series as possible that were depicted in the band’s video for “Who Knows How (To Make Love Stay).” (Click on the song title for that video, which pays homage to, among other things, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, and Star Trek.)

Since it was aimed at a young audience, Switchback didn’t run the video for one of Doug and The Slugs’ earliest hits, the relentlessly catchy “Making It Work.” I suspect the song’s fairly innocuous lyrics weren’t the issue, but rather the video’s somewhat-suggestive content, featuring most of the band members as sex therapists trying to assist befuddled lead singer Doug Bennett in what this fellow Canada 150 blogger describes as “an hymn to erectile dysfunction.”

I had never seen the video (I wouldn’t dig it up for another three decades) and therefore probably gave Bennett an unwitting laugh when I met him, as a 12-year-old in late 1984 on the Halifax Switchback set, where he was a guest on the show’s 100th episode. I asked for his autograph while declaring that “Making It Work” was one of the best tunes my prepubescent ears had ever heard. The resulting autograph reads: “TO ADAM, THE GUY WHO KNOWS A GOOD SONG WHEN HE HEARS IT. THANX, DOUG” – completed with a little slug drawing that mirrored the band’s logo at the time.

Along with being completely unaware of the “Making It Work” video’s naughty nature, I also had no idea that my future wife and I met Doug Bennett during the same year. In fact, Cathy tells me that he even sat on her lap during a Doug and The Slugs performance at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax, making a joke about “good little Presbyterian girls” and then getting a grand charge out of her smiling confirmation that she did indeed grow up Presbyterian in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. This all happened twenty years before Cathy even knew I existed; we’re astounded that we can count Doug and The Slugs among our many common threads.

The blogger I quoted two paragraphs ago also made an interesting comparison between Doug and The Slugs and an American group that I discovered around the same time, Huey Lewis and The News. The parallels are real, from where I sit – both bands were true group efforts, with tight harmonies, a smooth blend of instruments and a wide range of influences, from blues to zydeco. A strong sense of humour was also key to both their songs and their music videos, and neither of their lead singers were going to be mistaken for, say, Rod Stewart or Rick Springfield. Huey Lewis himself has been described more than once as that guy who looked like a friend of your dad’s (especially if your dad lived in the suburbs), and Doug Bennett certainly fit that bill inside and outside of The Slugs’ videos and concert appearances.

Now, all that being said, Doug and The Slugs’ catalogue is chock-full of relentlessly catchy toe-tappers, hand-clappers and knee-slappers. Considering that the first two of their songs that reeled me in – “Who Knows How (To Make Love Stay)” and “Makin’ It Work” – are about frustrated single guys and/or jilted lovers, I’m amazed with their joyful, soulful vocals and instrumentation. Even the climbing bass line for “Who Knows How (To Make Love Stay)” puts a smile on my face to this day; I remember being ticked as a sixth-grader when I thought I heard it on my local radio station and excitedly hit the record button on my ghetto-blaster, hoping to add it to my latest mix-tape, only to have the song turn out to be The Oak Ridge Boys’ “I Guess It Never Hurts To Hurt Sometime.” (Absolutely no disrespect meant to The Oak Ridge Boys; they just weren’t Doug and The Slugs.)

I wouldn’t buy a Doug and The Slugs album (the greatest-hits package Ten Big Ones) until years after their heyday, but I was always happy to hear Doug Bennett’s distinctive voice and those creative musical arrangements on the radio or my favourite music-video shows. Whether it was the funky “Real Enough,” the cautiously-optimistic “Day By Day” (which charted in late 1984, just as seventh-grade Adam was getting Doug Bennett’s autograph), the eclectic “Love Shines,” the voracious “Tomcat Prowl” or even the most bizarre rendition of “White Christmas” you’ll ever hear, I ate it up. I even got a kick out of the 1986 Doug Bennett solo single “It’s Got To Be Monday,” and was delighted to watch Norm MacDonald’s late-’90s ABC sitcom Norm and find the early Doug and The Slugs hit “Too Bad” as the opening theme song. (A few different openings were filmed for Norm; here’s the first one, filmed in the style of a life-sized board game.)

