TROOPER: Homegrown Hellraisers Continue Their Live Legacy
By David DeRocco
They’ve been called the “Canadian version of Jagger and Richards.” But in truth, Ra McGuire and Brian Smith are more like the Canadian version of Andersson and Ulvaeus, because chances are you’d be hard-pressed to associate their names to their music. For the record, Andersson and Ulvaeus are the songwriting duo responsible for unleashing the musical hell known as ABBA on the world, while McGuire and Smith instead invited rebellious rockers to “Raise A Little Hell” as founding members of TROOPER.
Yes, ABBA may have sold 400 million records, but McGuire and Smith are no slouches when it comes to delivering hit rock songs. In fact, they were awarded SOCAN’s prestigious “National Achievement Award” to acknowledge their significant and lasting contribution to Canada’s songwriting legacy for penning such timeless Canadian classics as "We're Here for a Good Time (Not a Long Time)", "The Boys in the Bright White Sports Car", "Two For the Show", "Pretty Lady" "Good Ol' General Hand Grenade", "Round, Round We Go", "Santa Maria", "Janine" and the best rock and roll call to action ever recorded, “"Raise a Little Hell” (see story of Raise A Little Hell at the end of this article).
The band released 10 studio albums over the course of their career, along with the greatest hits package “Hot Shots” that continues to be one of the country’s best-selling catalog CDs – a reflection of Trooper's ongoing popularity as one of Canada’s most enduring and beloved touring acts. December 28th, Ra McGuire and his bandmates roll into Niagara Falls’ Scotiabank Convention Centre with Tom Cochrane & Red Rider and Chilliwack on a show billed “A Night of Canadian Rock.” McGuire took time out to chat with GoBeWeekly about the band’s enduring legacy, his first band Winter Green and the true story of how “Raise A Little Hell” made it to record -- eventually.
GoBe: At this point in your career, having experienced it in varying degrees, what is your relationship with, or view of, fame. Have you enjoyed it, have you suffered the ill effects of it, do you which you had more or less of it, do you wish you were as recognizable as your songs?
McGUIRE: For some reason, Trooper seems to have hit a good spot, fame-wise. No one ever swarms us at the mall or interrupts our conversations in restaurants, but folks will nod or, sometimes, say “Hi, Ra” as they walk by. It’s very Canadian. In the many cities and towns we perform in, we’re often treated like long-lost uncles who have returned for a visit. We get taken to local sites that no tourists would ever see. The penis-shaped tree in Wemindji QC comes to mind.
GoBe: In 2012 both you and Brian were awarded SOCAN’s ‘National Achievement Award’. As a songwriter, what did that mean to you to be recognized in that fashion.
McGUIRE: As you’d guess, being acknowledged by our songwriting peers was one of the highlights of our career. Most of the folks there that night had written great songs and it was rewarding and fun to feel the kinship and – because of the award – the respect, of our fellow songsmiths.
GoBe: There have been all kinds of superlatives used to describe the band, the music, the musicians, the hits: Canada’s Mick and Keith, Canada’s best party band, etc. How would you describe this band and its timeless appeal in this country.
McGUIRE: I honestly don’t know what has made it possible for us to continue touring so successfully so long after the records were released. I’ve tried on different answers, and none of them seem right. I often say that it’s a question for a fan - someone who continues to come to the shows and sing the songs with us. There’s a chance that our appeal might come down to the bond between us and that person. Between us and our audience. Right from the start, when we played in the clubs in and around Vancouver, we tried to make songs and performances that resonated with the people who supported is. It’s been a back and forth thing. It continues.
GoBe: I went back and listened to “Are You A Monkey” by your first band, Winter Green. Kind of sounds like “When the Music’s Over” by The Doors, dark and ominous and bleak. What made you take the leap from that to “I’m here for a good time!”
McGUIRE: Hahaha, I guess you can find anything on the internet these days! My copy of the “Are You A Monkey” 45 might be one of only four or five left in the world. The Doors were definitely an influence, as were The Collectors who we loved at the time. Nine years and a lot of musical growing-up (I was 17 when I wrote the words for “Monkey”) went by between that semi-psychedelic recording and “Here For a Good Time.” I like Good Time a lot better.
