The roots to one of Canada’s most eclectic rock acts ever took seed in Toronto in the fall of 1973. After leaving Zooom and returning from a sabbatical in Greece with lyricist Pye Dubois (real name Paul Woods), Kim Mitchell formed his new group with Fort William, Ont. native Terry Watkinson (ex of The Rock Show of The Yeomen). They soon recruited transplanted Indiana native Mike Tilka on bass (ex of Family at Mac’s) and Paul Kersey on drums.
Many theories abound about the origin of the band’s name. Some have reported that it came from a random flip in the phone book, naming the band after a snow shoe and dog food, to a friend of Mitchell’s named Max living on Webster Drive. But Mitchell himself has said it originated from Tilka’s old band, who did a song called “Webster.” The band was looking for a name similar to Jethro Tull, a name that no one in the band had.
Before long they’d gained a reputation for their bizarre on-stage atire and magnetic live presence doing everything from high schools to cheap clubs around the southern end of Ontario. In ’76 they moved to Toronto where they met up with a multi-lingual poet/lyricist and registered psychologist named Pye Dubois. Fuelled by Dubois’ lyrics which sometimes crossed the line of being abstract, critics often remarked his writing was simply words jumbled together that sometimes happened to rhyme. But together he would form a collaberation with the group that would span their five studio albums. They were noticed by manager Ray Daniels, and signed them to his label, Taurus Records.
They released their self-titled debut later that year, and from the opening riffs of “Hangover” to the clever bridges and hooks in “Here Among The Cats” to the soothing melodies of “Blowing The Blues Away”, it was quickly established that Max Webster was a unique Canadian treasure, versatile and tight, possibly not equalled in under-rated sheer musical brilliance since.
After a falling out with Mitchell, Kersey left the band and later formed Dillinger, which morphed into The Hunt. Max, meanwhile, signed to Anthem Records and struck a distribution deal with Merucry in 1977, releasing HIGH CLASS IN BORROWED SHOES with new drummer Gary McCracken (ex of Zing Dingo – a three piece jazz outfit out of Windsor, Ont.) later that year. The album would also feature the group’s first time working with producer Terry Brown, most noted for his work with Rush and Klaatu. The record featured the ballad “Diamonds Diamonds” as the first single, “Gravity”, “America’s Veins” and the title track. Touring in support of the record helped spread word of Mitchell‘s bizarre on-stage antics and appearance, and helped build the group’s popularity as they toured outside of Canada for the first time..
MUTINY UP MY SLEEVE hit the stores a year later and contained “The Party”, “Waterline” and “Lip Service”, all catchy beat driven, but most complex underneath. More sold out shows caused word of mouth, which resulted in a chain effect. Tours extended and by 1979’s A MILLION VACATIONS, Max Webster was one of the hottest tickets in town. New bassist David Myles had previously played with Mitchell in both The Grass Company and Zooom, as well as Zing Dingo after McCracken left. The record rode on the charts on the backs of classics like “Paradise Skies”, “Night Flights”, title-track and “Let Go The Line”, featuring Watkinson on vocals. Over the next year, they toured across Canada, into the US, and across the pond for the first time, even making an appearance on Top Of The Pops, the UK’s biggest TV music variety program at the time.
They released LIVE MAGNETIC AIR early the next year, showcasing their eclectic on-stage presence. The live version of “Paradise Skies” quickly climbed the charts, but by this point the constant touring and problems with management were beginning to cause cracks in the group’s foundations.
Watkinson and Myles left the group before the recording of UNIVERAL JUVENILES later that year, which featured new keyboardist Greg Chad and Mike Gingrich on bass. With new producer Jack Richardson (The Guess Who, White Wolf, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, Poco, etc etc ….)at the helm, the disc is considered by many to be one of the group’s finest and became their fifth straight gold or better. Fuelled by “Check” and “Blue River Liquor Shine”, it also contained “Chalkers” and the duet with Rush, “Battle Scar”. Working with Rush also led Dubois to co-writing one of their biggest hits in “Tom Sawyer” on the MOVING PICTURES album.
Though Mitchell remains good friends with Rush to this day, it was partially Anthem’s treatment of the band as Rush‘s “little brother-not to be taken too seriously” that led to Max’s demise. Ironically it was while touring with Rush in 1981 that Mitchell told his bandmates before a show one night it would be his last time on stage as part of Max Webster. Though he was quoted as simply needing a vacation more than anything in retrospect, Mitchell would enjoy more commercial success as a solo artist than Max Webster ever did. Following the subsequent tour McCracken joined Wrabit for their ’82 release TRACKS.
Anthem released DIAMONDS DIAMONDS in 1982, a collection of some of the group’s hits as well as two new tracks, “Hot Spots” and “Overnight Sensation”, but featured nothing from UNIVERSAL JUVENILES. The mid 80’s saw Watkinson moonlight with Klaatu, as did McCracken for their touring schedule. Though radio had all but forgotten Max Webster, their fans remained loyal and the label big-wigs again tried to capitalize on the group’s status by releasing another compilation in 1989. More cheesy marketing ploys included putting “Kids In Action”, taken from Mitchell’s debut ep on the record and calling the record BEST OF MAX WEBSTER FEATURING KIM MITCHELL.
Terry Watkinson re-surfaced in 1995 with TERATOLOGY. Now without a solo deal, Mitchell got together with him and McCracken later that year, resulting in a full-fledged Max Webster reunion with Peter Fredette on bass, a mainstay in Mitchell‘s solo career. Trips to the studios resulted in the reworking of “Suicide Wings” from Watkinson’s solo lp, but none of these were ever released and the band drifted apart again to do their own thing, including Watkinson going back to school and later becoming an accomplished artist.
Although a new record deal was said to be in the works at the turn of the century, nothing materialized of it. Universal Records did however release a Max Webster CD in their Millennium Collection series in 2001. Mitchell meanwhile returned to a solo career, and began hosting TV’s ‘where are they now’ styled “Undiscovered Countries – Been There Done That” in 2003 for that season, and released a pair of albums after that.