On Friday, November 22nd, two of Canada’s early New Wave stars played a double bill together at the luxe, warmly atmospheric Revival Bar (783 College St.) in Toronto. These bands have been out of the scene in recent years, but have lately reformed for occasional gigs. The crowd at Revival is full of solid supporters, lifelong fans and friends, and the vibe is happily electric.
As kids of our own era know, these two bands (each different but complementary in sound) represent a very exciting time in our nation’s music history. The early 1980s was a fertile time for young bands in our cities; the intercontinental, breezy, cool “Hollywood North” of Vancouver, the well-established, gritty rock and roll city that Toronto then was, and the specific aura brewed out of Montreal and Quebecois French culture, a place that visitors always describe as very European and very different from everywhere else in Canada.
Images in Vogue were one of our first video stars. Not only were new wave bands pioneering new sounds and instruments (a sound represented as well out of Canada as anywhere in the world) but there was a new demand for video content and a sophisticated appreciation for filmmaking techniques in cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, where we had our own film industry. Suddenly bands needed to have a clear image not just for an album sleeve or a gig but one that needed to read well for television, on repeat. The bands that mastered the growing pains of the early music video world are few, but top among them were Images in Vogue, and The Box (and The Spoons). In the video era, these bands were able to translate their ideas through the tricky video medium, another hurdle to the rocky road bands travel to get their music out there.
Images in Vogue mastered the image: Dale Martindale achieved the goth / new wave / arty hair all others only dreamed about, and even made it look natural on him. He accompanied this, for a time, with large black framed glasses which rendered him some kind of early cross between Morrissey and Robert Smith that all the girls fell for. The video image and the looks of boys became foregrounded at this time (for better of for worse) but then as well as now, what stood the test of time was the music. Voice. Tunes. Melodies. Vibe. Images in Vogue, with “Lust for Love”, “Call it Love”, “Save it” and “So Careful”, crafted catchy tunes that stayed with us forever, carried on the unique and gorgeous vocals of Martindale (which only in hindsight do we realize had clear tones of Bowie).
Images in Vogue put in time with four EPs before their album release, In the House (1985) which charted in Canada and won them CASBYs for Album of the Year and Group of the Year in 1986. They achieved something that the era was grappling with industry-wide: how to be alternative and cutting edge but also popular enough to warrant label interest and that of the masses. All of this is at least ten times as harder to achieve in a country as large and spread out as Canada, as it is in the U.K. and the U.S.
The Box were something different, but also tapped into a trend of the global, and rapidly international zeitgeist. In that period, we had Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”, sung all in German (later re-recorded in English, an inferior version) the staying power of Blondie’s “Rapture” and “Sunday Girl” with their nods to downtown Manhattan ‘bedroom French’, and real accents being allowed to enter into the once-flat Americana of rock and pop music. British bands were starting to sound British, and French music was now curious, cool, dark and heavy, in the form of exactly one band: The Box.
Jean-Marc Pisapia (an early member of Men Without Hats) formed The Box in 1981, and would go on to steadily assault the charts with a string of hit albums, singles and videos. For us, the best example of The Box sound is the unforgettably chilling “L’Affaire Dumoutier (Say to Me)” which recounts, in French-only dialogue, journalistic-narration, and the sung chorus, a murder of a woman, the surrounding media circus, and the role of insanity in the murder. In similar fashion to Nena’s deeply atmospheric cold war remoteness undercut by a young, passionate and vividly alive voice suggesting everything we longed to know about cold war Germany, Pisapia’s vocals offered a crash course for the curious in Francophone attitudes, voices, and stories.
Like all music needed to be to break through at this point in time, the music was cool but accessible, if on its own terms. In “L’Affaire Dumoutier”, the band acts out the plot of the affair, like bands are so often required to do in their videos, but here they seem natural, compelling, and like a trailer for a movie we wanted to see more of. Their faces are interesting, the accused eyes’ hollowed and his face gaunt, the police detective full of road-weary sadness.
The Box is a great band whose work holds up today, and tells timeless stories that also point to an exciting time in Canada’s music landscape.
At Revival, Images in Vogue emerges as strong and fresh as ever, with “Call it Love”. There are rows of seats set up for the performance but everyone is standing at the front and surrounding the stage. People are dancing, selfie sticks (?) are bouncing, and the energy is happy. (How I loved the dancing merch table girl…) One never knows what to expect after so many years, and rust on vocals and instruments would be understandable and forgiven, but there’s no need. Dale Martindale sounds 22, album perfect, and the full band is on point. He plays to the crowd like a natural front man, one who is at home on stage, any stage, and ought to be there in a sustainable capacity. As the opener the set is slightly abbreviated but leaves us wanting more, more, more. (This reporter gets star struck meeting with Martindale. I’m twelve again. He tells me that tonight he’d worn a shirt from one of the band’s videos on stage. Understandably, the white tux from Lust for Love was not deemed appropriate.)
The Box comes out and runs through a full set of their classic hits that still enjoy radio play today. There’s some guitar on guitar action as singer Pisapia leaves the stage to mop his brow, looking every bit the same cool police detective character out of the “L’Affair Dumoutier” except grinning wildly, feet away from his audience, enjoying the show himself.
The room feels friendly and spirited, and both the venue (which also serves as an event space) and these bands should be sought out whenever the opportunity presents itself.
We kids who only knew this music through our televisions knew nothing of industry, of struggle, of the brutal nature of trying to be an artist in those days or now, we saw only a sheen of high, black hair, fresh faces, and VJs inventing a new form of entertainment and journalism that was supposed to be as lasting as any other that resides on TV, but is now a relic, locked down in some vault somewhere and reduced to memory and frayed VHS snippets. But now we who loved and love music know better. We know that bands were people, most of whom, had to re-enter the world and make an ordinary living, that all those video spins did not profit them, only the advertisers, the owners, and us kids bopping at home. So to see these bands who conquered all of that and can come out now and rock us like this, is a reckoning, even to those of us invested in the recognition and celebration of our own, misunderstood, mistreated 1980s musical history and culture. We have these wonderful artists walking among us. We should give them more to do. They are worth it.
The Images in Vogue and The Box show at Revival was to benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities, Canada. Listen to Images in Vogue on their website, where they are also offering a deluxe box set. The Box has announced a Closer Together tour for 2020 – 2021.
Words and photos by Jacqueline Howell