Christopher Ward is a man with a multi-faceted resume. He has been an actor, comedian, TV host, VJ, singer/songwriter and artist manager. He debuted as an author with 2013 novel Dead Brilliant, and is now set to put out a new memoir, Is This Live? - Inside the Wild Early Years Of MuchMusic, the Nation's Music Station.
Published by Random House Canada, it is a highly entertaining and well-constructed read that explores the glory days of the music video channel through the eyes and memories of those who worked there plus many of the artists whose careers were greatly boosted by Much.
Ward was a key member of the MuchMusic team right from its inception in 1984. After quitting his gig as a performer in Second City's touring company in 1983, he was hired by Citytv co-founder Moses Znaimer and The New Music's creator John Martin to host City Limits, an all-night video show on Citytv.
That show helped persuade the CRTC to grant Znaimer the licence to operate Canada's first music video channel, and the rest is Much history. Ward stayed on as one of the first (and best) MuchMusic hosts, prior to leaving at the end of 1989 to focus on the career of rising star Alannah Myles, his then personal and professional partner.
Is This Live? covers that period in depth, leaving out the later years of the channel. In an interview at his publisher's office yesterday, Ward explains that "using the adage of write what you know, I didn’t think I could do it justice as I wasn't around for those later years."
He candidly admits he didn't watch Much religiously after departing. "Immediately after, I moved to the States, living there for 11 years and then in France for a couple, then moving back to Toronto. To be honest I’m not much of a TV watcher, I’m a reader."
He has, however, maintained close connections with many of his former Much comrades, and that paid off for the book.
Reflecting on the period it covers, he notes that "I realized later this is a neat time frame, as musically it fits into the period between punk and grunge. It was an era identifiable stylistically – the look, the sound, all the things we celebrate about the '80s and the early '90s. Technologically this was just before the age of the internet. That separates it and makes it a very different era from what followed."
Sure to help draw attention to the book is the eloquent foreword written by Mike Myers. He and Ward were pals from their Second City days, and Myers actually premiered his famed Wayne character on Ward's City Limits show.
Coincidentally, Myers is now out promoting his new book, Canada, while former Much colleague Denise Donlon is about to publish her autobiography too, one Ward is keen to read. After roles as a Much anchor and producer of The New Music, Donlon served as vice president and general manager there from 1993-2000, so her book promises to be a fascinating complement to Is This Live?.
Ward says his mandate was "to tell the story of the time and the people that together made MuchMusic what it was. One theme that emerged was that we had a ridiculous amount of freedom, way more than we should have been given or had earned, but I think we used it creatively.
"The second theme, an outgrowth of that, was that it was a collaboration of all parties, from those operating the cameras to floor directors, producers. Everyone threw their best ideas into the ring and what you saw was the result of that. There was no regimentation of roles. If you wanted to shoot something all you had to do was requisition a camera then just go shoot it."
Ward describes the writing of Is This Live? as "a labour of love." A lengthy labour too, as he first started working on it around three years ago.
"I began in the tape library at Much, screening stuff to see what was there, laughing my ass off at times over things I’d forgotten about, and then transcribing interviews. I felt that there was enough to go on and went from there."
Canadian literary super-agent Sam Hiyate came on board, and a detailed pitch to publishers brought an instant response from Random House. Ward speaks highly of both his publisher and of Bell Media (now owners of MuchMusic), who were very co-operative in assisting with the project.
"I was treated with such kindness, respect and openness, by Bell Media," he says. "I couldn’t have done it without them."
He calls the project "a really good challenge. I’m a songwriter, a 3 minutes and 20 seconds guy, so to go to 320 pages is a leap! The challenge was to pull all the threads together and make it a meaningful narrative and capture the feeling of what it was like when it happened."
One interview Ward was unable to get for the book was with the late John Martin, who passed away before the idea of the book had formed. As Is This Live? states, “many would say he was the spark that started the whole thing."
The creator of the groundbreaking The New Music series on Citytv prior to the launch of MuchMusic by City's Moses Znaimer, Martin was indeed an industry maverick. “He was the king of the shit disturbers,” Ward tells us.
“He challenged you, he challenged your assumptions about what you were supposed to do when you walked into the building each day. If you had an inkling of an idea, he’d go ‘great. Do it!’
