Long before the rise of the modern independent music label, Toronto’s Anthem Records was pioneering the concept. It was partly out of necessity, but mostly the result of a small group of forward-thinking individuals determined to give artists the freedom to create the music they wanted to make, while at the same time cultivating a previously underserved audience for it.
In many ways, this approach was the only clear path to success for Canadian musicians during the early 1970s, as the country slowly but steadily built a music business infrastructure aimed at stemming the tide of homegrown talent relocating to the United States or England. From the beginning, Anthem Records was a driving force behind this Canadian cultural revolution, and after nearly 40 years, the label remains as committed as ever to working with the best talent Canada has to offer, and proving conclusively that there are no borders when it comes to rock and roll.
Of course, the Anthem Records story is inextricably linked to its primary act, Rush. As has been well documented, the Toronto power trio could not attract any Canadian record label interest during its formative years, prompting the band and its manager, Ray Danniels, to press Rush’s 1973 debut single, a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” under their own imprint, Moon Records. Rush’s self-titled 1974 debut album also initially appeared on Moon Records in a 3,500-copy first pressing, until a groundswell of support in the U.S. brought the band to the attention of the Polygram Group, which offered to sign Rush to its Mercury Records subsidiary.
That two-year deal began paying real dividends with the release of Rush’s 1976 masterpiece 2112, and Danniels and his then-partner Vic Wilson’s SRO Productions shrewdly leveraged that success by gaining sole ownership of Rush’s body of work with the intention of licensing it internationally. Thus, in May 1977, Anthem Records was born, and a new distribution partnership with Capitol-EMI was signed the following year.
Not surprisingly, the first band to join the Anthem roster had a strong Rush connection. Toronto’s Max Webster, fronted by singer/guitarist Kim Mitchell, offered a distinctive sound that combined Rush’s prog-rock virtuosity with Frank Zappa-like surrealism, courtesy of lyricist Pye Dubois. It was an approach that was likewise deemed un-commercial in the eyes of Canadian major label record executives, leading Danniels to again create an independent label in 1976, Taurus Records, to release the first, self-titled Max Webster album. It was reissued on Anthem in 1977 and eventually earned Gold certification in Canada.
Over the next four years, Max Webster released five more top-selling albums that yielded Canadian radio staples such as “High Class In Borrowed Shoes,” “Diamonds Diamonds,” “A Million Vacations,” and “Paradise Skies,” while touring the world as Rush’s support band of choice. These shows increasingly got bigger throughout the late 1970s as Rush hit its stride with the albums A Farewell To Kings, Hemispheres, and Permanent Waves, the last kicking off with the band’s first significantly charting single, “The Spirit Of Radio.”
The combined success of Rush and Max Webster opened the door for Anthem to sign more artists and fully display its creative vision heading into the 1980s. These acts included Ian Thomas, A Foot In Cold Water, ex-Roxy/Wackers leader Bob Segarini, Aerial, Wireless, BB Gabor, and Canadian jazz legend Moe Koffman. However, 1981 proved to be a pivotal year for Anthem, as Rush delivered Moving Pictures, still the most critically and commercially successful album of its career, while the label scored another massive North American hit in a completely different vein with The Great White North, the album by Canada’s beloved hoser brothers Bob & Doug McKenzie (aka SCTV stars Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas), including the single “Take Off” with guest vocals by Rush’s Geddy Lee.
Rather than coasting on these commercial breakthroughs, Anthem instead took them as a cue to keep discovering fresh new talent, just as Rush’s sound dramatically evolved over the ensuing decade. From 1982 to 1989, Anthem released albums by hard rock outfit Coney Hatch, new wave stars Spoons, synth-pop pioneers Images In Vogue (co-founded by future Skinny Puppy mastermind cEvin Key), and Toronto post-punks Boys Brigade, whose leader Malcolm Burn would go on to work closely with acclaimed producer Daniel Lanois, and later embark upon his own Grammy-winning production career.
The further period of change ushered in by the 1990s was reflected not only with Anthem’s new distribution deal with CBS-Sony, but a re-evaluation of its priorities. In 1990, the label picked up the contract of Lawrence Gowan, one of Canada’s most successful artists over the previous five years, who toughened up his pop-friendly image for the album Lost Brotherhood, containing the hit single “All The Lovers In The World.” Gowan rode that success into his next release, the more back-to-basics …But You Can Call Me Lawrence, before accepting an offer to replace Dennis De Young as front man in Styx.
