The progressive rock scene in Anglophone Canada during the 1970’s was not particularly robust. Rush are the most well-known band to attempt to apply English prog sensibility to their sound. Earlier in the 70’s, bands like Warpig and Jackal played the heavy rock and Hammond organ style of English bands like Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. Chilliwack, Lighthouse, and A Foot in Cold Water were known to veer proggish at times. Progressive pop on the Canadian scene came ahead with Klaatu and FM, and SAGA delivered an earlier neo-progressive pop sound. Nightwinds was probably one of the bands who best tried to follow the English prog example but only lasted one album. It would seem that in spite of Canada’s close connection with British music, the progressive scene did not really take hold.
Not in Anglophone Canada maybe. However for Francophones, progressive rock was given a huge welcome!
It is very curious how English progressive rock became most popular in Canada in the Province of Quebec where most people speak French, and that it became popular there during the height of the Separatist Movement and Québécois pride. But it becomes easier to understand when considering how progressive rock was advantageous for French-speakers: progressive rock was a lot about the music and less about the lyrics, unlike pop which is lyrically oriented. For Francophones who weren’t particularly keen on singing in English just to get a hit song in Anglophone North America or who simply had a difficult time with the language, progressive rock was a way of creating contemporary music that gave them more freedom to express themselves without turning to the English language. Furthermore, progressive rock incorporated a lot of jazz and classical influences, and for many Québécois musicians with degrees in classical music or experience with jazz, progressive rock offered them the liberty of composing music as they liked.
Two results emerged from these two important reasons for prog’s popularity in la belle province. The first is that many bands chose to sing in French, thus creating not only a platform that made French lyrics acceptable and even desirable, but also blazing a trail for upcoming bands to follow. This was supported and encouraged by the French pride supporters and hence French-only bands were promoted and praised. Meanwhile, other bands committed themselves to being entirely instrumental. The second is that many bands experimented with ideas that were initially perhaps inspired by the British progressive rock scene and soon some went ahead with their own ideas, developing a sound that was distinctly Prog Québec. In fact, as the progressive movement in Italy earned the title rock progressivo Italiano, so the prog movement in Québec could almost have had its own special moniker, rock progressif québécois.
Several English bands were first welcomed to North America by Quebecers. Prior to the prog trend catching on in the rest of Canada and the U.S., bands like Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, Camel, Supertramp, and Pink Floyd were filling concert halls in Québec, and as the Québec prog scene grew, local bands opened for their major English counterparts.
The progressive rock and progressive music scene in Québec went through some stages during the 1970’s. At first, bands followed the trends of other North American acts: psychedelic music, heavy psych, blues-based rock. Dionysos was one of the first bands to switch to French-only lyrics and released a heavy psych album with blues influences in 1971. Offenbach and Morse Code Transmission also leaned towards heavy rock and blues. But by as early as 1972, the jazz rock fusion bands were starting to put out vinyl. Octobre, Contraction, and Maneige were among top performers in this genre, with Sloche coming in during the peak years between 1975 and 1977.
It was during these years that the rock progressif québécois scene was at its strongest and with the influences of the English prog scene sewn into the music of many bands. Et Cetera has been called the French Canadian incarnation of Gentle Giant, while Pollen and Morse Code (formally known as Morse Code Transmission) showed some Yes and Genesis influences.
Incubus (later to be known as ExCubus) employed the organ-led power trio approach. For other bands like L’Orchestra Sympathique, orchestral jazz was their cup of tea, while Conventum went more for folk influences. Toubabou followed a world music route, bringing in African drums.
By the mid- to late seventies, however, prog folk was replacing prog rock in popularity. This was most likely due to the great success of Harmonium’s second album, “Si on avait besoin d’une cinquiéme saison”, an album that often appears in top twenty lists of best prog albums ever. Other bands to become successful with prog folk include Garolou (who were actually Ontarians singing French Canadian folk songs) and folk-pop artist, Beau Dommage. There is also a long list of artists who went by their own names in the prog Québec scene.
By the end of the seventies, many prog bands everywhere the world over were struggling to find relevance in their style of music and either disbanded or modified their sound to a more pop friendly approach. In the case of québécois bands, many also switched to singing in English in order to score hits which would in turn keep record companies interested. For some bands who decided to switch languages earlier on, they found themselves in a tight spot as supporters of French pride regarded singing in English as bad as treason. Gaining popularity in one language meant losing it in another language.
Though the classic years of French Canadian prog are considered to be in the mid-seventies, progressive music and prog rock never truly died out in la belle province. Even in the eighties, new bands like Miriodor were forming. And as both the thrash metal and progressive metal movement began in the mid-eighties, Québec’s Voivod established a special place for themselves in both scenes, singing in English mind you.
Listening to music from the classic years of French Canadian prog, there is such remarkable, fantastic, and wonderful music. Why didn’t Anglophone Canada make contributions on the same level? Though largely unknown outside of Québec and perhaps France, a few years back ProgQuebec began reissuing classic québécois prog albums on CD. Though word is the label is winding down now, there are still many great albums to be found on CD out there.
For further reading:
ProgQuebec – features bios in French and English of many bands
Canada.com – a story about prog’s popularity in Quebec
the journals of alan rhodes – an article from 1995 about Quebec prog
Below is a playlist of some of my personal favourite songs from my private collection that I have made into a mixed CD.
Morse Code – La marche des hommes
Vos Voisins – Voisins (mon chum)
Maniege – Les folleries
Harmonium – En pleine face
Contraction – Claire Fontaine (YouTube video not available)
ExCubus – Parade de l’armee de verre
Octobre – Le chant de guerrier
Et Cetera – Eclaircie
Pollen – Vivre la mort
Sloche – Algebrique
Offenbach – Marylin
Contraction – L’alarme a l’oeil (second track in this four track set)
Maniege – Les epinettes (video not available but there is one for “La fin de l’histoire“)
Dionysos – Agneau de Dieu (awesome proto-metal song too!)