The top 10 Canadian Rock Songs of 1969 featured some really great tunes from rising stars such as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, as well as from already-established talents like Steppenwolf and The Guess Who. Interestingly enough, as the summer of 69 hosted the greatest rock weekend of all time on a farm near New York City, Neil Young was the only performer from the musical acts mentioned who was at Woodstock. The rest had other commitments so were unable to attend.
Canadian “Heavy Wheat”
As the decade of the 1960s was reaching its end, the growth of rock ‘n’ roll witnessed new beginnings when it came to the influence of folk, jazz, and psychedelic styles that would work their way into what became some of the most iconic songs of all time. 1969 marked a year loaded with political and social rebellion as the influence of counterculture continued to grow. This surge didn’t just take place on American soil but in Canada as well. As the Vietnam War continued to run its course, the people from both of these nations were deeply divided when it came to their involvement.
Those divisions didn’t take place strictly between private citizens. This also took place between celebrities, including some of the biggest names in the music industry. At the time, The Guess Who was among the most vocal, as was Neil Young. These two Canadian talents refused to stand back and stay silent as they observed the world around them in a state of chaos.
Going into 1969, The Guess Who already established itself as one of the top acts in the genre of rock ‘n’ roll. Originally founded as a garage rock band, the group led by Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings at the time changed course to produce a musical sound that was more diverse. These men fused jazz, pop, and soul into their brand of rock before releasing Wheatfield Soul in 1969. This was the album that marked The Guess Who’s first real breakthrough as “These Eyes” became the group’s first top ten hit on an official US Billboard music chart. This was quickly followed by another 1969 album release, Canned Wheat. This resulted in “Laughing” becoming the Manitoba-based rock group’s second top-ten hit in the US.
As if 1969 wasn’t busy enough for Bachman, Cummings, Jim Kale, and Garry Peterson, these men also recorded American Woman. The Guess Who’s sixth studio album featured the heaviest rock material as it seemed these four incredible talents decided to let loose and go for broke. When it was released in January 1970, the album wasted no time surging straight to the top as one of the best rock recordings ever produced. It was, by far, The Guess Who’s greatest achievement as a rock group.
The album produced three top-ten hits, starting with “No Time.” The second single, “American Woman” instantly became the crown jewel of The Guess Who’s long list of songs as soon as it was released. This was the song that dominated the music charts in 1970, earning these awesome Canadians a collection of music nominations and awards worldwide. It remains one of the all-time classic favorites and is still played often on most rock stations. The third of the singles from American Woman was “No Sugar Tonight.”
Just like its two predecessors, it became a signature hit for The Guess Who that topped more than one official music chart after it was released as a single. As successful as American Woman was, it also marked the end of Bachman-Cummings as a songwriting team. As their band’s popularity grew, so did the creative differences that would cause Bachman to leave the lineup. It wouldn’t be until 1973 Bachman would make his big comeback with the founding of yet another fantastic Canadian-based rock group, Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
Summer of 69
1969 witnessed the height of counterculture continue to grow as young Americans and Canadians were strongly opposed to the military conflict that was taking place in Vietnam. It was also a time the fusion of folk and rock continued to mix their sounds together. Among the leaders of the folk-rock songwriting pack was Joni Mitchell. Although Joni Mitchell was technically born in Fort Macleod, Alberta, she was primarily raised in Saskatchewan. When she was eleven years old, her family moved to Saskatoon, a small city in the heart of the Canadian prairies that served as the agricultural hub for the province.
While she was growing up, country music began to overshadow the influence of rock ‘n’ roll. This was the case across most of Canada. When Joni Mitchell took an interest to learn music, she wanted to play the guitar. However, her mother shared concerns about the influence of a genre she personally didn’t care for. This resulted in Joni Mitchell’s decision to teach herself. However, her body wasn’t quite as cooperative as it still hadn’t fully recovered from the polio condition she had when she was nine years old.
She compensated for this with singing and songwriting. This became her niche as the influence of folk, jazz, and rock all played key factors in the development of what became one of Canada’s brightest musical stars. By the time 1969 hit, Joni Mitchell already made a name for herself as a songwriter. 1968’s Song to a Seagull and 1969’s Clouds led to a brilliant recording career that would cement Joni Mitchell as a legend. Some of the music she brought forth at the time was inspired by the relationship she had at the time with Graham Nash as the two lived together in Los Angeles, California.
