In this edition of our Toronto-music oral-history series: The album that spread the musical, cultural, and political vibrancy of 1980s Queen West across the nation.
Thirty years ago, Toronto was a city in transition. After having spent most of its urban life as a lily-white bastion of of staid Protestant values, the city was experiencing a huge influx of immigrants from all over the world, as well as dealing with broader social changes related to the role of women in society and a push for equal rights by gays and lesbians. The Parachute Club, founded 30 years ago this summer, was very much a product of this time and place. They were a massive group of multi-instrumentalists who borrowed sounds from around the globe and held the revolutionary belief that dance music could be political. This is the story of the recording of their 1983 self-titled debut album, as well as the subsequent success of their first single, “Rise Up.”
Future Parachute Clubbers get introduced to world music on Queen Street, while their eventual producer, Daniel Lanois, works with Rick James in his mother’s basement.
Lorraine Segato (Vocalist, The Parachute Club): I started playing music when I was 11 years old. I was born in Hamilton, and it was always my dream to be a musician, so I moved to Toronto thinking that this would be the place it would begin.
Daniel Lanois (Producer of The Parachute Club—and a few other things): I made a lot of records in my mom’s basement, for seven years, before I even had a studio in Hamilton, In that time, I recorded everything. Rick James, a lot of Jamaican music, gospel music—It was like a one-stop shop. I delivered vinyl and everything. I never fancied myself a record producer. I was just a guy with a studio who was enthusiastic about music.
Segato: In the early ’80s, there had been a recession/depression. The real estate wasn’t worth anything any more and, on Queen Street, everything was shuttered. What had once been a very productive bunch of warehouse buildings and garment factories was empty. Artists started to move in, because there was nowhere else affordable to live. The most interesting thing about Parachute Club was its explosion onto the scene came along with a confluence of many different streams happening at the same time. It was a city that had this tremendous diversity happening: The Caribbean influx and the Chilean dissidents and all these people coming from all over the world and bringing their music. Then, when that landed on Queen Street, we were there.
Lanois: There was a scene in Hamilton. I was making ambient records; the industry didn’t notice at the time, but there was a lovely little scene. There were a few smart heads in Toronto who would come out to Hamilton if I provided them with a limo and cocaine.
Part I: Mama Quilla II, V, and the formation of The Parachute Club
In the late 1970s, future Parachute Clubbers Segato and Lauri Conger played in an all-female group called Mama Quilla II. The Club’s drummer, Billy Bryans later became the band’s sole male member. His bandmates gave him a t-shirt that read “Token Male.” In the early 1982, Mama Quilla II was asked to play a party at TIFF’s predecessor, The Festival of Festivals. Unfortunately, the band had already broken up.
Segato: After I had been here a couple of years, I was working in film, editing documentaries and stuff. But I was also invited into this group called Mama Quilla. [Billy Bryans] was sort of circulating in the blues world, but he was also playing in a band on Queen Street called The Government. They were only well=known amongst art students, but they were a sort of funk/performance-art band. I brought him in to [Mama Quilla]. Then we started another group called V, which was kind of a mixed-race dub group.
Lauri Conger (Keyboardist, The Parachute Club): I auditioned to join Mama Quilla II. That’s where I first met and worked with Lorraine. Billy joined the band following the departure of Mama Quilla II’s drummer.
Segato: We were asked to play TIFF, but before it was called TIFF. The woman who booked all the parties asked us, “Can Mama Quilla play?” And we said, “No, that band has sort of disbanded.” So she said, “Well, can V play?” and Mojah, our other singer, was out of town at the time, so we said “no.” So she asked, “Well, can you and Billy just put something together?” That was sort of the catalyst that made us move more quickly than we were moving. That was our first official [Parachute Club] gig. We had been playing with our other musical partner in the band, Lauri Conger, in Mama Quilla. She’d been playing with all sorts of people as a session piano player. We knew of certain really hot players in the scene that was emerging.
Conger: We started playing a lot of late-night venues, after hours and things like that. We didn’t have regular gigs; we were doing everything we could to keep it afloat.
Segato: The boozecans were so important. The liquor laws were so strict. You couldn’t drink on Sunday—the bars closed early—so, at these booze cans, you’d have art shows and video performances and bands. We were discovered at a boozecan called The NBC, which was owned by Patti Habib and Richard O’Brien, who later opened The BamBoo.
