The top 10 Canadian Rocks Songs of 1970 mostly owes its list to the incredible influence of the greatest rock concert of all time on a certain farm in New York. Although Woodstock took place on American soil, it wasn’t without a dose of Canadian influence as legendary performers such as The Band and Neil Young. By the time 1969 drew to a close, the music industry still rode an incredible high from the wild ride the weekend of August 15th held. 1970 also marked a new era for the Canadian music industry.
Named after Pierre Juneau, the Juno Awards was the Canadian equivalent of the American Music Awards. Awards according to various categories within the music industry. Juneau was the first president of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. At first, the Junos was referred to as the Gold Leaf Awards before the Juno Awards replaced it with its first ceremony on February 23, 1970. It recognized all the musical accomplishments that were made in 1969.
The Woodstock Influence
Although the vast majority of the musicians who performed at Woodstock between August 15th and August 18th were Americans, there were two Canadian recording artists who also took to the stage. The first was The Band, a rock group from Toronto, Ontario. The Band were best known for their close ties with legendary Bob Dylan and their presence there despite his absence was so intense they were called back by the fans to do an encore performance. Another Canadian who made quite an impression was Neil Young.
Also from Ontario, this legend teamed up with David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash. Like The Band, their performance was nothing short of spectacular, despite the fact Young skipped most of the acoustic set of music that was played. When it came to the electrical set, that was a different story as he seemed to be in his element there. This experience by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young prompted Joni Mitchell to write a song about it. Also Canadian, Mitchell’s “Woodstock” was performed by the men as a group that would become one of their biggest hits.
In 1970, a documentary film sharing the Woodstock Festival further highlighted what made this rock concert so great. It served as a key moment for the counterculture population, as did the accompanying soundtrack. Mitchell’s song added that much more depth to the Woodstock experience. This was an amazing feat since she wasn’t at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York, at the time. While the weekend concert was mostly peaceful, it didn’t go without a few tragedies. There were 742 drug overdoses where two of them resulted in death. There was also a teenager sleeping in a farmer’s field that was accidentally run over by a tractor.
Death of Three Legends
Just over a year after Woodstock’s legendary concert weekend, fans and performers of the music industry of all nations would be rocked by the first of three unexpected deaths. Canned Heat’s Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson was found dead at twenty-seven years old in a sleeping bag on September 3, 1970. The cause of death was ruled as an accidental overdose of barbiturates. This came a day after Wilson’s bandmates had already departed overseas to embark on a scheduled European tour.
At the time, nobody gave Wilson’s failure to show up much thought as it was no secret he didn’t care for touring. He also hated flying on airplanes so the rest of the Canned Heat lineup didn’t give it much thought as they boarded a flight that took them to Germany. When they learned about Wilson, they learned his body was found behind Bob Hite’s home. Fans of Canned Heat are likely to remember Wilson’s performance as lead vocalist for two of the group’s hit singles, “Going Up the Country” and “On the Road Again.”
On September 18, 1970, the entire world was rocked by the death of legendary guitar hero Jimi Hendrix. This was heartbreaking news that was just as impactful among Canadian fans as it was for Americans. He was also only twenty-seven years old when he passed away while he was in London, England. According to the official records, Hendrix died of asphyxiation that was caused by choking on his own vomit after consuming nine sleeping tablets that belonged to his girlfriend at the time, Monik Dannermann. Although the coroner’s report marked Hendrix’s death as an accidental overdose, not everyone was convinced this was the case.
The coroner suggested suicide while some of Hendrix’s closest associates suspected Hendrix was the victim of foul play. In 1992, there was an official request to peer further into the circumstances surrounding Hendrix’s death by one of his former girlfriends, Kathy Etchingham. Although British authorities opted not to proceed with the investigation, there are still many who believe there is more to the story revolving around Hendrix’s death than meets the eye. At the time, Hendrix was dealing with a combination of personal and professional issues. He was also experiencing fatigue between maintaining an overly busy work schedule while contending with the flu symptoms and lack of sleep.
On October 4, 1970, the world would be rocked yet again by the death of another musical legend. This time, it was Janis Joplin. Like Hendrix and Wilson, she was only twenty-seven years old. Ruled as an accidental overdose, it was no secret this incredibly gifted woman had an addiction to heroin. She, along with Hendrix and Wilson, became known as the “27 Club,” as all three died before their time at the same age. Another thing these three talents had in common was the Monterey Pop Festival and the Woodstock Festival. The impact of her death, as well as Hendrix and Wilson, left a scar among songwriters that would produce some of the best musical material of all time. Many of those songs came from Canadian recording artists such as The Band, The Guess Who, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young.