GoBe: According to the bio I read, your next band “Applejack” was playing “Raise A Little Hell” in the early 70s. How did it not make its way onto vinyl until 1978’s Thick At Thieves? How bad were your A&R people that they couldn’t see that song as the enduring anthemic hit it’s become, which to me is either on par or one and two with “Born To Be Wild” as the two best rock and roll calls to action ever recorded.
McGUIRE: Thanks for saying so! Because it’s such a long story, and I’d like to give you the full answer, I’m going to paste in a piece I wrote for my friend Jim Dalrymple’s “The Loop” Magazine. Hopefully that doesn’t seem like cheating! (read the story of RAISE A LITTLE HELL at the end of this interview)
Gobe: From 1975 - 1980 Trooper released an incredible six albums. What was driving that output? Do you laugh at artists today that are hard pressed to release a single every couple years?
McGUIRE: Hahaha, well, note from the story about “Raise A Little Hell” below that our albums usually contained only eight to ten songs. So there’s that. We never stopped to think about how hard the work was. We were chuffed and excited to have a chance at getting our music out to a larger audience, and enjoyed the freedom (and larger recording budgets) that came as we piled one successful record onto another.
GoBe: When was the first moment where you realized you were part of something big? Was it a gig staring out at 100,000 people, a hit, a cheque, a song on the radio? When do recall realizing that you had made it?
McGuire: We sold out the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, our home town. Our Moms and Dads, our brothers and sisters, cousins, neighbours and friends were all there to see it. Before we went up the ramp to the stage our manager, Sam Feldman, stopped me and reminded me to savour the moment - to enjoy it. Which I did - when we hit the stage I stood for a moment with my arms open to accept the roar from the crowd. I’d never done that before.
GoBe: Trooper is certainly one of the foundational rock bands in this country, helping build the Canadian music industry to the level of respect it has today. When you see the way the country mourned the death of Gord Downie, what would you like to see happen the day the announcement comes that TROOPER is no more. Should we all just raise some hell in the band’s honour?
McGUIRE: Yeah, you know. It’s kind of too late for a finite “no more Trooper” moment. The songs are too deeply interwoven into the culture now. They’ll be around for a while after we’re long gone. Also, all our gold records, original recordings, old diaries and that kind of thing are stored in temperature controlled vaults in Library and Archives Canada’s Gatineau Preservation Centre … for posterity! In the meantime we continue to reap the rewards from our career now. Sold out shows, and fans who we feel are genuinely connected to us, are all we really need in the way of recognition at this point.
GoBe: What has been the most personally fulfilling part of this journey for you as a person. In those quiet moments of appreciation and gratitude, for what are you most thankful having lived a musical life?
That’s a hard question to answer without sounding as though I think living a musical life is somehow better than the life everyone else has lived – which I don’t - but living outside the construct of regular society and being able to make things up as I go along has probably been the most fulfilling aspect of my career. At a personal level, my relationships with my wife and son continue to be the most fulfilling and rewarding things in my life.
HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Ra McGuire was performing “Raise a Little Hell” in the early 70s with his former band, AppleJack. However, it didn’t wind up on a Trooper record until 1978. Below is the story of how it almost wound up as “Raise A Little Howl.”
The Perilous Journey of a Hit Song by Ra McGuire
Randy Bachman wanted to talk.
He was one of the most successful musicians in the world and he was worried that the word “Hell” might cause some problems. He was suggesting that the title of “Raise a Llittle Hell” - a song that has gone on to become a Canadian rock anthem and arguably the biggest hit for my band Trooper - should be changed to “Raise a Little Howl”.
This wasn’t the first time that the future of the song was threatened, nor was it the last.
“Raise a Little Hell” was born one afternoon at a rundown riverside studio in South Van, when my immature teenage snark commingled with my partner’s impressive abilities with a power chord. Smitty’s simple but effective chords matched the scrappy tone of the lyric, and came together quickly for the verse and the chorus of the song. After the band had joyously jammed those two parts for a while, he worked up some unexpected bridge changes, effectively breaking up the mesmerizing groove that preceded them. The song was immediately fun to play, and we started doing it live right away - changing it and tweaking the arrangement from night to night.
