Rise and Fall of Montreal Rock Radio
Ian Howarth’s Rock ‘n’ Radio: When DJs and Rock Music Ruled the Airwaves (2017) has the material of a pretty good book in it, but he does not make very good use of it. He is trying to tell the story of how Rock and Roll came to dominate the English language radio business in Montreal in the late 60s and early 70s. He starts out with his family’s arrival on the West Island in 1962. He documents his efforts to pull in American radio stations that featured all rock formats. (I can relate to that because I was doing the same thing; except that I was trying to find baseball games).
But his story is difficult to follow because it jumps around so much chronologically. Howarth is a former teacher who abandoned the classroom to become a freelance journalist. The book reflects this because it reads like a collection of newspaper and magazine articles. While the reporter has tried to organize these articles into a logical pattern, he has done very little to integrate these stories into a coherent whole. As a result, there is a large amount of repetition that I found quite tedious.
The book is organized into chapters about the radio stations, the owners and managers of these stations, and the disc jockeys who were the pioneers in putting the Top 40 format on the air. There are also some chapters about some of the more successful local rock bands from this period, as well as the impresarios who brought outside talent to perform in Montreal.
While each of these chapters sheds new light on some aspects of the evolution of the Montreal music business, it also repeats stories that Howarth had already told in a previous chapter. The story of the Beatles concerts at the Forum in September of 64 gets told three times, with only the third time providing an explanation of why the quartet never came back to Montreal. The story of the time when a group from the FLQ seized the studios of CKGM-FM on Greene Avenue during the October Crisis and used the facilities to broadcast their manifesto is told in detail twice. So is his account of the ill-fated (the buses never made it to the concert venue) CFOX expedition to Woodstock in 1969.
Donald Tarlton, who worked his way up from playing records at high school dances to being one of the Montreal’s most important concert entrepreneurs and organizers, appears several times in this saga; and he is identified nearly as many times as “Donald K. Donald”. Only at his final appearance does Howarth explain how Tarlton chose this moniker.
Howarth does provide an index, but it is incomplete. So if you are trying to get the details concerning Janis Joplin’s introduction to impresario Samuel Gesser, one of the funnier episodes in the book, you won’t find them by looking up “Joplin”. Likewise, you need to know who was riding the buses to Woodstock if you want to learn what happened there.
One strength of this collection of tales and biographical sketches is that Howarth manages to capture a sense of how fluid the radio business is. DJs come: DJs go. And they came from all over: some were locals, but others came from other parts of Canada, or the US or even from Europe. When they departed, they scattered to many destinations too.
Howarth has done a lot of work tracking these players down to find out how they got to Montreal and what they did and where they did it once they left. It is clear that being a Top 40 DJ is a stressful occupation that often had negative impacts on the personal and family lives of those who made their living this way. It may have been glamorous and exciting, providing opportunities to hang with the icons of rock and roll, but the pressure to stay ahead of the competition was also fierce. Men like Robert “Tootall” Wagenaar, who stuck it out for four decades at CHOM, are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Another important thing that Howarth does is to convey the impact of the imposition of Canadian content rules on the Canadian music industry, starting in 1971. Not only did these regulations increase the exposure for Canadian bands, but they provided enhanced opportunities for everyone involved in music production from composers and arrangers to studio musicians, sound engineers and record producers.
As an Anglophone teenager in Montreal in the early 60s, I can relate to a big chunk of what is in this history, and it was interesting to read what happened after I moved away in ’67. But readers from other cities may find it a little on the parochial side. Some serious re-editing would make the result more universal and more appealing to audiences who grew up at a different time and in other places, including Francophone Boomers from Montreal.