Anne Murray, Randy Bachman, k.d. lang reflect on 40th anniversary of Junos
TORONTO -- Anne Murray thinks back to her surreal experience at the first-ever Juno Awards with the hazy memory of someone trying to recall a dream.
In Murray's case, it was really more like a fever dream. See, on that special occasion back in 1970, the Springhill, N.S., singer was slowed by a mix of the flu and exhaustion from the busy schedule that accompanied her blossoming career. Twenty-four years old and barely able to walk, she clutched producer Brian Ahern's arm as she took the stage at Toronto's historic St. Lawrence Hall for the occasion.
But if she was so ill, why didn't she skip the soiree altogether?
"I remember being there because they said it was so important for me to be there," the 65-year-old Murray said over the line from Jupiter, Fla., where she's enjoying her retirement.
"That was the very beginning stages of the Junos. And there were people there, but we were a small nucleus of entertainers at that time."
How things have changed.
This Sunday's show (CTV, 8 p.m.) will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the annual showcase for Canadian music with a glitzy bash.
The show's 24-year-old host, Drake, has a No. 1 album under his belt as well as six Grammy nominations. Multiple Juno nominees Arcade Fire are fresh off a win for album of the year at the Grammys -- considered the top prize at the top music show in the world. And most Canadians are already familiar with the accomplishments of the nominated likes of Michael Buble, Justin Bieber, Neil Young and Broken Social Scene.
And then there's this year's inductee into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame: Shania Twain, one of the world's bestselling solo artists of all time.
The Canadian music industry has evolved into a robust machine, pumping out a seemingly disproportionate amount of the world's most popular and acclaimed music, and many at least partially credit the Junos -- whose launch coincided with the onset of another major game-changer, Canadian content regulations -- with helping along that growth.
"Absolutely, it's opened up the rest of the world to look in and allow a lot of bands out into the world," Bachman-Turner Overdrive's Fred Turner said in a recent interview. "I think it's done a wonderful job."
Added k.d. lang: "Just to see who is around and the cultivation of these amazing bands, you know, Arcade Fire and Feist and these incredible bands that are coming out of Canada, to me -- I mean, they're an awards show, let's not, like, take it out of perspective and I don't really care for awards shows that much -- but I think the fact that you get to hang and meet other Canadian musicians, it sort of infuses the momentum of the Canadian music industry."
Of course, this Sunday's bash will have little in common with that first show.
The Junos have evolved from a non-televised insider-only showcase for an industry that existed more in theory than practice, to a glitzy, glamorous and glossy television tribute to the best -- or, at least, the biggest -- in an ever-growing Canadian music industry.
But the Junos did begin modestly.
As documented in the commemorative book "Music from Far and Wide: Celebrating 40 Years of the Juno Awards," the seeds for the show were initially planted in the mid-60s, when Toronto music trade magazine RPM Weekly decided to begin distributing the RPM Gold Leaf Awards based on reader voting (1965's awards for top male singer, female singer and group went to Terry Black, Shirley Matthews and Esquires respectively).
The Gold Leaf Awards shifted from the pages of the magazine to a real hall on Feb. 23, 1970, remembered now as the first Junos. The catered event had a woefully inadequate supply of food and booze, but made up for it -- at least in the memories of those who attended -- with a certain ramshackle charm.
"It was very homespun," said Bernie Finkelstein, who has managed Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Dan Hill and Barney Bentall.
"For me, I think the most fun thing that I recall was it was like, you walked into that room and there was this community. It felt like a real community. ... In a way it was a gathering of the tribes of the Canadian music business for maybe the first time under one roof."
Though, his memories aren't that clear.
"The reason I don't remember any of that is I was probably quite well stoned," he adds, laughing.
Added Andy Kim, who took the award for best male vocalist that year: "It wasn't a television show -- it was a celebration of music and artists. Today, it's a celebration of music, artists, clothes, haircuts, posing, all of that stuff."
The awards gala was rechristened the Juno Awards the following year, and was televised nationally for the first time in 1973. But there were growing pains.
The Junos struggled to persuade nominated talent to show up, the early ceremonies elicited a fair bit of criticism (for one thing, there was no category for rock albums) and the fledgling gala was hurt by the fact that the Canadian music industry was still quite tiny.
"When they first started, (the Junos) were very industry-oriented," said Jann Arden, an eight-time Juno winner.
"It was a bunch of stuffy old dumbshits who sat in the audience in Toronto and kind of clapped but were really looking forward to having a martini.
"They were trying to create a Canadian music industry. There was four people -- (Leonard) Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray and Neil Young, the four of them were out there for 15 years. They were our industry, right?
"And then all of a sudden, it just started happening. It started happening in the '90s. Boom boom, we've got an industry now."
Indeed, Murray has won 24 Junos over the years and took at least one trophy every year from 1971-76.
But she was also one of the first stars to publicly criticize the show for what she felt was an amateurish atmosphere.
