Record Rewind: Blue Rodeo’s ‘Casino’ At 30

December 11, 2020

Blue Rodeo, 1990. Credit: Blue Rodeo Archives.

By: David McPherson

Casino marks a transitional and tumultuous period in Blue Rodeo’s career. Original drummer Cleave Anderson left the band following Diamond Mine to work full-time for Canada Post. Anderson was replaced by Mark French, but not for long; Casino was the only studio album on which French appeared. Sandwiched between Diamond Mine (1989) and Lost Together (1992), the band’s third record is more pop-leaning than its predecessors. Critics felt the band was selling out.

Released late in 1990, the record features 10 economical, radio-friendly songs. In the studio, keyboardist Bob Wiseman was put on a leash and was not happy. As Casino producer Pete Anderson recalls, “he had no interest in being in the band!” Cuddy agrees: “Bobby had checked out. In those days we were so terrified of changing the chemistry of the band, we just looked the other way and figured it was a mood that would pass. When it came to Bobby, it was a two-year mood!” Gone were the long, jammy, experimental solos from Diamond Mine, like the title cut that clocked in at over eight minutes.

To this day, Casino is a fan favourite and contains some of Blue Rodeo’s most-loved live songs like “Til I Am Myself Again,” “Trust Yourself,” and “What am I Doing Here?” Anderson’s modus operandi for the Casino sessions: create singles and keep the songs to four minutes or less.

With a dedicated domestic audience, the next step for the band was to break into the U.S. market. The American arm of Warner Bros. was interested in developing Blue Rodeo south of the border. A new U.S. manager in Danny Goldberg was hired, who left not long after Casino was pressed to run Atlantic Records. Next, they enlisted Anderson (Dwight Yoakam, Michelle Shocked), and packed their bags for Hollywood. Recording started at Track Record Studio in North Hollywood, in LA’s San Fernando Valley, and finished up at legendary Capitol Records studios where everyone from Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys created magic.

Amplify chatted with Blue Rodeo members Jim Cuddy and Bazil Donovan, along with Producer Pete Anderson, to get an oral history on the making of Casino.

“If Diamond Mine was the sound of expansiveness, Casino was the sound of compression, both sonically and materially.” – Have Not Been the Same: The Can-Rock Renaissance 1985-1995.

LESSONS LEARNED, BREAKING INTO THE STATES, AND HIRING ANDERSON

JIM CUDDY: “That was a very tumultuous time. Our manager [Danny Goldberg] quit right when we had finished recording; he really never had anything to do with us. That was a lesson learned. We did not make that record to break into the U.S. market or cater it for radio. That idea was imposed on us. We thought all our records would be accessible in the States. We made Casino based on records we liked such as Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. That was a guy Anderson worked with. We wanted to sound like that sonically and artistically. Pete came up before we went to L.A., made extensive notes, and shared them with us. We did some demos on an eight-track machine in our studio on Sorauren Avenue. Those demos are interesting to go back and listen to now. For example, ‘What Am I Doing Here.’ I remember Pete cut out one of the bridges in that song. I thought that was a great suggestion. We never were good with self-editing.

ANDERSON: “Somehow, they had a booking agent (Steve Martin), not the comedian, out of New York who recommended me. They wanted to break into the U.S. market. I had produced Michelle Shocked, an artist Steve was booking. He recommended they come to the U.S. and make a record. I remember going to Canada to see them play. We hung out and I got the gist of their sound. We talked about what they wanted to do on this next record and how they wanted to make it. They had a list of stuff already done: some rag-tag demos of just guitars and vocals. I then made arrangements for them to come to L.A.”

PRE-PRODUCTION: SCULPTING & DISTILLING THE LONG SONGS

CUDDY: “Prior to Casino we were just led into the studio. With Terry Brown on Outskirts, we basically did what we wanted. Diamond Mine with Malcolm Burn was so wide open. With Pete [Anderson] it was our most distilled record; our normally larger songs were cut down. Pete was good at snipping and editing to make a more compressed record. Pete delivered what we wanted. In doing that it compressed an element of the band … the jammier, open-endedness of our live sound was less represented on that record. That was especially hard on Bobby [Wiseman] and caused problems. It’s a funny thing looking back. Many songs on that record are still extremely popular and a staple of our live canon, but it was not our best-selling record. What Casino did was give us better exposure. When ‘Till I Am Myself Again’ was released, it played on every single radio station in Canada: from country to pop to adult alternative.”

ANDERSON: “They loved to jam, but the songs were way too long. They were ahead of bands like Phish and The String Cheese Incident. They were not a jam band per say, but they were on the front-end of that jam-band world. Those bands are not on the radio. A programmer looks at the back of the record and sees songs that are over four minutes and they will not play those songs unless it is hippy radio. We were going for a three-minute and 20-second consciousness for this record.

“It was a challenge for Greg [Keelor]. He was the proponent of the long song, but they decided to go along with what I was doing and it worked out. Every record should be a stepping-stone. You learn from it, and then take another step. You can’t look at The Beatles or The Stones. Those bands are anomalies. No matter who you are, once you plant your flag, you have to give them more of the same. Sure, you can broaden things artistically, but not so severe that you lose your audience or your credibility.”

