From 1972 until 1981, the band created five wonderfully idiosyncratic studio albums and toured
incessantly — even headlining Maple Leaf Gardens three times within 18 months.
By Nick Krewen
Special to the Star
Up until very recently, Kim Mitchell had forgotten that day in Indianapolis in 1981 when he performed “Battle Scar” with his Toronto rockers Max Webster and a man wearing a mask of ex-U.S. president Richard Nixon snuck onstage to join them.
The song had been recorded for Max Webster’s 1980 album Universal Juveniles as a duet with Toronto label mates Rush, so it didn’t take too long for the crowd to recognize the prankster.
“It was Geddy Lee,” Mitchell, 70, recalled with a chuckle over the phone. “He came on just to do ‘Battle Scar,’ but he didn’t want the audience to know it was him until he started to sing. I remember that moment and that Richard Nixon mask as he blasted through the second verse of the song, but it was one that I had totally forgotten.”
Mitchell’s memory about that incident – and a flood of others – was tweaked a few months ago when author Bob Wegner showed the band’s founder his new, privately published coffee table book High Class, an appreciation and compendium of the singer and guitarist’s first stab at success, Max Webster.
From 1972 until 1981 – although the band did reassemble for on a one-off gig in 1990, a short tour between 1995 and 1996 and a final show in 2007 – they created five wonderfully idiosyncratic studio albums that borrowed from the Frank Zappa playbook of serious chops, off-beat humour and disciplined musicianship but imbued it with its own distinctive Max Webster flavour to nearly become Canada’s Next Big Thing.
Each album – 1976’s Max Webster, 1977’s High Class In Borrowed Shoes, 1978’s Mutiny Up My Sleeve, 1979’s A Million Vacations and 1980’s Universal Juveniles – all sold at least 50,000 copies in Canada alone and the band secured a deal with Rush’s SRO Management, a record contract with the trio’s Anthem label and supported them on tours throughout North America and in the U.K.
Max Webster’s unique appeal also had a secret weapon in Pye Dubois, one of rock music’s more inventive and rare full-time lyricists, and he and Mitchell became a formidable songwriting team, creating such classics as “Hangover,” “Toronto Tontos,” “Diamonds Diamonds,” “Gravity,” “Oh War,” “The Party,” “Waterline,” “Paradise Skies” and “Battle Scar.”
As one might remember that mid-to-late ’70s, early ’80s era in music, bands were expected to be prolific both in the studio and on the road. Max Webster toured incessantly – even headlining Maple Leaf Gardens three times within 18 months – churned out albums yearly, but were not the overall label priority because that stature belonged to Rush.
Finally, after a gig in Memphis, the burnout got to Mitchell and he pulled the plug.
“I just got kind of tired,” Mitchell told the Star. “The writing was on the wall. For our management company, and record company and publisher, which were all under one house, Rush is their thing and we weren’t getting the attention that I think the band needed.
“And that’s okay: we were so happy for Rush. But I thought, ‘I’m out here killing myself, so I think I’m going to get off the road for a year and go write and reassess and maybe join another band.’ I fantasized about joining another band and my phone didn’t ring. So, I had to start a solo career. That’s kind of how it ended for me.”
Bob Wegner claims he was “minus-1 years old” when Max Webster’s Memphis moment occurred.
“What got me into them?” the Toronto-based Wegner asks rhetorically. “When I was young, I heard Max like anyone else: on the radio or you’d go to people’s houses and their music was playing at parties.”
It wasn’t until he became a dedicated musician himself in his teenage years – he’s now a professional guitarist, and was personally handpicked by Queen‘s Brian May to play guitar during the 2013 Canadian run of the musical We Will Rock You – that Wegner truly appreciated the magic of Max Webster.
“I started realizing, ‘oh, this is really good music – so interesting and so well-arranged.’ Then I started a website about their concert history.”
But Bob Wegner still felt that the group’s legacy was being underserved – even with an available Martin Popoff-authored biography called Live Magnetic Air: The Unlikely Saga of the Superlative Max Webster published a few years earlier – and decided to do something about it.
High Class – available at highclassmax.com – is a comprehensive 400-page coffee table book that contains not only the origins story of Max Webster, but a day-to-day rundown of their professional lives, with many photos submitted by fans who caught wind of Wegner’s project and sent him their personal memorabilia.
“Martin Popoff’s book is great, but I just wanted to fill in the gaps,” Wegner explained. “I wanted to include the itinerary and the whole travelogue thing and just take it further, have all the colour photos and do a pretty comprehensive history. Martin was super supportive of my project.”
