The Importance of Chilliwack

Back in 2005, Newfoundland singer/songwriter Barry Canning and I were putting together a songwriter’s tour of Newfoundland. We were chatting about whom we could get to join us for the circle. I casually mentioned the idea of having a bigger writer join us – a Canadian veteran writer, someone who was a hero to us. After throwing around a few names, I brought up the name Bill Henderson. The voice of legendary Canadian rock group Chilliwack, Henderson held a special place for Barry and me due to both his impeccable writing chops and incredible high tenor vocal. What a great experience it would be to have Bill along with us on a tour of Newfoundland. Hearing all those hits night after night, traveling in the van and listening to rock star tales of yore, and just generally being in the presence of Canadian rock royalty would be off the map.

So I emailed him and asked if wanted to join us. And he replied saying yes, he’d do it. Besides his fee, his only stipulations were a non-smoking tour van and his own hotel room. Done and done. As we started coordinating dates, however, things started to look bleak. He ended up with a Chilliwack weekend in Halifax, but was able to fly to St John’s that Sunday. Problem was we started the tour Friday night across the island. (We had booked the venues before we had finalized all the writers.) There was no feasible way to make it work without him organizing his own transportation to meet us, and he would also miss two dates. Needless to say we were disappointed. But in hindsight it was a thrill to even just correspond with him, and the fact that he was into the idea of touring with us was in itself an incredible feeling.

The first memory I have of Chilliwack is probably 1978 or so when I was first starting to hone in on what was playing on the car stereo during my family’s outings and holidays across the island. Two songs in particular shoot me full of nostalgia for this period: “California Girl” and “Arms of Mary.” Back then I had no clue that there was a band named Chilliwack, but I knew I loved these two songs. Turns out that this band from B.C. was responsible for these two catchy hits, the former written by Henderson and the latter a cover from an English band called “The Sutherland Brothers & Quiver.” There is something intangible about the sound of these songs, something that ties into an innocence and idealism. Maybe it is because I was innocent and everything was ideal the first time I was exposed to them. The snappy snare drum and punctuating electric piano in “California Girl” are imbedded in my mind like DNA, as are the plaintive synths and punchy, phased-out electric guitars in “Arms of Mary.” These songs were produced with the intent of grandeur, and they worked on a base level to captivate a small child in the back of a station wagon as they rolled off the channel in heavy rotation.

A few years later, in 1982 or so, I was starting to take an interest in guitar. At this time, local TV station NTV and CBC national were starting to play rock videos late at night. The music video at this time was a fairly new idea as a medium all its own. MuchMusic had yet to launch, and MTV was an American channel that we could not get in Canada. So we were thankful and excited about any videos we got to see on the only two channels we had. One rock band had two videos that would get fairly frequent play. The songs were “Watcha Gonna Do” and “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone).” Lo and behold, here was Henderson with Chilliwack again. The videos were both shot with videotape and not film, and as a result they looked very stark and realistic. The band consisted of three bushy-haired skinny guys in designer jeans and high heels. The plot of both videos alternated between some loose acting and the band lip-synching on stage. In “Watcha Gonna Do” there was a pseudo-sex scene with two people going at it in bushes with roller skates on. It was a jarring and exciting moment for a young Catholic boy up alone with everyone else in the house asleep. To me these guys were wild and dangerous. What I specifically recall is that they both sounded and looked good. This was a combination that I sort of innately recall as being very important, even as a kid. It seemed to me that the band was intent on being sexy, and that they knew exactly what they were trying to do with this mixture of rock and sexuality. I never forgot the importance of this combination when performing rock music. You have to be aware of this. Chilliwack knew you couldn’t have one without the other in rock. They were my first teachers of this fact.

Standing next to Henderson in these videos – with a Stratocaster guitar hanging impossibly low on his body – was Brian Macleod, a native Nova Scotian who spent most of his younger days in St. John’s tearing up the bar scene on guitar and drums. According to legend, he was as notorious with the ladies as he was on his instruments. Finding out all this stuff later made me enjoy my memories of these videos even more. Everything sort of tied together. Between Henderson’s almost impossibly-perfect vocal and Macleod’s crunchy Stratocaster licks, I was positive at twelve years old that no better, cooler band existed.

When I started piecing together this fragmented catalogue and realizing that all these great tunes came from the one band, it made total sense why I loved each and every one of them. And I still do. Recently, one of my bands started covering “Arms of Mary.“ And even though Henderson didn’t write it, he makes it his own by singing that lyric as if he lived it. And of course he did, just as very other boy who listened to it. The song is perhaps the greatest “boy loses virginity” story in popular music (even though “What a Night” by Frankie Valli is probably the most well-known). It is arguably the definitive version of a song that’s been covered by a multitude of artists including the Everly Brothers and Keith Urban. And just this week I must have listened to it twenty times.

