Now, true journalism purposefully removes the writer’s feelings from the subject to get a clear, uninvolved view of how things are. In writing about this month’s subject, I can’t get there. I met Brian Allen at a stage in my life where I was seeking direction and role models. He became one, although he had no idea at the time.
In the late ’60’s and early ’70’s I was nuts about bands. I’d go to every high school dance I could get into. I’d watch Crowbar tear up the stage at Lorne Park; Alice Cooper at Brampton Centennial; Magic Bubble, Papa Grey, Abernathy Shagnaster, Choker, Mandala. I used to go see Rush when they were a Led Zeppelin cover band – the early, heady days of band culture, where every band worked 6 nighters, week after week, all over the country. My home was Streetsville, a little town of about 6,500 now swallowed by Mississauga. And my stomping ground was called the Villa: a subterranean, dingy club under a plaza that held a little over 300. Every Monday night, I’d go after dinner and homework were done to catch a set and see who was playing the Villa that week. If it was a shlocky show band or yet another regurgitated version of the Platters or the Ink Spots… I’d call it an early night and not spend much time in the Villa that week. But if it was a real band, with original material and some real teeth… well I guess that’s why I never got to university – too many nights studying stagecraft, music, songwriting and guitar techniques.
One night I saw a band that featured a skinny guy with a giant blonde afro playing a Gibson 335 and tearing it up. Brian Allen was the guitarist and principal writer of a band called Neon Rose (later shortened to Rose.) Was I a fan? Let’s just say I bought the Rose album, I learned the tunes and we covered some of them in my little basement band, never dreaming that years later I’d be working alongside the man and sitting on the CMAO board with him. Life can be funny that way.
Brian Allen was born in Chilliwack BC, the son of a soldier in the Royal Canadian Engineers. Brian, his younger brother, and mom and dad would move every two to four years to a new posting. Perhaps this early nomadic lifestyle prepared Brian for the life of a musician. Maybe it brought him the skills in meeting new people and making friends. Or, just gave him a wide set of experiences and a love of Canada. But the love of music came to him early. To quote Brian: “Wow, music was always on in the house… the early stuff I have clear memories of: Rock n Roll – Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, Ray Charles; Country – Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Marty Robbins… but Rock n Roll and Country were pretty close cousins back then.”
Picking up the guitar early, Brian developed an avid interest in music. Education wasn’t the route Brian wanted to pursue. “Because of our postings, school was all over the country. I did actually make it through high school in Base Borden before I left home with my band. The band we formed in high school was the first job for all of us. We all moved into this little shack in the country. We had an old bread truck and we would load in our gear, throw mattresses on top and head out to play gigs on the weekends. You’d get no-seat-belt busted big time for doing that today. On weekdays we would set up our gear in the dining room and rehearse, jam or write. We didn’t make much money, so we ate very cheap and very little, but we survived!”
That was the way it was in those days. Brian and Rose had a shack. Crowbar had Bad Manors, the Band had Big Pink. In Brian’s own words: “The first band went through several member changes over 10 years before it finally fizzled… but the drummer and I formed a band that was eventually called ‘Toronto’. That one did pretty well – 4 platinum albums in Canada over 5 years and a lot of touring – some US, but mostly Canada.” Brian’s being modest here.
He also co-penned the huge Heart hit, “What About Love” – that was massive for them.
In fact, Brian says, “The second best moment of my life was watching ‘What About Love’, a song I co-wrote with Jim Vallance, crack the Top Ten on Billboard, which is pretty darn tough to beat.”
Which begs the question: “What was the first best moment in your life?” That would be when Brian married his wife Andrea: “A fist-pumping high for me… all the wheels in my life mesh way better since then.”
Eventually, Toronto broke up and Brian found a new home. Having the smarts to write hit songs, knowing the writers and understanding how publishing works, “I was offered the A&R job at Attic Records and surprised myself by staying there 15 years, clawing my way to Vice President. While at Attic, I earned a few gold and platinum albums producing acts like Lee Aaron and Haywire. After Attic was sold, I became manager of the International Department at SOCAN for a while.”
Then, Brian stepped back a bit and reconnected with the reason he loved music in the first place: writing and producing songs. “I formed my production company, Amplus Productions, in 2002 and because I’m the boss, I haven’t been fired… yet. I like to say I’m self-employed and my boss is a jerk. Today, I’m lucky to produce or write with people like Marshall Dane, Colin Amey, Mike Lynch, Darrelle London and Robert Michaels. Lately, I’ve done some writing with Jason Barry and David Leask as well.”
When asked whether he had anyone help him out in his climb, Brian noted: “The President of Attic Records, Al Mair, was a constant source of information and perspective. He taught me a ton.”
And the best piece of advice he remembers hearing? “If you think change is uncomfortable, wait ’til you see how you feel about irrelevance.” And, “If you make a buck, don’t spend two.” That seems like common sense, but you’d have to wonder these days…?
Nowadays, Brian is passionate about the CMAO. “I want the CMAO to be seen as the organization that woke up the sleeping giant. We have so much talent in this province – historically and currently – but there is not always the recognition that those big names are Ontarians. The CMAO should be the pedestal that supports them, but the sides of that pedestal should have strong ladders attached to help the next ones get to the top.”
Brian encourages people to “Never forget what it feels like to be a fan. Remember that in every decision you make.”