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.