This Week in Music History: April 22 to 28

Apr 26, 2013

By David Ball

This week’s article is dedicated to the irreplaceable Rita MacNeil, who passed away on April 16, 2013. May your gentle and beautiful soul rest in peace.

 

Who doesn’t love Farm Aid?

The brainchild of Willie Nelson and Neil Young, the annual all-star benefit concert began on September 22, 1985, as a way of raising money for beleaguered American farmers from coast to coast.

The need for assistance was at an all-time high when Farm Aid VI was held in Ames, Iowa, on April 24, 1993. A few weeks prior to the concert, heavy rains caused the waters of both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to overflow and subsequently flood large swaths of the American Midwest. Towns were swallowed, thousands of people were left homeless and over eight million acres of crops were ruined. In a region already hard hit with never-ending debt and low farm prices, people didn’t have the means to deal with flood damage that totalled $15 billion; at the time it was the worst natural disaster in United States history. The U.S. government initially put aside $2.5 billion in aid for the Midwest.

Farm Aid VI featured over 10 hours of music and close to 40 acts, with performances by some of the biggest names in rock, country, roots and blues, including Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett, The Jayhawks, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Bruce Hornsby, John Mellencamp, Marty Stuart, Martina McBride and The Highwaymen (Cash, Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson). Troubled hard rockers Alice in Chains pulled out at the last minute. Canada was well represented at the Iowa concert with topnotch sets by Bryan Adams, Jann Arden (fresh off her ’93 American breakthrough “I Will Remember You”) and Neil Young, of course.

Speaking of the legendary rocker, Young was rightfully steamed at then-president Bill Clinton’s administration for sending only two representatives to the event: a bureaucrat from the Department of Agriculture and Roger Clinton, the president’s buffoonish brother. “I thought when we got rid of Bush and Reagan, there’d be a change,” Young was reported to have said, addressing the new administration. “But where are they?”

Young continued his attack on the U.S. government throughout his headlining slot, driving home his point during the debut of his new song, “Mother Nature,” which was written specifically for Farm Aid and struggling farmers: “From Champaign to Austin, Nebraska to the Hoosier Dome/From Texas Stadium up to Ames, Iowa/For seven long years we’ve been fighting for a change/Lookin’ for a country that don’t need Farm Aid.”

The outspoken singer-songwriter and member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame makes a good point. Since its inception, Farm Aid has raised $35 million through public and private donations while thousands of small farms struggle to grab a tiny piece of the U.S. government’s annual $20 billion subsidy, most of which gets gobbled up by large factory farms. Lynyrd Skynyrd famously called out Young in their song  “Sweet Home Alabama” when the late, great Ronnie Van Zant sang: “Well I hope Neil Young will remember/A southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” It turns out Southern men need Mr. Young around more than ever.

 

“Goin’ Down” by Montreal singer Allan Nicholls peaked at No. 38 on the RPM pop chart on April 25, 1978. I bet I know what you’re thinking… Who the heck is Allan Nicholls?! Some blues fans may also be thinking: Is his hit yet another cover of the blues standard made famous by Albert King and Jeff Beck?

To answer the latter: No. It’s actually a remake of a decidedly non-bluesy tune (co-written by Canadian Galt MacDermot) from the original 1968 hippy musical Hair. With all due respect to Nicholls and his family – and his presumably cult-sized fan base – before last week his name didn’t resonate with me, which is surprising, since for the past 45 odd years he’s certainly been involved in high-profile projects both in and out of pop music.

J.B. and The Playboys looking very Beach Boys–ish (Nicholls is second from the left)

Nicholls was the lead singer in the popular Beatles-influenced 1960s rock band J.B. and The Playboys. After a string of charting Canadian singles in the mid-1960s, the Montreal-based quintet moved to Toronto in the spring of ’66, changed the band’s name to The Jaybees (to avoid confusion with Gary Lewis and The Playboys) and promptly snagged more hits, with “I’m a Loner” cracking the RPM Top 30. By the late ’60s – and after a couple more name changes – the group split up, with Nicholls moving to New York City to perform as a cast member in big Broadway productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. In the mid-1970s, Nicholls decided to give Hollywood a try and wound up landing bit acting parts in many films, including the Robert Altman–directed films Nashville (1975) and Popeye (1980).

Nicholls’ most memorable role, however, is that of Johnny Upton in the iconic Paul Newman comedy Slap Shot (what many Canadians think is a hockey biopic). I should receive a match penalty or a punch in the face (with foiled-up knuckles) by one of the Hanson brothers for not placing Nicholls’ name to the face of Johnny Upton!

Charlestown Chief’s Johnny Upton (Nicholls) wearing the captain’s “C”

Nicholls eventually switched to production and found a niche working mainly as an assistant director (AD). Some of his AD credits include: “Saturday Night Live” (21 episodes from 1989 to 1990); Altman’s late-career masterpieces Short Cuts and The Player; Timothy Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts (Nicholls was also associate producer); and the Sean Penn “feel-good” flick Dead Man Walking. Nicholls was nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award and a Writers Guild of America Award for writing Altman’s 1978 comedy A Wedding (he composed the film’s score, too).

As a lifelong Boston Bruins fan, I find this part a little hard to write about, although count me impressed nonetheless: Nicholls’ grandfather was Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender and three-time Stanley Cup winner Riley Hern, who played for the Montreal Wanderers (a precursor of the Montreal Canadiens) for five seasons.

 

Don’t most of us wear leather jackets while showering? (See video below.)

Rock and Hyde’s “Dirty Water” from their 1987 album Under the Volcano peaked at No. 15 on the RPM pop chart on April 27, 1987. The co-conspirators in the influential Victoria, B.C.–based new wave/punk band The Payolas (1978 to 1986) rebranded themselves as Rock and Hyde for this one-off Bruce Fairburn–produced collaborative.

“Dirty Water” also became a hit on two Billboard charts: it rippled in at No. 61 on the Hot 100 while making a cannonball-like splash at No. 6 on the U.S. mainstream rock chart.

The duo was at a crossroads at the time of the album’s release. Bob Rock was two years away from becoming a superstar record producer (Sonic Temple by The Cult and Dr. Feelgood by Mötley Crüe) whereas Paul Hyde was on the cusp of what would become a relatively low-key solo career. The Payolas reformed in 2003, but ceased operations for good in 2007 after issuing a new EP, Langford Part One. I hope fans aren’t waiting for Part Two!

Next week: 54-40 and Barenaked Ladies

“Dirty Water” by Rock and Hyde