I was heartbroken to learn that Doug Bennett passed away in 2004, apparently a victim of cirrhosis of the liver. The Slugs have continued on without him, recruiting singer Ted Okos to take the lead. They still tour today; here’s their Web site and here’s a Wikipedia page which notes, sagely, that the band maintains the Doug and The Slugs name even though nobody in the band is actually named Doug.

Like Doug and The Slugs, I discovered The Spoons on Switchback – specifically, on a New Year’s Day 1984 all-music special that split the 90-minute run-time between all three editions of the show that existed at that point (Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver). During the Halifax portion that kicked off the episode, a brief clip of the Burlington, Ontario band’s video for “Old Emotions” followed Nova Scotia music critic Tom Regan’s insistence that The Spoons were going to be the hottest new Canadian act of the year, a group that he expected to be around for a long time. This narrative continued about a month later when the group’s two most prominent members, Gordon Deppe and Sandy Horne, appeared live on the Halifax Switchback to answer viewers’ questions.

In my research for this blog post, I was surprised to discover that Deppe was born in Canada but spent most of his early years in Germany, which explains the occasionally-moody vocal arrangements and very-’80s synth-pop stylings of such early Spoons hits as “Arias and Symphonies” (the title of their second full album, released in 1982) and “Nova Heart.” I was also intrigued to find that music helped break Deppe out of his shell in junior high school, where the self-described “nerdiest quietest kid in high school,” with “a mullet and sideburns and a moustache,” bonded with Horne – who he described as “the cutest girl in high school” – over music. (As befits her name, she played the trumpet at the time, which likely accounts for the enthusiastic brass sections that colour such Spoons singles as 1984’s “Tell No LIes.”)

Throughout much of the mid-to-late ’80s, I felt like The Spoons were the ultimate hard-luck Canadian band. Their early success resulted in opening slots for the likes of The Police, Culture Club and Simple Minds, and attracted the attention of legendary Chic frontman Nile Rodgers, who produced The Spoons’ 1983 album Talkback. Despite the album’s catchy title track and singles like “The Rhythm” and the aforementioned “Old Emotions” (which even managed to be a nostalgic song for me at the age of eleven, when I had no business feeling even remotely nostalgic about anything), Talkback failed to catch on in the lucrative American market despite being The Spoons’ most successful album from a commercial and, arguably, artistic perspective.

Fortunately, Nile Rodgers didn’t give up on The Spoons after Talkback’s tepid U.S. response, which is fortunate for fans of the band and ’80s music in general because their next partnership resulted in two of the band’s strongest songs, released in late 1984 as part of the soundtrack to the Canadian film Listen To The City. Gordon Deppe is responsible for most of the movie’s soundtrack, but he also joined the rest of The Spoons for the soundtrack’s two full-band songs, “Tell No Lies” and the irresistibly-catchy “Romantic Traffic.”

The latter song uses one of the most bizarre lyrical devices you’ll ever hear in the ’80s or any decade (“She’s changing lanes a bit too slow/Someone hits her from behind/And she finds new love in romantic traffic”) and the chorus doesn’t even try to add to this, simply inviting listeners to sing along to the “doo-doo-doo-doo-do-do-do-do” line. (As The Spoons themselves did, in this utterly charming video for “Romantic Traffic,” shot in the real Toronto subway system and featuring several commuters lip-syncing the vocals on the closing choruses.) From where I sit, “Romantic Traffic” remains a delightful piece of Canadian cheese that never fails to put a smile on my face, over 32 years later.

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Latter-day Spoons singles like “Bridges Over Borders,” “Be Alone Tonight” and “Waterline” failed to catch on with listeners, and they’re noticeably absent from the only Spoons album I own, the 1994 retrospective Collectible Spoons. But the band is still touring today, and they still sound terrific; check out their Web site for the proof. Or check out this 2013 rendition of “Nova Heart,” which is close to the performance The Spoons delivered two years earlier on an “all-’80s” edition of This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Among the many reasons I smile when I think of that guest shot: It was filmed at the CBC Halifax studios – the same place a much younger Gordon Deppe and Sandy Horne were guests on Switchback, nearly three decades earlier.