“People who knew him really well, like JD Roberts, Jeanne Beker, Denise Donlon and Simon Evans, all have these affectionate things to say, right alongside ‘damn him!’”
A very different personality, Znaimer has long been a polarizing figure, as Ward is not afraid to point out in the book. “I don’t know what Moses is going to think,” says Ward. “He was very gracious in sitting down with me and generous with his time. He had some strong points to make. There is a full chapter on him and I think it’s pretty even-handed.”
To Ward, “collaboration is the heart and soul of the book’s story. Collaboration was at the heart of how we made MuchMusic on a daily basis and that extended into a collaboration with the artists in this country, the idea that we were partners in their careers. That was how we felt.
"If we helped them succeed, they were going to make better videos and there was going to be a bigger star system in this country that covered a wider swathe of popular music. That exploded in the ‘80s and we certainly helped enable that.
"An artist could go from zero to 60 with just minimal exposure on Much. They could be operating out of Regina and may have had to wait years to build a career and get signed, touring back and forth to gradually build an audience. If we put their video into a rotation, as we were eager to do, then people knew them from coast to coast. So many people told that story. Jann Arden told us that overnight her life changed."
Those at Much loved to help break artists that may have been earlier ignored by commercial radio or the major labels. "That was a point of pride," Ward stresses. "We wanted to have skin in the game and be an important part of the story."
"We loved seeing acts we supported from day one succeed. Honeymoon Suite, Glass Tiger, Luba, Parachute Club, and so on - watching them blow up nationally was great. Now, looking back after 30 years, I see that so many of those acts still have vital careers."
Is This Live? does recount many memorable stories and incidents involving major international stars, but extra attention is given to those Canadian acts who owed flourishing careers in large part to the video channel.
"That is the other layer in the book," Ward explains. "There is the blatant exercise in nostalgia and the looking back, recollecting the stories. But then there is that perspective of the artist looking back 25 years on how their career developed. People often see that it [MuchMusic] was the foundation of their careers. They were often the glory years. The freedom we had at Much they had as artists. I look back at that stuff with great affection. It is like the innocence of your youth."
He found many also had a sense of humour about this era. Just as well, given the haircuts and fashion of the time, plus music videos that can often look cheesy and dated when viewed now. "They would mention things they laugh about now," says Ward.
"Bryan Adams was very funny. He’d describe his video as ‘Girl in car. Bryan sees girl. Girl smiles at Bryan. Girl drives away. Bryan stands alone wondering why.' I’m paraphrasing, but that was his view of how his videos were made.
"I always asked people ‘what was the biggest disaster that happened?,’ and that always got great answers."
Ward would likely not take exception to be called a cultural nationalist. For instance, on his highly popular annual Much program Fromage!, he’d take the role of Charles de Camembert and select the cheesiest videos of the year, but only by non-Canadian acts.
“That was my mandate and I got a lot of blowback on that,” he explains. “I think it was because I had been a Canadian artist and I knew how hard it was. We can’t make it harder for a Canadian artist by mocking them.”
Ward remains very active as a songwriter, back in Los Angeles. "I still love writing music," he states. "It's one of the joys in my life. Recently I’ve been writing for DeGrassi. It is rolling on with Netflix in over 190 countries. One of the characters on the show is a songwriter and they needed songs to be written.
My friend [Canadian producer and writer] Rob Wells and I and another collaborator wrote all the songs for the new season. That is such a welcome creative challenge, where you have a script and a character you have to write for."
As a songwriter, Ward's biggest hit remains "Black Velvet," the massive international hit song he wrote with David Tyson for Alannah Myles. He received a Juno Award for Songwriter of the Year in 1990, and his songs have also been covered by such artists as Diana Ross, Backstreet Boys, Wynonna Judd, Amanda Marshall and Roch Voisine.
"I like being part of a team," he says. "As a songwriter I work with producers and artists and other writers in the service of writing the best song you can."
Is This Live? is launched at The Royal Theatre in Toronto on Nov. 4th, accompanied by a MuchMusic Retro Mixtape screening.
Ward also worked with MuchMusic recently to come up with a visual companion to his book, a video playlist entitled 50 Wild Moments in Much History. Check it out here