This is the Takin a Walk Podcast – Music history on Foot; and I’m Buzz Knight. Follow what’s on your favorite podcast platform: Apple, Spotify, iHeart. Tunein, or wherever you get your podcasts.
And when you click follow, that guarantees that you’re never going to miss an episode. Kindly share with a friend. Today we have the bassist and keyboard player from a Canadian band that defined arena-rock in its four decades. He’s a dear friend for many years. Please welcome Mike Levine to Takin a Walk.
Well, Michael Steven Levine, it’s so awesome to have you on taking a walk. I only wish we could be in-person, but what joyous part of the globe are you in?
I am in Jamaica, and it is a beautiful sunny day; and I’m on the beach.
I could just detect the smile on your face when you say that.
Yes, and I also smiled. Nobody’s ever, ever, in all of the years I’ve been doing interviews referred to me as Michael Steven Levine. So, you win the award, my friend.
So, let’s disclose first that I got to know you from being a regular attendee of the Superstars Radio convention led by our mutual friend, Lee Abrams. I remember being either in the bar line or the chow line, and when I would see you, I knew the convention would be ultra-fun if you were in the house.
We had a lot of laughs and we probably dented ourselves a little bit in the process, but it sure was a lot of fun.
Yeah, those were very heady days. I have incredibly fond and also headachy memories from those conventions. But just the opportunity to hang with all the radio guys and some of the artists that actually did show up was, it was just amazing for me.
Yeah. Do you remember some of the artists that were there? I remember a few of them.
I remember hanging in the A&M suite. I remember hanging with Robert Palmer for an extended period of time. He was probably the most opinionated artist I ever met.
That’s funny. I remember Robbie Robertson, a fellow Canadian, hanging around there. Do you remember him?
Yeah, I remember Robbie being there. I remember David Lee Roth being there. I remember being in a bathtub with David. There was somebody’s suite, but we had our clothes on.
I remember Bob and Doug Mackenzie, your fellow Canadians, were there one time. Do you remember that?
I don’t remember them being there, no. I have no recollection of that, but Buzz, there’s a lot of things I don’t remember, especially about then.
Oh my god, me too. All right, we’re going to talk later about the Triumph documentary, Rock and Roll Machine. We’re going to touch on the tribute album as well, and limited edition cool things that you’ve got available. But first, let’s start at the beginning. When did you know that you were hooked being a musician?
I don’t know. I guess, maybe, when I saw The Beatles at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto; and I probably might have been, I don’t know, 13 or 14 years old, I guess at that point it was 63′ or 64′, whatever that was.
I just looked in awe at this band that you couldn’t hear from all the girls screaming. And then I looked at all the girls screaming and I said, “I want to be a musician; that’s how you get girls.”
That’s it, right?
Pretty much, yeah.
Now, who were some of the other influences musically that shaped you around that time?
Oh, I was, me and my buddies, we had little high school bands, part-time bands, and we were very R&B oriented. So it was Sam and Dave, and Wilson Pickett, and Syl Johnson, and Aretha Franklin, an Erma Franklin.
And we used to, because there was no black people in Toronto, the Top 40 station was CHUM, which was very famous station; but they listed Midnight Hour by Wilson Pickett as number one, but they never played the record.
Wow. That’s crazy.
So, we had to listen to Buffalo Radio to hear the songs. So it’d be WUFO, the big WUFO; and [inaudible 00:05:11] later when FM started happening, WBLK-FM. So, we’d hear the songs, and there was one store in downtown Toronto that carried the singles.
So we used to head down there on the weekends because we lived in the suburbs and just hang out and look at the single that came in that week, and the ones that we had heard on the radio we bought and we learned and we played in the band.
So, those were big, huge influences, really; the R&B guys, and of course the Beatles, the Stones, even Herman’s Hermits, for lack of a better band in those days. But The Who, and The Yarbirds, and just all those bands were amazing.
So, you’d listen to them and try and cop their licks and be as good at players as they were, which of course was pretty much impossible, in those days. But yeah, it influences for everything because there was no FM radio; it was strictly Top 40.
So, describe that chance meeting with Rick Emmett and Gil Moore in Toronto that led to the Band Triumph; that was 1975, right?
