The core of Queen City Kids began even before the boys were in high school, emerging from Regina in the early 1970s by schoolfriends Alex Chuaqui on vocals and guitars, Jeffrey Germain on drums, and John Donnelly on bass.
All of them were enrolled in music lessons at early ages, albeit sometimes following less than the typical rock & roll path. Chuaqui was learning the violin, and Donnelly had taken up the bagpipes, but both switched to guitars when they saw Kevin Fyhn playing one and realized it was the cooler than their instruments of choice. Germain had also already taken to the guitar, and was playing in the Police Boys Band, before his parents relented and bought him a drum kit.
After hearing 12-year old Fyhn singing a rousing version of “Hey Jude” in music class, he was invited to play in a new group that was being started, and soon the boys had a working repetoire of Beatles, Bee Gees, Safaris, and The Animals. While practising in the Germain basement, Donnelly’s father’s suggested they call themselves the VIPs. Their first real show together was the local annual Pile of Bones Day festival in Wascana Park. Still in Grade Eight, they entered the Saskatchewan Homecoming ’71 talent contest and came in second place.
By ’73, they’d changed their name to Cambridge, and hooked up with Nellis Booking Agency. Soon they were playing all the local area dances and other promotional gigs around the province. When they were old enough to play the bars, they paid their dues on all the unpaven back roads of the prairies. They switched representation to The Quicksilver Talent Agency, who handled, among others, Wascana (which eventually morphed into Witness Inc, then Streetheart).
The band’s writing matured quickly and they scraped together even pennies to make some demos, and had gained enough of a reputation that they opened for Rush on more than one tour, while still only 16. Their sound was getting heavier, and they played covers of Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, and Foghat. On Rush’s advice, they asked Gary Stratychuk, who was handling Wascana, if he’d manage them. When they signed with his StarKommand Productions, it was suggested a name change would be in order to better reflect their roots.
They continued shopping their demos around to no avail, when they decided to take matters into their own hands and release a record on their own. But when CBS heard Gene Martynec, fresh off his work with Rough Trade (with a resume that also included Bruce Cockburn, Doug & The Slugs, BB Gabor and Edward Bear) was going to produce it, label execs changed their tune and signed them to a multi-album deal.
With a major deal comes better studios, and they were shipped off to Century 21 in Winnipeg, the same studio Streetheart usually used. The result was their eponymous debut, released in the summer of 1981, although the American branch opted not to release it. The record had a straight-ahead punch, with no mistaking the intention of “Carrying The Stick”, it’s driving beat pounding in your head. Going-nowhere guitar solo aside, just give me a brick wall baby … “Kids World” and “Follow You There” showed the true versatility of the group, giving a hint of something special, their eclectic side coming out most in “Secret Smoke” and “Down Again”, complete with layered harmonies.
Regional tours in bars and small gigs all across the western provinces and into the US were followed by cross-Canada jaunts, including the coveted opening slots for Ozzy Osbourne, April Wine, Streetheart, Blue Oyster Cult, and Joan Jett. Before the tours were over, they’d also headlined a number of their own prominent shows, including one at the famed El Mocambo in Toronto. Their brash, energetic live show mixed with their loyal fanbase pushed the debut gold, reaching number one in Regina and Winnipeg.
CBS was urging the band to come back bigger and badder for their follow-up album, with the promise of American distribution dangling in front of them like a carrot. To help achieve that goal, they decided on finding an American producer, and settled on Rob Freeman. An engineer from New York, his credits included working with The Go-Go’s, his vision was to better create the sensation of being in front of an arena rock band and capture their live energy.
They resurrected an abandoned bank in Winnipeg for the project in January 1982, and the result was BLACK BOX that summer. To appease the American leg of CBS, the record’s jacket was different Stateside than the Canadian version. More tight guitar trade-offs between Fyhn and Chuaqui with Donnelly and Germain holding the backbeat was the concept. The “just gotta make your feet move” single “Dance” and the title track helped circulate the group’s message of straight-forward rock and roll.
“Girls” was also heavy on the FM playlists that summer as the third single helped break new ground, showing they were capable of the tender power ballad as well as the guitar crunching sound paved with the first record. Another series of extensive and exhaustive tours ensued the day of its launch, taking them across the country and deep into the American market for the better part of the next year.
But run ragged from the constant touring, with barely two nickels to rub together, and frustrated with what they saw as a lack of interest from management or the label, the band called it quits in late ’82 after 13 years. They each went on to do their own thing, with Donnelly and Germain teaming up to form the quasi-punk band Love Active. Chuaqui formed Straw Dog, and Fyhn wandered around with different groups, including Kenny Shields of Streetheart. Donnelly later joined Babyface, a Vancouver-based group that enjoyed success with the independent “In The Night” in 1985.
THE BEST OF QCK was released in 1989 and is required material for anyone hoping to pass Canadian Headbanging 101. They band reformed every now and then for the next two decades, while the members were each off doing their own thing. In October 2007, QCK was inducted into the Western Canada Music Hall of Fame, while still driving home their message the old fashioned way – with the amps turned up to 11.
Still in demand even on a part-time basis, the band continued playing, and released 1981 LIVE in 2015. Initially taped for a Vancouver radio station broadcast, the album also featured a couple of new tracks, as well as a few remastered hits.