April Wine: The Marcel Dionne of Canadian Rock?
By David DeRocco
It’s probably never been written like this before, but April Wine is the Marcel Dionne of the Canadian music scene. Consider the facts.
Despite being one of the most prolific scorers in NHL history – at one time second only to Gordie Howe – Dionne’s accomplishments were often overshadowed, first by Canadiens superstar Guy Lafleur, and then by the greatest player ever, Wayne Gretzky. April Wine, on the other hand, released a string of nine hit albums from 1971 through 1981 that yielded 34 singles, but had to watch 11 times as the likes of BTO, Trooper, Prism, Heart, and perhaps the greatest band ever, RUSH, collected JUNO Awards for Group, Album or Songwriter of the Year. Ask an average Canadian who their favourite hockey player is and you’ll rarely get Marcel Dionne as an answer, due in part to the fact he spent 18 years playing for bad Red Wings, Kings and Rangers teams. Similarly, ask someone to name their favourite Canadian band, and chances are you’ll hear The Guess Who, RUSH, the Hip or even Nickelback before April Wine and their long string of Top 20 hits spring to mind.
But that’s okay. Nearly 50 years after their eponymous 1971 debut album introduced “Fast Train” as their first hit, April Wine is still going strong. Sure, the line-up has changed, with nearly 20 members having played some small role in the band’s success over the years. But today’s April Wine – including longtime members Myles Goodwyn (vocals/guitars) and Brian Greenway (vocals/guitars), along with Richard Lanthier (bass/vocals) and Roy “Nip” Nichol (drums) – are as committed as they ever were to the ongoing legacy of April Wine -- one of the most commercially successful bands Canada has ever produced. With a catalogue that includes “You Could Have Been A Lady,” “Bad Side of the Moon,” “Weeping Widow,” “I’m On Fire for You Baby,” “Roller,” “Oowatanite,” “Say Hello,” “I Like to Rock” and “Sign of the Gypsy Queen,” April Wine is nothing if not prolific in their ability to create radio-friendly anthem-sized rockers.
With the band rolling into the Scotiabank Convention Centre October 25th, guitarist Brian Greenway took time to talk to GoBeWeekly about their hits, their legacy, what’s on the band rider these days, and blurry memories of that legendary Rich Stadium show with The Rolling Stones.
GOBE: When I was 13 I got a cassette on my birthday called CANADA GOLD, the first gift of music I ever received. On it was the April Wine track “Oowatanite.” I couldn’t play it enough. Eventually I bought drums, started spending all my money on concert tickets, and wound up with a 30 year career in radio and music journalism. I owe it all to April Wine. How do you process the fact that you’ve helped create a legacy of music that has impacted so many lives these past five decades.
BRIAN: Well, I hear that from quite a few people. I guess we were in the right place at the right time with people seeing their first concerts. I feel honoured that we had that much influence on people’s live.
GOBE: You must have heard so many different versions of how people remember the April Wine song playing at their wedding, or funeral, or dance or a concert. Do you ever tire of it?
BRIAN: No, because it’s the audience, the fans. That’s what keeps you going as a musician, as a band. It’s what makes things tick on both sides.
GOBE: In 1977, you get the call to join April Wine, arguable one of Canada’s biggest and most commercially successful bands of the era. How did you wind up in the fold, and what do you remember feeling most about the opportunity.
BRIAN: Oh I thought to myself, this is going to be quite something. But they kept me on ice for three months. This was going to be a trial for three months to see how it went.
GOBE: So April Wine put you on probation, like a new employee would be.
BRIAN: It was kind of like being called up from the farm team to the major leagues hoping you could stay.
GOBE: Given the fluctuating line up, did you think you were getting a stable gig.
BRIAN: Well, the stability ended in 1984 and it started again in 1992, but who knows how long anything is going to go now. We take it, I don’t want to say year by year, but as long as Myles and I are there, there will always be an April Wine.
GOBE: You arrived in the midst of an incredibly productive period when the band released nine albums from ‘71-81. Was that out of contractual obligation or just sheer creative outpouring? Does it seem crazy in hindsight to have been producing like that?
BRIAN: That’s what everybody was doing back then. That’s what the industry did. You did an album a year. That was even slow compared to what the Beatles were doing back in the 60s, doing five or six albums in a year. Mind you, we would take three or four months to do a record, not an afternoon.
GOBE: You were also producing at a high quality, with First Glance and Harder/Faster hitting gold and platinum level status. Was it a pressure situation in the studio to produce, or were just in a zone creatively.
BRIAN: We were in the zone, plus we had some really great players on the team in production like Nick Lagona and Paul Northfield as engineers and producers like Mike Stone. They brought in their talents as well. Many a song changed in the studio with ideas from them and their quality of how they worked. Also having a great studio like Le Studio to work in helped.
GOBE: So it was often organic – you’d go into the studio with songs and they’d come out different.
BRIAN: Some of them did, some of them didn’t. For example, “Say Hello.” Nick Lagona said ‘let’s tear this apart, try it a different way just for fun.’ We took every chord in the verse and broke them down and then tripled tracked them. When the bass was done he took out every third or fourth note. In a way we had to relearn the song a bit given the way it ended up. That was not uncommon, to get a brilliant idea in the studio.
GOBE: When you started to chart in the States, did you immediately feel the impact as you started to broaden your fan base. What changed?
