When I was a kid I saw an animated short about a violin duel with the devil. I was fascinated by this idea — having to beat the devil at music to save your soul. A huge fan of The Muppet Show, it wasn’t long after I saw their version of Charlie Daniels Band’s The Devil Went Down To Georgia. I loved it, along with the original too, of course which I borrowed from the public library and illegally taped.
I even was a sucker for the Ralph Macchio vs Steve Vai scene in the 1986 movie Crossroads. That’s where Macchio’s character Eugene risks his own soul in a guitar battle with the Devil’s ringer Jack Butler (Vai) in order to save the soul of his old friend Willie Brown who, years earlier, sold his soul in exchange for great ability on the blues harmonica.
Vai had to be the odds-on favourite to win this — years earlier he was a member of Frank Zappa’s band and routinely performed a guitar battle-type song with Zappa called Stevie’s Spanking. Who wears short shorts? (Zappa also had a song called Titties & Beer, in which the devil — often played by drummer Terry Bozzio — tried to get him to sign away his soul for the title goodies.)
There is something inarguably captivating about musical duels, battles and competitions. Have you ever gone to see a Battle Of The Bands? I haven’t, but I was in one once — for the local radio station in my hometown. I played bass in a metal band called Disruption. We were one of the only bands who did an original song. Poetically, we lost to the very talented fiddler April Verch. Justifiably so. She has made quite a career for herself, a two-time Canadian champion and performed during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
So maybe you’ve never watched a battle of the bands, but I bet you’ve watched at least one episode of any number of “next superstar” reality shows like American / Canadian Idol, X Factor or America’s / Canada’s / Britain’s Got Talent. These are basically variety game-show contests where panels of expert judges and votes from the audience/viewers decide whether competitors continue on or get sent home. Producers stoke up the drama as best they can with emotional backstories of the more compelling contestants.
For some musicians, competition is a major part of their life. Not everybody gets to join a band — some have to audition. Paul McCartney went through a slew of drummers trying to find the four different ones he used in Wings. Phil Collins tells a funny story about his 1971 audition for Genesis. He was lucky enough to be the last drummer to try out, so he just waited and listened. By the time it was his turn, he knew the parts off by heart and cruised to victory. Crazier than this is the fact that the band auditioned around 400 vocalists to replace Peter Gabriel before they finally settled on Collins.
Skid Row lead singer (and former Peterborough, Ont. resident!) Sebastian Bach — no stranger to musical-contest shows himself — also auditioned for several bands. He successfully auditioned for the first time at age 14 and won the role of lead singer in Toronto’s Kid Wikkid with a bunch of dudes 25 to 30 years-old. He successfully auditioned for Skid Row in 1987. In 2000 he beat out Paul Stanley of KISS for the lead role in a Broadway musical adaptation of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Two years later he won the lead role in Jesus Christ Superstar. He wasn’t as successful auditioning for a role on Law & Order, and Velvet Revolver chose Scott Weiland instead of him during their audition process. Bach claims he was asked to audition for Mötley Crüe and that he was denied a chance to audition to replace David Lee Roth in Van Halen. As I mentioned, he’s no stranger to contest shows, having won CMT’s Gone Country in 2008 and was a runnerup in MTV’s Celebrity Rap Superstar in 2007.
Celebrity contests have never been my thing, except the ’70s version of The Match Game. I do like that winnings are usually for charity, though. One of the most famous music competitions is Eurovision, which is typically geared towards up-and-coming talent. But, the U.K. is so keen to bring the title home they have repeatedly put forward ringer entrants who already have established careers. Two of them failed miserably — Bonnie Tyler in 2013 and Englebert Humperdinck in 2012. But the U.K.’s 1974 ringer Olivia Newton-John — who won a Eurovision TV-only contest in 1965 — managed to finish fourth. That was the year of Eurovision’s biggest success story: Abba took top honours in 1974 with their performance of Waterloo.
This got me thinking about other big or interesting names who got their start as musical contest winners. Kelly Clarkson’s career was launched by her triumphant win of American Idol in 2002. Lulu became a sensation after her 1969 Eurovision win singing the theme from To Sir With Love. One of the oldest so-called battle of the bands events is the Hollywood Bowl Battle, which has been around since the 50s. This is where The Carpenters launched their mainstream career by winning it in 1966.
Incidentally, the term “battle of the bands” is a Canadian trademark held since 1998 by a Toronto promotions company. So, let’s look at some Canadian winners, then. Skye Wallace’s career has taken off since she won CBC Searchlight in 2016. Even more success has come to Saskatchewan’s The Sheepdogs, however. The roots-rockers won Rolling Stone magazine’s 2011 So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star contest and earned the right to grace the cover. Celine Dion won Eurovision in 1988, but as a representative of France. Montreal garage legends The Haunted won a battle of the bands at The Forum in 1965, defeating a band fronted by David Clayton-Thomas. And while she’s not Canadian, she married one — Carrie Underwood won American Idol in 2005.
History has shown that you don’t always have to win one of these battles to become a star. Often the exposure is enough for record companies to come seeking the many talented runners-up. Sticking with Canadians, Carly Rae Jepsen didn’t win Canadian Idol 2007, but her career certainly took off as a result. Alanis Morissette’s 1990 appearance on Star Search — hosted by Ed McMahon — was not up to snuff, but MCA Canada signed her and put out her debut Alanis the following year.
Winnipeg band Harlequin got together in 1975 and performed at the storied Rock & Roll Rumble battle of the bands in Boston in 1979. They didn’t win, but got signed to CBS/Epic that year and put out the hit single Innocence.
Obviously there are much bigger artists than Harlequin who have lost band-battles and game shows but gone on to much bigger careers. In fact, some of them are so big now that it’s hard to imagine how they lost. Check out these losers — One Direction (X Factor 2010), Jackie Evancho (America’s Got Talent 2010), Susan Boyle (Britain’s Got Talent 2009), Adam Lambert (American Idol 2009), Jennifer Hudson (American Idol 2004), Clay Aiken (American Idol 2003), Miranda Lambert (Nashville Star 2003), Beyoncé, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake (Star Search 1992), Letters To Cleo, Morphine (Rock & Roll Rumble 1992), Christina Aguilera (Star Search 1990), Aaliyah (Star Search 1989), Lemonheads (Rock & Roll Rumble 1988), Del Fuegos (Rock & Roll Rumble 1983) and Mission Of Burma (Rock & Roll Rumble 1979).
Yeah, that Rock & Roll Rumble has had a lot of reasonably big name bands over the years for a local event. Two noted winners of it you might know include Gang Green in 1986 and ‘Til Tuesday in 1983.
Speaking of local battles of the bands, I didn’t know until I started researching this piece that Phish, believe it or not, actually won one of these events in their hometown of Burlington, Vermont in 1989.
If you head to Discogs you’ll actually find some actual albums made from some of these contests — a whole series of them from the Hollywood Bowl Battles, in fact. The other thing you’ll find searching Discogs is a fun 1968 album by The Turtles. The concept album, The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, features Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman and co. playing songs in various different genres — including pop, surf, psychedelic and bluegrass.
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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.