30 Years: May 15, 1989
By Vel Omazic
1989 changed the course of my life — the year, not the album!
It was the year the Berlin Wall crumbled (I have a piece of it); it was the year of pro-democracy rallies in China’s Tiananmen Square; and it was the year the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker, ran aground in Alaska, spilling over 10 million gallons of crude oil.
It was the year of Australia thanks to Paul Hogan, Crocodile Dundee and Foster’s beer; it was the emergence of Tom Hanks (Big); and Bruce Willis starring in the ultimate Christmas movie (Die Hard). Meanwhile, weekly shows like Cheers, Rosanne and The Wonder Years dominated television viewing.
In music, it was the year of Tom Petty’s first solo album, Full Moon Fever; it was the year Sheriff’s “When I’m With You” became a #1 Billboard Hot-100 Single seven years after originally being released, with no active band, label or product to sell; and it was the year I saw Milli Vanilli lip synch their hearts out on the Club MTV tour. Most importantly, it was the year I discovered the album, Workers Playtime, and Billy Bragg.
It was the year the Calgary Flames won the Stanley Cup at the old Montreal Forum. I remember the eerie silence of the crowds walking past the window of my ground-floor apartment that night at the corner of De Maisonneuve & St Marc, just a few blocks away. It was the year I switched to CDs from vinyl after my apartment was burglarized and my turntable was stolen. The fuckers walked out the front door of the building carrying my stereo in my suitcase.
You see, I remember all of these things because on May 15, 1989, exactly 30 years ago today, I was hired by PolyGram Records (long-since absorbed into Universal Music), then based in the suburb of Saint-Laurent in Montreal, not far from Pierre Trudeau International Airport (then Dorval), to write artist bios and newsletters in the National Promotion/Publicity department.
This was never planned. As a product of Bishop Ryan High School in Hamilton’s east end, in the pre-internet age, I had no idea working in the music industry was even possible. Everything I knew about music came from the radio (CKOC in Hamilton; CFTR, Q107 and CHUM-FM in Toronto; and 97 Rock, 103.3 WPHD and Rock 102 from Buffalo) and friends.
I paid my way through the Carleton University’s School of Journalism (Ottawa) by labouring through the summers at Canron Pipe (now Canada Pipe) in the north end. My primary job was to weigh the pipes as they came down the line (so hot they were orange) and ensure they were properly rolled into the waiting furnace. It was dirty, dangerous and the cumulative heat from the pipes, furnace and summer sun was completely stifling. It was the ultimate source of academic motivation. I loved every minute, every pipe!
It was a random late April encounter with the School of Journalism’s job board (yes, a physical bulletin board) that took me off the intended path of business reporting or sports broadcasting and introduced me to the Canadian Music industry.
Everything happened very quickly. I used my trusty typewriter to prepare a resume and was called in for an interview within a week. So, I drove the two hours from Ottawa to PolyGram headquarters located at 6000 Cote de Liesse for interviews with Lynn Adalist (then Manager, National Publicity) and Bob Ansell (then VP National Promotion/Publicity). I don’t remember much, except the driving rain and that the only writing samples I had were “business” articles/columns from school. I had to convince them I knew something, anything, about music. Today, the only question I remember from those interviews came from Bob Ansell: “Who is the drummer for Bon Jovi?” The innumerable hours I spent listening to the radio paid off. Thanks, at least partially, to Tico “The Hitman” Torres, I got the job and, out of nowhere, I was in the music business.
I spent five formative years at PolyGram Records, which included a merger with A&M/Island Records and a move to Toronto in the spring of 1991. I eventually left for Sony Music at the start of 1995, but the foundation of what I know about the music industry was established by working at PolyGram Records.
I’ve been doing a lot of personal reflection lately. Today, I am grateful for the opportunities, experiences and relationships shared with the amazing people and artists (in addition to Billy Bragg, there was Buffalo Tom, The Wonder Stuff, Boyz II Men, De La Soul, Def Leppard, the Pixies, John Mellencamp, to name only a few) at PolyGram Records from 1989-1994. While I’m absolutely terrible about keeping in touch, I carry pieces of each of the following people, and many more, with me every day:
Thanks Bob Ansell (for the chance); Lynn Adalist (for reading my resume and the interview invitation); David Freeman (for the belief and for the Pixies sales counts); Alwyn Ross (for generously sharing your wisdom and the rides home); Livia Tortella (for the inspiration and for the Friday night souvlaki at Zorba); Richard Bird (for speaking your truth); Patti Rosati (for the office spirit); CHOM-FM (for so much Supertramp); Hydro Quebec (for the regular power outages); Ivar Hamilton (for exemplifying what it took to be the best promo rep and for the Jerky Boys); Donna Lidster (for the challenge of keeping up with your work effort and for “Omageek”) Ron Harwood (for always stepping up for the team and for “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”); Laura Ferguson (for the support); Steve Cranwell (for the integrity); Gregg Daniell (for the enthusiasm and multiple consonants); Dawna Rio-Daniell (for telling me to lose the tie); Dave MacMillan (for clearing the path to Toronto); Brian Berry (for a place to live and a seat on the “Sony Shuttle”); Andrew Lindsay (for the real story at retail and The Saddletramps); Tom Gibb (for way too many laughs — and drinks); Dave McDonagh (for the marketing insights); John Deighan (for the creativity and for introducing me to organized ball hockey); Trevor Lamas (for the determination and reliability); Russell Prowse (for the “talks” and for the first Shania listen); Men Without Hats (for rejecting the bio I wrote, along with all subsequent revisions); Dave Ingrouville (for letting me crush warehouse “returns”); Glenda Rush (for the spontaneity). And last, but certainly not least, Tony Szambor (for making me feel very proud).
Thank you ALL and thanks to EVERY other PolyGram colleague and artist from that era.
As I wrap this up, I wonder how Jesse Mitchell, Ryan Warner, Kate Buote and Kyle Martin, the CMI team I care so much about, will reflect on their time working and sacrificing to build this organization.
And I constantly think about all of the talented artists and the managers being supported by CMI today and how they might look back on the impact we’ve had on the course of their careers come 2039 or 2049.
See PolyGram-era photo below and please excuse the very weak attempt at a goatee. I blame grunge!