Part II: Changing minds, moving asses
Segato, Conger, and Bryans decide that socially conscious lyrics and dancefloor friendliness aren’t mutually exclusive.
Segato: The city was expanding, but it was expanding against this backdrop of racial tension, of issues of censorship, police brutality, and incredible homophobia with the police raiding the bathhouses. Against this backdrop, you had artists saying, “This city needs to grow and be more forward-thinking.”
Conger: Between our group and some other groups and the film artists and the performance artists, we were all examining things that we wanted to change or comment on.
Segato: Part of the thing around The Parachute Club was we made a very conscious decision to recruit women who played instruments. We forget what it was like back in the ’70s and early ’80s. The only women who were dominant were singers, like Pat Benatar, or from time-to-time keyboard players like Carole King. There weren’t women who were featured [as instrumentalists] in any sort of dominant way. Billy and I, we weren’t just musicians, we were also activists, so we wanted our music to be about making statements, and our band should reflect that.
Conger: There were feminist roots in terms of political emphasis, but Billy was also certainly motivated to look at the world a certain way. He was constantly reading about things like the Middle East, trying to figure out how it worked, the history. We shared books with each other. There was such a great exchange with each other.
Segato: From musicians, there was a tremendous amount of criticism of us being political. It was considered rhetorical and dogmatic. Mainstream, white, music-industry people were like, “Why say anything? Let’s only talk about love or rebelling, but not actually rebelling against anything.” At that time, the only thing that was kind of happening in a dominant way was rock—acts like Loverboy, Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, and a little pop, blues and folk music. But nothing diverse was getting played on radio.
Conger: We had this saying: “Vote with your feet.” We wanted to challenge people and move people. And nothing moves people like good, strong dance beats.
Segato: The idea was to base the band on beats from other parts of the world. We decided consciously that, to be able to say something and have it be heard by people who wouldn’t hear it usually, you have to make it danceable. It’s like that Emma Goldman quote, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.”
Conger: We were listening to all kinds of dance music. Early house and go-go, things coming out of D.C. and Philadelphia. I was getting tapes of Haitian drummers and bringing them in.
Segato: Each individual brings their own love to something. I grew up not far from the border, so I grew up listening to soul and R&B music, and those beats kind of lived within me. Billy had been studying under a Latin drum teacher.
Conger: Billy was really into Latin drums, and then [percussionist] Julie [Masi] and I took it upon ourselves to expand on that and started taking Latin drum lessons as well. I really wanted to be able to incorporate those rhythms into my keyboard playing.
Segato: We got a lot of criticism at the time but, in doing so, it really rocked the world in terms of the music business in this country at the time. Seven people, all multi-instrumentalists, all playing world beat music in a really authentic way. It was just us trying to do something different.
Daniel Lanois, circa 2010. Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star
Part III: Enter Daniel Lanois
The ultimate Queen Street band takes a trip to Hamilton to record their debut album for Current/RCA Records with a future legend.
Segato: The only producer who really got the band was Daniel Lanois. I don’t mean any disrespect to the other people we worked with, because they were great, but he was the only one who really, really got it.
Lanois: I got hooked up with them through Billy Bryans. He’d produced a number of projects I’d been involved with; we’d worked on Downchild Blues Band together. He was just a great record producer, and my job with him was to work as the engineer.
Segato: Recording can be really tricky, because you get a producer in the mix, and then they’re like “less saxophone, more this, less that, I don’t like that drum riff,” and they’re determining through their own eyes what this song should feel like. If you have a producer coming and saying, “I don’t like that sax part,” it creates tension in the band.
Lanois: When The Parachute Club came around, Billy didn’t want to produce that because he was in the band. So at that point, he said, “Why don’t you produce it?” So I accepted the invitation and they came on down to Hamilton. Lorraine is originally from Hamilton, so I think she was comforted to have another Hamilton head around.
Segato: Danny knew what we were about. We were a collective energy that needed to be harnessed. At no point was he ever trying to focus on one of us over the other. He was really organic.
Conger: He just has a way of hearing things that’s so unique.
Segato: He’s the alchemist. People call him a magician, but he’s an alchemist. He helped us alchemize the magic we already had.