I’m not sure if there’s a Canadian ballad that is more mellow in all the right ways than “Baby Blue.” It is sung almost exclusively falsetto, yet contains no saccharine aftertaste at all. The fuzz guitar, along with the picked bass, helps roughen out the mellow approach. Henderson’s voice was custom-made for double-tracking, and he does it in all the right spots. The dissonant second chord in the verse adds a heightened sense of urgency to the romantic lyric about a man coming to the rescue of a girl who’s been wronged in a relationship. Once again it’s a Chilliwack song that bears unlimited repetition of play; or, as they say, it never gets old.

Another great is “I Believe,” with Henderson’s effortless switching from high tenor to falsetto as he sings about being saved by the love of a girl he’s met. MacLeod’s call-and-answer vocal part in the chorus (“now that you’re always on my mind,” etc.) is as memorable as the lead chorus line. The production has the typically glassy tape-reel sound of the early ‘80s, when the music business was perfecting analog studio recording (while tragically preparing to go digital). It features an uncharacteristically clean, chorus-laden guitar solo that is tasteful and sparse in all the right ways. The slap bass is subtle yet crucial in giving the song its unique groove. Even the swelling synth works for the tune. The Beatlesque bridge, with its barbershop background harmonies, is majestic. It sounds like it was taken right off Beatles For Sale.

Any Chilliwack fan reading this will fondly recall other songs that capture a moment in time for him or her. Such is the beauty of this band and its enduring catalogue.

This band has had far less recognition than they deserve. Rolling Stone magazine once praised them as “the finest Canadian rock band, out-rocking BTO and out-writing Burton Cummings.” But the magazine also blamed a “lack of consistency” for international success eluding them. This may be true; however, they are a mainstay on Canadian classic rock radio, as well as a constant in the hearts of thousands who recall with great admiration their string of wonderful songs that peppered the emotional plains of the Canadian musical landscape during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Well, I think Barry and I should to put together another songwriter tour of Newfoundland. This time we’ll make sure we give Mr. Henderson lots of lead time….and his own hotel room, of course.

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Music

8 responses to “The Importance of Chilliwack

  1. Perry K

    As always Chris my friend, your Blog posts are most enjoyable! Have always loved Chilliwack too and in fact have a poster around here somewhere from their Magnum Opus Tour ’82 where the guys put off a killer show at the TSC in November of that year … believe I still have the ticket stub too! Besides the awesome show I remember the girl who was my date at that concert was a couple inches taller than myself! LOL! Lovely gal though, i wonder what ever happened to her? Thank you Chilliwack for the music and the memories!

    • Hey Perry thanks for weighing in here! I figured you’d seen the TSC show. I was a bit too young for that one. Glad you enjoyed the article. I had a ball writing it!

      Hope all is well,

      Chris

  2. Celtic Bob

    Great read Chris.
    My first concert ever was Chilliwack here in Grand Falls back in 82? It was the Opus X Tour. It was this show that started my love of live concerts. I never got to see the band again until 2004 in St. John’s on the Canada Day weekend shows on George Street. That weekend included Headpins and Helix as well. Helix at that time had Rainer and Cindy Wiechmann of the Newfoundland band KAOS in it.

  3. Bill Henderson

    Thanks for your very kind comments Chris. Actually our first time in Newfoundland was in 70 or 71. We played at Memorial. At that time the lineup was Claire Lawrence (Sax), Ross Turney (Drums) and myself. I’m not sure if Glenn Miller (Bass) was in the band at that time or not. I don’t think so. He left (for a few years) in the summer of 1970. We had a great time at that show and I remember earlier in the afternoon swimming off the rocks just outside of St John’s. Well, I didn’t really swim. I dove in and shot out. Never been in water that cold before or since.

    I really enjoyed meeting Newfoundlanders. I’m a coastie too. I was brought up by the ocean and on it, in a rural area of Vancouver Island. One of my most important guitar mentors was a Newfie living in Edmonton by the name of Gerry Fiander. Excellent old rock, country and standards player. He taught me 6 six string chords and got me my first regular paying gig while I was still in highschool.

    Next time out to Newfoundland was I think in 77. Brian was with us by then and we’d just recorded the Lights From the Valley album with Arms of Mary on it. It was the beginning of my partnership with Brian. Drove right across the province from Port Aux Basque (sp?) to St. Johns. Played a number of poorly attended dates along the way. As I recall they included Corner Brook, Grand Falls, St Johns and Marystown.

    Anyway, many stories to tell, other friends from the rock. Gotta run. I’ll be back. thanks again man.

    • Hey Bill,

      Thanks so much for reading, and also for replying with your connections to Newfoundland and touring history here. I would have loved to have checked out one the early Chilliwack shows you did across the island. Up until recently I thought that Brian didn’t play on Lights From The Valley, but it’s cool to find out that you and him were collaborating by this time.

      I’m honoured that you took the time to respons here with your recollections. I’m sure the Chilliwack fan who’ve read this will be thrilled as well.

      All the best, and I hope you get back to Newfoundland for a show again some time soon,

      Chris

  4. Glen Collins

    It would also be interesting to get Sandy to weigh in on the Newfoundland connection in that band by way of Brian McLeod.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s