No cigarettes! No matches! No Max! No Webster!
Yes, it is true. No person in this band is named Max or Webster. When they formed in Sarnia, Ontario in 1973, they created a moniker that contradict their sound. I don’t know that for a fact, but it is my own interpretation of what happened as Max Webster sounds like the name of an accountant. I’m sure there are accountants who listen to Max Webster today, but not many in 1973.
Anyway, Max Webster has had two constant members throughout its history. The first is Kim Mitchell. He is the band’s frontman, lead singer (for the most part), and lead guitarist all wrapped up in one. He also went on to have a huge solo career in Canada under the name Akimbo. The second is Pye Dubois, who has become a bit of a recluse in recent years. Since he has never played an instrument with the band in the studio or live, he is considered by many to be the “unofficial” fifth member. Personally, I think how he wrote almost all of the band’s lyrics makes him Max Webster’s 2nd most vital member. Fun fact, he also co-wrote the lyrics for a song called Tom Sawyer for the lesser-known Canadian band RUSH.
Pye has had some fantastical lyrics throughout his career, but I don’t believe any have been more abstract than they are here on the band’s self-titled debut from 1976. Especially the fifth track, Toronto Tontos. A very UNreliable internet source states they are taken from the ramblings of a Torontonian homeless person:
Toronto tontos, Vegas babies, transit
Arctic market, frantic Spanish onions
Free publicity is not free when its public
Put down a little life from a morning cosmic
Hmmm…. that is kind of sad if true, but I can definitely buy into them originating from a troubled mind. Well, you take those ramblings, add some Quebecois slang for texture, then finally mix them with Kim’s Zappa inspired time signatures and you have one heck of a song:
For me, this is the band’s best song and it bothers me a little that it is on their debut. I don’t enjoy the thought of a band not getting better. But, Toronto Tontos is a masterpiece of quirky prog-rock that just has never been topped. And, I don’t believe ever did try to top it. They have had other prog tunes, but this is the only time they took a heavy step into Zappa land. The half pop/half prog mix of the album’s closer Lily better represents the direction the band was headed in.
That is not to say that Max Webster is strictly a prog band. In fact, their better-known songs straddled the line between pop and hard rock. The album’s opener, Hangover, has one of the best guitar riffs from the decade. It begins with heavy feedback as if you’re brain is trying to fight off a headache, then the guitars open up. It is one of those songs that sounds so simple, but when you break it down, it contains a lot of nuances that make it extra-special.
On the pop side, they threw their friends at CHUM-FM a bone by building two FM radio hits with the excellent Blowin’ The Blues Away (Which has literally done for me what the title states before) and the good-catchy summertime feel of Summer’s Up. Unfortunately, today both get little airplay and have become somewhat forgotten. Heck, up until a few years ago, I thought these were Kim Mitchell tunes.
Be sure not to confuse Summer’s Up with Summer Turning Blue. They decided to put two songs on this album with ‘summer’ in the title to mess with my dyslexia. (Try and listen to me talk about Jack Black and Jack White at the same time.) Summer’s Up is great. Summer Turning Blue might be the album’s only skippable track.
Here Among the Cats and Only Your Nose Knows are lively tunes and the sleeper hit is the driving guitar riff of Coming off The Moon. All make for a tremendous listen in the car. The background singers could have used some better mixing at times, but you can’t always have what you want.
I wonder if the switching between genres might be the reason why this group never caught on in a serious way outside of Canada. If you came to Max Webster expecting a hard rock, pop, or prog album, you would only get two or three songs you are looking for within its short 36-minute runtime. So, maybe that turned listeners off. For me, I think the way they excelled at all three gave them character making them one of the most fun bands to listen to.