“1980 will be a year long remembered. It has seen the end of Max Webster, and will soon see the end of Led Zeppelin.” — Darth Vader
All good things must indeed come to an end. If there was one band — just one band! — out of the Great White North that truly deserved better things, it was Max Webster. Much like their soul mate, Frank Zappa, Max Webster had successfully inserted humour into complex progressive rock songs. The big difference was that Max tended to keep it to guitar-bass-keyboards-drums. Their musicianship was unimpeachable. Much like Bubbles shouted out “Geddy Lee! Neil Peart! Alex Lifeson!” to emphasize the awesomeness of Rush, I shout “Kim Mitchell! Terry Watkinson! Gary McCracken!”
Maybe it was the skinny balding front man in the tights, the weird but deep lyrics, or the goofy keyboards. One way or another, Max Webster never saw the success that their friends Rush did, and Universal Juveniles would be the last Max record. Genius keyboardist Terry Watkinson was out of the band, although he did play on the album. Kim Mitchell folded the band mid-tour after the record, unable to hack it any longer.
Kim’s smoking chops open “In The World of Giants”, perhaps the world that Rush occupied and Max failed to enter. Max sound stripped back, with minimal piano and keyboards. What a song though. Surely “In the World of Giants” is one of Max Webster’s most breakneck rock songs, albeit with the complexity of riff and licks that you would expect. At the same time, do I sense a certain amount of fatigue, between the grooves?
There’s no detectable tiredness on “Check”, which will wake you right the fuck up! There’s nothing like a good, joyous, loaded-with-all-the-guitar-fixin’s Max Webster romp. Want some shredding? “Check this out!” At only 2 1/2 minutes, “Check” is all it needs to be — in and out, the mission of kicking ass all complete. Yet Max Webster was not about simply rocking, so “April in Toledo” brings some funk. The classic refrain of “I wanna run to Niagara, I’ll cry and cry in the dark” is joined by gleeful guitars, to create the picture perfect mixture of Max confection perfection. I’m still sitting here scratching my head wondering how Kim got that weird guitar sound in the solo so perfect, but I’m soon distracted by another awesome chorus.
“Juveniles Don’t Stop” is a Max party anthem; not as memorable as “The Party” itself, but still good to crank with some cold ones. Don’t get too loaded though — you don’t want to miss the double barrelled blast that is “Battle Scar”. What could be more epic than a duet with Rush vocalist Geddy Lee? Oh, how about doing the whole song with Rush — a double trio! That’s two bass guitars opening the song. That’s Neil Peart and Gary McCracken providing the dual beats. (You sure can tell when it’s Neil doing a drum roll, that’s for sure!) That’s Alex Lifeson accompanying Kim Mitchell in a legendary guitar team-up. Geddy Lee, in peak voice, provides the vocal chills necessary to top off such an epic alignment. Truly, “Battle Scar” is not just an important song for Canadian rock, but a track that any serious rock fan should seek out and own. You simply owe it to yourself to do so.
There’s some sneaky understated goodness in “Chalkers” but I find it to be one of the less memorable tracks. It’s notable for containing the phrase “universal juveniles” in the lyrics, lending it for the album title. “Drive and Desire” is a bigger song, a sizeable rocker with a nice bluesy vibe. McCracken’s drums on this one are purely delicious. Even better is the slow mournful “Blue River Liquor Shine”. It foreshadows some of the songs on Kim’s excellent solo EP, Kim Mitchell. A proud achievement, “Blue River Liquor” does indeed shine with Max classics of the past.
“What Do You Do With the Urge” is a wreckless Max party rocker, just in time to set us up for the final Max Webster song — the last one ever, sadly. “Cry Out for Your Life” lurches like a wounded soldier crawling to the warmth of safety. Loads of Max class abound, but there does seem to be less glee, less shimmer. Perhaps the end was inevitable. Although Kim and the gang turned in another jaw dropping Max Webster record, something was wrong and it sounds somewhat forced at times.
Kim Mitchell had tremendous success with his solo career in Canada. Anthems such as “Go For Soda” have been immortalized in our memories, and on our TV sets. Who can forget the moment in Season 7 of Trailer Park Boys, when Bubbles goes to “rock a piss”, and Ricky responds, “You go rock a piss, I’m gonna get ‘er going with the Mitchell!” Then: Bubbles peeing to the tune of “Go For Soda”, bopping his head in time with the music! Just classic. On the more sentimental side, Kim appealed to the adults in the crowd with “Patio Lanterns” and “Easy To Tame”. He really aimed to please everybody….
…Except the fans of old, goofy Max progressive rock. Universal Juveniles is its capstone.