The Music of Quebec - 1972 to 1980
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The Rise And Fall Of The Quebec Sound, 1972-1980
by David Cox

In the 1970s the province of Quebec was evolving politically, economically and culturally. In music, this manifested itself in the creation of a national music that included elements of traditional folk, progressive rock, jazz, classical and singer-songwriter genres, but was its own section in the record shops, ‘Quebecois’. This music, heard in the brasserie, (a kind of beer hall), at festivals such as the June 24 St. Jean-Baptiste, or at colleges, was part of the political ferment of the time.

Previously, much Quebec music was either traditional, rural music, some of great quality; or derivative pop heard on the radio, often with French lyrics based on popular songs originally recorded in English. But beginning with Felix Leclerc (1914-1988), a figure that transcended this divide, a national style began to emerge. Subsequently, Gilles Vigneault (1928 - ), a singer-songwriter from the north shore of the St. Lawrence, developed the music further and played a similar role. Though many of their arrangements may sound dated today, both were godparents of the Quebec sound.

It all began to change more rapidly in the early 70s. The process was not unlike what happened to American and British music around 1964 with Dylan and the Beatles. The new music was performed by musicians who wrote their own material, usually French sung in a strong local accent and with local vocabulary – often called ‘joual.’

In the early 70s, we began to see the emergence of a sound, which, while wildly popular, maintained a consistent level of originality.

At the centre of this movement was singer-songwriter-guitarist Serge Fiori and Harmonium. The group started recording in 1974 as a trio with a self-titled album of strong, guitar-based singer-songwriter material, with vocals at least referencing the strong rural musical traditions of Quebec.

Their LP did well sales-wise and critically, even crossing over into English-speaking areas of Canada.

A year later, the band became a quintet and released Les Cinq Saisons, which had elements of both jazz and prog-rock, but still had a folky, rootsy feel. If anything, this record with its five musicians, five songs and five seasons was the Sgt. Pepper of Quebec music – the first great concept LP. ‘Depuis L’Automne,’ in particular showed the new territory the band was going into; moody mellotron and lyrics with just the slightest hint of the politics of the time.

By 1977, Harmonium was more than a band, it was an institution. It released L’Heptade (seven songs, seven musicians) which left folk behind and was instead a move into prog-rock influenced by classical composer and pianist Neil Chotem. This ‘concept’ was the story of the fool’s journey to wisdom – the opening song is ‘Comme un Fou’ while the closer is ‘Comme un Sage.’

Sales of the first three Harmonium albums were of Beatleesque proportions within Quebec. Harmonium’s fourth LP was essentially a live recording of the L’Heptade show – an afterthought.

Although Harmonium’s sound in retrospect was not really traditionally ‘Quebecois’ sounding, it had a broad appeal. Fiori, like Dylan a decade earlier, was a messiah-like figure for many. For the introspective singer-songwriter, it was a lot to bear, and his most creative period soon came to an end.

cd cover Simultaneously, a plethora of new groups also emerged, many built on Quebec traditions but also under the influence of Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, and of course Dylan. These included the duo of Jim Corcoran and Bertrand Gosselin, with their fine harmonies and guitar-mandolin duets made an impact with their third LP La Tête en Gigue. Such tunes as ‘La Belle des Champs’ and ‘Ce Matin..Sans Hésiter’ are among the classics here. Corcoran has the distinction of being the sole major Quebec artist raised in English who has made his entire music career in French. A fourth LP À L'Abri de la Tempête, was somewhat less successful but equally enjoyable.

Like Harmonium, CANO had a series of successful records in the mid-late 70s, that crossed out of French Canada in their appeal. CANO was from Sudbury, Ontario, a bilingual mining city; their second album Au Nord de Notre Vie reflected the rich heritage of the area.

Playwright André Paiement provided a driving force and his sister Rachel sung lead on many of the group’s better songs. Unfortunately, with André Paiement’s untimely death the group veered away from its roots into the dead-end of mediocre English-language pop.

Another popular folk-based group was (Les) Séguin, made up of the twins Richard and Marie-Claire Séguin. They released four discs as a folk duo including 1975’s Recolte des Rêves, a small-label release but oddly, the only one readily available today.

In 1977, Paul Piché broke in, in a huge way, with a debut LP called A Qui Appartient L’Beau Temps, with strongly socialist, feminist and Quebec nationalist lyrics, and a rootsy, neo-trad feel. These songs broke like a wave on the consciousness of young Quebecers. His second record, 1980’s L’Escalier, was equally strong in content and also had a roots-based sound.

More than anyone else, Piché bridged the gap between the past and the present. He used traditional vocal licks, fiddle and call-response, but also up-to-date acoustic guitar, and fiery lyrics to move the struggle and the music forward. On the song ‘Y’a pas Grand Chose Dans Le Ciel a Soir’ and ‘Ou Sont-Elles’ he goes right back to the farm kitchen musically, while expressing a progressive (some might say leftist) political message.

Beyond those, Offenbach were blues-rockers who included many elements of the Quebecois language sound in their music – although they tried to record in English they were never as successful as when singing in their native language.

Offenbach drew on such sources as Chuck Berry, Edith Piaf, but also Quebec songwriter Raymond Levesque (1928-2008), including his song ‘Quand les Hommes Vivront d’Amour’ on their successful Traversion LP.. Their best record was En Fusion recorded live at the height of their career in 1979, with the Vic Vogel Big Band, making their rock material really come alive.