There are setlists, the breakdown of the band’s numerous lineups – which began in 1972 as a trio with Mitchell, bass player Mike Tilka and vocalist/drummer Jim Trudell and ended with Mitchell, drummer Gary McCracken, keyboardist Terry Watkinson, bass player Mike Gingrich and guitarist Steve McMurray – and even includes titles of unreleased songs that Wegner has researched and compiled.
Mitchell said he is suitably impressed.
“I looked through the book for a couple of hours at home and I’d say 70% of the pictures I hadn’t seen before – stuff turned in by fans,” said Mitchell. “He really worked hard on it.
“It’s very humbling. I didn’t realize the band was thought in that respect. I thought we were a band that came and went like a fart in a windstorm.”
For Wegner, who crowd-funded part of the project and used some of his own savings to get it done – assembling the book like this was a labour of love and a huge lesson regarding teamwork.
“It takes a village,” he explained. “You have to be surrounded by people who will make things happen for you: everything from printing to dealing with the customs broker to get it into the country; to having great photographers willing to share things with you; to people willing to bring high school yearbooks to you, so you can find another concert date to add to the database.
“There are just hundreds of logistical things that are required to make a project like this happen. It’s been really amazing how an army of people have come to my rescue and helped me with things that I couldn’t do myself.”
The initial printing run is 1000 copies, but Wegner says he’s willing to consider a second print run as long as there’s demand.
“People deeply, deeply love this band,” he said.
Wegner also has Super 8 film of some Max Webster performances – and he’s hoping that someday there will be a documentary.
“I’m going deeper into the rabbit hole,” he admitted. “It’s hugely important. They did a documentary on Anvil. They did one on Teenage Head. There needs to be a Max Webster documentary.”
While there may be a need for a Max Webster biography, Kim Mitchell says the band’s days of playing are definitely done.
“Terry (Watkinson), the keyboard player, has health issues. Gary (McCracken) is retired. And for me, I’ve been a musician who has been at it the whole time, while they haven’t. To ramp this up would take months of rehearsing and it’s just too much work to bother. The idea of me getting a band to play that material for a night might be fun. But the rest of the guys aren’t active musicians anymore.”
There’s also been, unfortunately, no thawing of the ill will that lyricist Dubois apparently feels for Mitchell: something that ended the creative and personal relationship between them following Mitchell’s 1989 solo album Rockland.
It still puzzles him.
“I don’t really know what happened and some people hold a grudge about something,” Mitchell stated. ” I don’t even know what the grudge is. I can’t comment on it. I feel bad, because I was his biggest fan and we, Max Webster, introduced him to Rush. We were out touring with the band and we said, ‘hey, here’s our lyricist.’
“Pye Dubois had an international hit song with Rush (“Tom Sawyer”) and he made more money with that song than he did through the whole Max Webster catalogue. Why he’s critiquing me who used his lyrics for all kinds of songs, I have no idea. I don’t understand it. But that’s okay.
“I was up for continuing that relationship, but one day you get a letter from a lawyer saying, ‘Mr. Dubois wishes no further contact with Mr. Mitchell,’ and I’m like, ‘okay.’
“That’s him; that’s his life and I hope he’s enjoying it.”
Wegner’s book also did me a favour: as a high school student in St. Catharines, I gathered with a bunch of pals to sneak underage to see Max Webster perform three one-hour sets at Uncle Sam’s in Niagara Falls, Ontario – an establishment that has long since disappeared from the sands of tavern history.
The line-up we caught was the “Mutiny Up My Sleeve” configuration: Mitchell on guitar and vocals; Terry Watkinson on keyboards; Dave Myles on bass and Gary McCracken on drums – and was part of the audience that yelled, “‘Cats in the bag!’/The neighbours holler/’This party’s higher than The Eiffel Tower!'” that would eventually introduce “The Party” on that third album of theirs.
I remember it being a mesmerizing performance and being heartily impressed by Mitchell’s lightning licks on guitar – and for also attracting a curious Pye Dubois to our table and conversing with him. We ending up meeting them backstage after the show at Dubois’ invitation.
What failed me was the exact date – April 17, 1978 – and thanks to Wegner’s meticulous research – I can now identify that as the first time I saw this excellent band, which warmed me up for their subsequent appearance a few months later sandwiched in between Genesis and Brand X at the CNE Exhibition in Toronto.
For the record, Wegner finally got to witness the band he loved most during one of their final reunions – a show that only strengthened his resolve to do something to celebrate Max Webster’s memory.
High Class is that testament.
“It was worth it because it had to be done,” Wegner said.