Top 10 Canadian Rock Songs of 1970
#10 – Big Yellow Taxi (performed by Joni Mitchell)
When Joni Mitchell wrote 1970’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” she was living in Los Angeles, California, at the time. The infamous line, “They paved paradise and put up the parking lot” made reference to the destruction of a famous Hollywood hotel that had a reputation for holding rowdy parties. This environmentally-focused song became a Mitchell trademark as a member of the counterculture generation.
‘Big Yellow Taxi” came to the Canadian singer-songwriter while she was visiting Hawaii. For her, the bitter sting of commercial tourism compromising the splendor of natural scenery triggered the desire to write a song about it. Although titled “Big Yellow Taxi,” these words are not mentioned until the last verse of the song when her boyfriend jumped into a cab and drove away. The original version of “Big Yellow Taxi” was recorded and released in 1970, along with her third studio album, Ladies of the Canyon.
The live version of “Big Yellow Taxi” was recorded and released in 1974 from her album, Miles of Aisles. What’s regarded as the livelier performance, it became a number twenty-four hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. Although “Big Yellow Taxi” was technically a 1970 song, it’s the 1974 version that continues to receive the most attention.
As of 2005, Music Canada regarded “Big Yellow Taxi” as one of its most essential Canadian tracks. The 1970 recording was more somber but no less passionate as Mitchell openly shared her concern about the environmental impact mankind was making at the time, all in the name of progress. Over time, “Big Yellow Taxi” has been covered by several recording artists. Between country genres and rock, it remains one of Mitchell’s most popular songs she has ever written.
#9 – Hang On to Your Life (performed by The Guess Who)
Written by Burton Cummings and Kurt Winter, “Hang On to Your Life” was a song performed by The Guess Who that served as an anti-drug tune. The infamous echo “Oh life” performed in the chorus acted as a heartbeat, which seems to reach its climax as the song draws to an end.
The album version of this song featured Burton Cummings quote from Psalm 22: 13-15 while the single version had it omitted. Although “Hang Onto Your Life” was recorded in late 1970, it wasn’t until early 1971 that it was officially released as a single. It became a number-five hit on the Canadian Top Singles chart. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked as high as number forty-three. This single and “Hand Me Down World” came from The Guess Who’s seventh studio album, Share the Land. It was the first recording since Randy Bachman left the lineup. His departure opened the door for two new guitarists to join, namely Greg Leskiw and Kurt Winter.
The musical direction of The Guess Who continued to focus on the quality of life for people, regardless of which nation they belonged to. Share the Land, as well as “Hang On to Your Life” was released on October 5, 1970, exactly one day after the shocking death of Janis Joplin. Given the subject matter behind “Hang On to Your Life,” the timing of its release felt too close to home for many fans and musicians. However, when Cummings wrote the lyrics to this song, it came after he experienced a severe sunburn while he was in Hawaii.
By this time, The Guess Who already achieved international stardom after the January 1970 release of American Woman. That album, plus most of its tracklist, was recorded in 1969 between August and November. Although the group from Manitoba was invited to the Woodstock Festival, it was turned down as Cummings and his bandmates were already committed to performing concerts elsewhere.
#8 – The Shape I’m In (performed by The Band)
From the 1970’s album, Stage Fright, “The Shape I’m In” was a song written by Robbie Robertson with The Band’s singer, Richard Manuel, in mind. It was released on the same record as “Time to Kill,” a single that didn’t quite make as much of an impression as this one did. On the Canadian Top Singles Chart, it became a minor hit at number sixty-two. However, “The Shape I’m In” became a cult classic, thanks to the direct approach it took as a rock song.
It was enough to inspire other recording artists to cover their own versions of it. Those artists include The Pointer Sisters and Bo Diddley. The song came from the dramatic point of view of someone living in a poverty-stricken urban environment. “The Shape I’m In” was designed as a song that dealt with depression and was beautifully performed by Manuel as The Band’s pianist and lead vocalist. Manuel’s vocal talent, especially in this song, danced between a soul-style baritone and a gentle falsetto.
Throughout the majority of his life, Richard Manuel contended with clinical depression. Pouring his heart and soul into music was his best form of therapy, something Robertson and the rest of The Band understood. Unfortunately, Manuel wasn’t able to overcome his personal demons as he committed suicide on March 4, 1986, right after finishing a gig with his bandmates in Winter Park, Florida.
#7 – Hand Me Down World (performed by The Guess Who)
Released in 1970, “Hand Me Down World” came from the penmanship of Kurt Winter. As of 1970, he replaced Randy Bachman as The Guess Who’s new lead guitarist. This was a role he held until 1974, then again from 1977 until 1978. “Hand Me Down World” was a rebellious song aimed directly at a political establishment The Guess Who was in stark disagreement with. As lead vocalist, Burton Cummings pointed out nobody wanted anything handed to them that felt like a secondhanded payout.