By the time the members of Honeymoon Suite had their own sit-down with Switchback host Stan “The Man” Johnson during the Halifax show’s fourth season, I was already hooked on the first two singles from their 1984 debut album: a cornucopia of ferocious guitar licks wrapped up in a melodic taunt to a fictional ex-girlfriend, “New Girl Now,” and a rip-roaring blend of guitar and synth, “Burning In Love” (whose video gave young Adam his first good look at the Canadian side of Niagra Falls, Honeymoon Suite’s home base).

Unlike a plethora of other North American hard rockers that didn’t seem to get the memo that it was perfectly acceptable to actually have fun while making music, Honeymoon Suite infused a playful energy into their early songs, continuing the trend with the upbeat rocker “Stay In The Light” and the synth-drenched made-for-the-summer-of-’85 beach anthem “Wave Babies.” (The accompanying video leaves very little to the imagination in terms of the actual song’s theme, although it’s at least a little more chaste than David Lee Roth’s cover of “California Girls” and, during the last chorus, uses a novel method to teach impressionable youngsters how to spell the word “wave.”)

The group arguably saved its best work for its second album, 1986’s The Big Prize, which I found to be a marked evolution from the over-enunciated, almost-British vocal style of Honeymoon Suite’s self-titled debut release into a more full-on, multi-layered, vocally-ambitious and dare I say it, more Canadian sound. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Big Prize’s lead-off single, “Feel It Again,” which remains my favourite Honeymoon Suite song and one of my favourite songs of the entire decade – Canadian or otherwise – over 30 years later.

Now, it won’t be confused for classic poetry anytime soon (although it may be the only ’80s hair-band hit to contain the word “indispensable”) and the video, a bizarre melange of tacky pre-CGI image-manipulation, seems destined for the dustbins of pop-culture history. And yet “Feel It Again,” with a sharp contrast between the dreamy undercoatings of its verses and the slam-bang energy of its choruses and bridge – beautifully punctuated by the high notes of the “feel it again” repeat lines – has the power to change any of my worst moments into great days, and make an already-great-day into the best day ever.

Case in point: I was playing my copy of the 1989 compilation Honeymoon Suite: The Singles in my car near the end of a week-long road trip in the spring of 2000. This was a pivotal drive for me because, at the age of 27, I had never driven all around mainland Nova Scotia – or, for that matter, back and forth to Prince Edward Island – by myself. I know, this wasn’t Highway 401 or Route 66, but bear in mind that I had experienced my first two auto accidents the previous summer and was struggling to regain my driving confidence. But by the time “Feel It Again” showed up on my car stereo, after six successful days of criss-crossing Nova Scotia and a 24-hour jaunt to PEI that ended with a ferry ride across the Northumberland Strait, I felt like I was on top of the world and this full-tilt classic pushed my adrenaline and testosterone into overdrive. I wasn’t just the King of the Road; I was Supreme Overlord of the Trans-Canada Highway. And I had Honeymoon Suite to thank for that.

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Two other singles from The Big Prize remain sentimental favourites, for entirely different reasons. The video for the power ballad “What Does It Take” got constant rotation on the likes of Video Hits and Good Rockin’ Tonite, to the effect that I still wonder whatever happened to the struggling Yuppie couple depicted in the clip. (Look! They’re in their wedding clothes and they’re slowly stacking a wall of money between each other! Now THAT’S a metaphor, gang!) Trivia: “What Does It Take” also appeared on the soundtrack of the long-forgotten John Cusack teen comedy One Crazy Summer. 

