Canadian Wonders #1 - Tom Cochrane

Who the hell is Tom Cochrane you ask?

Tom Cochrane is a few things:
  1. He is the guy who made "Life is a Highway" which went to #6 on the US Hot 100 charts in 1991.
  2. He is not Tom Petty, whatever Napster, Limewire, or Soulseek or other P2P program once told you. Petty did not sing "Life is a Highway." Ever. No, really, never. End of discussion. They don't even sound alike. They may be next to each other on your iTunes, but never mistake the two unless you want people to think you're a certified mouth breather.
  3. He is Canadian. He was born in Manitoba and grew up in Etobicoke, Ontario, and as far as I can tell he is something of a national treasure in our nation's hat. Because of this he is the first in a series dubbed "Canadian Wonders". The series will cover artists who, however briefly, broke through to US audiences before heading back to the land that gave us You Can't Do That on Television.
  4. He started out in the band Red Rider, who you may remember from such hits as "White Hot" or "Young Thing, Wild Dreams (Rock Me)". No? How about "Lunatic Fringe"?

  5. That searing stare. The fashion sense stolen from the Osmonds. That inability to even strum the guitar he's holding cause he's just so into singing about the lunatic fringe. The surprising presence of a black guy. Pure Cochrane. Still don't remember it? Well don't feel bad. They never broke into the Top 40 on the US Hot 100, though "Lunatic Fringe" did hit #11 on the Modern Rock charts.
  6. Probably disgustingly rich. "Life is a Highway" has been used in numerous TV ads, movies, TV shows, etc. It has also been covered twice by American country artists, first by the semi-well known Chris LeDoux who released the song in 1999, only to have it stall at #64 on the country charts and birth a crappy video that looks more like a clip from Hey Vern, It's Ernest! (note the presence of a keytar):

  7. It was also a huge hit for Rascal Flatts on the Cars soundtrack, going to #7 on the US Hot 100 charts and even charting in Cochrane's native land, going to #9 on the Canadian charts. Their version changes nothing from Cochrane's version aside from sonically castrating the song's kick-ass chorus with the lead douchebag's whiny vocals. I refuse to even post a YouTube video of it here as it's amazingly redundant and shitty. Seek it out if you must, but don't blame me if you wake up soaked in a disturbing mix of cold sweat, hair gel and Abercrombie Woods cologne.
  8. Cochrane is, at least in the US, a one-hit wonder. But he didn't want to be.
Cochrane followed "Highway" up with two singles from his album Mad Mad World.

First was "No Regrets," another driving rocker in a similar vein to "Highway". Unfortunately, like so many second singles, it may have been too similar, featuring the same reverbed drums, chorus of backup singers and insistent guitar of "Highway," but missing the huge payoff huge hooks of that hit. And where "Highway" had an incendiary harmonica play out at the end of the song, "No Regrets" opts instead for a saxophone.

Uh-oh. Bad choice.

As any rock fan can tell you, when a sax is used properly, it can't be beat. What would Pink Floyd's "Money" be without that tenor sax solo by Dick Perry? Unfortunately, many '80s producers listened to great rock songs like "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and must have thought a sax solo was the key to a classic song. This was not the case--sweet Jesus, it couldn't have been further from being the case. The producer of Cochrane's album almost certainly had a hangover from '80s productions, which isn't surprising since the album was probably made in 1990, when saxophone was still king. Many cite the synthesizer or the sampled drum beat as the worst examples of '80s production; they're wrong, it was the saxophone.

"No Regrets" didn't even chart on the US Top 100, but it did manage to go to #7 on the Modern Rock charts, keeping Cochrane in the game for a little longer. Unsurprisingly, the song was a huge hit in Canada. Then he had two more hits in Canada ("Sinking Like a Sunset" and the title track "Mad Mad World").

Still, Cochrane tried his hand at shaking the one-hit wonder blues one more time. But this time he steered clear of trying to duplicate "Life is a Highway" and instead went for another cherished '80s/early '90s staple: the power ballad.

"Washed Away" has got it all: palm muted staccato guitars (think Mike & The Mechanics), strings, big drum breaks, uplifting lyrics about redemption, and one of those outros where the singer is feeling the passion in the song so much, he's reduced to primal screams (while making sure to stay in key). There's really nothing in this song that says it shouldn't have been a hit--except that it's done by Tom Cochrane. If this had been released under Don Henley or
Glenn Frey's name. Also it's like five-and-a half minutes. C'mon, Tom! This is the early '90s. I can't be bothered listening to Tom Cochrane wail for nearly 10% of an hour. I have Designing Women to watch.

"Washed Away" got to #88 on the Mainstream Rock charts and didn't chart on the US Top 100.

But don't feel bad for Mr. Cochrane. He may not have made it in the US again, but Cochrane's career was far from over in Canada. Mad Mad World spawned four Top Ten hits on the RPM Charts (?) and he would have another three top tenners from his next album Ragged Ass Road before sliding down the charts in the late '90s. He also won seven Juno Awards (the Canadian Grammys) and received a National Achievement Award from SOCAN in 2003, a Canadian copyright organization. Looks like he's doing just fine.

Click here to learn more about Tom Cochrane and buy some stuff from him.


Rockstar Aimz said...

I hate that song! My roommate in college had the cassette single and would play it over and over and over again. Plus, its a staple on Canadian "Classic Rock" radio stations. AAAhhhh! My ears!!!

The Second Single said...

You should hear the Rascal Flatts version...actually, scratch that, no one should hear that. Screw waterboarding, that song should be considered torture.

Captain Stuben said...

I cite the synth as the BEST part of 80s production. Try to imagine "The Living Years" or "Final Countdown" without synthesizers. You can't. It is like listening to modern rappers without Vocoders on their voices, what a waste of time that would be.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, I had the cassette single & listened to it over & over on my walkman when I was a tween. Good times indeed!