By Blair Matthews
It’s November 1984 and Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto is abuzz with nearly 17,000 Boy George fans - mostly teenagers - waiting for their favourite band to take the stage. Behind the curtain, a road manager rattles off instructions to members of the opening act. He tells them that when he yells ‘house lights’ into his radio, they won’t be able to hear him anymore - they’ll have to follow his flashlight out to the stage. It’s about to get really loud, really quick, he says. He squawks the signal, the house lights come alive, and it’s a thunderous response.
This unknown opening act has been paying their dues for years in local night clubs and bars around Newmarket, East Gwillimbury and Aurora.
But this... this is something much different.
Opening for Boy George and the Culture Club in the mid 1980s - without an album or a recording contract - is something that most fledgling bands would risk life and limb for. Their new manager has pulled some strings to get them there, on a stage they aren’t sure they belong on. They start their set with a high-energy song called Ancient Evenings.
And East Gwillimbury resident Sam Reid, keyboard player for Canadian megaband Glass Tiger, remembers that chilly Thursday night in Toronto like it was yesterday.
For Reid and the rest of Glass Tiger, that was a time before hit records, awards, media appearances, sold out arenas across North America, and fame that was beyond their wildest expectations.
Considering the success the band has enjoyed for nearly 30 years, it’s hard to believe they almost didn’t get together. In the early 1980s, they were in two separate bands that toured the area - not rivals, but each group knew of the other. When both groups imploded around the same time, lead singer Alan Frew was ready to give up on music and pursue a career in medicine.
Two members from the other band had lost their lead singer and somehow persuaded Frew to join them to play (just as a hobby, they assured him). But once they started playing together, they realized how good they really were and the bars they played at started to fill up. They called themselves ‘Tokyo’ at first and eventually when the record companies came calling, they morphed into Glass Tiger.
On the road to a record contract, front-man Alan Frew says he remembers the very first gig they did together as a band - at the Thornhill Community Centre. They made signs and nailed them to telephone poles in the area, handed out flyers, and did everything they could think of to promote their show.
When Glass Tiger was on the brink of getting a record deal, keyboard player Sam Reid had a tough decision to make. He was the youngest in the band, fresh out of high school, and hit a fork in the road. “The biggest problem was that I had a scholarship for the University of Toronto in their (Bachelor of) music program paid for.”
After much soul-searching, he turned it down.
Reid says his father was extremely disappointed with his decision to follow his rockstar dreams and bypass a University education. Reid’s logic was that if he went off and tried to make a go of it with Glass Tiger and it didn’t work out, he could always come home and re-apply to schools - with or without a scholarship. It was a gamble that would pay off with a lifetime of experiences touring the world and making records as part of one of Canada’s most beloved 80’s bands.
Fortunately, Reid’s father lived long enough to see his son flourish as Glass Tiger’s success caught fire. “He got over the disappointment when he understood that (university) wasn’t a good fit for me. I flew my mom and dad down to California and that’s when it really sunk in for him - he saw 17,000 people in an arena. I was delighted that that’s how the story ended and not the other way,” he says.
Frew believes that Glass Tiger resonated with fans because they came along at just the right time. “The industry had just come out of the 70’s, the big glam arena rock. So it’s looking for a shift and the shift starts to happen where songs are a little brighter, a little pop-ier. There’s a movement going on and there’s a perfect time when people are looking for it. When Glass Tiger just happened to get together in 1981 and you get five guys that have got a look about them as a real attraction to a female demographic and to a record company, it was all perfect timing. So by 1985 when Don’t Forget Me was written - and it’s this sort of undeniably infectious pop song - the timing was perfect.”
‘Perfect’ is an understatement when you consider the accolades Glass Tiger has racked up over the years. Five Juno Awards, 7 singles in the Top 10, a Number 1 single (Don’t Forget Me [When I’m Gone]) in Canada (Number 2 in the United States), and four albums between 1986 and 1993. The band toured with Tina Turner, recorded a song with Rod Stewart, and played the Olympiahalle in Munich, Germany for 7 nights straight.
Growing up in Scotland, Frew was influenced heavily by The Beatles. “I always naturally leaned towards British things: Rod Stewart, the Stones, the Beatles, the Police, U2.”
And when the band became wildly successful, playing to sold-out stadiums everywhere they went, it was a crash course in dealing with screaming teenage girls, rabid fans, and life on the road.
