Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Where Its At" TV show, Vancouver, BC late 1960s

All of the interesting rock scenes of the 1960s were fundamentally underground scenes. While some of the more famous groups ultimately had substantial recording careers, the initial scenes all stemmed from word of mouth, as a few hipsters would see a local band, and in turn tell a few of their friends, and the word would pass from person to person. Bands were only popular in their local scenes, because they had no recorded output and they were never heard on the radio. The famous psychedelic posters (of varying artistic qualities) would appear on local telephone poles, perhaps spreading a name around town, but even well-known San Francisco bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service were just a rumor to each person until they saw them in person. By the 1970s, DIY cassettes were a feature of underground scenes (like Punk), but in the 60s bands had to survive on reputation alone. If you couldn't find out where a show was, and go down and see it yourself, you had no way of knowing what a group sounded like, much less if they were any good. Every 60s scene had various legendary local bands, which all but a few people ever heard in their nascent form.

There was one startling exception to the history of psychedelic music: Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver was an important part of the West Coast "Circuit" of psychedelic ballrooms, from the Cheetah and the Kaleidoscope in Southern California, to the Fillmore and Avalon in San Francisco, the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, to Eagles Auditorium in Seattle and finally to the Retinal Circus in Vancouver, along with many smaller or temporary venues in every city. The recorded history of all the Vancouver bands was very minimal, just a few singles for the most part. The welcome explosion of archival releases has meant that many of the Retinal Circus bands have released cds featuring some of their 60s work, usually live or demos: groups like the United Empire Loyalists, My Indole Ring, Papa Bear's Medicine Show and Mock Duck can now be heard by modern audiences. Yet the burst of archival releases is not what set the Vancouver scene apart from the rest of the West Coast.

Throughout 1967 and 1968, once a week, initially on Fridays and later on Wednesdays, at 5:30 pm the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had a half-hour show called Where Its At, and every Vancouver psychedelic band appeared on the show many times. The show was broadcast across the country, so every single Canadian teenager who wanted to hear Vancouver underground bands simply tuned in Fridays at 5:30. None of these groups had recording contracts initially, and few of them released albums in their bands lifetimes, yet each of them appeared many times on National TV.

The clipping above is from Alberta's  Lethbridge Herald on Wednesday June 26, 1968: we can see that Tom Northcutt, My Indole Ring, The Collectors, The Poppy Family, Papa Bear's Medicine Show, The Northwest Company, Wiggy Symphony and Jason Hoover and The Epics, just about all of them underground Vancouver psychedelic bands, were playing on that night's episode. Although the shows were videotaped, the performances were live. The "house band" had been a group called The Classics, who evolved into The Collectors (and later Chilliwack) and they provided backing for any solo performers like Tom Northcutt. At this time, to my knowledge only Northcutt had an album and a Canadian hit (a cover of a Donovan song called "Sunny Goodge Street"). The rest were simply local bands. As far as I know, this was a typical episode.

Most of my information about this startling feature of Canadian music comes from a 2005 Guess Who cd called Lets Go. Where Its At was actually part of a nightly CBC series called Music Hop, had begun during the British Invasion in the mid-1960s, and which broadcast from a different region of Canada each night. By 1967, the lineup looked like this:

Mondays-Halifax, Nova Scotia Frank's Bandstand
Tuesdays-Montreal, Quebec
Wednesdays-Toronto, Ontario
Thursdays-Winnipeg, Manitoba Let's Go
Fridays-Vancouver, British Columbia Where Its At

All sorts of Canadian figures appeared on the shows. The Guess Who were the house band at Winnipeg's Thursday night feature, playing hits of the day, backing visiting singers and playing their own material (the basis of the cd). Anne Murray was a regular in Halifax, Alex Trebek had been the original host in Toronto, and so on: every figure in Canadian rock seems to have appeared on TV at 5:30, some of them numerous times. Seemingly every underground Vancouver band was on TV constantly, playing just a song or two perhaps, but nonetheless it insured that Vancouver teenagers knew what they were getting if they went to the Retinal Circus or anywhere else. Would that American underground scenes (then or now) would have such support, although it does cause me to rethink my definition of "underground" somewhat.

A diligent historian could go through the TV listings for Canada throughout 1967 and 1968 and document the appearance dates of every Vancouver psychedelic band. It won't be me, however. According to John Einarson's excellent liner notes on the Lets Go album, while a producer saved copies of the Music Hop shows with the Guess Who from 1967 and 1968, in general all copies of all shows were taped over by the CBC. This was standard television practice at the time, as videotape was expensive and bulky, and in any case who cared about recordings of soon-to-be-forgotten longhairs?

I can't bring myself to document a whole history of fascinating shows that I know have been lost. Nonetheless it is just one of many fascinating aspects of the Vancouver scene that most of the obscure bands whose names are on Retinal Circus posters performed live on Canadian Television, some many times. Fans of the music of other regions no doubt would be just as fascinated by the different performers of other regions, but save for some of the Music Hop shows in 67-68, they too are lost. Nothing would make me happier to find that some of them survived in some form, but I think that is too much to hope for.

Sic Transit Gloria Psychedelia, as the Romans would say.


  1. i saw a list years ago of who appered on lets go where its at vancouver. one band was the action (a winipeg band who recently moved to vancouver) another was the glass house. pity the cbc tends to keep all this locked up. one band that did not appear on lets go was the painted ship. their manager is on an episode talking about hippies but they never did appear . bctv used to have a local show too. bands appeared on the show but no tapes exist

  2. It's nice to know that there was at least a list of who appeared on Let's Go, even if we'll never see the tapes.

    Do you recall the name of the local show, and/or what time and what years it was on?

  3. corey

    late to the party but i do have a dvd of the exact show which is listed in your clipping.. so tapes are out

    uli teute

  4. A tape containing 2 Winnipeg shows has surfaced. The Guess Who were an excellent cover band and the other performers are a charming blend of period pop and lounge music.