Yes. You have the year absolutely correct. So Gil and I were in a part-time band together, and we played high schools on weekends; it was a cover band; we made good dough. But then he suckered me into playing with him. I didn’t want to do it, but he basically conned me into just playing for a few weeks, because I was doing other things at that point.
So, I started to like the playing part; it was kind of neat. We sat down one day just him, and I said, “Look, I can’t do this anymore. Either we try and get something serious going, or I’m going to have to go back to writing and producing jingles,” which is what I was doing. He said, “Okay.”
So, we brainstormed. A bottle of scotch or whatever over the course of a few weeks and decide, okay, we’re going to have a three-piece band. It’s going to be à la Jimi Hendrix, à la Led Zeppelin, à la Deep Purple; hard Rock, heavy metal, whatever you wanted to call that. I don’t think anything had terminology back then.
So, you got a guitar player, sorry, a bass player, and a drummer, but you need a guitar player. So, we had auditioned a bunch of guys just to see if we could, (a) get along, and (b) play with them, and nothing seemed to be working. And then with guys that we knew, their managers and agents suggested that we go check out this guy named Rik Emmett playing in a band called Act Three.
And they’re playing this weekend at whatever club it was, I can’t remember now. So we went, okay, and we went and checked them out. And they were playing Gentle Giant and Queen, early Queen, really kind of a complex Prog rock stuff. And they were pretty good. And Rik was amazing.
Gill and I looked at each other and Gil says, “Yeah, he’s really good, but do you think he could play Whole Lotta Love?” And I said, “Hey, if he could play that, he can play Whole Lotta Love. All right, it’s not going to be a problem.”
So, Rik came over and sat down with us and we chatted and decided that, okay, let’s get together and play a little bit, see how the vibes are. And that seemed to work out just fine. And the rest is history.
I like how you focused on let’s see if we could get along first. That was really the priority, right?
Absolutely. That’s what we did pretty much all the way through our career. Okay, so we got a band, now what are we going to do? So, we’re playing high school; so that was easy. But then we need to go on the road and see what we could do.
So, we went on… an agent booked us a tour of Northern Ontario. Okay, now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been up there, but it’d be like places like Thunder Bay, Ontario and Sault Ste. Marie and North Bay and Sudbury, and god nowhere else. And it’s in the winter, it’s really fucking cold.
So, we get there and there’s no gigs. So, we’re going, okay, we’re here; we have nowhere to play. The agent agent just made it all up. So, we went to the university and said, “Hey, you guys got beer night?
“Okay, we’re going to play.”
“Yeah, just give us the door, or whatever; pay us beer.”
Went to a club that was up there and said, “Hey, we’ll play for food.” And we lived through that experience. We’re up there for, I don’t know, five or six weeks. And we lived and we laughed and I couldn’t say we had the most fun ever, but we made fun of a really horrible situation.
So again, it was, hey, you got to live through the shit-holes to play the nice places. And we managed to do that.
So then 1979, this release called Just A Game comes out and it’s breakthrough. Hold On, Lay it on the Line, songs that are still staples out there for classic rock and rock stations. So, were you guys surprised at the success of Just a Game?
Nothing ever surprised me, to be honest with you. I went, hey, we’re either going to… Being in a band is kind of going to Vegas if you’re a gambler. So, once in a while you hit blackjack, but as soon as you pick up your chips and walk away from the table, you can’t get lucky. So, we got really lucky with that record. It was a very good record. I’m very proud of that record.
But as you know, a lot of great records just never got promoted; lousy record company, the old manager off president of record company. That was like you weren’t the number one priority, yu weren’t even the number three priority with the promo department. So, we managed to lobby.
RCA Records was amongst the worst labels in the business, but they had a couple of guys there that were believers. The head of marketing was a guy named Dick Carter; and he believed in the band. He said, “We’re going to make this happen.”
And we managed to extract a whole whack of dough out of them. We just bullshitted. We made videos, we used TV commercials. Nobody else was doing that kind of thing and MTV didn’t exist. But half a million bucks later, we had songs on the radio and people were paying attention to this band called Triumph.
But it was really difficult for you guys to break into the U.S., wasn’t it?
