For the generations raised on YouTube where a show can be produced with nothing more than a webcam, public/cable access TV is a relic of a bygone age. The concept of citizen media has undoubtedly shifted, yet the talk shows, live performances, televangelists, Satanists, psychics, pumped up jams, little wings, oddball art shows, and other free-form programming (immortally parodied by the likes of Wayne’s World and Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule) now seem oddly prophetic.
Here in Canada, a community television initiative was launched in 1967 by the National Film Board’s Challenge For Change project. After opening prototype studios for non-professional use, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) introduced requirements for cable stations to provide a percentage of public access broadcasting in 1971. This opened the floodgates across the country, with notable participants including Polaris Prize founder Steve Jordan (whose music/sketch show Footnotes aired in Kingston) and musician Paul Lawton (whose punk/hardcore themed DIY was broadcast in Lethbridge from 1994-96). As of posting time, no clips of either show exist online, with the only evidence remaining on dusty VHS tapes.
For the purposes of this piece, there are plenty of weird and wonderful musical moments from Canadian cable access shows on the ’Tube, and we’ve collected 12 of the best below. Obviously this is only a sampling of the madcap activities hitting the airwaves from the 1970s to the aughts, so please zap us back with anything we’ve missed. Big thanks to Ian Grant, Arif Ansari, Benoit Poirier, Adrien Begrand, and Tom Whalen for their invaluable info.
Strawberry Alarm Clock on The Hilarious House of Frightenstein
Easily the most beloved show on this list, Hamilton’s Hilarious House of Frightenstein was first broadcast on the local network CHCH-TV in 1971 and remains a spooktacular classic. Following an introduction from Vincent Price, the chameleonic Billy Van performed most roles including Grizelda, Dr. Pet Vet, and of course the groovy growly DJ Wolfman. This clip shows him taking a phone request before busting out some moves to “Incense and Peppermints” against a psychedelic backdrop. Let’s dig it!
Young Canadians on Soundproof
This might be the Canadian cable access live performance to beat ‘em all. Back in 1980, Vancouver’s Young Canadians (originally known as The K-Tels and fronted by a snotty, blue-haired Art Bergmann) cranked out their hit song “Hawaii” on the Sunday night Cable 10 show Soundproof. They’re joined by a trio of backup dancers including Mary Jo Kopechne of the equally awesome Modernettes.
AKA on Nite Dreems
Starting in 1978, Nite Dreems aired each Sunday directly before Soundproof on the same Vancouver cable access network. With its mixed bag of interviews, comedy skits, music videos, and live performances, Nite Dreems was the spaced out precursor to MTV and MuchMusic. In this 1980 episode, hosts John Tanner and J.B. Shayne share some subcultural picks, along with a delirious appearance from art-punk band AKA.
The Pollock and Pollock Gossip Show
Winnipeg looms large on this list, with perhaps no greater stars than Rockin’ Ron and Nifty Natalie Pollock. The brother/sister duo hit the airwaves of Videon’s Channel 11 in 1985 with their homebrewed mix of sexiness and silliness, inviting anyone (and they really mean anyone) to join them for an interpretative dance. The pair later became the breakout attraction of Winnipeg Babysitter, an infamous compilation of cable access follies from the memory bank of Daniel Barrow.
Mental Note on Johnny Sizzle’s Entertainment Watch
From 1988-1993, Winnipeg’s Johnny Sizzle hosted a variety program that has been lovingly described as “American Bandstand crossed with The Tom Green Show.” Set up with a mumbly-mouthed opening theme, Sizzle featured performers ranging in stature from Propaghandi to Batsweat. We’ll leave you with the reggae-influenced stoner teen stylings of Mental Note’s “When You Run Out of Gancha.”
Johnny Zhivago on Alternative Rockstand
Winnipeg scene booster Dan Pachet hosted Alternative Rockstand on Sunday mornings, making live performances a fairly tough sell. One band that played ball is the great Johnny Zhivago, whose early ’80s synth-pop single “Almost Heaven” could have been a massive hit if it’d been heard anywhere outside of VPW Channel 11. For more New Romantic thrills and chills, check out their video for “Echo” filmed on location at a sand dune.
The Ruffled Panties on 8 Items or Less
Winnipeg’s Patrick Niesink served up the low-budget/high-concept counterpart to other public access programming of the mid-80s with the surrealist humour of 8 Items or Less. He preceded the off-the-rails all-ages dance show Chic-A-Go-Go with segments like “Annoying Dance Party” and took aim at the Talking Heads before moving on to the fake ads of his later programs This Is Nothing and religious raps of Know God. Even Alternative Rockstand gets skewered in an episode called “Arrogant Rockstand” featuring faux new wave trio The Ruffled Panties with their video for “Just Another Meaningless Relationship Song.”
Waiting on the Midnight Hour
This Saskatoon review show features a pair of hosts discussing the finer points of the Banzai Records compilation Force of the Blade with the distinctions between bands like Halloween, Helloween, and Hallows’ Eve. Like a hoser metal fusion of Bob and Doug McKenzie with Terry and Deaner, the curly mullet, moustache, Chris Murphy glasses, and Marillion t-shirt are pure 1986. Saskatchewan doom/psych titans Shooting Guns also parodied the prairie public access phenomenon (plus a nod to the real-life Satanic horror story of The Brotherhood of the Ram) with their “No Fans” music video filmed on set at the fictional Crystal Ball Hour.
Necrotic Mutation on TQS
Before she became the wife of former Quebecor CEO/Parti Québécois leader Pierre-Karl Peladeau, Julie Snyder fronted gross-out metal group Necrotic Mutation in a pair of devil horns. According to the Encylopaedia Metallum Necrotic Mutation’s song titles included “Rectal Extraction of Maggot Colony”, “Feeding on Human Flesh” and “Organic Stench.”
Duchess Says on Barometre
Barometre carried on the Quebec cable access dream with its relatively late run from 2005 to 2008. Host Catherine Mathys welcomed over 90 groups to perform on set including this pulse-quickening performance from Montreal synth-punks Duchess Says, complete with keytar.
Iggy Pop and Nash the Slash on FM Moving Pictures
Calgary was no slouch in the world of cable access, with weekly shows like FM Moving Pictures and Chrome-A-Key Kids hosted by Mike Bezzeg and the late music writer James Muretich. Read an informative post on their history including a killer live clip from post-punk group Tau Ceti over at the perpetually obsessed Calgary Cassette Preservation Society. Ian Grant of power-pop group The Unusuals (who were no stranger to camera-mugging studio performances) shared this landmark 1982 segment of FM Moving Pictures with Iggy Pop in a tête-à-tête with Nash the Slash (featuring hard-hitting questions like “Do you fart through your bandages?”). The full interview is posted above and you can also watch a fullscreen excerpt here.
Elevator to Hell on Friday Night Rocks
In 1998, this Moncton show hosted by the slack-voiced Gary Boole featured a fantastic two-song performance from Elevator To Hell. It might be the greatest East Coast in-studio ripper since The Reaction’s “Get The Rods Out.” In a short interview, ex-Eric’s Trip members Rick White and Marc Gaudet offer some sage words of advice that could also serve to summarize the cable access experience: “Let them come to you rather than being what the industry thinks you should be…”