Conger: Certainly, Dan Lanois played a large role in helping define our sound. When I look at it now, he was so good with all the aspects of sound. He’d warm-up a keyboard sound by running it through a tubed amp. I played a Wurlitzer through a tubed amp.
Lanois: I had a really good sound going at the time. I had this drum kit with a German snare drum called a Sonor. I had it tuned way up high like a timbale and, when Billy hit it, it sounded almost like a bell. I think there was a combination of efforts and some sort of synchronicity coming into focus.
Part IV: “Rise Up” rises up
In which The Parachute Club stumble upon their first hit, find commercial success, and almost get chased out of Winnipeg.
Segato: Other people probably had a better inkling into that particular song. I was not really enthused on that song. It was one of the last songs we wrote. There was a lot of other material that we’d written already that I thought was great.
Conger: We were recording, but we didn’t have a full-time living as The Parachute Club; those of us in the band were playing with other people. I was really active in the folk community. I was on tour with another band and they had to call me back to do my part for that song. I remember I came in for a late-night, overnight session. I did all my parts.
Segato: To be honest and to be fair, before Danny got a hold of it, it sounded okay. But with what he did in production after, he turned it into that hit.
Lanois: Everybody was hoping to get a single out of the album. When that one came around, it kind of raised its hand as a song that could be popular, so I just gave it a little extra attention. I don’t know that I did anything, other than follow my instinct about it. It had a nice groove, and when you’re gifted with a nice groove. It’s just a roller coaster and you ride it. When the groove is really happening, you don’t have to too much in terms of topping.
Segato: No one knew [it was going to be a hit]. You’re recording your first album and someone says, “We need to release something for radio, what should it be?” You’re listening and this song sort of emerged.
Lanois: Maybe times have changed now and people go in to specifically knock out hits. But, in my experience, you go in, everyone hopes for a hit, everyone wants one, but sometimes they come in through the side door. You can’t just sit down and dial up a hit. Well, maybe you can on a computer these days.
Conger: We all knew something was going on with that song. That happened fairly quickly after the recording was masters. It was probably happening in advance of that. There was some excitement about it for sure from our labels. There was also a feeling in ourselves. You started watching the charts, and it was really great to see a song that you made climbing them like that. We started performing a good amount, and it was a really, really interesting experience to just travel back and a forth across Canada
Segato: The very first time we went into Winnipeg, the headline read “radical lesbian feminist Marxist-Leninist band plays the such and such club.” That headline couldn’t have been more wrong. So we go in, and there are all these demonstrations. People were demonstrating our first gig in Winnipeg.
Conger: I do believe we were a bit ahead of the curve. In some cases there wasn’t a lot of receptivity.
Segato: One of the things we had to deconstruct was that we were a bunch of Marxist-Leninists or something. They thought we were going to be handing out leaflets or whatever. I think once people saw us play live, they got it. It’s unfortunate that we never did a live album, because we were better live than we ever were on record.
“Rise Up” went on to gain an informal association with Jack Layton, with the song being performed live both at his 1988 wedding to Olivia Chow and his state funeral in 2011. Billy Bryans returned to working as a producer and session musician following The Parachute Club’s first break up in 1988, and was influential in the promotion of Latin music in Canada. He died of lung cancer on April 23, 2012.
Thirty years on from The Parachute Club’s debut, Segato, Conger, and Lanois reflect on the band’s legacy, and whether they believe think a political pop band could crossover into the mainstream again?
Segato: I can only judge by the people who come up to me and the letters I get that say, “I was at this place in my life and in this small town, and this was the way it looked, and I realized that [my life] was much bigger.”
Lanois: It’s different now—there aren’t so many record companies. We wouldn’t have that sort of financial support or network access. It was pretty great back then, as fucked up as it was deal-wise. You could get a big campaign behind you. I think a record like this could happen now, but it would be presented in a different manner, probably through the onternet. It might come through the rhythm community or the Cuban community. The opportunities are different, but they’re still with us.
Conger: I can’t really say what The Parachute Club’s legacy is. The answer to that belongs with our audience.
Toronto-based Cuban ensemble La Maquina de la Salsa will perform a tribute to Billy Bryans this Saturday (July 14), 3:30 p.m., at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay W., #HAR). Free.