Is This Live?
If you were coming of age during the mid to late 1980’s in Canada, there’s a good chance you know original MuchMusic VJ Christopher Ward. If your exposure to Much came years later, then what you saw was in many parts a direct result of Ward’s groundbreaking five year-run on Canada’s music station.
In 1984, there was no Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to help bridge connections from remote towns in Nova Scotia through the Prairies. There was no Vine or SoundCloud or YouTube that up and coming musical acts could use in order to gain an audience that could lead to well-attended gigs or even a record deal. If you wanted to get to know your favourite musician or virtually follow them on tour, you couldn’t simply check their social media status. But thanks to the launch of MuchMusic, Canada’s freeform, no-holds barred answer to MTV, that all changed.
In his new book Is This Live?, available now, Ward has compiled years of groundbreaking interviews and reflections from past MuchMusic VJs, crew members, and musicians who forever had their lives changed thanks to the channel’s support of Canadian and indie acts.
Focusing on the years from 1983 to 1990, Ward covers MuchMusic’s birth, the first MMVAs, Live Aid and more. “There’s a time frame that it very neatly fits in. Musically it fits in between punk and grunge, but also it fits in just before the internet. Now that we have the perspective of the intervening 20-odd years, we have a good amount of time to have a clear-eyed view of what actually took place,” says Ward. “This book is a product of collective memory.”
The Birth of MuchMusic
An aspiring musician and actor, Christopher Ward left his job touring with Second City in October of 1983 to follow producers John Martin and Moses Znaimer to City TV, where he would host City Limits, two six-hour blocks of music videos, skits and interviews every Friday and Saturday from midnight until 6 am.
City Limits featured the first TV appearance by Ward’s Second City friend Mike Myers and his then-unknown headbanger persona Wayne Campbell, a character Myers took to SNL and later to the box office. Schwing, indeed. The late-night series also included an interview with a little band from New Jersey, who after playing to a whopping 20 people at Toronto’s El Mocambo Club, joined Ward on live TV for City Limits and wouldn’t leave until they had shot every skit, throw, and promo possible. That band was Bon Jovi.
Breaking Bon Jovi
Did Ward know during that first meeting that the men he was corralling would become one of the most successful and long-running bands of all time? “I think sometimes you can (tell),” says Ward. “They made so much of that opportunity, that moment. That made them unforgettable. Even if their career had never progressed beyond that, we still would have remembered that band in that moment in that time.”
City Limits turned into MuchMusic in August 1984, a music channel that became synonymous with giving undiscovered bands the music video rotation or interview spot that would often launch their career.
Two years later in 1986, Bon Jovi had released Slippery When Wet and were in the middle of a huge world tour that included a sold-out date at Maple Leaf Gardens. With limited time and a new surge in media interest, Bon Jovi agreed to only one interview during their Toronto stop. Guess who scored it? “They’re loyal,” remembers Ward. “That’s the hallmark of Bon Jovi’s career. They’ve always respected their fans so immensely.”
MuchMusic As Canada’s Music Station
Although MuchMusic launched soon after MTV in the U.S. and was a channel dedicated to music, carving their own Canadian path was vital to the station. “We were very aware at the time of not being MTV. Moses (Znaimer) did not want this place to look like MTV in any way. In his mind that was very stilted television and John (Martin) felt exactly the same,” says Ward. “This book celebrates that outrageous amount of freedom we had and then ultimately what we did with that freedom.” Adds Ward, “Moses is the man, he’s the guy responsible for creating that freedom.”
The Pros and Cons of Controlled Chaos
Many artists, like Bon Jovi, Crowded House and Barenaked Ladies thrived in MuchMusic’s controlled chaos. “We were doing seat-of-the-pants style and once we saw how artists took to it, it encouraged us more,” says Ward. The MTV model at the time was pre-packaged and rehearsed, with VJs recording throws in a controlled studio with a teleprompter. “Compare that to the live environment of MuchMusic, which could be overwhelming for artists. Some artists did not take to that setting.”
