High hair, higher hopes and a new identity - The JUNO Awards

Canadian music’s coming-of-age story in the 1980s

The story of the JUNO Awards in the 80’s has been called a coming-of-age tale for good reason. For both musicians and the industry, it was a time of expression, experimentation, expansion and growing cultural identity – with some teenage angst along the way. 

Our 80’s adolescence began awkwardly. The Canadian industry was in building mode. Too many artists headed south in the 70’s – no fault to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Paul Anka, as the industry at home just wasn’t big enough to support the vats of brewing talent. The Gold Leaf Awards – as the JUNO Awards was known at the time – was considered so “insider baseball” that multi-award winner Anne Murray stopped coming – likening the event to a ‘drunk and disorderly’ dinner theatre. It was evolving, but by 1980, even with the national CBC broadcast, Paul Anka didn’t show up to receive his Canadian Music Hall of Fame Award – deferring to a pressing engagement in Las Vegas. The JUNO Award show needed a giant leap of legitimacy to reflect the new swagger that Canadian talent was displaying out there in the stadiums.

Rough Trade performs ‘High School Confidential’ at The 1980 JUNO Awards. (CBC/CARAS)

While bands like Rush, The Guess Who, Prism, Triumph and Trooper were touring U.S. arenas, the industry was building a new support system back home in Canada. From the impact of the controversial 70’s era CanCon regulations, to the 1982 introduction of FACTOR, to the birth of MuchMusic in 1984, the “restless dreams of youth” were becoming more widely realized. In 1980, as artists like Anne Murray, Murray McLauchlan, Bruce Cockburn and Burton Cummings were awarded their JUNOS, Loverboy was recording their first album and about to populate the Billboard charts for the entire first half of the decade. Bryan Adams formed his first band in 1980 and, by 1984, Reckless had become the first record to achieve diamond-selling status in Canada. One million copies, folks. 

And it wasn’t just the rockers. A wide array of early 80’s JUNO winners like Charles Dutoit, Frank Mills, Liona Boyd, Sharon Lois & Bram and The Good Brothers were feeling the growing power of Canadian infrastructure as managers and labels ramped up their influence. Talented producers across the country were attracting international talent from Bon Jovi to Peter Gabriel to U2. And soon, the list of Canadian JUNO-nominated producers would come to include the best in the world: Bob Rock, Bruce Fairbairn, Daniel Lanois, Jim Vallance, Terry Brown, to name a few.  

The JUNOS in the 80’s reflected unprecedented talent and the viewers at home were rewarded with a saturnalia of stylistic expression. It was headbands and hammer pants, spandex and sequins, studded collars and shoulder pads – and let’s not forget the hair! The likes of Gino Vanelli, Glass Tiger, Jane Siberry, Platinum Blonde took us to greater heights. To some, it would appear that, “the higher the hair, the closer to God.” 

As with all good coming-of-age stories, the 80’s were sexy too. In 1982, Rough Trade’s Carole Pope sang about “creaming my jeans” in “High School Confidential.” In 1984, Corey Hart’s pout took centre stage for “Sunglasses at Night,” while Parachute Club’s equity anthem “Rise Up” won two JUNOS. And in an apt reflection of Canadians’ self-deprecating sense of humour, no one will forget k.d. lang accepting her award for Most Promising in 1985 by prancing down the aisle in a wedding dress, or Caroll Baker busting a gut as Ronnie Hawkins busted his pants, or Howie Mandel hanging upside down from a broken fly rope imploring the stars to accept their awards …”with the dignity that this show deserves.”  

One way to measure “dignity” and boost ratings in those days was by the attraction of international stars. And by the mid 80’s the JUNOS were flying: Tina Turner arrived in 1985 to duet on Adams’ monster hit, “It’s Only Love.” And in 1986, Bob Dylan was in the house to present Gordon Lightfoot with his Hall of Fame Award. Per capita, we were punching above our weight. 

As teenagers of every generation know, music defines your time and your identity. So too, the nation. That our Canadian artists were becoming revered internationally gave our patriotic self-esteem a boost. It’s not an overstatement to say MuchMusic offered an able assist when it launched in 1984. Fans across the country now saw their favourite Canadian artists played back-to-back with global superstars. 

The 80’s was also the decade of “Tears are Not Enough,” a Canadian all-star recording orchestrated by Bruce Allen and produced by David Foster for Ethiopian famine relief. David won his second Producer of the Year Award in 1986, the same year Anne Murray appeared in person for the first time in a decade. The 80’s became our decade of heart and humanity.

By 1989, with the show now firmly in the hands of producers John Brunton and Lynn Harvey, the JUNOS’ heart was on full display. Rita MacNeil delivered a deeply moving, distinctly Canadian performance of “Working Man” with The Men of the Deeps. Rita won the Most Promising Award that year over Celine Dion, whose jaw-dropping performance of “I Miss Your Love” as a 19-year-old the previous year had already cemented her promise of global superstardom. The induction of The Band into the Hall of Fame with a live performance of “The Weight” with Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Blue Rodeo added additional international heft. 

One song that sticks in my head from 1989 was Tom Cochrane’s Composer of the Year win for “Big League.” It certainly felt then that we’d arrived. But as we look back at the 80’s through the lens of today’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, the music scene was overwhelmingly white, male and straight. The Academy’s path to include awards for reggae/calypso, R&B soul, roots and traditional and, later, Hip Hop and Indigenous music began in the 80’s and remains a stalwart work in progress. We’re out of our teens and into our middle age sorting of priorities and ensuring they reflect 2021 Canadian values. It’s been a privilege to be part of the evolution.

Featured Image: k.d. lang makes an impression at The 1985 JUNO Awards while accepting the Most Promising Female Vocalist award. Credit: Bruce Cole