In 1969, Joni Mitchell’s musical influence became viral. This was also the case with her closest friends and colleagues at the time. David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and fellow Canadian Neil Young, formed a four-man rock group best known as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Although the Woodstock Festival was already legendary based on the talent pool that performed during the weekend of August 15, 1969, 1970’s “Woodstock” further amplified the overall experience. This hit single was written by Joni Mitchell, an amazing feat considering she wasn’t there. However, her main squeeze at the time, Graham Nash, was. He, along with Crosby, Stills, and Young, were among the performers who took to the stage in Bethel, New York.
Also unable to attend Woodstock was The Guess Who. However, The Band became one of two musical acts from Canada that would enjoy the Woodstock experience up close and personal. This rock group was also riding a career-high going into 1969. After working closely with the legendary Bob Dylan, The Band’s humble beginnings in Ontario led to the rental of a certain pink house in West Saugerties, New York. While there, they continued to blossom as musicians. Fondly referred to as “Big Pink,” this was the location Dylan and The Band recorded the infamous The Basement Tapes together in 1967. However, this wasn’t released as an official recording until 1975. By then, there were already bootlegged albums that made their way to some listeners who were able to get their hands on them.
Since Dylan wasn’t personally able to make it to Woodstock, The Band did. 1969 witnessed The Band enjoy the success of its debut album, Music from Big Pink. It was also the year The Band was released as the group’s second studio album. This also met with great success and is still regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
In 2009, this particular album was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry. It also became a 2017 Heritage Prize winner by Canada’s Polaris Music when its jury voted in agreement as one of the albums belonging to the 1960-1975 category. The Band was more than just an album. The Band was also more than just some rock group that enjoyed the highs and lows of a great recording career. The Band became a legend, thanks to the lineup of Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson.
When the first of the annual Juno Awards was held on February 23, 1970, it was the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ way of recognizing the nation’s best in the music industry. Originally, it was called the Gold Leaf Awards before it was renamed Juno as a means to honor the first president of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, Pierre Juneau.
The Junos is considered the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy Awards. For The Poppy Family, the 1970 edition of the Juno Awards recognized Susan and Terry Jacks for “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” as the Best Produced Single and Which Way You Goin’ Billy? as Best Produced Middle-of the-Road Album. The couple from Vancouver, British Columbia, also shared the spotlight with The Guess Who as these men were recognized as the Top Vocal Instrumental Group.
Although The Band, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young made significant musical contributions in 1969, none of them earned a win with Canada’s brand new awards program just yet. However, the 1970 edition of the Grammy Awards awarded Joni Mitchell with Best Folk Performance for 1969’s Clouds. Although technically recognized as an American band, Blood, Sweat & Tears had a Canadian lead vocalist named David Clayton-Thomas in the lineup. He replaced Al Kooper after his departure from the New York-based band in 1968. Together, they earned Album of the Year for the late 1968 release of Blood, Sweat & Tears.
They also earned a Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist win with “Spinning Wheel.” The third award this rock group earned was for the workmanship they poured into “Variations on a Theme by Eric Satie.” It was recognized by the Grammies for Best Contemporary Instrumental Performance.
Top 10 Canadian Rock Songs of 1969
#10 – Private Train (performed by Five Man Electrical Band)
Originally, “It Never Rains on Maple Lane” was released in 1969 by the Five Man Electrical Band as a single with the hope it would become a big hit. At best, it charted as high as number sixty-seven before radio stations flipped the record over to play “Private Train” instead. This became the more popular song between the two and deservedly so. On the Canadian Top Singles Chart, it peaked as high as number thirty-seven. The single recorded and released at the time credited The Staccatos.
The Five Man Electrical Band album recording was credited to the band’s new name. Before 1969 was over, Les Emmerson and his bandmates ended their contract with Capitol Records and signed up with MGM. The name change came about after it was suggested The Staccatos sounded outdated. The men renamed themselves after “Five Man Electrical Band,” a song Emmerson wrote previously that pretty much described the musicians as a unit.