BAZIL DONOVAN: “Pete had a concept. I remember one night we went to eat at El Pollo Loco and he said to us, ‘I want to make a record with you guys that has 10 singles on it. I don’t want to make stuff that is not going to get played. I don’t care if you have one arty tune that is an album track. My idea is to make hit songs.’ Listen to that record today and you can hear that. They are all three-minute pop-rock hits, which Pete was very good at. Some of our biggest songs came out of that record. I learned a lot from him. Before that, I didn’t know a lot about arranging. After I watched Pete work with arrangements it opened up the door for me and I thought about arranging myself. A lot of the stuff I learned there I have applied to stuff I’ve done since.”

SPRING 1990: HOLLYWOOD DAYS & NIGHTS, ONE TAKES, AND LEGENDARY STUDIOS

ANDERSON: “We did preproduction at Track Records and then recorded and mixed at Capitol Studios – the famed spot at Hollywood and Vine where everybody from Frank Sinatra to Miles Davis to Merle Haggard to Van Halen has made records. I worked on the tunes with them and realized quickly Jim Cuddy is one of the few one-take singers. He could sing a track five times and they would all sound great … any one of his takes could be the lead vocal. I was shocked by how good he was. I don’t know if he ever realized that. Cuddy has a voice you could listen to forever. Bazil was the common sense music guy. If I wanted to influence Greg or Jim I would talk to him first. He would encourage Cuddy and Keelor to come to the party. Keelor had more radical ideas. He was the ‘arty’ guy of the band … like their John Lennon. He brought his gag to the party and that made them unique.”

DONOVAN: “I was the one he [Pete] could relate to. We could talk about theory. I was the guy who translated the producer talk to the musician talk to the songwriter talk. I cut my bass parts for the entire album in one day. By that time I knew the stuff backwards. I remember Pete saying, ‘Thanks for making one day of my life easier.’”

CUDDY: “Capitol was overwhelming when you first went in. You know the architecture of that famous building, but once inside, those studios don’t disappoint. Often you go places, like CBGB, and say, ‘This is it? This place is a dump!’ Not so at Capitol. The smaller studio we worked in was beautiful. I remember just down the hall Lucinda Williams was working on some vocals with Pete. It was just very exciting to be in L.A. to make a record. Greg and I would drive up and down Mulholland Drive in a woodie station wagon we rented and listen to the mixes on the car’s cassette player. It really was a fulfillment of a dream and the acme of our profession.”

A VISIT FROM THE DRUM DOCTOR

DONOVAN: “One the more surreal of these Hollywood Casino days and nights was meeting The Drum Doctor [Ross Garfield]. That is the thing to do when recording in L.A.: get the drum doctor to come into the studio the day before you record and set up the drums. If you want your drums to sound like a hit record, this is the guy you go to. At midnight he would take over the studio. Set up and tune the drums and leave you with all of these options. You would walk in on the first day of recording and the drums were already checked and sounded fantastic. I remember asking him: ‘Where were you this morning?’ and he replied, ‘I was up in the Hollywood Hills doing Jim Keltner’s drums. The Traveling Wilburys were recording their second record. Remember Pete saying to him, ‘You have my GRAMMY snare don’t you?’ It was the one they used for Dwight Yoakam’s debut Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc., which was nominated for two Grammy awards. He wanted to use that on everything!”

“AFTER THE RAIN” & ANOTHER LESSON LEARNED

ANDERSON: “Everybody had gone home except Jim and we needed to recut that track. I said, ‘Let’s just go in and cut it!’ I called up my players: Jeff Donovan, Skip Edwards, and me on guitar. I don’t try to force my guys on other people’s records. Jim played piano. We cut it in two takes. Jim was shocked we did it so easily. That was his first experience doing something outside of Blue Rodeo. It caused a little kerfuffle about the rest of the band not playing on that track.”

CUDDY: “We did a version with the band that ultimately didn’t work. It was out of synch and we had to redo it with Pete’s guys. That was an interesting experience. I was young and felt you can only work with your own band, that is how you get your sound, but these studio guys were so responsive and knew what to do in a heartbeat. I played piano for the first time. When Bobby heard that I played piano he wanted to make sure I was credited so nobody would mistake it for him on the record! Everything in life is a lesson. Redoing that song with his guys was really instructional.”

IT’S JUST BAD TIMING, THAT’S ALL: Thoughts on why the band never broke in the U.S.

DONOVAN: “A lot of it was timing and lack of record company support. We also didn’t get on the right tour. I remember playing in Chicago at the Riviera Theatre and looking out and seeing all of these hippies in tie-dye just watching us with bored looks on their faces. One girl was even knitting! Music at the time was changing. While we were on that tour promoting Casino, Nirvana broke. I remember the drummer for Edie Brickell, Matt Chamberlain, saying, ‘I’m going up to Seattle to do some stuff with Pearl Jam until they find a drummer.’ He did a gig with them on SNL and that was the start of him becoming one of the most in-demand session drummers in the world.

