The highway of life once again has Prince George on the map. Tom Cochrane, the bard of ragged ass roads everywhere, will be live at CN Centre on Monday night. For a lot of fans, life must be like the Autobahn because the brain careens to realize it has been 25 years since the release of Cochrane’s mega-album Mad Mad World. For those who weren’t there, it was simply a nuclear detonation of rock. No Regrets was a huge hit, Sinkin’ Like A Sunset was a huge hit (fun fact: Cochrane didn’t write that one, it was Annette Ducharme, the only time he released someone else’s song as a single other than Bird On A Wire), the title track was a single, in fact there were six singles released to the world and every one of them cracked the Top 100 in Canada. Three of them cracked the Top 3 in this nation and two of them broke into the Top 10 on the United States rock charts.
One of them was No Regrets – some argue it’s the better composition of the two – but the other one took on a climate of its own. That year, not only was it a rock song getting played at dance clubs everywhere but in many places it got played twice per night. It dominated radio. It was Top 2 in both New Zealand and Australia; it made the Top 30 of countries that don’t even sing in English. It was the Single of the Year at the Juno Awards. And it is still getting released anew by artists doing their version.
It is Life Is A Highway and it propelled Cochrane to heights few Canadians have ever reached with a guitar strapped around their neck.
It was that song that gave Cochrane a special connection to Prince George. It was the people of this city who finally explained it to him that he was not just the same ol’ rock star we were already fond of. He brought it up himself, unprompted, when The Citizen spoke with him on the last day of rehearsals for the Mad Mad World 25 Tour.
Cochrane was a bona fide guitar celeb on both sides of the border thanks to all his hits as a member of Red Rider. Lunatic Fringe was also huge and is still popular, Human Race was a U.S. hit, as was Power – Strength In Numbers, Young Thing, Wild Dreams (Rock Me), White Hot, and a couple of tunes that have become standards in Big League and Boy Inside The Man.
But the weather changed when Mad Mad World was released as his first solo album since Hang Onto Your Resistance at the dawn of his career in 1973.
“You know, you have those epiphanies when you suddenly realize there’s something going on,” Cochrane said. “We came back from the States that summer, and we did a Victoria show first and did massive numbers at the (Langford Speedway) there, and you knew something different was going on. There was this crazy, elevated, otherworldly energy that Mad Mad World carried with it.
“Next was up the province to Prince George where he was booked for the 1992 Canada Day showcase held outside at the Salmon Valley Music Festival site. He had been asked to perform at virtually every major city’s Canada Day gig, including Ottawa and Winnipeg (he hails from Lynn Lake, Manitoba) but turned them down. He told the P.G. crowd that day that “Prince George epitomizes what Canada is all about, because it’s not a big city,” according to former Citizen writer Gordon Hoekstra who reviewed the concert. His review said it was lovely weather, and a mob of people who were hungry for perhaps the first star to ever perform here while their big song was at the top of the charts.
“It was an incredible show,” Cochrane confirmed. “We were almost late because we couldn’t get in, there was such a lineup. It was tough getting the tour bus in there. They didn’t have an alternate entrance so there we were stuck in the traffic line. But it was a great show; I remember that show so well. It was a gorgeous day. And when we were in Prince George is when Life Is A Highway reached No. 4 or 5 on the Billboard charts so it was a really exciting week.
“Cochrane has launched several hits up the charts since then, like I Wish You Well, Wildest Dreams (both Top 5 in Canada), Stonecutter’s Arms, and more. Life Is A Highway also enjoyed a life of its own. It was covered famously by the late western star Chris Ledoux in 1999.
Blake Shelton used it on the TV show The Voice as his team’s showstopper number during a 2013 episode.
On the national gala broadcast of the 2014 Canadian Country Music Awards, a star crew of The Road Hammers, Paul Brandt, George Canyon and finally Cochrane himself combined for a jam version as the big opening number.
The most notable reworking of the song, though, popped out of the Disney-Pixar hit film Cars when country group Rascal Flatts put it right back into the Billboard Top 10 and watch for it to reappear in the soundtrack of the Cars 3 sequel film due out in June. Cochrane said he knows the song is slated for the film, but isn’t sure if it is again the Rascall Flatts version, someone else’s version or his own version. He’s waiting to see the film just like everyone else.
All these versions have their own take on the tune, but many critics argue that the original is still the high bar for the song. What makes this tour especially tantalizing is having a new band – but really the old band – pounding the album out. Mad Mad World incorporated some of rock music’s best performers in the credits. It was produced by blues-rock studio star Joe Hardy and the players included stars in their own right like Molly Johnson on backup vocals; Kim Mitchell, David Gogo and Keith Scott on guitar; Mickey Curry on drums; Great Southern Memphis Section on horns; and the live band included Loverboy/Streetheart rhythm section Matt Frenette and Spider Sinnaeve.
It was an all-star team of musical mercenaries. For the past several years, Cochrane has been back with his original band Red Rider, and it is they who will be interpreting the Mad Mad World songs (the entire album, during this show, plus a slate of other hits).
“The songs translate well to this particular band,” Cochrane said. The group consists of Canadian guitar guru Kenny Greer, bass/vocalist Jeff Jones, Davide Direnzo on drums, and Bill Bell on guitars.
Cochrane let the idea of reforming the Mad Mad Band for this anniversary tour, but it sank like a sunset.
“They had expressed interest awhile back but I’m loyal to Kenny and Jonesy right now,” Cochrane said. “Kenny is a magician and his approaches to some of the songs are slightly different. Spider is a monster bass player, the best I’ve ever worked with, but Jonesy brings a whole other thing to it with his vocals and his energy and his positivity and he’s a damn fine bass player as well. Bill Bell’s out with us as well, and he discovered Jason Mraz at a party in San Diego and was his music director and I’ve worked with him since our Mad Mad World days when he was with Amanda Marshall and we toured together. He adds some nice stuff. And Johnny Webster pre-produced the record with me and Joe Hardy took it from there, and Johnny’s here as music director helping us put all this together.”
The one career goal that has woken up every morning with Tom Cochrane is timelessness in the composition. Clearly, looking at the heaps of hits, Cochrane knows how to pen a song. There is a lot of money to be made for someone who can hit the pop music hot buttons. He has insisted of himself that whatever he puts down on paper has to have a fast-forward feature. When he anticipates how it will be played by different instruments in different ways and in the style of different eras, the song should still feel appealing.
“There are a couple of moments (on this anniversary special tour) that feel like period pieces, but most of these moments stand the test of time,” he said. “You don’t succeed a lot of the time but every once in awhile…”
Opening the Tom Cochrane show on Monday night is up-and-coming solo artist Meghan Patrick. There will also be some special edition merchandise available. Showtime is 8 p.m. and tickets are still available.