I first became aware of the Sheepdogs when a copy of their self-released version of Learn & Burn arrived at Exclaim! Magazine in the spring of 2010. For starters, I wasn’t impressed by the package–the garish yellow cover was amateurish, and the inside contained the sort of slapdash photo montage that a million other weekend warriors have employed on homemade CDs.
Of course, none of that should matter, but when you receive a few dozen CDs a week, judging by the cover soon becomes second nature. When I did listen to the album, my first impression was that this had to be a reissue of something originally released in 1974. I honestly couldn’t believe that these guys were serious, and I couldn’t even be bothered to review it. It was as if they were from a world where punk rock never existed.
This seems to be a good thing, judging by the media reaction to the Sheepdogs recently winning the contest to be the first unsigned band to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. It’s raised a lot of questions for me though, the biggest one being why is this happening now?
A clue is in one of the initial reviews of Learn & Burn, posted on Chartattack, formerly Chart Magazine, the Canadian publication geared toward mainstream pop and rock listeners. The “4/5″ review compared the band to Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. The Sheepdogs’s own bio cited the Allman Brothers and Moby Grape as influences.
I encountered a similar enthusiastic reaction at a recent story meeting at Exclaim, when a 20-something contributor, well-schooled in modern rock, raved about a Sheepdogs’s set he saw at a summer festival. I was dumbfounded.
I cannot fault the young music journalists of today for dropping names that must have the same iconic ring to them as Robert Johnson’s name had for me as a teenager, but in my view, the Sheepdogs sound like Led Zeppelin about as much as LZ sounded like Elvis Presley.
What the Sheepdogs do sound exactly like is the Guess Who, and band who–as a kid growing up in Canada in the 1970s–was ubiquitous and the antithesis of cool. Yes, “American Woman” encapsulated the feelings of a large segment of society in 1970 and it made the group Canada’s first true international rock and roll success story.
Yet, the force-feeding of their catalogue as a result of Canada’s horribly antiquated Can/Con broadcasting regulations has made me even more hostile toward all things Bachman and Cummings. These guys have gotten a free ride for the past 40 years, as many other Canadian musicians of that generation continue to receive, and I’m tired of it.
So now we have the Sheepdogs carrying on that tradition, and songs from Learn & Burn will no doubt be heard on Canadian radio for decades to come, even if the band never puts out another album. The difference is, this is comfort food for an increasingly conservative culture; a soundtrack to enable baby boomers to bond with their grandchildren.
To be clear, I shouldn’t have to remind anyone that September marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Rock and roll, circa 1991:
The Rolling Stone thing is a whole other issue. It’s as if Jann Wenner saw the opportunity to play out the premise of Almost Famous in real life–and don’t think that that thought didn’t cross his mind. He’s a guy who still goes out of his way to give his old pal Boz Scaggs’ albums 4-star reviews.
Speaking of Scaggs, I found it coincidental that the writer of the Sheepdogs’ RS cover story bore that last name. Another coincidence? The band’s TV showcases have been on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon–Fallon had a role in Almost Famous. All of that is aside from the overriding question of how an unknown band from Saskatoon gets in that position in the first place, with the entire music industry falling at their feet. If there’s any lesson at all in Almost Famous–as Fallon’s character illustrated–it’s that that sort of thing just doesn’t happen without the highest levels signing off on it.
The article itself has raised the ire of Canadians for other reasons, mostly for several unnecessary–and offensive–swipes at Saskatchewan and its residents. Scaggs also takes a poke at The Tragically Hip, calling them “awful yet extremely popular.” Why he couldn’t have said the same thing about Nickelback is not clear. I have admittedly been disappointed at times with The Hip over the years, yet their music is not awful, and never will be. The fact that they have never attained enough currency to warrant the cover of RS seems the only criteria for the magazine to feel the need to dismiss their entire catalogue.
The music industry as Jann Wenner knew it is on its deathbed, and its so-called legends are looking more pathetic by the day. Attempting to recapture those days of stadium tours and double live albums is a natural, but highly misguided, way to recoup staggering financial losses. But in the not too distant future, it will all be gone; a process that will speed up if derivative bands like the Sheepdogs are all that’s out there.
I’m prepared to receive your ire, but please keep in mind that this isn’t a personal thing. I haven’t met anyone in the band, and I’m sure they’re good guys. All Canadian musicians are good guys (that’s what everyone always says), but that doesn’t mean they all make good music.