"It was embarrassing, actually," she says now.
"Because at that time, it was a dinner show, it was kind of a dinner theatre. And by the time the TV show came on, everybody was in their cups. When I performed, I looked out over the audience, I didn't see very many people watching me...I don't want to look out and perform in front of people who are drunk. I did that when I was playing little clubs."
"I said, 'I'm not going to go through that again.' Then when I sat at home and watched the TV show, I had to turn the volume down...because I was so embarrassed as a performer. I was embarrassed at the production values of the shows at the time.
"I decided that I just wouldn't go."
So Murray stopped attending the show. Her self-imposed Junos exile lasted until 1986, when she surprised the crowd by showing up to claim her award for country female vocalist of the year.
"I was nervous because I thought I might be booed. But in fact, I got a standing ovation, so it all worked out fine."
It was a stirring moment for those watching at home -- only one of many memories created by decades of Junos ceremonies.
Standout moments include Ronnie Hawkins inadvertently tearing a hole in his tuxedo pants onstage in 1981, Tina Turner performing a duet with Bryan Adams in 1985 (the same year Lang accepted an award wearing a wedding dress), Shania Twain's array of hockey-themed dresses in 2003, and k-os declaring that the 2007 show was "propaganda" before smashing his guitar.
Aside from her own hall of fame induction in 1993, one of Murray's favourite memories occurred at a show she didn't even attend.
On April 2, 1980, Murray won four awards, including album of the year, but watched the ceremony at home -- not only because the show was held during her Juno boycott, but because she had attended her father's funeral earlier that day.
Still, she and her family tuned in to the Junos that night, and they were in for a treat: a leather-clad Carole Pope leading an edgy performance of Rough Trade's "High School Confidential" that involved an infamous crotch grab.
"That was exactly what we needed at the time, was to see Carole Pope singing 'High School Confidential, which made us laugh so hard, because it's so irreverent."
"She had us in stitches, and we all very badly needed to laugh."
Many other artists' favourite Juno memories centre on more personal moments.
"My first memory of the Junos ... (I was nominated) for best new artist, and I was sitting in front of Celine Dion and (husband) Rene Angelil, and it was pre-Celine's massive meteoric rise into that stratosphere," said Arden of the '94 Junos.
"They called my name out when I won, and Celine tapped me on the shoulder and she went, 'Congratulations,"' added Arden, affecting an exaggerated version of Dion's accent. "And I just thought: 'Oh my God, that's just so crazy.' And I went up and got the award, I don't know what I said, don't know what I wore, don't remember anything. Nothing."
Randy Bachman recalls striding into the 1974 Juno Awards as an unpopular figure, a few years removed from leaving the Guess Who to pursue a solo career and then form a band with husky howler Fred Turner.
That new outfit, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, racked up Juno wins for contemporary album of the year and most promising group of the year in '74. It was a victory Bachman would savour -- for a long, long time to come.
"That was triumphant," Bachman said during a recent stop in Toronto. "To start the band and get rolling with all the opposition against me and against us that was in the whole industry, to get to the point where the people who were trying to put me down had to stop because of the momentum of the USA ... that was a triumphant kind of thing.
"To do the Junos that year and to win ... it was a 'YEAH!' moment for us."
Bruce Cockburn, meanwhile, remembers his jangling nerves prior to his Canadian Music Hall of Fame induction in 2001.
"I had to make a speech on national TV, that was scary as hell," he said. "That was the year that Nelly Furtado appeared on the scene and won everything in sight. Actually, if I hadn't been so nervous, it would have been an enjoyable event to be at.
"But I was blind with fear until I got up to talk."
Yet, for nearly as long as the Junos have existed the show has been dogged by criticism, with Canuck musicians from Stompin' Tom Connors to Matthew Good speaking out against the show.
The Junos were accused of being amateurish, then too slick. Many have argued that the show takes cues from what's popular in the United States, or that the show rewards commercial, not artistic, success.
"It's trends, it's people who are on the top of the charts, and voting's weird," Arden said. "I have to tell you, as a member and somebody who votes, I know full well that people who check those boxes don't know half the people they're checking the boxes for. ...
"So there's holes in it, for sure. But overall, I think it's a very positive reflection for our entire industry. I think people are surprised at the variety of the amazing music that comes out of this country. And we're competing on a global scale -- you know, it's unprecedented."
Murray, once so outspoken about the show's myriad flaws, now embraces the Junos too.
"They sure as hell improved the television show, I'll tell you that," she said.
"I think it's great. I think it's something to aspire to. I think people look forward to it every year. It kind of showcases our Canadian talent, and lets people know who's out there. And especially in this day and age, when it's so hard to keep up. I mean, it really is hard to keep up. And the state of the record business now is horrible.
"So that's kind of a bright light, in a way, for Canadian talent to be able to be on a show like that and be showcased."
-- With files from Canadian Press reporters Victoria Ahearn and Cassandra Szklarski in Toronto.