Born in Mangone, Calabria, Italy, Francesco Soda emigrated with his family to Canada in 1957 before he was old enough to go to school. Growing up in Kitimat, BC, he started playing guitar in the early ’60s as a way to express himself.
Like the rest of the country, the West Coast at that time was caught up in the popular British Invasion dominating the airwaves, including The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Animals. His signature raw energy on the guitar that would dominate his later career was also fuelled by legends like Hendrix, Clapton, Beck, and Page.
He formed an after school garage band, and after only a few practices and even less experience in front of a crowd, The Roots of Innocence went on to win the BC Northwest Battle of the Bands in 1969. The competition was judged by The Young Flowers, a group from Denmark who’d just finished touring Canada with Cream. Fast forward a year, and he won the contest again, this time with Professor Plum.
Once out of high school, he continued to hone his chops throughout BC while playing in King Lear, Winter Sweet, and Jumping Bad (which featured Tom and Jack Lavin – later of Powder Blues). It was the wide array of different styles from different artists on the circuit at the time that helped him develop as an artist, he said.
“There was a really active music scene in the Pacific North West back then. Living in Kitimat, I’d hang around with musicians like Jim Vallance (Bryan Adams‘ songwriting partner) & Howard Froese (Chilliwack), from Terrace. I crossed paths with many great musicians up north. Blair Thorton (BTO), Skip Prest, Kevin Nickel – who was the best “unknown guitar player”, the Lavin Brothers, Winter’s Green (who later became Trooper), the Seeds of Time (who later became Prism), Stonebolt, Howie Vickers (The Collectors, who became Chilliwack), and many other bands who would tour up north.”
“I also got to fill in for Buddy Knox’s guitar player when he became ill at a show in Smithers, B.C.We were playing a club called the Devil’s Web, and opened for Buddy Knox who came up to do a few shows. When his guitar player fell ill, I had to fill in. As long as I had that “lick” in “Party Doll,” Buddy was happy!” he laughed. While on the road in ’73, Thor (aka Jon Mikl), needed a band to back him. One thing led to another and he asked Soda and his band (going by Jumping Bad) to head out east on the road with him, as well as to help out with some recording sessions. With John Lechesseur on drums and Charles Towers on bass, they took the train from Vancouver, and once they arrived in Toronto, Mikl dubbed the band ‘The Imps’ because of their diminutive size (particulary when compared to him since he was an amateur bodybuilder on the side), and the name stuck. The band backed Thor on his 1976 debut album, MUSCLE ROCK.
While touring Ontario, Thor was offered the chance to do the Merv Griffin Show in ’78, but the stipulation was he had to use the house orchestra. Following that, he was doing some solo Vegas shows, which left Soda and company with nothing to do. Theybroke off from Thor, and continued as The Imps, working the circuit while gaining a loyal cult following for their live energy and raucus stage show.
They hooked up with manager Robert Connolly, and before long they worked some of their own material into their sets of covers. In part because of their time with Thor, renowned for his live show that featured before their time stage antics, The Imps also relyed heavily on the ability to visually entertain the crowds, as well as through searing guitar solos and room pounding rhythms.
Soda would develop different themes for the songs, wearing various head gears. They were different, and entertaining, and “TV People” became a live favourite and their signature anthem. The tune was a social commentary about becoming brainwashed from watching excessive television, and adopted the gimmick of wearing of wearing a TV set on his head and then having it explode. This led to other exploding heads – ‘the moon man’ and ‘smoking pig.’
Another head gear was a gigantic working camera he took pictures of the audience with was the theme to “Take My Picture Please,” whose new wave feel added to Soda’s repetoire. Adding to the live experience, The Imps even got to use the same pyro gear as KISS, and Triumph whenever they played in Detroit. The shows didn’t always go off without a hitch tho, and Soda remembered one mishap with the ‘moon man’ head that could’ve been fatal. “It was at the Gasworks in Toronto. It burned my hair and skin, and prompted a massive head shave by everyone else in the band,” he said.