“Hand Me Down World” was released as a successor to The Guess Who’s explosive hit single, “American Woman.” On the Canadian Top Singles Chart, it peaked as high as number ten. It was a number seventeen hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. Performed as a group of defiant, hard-rocking men, “Hand Me Down” earned a solid fan following from members of the counterculture generation. Among the biggest highlights of this great song are the guitar riffs performed by Kurt Winter and Guy Leskiw. Together, they replaced Randy Bachman as two of The Guess Who’s new lead guitarists instead of just one.
#6 – The Circle Game (performed by Joni Mitchell)
Originally, “The Circle Game” was composed by Joni Mitchell in 1966. It was recorded for the first time in 1967 by Ian & Sylvia, then again in 1968 by Tom Rush. Mitchell wouldn’t record this song until she put together her 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon. At the time, Mitchell wrote “The Circle Game” in response to Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain.”
Like her, Young came from Canada. He was from Ontario while she was mostly raised in Saskatchewan. Before both of them became world-famous musicians, the two met as folk musicians along the Canadian music circuit. Written in 1964, “Sugar Mountain” was a lamentation of a young man realizing his days as a teenager are now over. “The Circle Game” was Mitchell’s way of telling Young he’d be better off looking forward with hope instead of mourning over lost youth. When Tom Rush asked Mitchell to put together some songs for him in 1966, “The Circle Game” was included in the tape she gave him.
Although it was given to him first, Canadian folk artists Ian & Sylvia Tyson beat him to the punch in 1967. However, the most popular version of “The Circle Game” came from American-Canadian folk artist, Buffy Sainte-Marie. It was her version that was released as a single in 1967, then again in 1970. Neither of them was able to crack the US Billboard Hot 100. 2019 Quentin Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Mitchell’s recorded version in 1970 featured the backing vocals of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash. At the time, Mitchell and Nash were an item, sharing a home in Los Angeles, California. Instead of being credited as Crosby, Stills & Nash on Ladies of the Canyon, the men were credited as The Lookout Mountain United Downstairs Choir. The legacy of “The Circle Game” doesn’t stop there.
It has become one of Mitchell’s most covered songs as additional recording artists have performed their versions of it over the stretch of time. Even some of its lines have been used in other songs. The most famous of them all would be references to “painted ponies” as it was used in the 1968 recording and release of “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat & Tears.
#5 – Ohio (Neil Young)
“Ohio” was written and performed by Neil Young as a protest song in response to the May 4, 1970 shootings that took place at Kent State University. What also became a counterculture anthem, “Ohio” was performed by the collective talent of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young. The Canadian songwriter originally from Ontario was inspired to write the lyrics to this song after observing magazine photos of the students who were shot by the Ohio State National Guard. Four of those nine students died as a result of this tragic incident.
This, along with Stephen Stills’ penmanship behind “Find the Cost of Freedom,” featured David Crosby let loose with a tone of voice that made it clear he was wrought with emotion. What “Ohio” represented was more than just a protest song. The timing of “Ohio” came when Americans and Canadians found the people of their respective nations deeply divided when it came to the Vietnam War. Although there were scores of protests that took place at the time that met with violence, none of them was as bloody as the one that claimed the lives of four university students.
As a song, “Ohio” was despised by many politicians, including then-president Richard Nixon. When it was first released as a single in 1970, it was banned from most AM-based radio stations across the American nation. It also met with animosity among Canadian radio stations as well. However, certain FM-based stations managed to play “Ohio” as it was agreed this was a song that deserved to be heard.
It wasn’t simply because it was a protest song. It was actually a great song, written by a talented songwriter, and performed by a great group of men. Today, “Ohio” has become a bonafide classic finally receiving a decent amount of airtime on radio stations who know a really good rock song when they hear it. According to the Grammy Hall of Fame, it was agreed in 2009 “Ohio” deserved to be inducted.
#4 – One Fine Morning (performed by Lighthouse)
Recorded in Toronto, Ontario in 1970, then finally released in 1971, “One Fine Morning” was the title track from Lighthouse’s fourth studio album. It also became one of the Canadian rock group’s most successful singles. It became a number two hit on the Canadian Top Singles Chart, as well as a number twenty-four hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. On the Adult Contemporary Songs charts, it peaked as high as number seven in Canada and at number thirty in the US. The songwriting talent of Skip Prokop was known to fuse jazz with rock as a sound that became Lighthouse’s trademark.
