1991 – Listening to Pop in the Provinces

I was intrigued by the recent call by PopMatters for articles on 1991, but, rather predictably, I didn’t have my shit sufficiently together to submit. It did nevertheless get me thinking a bit about 1991, what it meant to me, and what it meant generally. The call, perhaps inevitably given my age, triggered an initial nostalgic wave. I was 19 in 1991 and in the full flush of an enthusiasm for music that has never really subsided. I was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which seemed both the right and wrong place to be at the time. On one hand, a well-developed musical anglophilia meant that I regarded being anywhere other than Manchester or London a grave historical and geographical injustice. On the other hand, 1991 was a great year for Halifax’s music scene. I was at the earliest of the Sloan shows and there was a palpable sense of a scene coming together. Halifax is both peripheral and provincial, yet it was significant enough as a regional centre and port city that it felt connected with the rest of the world.

I don’t want to overstate or render melodramatic the difference between a world in which the internet exists and one in which it doesn’t, but I think it is fair to say that in terms of the sheer availability of cultural commodities, the 1990s seem like the last decade governed by a regime of relative scarcity. That’s a stupid statement, I know, especially in a world in which the scarcity of resources remains an immense and perilous problem for a significant portion of the world’s population. Nevertheless, in trying to establish something of my experience of the early 1990s, it is necessary to understand that it wasn’t just a lack of money that kept one from getting what one wanted, but what now seems like a woefully underdeveloped system of commerce and distribution. That’s not just an hyperbolic way of saying that you had to physically get yourself to a record store to buy something, sometimes waiting weeks or months for an import copy to arrive at a staggeringly inflated price, but that there was every chance that you would hear something only never to hear it again or read about something deeply tantalizing that you simply would not be able to get your hands on.

That raises two immediate questions for me, I suppose. 1. Where did you hear these things? 2. Where did you read about them? Both question have easy answers:

1. There’s probably a great oral history to be written about listening to CBC’s Brave New Waves. BNW ran from 1984 to 2007 on CBC Stereo, which was later rebranded as CBC Radio 2. I listened between 1986 or 87 and 1993 or so. The show at that time ran overnight Sundays to Thursdays, beginning after the 11pm newscast and ending at 5am in the morning. There were a few reckless all-nighters when I listened to the show in its entirety, but on the majority of nights, I probably managed to listen until 1am or so. The show was structured in a very particular way, as I remember, with the first 45 minutes or so dedicated to new releases and recent tracks followed by an extended profile of a particular artist that took listeners step-by-step through their discography. After that, there might be more music or an interview, but by 3am or so the tone of the show become both more mellow and more adventurous, with longer experimental pieces taking centre stage. I vividly remember hearing Gavin Bryars“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” whilst half asleep and being haunted by the eerie repetitions of the tramp’s refrain.

I became aware of BNW while I was still in high school, probably through older, hipper, more insomniac friends. Living in a rural town ensured that there was an additional challenge to listening to the program. The closest CBC Stereo transmitter was in Halifax, some 200+kms away, just far enough that I existed on the very edge of its broadcast area. Weather, therefore, played an important role. Even on clearer nights, reception was spotty but generally I could listen to the show despite occasional bursts of static and interference. If it was raining (as it generally tends to do in Nova Scotia), then all bets were off. Sometimes the signal might be just strong enough for me to hear the songs and, just as importantly the details about song titles and artists, but much of the time, tragically, the music was just beyond reach and reception. One of the lingering consequences of this partial and inconsistent reception is that many of my memories of hearing things for the very first time, that experience of the pure pop rush of novelty, comes with the white noise of static inference attached. Two songs in particular I still cannot hear without a sense memory of reception dropouts: The Sugarcubes’ “Birthday” and The Sundays’ “Can’t Be Sure.” It is commonplace to observe that the memory of pop is imbued with the context of listening (“the first time I heard X was in…”), but for me, much of the music from 1986-89 also comes colored by the desire to hear, with the static being a kind of aural manifestation of my separation from the centres and circuits of pop music’s production and dissemination. Despite this separation, and echoing Benedict Anderson, listening to BNW did make me feel part of a national community, and I am sure there are others from that time, who likewise savored the connection even more as a consequence of the patchiness and utter unpredictability of reception.

