Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Disco Canada

It's a little known fact that between the late 1970s and the mid 1980s Canada was a hot-bed of electronic musical activity to rival anywhere else in the world. Much of what is now considered Italo Disco was actually produced on the other side of the Atlantic, and would actually in the vocabulary of the time be better described as New Wave, New Romantic, Electro-Soul or Hi-NRG. The Canadian sound is quite distinctive from its European relatives - the tracks are usually fast, futuristic and smoothly produced, relying on the Patrick Cowley and Azul Y Negro models of synthesiser disco rather than Moroder, Simonetti and Cerrone's more classically European sound.

The main centre for the Canadian scene was overwhelmingly Montreal, although Toronto did play an important role too. In the early days it was firmly connected to the US disco scene, and this connection remained strong through to the mid 1980s in the resurgence of US disco through Chicago House. After the original disco boom in the US died and before the rise of House, Canadian disco found a partner in the Italo Disco scene, which partly explains the confusion between the two genres today. The cultural associations however run much deeper than this, right back to Canada's French roots. The heavy influence of old European culture in Canada meant that it served as a vital bridge stylistically between American and European disco sounds, and while this connection allowed Italo Disco to reach the early Chicago House DJs, it also served as a route for the sounds of Acid House to connect back to Italy and provide the producers over there with their musical direction for the latter half of the 1980s (Black Box's 'Ride On Time' or FPI Project's 'Rich In Paradise' are two good examples). And of course Canada's ex-colonial status gave it a deep cultural and musical link to Britain, which throughout this whole period was producing cutting-edge synthesiser-based pop, epitomised by its New Romantic movement. In a sense, Canada was a key link between different electronic music centres around the world, and the music it produced reflected this variety of influences - we discuss a few of the major players below...

Two Hats Productions

Releasing their output mainly through Butterfly Records in the early days, and Ramshorn later on, Toronto's Ian Guenther and Willi Morrison (aka Two Hats Productions) were responsible for a huge quantity of releases right from the start of the disco era. Apart from their main project, THP Orchestra, they also produced The Immortals 'Ultimate Warlord', which was enormously influential to the nascent Italo scene upon its release in 1978, and Skatt Bros 'Walk The Night' the following year, a legendary dark-side-of-disco classic that set the tone for much of the post-punk disco sounds to come. Where the Canadian connection to the European sound is what shines through on these tracks, it's on others such as The Duncan Sisters 'Boys Will Be Boys' where we can detect hints of the future truly Canadian style most prominently - emotionally charged female vocals and bpm's as fast as session players could manage before the advent of drum machines. Guenther and Morrison rarely seem to get a mention anywhere but amongst the most die-hard collectors these days, and rarely get recognised in their own right for any of the classic records they worked on. We recommend:

1. THP Orchestra - Two Hot For Love (Suite)
2. Immortals - Ultimate Warlord
3. Skatt Bros - Walk The Night
4. Duncan Sisters - Boys Will Be Boys
5. THP Orchestra - Who Do You Love?


Lime were husband-and-wife production team Denis and Denyse LePage from Montreal, and were probably the most long-running of all Canada's disco producers, having first appeared as producer and vocalist respectively on Le Pouls' self-titled 1976 album and only stopping Lime by 1988. Throughout the late 1970s they played on a variety of classic disco records, including the Bombers LP and Kat Mandu's 'The Break', and were studio veterans by the time they launched Lime in 1981 on Matra Records.

I think the best description I've ever read of Lime is "cheesy but charming". This sums it up perfectly - while at first something about Denis's rough rock vocals and the bizarrely sugar-sweet and insanely helium-esque voice of Denyse will deter some in the fear that either Bryan Adams or The Smurfs is lurking just around the corner, the disaster never quite comes and Lime have a way of getting inside your head until you find yourself completely addicted to their peculiarly citrus-flavoured hi-nrg synth-pop. Lime are definitely the kind of thing you will either love or hate, but this is where they get some respect from me. They represent the hit-and-miss pioneering spirit of the old days of synth-pop to the maximum, never fearing the times they fall flat on their faces as there are undoubtedly others where they hit heights others can only marvel at ('You're My Magician' or 'Rendez-vous On The Dark Side Of The Moon' spring to mind). TR-808s and TB-303s blaze throughout their work, providing an obvious proto-Chicago edge to their sound, which was certainly picked up on in the US - 'On The Grid' in particular was an enormously important record for the evolution of Disco into House, being played constantly at clubs like The Warehouse and in DJ-mixes on stations like WBMX. Sadly after the mid 1980s Denis and Denyse lost interest in Lime and the releases suffer a noticeable drop in quality towards the end of the decade. Overall, we recommend:

