From the moment a dozen years ago when Andy Curran was hired as an A&R professional with Anthem Records, the label created by Rush and their manager Ray Danniels back in the mid-1970s, he always hoped he would get a chance to curate a re-issue of the catalogue of another favourite band that also recorded for Anthem – Max Webster.
It took a while, and a transfer of the catalogue from Anthem to ole Label Group, and Curran’s own transfer to the role of Senior Consultant for ole, but he finally got his wish. This month, fans of the popular, quirky and eminently memorable Canadian band can purchase remastered versions of the entire Max Webster catalogue, plus some previously unreleased bonus material as part of the definitive box set entitled The Party.
As well as the unreleased studio and live tracks, fans will also be able to have a remastered version of Max Webster co-founder and frontman Kim Mitchell’s first solo EP, which has been off the market for more than 20 years, and a collection of photographs and memorabilia that would impress even the most ardent of admirers.
Max Webster was formed in 1973, and had a number of members over the years, with the most notable lineup featuring Mitchell on guitar and vocals, Gary McCracken on drums, Terry Watkinson on keyboards and first Mike Tilka and then Dave Myles on bass. Pye Dubois was an unofficial fifth member of the band, contributing unique lyrics to the bands already eclectic musical concoctions. As well, as fans already know, Dubois is also one of the few people to get a songwritng credit on a Rush song, contributing lyrics for Tom Sawyer.
Max Webster released five studio albums and one live album from 1976 to 1980, with all the studio albums going at least gold. Their fourth, A Million Vacations, released in 1979, was certified platinum. Songs such as Diamonds Diamonds, High Class in Borrowed Shoes, Hangover, Let Go the Line, Battlescar (an incendiary tune that featured both Rush and Max Webster playing together), Paradise Skies and Check still getting loads of radio airplay.
Considered in some critical circles to be a sort of Canadianized version of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Max Webster took a somewhat unconventional approach to rock music, drifting across a number of genres from prog to avant garde to pure pop. Through great musicianship and constant touring, the band earned a loyal fan base, particularly in Ontario and parts of Quebec, as well as a few pockets outside of the country, but never reached the mass appeal of their label mates Rush, even though they were often the opening act on Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart’s U.S. and European tours in the late 1970s.
“I have always been a big fan of Max Webster. The first time I saw the band was at Massey Hall opening for Rush in 1976 when Rush were recording their All The World’s A Stage live album, so I go quite far back with them. For me, and for lots of other people, I think the appeal was the quirkiness and originality of this band. There were times when they did songs like Oh War! that were four-on-the-floor, flat our rockers. But then sometimes the bizarreness of the lyrics and the quirkiness of some of the arrangements was what made them seem almost Zappa-esque at times. They were very unique and I like the fact that they were a little bit left of centre from a lot of the other stuff that was going on at the time,” Curran said, adding that he became good pals with Mitchell, who played a similar role for his band Coney Hatch in the early 1980s, that Lee, Lifeson and Peart did for him in the 1970s.
“Kim’s guitar playing was always huge for me, and that weird mixture of what Terry was doing on keyboards just seemed like they were a very eclectic heavy rock prog band, and there was nobody that sounded like those guys. I was hooked. But I do think it was a bit of a double-edged sword because what drew me to the band was far from mainstream and possibly a bit too ‘out there’ for middle America. Kim and I became good friends and he would tell me about when they were on tour opening for Rush and they would be playing somewhere like Toledo and the audience would be looking at them like a dog looks at a butterfly – they didn’t really know what to make it of it.
“I think the fact that Rush embraced them and that they were always considered the little brothers of Rush, certain pockets of Europe got it because I think many of the European fans were, and still are, a little more forgiving or more open to listening to bands that were a little off the beaten path. But the fact that Zappa was embraced and Max Webster wasn’t always seemed odd to me.”
Besides having a chance to get his hot little hands on all sorts of Max Webster material, Curran said the highlight of the experience of putting The Party together was the opportunity to work closely with Mitchell.