#9 – Rock Me (performed by Steppenwolf)
The hard rock album, At Your Birthday Party, was a 1969 release by Steppenwolf. Its lineup had a mix of American and Canadian talent that included the band’s lead vocalist, John Kay. Kay was born in 1944 in East Prussia, Germany, before the region became Sovetsk, Russia. As a newborn, he and his mother fled the warring conditions going on in East Prussia with the hope to escape the invasion of Russian troops. At first, Kay grew up as a child who had eye problems and no understanding of the English language.
What became his first source of inspiration was listening to Little Richard’s music on the radio while he and his mother migrated to the US. In 1958, they moved to Toronto, Ontario, before relocating to Buffalo, New York, five years later. Technically born as Joachim Fritz Krauledat, he was called John Kay as it was easier for the teachers from his schools to pronounce. When Kay formed Steppenwolf as a band in 1967, this was done in Los Angeles, California. This came about after he and fellow Canadian musicians, Jerry Edmonton, and Goldy McJohn, left the Ontario-based bluesy rock group, The Sparrows.
“Rock Me” was a single that came after the successful 1968 recording and release of “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride.” On the Canadian Top Singles Chart, it peaked as high as number four. It was a number ten hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. Rightfully so, Kay was praised for his vocal performance of “Rock Me.”
It became a staple favorite, performed in concerts while Steppenwolf enjoyed the rush of a recording career that ran from 1967 until 1972. While “Rock Me” may not stand out as much as “Born to Be Wild,” it’s still a cult classic. The smoldering instrumentals, combined with Kay’s incredible singing voice, made “Rock Me” sound like a slightly jazzed-up provocative ride.
#8 – Which Way You Goin’ Billy? (performed by the Poppy Family)
“Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” was a single recorded and released in 1969 by Susan and Terry Jacks of the Poppy Family. It became a number-one hit on the Canadian Top Singles Chart, as well as on the Irish Singles Chart. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked as high as number two. Written by Terry Jacks, the song was mainly performed by Susan Jacks as lead vocalist. The couple assumed the roles of different characters as Susan asked “Billy” where he was going. This was a song of heartbreak as the singer already knew her love interest was intending to walk out on a relationship she shared with him.
Both the song and the album became award-winning hits with the first edition of the Canadian Juno Awards. The untelevised awards ceremony was held on February 23, 1970, as the Gold Leaf Awards before it was renamed as the Junos. What made “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” stand out was the contrast it had with the majority of happy-go-lucky songs that were playing on the radio at the time. Today, it’s still a favorite for American and Canadian fans who appreciate classic rock for the timeless gem it is.
#7 – No Time (performed by The Guess Who)
“No Time” was a song from The Guess Who that came with two versions. The first was on the album, Canned Heat. The second, more popular version was on the American Woman tracklist. Canned Heat was recorded and released in 1969 while American Woman was recorded in 1969, then released in 1970.
Written by the songwriting team of Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings, “No Time” became one of the Canadian rock group’s most popular hits ever released. After the single version was released, it became a number-one hit on the Canadian Top Singles Chart. It peaked as high as number five on the US Billboard Hot 100. The single version also wound up cutting Bachman’s extended guitar solo out for the sake of making it radio-friendlier.
This classic breakup song made a not-so-subtle approach to informing a love interest whatever they had as a relationship was now over. For fans of hard-rocking guitar riffs and in-your-face lyrics, “No Time” was fantastic. It’s still a highly requested song played on classic rock music stations.
When the bandmates of The Guess Who first put this song together, it was their playful attempt to sound like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The popularity of “No Time” extended beyond North American borders as it became a number nineteen hit in the UK, a number sixteen hit in New Zealand, and a number forty-three hit in Australia.
#6 – Both Sides, Now (performed by Joni Mitchell)
“Both Sides, Now” was first recorded by Judy Collins, despite the fact it was Joni Mitchell who wrote it. It was a single that appeared on the US Billboard Hot 100, peaking as high as number eight, in 1968. Joni Mitchell’s recorded version was released in 1969, along with the album, Clouds. Both the song and the album have been regarded as one of Mitchell’s best works as a recording artist.
