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Thursday, September 30, 2010

 

Bob Mersereau: The Top 100 Canadian Singles - Author interview



Music reporter, long time columnist for CBC Television in New Brunswick, Bob Mersereau, was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about his delightful and sure to provoke debate book The Top 100 Canadian Singles.

Bob Mersereau shares the results of a national Canadian survey that compiled the top 100 singles in Canadian music history.

Thanks to Bob Mersereau for his time, and for the very comprehensive and informative responses to the questions. They are greatly appreciated.

What was the background to writing this book The Top 100 Canadian Singles?

Bob Mersereau: Four years ago, Goose Lane Editions, which is Canada's oldest independent publisher, got in touch with me to see if I was interested in writing a music book. I was interested, but not in the idea they first had. Instead, I thought long about another project. As a music fan, writer and broadcaster, I had spent many hours in book stores looking for good reference books. I could find lots about American and British music, but barely any about Canada's music world. Specifically, I was looking for something akin to publications such as Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums, a critical ranking of the best popular music recordings. So, I suggested to Goose Lane a Canadian book could be done, a list book that chose the best Canadian-only releases.

The book that resulted, The Top 100 Canadian Albums, was published in 2007, and became a national best-seller. At the time of publication, I truly had not thought about another project, as I was so heavily involved in the first one still, in promotion. But on my national promotional trip, almost every interviewer asked me when the next book would come out, and would it be the top Canadian songs? I realized this sequel was pretty much inevitable.

How many people were involved in the judging process and how did they vote on the singles?

Bob Mersereau: About 800 people were involved. They include musicians, broadcasters, writers, reviewers, music industry employees, managers, agents, retailers, roadies, instrument makers, and just about every other kind of job related to music. Also, I included a healthy number of just plain fans, to also add the element of popularity to the vote. I didn't want the list to be one for music nerds (of which I am one), but rather something for everyone. I also paid attention to regional and linguistic balances in the country as much as possible. For instance, you'll find approximately 20 per cent of the people who voted are Francophones from Quebec, which is pretty close to the accurate population numbers.

People were asked to choose their top ten favourite singles, and to use their own criteria to select them. They didn't have to be Top 40 hits, just what they really liked. The songs did however have to be released in some form as a single, whether it was a 78, 45, cassingle, CD single, a video, or some sort of promotional release to a broadcaster that indicated a separate release to the public on its own, not part of an album.

What musical genres were included in the poll?

Bob Mersereau: All musical genres were eligible, but I believe such a poll is frozen in the time it is compiled. We live in the rock and roll era; country sounds like rock these days, jazz and classical are now popular with a small percentage of people. If such a poll were taken in 1960 rather than 2010, the results would have shown many more country, jazz, perhaps even polka numbers in the Top 100. Instrumentals would have been high on people's lists. Instead, this list is largely rock, some hip-hop, and it took huge landmark songs such as "I'm Movin' On" and Stompin' Tom's "The Hockey Song" to represent country.

Also, people tend to vote for the songs that trigger nostalgia; so radio hits from their youth received lots of votes. Also, classic rock radio has kept alive anthems from such groups as Trooper and The Guess Who, 30 and 40-year old songs which still receive airplay everyday across the country. It's not hard for the youngest voters to know what the great Canadian rock songs from the past are when they hear them currently, and even are now introduced to them in hockey rinks or by playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero.



Bob Mersereau (photo left)

Were there some surprises that made the Top 100 that you didn't expect?

Bob Mersereau: I think the biggest surprise was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". Of course, it's a hugely popular song now, but don't forget that it was first released on an album that was a huge flop for Cohen 25 years ago, Various Positions. CBS wouldn't even release it in the U.S. The song was a b-side in Europe, but to no success. Slowly but surely other musicians discovered it, and in the 90's Jeff Buckley did a version that struck home with tastemakers and fellow musicians. Soon, others, such as k.d. lang were doing the soon. By 2008, it had become so popular that it was a single in England, with three different versions of the song, including Cohen's and Buckley's, in the U.K. Top 30, Buckley at #1.

This poll was taken before k.d. sang it at the Olympics, but that is proof the song has become one of the country's anthems now. But to see it move into similar status as "Four Strong Winds", "Big Yellow Taxi", "Heart Of Gold", "Snowbird", these other songs that make up the Top Ten in this book, that did surprise me. It has supplanted, at least for now, "Suzanne", as Cohen's most popular song.

The Guess Who's classic "American Woman/No Sugar Tonight" claimed the Number One spot. Was that expected, or a bit of a surprise?

