October marked the 40th anniversary of one of my favorite albums ever released in North America, and quite possibly my favorite Canadian album of all time. Spoons “Arias + Symphonies.” I’ve owned a copy for 40 years now and it’s been near and dear to my heart ever since. It’s an example of a young band with taste, talent, and intelligence to spare meeting up with possibly the best industry veteran possible to helm the production of the album. With the results benefiting from the polish of the producer while it very much made its own mark without overly emulating any particular band. As a result, it defined its own very fresh vibe instead. Today we’ll begin by examining the history of the band prior to its release.
Spoons began as a Burlington, Ontario quartet of high school students who came together after the core duo of Gordon Deppe [vocals, guitar] and Sandy Horne [bass, vocals] thought to pivot away from their beginnings as kids making Genesis-like Prog Rock to something a little more Pop oriented. In 1979 the two linked up with fellow student Brett Wickens [keys] and their friend Paul Shepherd [drums] to become Spoons.
Their first manager, Paul Abrahams set up a label with Wickens, Mannequin Records, and a thousand copies of the band’s first single, “After The Institution” was released the next year, in 1980. But not before the band saw a replacement drummer, Derrick Ross, take over from the then-departed Shepherd. The release was recorded in Toronto’s Sound Kitchen Studios and was undoubtedly a benchmark for the fledgling band in addition to being useful as a calling card to move up to the next level.
Brett Wickens decided to move up to the next level in his profession, graphic design. He left the band to become a principle in Peter Saville Associates. Saville was the already legendary designer for Factory Records and other bands like OMD, Roxy Music, and Ultravox. He had designed the Canadian band Martha + The Muffins debut album and he soon became involved with Martha Ladly of that band, who would also follow Wickens to England as one of PSA’s designers in addition to being Saville’s partner at the time.
In Wickens’ place slotted new keyboardist Rob Preuss, who was a young man of just 15, but he had already been playing keys for a decade. The older members were in college as Preuss was still finishing high school. At that point the band had signed to the Canadian label Ready Records, who were releasing just the sort of modern, New Wave styled releases that the Spoons themselves were swept up in.
The group then made a change in management; signing with Carl Finkle, the ex-bass player of Martha + the Muffins, by 1981 as the band settled into Grant Avenue Studios to record their debut album, “Stick Figure Neighbourhood.” Grant Avenue was owned by the Lanois brothers; Bob and Daniel. The latter of which would engineer Spoons’ debut album. Meanwhile, Martha + The Muffins would figure in The Spoons day-to-day lives as they found themselves opening up for the Canadian New Wave band, as well as favorite bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Simple Minds on their jaunts through Canada. Things were moving into place for the band.
“Stick Figure Neighbourhood” would not have any singles released from it, but it did well enough to top the Canadian college radio chart. A noble achievement for a two year old band of the time. The album featured the quartet populating the songs with angular, left field New Wave pop, full of quirky mannerisms that were ripped twitching from the zeitgeist. But the band and their label were paying attention to the 1981 environment that saw Rock Discos playing New Wave cuts for clubbers to dance to. Especially on those new and intriguing 12″ singles.
When it came time for the band to take their next move, Ready Records was suggesting that the band think about recording a 12″ dance single. And at that time the band were more than ready to comply. They were young people already immersed in that culture so the next step would be finding the right producer. The band and the label considered Mike Howlett, the ex-Gong bassist. The British producer was already associated with Canadian acts, having produced the first two Martha + The Muffins albums. To say nothing of his instrumental role in catapulting favorites OMD to the top of the UK charts.
But wheels were turning at lower, more subtle levels. Quality Records, who distributed Ready Records in Canada also distributed the band JAPAN. When JAPAN toured back then, their producer, John Punter, traveled with them to mix their live sound. On their 1979 tour of Canada, he met with their distributor and he became familiar with Spoons via a fateful tape. Since Punter had produced the already classic and influential Roxy Music album “Country Life” as well as Ferry solo albums and the JAPAN albums, it was he who ultimately got the nod to fly to Toronto and produce the first Spoons single for Ready Records in the winter of 1981.
Next: …To The Next Level And Then Some