Like its label, Rush returned to its strengths as well during this period, with fans warmly embracing the more guitar-centric albums Roll The Bones and Counterparts, just as a new generation of rock bands, from Soundgarden to Smashing Pumpkins, consistently cited Rush as an important influence. At the same time, Rush drummer Neil Peart acknowledged one of his strongest influences, Buddy Rich, with the innovative and highly praised tribute albums Burning For Buddy Vol. 1 & 2, which paired many of rock’s best drummers (including himself) with Rich’s original big band. And if Peart needed any further reason to endear himself to Canadians, he accomplished that by once again teaming with the Buddy Rich Band for a version of the Hockey Night In Canada theme that became an exclusive digital release. The kit used for that session—decorated with the logos of NHL’s Original Six teams—has been donated to the National Music Centre in Calgary.
More changes came in 1995, as Anthem forged a new distribution partnership with Universal Music, and a massive remaster/reissue campaign of the Rush catalogue got underway on the heels of the album Test For Echo. The focus on catering to Rush’s die-hard fan base continued throughout the ensuing decade with a string of smartly curated compilations, and acclaimed live documents. In fact, Rush was among the first to embrace the concept of long-form live home videos, starting with its 1982 concert film Exit…Stage Left. Nearly each subsequent tour was similarly captured so the band could be “seen” and not just “heard,” right up to 2015’s R40 Live DVD. The 2003 multi-media collection, Rush In Rio, alone has been certified 5x Platinum in the U.S., Gold in the U.K., and Diamond in Canada, along with winning a JUNO Award in 2004 for Music DVD of the Year.
Still, Anthem’s emphasis on maintaining a diverse roster never subsided, and in 1999 the label had a rare non-Canadian release in the form of Queensrÿche’s Q2K album, one of the Seattle prog-metal band’s strongest efforts. It proved to be a harbinger of Anthem solidifying its place as a sanctuary for intelligent and challenging hard rock artists, something also foreshadowed by Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson’s side project, Victor, along with Geddy Lee’s first solo album My Favourite Headache.
By the second decade of the 21st century, Anthem became the new home for Barenaked Ladies co-founder Steven Page—whose first solo release for the label, Page One, came out in 2010—as well as for two of Canada’s most beloved and best-selling bands, Big Wreck and The Tea Party, both of whom reunited after long hiatuses. Big Wreck’s return to form came in 2012 with the album Albatross, led by the title track, which topped Billboard’s Canadian Rock chart for six straight weeks. It was followed in 2014 by Ghosts, which like Albatross, earned a JUNO nomination for Rock Album of the Year. Big Wreck leader Ian Fletcher Thornley also made his solo debut on Anthem with the gorgeous 2015 release, Secrets.
For The Tea Party, 2014’s acclaimed The Ocean At The End, came after the band’s triumphant 2011-2012 “The Reformation Tour” of Canada and Australia. The album once again deftly displayed the band’s unparalleled skills at blending world music influences with their traditional hard rock trio approach, highlighted by a cover of Daniel Lanois’ “The Maker,” and the album’s majestic title track featuring Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson on flute.
During this period as well, Anthem added some punk rock flair with Spinnerette, the project helmed by former Distillers Brody Dalle and Tony Bevilacqua, and Hamilton, Ontario’s The Reason, whose 2010 album Fools, saw them expand both their sound and audience, as evidenced by their Top 10 Canadian Rock single “The Longest Highway Home.” The Reason surpassed that success in 2012 when the single “Drive Me Home,” from the Hollow Tree EP peaked at #9. Most recently, Anthem announced a new Steven Page solo album slated for early 2016.
For Page and many other members of the current Anthem roster who grew up in the southern Ontario suburbs that inspired Rush’s timeless track “Subdivisions,” being a part of a label so prevalent during their youth has brought things full circle. The same could be said of the Anthem’s connection to Canadian comedy, when in 2006 it teamed up with the Trailer Park Boys—heirs to Bob & Doug McKenzie—to release the soundtrack to their first feature film, Trailer Park Boys: The Movie, featuring tracks by The Big Dirty Band, which included Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson.
By this time, Rush’s penchant for self-deprecating humour was helping to fuel what can only be described as career renaissance, solidified by their role in the 2009 Paul Rudd/Jason Segal comedy I Love You, Man. What followed was an instantly legendary appearance on The Colbert Report, a first-time appearance on the cover Rolling Stone, and induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. In the midst of it all, Rush produced Clockwork Angels, which debuted at #1 on Canada’s SoundScan chart, and #2 on Billboard’s Top 200. Almost overnight, after 40 years, arguably the biggest cult band in rock history had finally entered the mainstream.
With sights now firmly set on reaching the half-century mark with the same passion and commitment displayed over the previous four decades, Anthem Records remains an industry leader among other Canadian independent labels that followed in its wake. The spirit of how a little trio from Toronto succeeded beyond all expectations continues to be the driving force behind the Anthem aesthetic. Yes, the bar has been set high, but as long as there are artists in Canada striving to raise it higher still, Anthem will be there to help make it happen.