By David Ball
Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard singles chart on August 22, 1992. From the same talented Canadian singer-songwriter that unleashed a bevy of memorable ass-kicking hits – including “Lunatic Fringe”, “White Hot” (both from Cochrane’s old band, Red Rider), “No Regrets” and “Big League”(the lead single from his 1991 multi-platinum solo album, “Mad Mad World”) – “Life is a Highway” was his only Top 40 track in the US. Unbelievable! It did much better in Canada though, reaching the top of RPM’s chart, and where it remains unarguably one of the most beloved Canadian pop songs ever produced.
It should come as no surprise then that a countrified cover of the song, by Columbus, Ohio duo Rascal Flatts, reached the Top 10 on two different Billboard charts in 2006, even though there are millions of Americans who probably don’t know – or care – that the tune from their beloved country band isn’t an original! I know I’m not alone in thinking that the ONLY version of “Life is a Highway” is by Cochrane. I must say though that at least I can listen to Rascal Flatts’ rendition and not feel blinding rage, which is exactly what happens every time I stumble upon Hootie & the Blowfish’s “Hootified” version of 54-40’s classic, “I Go Blind”. Hey, at least Hootie never took a stab at “One Gun” or, gasp, Red Rider’s “Lunatic Fringe”.
Zappa Blames Canada?
On August 25, 1969 – one week after their performance on Ottawa’s CJOH-TV, and the final gig of a brief 8-day tour of the Great White North – Frank Zappa announced he was disbanding his original group, The Mothers of Invention. The gifted guitarist, prolific composer, and subversive satirist cited the cause for the disintegration of his avant-garde rock ensemble as being that people clap for all the wrong reasons. I hope he wasn’t singling out Canadians? However, you can’t blame people for not fully comprehending Zappa’s brilliant but challenging 1966 debut, “Freak Out!” – or anything else from the band’s decidedly non-mainstream musical stew of satiric-pop, orchestral, ‘50s doo-wop, jazz and conceptual rock.
More probable reasons for the Mothers of Invention’s demise include financial stress (the California-bred rock star was “paying each member $200 a week, whether we were working or not”), constant wars with his meddling record label (for example, MGM/Verve forced Zappa to add “of Invention” to the name of the group), and the simple likelihood that Zappa, a highly provocative and legendarily demanding band leader, just wasn’t happy with the effort provided by some of the Mothers’ members.
In the end it didn’t really matter to most fans because Zappa released his great second solo effort, “Hot Rats,” on October 10, 1969, and put out two final collections of “new” Mothers of Invention material in 1970, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” (best album cover ever!) and “Burnt Weenie Sandwich,” compiled from previously unreleased live and studio recordings.
The breakup mattered even less after Zappa assembled a new group, the Mothers, in the spring of 1970, using some of his former Mothers of Invention band mates as well as the addition of singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, formally of the Turtles.
Zappa continued to release both solo and Mothers albums simultaneously through the early to middle ‘70s, leaning increasingly towards jazz and progressive rock. He eventually abandoned the Mothers moniker following the release of “Bongo Fury,” his awesome 1975 collaboration with friend and fellow madman, Captain Beefheart.
First Canada Jam Festival opened at Mosport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario on August 26, 1978. Over 110,000 attended the one-day fest (the second-largest paid rock event in Canadian history, next to “SARSfest”), which was produced by Sandy Feldman and Lenny Stoge – the same two impresarios that had previously staged California Jam I and II. On a related note, I vaguely remember being terrified watching Ted Nugent’s gonzo-crazy Jam II stage meltdown during ABC’s March 1978 live broadcast. Man I’m old
Anyway, not only did First Canada Jam feature a diverse lineup of some of the era’s top American acts – including the Doobie Brothers, Commodores, Atlantic Rhythm Section, Kansas and [*shudder*] Village People – but the Bowmanville concert also showcased two of Canada’s hottest young band: Prism and Triumph. Triumph’s 3:35AM encore concluded the 18-hour show.
Four packaged specials were produced by CTV and broadcast across the country while several performances were later released on album and home video. Many illegal bootlegs were made too, including performances by Kansas and Triumph.
Advance tickets were a steal at $20, but even $30 for day-of-the-event was still pretty reasonable, even though there were probably plenty of Kansas, Triumph and Doobie Brothers fans reluctant in handing over hard-earned cash for any concert involving dressed-up disco dudes known as the Village People.
Next week: Isle of Wight and Joni Mitchell
“Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas, from First Canada Jam Festival, August 26, 1978