Over time, “Both Sides, Now” seems to get better and better as Joni Mitchell herself has recorded newer versions of the song with different musical arrangements. It was this incredible song that helped Collins win a 1969 Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. Oddly enough, Mitchell never cared much for Collins’ version, even though it did become a big hit.
Joni Mitchell’s original recording in 1969 played a key role in the success of Clouds. It was already written out as a song in 1967 by the time Collins, then Dion DiMucci, recorded their versions in 1968. Already a charming classic by Joni Mitchell’s performance in 1969, “Both Sides, Now” experienced an orchestral rebirth thirty-one years later.
2000’s “Both Sides, Now” became a Grammy Award winner for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist, thanks to the workmanship of Vince Mendoza. It was this Mitchell version that was played during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games that was held in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
#5 – Cinnamon Girl (performed by Neil Young)
With Crazy Horse as his backing band, Neil Young performed one of his most beloved hits, “Cinnamon Girl.” This song came from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young’s second studio album that was recorded and released in 1969. Technically, it was the third single he released as “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River” came out beforehand. At the time of recording, Neil Young was still contending with the flu.
Even though he was still running with a high fever, it didn’t stop the Canadian singer-songwriter from doing what he loved to do most. “Cinnamon Girl” was performed as a duet as Danny Whitten sang in high harmony while Neil Young sang low. The tuning used in this song became one of Young’s trademarks as it was often used in some of his other songs during the span of his career. According to the lyrics, Neil Young spent his time between shows, daydreaming about a potential love interest to call his own.
Neil Young was inspired to write this song after meeting with Jean Ray, a folk singer who had a talent for playing finger cymbals. It was also perceived that “Cinnamon Girl” was loosely based on Pamela Courson. She was romantically linked with Jim Morrison as the two lived in the same Californian community as Neil Young at the time. The physical description of the “Cinnamon Girl” Neil Young referenced matched. However, Neil Young pointed out it was about Ray, not Courson.
#4 – King Harvest (Has Surely Come) (performed by The Band)
The 1969 release of The Band was designed as an album featuring music as if these Canadian rockers came from the American South. Between the fantastic opening of “Across the Great Divide” to the equally impressive “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” listeners who get their hands on The Band’s second studio album are in for a treat. Written by Robbie Robertson, the guitarist approached this song from the point of view of a farmer that was desperately struggling to make ends meet.
What made “King Harvest” stand out was the contrast between Richard Manuel’s energetic verses and the toned-down choruses lyrically performed by him and Levon Helm. “King Harvest” was a song that danced between the bright light of hope against the dark shadow of despair. The genius of The Band’s workmanship that went into “King Harvest” is unparalleled. If you’re looking for a great song that shared bits of the Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties, “King Harvest” is it.
The hero of the song was a farmer who joined a union with high hopes to get through one of the harshest periods in American history. When that union failed to make good on all the promises it made, it served as a catalyst for people living in the United States to find a way to rely more on themselves instead of the morally bankrupt corporations and politicians who duped them.
#3 – Our House (performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
Written by Graham Nash, “Our House” referred to the home he shared with his love interest at the time, Joni Mitchell. The two lived together in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, California, from 1968 until 1970. It was a time Nash was more than happy to share a chapter of the life he had while he and Joni Mitchell were an item.
Wonderfully performed as a sentimental ballad, Nash’s inspiration behind “Our House” came from the equally gifted songwriter, Joni Mitchell. As Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Our House” was originally recorded in 1969, then released in 1970 as a standalone single. This was a portrait of a happy man as he shared aspects of his life in the form of a song. He was inspired to write this as soon as he and Joni Mitchell returned home after visiting an antique store. On the US Billboard Hot 100, “Our House” peaked as high as number thirty.
When David Crosby, Stephen Sills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young sang “Our House” in harmony together, it added even more magic to a song that had so much of Mitchell’s elegance poured into it. “Our House” became especially popular in the UK as the British Phonographic Industry certified it silver after it sold over two hundred thousand copies there. The legacy of “Our House” still continues today.
It has often been used in various television episodes over the course of time, as well as in a few movies. Dan Akroyd sang along to it in a scene from 1994’s My Girl 2. Cheers, The Simpsons, and This is Us, are among the television shows that had this song featured.