Another rock act, Garolou, gained fame by unearthing and rocking up 300-year old songs such as the classic ‘Aux Illinois,’ with a Jethro Tull-like approach. Garolou had started as Lougarou, then changed their name due to a challenge by another organization that already carried that name. Their first two albums as Garolou produced several popular tunes such as ‘Victoria.’

Bridging folk, rock and blues, Plume Latraverse wielded a mean guitar and a ribald sense of humour. One of the most prolific performers in Quebec’s history, Plume could share the big stage with blues legend Big Mama Thornton, or perform in a small folk club. His greatest recordings (Plume Pou Digne, Pommes de Route, Plume en Noir et Blanc) were in the mid-70s. He relied on a relentless ability to pun, a gravely voice, and the ability to churn out one record after another. His favourite tunes included odes to the road ‘Jonquiere,’ La 20,’ and to scallywags: ‘Bobepine,’ or ‘Le Rock and roll du Grand Flanc Mou.’

Zachary Richard was a Cajun artist who drew on the francophone folk traditions of Louisiana and introduced these to Quebec in songs such as ‘Travailler C’est Trop Dur.’ Although not a Quebecer, his music was extremely popular in the province.

An influential, but lesser-known recording came from Hull, Quebec’s brilliant rootsy compilation called Connivence. This was more a federation of artists than a group and included a marvellous pianist with rag-time chops by the name of Steve Burman, among other talents (Oasis, Nous Autres, Robert Soucy, Legault). Besides this, other tunes on this underrated debut album were resonant of such diverse elements as Pachelbel’s Canon and traditional Quebec jigs. The bouncy, piano-based ‘le Pit de Sable de Lucerne.’And folksongs with lyrics like this: ‘Dans ta fenêtre, y a un pays où l'on danse, dans ta fenêtre, y a un pays où l'on chante la vie.’

The LP was engineered by Quentin Meek, one of the key unsung figures in the movement, who forged a unified sound from these diverse artists. Meek also produced sound for Octobre, Corcoran-Gosselin, and the Ville Emard Blues Band.

Connivence’s second disc also included more of the same including such standouts as ‘le Bateau’ and Burman’s ‘Saskatoon’. A third disc, Connivence III (1984) was more polished, but perhaps less fresh and vibrant.

Classically-trained musicians also participated. In 1980, classical composer Francois Dompierre’s influential composition ‘Harmonica Flash’ was released on Deutsche Gramophon and did for Quebec folk music what Bartok, Smetana, Sibelius and others had done for their respective national musical traditions. As for Neil Chotem, besides his work with Harmonium he released the fine ‘Live au El Casino’ in 1979 with a variety of classical and popular tracks.

Things seemed to change as the 70s became the 80s. Ultimately, Harmonium’s Fiori became tired of the music business, but before leaving it for good he put together one last classic effort in tandem with Richard Séguin. Deux Cents Nuits a L’Heure was one of the last great Quebecois CDs of this era. Subsequent to this, Richard Séguin began his own long solo career with his sparse and lovely eponymous solo album on CBS.

The result of the first referendum on independence (Quebec voted to remain a part of Canada in 1981 by about 60 per cent) seemed to act as a shock to the Quebec music industry. So, by the early 80s, a particularly fertile musical era was over. Many of these performers went on to long careers. By the mid-80s, Pierre Flynn, Jim Corcoran, even Serge Fiori and Paul Piché had recorded albums with pop production values. But most never held as much cultural influence as they did during this short period.

The 80s in Quebec lacked the innovative thinking that marked the prior decade.

But with these influential musicians no longer occupying so much space, it opened the way for the earliest, most traditional recordings of the trad-roots juggernaut known as La Bottine Souriante as this group began to gain its momentum. And Kashtin’s popular Innu-language folk-rock of the late 80s and early 90s owed its musical and spiritual debts to Harmonium’s first LP. The long careers of LBS and other traditionalists such as Les Charbonniers de l’Enfer, or LeVent du Nord, just to name a few, or the popularity of crossover acts such as Mes Aieux, might not have been possible without hearkening back to this formative period in Quebec music.

During that period Quebec had developed its own mature sound, a community of performers and recording artists, and basically an industry serving a French-speaking population of just six-million. We had seen an upsurge in the quality, variety, originality, and certainly the overall number of Quebec-based performers and their opportunities to be heard. Perhaps it could not last forever – but while it lasted it was an impressive flourishing of talent. Many of these performers went on to long, distinguished careers, but few ever matched the flourish of creativity of the late 70s.

Recommended Recordings :
Pommes de Route – Plume Latraverse et Steven ‘Cassonade’ Faulkner, 1975 (CBS)
Les Cinq Saisons (Si on Avait Besoin d’une Cinquième Saison)- Harmonium, 1976 (Polydor)
La Tête en Gigue – Jim Corcoran et Bertrand Gosselin, 1977 (KebecDisc - Audiogram)
Au Nord de Notre Vie – CANO, 1977 (A&M)
En Fusion - Offenbach et le Vic Vogel Big Band, 1979 (RCA - BMG)
Au Doux Milieu de Vous –Gilles Vigneault, 1998 (anthology) (Musicor - GSI Musique)
Some of these recordings are available on cdroots.com

Out of print, but worth a search
Connivence, 1977; Connivence II, 1979
Montreal 6 am - Maneige, 1980
Jim Corcoran et Bertrand Gosselin - À L'Abri de la Tempête, 1978

For more info:
Quebec Info Musique - Biographical and discographical information on Quebec musicians.
Prog Quebec A site on progressive music of Quebec from this era – including some artists discussed here.

Available from cdRoots

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