A Short History Of The Parachute Club (til 2005)
Version: November 10, 2005
by Lynne Fernie
In the late seventies, Toronto was simmering with the music and politics of a number of subcultures and communities. A potent punk and art music scene was constellating around the Ontario College of Art in bars like the El Mocambo and the Cabana Room in the Spadina Hotel. A powerful reggae and West Indian soca music scene was happening in North Toronto, while dub poets Lillian Allen and Clifton Joseph focused their work on issues of race and language. And at mid-town parties and Jarvis Street bars, members of the women’s movement and gay communities were partying with all-women rock bands. With the opening of the artist-inspired “Queen Street” clubs – The Rivoli, the Cameron Hotel and the Bamboo Club – joining the long-established country and western bar, the Horseshoe, the time was right for an explosive cross-fertilization of the creativity of writers, artists and musicians from Toronto’s previously segregated “undergrounds.”
In the fertile atmosphere of this musical wild zone, Lorraine Segato and Lauri Conger were cutting their teeth on rock and roll and politics with the all-women band Mama Quilla II. Billy Bryans, busy producing tracks for banks like the Time Twins, BopCats and Downchild Blues Band, was also drumming with the new wave trio the Government led by Andrew Patterson. When the Toronto performance artists the Time Twins introduced Billy and Lorraine in 1979, their rapport sparked what would become a long musical collaboration.
Around this time, Billy and Lorraine were introduced to Latin and African music and met Mojah, the lead singer for Toronto’s premier Rasta-reggae band Truth and Rights. Along with Terry Wilkins, they stared “V,” a short-lived but popular radical funk, soca and dub-wise reggae experience that cut across gender and race boundaries by featuring two lead singers: Lorraine, a white feminist and Mojah, a black Rastafarian.
The Parachute Club was formed in the summer of 1982 when Billy received a call to play a party for Toronto’s Film Festival. Lorraine and Billy decided to put a new band together – including the now-famous chef Greg Couillard on percussion – for the party and it received such an enthusiastic response that they thought it would be fun to play a few more gigs. At the very next gig, held at an after hours club, they met Gerry Young, the president of Current Records. Lorraine remembers telling Billy, “That guy says he wants to manage us and can get us a record deal and will give us money to do a demo. Do we really want to do a record?”
Billy and Lorraine signed with Current to make the demo, and promptly escaped to Trinidad to visit their friend Mojah, listen to music, study the rhythms and soak up the West Indian sun. They arrived back to the news that they had just one month to get twelve songs together for an album to be distributed by RCA. While Billy and Lorraine initially set the musical and political context of the band, Lauri Conger’s brilliant keyboards and songwriting and Steve Webster’s bass beats were instrumental in creating the band’s sound, and lead guitarist Dave Gray, percussionist Julie Masi and sax player Margo Davidson brought their musical chops to the project. Lynne Fernie, an artist friend of Lorraine and Billy, was roped in to help with lyrics and soon became a kind of “honorary” member during songwriting sessions.
Thus began an intensely creative period – all the band members jammed in Billy’s living room on Crawford, Lorraine’s apartment at College and Clinton, on Lynne’s rooftop at Queen and Duncan – and these sessions were the genesis of such classic Parachute Club songs as “Rise Up”, “Slip Away”, “Are You Hungry?”, “She Tell You” and “Free Up.”
In six weeks the band entered the studio with many songs still unfinished. They were writing in restaurants, in the car on the way to the Lanois brothers’ now-famous Grant Avenue studio in Hamilton and in the studio during recording sessions. Producer Daniel Lanois’ genius focused the raw energy of the group, defining and creating what became the band’s trademark sound of layered keyboards and guitars, global rhythms, and big choruses all setting off the impassioned lead vocals of Lorraine Segato.
Their self-titled debut album parachuted onto the radio waves in Canada in the summer of 1983 and, as the temperature rose, “Rise Up” heated up the charts. By the end of the year, “Rise Up” had become the Number 1 radio song across the country. No one was more surprised than the band. Unprepared for this success, the band scrambled to create a video and live show that would match the energy of the album. Steve Webster left the band and Russ Boswell joined them for their upcoming tour in Quebec and Ontario. Audiences loved the music and a successful western tour soon followed.