Underground accolades continued while their following swelled, and in ’79, were one of the best bar bands around, and were getting attention from Toronto radio. Connolly soon set them up to record the independent LIVE IN THE TUBE, recorded by CHUM FM, with Connolly producing. With “Moon Man” and “TV People” serving as the backdrops to the live show, the record mixed off the floor early Deep Purple stylings of “Toxic Takeover” with his blues roots with “Going Down The Tube Blues,” all captured live.
They signed with Quality Records, and they released SODA POP in 1980. “Take My Picture Please” made it as a single as well as 7″ single, as did “Oversexed and Underfed.” Other noteable tracks included “Crazy Girls” and “Toxic Takeover.” The band toured constantly, including opening for the likes of The Stampeders, Looking back, Soda says that altho he’s still fond of it, the record didn’t necessarily capture the energy and excitement of their live shows, but it was a trade off. “It was done on a shoestring budget. But it did let us play in front of larger audiences by sharing the stage with Deep Purple, Triumph, Max Webster, Powder Blues, Ian Hunter, Savoy Brown, and Goddo.”
By 1981, the original Imps disbanded, and Soda began using a list of back-up band lineups, including bassist Peter Crolly (The Instructions and seasoned session player) and Glen Gratto (Madcats) on drums for SATURDAY NIGHT GETAWAY, released that fall. It was backed by the title track, “Skin Graft” (inspired by the lengths and injuries he’d go to if it meant a good show and all the live mishaps along the way), and a cover of “Born To Be Wild,” and remixes of “Moon Man,” “TV Man,” “Break The Ice” and “Turn The Kids Loose.”
He took a break in the spring of ’82, to lend a hand on Lee Aaron‘s first album, along with Rik Emmett, Buzz Shearman and Rick Santers. He wrote the track “I Like My Rock Hard,” and was on stage with her and a makeshift lineup when “The New Music” did a live simulcast at Toronto’s Adelaide Street Theatre.
By that fall he’d returned to the studios, and released a picture disc five track EP called ADVENTURES OF SODAMAN. A promotional gimmick for his live shows, it was his first time using a drum machine, and included “You Got Me Where You Want Me” and “Weekend Wilds, featuring Lee Aaron and her guitarist/songwriting partner John Albani (also ex- of Wrabit).
Soda fondly remembers that particular project, how it came to be, and its shoestring budget. “The recording and production isn’t great because it was literally done in the basement as a demo, with cheesy sequenced drums etc. which we then took into Phase One to re-mix and master. My manager at the time, Robert Connolly, was friends with the owner of Visual Vinyl, and decided to release it on picture disc as a promo gimmick. It worked.”
In need of a new bassist for the upcoming tour, drummer Glen Gratto recommended his ex fellow member in Bullrush Brian Gagnon, who’d also played in The Hunt – a tour difficult at best to pull off due to a hectic schedule and the expense of putting on such elaborate shows. “It was great playing with these guys, but after a while, Brian left to pursue producing and recording. Doug Raymond replaced him on bass. He was very energetic and could play the bass in his teeth, even with his bare feet. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers had nothing on this guy,” Soda laughs.
Over the next few years the tours continued relentlessly, and the backing lineups changed and evolved, including Terry Watkinson (ex of Max Webster) joining on keyboards and vocals for awhile. By ’86, this had sort of morphed into a duo while they got on with life outside music. Although wrote enough material for a record, it never materialized.
After moving back to Vancouver, his next project was in ’88 with his all-girl band The Pop Tarts, then went on to work on various projects with the likes of Aerosmith, Loverboy,Bryan Adams, Randy Bachman, and Trooper. Resurrecting his live show, he then hit the road again with Colin James, Goddo, and Frozen Ghost in the East and BTO and Glass Tiger back in the West.
Along with setting up his own recording studio, his next project was Classic Soda in 1992, a duo with his wife Joyce that covered hits from the ’50s onward, as well as blues and country standards.
After working out a deal with Pacemaker Records, FRANK SODA & THE IMPS GREATEST HITS was released in 1995 on CD, which included the new tracks “Rocky Road” and “Time For You.” Stops across the country ensued that brought his now infamous stage show back to life.
In 1998, Frank was elected vice president of the Pacific Songwriters Association, a is a non profit organization helping new and established songwriters, and has also written material for several other artists while taking advantage of the classic rock festival upsurge in the ’00s.