In our recurring feature Wha’ Happen?, we find out what happened to those Toronto artists that were all over local airwaves and MuchMusic during the ’80s and ’90s, but are less visible today.
Who were they: Initially formed by a quartet of teen punks in late-’70s Markham, Blue Peter found their ’80s niche by following the new-wave/post-punk lead of U.K. acts like Japan and Echo & the Bunnymen. After signing with innovative Toronto indie label Ready Records, the band released 1979′s Test Patterns for Living and 1980′s Radio Silence, which subsequently received significant airplay from hip newbie station CFNY-FM (a.k.a. 102.1 the Edge).
“In those days, there weren’t clubs to play original music,” says vocalist Paul Humphrey. “We just couldn’t get cover gigs—we were just too young and full of energy. The band had a much more guitar-oriented sound then, and everything came out 200 miles an hour. So what we’d all do is find a place, then kind of take it over to open it up for original bands.”
Career peak: The success of 1982′s “Chinese Graffiti” took Blue Peter from grimy Larry’s Hideaway to prestigious gigs with Simple Minds and The Police (including the annual Police Picnic). The addition of keyboardist Jason Sniderman (son of Sam “the Record Man” Sniderman) on the Falling LP further pushed the band in a sophisticated, new-romantic direction. So when director Rob Quartly’s noir-ish “Don’t Walk Past” clip emerged in the middle of the ’83 video explosion, Blue Peter found themselves on MTV before even attaining U.S. album distribution.
“It led to bigger crowds at bigger venues,” Humphrey says. “A lot of clubs then had dance nights, with big screens showing videos. So it took us up to another level, because we were being played amongst international acts like the Eurythmics.”
Wha’ happened?: As often happens with ascendent young bands, Blue Peter crumbled under the strain of recording the follow-up to a breakthrough record (in their case, the eventually aborted Vertigo). Guitarist Chris Wardman embarked on a successful production career, plus a late-’80s tenure with Breeding Ground. Humphrey fled the limelight, working in theatre before ultimately returning to music with groups such as Broken Arrow.
“Something big was definitely supposed to happen around the time we split up,” Humphrey says. “But there was also a lot of burnout and negatives going on. So you do what you do when you’re 25: You say, “Fuck this, fuck you, fuck it all.” And you quit. There wasn’t anyone around saying, ‘Okay, this is what happens to young successful kids in bands—they go crazy.’ I was gunshy from the music industry after that—I felt kind of beat up from it. Also, there was a lot of alcohol abuse going on in those days, which is typical.”
What’s happening?: Wardman continues to produce and tour with Emm Gryner, and Humphrey released an ambitious 2007 disc—A Rumour of Angels—recorded entirely with chamber orchestra. But renewed interest in Toronto’s original synth-pop acts has inevitably led to several Blue Peter reunions. The band hopes to up the ante with more shows this fall.
“As years pass, you think you’re over it,” Humphrey says. “But you’re not really over it. So when we get together to do gigs, there’s so much fun and joy in the room, seeing our contemporaries coming out. And there are a lot of younger people who you think have no business being there. But they know the songs and the lyrics. And we’d like to hook up with other bands—Images in Vogue are starting to play. The Spoons, of course, play. Back in the day we were competition – now we’re all friends, so it’s cool.”—Chris Rolfe