By Phillip Bashe, Circus Magazine, 31st March 1981
Burly Triumph drummer Gil Moore isn’t one to shirk the responsibility of insuring his band’s financial well being. Take the time the Canadian hard rock trio was stuck in a stalemate with a Clinton, Ontario high school principal who refused to award the band its rightfully earned share of the door receipts.
“I think the guarantee was only two hundred dollars,” remembers bassist Mike Levine, “but word on the band had spread, and we drew about one thousand people. So our end of the gate was about fifteen hundred bucks.
“And they just didn’t want to pay us. The money was laying on the counter, so Gil picked it up. The principal said, “Would you sign a receipt for that?” then added, “If you can write.”
“And Gil just went crazy. You know those big ‘Out’ baskets they always have in school offices? Gil took it, pushed it off the counter, and hit the principal in the balls with it,” Levine says with the chuckle of a man who regards such incidents as minor. “Then this teacher grabbed Gil and spun him around. Gil suckered him – knocked the guy flat. I picked up the money, grabbed Gil, and we walked out of the school.”
The 29-year-old Toronto native has never had much luck with high schools; he remembers his own experiences there as being “boring, horrible” a sentiment probably shared by a good majority of Triumph’s largely teenage audience. It’s something the group sings about in its song, “I Can Survive” – after all, this is a People’s Band.
Of all the bands playing the People’s Rock, Triumph is certainly the most self-made, adopting a policy to headline concerts only, and to build up an audience whether it received assistance from the press and radio or not. The group’s music – cement-hard rock – guaranteed no sympathetic ear in radio, not even Canadian stations, who are legally required to air a certain amount of local music. “They opted to play the wimpy Canadian groups, which totally precluded us,” Levine says with a snort.
Scorned as outmoded, the trio (Levine, Moore and Rik Emmett) harks back to the late ‘60’s rock, relying on Emmett’s lightning-quick, blistering guitar vamps, and an energetic, prop-laden stage show to attract fans. Evidently there were enough hard rock listeners tired of the spud-digging Marin County cowboys singing out of wheelchairs who dominated the mid-70s, for Triumph to lay the groundwork of an audience with its very first U.S. LP. Rock & Roll Machine (RCA) (actually a compilation of its first two Canadian releases) sold 100,000 copies, “without anybody even knowing about it.” Skilled musicians all, Triumph filled the void left by the demise of Cream and its imitators, much to the dismay of the rock press.
Subsequent records, Just A Game and last year’s Progressions of Power, were less raw, featuring more songs and less histrionics. As a result, Levine says, “Our relationship with AOR radio now is very strong.” The bassist is in the band’s own Toronto studio, the Metal Works, working on Triumph’s fourth American LP, tentatively titled Allied Forces. He promises the new album will “transcend the things we’ve done up to now. I think this album will be a true representation of Triumph.”
Still, none of that is likely to alter the band’s constant grappling with the press, who’ve been put off by the group’s music, “because Triumph made it very clear from the beginning that it was going right to the top,” says writer Wilder Penfield III of the Toronto Sun. Notes Penfield, “They’ve done just that, without any intellectual pretenses, or anything like that.” Penfield is an exception among journalists – he “loved the spirit of the band right away,” and is one of the few writers regarded as a comrade by the group.
More typical is Triumph’s clash with critic Jim Farber, who last year blasted the group in Britain’s Sounds magazine. Levine claims, “We sat around with him in a hotel room in Seattle, and the interview was basically over. We started kidding around, and that’s all he wrote about, the kidding around. We were off the record as far as we were concerned.” Despite foreign relations with the press that even Henry Kissinger would be hard pressed to patch up, Triumph does not keep a hitlist of writers.(“I know a lot of others that do,” says Levine.) However, the group claims it would be happy to “forward Farber to Afghanistan.” (Writer Farber graciously declined Triumph’s all-expense paid trip, adding, “They’re giving me great press, so as far as I’m concerned I hope they keep talking me down. I can’t think of anything more flattering.” So much for diplomacy.)
A theory is put to Levine that perhaps the reason the writers are so intolerant of Triumph’s music, and heavy rock in general, is because they are writers, they tend more toward the lyric-oriented artists. “That’s an interesting theory,” Levine laughs. What he finds happens to the band a lot is that many papers send out reviewers “who write sports or women’s features. They’ve got a house in the suburbs with one-and-a-half cars and two-and-a-half kids, and they absolutely hate anything over twelve decibels. So they’ll get sent to a Triumph show, or an REO show, whoever’s show, and rather than report what happened, they’ll take it that “I hate it, and that’s all there is to it.”
“And meanwhile,” smirks Levine, “there were fourteen thousand kids going crazy.”
But, he insists, “let them say what they like, because their opinions don’t mean anything anyway.” (To which the Sun’s Penfield counters that the group reacted bitterly to a negative review he had written of Just A Game. “I received some long letters back. It was interesting. It showed they obviously cared what people think despite the cocky attitude.”)
Most writers remain cold towards Triumph’s fiery stage act, which, stresses Levine, is an integral part of the band. Even when the group was struggling on the Toronto circuit, “We were the only band with a tractor-trailer parked out front. Whenever we played a club it was a big extravaganza, and they’d line up around the block for it.”
The strategy backfired but once, when one of the flashpots onstage flared unexpectedly, almost taking Rik Emmett’s face and eyes with it. (Levine assures that their pyrotechnic system is now fail-safe)
Ultimately, says Levine, the most important thing for his band is to “play for the people. If all artists spent their lives playing for the critics, I’m afraid no records would sell.” His logic is perfect:
“Because they don’t buy records; they get theirs free”.