Bob Mersereau: It didn't surprise me at all. In fact, before I saw the first votes, I assumed it would win the poll and that "Heart Of Gold" would be #2. After that, I figured it would be a toss-up among the other songs that did eventually show up in the Top 20 or so (aside from "Hallelujah"). I really just figured it had everything going for it, including continued popularity, timelessness, mega-hit status, nostalgia, and the fact it's a great, great song. I know my kids love it, from Guitar Hero, I know The Guess Who reunion tour was a huge success, Lenny Kravitz had a hit cover with it, the song has never gone out of style, and keeps coming back every year.

Did any one performer or band dominate the list, and was that a surprise?

Bob Mersereau: Randy Bachman dominates the book, and that's because he's featured with three different bands, in three different ways. First, with The Guess Who, he claims the number one spot in the book, and three others, as guitar player and songwriter. Then, as the clear leader, writer and singer with Bachman-Turner Overdrive, he gets another Top Ten finisher, "Takin' Care Of Business", and a further entry in the book, "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet." To top it off, as a producer, he gets some credit for both of Trooper's entries in the Top 100 list. So that's eight positions in total, and no, it didn't surprise me. I didn't think anyone else would take that many spots, not even Neil Young, who did well, but he's never really dominated the singles scene like Bachman did in the 60's and 70's in Canada. I pretty much have to crown him the king of Canadian Top 40.

Was one of the purposes of the book to spur debate and to generate discussion of Canadian music?

Bob Mersereau: Absolutely. In the end, a survey is a survey, you can argue the merits of it to death. It's impossible to rank the quality of art, but it sure is fun! And given the continued media saturation we get in Canada from the U.S. and British music industries, I really like that these books, both the albums and singles, can increase people's interest. And after the The Top 100 Canadian Albums book came out, I found out that's exactly what was happening. First the media started the debate, with mostly positive but some negative reviews. But also, several critics, including ones who voted in the poll, published their own lists, saying "here's what I think". Fair comment! Then people who bought the book started telling me stories about discussions they were having. I've had people tell me the albums book has stayed on their coffee table for three years now, and every guest picks it up and comments.

I've heard about dinner party arguments. One woman told me she has used it on first dates, bringing it along in case they couldn't find something to talk about. And if the guy didn't want to talk about music, she knew she wouldn't be interested! Both the albums and singles lists are being reprinted in a new university text book. I hope for exactly the same reaction this time, for people to remember or discover great songs from the likes of A Foot In Coldwater, The Demics, Mashmakhan, and all the others.

For anyone who may be unfamiliar with the rich heritage of Canadian music, how would you suggest they discover the songs on the list?

Bob Mersereau: My editor for these books, Barry Norris, came up with a brilliant idea. Barry was unfamiliar with some of the newer songs, as he is a fan of 60's and earlier music. So while he was reading the chapters to edit them, he would search out the songs on YouTube and listen along. I thought that was a great idea. Now, I had them all in my collection, but you could do what I did, by buying as many as you can on-line, and dropping them onto your mp-3 player, thereby creating your own CD collection of the Top 100. It's on my Ipod.

How can we find the book on the internet?

Bob Mersereau: I know it's available at chapters.ca, amazon.ca, mcnallyrobinson.com, and you can purchase directly from the publisher at the Goose Lane Editions website. No doubt there are other on-line retailers as well.

What is next for Bob Mersereau?

Bob Mersereau: Well, I am mulling this over now. Is there another Top 100 book? I think Top 100 Bands or performers might be too subjective, and I don't know if it grabs me. There are a couple of music biographies that I'm considering. I'll hopefully get a chance to write another book, I'm just waiting for the right project to become clear.

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My book review of The Top 100 Canadian Singles by Bob Mersereau.

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Comments:
This list is sipleminded at best, and purely based on cult status or record sales. Quebec is thouroughly under- and misrepresented. To have three Harmonium albums and leave out Felix leclerc, Gilles Vigneault, Claude Léveillé, les Colocs, Jean leloup, Vulgaires Machins, Louise Forestier, Plume Latraverse, Beau Dommage, Ginette Reno, Offenbach or Daniel Bélanger, goes to show how little knowledge or interest ROC has in Quebec culture or music, and proves that it is a different country and should be recognized as such.
 
Jon, the list was compiled by the author from a series of surveys of fans, musicians, well known Canadians, and the music industry. The list is not the last word, but merely s starting point for discussion of Canadian music. I see several names on your Quebecois list and I agree that there were some serious oversights and omissions. That is the nature of compiling a consensus list. Many people will disagree with that consensus. I would add different artists and songs to the list from many of those included in the book as well. That is the greatness of the book. It opens up Canadian music history to debate and discussion, and keeps some fantastic music in people's minds and on their playlists.
 
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