I am going to flirt here with the argument that Brave New Waves functioned in a manner similar to John Peel’s Radio 1 show as a galvanizing force for Canadian music fans, especially in the early to middle part of its history. Almost immediately I want to retract such a claim, not least because I doubt the reach of BNW ever approximated that of Peel. Moreover, although Brent Bambury and Patti Schmidt were excellent hosts, neither really assumed the role that Peel occupied in the British cultural/musical imagination as a kind of pop public intellectual, hip uncle, or irascible godfather. Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to claim (and admittedly I am extrapolating almost entirely from my own circumstances here) that the show played a crucial role in the formation and development of an entire generation of music enthusiasts in Canada. As such, it does bear some comparison, as a sanctuary and listening post, to Peel and his position in a history of listening in the UK.

So, where did I hear these things I could not get? The answer: Brave New Waves.

2. I bought my first issue of Melody Maker in May 1988 in a mall outside Halifax on the trip home from the provincial track and field championships. The issue must have sat there unsold for some time before I came along and picked it up. It was the year-end 1987 issue and it offered me a connection to what now seems like a second golden age of UK rock and pop criticism. Although the New Musical Express (NME) of the punk era is most routinely identified as the high water mark of writing about pop in the UK, I would claim that the late 80s at Melody Maker serves as strong competition. An influx of young, bold voices and an editorial commitment to eclecticism, discovery, difficulty and enjoyment made the magazine the most bracing of weekly reads. In addition to the usual critical posturing, stridency, enthusiasm, and brashness, the magazine at this time was also deeply intellectually committed, with a smattering of French theory and a sophisticated take on the politics of pleasure seemingly nestled within nearly every review and interview. Very quickly, getting copies of MM and the NME became the highest of my priorities and anyone I knew going to Halifax would be conscripted into picking up a copy of both for me at either the Blowers’ Street Paperchase or Atlantic News, the two stores which carried them on a semi-regular basis.

MM editorial policy: put commercial act on cover, hide radical content inside.

Access was to a certain degree solved once I moved to Halifax for university and I could go myself, every Tuesday, to buy my own copies. What I ran into, however, was what seemed to me to be the residual temporal delays and disjunctions of colonialism. Issues were, as far as I can remember, about a month behind. This temporal lag somewhat compromised my desire for total contemporaneity. A subscription to MM, which I took out shortly thereafter and had from 1989 until 1992, reduced but did not eliminate this temporal disjunction. Whatever the state of my frustrated desires for absolute up-to-date-ness, what is certain is that I lived at this time both in a provincial city and in a fantasized and imagined England, my head cluttered with release dates that did not directly apply to where I was and concert reviews for bands who would most likely never play where I lived. Nevertheless, these papers did make me feel like part of something. Sure, I wasn’t attending the gigs and most of the time had to wait months for the albums to be released domestically, but having the knowledge that these things happened, that they existed meant that there was a kind of imagined connection, even a solidarity, between me and someone who seemed to me at least to be at the very epicenter of pop happenings. Looking back, I now understand that the papers also connected me to others who lived in similar circumstances elsewhere, whether in provincial towns throughout the UK or in other former British colonial holdings or indeed anywhere else where fantasies of an imperial pop center were constructed and maintained.

There’s another post/paper here on 80s and 90s anglophilia in Canada (and for that matter in the US), but I won’t go there now. Suffice it to say that just as there was interference that disrupted the radio transmissions that as a teenager connected me to a larger pop world, so too did the patchiness, delays, and inefficiencies of print distribution frustrate my desire to partake in the immediate pleasures of pop, inextricable in my mind from the discourse about pop that flourished and raged in the pages of weekly music papers.