1. You're My Magician
2. Babe, We're Gonna Love Tonight
3. Rendez-vous On The Dark Side Of The Moon
4. Angel Eyes
5. On The Grid
6. Do Your Time On The Planet
7. Come And Get Your Love
8. Give Me Your Body
9. Are You Being Untrue Tonight?
10. Your Love

Gino Soccio

Montreal's Gino Soccio first emerged in 1978 with his single 'Les Visiteurs', and quickly followed it up with two of his most significant works, 'Dance To Dance' and 'Dancer', both instant disco classics. This provided the backbone for his first LP 'Outline' and his greatest commercial success ('Dancer' hit #48 in the billboard Top 100 in 1979). While his name will forever be associated with the legendarily lush production of the instrumental break in 'Dancer', Soccio was adept at many different styles, crossing disco with rock on his Witch Queen project (who had a top 10 dance hit with their cover of T-Rex's 'Bang A Gong') and delving into electronic disco-experimentalism on his Kebekelektrik project with tracks like 'War Dance' and and the Brian Bennett-like 'Mirage'.

As the early 1980s unfolded Soccio remained at the core of the Canadian disco movement, often associated with both Denis LePage and Pierre Perpall, but really hit a second peak with his 1983 synthesiser hit 'Remember'. Today considered one of the most essential Italo-type records ever made, it's no surprise that the key to its success lay in the discotheques of Europe. Having an Italian name no doubt helped encourage the confusion that this actually was Italo. It has to be said it's certainly as close as the Canadian sound ever got to being Italian. Gino Soccio can also be found as a session musician and producer on many other releases apart from his own and was intensely prolific for the time he was working in music. We recommend:

1. Gino Soccio - Dance To Dance
2. Kebekelektrik - War Dance
3. Gino Soccio - Dancer
4. Gino Soccio - Remember
5. Karen Silver - Set Me Free

Pierre Perpall

Also hailing from Montreal, Pierre Perpall has been described as Canada's answer to James Brown, with his vigorous dance routines, immaculate afro and tighter-than-tight productions. First appearing on the music scene in the late 1960s, Perpall had evolved by the late 1970s into being an electro-cabaret artist with a variety of different guises ranging from simply Perpall to his main alter-ego Purple Flash to the cult one-off Pluton & The Humanoids. Within a career that spans twenty 7" singles, eleven 12" singles and several albums, Perpall pursued a variety of styles over the years (and still performs today) but what he is most often remembered for is his electro-disco period from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, particularly his releases on VS Records. These could have languished in obscurity forever were it not for later revivalists such as I-f (who featured the extremely rare 'World Invaders' as the opening track on his cult mix 'Mixed Up In The Hague Vol 1') and the American label Environ (who have recently reissued both 'World Invaders' and 'We Can Make It'). This worthy promotion has helped Perpall get the recognition he deserves for the ethereal, charming and innovative pieces of synth-disco he made all those years ago. We recommend:

1. Pierre Perpall - Roller Dancer
2. Purple Flash - Creme Souflee (Instrumental)
3. Pluton & The Humanoids - World Invaders
4. Purple Flash - We Can Make It (Instrumental)
5. Reggie Simms - Over And Over

Rational Youth

Formed in Montreal in 1981 by Tracy Howe (ex-Men Without Hats, of 'Safety Dance' fame) and Bill Vorn, Rational Youth were a New Wave band inspired to go all-electronic by Kraftwerk's 'Computer World' LP. Originally named Rational Youth Orchestra as a joke on Canada's National Youth Orchestra, they were persuaded by their label to drop the 'orchestra' part and were greeted with much interest after the release of their first single 'Coboloid Race'. With the addition of keyboardist Kevin Komoda in 1982, they set about recording what is still their undisputed masterpiece, their debut album 'Cold War Night Life'. It is that rarest of things for a 'dance' album - a well-rounded work that makes sense as an album first and foremost, and as a collection of great songs second.