“Having Kim Mitchell involved from the start of the entire project was crucial. At the beginning I got him on the line and told him what we wanted to do, realizing that this band was his baby and we wanted to be sensitive to that. We wanted to remaster it and get the EP out and I asked if he was up for taking a look in the vaults with us and maybe finding things that, all these years later, fans might appreciate and want to hear that were overlooked,” he said.
“And he was right into it. So to me, I think what makes it special for sure is that Max Webster fans are not being forced to buy the same things again. It’s not a cash grab and saying ‘hey we just remastered it so go buy it.’ All of the artwork and the audio, of course, has been stepped up. Sonically I think it’s amazing and visually it’s amazing. But having the leader of the band oversee it was cool. It was his baby and he got more excited the more stuff we found. And the more he got involved in it, the more vocal he got in making suggestions for stuff to put in and stuff to leave out. We were both very conscious of not trying to serve up something that fans may have already bought.
“The Party is curated by Kim. It has the tender loving care of both of us – me being a fanboy and Kim being the heart and soul of the band. There were times when we were talking that I was not only able to talk to him from an A&R perspective, but from that fan perspective, which was pretty cool.”
Interestingly, there seems to be even more collaboration between the two in the works. Although he spoke in very general and somewhat non-committal terms, Curran seems to think that there is a chance for more music coming from Kim Mitchell.
“The beauty of doing the Max Webster project is it’s got us at ole Label Group, which is the home to the Anthem catalogue, which was Max Webster’s home, in contact with Kim at a very interesting time in his career where he has left the radio station [Q107 in Toronto] and he is writing and he is playing. So we’re definitely talking to Kim and telling him we would love to be involved in the next phase of his career. And as my friend and the guy who helped me so much with Coney Hatch, it’s amazing to even think that, all these years later, I am in those kinds of discussions with him,” he said, adding that there are also lots of other cool projects in the offing from ole, specifically relating to the Anthem catalogue.
“There’s a lot of 40th anniversaries of Rush material coming up. So shortly there will be some news on some new Rush projects we will be working on. And we released a Stompin’ Tom collection on CD in the summer for the Canada 150 celebration and there was an outcry to release it on vinyl, so we’re working on that. And I also had Robert Ott, who runs ole, say to me recently, ‘why don’t we go back and look in the Coney Hatch archives and see what’s there.’ Who knows where that might lead?”
Coney Hatch was another popular Canadian rock band that still has a solid following today for much the same reason as Max Webster does – their songs are still played on the radio and members from the band, especially Carl Dixon, perform the songs live. The main difference being Coney Hatch have toured off and on over the last number of years, even recording and releasing an album entitled Four (because it was their fourth studio album) through the Italy-based Frontiers Music label, in 2015.
“There is a bit of scuttlebutt about us doing some shows in early 2018. There have been some calls from promoters saying there is some interest in playing in Southern Ontario and maybe Quebec, so the four of us are talking and emailing trying to figure out our schedules next year. We’re kind of scattered like church mice and we all have our day to day jobs, but we’re all pals still and it’s a little bit like herding cats sometimes to get the Hatchers together. But I think there really might be some dates next year, which is cool because it’s always a blast to get together with the guys,” Curran said.
As for a possible reunion of Max Webster, Curran is a little more enigmatic.
“I am not surprised there’s interest in the band because the pre-order sales for this box set over the first weekend went through the roof. So if that is any indication I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people aren’t going to be asking about a reunion. Whether or not it’s going to happen I have no idea; I haven’t had any discussion with the boys about it. I have been very focused on the release of the box set and getting it out. But it wouldn’t be a total surprise,” he said.
“I do know this; Kim is already playing a good chunk of the Max Webster catalogue. I saw him last year and he played a lot of Max and the place was off the hook. I don’t think he is shy about playing that material, and I have noticed there’s a little more of it in recent years and I am certainly fine with that. I love the Max catalogue and I am game to hear it all.”
Fans can also hear it all by grabbing with either the vinyl or CD version of The Party at any online or bricks-and-mortar music retailer.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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