So where did I read about pop? I read about it in the pages of Melody Maker and the NME.

So these were the possibilities and constraints on 1991 for me. To follow is something more about the music I actually listened to within this context and a little more about temporal delays and pop pleasures…

This entry was posted in 1980s, 1990s, Critical Theory, Halifax, Memory, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to 1991 – Listening to Pop in the Provinces

  1. DC says:

    Such a great post, and so true about Brave New Waves. I had the same desperate attachment to the show on the opposite side of the country, and mine stretched back even to Augusta LaPaix’s brief early tenure as host. In fact, I have the exact same memory of hearing Bryars’ “Jesus’ Blood” (the non-Tom Waits version) for the first time in the early morning hours. I’m tempted to think it was the same broadcast but I suspect the track may have been played more than once.

    I also wouldn’t underestimate Brent Bambury’s appeal in the days before he became a more visible CBC personality. A friend and I used to review obsessively whatever personal references he had made the night before, and we would frequently speculate on whether or not we had heard the sound of wine being poured during the interview. I still have a breathless letter sent by the same friend in 1989, after he had moved to Montreal and discovered a photograph of Mr. Bambury in the local press.

    I’m very happy to see this blog!

  2. aab says:

    Thanks DC! I do agree that, even if Bambury didn’t occupy quite an analogous place in the Canadian public imagination a Peel did in the UK, he nevertheless had an avid following. I should have also mentioned David Wisdom in the post since he hosted Nightlines, the weekend show that complemented BNW. If anything I had a greater opportunity to Nightlines since on weekends I was freed from whatever early start-times that, from the perspective of someone in highschool or university, plagued the working week. But it always seemed to me that Nightlines was less structured and, since it featured fewer interviews, functioned less as a window on to a wider subcultural universe.

    I’d like to think that it was the same broadcast of the Bryars that we heard since it would confirm my various claims here. Even if it wasn’t, it still shows something of the force of the show and of the weirdness of the radio experience. Do you remember as well when they played, over a series of Sundays, the whole of A Man in a Room Gambling, Bryars’ collaboration with the artist Juan Munoz? I was so disappointed later when I bought a CD and it only contained 5 of the 10 pieces…

  3. DC says:

    Yes, I do remember hearing at least some of the Bryars/Munoz pieces on the show–and playing an excerpt just now does bring it back–but I recall being more intrigued by the idea behind the compositions and their curious title than I do actually listening to the pieces. I’m also reluctant to surrender a sense of shared listening (although I guess the broadcasts would have been staggered for the different time zones).

    I liked David Wisdom’s show, but its shambling format was, for me, firmly associated with Vancouver, whereas Bambury evoked Montreal’s metropolitan sophistication. (And a certain Winnipeg neighbourhood will never lose its association with one of David Wisdom’s frequent callers.)

  4. Augusta says:

    I stumbled on your post while doing some research for a doc. I’m thrilled that the show Alan Conter and I began creating 28 years ago this month still rates talk.
    Your memories are proof positive that our instincts were correct at a time when mainstream CBC was still cringing at the music coming out of our office…
    Many thanks. Cheers, Augusta LaPaix

  5. aab says:

    Thanks Augusta! I’m so glad that you enjoyed the post. The show meant a lot to me personally and I do really think there’s a relatively unexplored history here in terms of its influence on a whole generation of Canadian musicians, writers, and artists. I’ve spoken with a number of people since the post and what seems shared among former listeners is the sense of sheer excitement the show generated, not least in terms of how it blended new music with older or wildly eclectic tracks that broadened listening horizons and provided a sense of a deeper history of pop music. So, yes, your instincts were right and there’s definitely still a community of people out there who are bound together by the fact that they stayed up late and listened.

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