One artist Ward remembers not feeling in sync with the surroundings was a young Janet Jackson. “The record company first came to me and said, this isn’t going to work. She’s terrified, she can’t deal with this. So we ended up doing the interview in a tiny, little enclosed audio booth because she just couldn’t cope with the chaos of Much.” The interview with Jackson, as well as many other interviews referenced throughout Is This Live? are now available on the Digital Hub Much has created for the book. The clip shows a relaxed and open Jackson, a true testament to Ward’s abilities as an interviewer.
Secrets From The Rolling Stones
This rapport that Ward excelled at building with guests once lead to entering the inner circle of The Rolling Stones, and gaining a few band secrets. In Is This Live?, Ward remembers interviewing Stones’ bass player Bill Wyman at his London flat during Live Aid. Wyman explained that the band decided to not perform at the concert and would instead focus on recording, but when frontman Mick Jagger changed his mind, it started a fight within the group. Wyman asked Ward to not include that piece of information in the interview, knowing it would cause unnecessary speculation about the band’s future (by now we know they survived the fight). Ward agreed and was rewarded with another piece of Stones history, something that was not included in the book.
“He was the chronicler in the band,” Ward says of Wyman. “He loved to tell these stories too.” Ward recalled the story Wyman told him that day, saying that the first time The Rolling Stones appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show they were being chased through the streets by fans. The security guard, who didn’t recognize the band, wouldn’t let them into the back door of the theatre. “He said Keith Richards jumped in the guys face and cold clocked him, knocked him out on the floor. They stormed in and somehow kept the kids out.” The only thing more rock ‘n roll than that story is having it told to you by Bill Wyman.
Don’t Meet Your Idols…Or Do
Ward’s favourite memories spent with music legends are well chronicled in the book and in MuchMusic’s archives, but they do bring up the alternative, which is interviews not going well. There’s the old adage that you should never meet your idols, but for Ward, meeting musicians he grew up idolizing, like Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Townsend, was part of his job.
“Leonard Cohen was who I was most intimated by. I had grown up reading Cohen. All his books were so important to me. I think I discovered sexuality by reading Leonard Cohen,” says Ward. “When he came in the studio I was kind of terrified, and of course inevitably he was as gracious and open and kind as could be and it was a phenomenal experience, but I had to get past that intimidation thing.”
Was Ward ever worried about meeting an idol and having a negative experience? “Those were great risks to take to meet your idols and then see how you cope, because if you’ve saved up a lifetime of questions for these people, stuff that you really want to know, when you get your moment, sometimes you choke, but sometimes you do alright.”
Life After MuchMusic
Ward left MuchMusic in 1989 to pursue his songwriting career, but in 2013 decided to start interviewing former colleagues and digging through hours of tape in the MuchMusic library. So, why now? “Ten years from now I will have forgotten everything,” jokes Ward. “Ten years ago I wasn’t ready. I was too absorbed in what I was doing as a songwriter.” In addition to enjoying a career as a successful songwriter for artists like Hilary Duff, Diana Ross, Backstreet Boys, Anne Murray, Amanda Marshall and Alannah Myles (Ward wrote Myles’ number one single “Black Velvet”), he’s also written three fiction books. “I needed that bedrock of experience working as a writer before I was ready to do this book.”
Screening hours of footage from his time at MuchMusic brought back some wonderful memories for Ward, who said that watching an interview with George Harrison revealed a surprising moment. “What I hadn’t seen until I screened it for the book was that the interview ends, he [Harrison] and I stand up, and it’s the full Much office studio chaos going on. He looks at me and he goes, [Ward putting on a Liverpool accent] ‘This is a very casual program.’ I thought, oh, thank you,” Ward says, laughing as he remembers the interview. “It was just a little moment for me.”
For a station built on spontaneity, creativity, and an overarching love of music, MuchMusic for many became the curator of cool, the soundtrack to formative years, the identifier of one’s tribe, the shrinking of a huge country, and a collection of little moments that everyone from the east coast to the west coast of Canada felt were just for them.