Hailing from Etobicoke, Ontario, The Rheostatics were formed around highschool friends guitarist Dave Baldini and bassist Tim Vesely, drummer Rod Westlake and Dave Crosby on keyboards. They played their first official gig at The Edge in Toronto in February, 1980, and it wasn’t long after that when Westlake was replaced by Dave Clark.
They released a cover of The Who’s “My Generation” b/w the original “Satellite Dancing” as a single, to little fanfare or radio play. About a year later while paying their dues around the GTA doing a funk-tinged R&B show, Crosby left, as well. But it wasn’t long before the band started looking to expand their sound, so they began experimenting with a full brass section that was trying to make a go of it, The Trans-Canada Soul Patrol. The combined entourage played the Toronto circuit to death, as well as throughout Ontario from ’83 to ’85. After that marriage fell apart, Martin Tielli, who was introduced to the band by Clark, who played with him a few years earlier in Water Tower, was brought in on vocals and guitars.
Going back to a more mainstream pop sound, though still considered ‘alternative’ despite new wave influences as well, they continued on the circuit and even made their first trek out west while writing some material which made it to demos. Those tapes were sent out to all the big labels over the next couple of years, but to no avail. They were eventually picked up by independent Green Spouts Records, who released their debut album, oddly entitled GREATEST HITS in 1987. Only 1,000 copies were printed and it was subsequently re-released in ’96. Compiling songs from their demos, the album contained the single “The Ballad of Wendel Clark, Parts I and II,” an ode to the Toronto Maple Leaf, which did relatively well around the Toronto market and particularly on college radio.
The band also played a role in drawing Canadian country music icon Stompin’ Tom Connors out of retirement, after Bidini and Vesely crashed his birthday party in 1986, and wrote an article about it for a Toronto newspaper.
They split up for a few years while everyone tried doing different things, but reunited in 1991 for the critically-acclaimed MELVILLE, recorded again at Toronto’s Reaction Studios, and produced by Michael Phillip Wojoweda (Barenaked Ladies, Spirit of the West, Ashley MacIsaac, Doughboys, The Waltons, Great Big Sea). Over the years, the album has consistently ranked high on various lists of important Canadian releases, and the single “Record Body Count” hovered around the top 40 in several markets across the country, and the song’s video got good airplay on MuchMusic. Other noteable tracks included “Northern Wish,” co-written by Bidini’s future wife Janet Morassutti, and the Gordon Lightfoot cover, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” available only on the CD.
In June of ’92 they released WHALE MUSIC, inspired by Canadian author Paul Quarrington’s book of the same name. Turning to Matt DeMatteo and James Stewart for production, it featured Rush‘s Neal Peart and Barenaked Ladies (credited as The Scarborough Naked Youth Choir) performing on several of the tracks. Although it garnered no singles, it still became regarded by many critics as another of Canada’s most under-rated albums, and featured the tracks “Legal Age Life at Variety Store,” “Dope Fiends and Boozehounds,” and “Shaved Head.”
When Quarrington’s book was made into a movie two years later, it was only natural that The Rheostatics would be chosen to do the soundtrack, after they’d signed a new deal with Sire Records. MUSIC FROM THE MOTION PICTURE WHALE MUSIC garnered the single, “Torque Torque,” which came and went without a whimper, much as the documentary did. Still, it drew critical praise and has consistently been a critic’s favourite over the years.
Before 1994 was over, they welcomed Wojoweda back to the producer’s chair for INTRODUCING HAPPINESS. The ballad “Claire” became their only top 40 single, and also earned them a Genie Award for Best Original Song in ’94, and also had a shorter version on the soundtrack earlier that year. It also featured “One More Colour,” co-written by Jane Siberry, the lead-off “Fan Letter to Michael Jackson,” and “Full Moon Over Russia.”
Although it led to a successful but short tour of Britain, Sire never fully bought in to the notion of the indie alternative rock sound, finding them a hard act to market, so the band was dropped from the label. To make matters worse, on the eve of a cross-Canada tour, Clarke left the band to concentrate on his new project, The Dinner Is Ruined. He was replaced by new drummer Don Kerr, whose first gig with the band was an unannounced show at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern in the spring of ’95.
The band was contacted later that year by the National Gallery of Canada. They were looking for a band to score the music for an art exhibit honouring the 75th anniversary of The Group of Seven, a collective of artists whose distinctive style re-defined Canadian art. Released on DROG Records, Kevin Hearn, later of Barenaked Ladies also played a helping hand in the album, which was comprised mostly of instrumentals, although it also contained recorded dialogue clips from the artists themselves, as well as Queen Elizabeth II, The Queen Mother, Mackenzie King, and John Diefenbaker. It also contained a re-working of the song “Northern Wish,” from the MELVILLE album. All the attention the band was getting also landed them on the opening bill of The Tragically Hip‘s North American tour.
THE BLUE HYSTERIA was next up in the fall of ’96, which featured one of their most politically active song ever, “Bad Time To Be Poor” (a protest song about living in Ontario under the ‘dictatorship’ of Premier Mike Harris) as the first single. The song was a hit throughout the province, peaking as high as the high 20s in some markets. It also made it to the compilation album, GASCD a few years later, which supported social justice groups protesting the Quebec City Summit of the Americas.