The initial lyrics were clearly written by the teenage hippy me. The opening verse, from what looks like a first draught, went like this:
If you don’t like where you’re at,
Why don’t you change it
In the words of Gengas (sic) Khan - (or) (If the world is all fucked up)
You can re-arrange (sic) it
I went on to change the lyrics frequently over the years. Soon, playing at counter-culture venues like Vancouver’s Retinal Circus, the second line had become:
With a bomb and a motorcycle
You can rearrange it
This suggests an endorsement of violent anarchy, but my hippy self saw it as blisteringly sarcastic. I see it now as just stupid. It changed again, a few years later, to:
If your world is all screwed up
Fast forward to 1975. Randy Bachman had signed the band to his Legend label. “Raise a Little Hell” was not even presented to him as one of the possible songs for the first album. Although we’d been closing our show with it in the clubs, we clearly didn’t see it’s potential as a record. This was to be the first of many hurdles the song would overcome.
Fast forward again to ’77. We had racked-up six hits from our first three albums. Two of those albums were certified Platinum. We were at our peak in Canada, playing headline shows across the country. By the time we’d set up in Vancouver’s Mushroom Studio to record our fourth album, ‘Thick As Thieves’, we were confident, but tired.
We recorded our bed tracks (the music parts) live from the floor in the high ceilinged studio. We had finished recording the nine new songs we had written for the record, when Randy - keen to make it a ten-song album - asked if we had any other songs we could cut before we tore the gear down. We told him we had a song that seemed to go over well live. As Randy listened from the control room, a squabble ensued in the studio. Our keyboard player did not want to record the song. He said it was too simple. He suggested a modulation - a key change somewhere in the song to make it more sophisticated. Randy intervened and asked us to play it for him. He asked us to play it again, and he recorded it that time. That’s the version that went on the album. Once again the song squeaked by.
When the album was ready for release we were invited to unveil it at the iconic MCA building on the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles. I later wrote:
I’ve been down to Hollywood
I’ve been to LA
Where people shook my hand
While they were looking the other way
Mike Maitland, MCA Records’ president, did indeed shake my hand while looking out the 20th story window behind him. He also surprised everyone in the room by deciding, after one listen to the album, that “Hell” should be the first single.
Randy’s suggestion that we rename the song might have prevailed in a previous recording session, but he had agreed to co-produce the Thick as Thieves album with the band, giving us equal say in the process. As a result, my first production decision was to sing the title as I had written it. I don’t know if the problem Randy foresaw was with the Mormon church - he was a committed, non-swearing, high profile member - or the radio stations in Canada. As it turns out there was a problem with the radio stations in Canada.
Although it’s hard to imagine now, the first single from our fourth album was deemed too heavy for the Canadian radio airwaves. Right across the country, stations refused to play it before 6:00 in the evening. The record company reacted quickly. Although DJ singles usually had the same song on both sides, they produced and delivered a new one with “Round, Round We Go” as the flip side of “Hell” and it rose up the charts, thanks to its daytime playability.
But “Hell” beat the odds again. It slowly but steadily climbed the charts as well, and went on, despite the radio embargo, to become one of our biggest hits.
Canadian music writer Bob Mersereau recently referred to it as “Trooper’s best-loved single” and a “genuine anthem”. One of Canada’s favourite hell-raisers, comedian and political satirist Rick Mercer, simply calls it “The greatest Canadian rock song ever.” I call it a small miracle that ‘Hell’ even made it to the airwaves.
Here in 2018, ‘Raise a Little Hell’ is still the song that we close our set with. When Smitty hits that first power chord, all arms go up and the crowd begins to cheer - and sing - in disorganized chaos at first, but quickly coalescing into a single roaring voice: “Raise a Little Hell, Raise a Little Hell, Raise a Little Hell”. It’s a fitting salute to a song that weathered a long and perilous journey to success.