BRIAN. So much so. All of a sudden we got very very busy, because we had a very large market to go to. Canada’s a small place compared to the US for touring. Capital Records said let’s get out and tour, so we got started opening for Rush and Styx. We’d go out for four or five months at a time. In 1979 we were gone the whole year, again in 1980 and ’81. When things are happening you had to be out there on tour. I didn’t see much for years. We were travelling every day and flying from the U.S. to Canada and to Europe. It was just a haze.
GOBE: Do you remember any particular show where you walked out on stage and it really sank in how big things had gotten, how fans were coming out to see April Wine.
BRIAN: When we opened up in Rich Stadium for the Stones in Buffalo for the second time. There was just monstrous amount of people. In California in 1978 at the Sunshine Festival with a whole bunch of acts, and St. Louis with 75,000 people. And the topper in Germany. We played with Neil Young and King Crimson and Jethro Tull. There were 125,000 people there each day. It was unbelievable.
GOBE: I was at that Stones show in Buffalo, I believe Atlantic Rhythm Section was there too.
BRIAN: They were.
GOBE: That was kind of a rough period for the Stones. I remember a bit of a riot before they went on and played a bad 45 minute set. Did you get any sense that the band was in disarray.
BRIAN: No, because I was in a bit of disarray myself (laughing).
GOBE: Yes, so was I. Boones Farm Apple wine sure took its toll that day.
BRIAN: Me and the drummer from Journey, I believe it was Ansley Dunbar, he and I got into too many pina coladas at the show and we just had a ball. I don’t really remember much of the show.
GOBE: Sounds like everyone from the crowd to the bands were a bit sloppy that day.
BRIAN: It was the late 70s, that’s how life was. It’s not like that today.
GOBE: So what’s an indulgence for you on tour these days. How does it differ.
BRIAN: Well, I don’t drink alcohol anymore. I don’t smoke. That’s been three years of that. It’s a big difference in how I feel, and how you play too. I thought at the time I needed booze to play. I didn’t. It was a confidence thing then. I feel far better without it. And of course cigarettes go out with alcohol too. I had a bout with bladder cancer so my urologist said if I want to be a frequent flyer to see him to keep smoking. So I quit. It’s longevity. How long do you want to live. And really, unlike the 70s as it became more business-like, it’s just not as acceptable. Whereas before it was the norm. I don’t see many bands at all drinking like they used to. Society has changed and I like it better this way.
GOBE: So what’s a mandatory item on your rider these days? A soft pillow and a salad?
BRIAN. No, just a cot (laughs). I don’t eat much at the show. I’ll have a non-alcoholic beer at the show. I like my chips and dip and there’s fruit and coffee. There’s some beer for the guys who can handle it. I don’t drink. Myles doesn’t drink.
GOBE: In 2010, April Wine was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the Juno Awards in Newfoundland, where the band got its start. What did that mean to you, Myles and the guys in the band.
BRIAN: Well it’s nice to finally get a Juno. We were nominated so many times, we finally got inducted. It’s a nice nod from the industry to acknowledge the band’s success in the
GOBE. I did the research and it surprised me that April Wine had not won a Juno, losing out 11 times to bands like BTO, Heart, Rush and others. Given the fact that Dan Hill once beat Rush’s Closer To The Heart, does a Juno really matter.
BRIAN: And some of those bands, the year after they won the Juno, they started to fall. A JUNO win can be a death sentence sometimes.
GOBE: When you look at that body of work, and all those hits, you have to give some credit to the songs themselves. The band created an incredible catalogue of hook-laden, infectious, accessible rock tracks. You have to be proud of that.
BRIAN: I am. It is in the songs and what people made of those songs and the memories. Some of the simplest songs are requested the most, three-chord songs like “Tonight Is A Wonderful Time To Fall in Love.” It’s so simple but it means so much to people.
GOBE: You often get credit for bringing some edge to the band with your guitar playing. Is there a particular song you like to wail on when playing live.
BRIAN: It depends on the night. Sometimes it’s “Say Hello,” sometimes it’s “Gypsy Queen,” sometimes “21st Century Schizoid Man,” or even “Tonight Is A Wonderful Time.” Looking out into the eyes of an audience and seeing them getting off on a song gets me going.
GOBE: So 41 years later, you’re still having fun.
BRIAN: I’m really happy now because I’ve finally learned the songs properly.
GOBE: And it only took four decades.
BRIAN: Yea, I love it still. To me I’m happier, I’m still here dong it and still seeing the audience and playing the music. When the lights go down its magic. It’s a feeling like nothing.
GOBE: As a fan it’s good to see you still around. We all know bands have to eventually pack it in, but we’re happy when they don’t. Final question: I know you joined in ’77, but were you there in time to be part of the live recordings with April Wine and The Stones at the El Mocambo.
BRIAN: No, that was three months before I joined. I missed out. It could have been me and Margaret
GOBE. Maybe you dodged a bullet there.
BRIAN. Maybe I did. There’s always another way to look at it.
GOBE: What can fans expect from April Wine at the Scotiabank Centre.
BRIAN: We go into the biggest albums and some of the stuff from before I joined. We concentrate on the hits. People want to hear hits, not the obscure stuff. Although there’s always someone who says you didn’t play my song. Well, there’s 220 songs and we have 90 minutes to play them, either really fast and badly, or well and slowly.
GOBE. I guess pulling off a four-hour Springsteen style set is not in the cards these days.
BRIAN: I don’t take three or four hour shows very well just being in the audience. I can’t imagine being on stage for a four hour show. It’s a little different than an eight-hour work day; you’re putting out up there.