The Parachute Club’s infectious rhythms jumped energetically into Canadian popular music culture, and the band garnered Junos, CASBYs and Black Music awards. They were alternately criticized and applauded for their outspoken social and political statements, but no one could deny the intelligence and danceability of their music.
Their second album, At the Feet of the Moon, produced by New York’s Michael Beinhorn (known for his work producting Material, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sound Garden and Soul Asylum) saw the addition of bass player Keir Brownstone and the increased involvement of Dave Gray in the songwriting process. Released in 1984, the album solidified the band’s success. The first two albums were released in Europe, and the band toured England and Germany, where the band was particularly popular thanks to the promotional moxy of Plane records. Photographer Deborah Samuel’s direction of the Juno-nominated video for the single “At the Feet of the Moon” matched the music with a stunning visual treatment of the song.
Their third album, Small Victories, produced by John Oates and The Parachute Club, was released in 1986 to good reviews and sold over 50,000 records in Canada which, by 1980’s standards, was very good. With John Oates’ on board, the record company hoped for a big breakthrough in U.S. sales, but the album’s retail success was less than expected. Although it received great reviews in the States, it wasn’t seriously promoted by the New York offices of the record company and, like the first Parachute Club record released in the U.S., became a casualty of record company middle management changes. It seemed that every time a Parachute Club record was released in the States, the people who were heralding and promoting the band were fired or let go for reasons completely unrelated to the record. While a dance remix of “Rise Up” by Jellybean Benitez ( Madonna’s producer for Holiday) cracked the top ten of the Billboard charts, album sales didn’t follow.
By this time, some band members wanted to move in different directions. Juli Masi left to start a solo career and Lauri Conger wanted to study ethnomusicology. These changes, plus the economics involved in supporting a seven-person band with its attendant management and touring costs, were creating serious pressures on the band. Rather than let these pressures erode the vision that inspired the group, they decided to suspend the band in 1988.
The qualities that made The Parachute Club remarkable are still rarely seen outside of underground cultures. The four powerful women musicians fronting the band, the collaborative nature of their songwriting, the infectious nature of pop, soul, funk, African, West Indian and Latin-based rhythms coupled with a dynamite live show informed by social concerns, made the band unique in Canadian musical history. There has simply been no other group quite like The Parachute Club; their work from this time period remains a creative beacon for musicians who believe that the politics, compassion and undeniably good music coming from the wild zone can empower people’s spirits and set hearts, as well as bodies, in motion.
In 1998, the group formed PClub Songs to self-manage the use of their songs and their publishing rights.
Many of The Parachute Club’s songs have been anthologized and used for numerous films and television documentaries. It’s first single,“Rise Up” has become an anthemic and powerful song for Canadians and international fans alike. It’s been included on compilation CDs, played at a zillion rallies, used in numerous documentaries and television programs such as Rick Mercer’s Made In Canada. It was included in the list of greatest Canadian songs on CBC’s “Fifty Tracks” program in 2005, and is covered by bands as diverse as the Nylon’s and Lesbians On Ecstasy
There’s been a renewed interest in the music of the Parachute Club. In a world where cynicism and denial have dominated the messages from the media, The Parachute Club’s political yet optimistic “power to the people” message seems relevant to a new generation of listeners. This spring, a double-bill featuring Martha Johnson and Mark Gaines of the 80s art band M+M (“Echo Beach” and “Black Stations/White Stations”), and The Parachute Club with new friends played to a wildly enthusiastic sold-out Hughs Room.
Lorraine, Billy, Dave and Keir added singers Mystic & Miranda and keyboardist Ashley Wey for the gig,and had such good time they decided to reprise the lineup with the addition of Cuban percussionist Chendy Leon for a headline show at the Distillery District for the City Roots festival in held Sept 3rd.With the success of these shows, The Parachute Club proved that the songs and music of the band are as alive, relevant and danceable as ever.
CBC Lockout support show
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