Fans of 1970s Canadian rockers Max Webster were thrilled to learn that all of the band’s music, including all five studio albums, were being remastered and re-issued as part of a blockbuster special boxed set that includes enough bonus material to satiate the appetite of even the most ardent of admirers.
At the end of September, ole Label Group, under its Anthem Legacy imprint, released what it calls the “Definitive Max Webster Vinyl and CD box sets,” entitled The Party. Highlights of the packaged include all new re-mastered versions of the 1976 self-titled debut album, 1977’s High Class in Borrowed Shoes, Mutiny Up My Sleeve (1978), the platinum-selling A Million Vacations (1979) and Universal Juveniles, which came out in 1980. There is also a remastered version of Max Webster frontman Kim Mitchell’s first ever solo Ep, which has been out of circulation for decades, as well as previously unreleased studio and live tracks.
Fans will also get a booklet jammed with rare photos of the band from its inception in 1973 through its heyday touring the globe with ‘big brothers’ Rush, and memorabilia.
The eight-disc package was the brainchild of ole Label Group’s Senior Consultant, and long-time A&R staffer for Anthem Records, Andy Curran (who also happens to be a solo artist and co-founder of Coney Hatch). Mitchell also played a significant role in shaping the package, and he and Max Webster’s original bassist Mike Tilka co-produced some of the archive material for the project. Tilka left the band after its first two albums to focus on a production career, but remained close pals with Mitchell and participated in a couple of the band’s reunions in the 1990s and 2000s. The lineup featured a number of musicians but for much of their career after Tilka left, the band was comprised of Mitchel on guitar and lead vocals, Terry Watkinson on keyboards, Gary McCracken on drums and Tilka’s replacement Dave Myles on bass. Pye Dubois was a sort of fifth member of the band, contributing many of the band’s eclectic but memorable lyrics.
“When I learned they were doing this it came totally out of the blue for me. Anthem had done some re-releases on CD back in the early 1990s but once ole got the catalogue from Anthem I guess they decided, ‘hey we should do something with all this stuff.’ And Andy Curran, who really spearheaded this project, is a fan so they decided to put it together. I heard rumours of it and then he called me about five months ago or something and then we got together and he filled me in. I am glad they did it although I thought it would have been done a few years ago. Everybody kind of asks that same question about why it took so long, but we all joke that it’s a good thing they did it now before we were needed to go to interviews with our walkers,” Tilka said with a chuckle.
“But I am very happy and it’s a cool thing and then having the idea of having the extra disc with all the bootleg stuff is kind of cool too. The package itself is really neat and a lot of those pictures and artworks I have never seen before.”
Tilka has been living in Collingwood, Ontario for a number of years, right along the glistening shores of Georgian Bay, and worked with Mitchell and Curran to mix a live track from a special reunion show in The Party. After working as a producer and engineer for a number of years, he is now back to his first love, writing, recording and performing original music.
“I am a full-time musician again. I retired from my production company and play full time. I have a CD coming out in about a month and a half with a guy here in Collingwood named Shane Cloutier and we have a band called Odd Clue. We play as a duo because that’s the only work we can get. We do about 40 to 50 per cent upright bass and acoustic guitar and the other half is electric guitar and electric bass. When we did the CD we decided to play as a band and brought in some pretty good musicians who had moved up to this area from Toronto. We’ve actually got a pretty lively scene up here in Collingwood,” Tilka said, adding that when they were looking for a female voice for a part, he called Margo Timmons of the Cowboy Junkies who lived a few minutes away.
Max Webster was an acquired taste because of the music’s quirkiness, which reminded some listeners of the iconoclastic work of Frank Zappa. Through constant touring throughout Ontario and parts of Quebec, the band gained legendary statues, and were also taken under the wing of Canada’s biggest band, Rush, who not only took Max Webster on tours throughout the United States and Europe, but also signed the band to their own label, Anthem Records (the publishing catalogue for Anthem was bought a couple of years ago by international publisher ole Label Group.)
Tilka believes that in some respects, the strategy of touring with Rush in bigger venues may actually have impeded Max Webster’s ability to develop a larger fan base organically.
“It’s easy for me to say this now, in hindsight after 40 years, but I wasn’t saying it them. Even us getting the wonderful opportunity of playing arenas with Rush and touring the States and everything, may have been a detriment. Really what we should have been doing was picking two or three key cities, like say Cleveland, Indianapolis and Chicago, and really built a rep there. Or we should have done a university tour, because our music really fit that demographic. In Ontario, we got big because we played tons of high schools and clubs and we played them over and over again. If we would have done that in a few markets in the U.S. and got our feet wet that way, I think that might have been a better way to go,” he said.