And I got used to coming into my Grade 9 homeroom at Ecole L’Ardoise in the fall of 1986 and hearing the album’s first track, “Bad Attitude,” blasting from the boom box that the tougher kids had set up in the room. Eventually featured in the final episode of the ’80s TV/fashion phenomenon Miami Vice, the song freaked me out a little bit at first but as I’ve grown older I have come to appreciate its swings back and forth between snarling guitar lines and in-your-face keyboard parts, while realizing that the lyrics aren’t a celebration but rather a condemnation of “bad attitudes.” (Mind you, that didn’t stop me from playing the chorus of “Bad Attitude” when a penalty was called at a high school hockey tournament at the Richmond Arena in Louisdale that hired me to run its canned music and public-address system from 2002-06. Other Canadian songs that accompanied penalty calls: Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” Avril Lavigne’s “(So Much For My) Happy Ending,” and Gowan’s “You’re A Strange Animal.” Now that I think of it, I should have included Doug and The Slugs’ “Too Bad.”)

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By 1987, Honeymoon Suite were as on-top-of-the-world as you can get for a Canadian band. “Feel It Again” was a Top-20 hit in Canada and became the group’s first single to crack the U.S. Top-40 chart, peaking at #36, two years after “New Girl Now” had stalled at #57 south of the border. The newfound American attention led the producers of a new Mel Gibson-Danny Glover buddy-cop film to give Honeymoon Suite “the big prize” of recording the title track to the original Lethal Weapon soundtrack. (The song, a power ballad that alludes to the death of Gibson’s on-screen wife and the resulting impact on his Martin Riggs character, is actually quite good.) Small wonder that, when the group strolled onstage in early 1987 to accept the JUNO Award for Group of the Year, bass player Gary Lalonde accepted lead singer Johnnie Dee’s dare to lick the pyramid-shaped award statuette on-camera in the event of a win. (“Gary SAID he would lick it!” Dee crowed.)

Unfortunately, the shifting grounds of North American and global musical tastes in the late ’80s and early ’90s weren’t kind to Honeymoon Suite. Their earlier success didn’t extend to the band’s 1987 album Racing After Midnight and their 1991 follow-up Monsters Under The Bed (whose existence was completely unknown to me until I started researching this blog post).

The last Honeymoon Suite song to get significant airplay in Canada or anywhere else was “Still Loving You,” one of two newer tracks recorded in 1989 for The Singles. The next time I would hear a new-to-me Honeymoon Suite song, in the mid-’90s, it was the surprisingly tender cover of Greg Lake’s 1974 release “I Believe In Father Christmas” that the band had recorded for a 1988 various-artists holiday album. (The Honeymoon Suite version, still a favourite of mine to this day, finds the guys sounding even more British than they did in their first few singles.)

All that being said, I credit Honeymoon Suite for continuing to tour and perform, well after their ’80s heyday. Check out their Web site and their Twitter page, and for an encore, have a listen to a modern-day performance of my favourite Honeymoon Suite song, “Feel It Again.”

So there you have it: Three Canadian bands, all from very different backgrounds and all playing very distinct musical styles. They never achieved or sustained the same worldwide fame as some of their contemporaries, but they still put a smile on my face in the mid-’80s – and continue to do so, decades later.

4 thoughts on “My Canada 1984 Playlist: Slugs, Spoons, and a Suite

  1. Hi, I really feel like I missed out on an excellent Canadian program! I grew up in Edmonton so never heard of Switchback, and I fear I missed out!! I loved Honeymoon Suite! but I never realized that Making it Work was about erectile dysfunction until reading your post 🙂 I love music history- especially 80’s music and Canadian music, so I hope you don’t mind me re-blogging? Thanks for the great post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Go right ahead and re-blog, Audra – I’m honoured and delighted that you liked it (and so many other Canada Through My Eye posts) so much! There was actually an Alberta version of Switchback from 1984 to (I believe) 1988, based out of Calgary, but it wasn’t as highly-rated as the Halifax version. From what I’ve seen, Switchback was a great show no matter where it took place. Thanks again for your kind words, and stay tuned – more music-themed blog posts are coming up!

      Liked by 1 person

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