Playing lyrically with cosmic philosophy and cold-war political-chic in equal measure, Rational Youth also had something of a sneering rebellious punk attitude that defied the authority and social tendencies of the day, and which set them poles apart from almost every other potentially similar contemporary act. Unfortunately in the past the public have been too quick to dismiss 'Cold War Night Life' as mere Kraftwerk impersonation, something which anyone who listened to the album more than once would find tragic. Rational Youth do sound almost like an angry Kraftwerk, but to make that mistake is to not see their real genius - the application of Kraftwerk's innovation. In an age where few even understood that electronic sound was even capable of being called music, Rational Youth had embraced the revolution Kraftwerk presented and got very good at exploring where it could be taken to next. In reality we should see 'Cold War Night Life' as the true successor to 'Computer World' - arguably one of the only ones available until the Detroit Techno scene of the late 1980s sprang into life.

Tracks like 'Dancing On The Berlin Wall' turned out to be not just sonically brilliant but also prophetic (and of course at the height of the cold war intensely political in nature for a dancefloor hit), while others like the instrumental 'La Meilleur Des Mondes' explore the cutting edges of synthesiser music as they were in 1982 and sound again in 2008. And the album opener 'Close To Nature' is as tour-de-force as electronic music has ever got. In order to put Rational Youth's music into context it's worth bearing in mind what Tracy Howe pointed out in a 1997 interview:

"We had some difficulty getting the engineers to understand what we were trying to do. Some of them couldn't grasp the fact that we were using this drum machine thing because we actually wanted to! And most of them had never had any experience with sequencers or anything computerized. But, they would stay awake all night with us until the sun came up, anyway."

After the album Bill Vorn left to resume communications studies at the University of Quebec, and to conduct research and development within the discipline of interactive robotics. With the chemistry altered, Rational Youth never re-attained the artistic heights of their first album, although with the amount of hit singles it generated in Canada it will at least remain their most well-known work. Howe recruited new members and made a respectable EP simply titled 'Rational Youth' but thereafter things went downhill, Howe eventually calling it a day in the late 1980s. One final and unexpected Rational Youth album did emerge in 1997 though, and it was indeed a fine and sadly overlooked return to form, particularly evident on the sci-fi themed 'Back From Madrapour', a track Telex would have been proud to have made in their glory days. We've devoted a lot of bandwidth to Rational Youth over the years here at Magic Waves, and we can heartily recommend:

1. Saturdays In Silesia (extended version)
2. Close To Nature
3. Power Zone
4. Dancing On The Berlin Wall
5. Coboloid Race
6. In Your Eyes (1983 version)
7. La Meilleur Des Mondes
8. Back From Madrapour
9. Cite Phosphore
10. Hot Streets


Tapps appeared a few years after the other artists we've discussed so far, and represent the very pinnacle of the Canadian Hi-NRG sound of the mid 1980s. Formed by three high-school friends Tony DaCosta, Allan Coelho and Paul Silva who pluralised their initials to make the group's name, they came from the Portuguese neighbourhoods of Toronto and were inspired by the synthesiser pop sounds of Patrick Cowley, Bobby Orlando and Azul Y Negro to reach for their musical dreams. Despite the early departure of Silva due to a serious medical condition, DaCosta and Coelho pressed on and recorded their first 12" 'My Forbidden Lover' with the help of Irish-Canadian session singer Barbara Doust. The track was almost instantly one of Canada's biggest ever dance hits, exporting all over the world and leaving the cautious initial pressing of 500 copies in the dust.