“It’s just one of those things. We weren’t of the moment. Maybe we just missed the time or we were a little early. We were five years too early for the No Depression/alt-country movement. At the time, people didn’t know what to make of us in the U.S. Are you country? Are you rock? They just didn’t get it and didn’t know where to pigeonhole us. We were on the road forever that year. We started in January in Vancouver and worked our way all across Canada. We had one day off where Jim, Greg, and Bobby flew to New York and did Letterman, and then we met up in Birmingham, Alabama and started a long tour of the U.S. By the end of that we knew we weren’t getting on radio down there. I remember one guy in Dallas came up to us from a classic rock station and told us he had begged and begged his program director to play our record, but he wouldn’t let him add it to the playlist. I remember Gord Downie was interviewed one time saying something like ‘We have managed to circle around every style of trendy music. We see it coming and make a left turn.’ I felt like we were doing that same thing.”

CUDDY: “We had a good shot in the States. We were on East West Records, distributed and owned by Warner, which had split into two. This guy Vince got us. Sylvia Rhone had the heavyweight acts while Vince had the ‘trial’ acts like us. He did his best. There was a lot of excitement at the beginning and it was fun sitting in Vince’s office plotting our next moves. You look back on your career and hopefully you are satisfied where it’s gone. You remember all of the peaks and that time was certainly one of them.”

Photographer David Michael Kennedy on shooting the cover of Blue Rodeo’s Casino: “That image was shot on Highway 14 (the Turquoise Trail) out near the small village of Cerrillos NM south of Santa Fe. It was photographed on July 5, 1990, on assignment for Bob Defrin, one of my favorite Art Directors, for the Blue Rodeo Casino cover. It is an old abandon building. It was photographed with a 40 mm lens on a Hasselblad camera using Tri-x 120 film and developed in Rodinal. I believe it was printed for Bob as a platinum palladium print in my darkroom.”

GETTING LOST TOGETHER

ANDERSON: “The record did very well. I think it sold 35,000 units in the U.S. following its initial six-month release. The band started to tour here, but then the record just died out. They contacted me about making their next record and invited me to come up and hang out at Keelor’s farm outside of Toronto around American Thanksgiving. It was not a good meeting. Greg had all these demands for the record like wanting more bass. That is a giant statement. He had this big PA set up in his enclosed porch. I said, ‘Play me a record where you like the bass.’ Greg loved Neil Young, so he played me a Neil record. It was good. I then asked, ‘Do you have a copy of the record we made together?’ He put it on and it had more bass than Neil’s record! I then asked, ‘Who is going to play on this record?’ By that time the drummer was gone and I insisted to them that Bobby had no interest to be in their band and is detrimental to what you are trying to do. Then, they told me, ‘We want to record the record in February in Canada.’ I was born in Detroit, but live in California for a reason! I wanted them to come to California.

“I drove home, called my manager, and told the guys, I’m not working in Canada in February. There is a reason all my gear is in California. The infrastructure is in southern California. And, I’m certainly not going to work with that keyboard player who doesn’t want to be in the band. I made my bid, but through management, they said they were going to pass. Instead, they hired Peter Doell, Capitol’s staff engineer whom we had used on Casino. They brought Pete to Canada and produced the next record themselves. I was always disappointed I didn’t get to work on their next record because we had a decent relationship and a lot of laughs. I still have the artwork of that album cover on the wall of my living room.”

CUDDY: “That was a watershed moment. Before Lost Together, three producers (Malcolm Burn, Terry Brown, and Pete Anderson) had led us. We were now at the point where we wanted to take the helm ourselves. Maybe we were not entirely ready. We did some pre-production with Pete and it just didn’t feel the same. We decided to work with the same engineer from the Casino sessions [Peter Doell] for Lost Together, but for the first time, we produced the record ourselves. We learned a lot about production from working with Pete Anderson and learned a lot about engineering from working with Peter Doell, like how you get certain sounds and what to ask for.”

CASINO FAST FACTS

Released:                    November 20, 1990

Producer:                    Pete Anderson (Michelle Shocked, Dwight Yoakam)

Engineer:                    Peter Doell [Miles Davis, The Beach Boys, Ray Charles]

Blue Rodeo:                Greg Keelor, Jim Cuddy, Bazil Donovan, Bob Wiseman, Mark French

Studios:                      Capitol Records; Track Records in Hollywood, Calif.

Sales:                          2 x Platinum in Canada (more than 200,000)

Singles:                       “Til I Am Myself Again,” and “Trust Yourself”

About the Author

David Mcpherson

David is the author of The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History (Dundurn Press, 2017). Ever since attending his first rock concert in 1989 (The Who) and buying his first LP (Freeze Frame by The J. Geils Band), music has become "the elixir of his life." A regular contributor to SOCAN's Words + Music, Hamilton Magazine, and No Depression, over the years his writing on music has also appeared in Paste, American Songwriter, Bluegrass Unlimited, Exclaim! and Canadian Musician. As president and chief creative officer of McPherson Communications, David helps clients get the words right. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with his wife and two children.

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