Best tunes of 1991: #10 Rheostatics “Record body count”

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At the tail end of 1999, I was just over a year into my first full time, post-university job. As my wife Victoria will tell you, I often just happen into things and my work at the time was in tool rentals, a full time gig that came out of a part time job I found while my university professors were on strike near the end of my program. I went through a management training program and I was at my second store after the training, just before getting my own store the following spring. The Merton Street location was one of Stephenson’s Rent-all’s busiest stores at that time, servicing both uptown and downtown, north of Bloor and south of Eglinton. I often worked with a guy, perhaps a few years older than myself, named Chris and we shared similar tastes in music. We often talked about who we were listening to at the time and discovered new music through each other. (It was he who originally put me on to The Waterboys.) We also ensured that the radio in the store was always set to the Alternative station EDGE 102.1 while we were working, overruling with majority votes the other employees that wanted the dance or hard rock stations.

In December of that last year of the 1990s, EDGE put together its second list of the best 1002 songs ever and broadcast it over the course of a few days. I was of two minds about it at the time. I found it a shame that they were for all purposes erasing an amazing list that they had broadcast 8 years earlier in 1991 and replacing it with one made up mostly of 90s tunes, the original number one by The Smiths became second fiddle to Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit”. On the other hand, it was the best few days in radio I had heard years and haven’t heard since.

Rheostatics’ 1991 single “Record body count” hit the chart early on at the 960 spot and I distinctly remember Chris getting all excited. He was all over himself explaining how he went to the same high school as members of the band in Etobicoke, Ontario and how the song is about their experiences while attending the school, whose name I no longer remember.

For those outside of Canada and who might have never heard of Rheostatics, they were a four-piece that formed in 1978 when its member were all still teenagers, and yes, in Etobicoke, a community now part of the amalgamated Toronto. They developed a cult following through the 1980s and into the 1990s and they have long since become an iconic Canadian band, despite never following the traditional rock band route, their only ever top 40 hit being “Claire” in 1995. They took their place alongside The Tragically Hip, 54.40, and Sloan, having played the game their own way, mostly on the back of their live shows.

“Record body count” is quite possibly my favourite by the band. It is very short at less than two minutes and could almost be considered a pop song when compared with the rest of their body of work but if you listen to it, you know that’s far from true. It’s weird sounding, definitely unconventional, and with a jarring rhythm and bass line, reminding me a little of Primus. The lyrics are serious but not, seemingly about a young person’s first experiences with death, suicide to be specific. It was easy to identify with it, though, when I first heard it as a teenager and still feels relevant and true today.

Wow. That’s a lot of words for such a short song. Let me just close with this:

“There’s a record body count this year.”

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.

100 best covers: #94 Rheostatics “The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

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Here’s a cover that took many many years to appreciate and it’s because the original is oh so deeply ingrained in me.

Canadian icon Gordon Lightfoot’s original is a romantic commemoration of the sinking of the American freighter, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior in 1975. The disaster is one of the best known to happen on the Great Lakes, resulting in the deaths of all of its crewmen and improvements to shipping regulations. The song was released just over a year after the actual disaster, instantly becoming one of Lightfoot’s biggest commercial successes. These days, it is his most easily recognizable track and one of his own personal favourites. His is a haunting piece, but not because of the music. It’s a pretty straightforward if not sorrowful composition but the words really stay with you, able to easily conjure teardrops out of the corners of Canada’s collective eyes.

Rheostatics are iconic (some might say iconoclastic) in their own right and unleashed their cover as the penultimate track on the CD version of their now classic 1991 album, “Melville”. I don’t think it as widely known as the original but it is definitely accepted as part of the Canadian alt-rock canon. Yet still, it drove this particular writer/blogger nuts for years, always wanting to hear Lightfoot to sing those words: “The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald”.

Once I accepted that Rheostatics’ cover is a different beast from the original, however, I grew to love it. They extended it from the original six minutes to well over eight, adding plenty of simmering guitars, wailing solos, and some wonderful cymbal washes, reflecting the wildness of those turbulent Lake Superior waters. And all those heartfelt words are still there but sung in a different tone, perhaps with a bit more anger than sadness.

Have a listen to both versions below (though if you’re Canadian, I’m sure you’re quite familiar with the original) and let me know what you think in the comments section.

The cover:

The original:

(And if you’re up for a third option, I can offer up the deadpan delivered drone of the Dandy Warhols rendition here.)

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.