“But like I said, it’s easy to say that now. But at the time nobody is going to turn down playing in arenas and stuff like that. I know that whenever we played sort of a college town, or a college arena, our share of the show with Rush was greater; you could just tell that there were more people in the crowd who knew our stuff. They got the joke. That wasn’t the only factor; the band kept changing members and momentum kind of ebbed and flowed. There’s a million reasons why bands don’t become huge – not in the right place at the right time, personalities, the fickleness of radio – a million things. If you look at Kim’s solo stuff, Go For A Soda was his biggest American hit, but that was mainly because of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It’s a great tune, but he had better tunes, but that was the one that broke because that was the one that MADD latched onto for their promo campaign.”
As for the comparison to Zappa, while Tilka said they weren’t trying in any way to imitate the leader of the Mothers of Invention. But at the same time he recognizes the parallels with Max Webster’s music.
“Zappa-esque – I guess you could use that phrase. And Kim and I both loved Frank Zappa a lot, so I think we were Zappa-esque. I think we had some of the vibe of 10CC although we certainly didn’t have the vocals or the ability to write pop tunes like they did. We thought of ourselves as just a rock band. There was a progressive element to it, sure and songs like Beyond the Moon and some of those things were of that ilk, but High Class in Borrowed Shoes was one of many just straight-ahead rock songs,” he said.
“We were maybe a little too much of everything. In Ontario, No Cigarettes No Matches and all that sort of stuff, people loved. But the Americans didn’t get it. At least they didn’t get it in the arenas in one listen while they waited for Rush.”
While they may not have reached the top of the charts or garnered huge record sales on an international scale, Max Webster is a beloved band, and that love is transcending the generations, as evidenced by the frequency with which songs like Let Go the Line, Battlescar, Diamonds Diamonds, Hangover, A Million Vacations, Paradise Skies and High Class in Borrowed Shoes get played on the radio, and how audiences go mental whenever Kim Mitchell breaks out a Max Webster chestnut during one of his shows.
“I think the music has stayed relevant because it’s just plain good. Let Go the Line is a wonderful little pop tune and Terry wrote that and it’s just cool. It’s cool right from that synth intro into the first verse. High Class is a great rock tune but it’s not a typical rock tune with all those weird turns and all those runs. And Diamonds Diamonds was not a typical rock ballad, but it’s a neat ballad,” Tilka said, adding that highlights for his tenure with the band were tied to significant milestones.
“Us headlining Massey Hall was a big thing. I mean, opening for Rush there three times was amazing, but to do our own show in that place was fantastic. Although I like to tell the story of how quickly we came back down to earth. We finished the gig, went back to the band house, showered up, jumped in the van and drove to Winnipeg to open for Styx. We didn’t have a big party and say, ‘oh boy, we’ve arrived.’ We didn’t have any of that. We just got in the van and drove ourselves to start a cross-Canada opening slot tour. We loved it but it brings you back down to reality where it’s like, okay we’re big in Toronto, but I guess we’re not big enough to headline Winnipeg, Calgary or anywhere else.
“And the first album was special. It was neat recording it after playing the Gasworks all night and then staying up through until the morning because that’s what you did when you were doing an album on a budget. It was great, but even more for the second album we were all like, wow, this is very cool, were a real band. We have real production and it sounds real neat. So those were some of the high points for me.”
Inevitably, with the buzz over The Party from fans the question arises as to whether Max Webster would reunite, even for a one-off show.
“I personally would love it, but the simple answer is I doubt it. Doing it now would make sense because it would coincide with something and there’s a little hump in interest. There have been a ton of offers for us to play over the years, they’ve never stopped. We did the one reunion tour in the 1990s and then we did the show for Q107 back ten years ago but that was because Kim worked there. But Kim has his own career and he’s the boss. I played with Terry quite a bit over the years,” Tilka said.
“We almost did one more show at the Mod Club about five years ago. Gary had prostate cancer and we were going to do something to raise money for prostate cancer research and it was kind of hooked up but his doctor said he wasn’t well enough to do it. We were asked if we still wanted to do it four months later when he was well, but by that time the momentum had faded. So, again it would be great but I doubt it will happen.”
The Party box set is available at both online and storefront music retailers.
- 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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