Along with the second single, “All The Same Eyes,” “To Catch A Thief,” and “Something The Committee Thought You Should Hear,” the album hovered on the upper end of the top 40 nationwide, fuelling a second straight stint on the undercard of a Tragically Hip tour. Acknowledging their fondness of The Rheostatics, The Hip’s Gordon Downie made a couple of references to the band, and even worked a verse from “Bad Time To Be Poor” into their own song, “Natuical Disaster.”
Public pressure persuaded them to release a double live album in ’97, appropriately entitled DOUBLE LIVE, recorded from venues ranging from in-store appearances and clubs over the years to the arenas while on tour with The Hip. It also featured several tracks that were until then unreleased, and in fact, the song “Good Canadians” was actually an impromptu performance during one of the shows. That same year they also performed live for the final episode of the CBC Radio Two program, “Nightlines,” which became their second straight live album a year later, THE NIGHTLINE SESSIONS.
Over the last couple of years, Bidini meanwhile had been working on a children’s story. And while it was never published on its own, it served as the catalyst for their next album, 1999’s THE STORY OF HARMELODIA. A tale vaguely reminiscent of “Alice In Wonderland,” it recanted the adventures of a pair of children named Dot and Bug who basically learn to appreciate unstructured music. The songs were inter-twined with narration from Bidini’s now-wife, Janef Morassutti, and also came packaged with a book containing the original story and illustrations by Tielli. Years later, Centennial Secondary School in Belleville, Ontario created and performed a stage musical version of the album, and the show itself did a brief trial at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern.
Now on Perimeter Records, they returned in ’01 with NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS, the last album to feature Don Kerr on drums. With Kerr leaving to focus on his recording studio in Toronto called The Gas Station, as well as to free up time to play with Ron Sexsmith’s group, it opened the door for longtime friend, producer, and occasional session musician Michael Phillip Wojoweda to take his place full-time. Along with songs like “Satan Is The Whistler” and the politically fuelled- “These Days Are Good for the Canadian Conservative Youth Party Alliance,” it also featured a reworking of “Song of Garden,” originally on the previous album, now spiffed up and ‘adultified.’
That same year, the band revived their tradition of doing a week’s residency at clubs they’d dubbed “Green Sprouts Music Weeks,” and played 11 straight nights at the Horseshoe Tavern. The extended stays served as the backdrop for their DVD release in 2003, MAPLE SERIUM: RHEOSTATICS LIVE AT THE HORSESHOE TAVERN. The event was so successful, they repeated it for the next three years.
Moving over to True North Records (Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan), 2004’s album, 2067, was a very loose concept album based on the band’s imagination of what Canada would be like 200 years after Confederation. Along with a revamped synthesized version of “Record Body Count” from the MELVILLE album (billed as a ‘mystery song), it produced a pair of singles – “Marginalized” and “The Tarleks.” The second single was inspired by the character Herb Tarlek, the dorky salesman from the ’70s hit sitcom “WKRP In Cincinnati.” Frank Bonner, who played Tarlek and hadn’t done much since the show went off the air for a second time in ’93, reprised that role for the music video.
After releasing the digital-only single, “Pornography,” they returned to doing the week-long residencies at The Horseshoe. The 2004 sessions were released a year later as the live album, CALLING OUT THE CHORDS, VOLUME 1. The same year, another live album was made available, THE WHALE MUSIC CONCERT, 1992.
In ’07, Canadian indie label Zunior Records released a Rheostatics tribute album called THE SECRET SESSIONS, which included performances by The Barenaked Ladies, The Weathertans, and The Inbreds, among others.
After touring sporadically for the last couple of years, the band officially called it quits following their show at Toronto’s Massey Hall in March 2007, the largest venue they’d ever headlined. The concert was recorded for a future broadcast on CBC Radio, but since Vesely had actually announced his departure the previous September, Ford Pier was brought in to sub for him.
Everyone went off to do their own thing, including Vesely concentrating on his side project The Violet Archers. Bidini embarked on a solo tour and wrote the 2007 book about the experiences called “Around The World in 57 1/2 Gigs.” Wojoweda continued as a producer and session player, as did Tielli. Bidini and Tielli also worked together on a musical theatre piece entitled “Five Hole: Tales of Hockey Erotica.” The music from the show found its way to album in February 2009 on Zunior.
In June 2009, Rheostatics, along with Eric’s Trip, were the first artists to be inducted into Zunior’s Independent Music Hall of Fame. They reunited that October for the International Festivval of Authors and Humber College, held in Toronto. Bidini hosted the event, which honoured Paul Quarrington, who’d been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He wrote the book “Whale Music” (which inspired the band’s 1994 soundtrack when it was turned to film).
The live GREEN SPROUTS MUSIC WEEK 1993 was released in 2012. A culmination of recordings done in April ’93 at Ultrasound Showbar in Toronto, it produced the singles “Record Body Count” and “Woodstuck.”