The most important musician ever from Canada — ever heard of him?

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words and photos by Christopher Johnson

There’s a Canadian who has achieved more than perhaps any other musician in the country’s history. 

Go into a sporting event at almost any stadium or arena, anywhere in the world, and you’ll hear the music he made. You’ll hear bands playing it in bars from Shanghai to Bangkok to Cape Town and Rio.

His efforts have resulted in more than 100 million album sales, and have shaped global culture more than most people could ever imagine. Canada’s other great artists — such as Joni Mitchell, Rush, Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Big Sugar, The Tragically Hip, Alannis Morisette — can’t say that. 

He has funny personal stories to tell about most of the big names in rock music, and he’s now got a book on the market in a number of languages.

It should be obvious who it is, but it isn’t. That’s because of the nature of the entertainment world. This guy has shaped your mind and your ears perhaps more than anybody else, but still, do you even know his name? Would you recognize him on the street, or on stage?

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The argument, as to why he’s THE most important musician ever from Canada, goes like this:

You’re in high school or college in Canada in the 1980s. You don’t know much about Africa, Asia or even Ireland. You think life is about getting a job in the auto industry or oil patch or whatever, making money, getting a house with 2.5 kids, and buying stuff.

There’s a punk band of young high school buddies emerging out of the UK. They had a few hits on their first albums produced by Steve Lillywhite, but they’ve got no surefire hits on their follow-up album, and they want to try new producers. They’re about to fade out, just like Big Country, Blue Peter and so many other bands from the punk and new wave scenes, which are being killed by a new soul-killing invention, MTV. 

But there’s a kid who used to experiment with sound in his mom’s basement in southern Ontario. He’s kind of quiet, musically-gifted, but doesn’t seek attention on stage like so many disposable artists. He’s French-Canadian, so he’s not really in the mainstream, and he’s not great looking, so forget about MTV.  

He produces a couple of bands on the Canadian college circuit — Martha and the Muffins, Nash the Slash — and then gets a job with Brian Eno mixing a band called U2.

Instead of demanding quick 3-minute hits, he encourages them to explore their feelings and spirituality. He lets them ramble on a song called “Bad”, which other producers might have canned or compressed into a package.

The band’s vocalist, Paul David Hewson, a little guy whose mother died, gets really emotional while performing “Bad” at this concert, called Live Aid. He goes dancing with a woman in the crowd. He and the band think they’ve blown it, and the song is droning on, and it’s too late to get out of it. But everybody is watching it. People start crying. It changes the world. Young people around the world start to think about Africa, charity, compassion and soul. 

But we still don’t know anything about music from those places. Then, the invisible French-Canadian guy walks into Peter Gabriel’s library and finds a stack of tapes with music from all over the world: guys like Franco in Zaire, huge there, unknown elsewhere. He encourages Gabriel to go for it. They record an album called “So”, and suddenly people like Youssou N’dour are playing for white folks in faraway places like Toronto.

Years later, there’s world music at hundreds of festivals worldwide. U2 is the biggest band since the Beatles. An entire generation got interested in life beyond narrow national boundaries. We went backpacking, got jobs in places like Thailand and Japan and China, or with NGOs in Africa. Those songs traveled with us, and took us there, to Where the Streets Have No Name.

They are with us everywhere we go. Walk into a club in Shanghai, the band’s playing “With or Without You”. Go into a basketball arena in Istanbul and they’re playing “Elevation” and “A Beautiful Day.” Go to a protest in eastern Europe and they’re singing “One.”

The Canadian mystery man did all of that. He made it happen.

Just like Eddie Kramer made it happen for Jimi Hendrix, Peter Frampton and Kiss. 

Just like Brian Eno did on so many wonderful albums. Just like Rick Rubin took a band falling apart and going nowhere, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and put them in our ears, stamping tattoos on millions of bodies. 

They are labelled as “engineers” or “producers” or “mixers”, but ask any musician who works with them, and they’ll tell you they are musical geniuses who turn 3-chord strummings and scribbled writings into magic that reaches millions. 

Eddie Kramer was the shit. Brian Eno was the shit. Rick Rubin was the shit. Daniel Lanois was — and still is — the shit. 

Yet we don’t know these people. We wouldn’t recognize them on a street, or a stage. They didn’t have what Hewson (aka Bono) calls a “God-size hole”, seeking mass attention from the pulpit of a stage. But they really loved music, and its ability to shape the way we think and feel and hear. 

Is Daniel Lanois the most important musician ever from Canada? 

Think about it this way. Bono, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Neil Young and others could work with anybody they want. Anybody. But often, they choose Daniel Lanois. 

Maybe they know something about musical genius.

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All photos copyright Christopher Johnson and Globalite Media. To buy or use these photo, please contact editor@globalitemagazine.com

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