These days there are so many ways to find that awesome song you just heard in a store, movie, TV show or commercial.
My partner Chelle routinely turns to Shazam while we watch stuff. One of my favourite things to do is check to see how many of my own Area Resident songs have been Shazamed in the past week. To me, that’s a huge compliment.
But I’m an ancient 40-something. When I was younger there was no such way to figure out what song that was — you had to try to sing it to people. This is almost always unsuccessful when you’re a little kid like I was when I first started becoming obsessed with recorded music.
I believe the first song on television to grab my attention was School’s Out from Alice Cooper’s Muppet Show appearance in November 1978. Years later I discovered the version on the show was “muppetized” for kids — made a little more playful than the raunchy 1972 original. I was 5. It hit hard.
Not only was this pre-Internet, but my family also didn’t have cable. So that means when my school friends soaked up MuchMusic, I was limited to trolling five or six snowy channels consisting of CBC, CJOH (Ottawa local), CHRO (Ottawa Valley local), Global and two French channels.
But I still heard mysterious music I liked — and in the most unlikely places. Usually, I didn’t find out until decades later what these songs actually were.
There was a short-lived Canadian kids show called Story Theatre which involved actors — some of whom went on to Second City fame — performing nursery rhymes. The show, which aired in 1970, used a children-sung version of Sing This Together by The Rolling Stones as its opening theme, while children chased an approaching covered wagon carrying the performers. When I got a copy of Their Satanic Majesties Request for Christmas when I was 17, I was blown away to immediately recognize the first track.
I have an early memory of a sand animation short, used as filler between two Saturday morning cartoons. It used Behind My Camel by The Police as its soundtrack. I was captivated, and a few years later instantly recognized the song when I bought Zenyatta Mondatta at Woolworth’s (the first record I bought with my own money).
I’ve hunted for this video and can’t find it. This would have been on around 5 a.m. and I likely chose it because a show I wanted to see came on next, or the other channel had Jimmy Swaggart.
Around the same time — from the late ’70s through the early ’80s — I later came to discover the cool theme song to CTV’s investigative news program W5 was actually a portion of Fool’s Overture by Supertramp.
Sometimes, though, the songs weren’t incidental or cut up and used as themes. Sometimes the songs were featured. The closest thing I had to MuchMusic was probably the Wolfman segments on reruns of CHCH’s Hilarious House Of Frightenstein. The Wolfman, portrayed by Canadian ’70s TV funnyman Billy Van, was the house DJ at Castle Frightenstein. In his segment, he took requests and played a song, to which he eventually danced along to in front of a psychedelic background.
This is where I was first exposed to Sly & The Family Stone… but even more memorably — Baby It’s You by Smith.
Another treasure trove of music was WKRP in Cincinnati — if only for the amazing closing-credits banger performed by Jim Ellis. But the show had all kinds of great music — and posters!! — to influence my young mind, including the first time I’d heard a Pink Floyd song.
There are Spotify playlists of every song used in the series, but here’s the cool bit involving Johnny Fever (RIP) freaking out station manager Art Carlson by spinning the new Floyd album.
Luckily, someone had taped More American Graffiti when it aired late one night in the 1980s after we finally got a VCR. The song from the sequel to the 1973 classic which caught my attention was actually played over the end credits. One of my brothers told me it was Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan.
Still pre-Internet, my brother Steve and I were major movie rental fanatics. My first exposure to Van Halen (apart from Jump) came courtesy of Better Off Dead in which an animated hamburger sings Everybody Wants Some.
We were also fans of 21 Jump Street, starring Johnny Depp. In one particular episode, Depp’s character attends a music school in search of drug dealers. The school band worked up a version of Monkey Man by The Rolling Stones. I’d never heard the song before. It’s been my favourite Stones track ever since.
In 1991, three friends and I drove to Ottawa to see movies which weren’t being shown in Pembroke — at least not yet. Phil and I saw The Doors while Jordon and Nathan saw Silence Of The Lambs. I chose poorly. When I eventually saw the Ed Gein-inspired serial killer movie there was one moment I couldn’t shake — the scene where killer Buffalo Bill is getting dressed. The soundtrack is Goodbye Horses by Q Lazzarus. I’m not the only one who was absolutely captivated by the perfect combination of song and film. It took me years to figure out who the band was.
While this same group of friends were in high school, one evening we managed to get a copy of the X-rated cartoon sequel, 1974’s The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat. There are so many great songs in it by Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, who at the time were touring as Joni Mitchell’s backing band. The one song which routinely made it into our jams and band rehearsals was the very porno-esque TCB in E.
We also were huge fans of This Is Spinal Tap and had to wait ages to figure out what the song was which was used underneath the fake “Heavy Metal Memories” ad at the end of the movie. It’s an unused Spinal Tap song called America, parts of which are reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s Children Of The Grave (meets Blue Öyster Cult, via America by Simon & Garfunkel).
Another routine evening activity for us pals was borrowing B-movies from the AV Dept. at the Pembroke Public Library. One film called Beat Girl had the instantly awesome theme song of the same name by the legendary John Barry. I seem to recall Jordon successfully lobbied for our high school’s show band to perform it.
I saw Batman Forever in a Belleville movie theatre in 1995. This was my first exposure to The Flaming Lips. Bad Days played as Jim Carrey displayed the frustrations which led to his character becoming The Riddler. I bought the soundtrack for this song and it began a love affair with The Flaming Lips which continues to this day. Wes Anderson movies always manage to become repeated sources for cool songs I didn’t know. I first heard Making Time by The Creation and Ooh La La by The Faces in 1998’s Rushmore, and She Smiled Sweetly by The Rolling Stones in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
I first heard Death Cab For Cutie in a 2004 episode of Six Feet Under when they used Transatlanticism. Took me years to figure out it wasn’t called “I need you so much closer.” In 2015, I was watching the first episode of a TV series called American Crime when a song caught my attention. Turns out I knew the artist quite well — Beck. The song was Country Down. Another TV show I watched was the original Swedish/Danish version of The Bridge, called Bron/Broen. It has a hypnotic and wonderful theme song called Hollow Talk by Choir Of Young Believers. Similarly, the theme song for the British series Luther first exposed me to Massive Attack, via the excellent theme choice Paradise Circus.
The deeply troubling series The Handmaid’s Tale has lots of great soundtrack music, but the standout for me was Waiting For Something by the late Jay Reatard. It was used to excruciating perfection as Ofglen awakens to discover she’s been the victim of genital mutilation. Early in our relationship, Chelle told me I reminded her of Joseph Gilgun’s Irish vampire Cassidy in the series Preacher. So, I watched it and found my new favourite Willie Nelson song — Time Of The Preacher.
Finally, an odd one. I was sent down a huge ADHD rabbit hole about Italian singer Adriano Celentano after first hearing one of his songs used in the demo reel of a co-worker’s brother. The awesome 1973 track Prisencolinensinainciusol was sung entirely in English-sounding gibberish because Celentano refused to give in to pressure to do an English-language song.
He’s 84 years old and still active. The only person in this column older than me, it seems.
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.