#2 – The Night They Drove Dixie Down (performed by The Band)
Written by Robbie Robertson, 1969’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was a song that took him eight months to piece together that matched the vision he had for it as a lyrical storyteller. Using the final year of the American Civil War, Robertson and The Band performed as an American Southerner whose life met with economic and social hardship. As an album, The Band became one of the most significant recordings ever to grace the music industry.
It was clear the influence of the group’s friend and mentor, Bob Dylan, was strongly felt here. Although Canadian, The Band performed as if they came from the American South with its brand of rock that successfully blended multiple styles together as one. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” already had musical content playing in Robertson’s head before he wrote the lyrics. However, he had yet to weave out a storyline as a songwriter.
That didn’t come to him until researching the conditions revolving around the American Civil War with fellow bandmate, Levon Helm. Helm, who came from Arkansas, helped the Canadian singer-songwriter learn more about one of the most important chapters in American history. The more Robertson knew, the easier it became to turn this song into a work of musical art. “The Night They Drove Dixie Down” became one of The Band’s most beloved signature songs, even after Helm refused to perform it anymore after The Last Waltz concert that was held in San Francisco, California, in 1976.
The legacy of “The Night They Drove Dixie Down” included a cover version performed by Joan Baez. In 1971, it became a number three hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. This further popularized The Band’s song, despite the fact she changed some of the lyrics with her performance. It wasn’t a change she did on purpose. She liked the song so much that when she first heard it she recorded a version of it based on what she thought was the proper lyrics. When she read what Robertson actually wrote, she began to perform the song according to what was actually written instead of what she had.
Another legend recording “The Night They Drove Dixie Down” was Johnny Cash. He did this for his 1975 album, John R. Cash. He was among many recording artists, regardless of genre, who became so inspired by one of The Band’s greatest tunes that they each recorded their own versions for their own albums. This anti-war cult classic belonging to The Band has since been regarded as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
#1 – American Woman (performed by The Guess Who)
“American Woman” was recorded on April 13, 1969, two days before the infamous Woodstock Festival took place on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York. It wouldn’t be released as a single until March 1970. This came about three months after American Woman was released as an album. While at a concert in Ontario, Canada, members of The Guess Who found themselves engaged in a jam session that would be recorded by a kid with a tape recorder who happened to be there for this event.
He handed the recording to Burton Cummings and his bandmates when they asked for it. During the jam session, Cummings improvised with some lyrics he caught in the recordings. These were written down, then refined, as Cummings took it upon himself to turn “American Woman” into a full song. According to the lyrics, Cummings laid out a preference for earthier Canadian women over what he considered to be unruly American women.
When the song was first released, it was perceived by critics and some music fans that it was a jab against American politics. This wasn’t the case, which members of The Guess Who have no trouble pointing out. As men who grew up in Manitoba, they were quite proud of their Canadian heritage. What the song pointed out was the series of trends that consumed American culture. While the powerhouse delivery from Cummings as the group’s lead vocalist was the singer at his best, another awesome highlight was Randy Bachman’s guitar riffs.
The recording the kid made came as a blessing as the impromptu jam session turned into a golden opportunity that would make “American Woman” the greatest hit The Guess Who ever produced. As a single, it topped the US Billboard Hot 100 and the Canadian Top Singles Chart after it was released in 1970. Not long after it was released as a single, “American Woman” became certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. Overseas, “American Woman” at least became a top ten hit among nations such as Austria, Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the UK. Part of the charm of this song was the acoustic beginning before launching with the powerful lyrics voiced by Cummings and the riffs by Bachman.
So inspired by this song, New Yorker Lenny Kravitz recorded and released his own mega-hit version in 1999. It was enough to earn him a 2000 Grammy Award Win for Best Male Rock Performance. The Guess Who’s original remains on top as the all-time classic. When this group’s version was released in 1970, it was enough for The Guess Who to win a 1971 Canadian Juno Award for Best Group. However, thanks to Kravitz’s iconic performance of “American Woman,” it won The Guess Who a new wave of fans who then took it upon themselves to learn the rest of this Canadian rock group’s musical repertoire.
Top 10 Canadian Rock Songs of 1969 article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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