The timing of the album’s release came after the group from Ontario was dropped by RCA Records in late 1970 and Lighthouse went on the hunt for a new label. In comes GRT Records and One Fine Morning becomes the first album to feature Bob McBride as Lighthouse’s new lead vocalist. “One Fine Morning” was a fantastic, feel-good love song that quickly became a cult favorite that’s still enjoyed by fans today. McBride’s distinctive voice not only shot “One Fine Morning” into stardom as a classic rock song but Lighthouse as one of Canada’s hottest bands.
#3 – Signs (performed by Five Man Electrical Band)
Performed by Canadian rockers Five Man Electrical Band, “Signs” was a song recorded and released in 1970 from the album, Good-byes and Butterflies. Originally, it accompanied “Hello Melinda Goodbye” on a record where fans decided “Signs” was the better song between the two. In 1971, “Signs” was officially released as a single and it became a number four hit on the Canadian Top Singles Chart and a number three hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. “Signs” also became certified gold by Music Canada. The single version heard on some radio stations has taken out much of the instrumental performances featured in the song, namely the intro and the coda. It was necessary to do so in order to comply with time allowances when it came to playing radio-friendly songs.
The inspiration behind “Signs” came to songwriter Les Emmerson as he traveled California’s Route 66. He was rather put off by the numerous highway billboard signs that took blocked much of the natural scenery that made up the state’s landscape. He was also put off by some of the signs he came across that he found to be ridiculous. “Signs” became a cult classic that still holds fast as an all-time favorite. Among people who fancy themselves as rebels, “Signs” became more than just another great song for them. It became a symbol of freedom as it challenged political and social issues that include legalism and oppression.
#2 – Southern Man (performed by Neil Young)
Written by Neil Young, “Southern Man” was a song that became one of the biggest highlights from his 1970 album, After the Gold Rush. It was the Canadian singer-songwriter’s way of protesting against the racist treatment members of the black community received while living in the American South. The lyrics featured a prominent white man dishing out abusive treatment unto his slaves, prompting Young to challenge him to make atonement.
The song also covered Young’s distaste for the Ku Klux Klan as the group was notorious for mistreating members of the black community and burning crosses. At the time, Young’s sensitivity when it came to racism and human rights was so passionate that he seemed to pour his rage into “Southern Man” as a song. It became immensely popular upon its release in Canada, as well as the US.
“Southern Man” was a passionate Neil Young at his best as he merged folk with rock, rightfully earning his nickname as Godfather of Grunge. According to Young, it was his way of advocating on behalf of civil rights. He also admitted he did lay out the lyrics of “Southern Man” a bit too harshly as some listeners took the meaning behind the song the wrong way. Nevertheless, “Southern Man” was a classic. It, along with “Alabama” was enough to prompt Lynyrd Skynyrd to come up with “Sweet Home Alabama” as the group’s 1974 response to one of Young’s signature songs.
The group from Florida were already fans of Young and their hit single wasn’t designed to be an insult, which Young already knew when he first heard it. In fact, he became a fan. “Southern Man” is still immensely popular among fans and it’s still requested often as a favorite song played on classic rock music stations in Canada and the US.
#1 – Woodstock (performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
First, “Woodstock” was written and performed by Joni Mitchell in 1969 before it was featured on the B-side of her 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon. 1970 also witnessed the team of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young cover “Woodstock” for their 1970 album, Deja Vu. This is the version that became a classic rock staple across Canada and the United States.
The song itself made reference to 1969’s infamous Woodstock Music and Arts Festival that was held on a farm not too far from New York City. Oddly enough, Mitchell wasn’t able to attend one of the most historical rock concerts of all time. Her boyfriend at the time, Nash, did. “Woodstock” became more than just a song. It became an anthem, as well as one of the most recognized symbols of late 1960s pop culture as the world knew it.
Mitchell’s take on the Woodstock story focused on Max Yagur’s infamous farm that held the infamous festival. Described as a spiritual experience, Mitchell compared the aura of this legendary concert to the biblical Garden of Eden. She also shared the darker side of the 1960s era when the height of the Cold War still carried on between the American and Russian nations.
The version performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young became an international sensation as it charted as high as number three on the Canadian Top Singles Chart and as high as number eleven on the US Billboard Hot 100. Even in France, “Woodstock” became a hit as it peaked as high as number twenty-one on its official music chart. This song also served as a source of inspiration for the UK-based group, Matthew Southern Comfort. This group’s version became a number-one hit in their home nation.
While some fans may debate about the legitimacy of “Woodstock” classifying as a Canadian rock song, bear in mind it was a Canadian songwriter who first wrote and performed it. It was also performed by Neil Young, another Canadian, despite the fact he teamed up with three Americans. “Woodstock” definitely earns its place in the top ten Canadian rock songs of 1970.
Top 10 Canadian Rock Songs Of 1970 article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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