As much as he loved what he was doing, a part of him was tiring of the fame. Being the front-man meant he was the most recognizable band member and was in the highest demand for media and press work. “When it was happening, it wore pretty thin because I couldn’t go anywhere, I couldn’t really do anything. That got to me pretty quickly,” he says. “The negative part was that constant reminder that you were ‘that guy’. You wish you could turn it on and off but you can’t.”
Of all the songs the band has written and performed, the one that stands out most to Frew is My Town (from their 1993 Simple Mission album). “Just a well-crafted story, great melody ... there’s a bit of a celtic about it, it’s a sing along pop song. I’m pretty proud of songs we’ve crafted. Someday is a great pop song...”
One of Frew’s favourite musical achievements is the song he co-wrote for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics called I Believe, performed by Nikki Yanofsky. “It was a beautiful song that endeared itself to this nation.”
I Believe stretched across Canada during the Olympic broadcast coverage and the single by Yanofsky reached Number 1 on the Canadian Hot 100 that winter. Both the English and French versions were recorded in Montreal, Quebec, along with the help of The Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
It’s obvious that Frew’s true passion is writing and creating. “It didn’t exist yesterday and today it’s a killer rock song. I love that just by my nature. But the actual going out and doing it... I get as much pleasure out of watching Nikki Yanofsky perform I Believe than whether or not I have to get up and do it.”
Looking back on how the music industry has changed since the early days of Glass Tiger, Frew says that with the advent of YouTube and social media, it’s easier to become a musician with an audience, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into becoming a bankable musician. “It’s really just a mask. Because behind that mask you still have to deal with the issues of: Are you any good? Do you have a great song? How do you get it to go viral? How do you tour a country? How do you do these things? It really is a catch 22,” he says.
On the otherhand, being a successful musician these days requires entrepreneurship. You become a musician by being one, Frew says. “Ironically, you’re in the music industry, but where is the money going to come from? That’s the difference.”
And whether you make it big as a musician or not, Reid recommends some long-term financial planning.
“It’s certainly one of those businesses where there is no pension, there’s no ‘I put in my 25 years here’s a gold watch’. When it’s over, it’s over. You either do well and plan accordingly or it just ends one day. You don’t think about it when you’re 20-years-old and travelling the world; when you hit it big in a band there are moments you make a lot of money. It’s kind of like winning a lottery in a lot of ways. There’s not always good stories at the end of those...”
Frew agrees. “When you’re doing that, you’re only thinking in the moment.”
Reid says they got enough of a taste of it to know what it was like, but because of the area they were brought up in, they stayed humble.
“Coming off the tour bus when I got home and having my mom hand me the garbage and say, ‘take it out’, always kept me grounded,” he says.
As the years went by, Glass Tiger went into part time mode. Frew ventured off on his own for two solo albums and has many song-writing credits to his name. He’s also an accomplished author and public speaker.
Reid still calls East Gwillimbury home. He is, in his own words, “a lifer” here. He has a recording studio in Newmarket where he writes and produces music, and he’s managing the career of Sudbury-native Joey Niceforo (an original member of The Canadian Tenors).
It’s also not unheard of for Glass Tiger to perform periodically. Locally, they did a show at the Aurora Ribfest this past fall, and helped celebrate the 404 Extension in East Gwillimbury with an afternoon show in August.
Frew says he’d like to see Glass Tiger gear up for the 30th anniversary of their first hit record when 2016 rolls around.
“I’m singing better right now than I ever did in my life. Glass Tiger is playing extremely well and we’re having fun when we do it. From that perspective, it makes perfect sense that we’re still doing it.”
And even with all the time that has passed since that fateful night at Maple Leaf Gardens decades ago, it’s still fresh in Reid’s mind.
Fans of the band came to see the show at the Gardens from as far as - you guessed it - East Gwillimbury. A whole bus-load filled the front row to witness history in the making.
The anticipation of performing in front of such a large crowd for the first time was, according to Reid, like getting ready to jump out of an aircraft for a skydiving adventure.
“I remember walking out (on stage) and looking at how far away the ‘EXIT’ signs were in the aisles at Maple Leaf Gardens. It looked like they were 8 miles away. It just looked like there were people forever. That first night was just completely magical. I felt like, ‘oh my god, this is what I want to do’.”
And they did.
Glass Tiger - Nearly 30 years later, the homegrown band is still wowing fans everywhere