Saturday, June 6, 2009

Canada's hardest-working band ever: Doug and the Slugs

As a lifelong concert goer, the bands I've seen over and over and over again are the ones who, simply, play Winnipeg (and sometimes Minneapolis and New York) the most.

That said, the top-three musical artists I've seen the most, as evidenced by ticket stubs, are: Neil Diamond (six times, including once on a live taping of the Late Show with David Letterman), the Proclaimers (eight times - and they're coming back on July 13), and Doug and the Slugs, with likely over 20 shows at such diverse venues as Assiniboia Downs, both casinos, the Palamino Club, and - yuck - the Pandy.

Leaving the Slugs' show at the Pandy, I'm loath to remember the cab driver asking me, "Did you get some Pandy (*word edited out for good taste and decency*) tonight?" "Uh, no. And please drop me off right here, kind sir."

The thing that makes it impossible to exactly quantify the number of times I've seen the Slugs is that this was a band that toured and toured and toured, and would play any venue to any audience at any time. Often, ticket stubs were not provided. Nor seating. Nor restrooms.

However, night after night after night, frontman Doug Bennett and an ever-changing roster of backup musicians cranked out the hits, often over the course of three, hour-long sets, regardless of how many people were in the room or what they were getting paid (sometimes, it was the low, low price of "nothing").

Doug and the Slugs were Canada's hardest-working band, especially considering the work-to-profit ratio under which they toiled. Yet they always did it with a sense of fun and were smart enough to treat the whole thing a very elaborate practical joke - sometimes on themselves and sometimes on their audience.

Prolific hitmakers

Doug and the Slugs were prolific hitmakers in Canada and the U.S.; from the early 80s to the mid-90s, they had a string of hits that most Canadian bands would kill for:
  • Too Bad (which was also used by Norm MacDonald as the theme for his sitcom, the Norm Show)
  • Chinatown Calculation
  • Drifting Away
  • Real Enough (a capella meets Elvis Costello!)
  • Who Knows How to Make Love Stay?
  • Makin' it Work (One of the best Canadian singles of all time - and a vacuum commercial!)
  • Nobody But Me (No, No, No)
  • If You Don't Come (industrial synth-pop!)
  • When the Doorbell Rings
  • Day By Day
  • Love Shines
  • It's Got to Be Monday (Bennett solo)
  • Tomcat Prowl
  • (I Don't Want to) Walk Away
  • Must Be the Rain
  • Terminal City
The band was nominated for multiple Juno Awards, including "Songwriter of the year," "Best album graphics," "Single of the year," and "Most promising group."

Despite the pop-friendly nature of the songs, Bennett also had credibility in the Canadian alternative scene, producing the Canadian synth band Images in Vogue, which would go down in infamy when one of its band members left to form the Nine Inch Nails precursor, Skinny Puppy.

In addition to writing the songs, Bennett also designed the album sleeves. And he's also credited with being a pioneer in music video, being among the first Canadian bands to appear on MTV and the first to "think in terms of story."

Befriending Doug

I first saw Doug and the Slugs at Les Rendezvous when I was in high school - I recall a pre-CBC Peter Jordan opening the show as "Rocki Rolletti."

Noticing that I was singing along to the song, "When the Doorbell Rings," Doug yanked me up onstage to sing it with him. The next time I saw the band, a year later, I was in the front row.

"Remember me?" I asked him.

"I'd like to tell you you're my best fuckin' friend in the world, but - no - I don't," he shouted back.

I told him the story years later, and he died laughing. He brought me back onstage that night to sing, "Day By Day," and laughed even more hysterically when a biker chick tried to "make me hers" after the song.

My pal, Jason Beck, and I ultimately became friends with Doug, which is what happened with anyone who regularly turned out to see the shows. Doug regularly humored a young woman - his "Mel" from Flight of the Conchords - who followed him to all of the band's shows, and claimed to be "conducting research on Doug" for a university class. And once, Blair MacLean, from MacLean & MacLean fame, turned up backstage, looking for beer.

Sometimes, Doug seemed really exhausted after a show, but he always wanted to sit around until the wee hours of the morning, talking to us about important stuff, like why the band's great album, Music For the Hard of Thinking, has never been available on CD ("That's the one I don't own," he said), why he sold the song, "Makin' it Work" to be used for a vacuum ad ("The money's too good!"), and whether he'd written anything new ("Something Old, Something New" showed up in his set years later).

Jason Beck remembers:
"Everytime we heard he was in town, we dropped everything and made it to the show... whether it was at midnight on a weeknight or in one of the biggest dive bars in town. The last time we saw him was back in March at the Palamino Club in Winnipeg.

"We always told Doug he should have tried his hand at stand-up, cause he was by far the most hilarious frontman of any band in the country. The audience banter he came up with off the top of his head night after night was gold.

"My favorite memories of Doug are the nights when he really stirred it up: the many times he ripped apart a drunk guy on stage so bad I thought a brawl was going to break out; the time he played the McPhillips Street Station and almost got pulled off stage for spending his entire set calling the hundreds of watching gamblers "losers" for throwing their money away; and most notably, the time he dared me to sing the song "She's Looking At Me" with him on stage... which is a duet between a skinny guy and a fat guy (him). I spent the whole day trying to memorize the skinny guy lyrics... and the second I got on stage and the song started, he just handed me the mic and went: "you're the fat guy... go!"
RIP Doug

Sadly, Doug Bennett died at the Calgary Foothills Hospital in 2004, at the age of 52. He was on tour at the time in spite of some pretty obvious signs that he was sick.

"I don't think he himself perhaps realized how ill he was," Simon Kendall said to CanWest News at the time.

That was the same year the Juno Awards took place in Winnipeg. I always thought it was weird that there was no tribute to Doug at that year's show. I sent a few e-mails to the organizing committee to suggest as much, but never heard back.

The "Day By Day" singalong at Doug's memorial looks like it was a blast as does the very idea of the "mass Slugs" rendition of "Too Bad" (his memorial page is here).

Until a real, honest to goodness, all-encompassing greatest hits comes out (including the lost stuff from Music For the Hard of Thinking, Popaganda, and Ten Big Ones), I suppose that YouTube will be the closest we can come to reliving the band's glory days.

Too bad!

1 comment:

  1. Chinatown Calculation is my favourite Doug and the Slugs tune.

    Good times at the Pandy!


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