Enjoying global success and yet still rarely playing concerts on Canadian soil, Tapps next released the legendary 'Burning With Fire' and 'Runaway' in quick succession, before turning to using CMI Fairlight synthesisers for their next two records, 'Hurricane' and 'Don't Pretend You Know' which featured a harder more sample-based sound, although still sounding like classic Tapps through and through. By the late 1980s however, Tapps decided to call it a day and the original members moved on to other projects. Leaving an incredible musical legacy behind them, their story is typically Canadian - huge success everywhere but at home. Tapps' tracks were a mainstay on mixes by the Hotmix 5 on Chicago's Radio WBMX, and caused a sensation in Europe where they clearly had a huge influence on post-1984 Italo productions, anticipating the euro hi-nrg we can still hear in the charts today. When all was said and done Coelho remembered it like this:

"I remember how great it felt to have our first record and how we struggled. It was never easy. Canada wouldn't play a record like this on the radio, so we actually were a lot more popular outside of Canada than we were at home. You'd be amazed how many people ask about when we will do a new record. I am happy that we've touched someone with our music. It's really all we originally set out to do. I guess it worked"

We recommend:

1. My Forbidden Lover
2. Burning With Fire
3. Runaway
4. Don't Pretend you Know
5. Hurricane


No feature on Canadian dance music could be complete without mentioning Trans-X. Comtemporaries on the Montreal scene with Rational Youth, Trans-X were best known for their 1984 international million-selling hit 'Living On Video' and were the brain-child of French-Canadian producer Pascal Languiraud. Apparently the most-covered dance music track ever, 'Living On Video' is undoubtedly one of the greatest electro-disco singles ever recorded. An album that failed to live up to the high standards set by the single came out but unfortunately this was as far as Trans-X got. Encouraged by the recent resurgence in interest in the group, Languiraud has formed a new version of the band and is touring and producing once again.


salvatore said...

Excellent report James!Great idea to talk about the importance of so amazing project born in the Montreal area!
If u dont mind would like to add some notes may be interesting: that Lime was an Italian production despite made in Canada... the brains behind this magic project were in fact the Sicilians Joe La Greca along with his fellow George Cucuzzella (Unidisc founder) and Joe Tortorici. Before to create Lime La Greca and Cucuzzella with another italian Montreal based Peter Di Milo they were responsible for the amazing Erotic Drum Band (wow!). La Greca's Mida's touch generated as well amongst the other the classic pearl by Carols Jani "Hit 'Run n lover": Oh what wizards those Italians around the world :))LOL

Renault said...

Fantastic blog Jim!! Great work, I really enjoyed the interviews.

Jonny5 said...

Hey dudes. Great article - Canadian disco needs more recognition in its own right as it tends to get banded in with Italo.

Another Itallian producer team working in Montreal (Montreal has a big Itallian community living in its Little Italy area) was Gino D'Orazio & Tony Bentivegna who made Nightlife Unlimited and Private Class records and also produced for Valerie Krystal, Stephanie Wells Ladies Choice and so on. They were like the Bobby O of Canadian disco.

Also another guy worth a mention is Pat Deserio who produced a lot of those Rational Youth tracks mentioned up the page. He also produced Bombers, Kebekelektrik (with Gino Soccio) Bob-a-Rela, Top Secret, Sea Cruise, Dogs of War, BB Zee.. all Canadian disco classics.

One of the main DJs on the scene at the time was Robert Ouimet who played at the Limelight club. He was personally importing European disco records. He also acted as 'disco consultant' on a lot of good records, like Karen Silver's Hold On I'm Comin' lp (produced by Gino Soccio), Aura's L.A. Sunshine and Star City's version of I'm A Man. I met him last time I went to Montreal - he's still active as a dj playing house mainly on the gay scene.

Recommend this mix made by buddy from Montreal, Colin Casso (now residing in Berlin)if people are interested in hearing more:
He's a big Canadian disco aficionado.


Martin said...

This was an eye opener, even though I own records by many of these Canadian artists I did not know much about them. I was a beginner DJ in the days of Lime etc...
I work with fireworks now and I plan on participating in the pyromusical competition in Montreal with a disco theme.

Sometimes I have used Disco music as part in my shows ( ) but for a 30 minute show like in Montreal I thought I must include a medley of Canadian songs. I more and more realize that it's possible to do this.

I'd like to know if all these Montreal and other Canadian artists also did their songs in French. The Montreal crowd seems to be a bit sensitive on the language issue... // Martin from Sweden

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chaptwo said...

Thank you for the kind post on Tapps, of which I am very involved as label, writer and publisher. You may want to change the name of Two Hats to THREE HATS productions, as yours is incorrect. I would like to invite you and the others to have a look at the Disco From Canada page on Facebook, which could be a great addition to the nice work you've done here.

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