Toronto: Yonge Street music scene in the 1970s
Several of the biographies on Rush talk about the significance to the band when Toronto lowered its drinking age to 18 from 21 in 1971. That meant goodbye to the school gyms and hello to the bars—where the real action was. (The drinking age has since been raised back up to 19.)
Yonge Street back then was at the center of the city’s thriving rock scene, and had been since the 1950s. The Hawks got their start there. They eventually evolved into the backup band for Bob Dylan and formed the nucleus of The Band. Neil Young was there, in one of his first bands, the Mynah Birds. There’s even an effort to change the name of Yonge (pronounced “Young”) to “Neil Young Street.”
Rush joined the scene as soon as the law changed, in 1971. The band was a regular at Abbey Road, where they earned up to $1,000 a week playing five sets a night, six nights a week. They also played Colonial Tavern, The Piccadilly Tube, and Larry’s Hideaway. Other bands that got their start there in the 1970s were April Wine, Mahogany Rush, and The Guess Who.
“All of a sudden there were stacks of clubs to play that were never there before,” Alex says in a 1983 Sounds biography of the band. “We started working professionally at that point, which was in 1972. Rather than just playing one or two high schools at the weekend, and maybe three or four gigs in the course of a month, we were playing six days a week, with matinees on Saturdays—week after week after week! We never stopped. You’d do a rotation: play one club one week and then a series of others, before ending up at the first one six weeks later. There was never really a shortage of work. We really developed a strong following and eventually got the money together to record our first LP.”
Alex describes Rush as more of a jam band during those early bar days. “I especially love the Dead from around 1967 to the mid-’70s,” he says in the April 2012 High Times magazine. “We use to play a couple of Dead songs when we were a bar band. Back then, we were much more of a jam band. We did a version of ‘For What It’s Worth’ that was 20 minutes long.”
Bachman Turner Overdrive, Red Rider (with Tom Cochrane), Max Webster, and Lover Boy started making the scene a little later in the decade.
There are some great summaries of that period on a Toronto blog called blogTO.
Earlier this year Bruce McDonald released a three-part TV documentary on the Yonge Street music scene of the 1950s and 1960s.
Critics have complained that the Yonge Street music scene died in the 1970s, when the city opened the door to full-nudity strip clubs. That took the focus away from the music and, shortly thereafter, the area spiraled into decay, with rock clubs giving way to dingy bars. So much for sex, drugs and rock and roll!
In any case, there’s little doubt that the music scene has long since come back. The strip clubs are gone and Yonge Street continues to be a major incubator of indie bands.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
In this one-minute video, Alex talks about this time in the band’s career. (More on the video.)