Yes and no. Another three-piece band from Toronto had led the way, so to speak. We were able to follow how they did it and learn from the mistakes they made early on in their career, because we were maybe three years behind them. I can’t remember their name. Oh yeah, it was Rush
So, I got on a plane and went to see, I don’t know, five or six promoters. And I walked in, our agent at that point, we had a U.S. agent Troy Blakely, you may remember his name, rest his soul, he became a very powerful guy in the business.
So, Troy set up meetings for me with Bill Graham and Brian Murphy and Avalon Attractions in LA; Jules Belkin in Cleveland, and [Louie Bastina 00:13:26]. And I went around to all these guys and said, “Look, you never heard of us, but we’re going to want to come in your market and headline.”
And Bill Graham threw me out of his office.
I said, “But Bill, here’s a codicil. Okay, here’s the deal, we’re going to pay for all the advertising. We got a $25,000 budget for TV and radio. And if the show loses, money, we’ll raise you a check for half the loss.” And Bill said, “You’re absolutely out of your fucking mind. Get out.”
So, I’m walking back to my rental car in the parking lot at BGP, and Danny Cher and Gregg Perloff, who both became very famous promoters; I think Greg still runs AEG I think, they came running after me and said, “Don’t pay attention to Bill. If it’s not his idea, he doesn’t like it. But we’re all in; we’re we’re going to do this.”
I said, “Great, fantastic.” So, I felt really good about that. So, my balls got bigger, my dick got harder. And the next guy with me, Brian Murphy, I said, “Brian, here’s the lay down: Bill Graham’s in on this. Okay? So, it’s like you got to come in too.”
And sure every promoter, Jerry Michaelson in Chicago, everybody bought in. And there wasn’t one promoter that made money. Everybody lost money, which was okay because they came in the dressing room after the show and they were honest about how much they lost; they didn’t try and steal money from us.
And we wrote to… Rik, Mike, and Gil each signed a check for half the loss. The only time in history an act has signed a check to a promoter for a loss, ever. So, those guys became our friends and they worked radio on our behalf. They did everything they possibly could to make the band successful in their marketplaces. And sure enough, it just took a couple of times through, but then we’re playing the big building.
Wow, what a great story. Oh my God. So, Thunder Seven, you worked with Eddie Kramer, the legendary engineer and co-producer. Quite a history obviously with some bands that we might have heard of that he worked with. What was it like working with Eddie Kramer?
When you look up with the phrase ‘piece of work’ in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Eddie right there. He was a lot of fun to work with, but Eddie was really quirky. We nearly came to fisticuffs many, many times. But it was all for the better. At the end of the day, the record got better because Eddie insisted on something and I told him, “You’re dreaming, you’re brain dead, your ears don’t work anymore..
He goes, “Yes, they do. The problem is you. Don’t who I am?” I just really, I don’t care who you are. This isn’t your record; this is a triumph record. It became a battle of wills, so to speak. And Eddie won a few and I won a few, and Rik won a few. And the record ended up being good.
But I learned a lot from Eddie on the technical basis and sound-wise, audio-wise, how he likes stuff. And just listening to his Led Zeppelin stories, it was a lot of fun. It was worth the money we paid him really, just for the stories.
So, you guys defined really this category. You were part of creating this category arena rock, I guess I would call it, which included a lot of lasers and explosions and things of that nature. Where did you get the idea for that type of stage persona?
Well, going back to how we started our little walk here, that was the idea from the beginning was to have a big show. Our feeling was: imagine going to a Broadway playing and there’s no lighting and there’s no audio and there’s no light and dark kind of thing. If there’s no lighting and no excitement, just watching three guys on stage standing there looking like goofballs with no kind of theatrical presentation around it, was really not a very bright business plan.
So, right from the beginning, we over-amped on everything. We bought our own lighting system. We took the biggest lighting system, go into bars. We took pyro in and nobody used pyro in bars; we used pyro in bars. We got a reputation as being as you have to see this band. We were totally unique and both the music we played, which was we copped Zeppelin and Purple and Hendrix, and then we’d do a set of our own.
And that’s how we ended up with fans. But the whole show thing was thing unessential. Anytime we had extra dough, okay, what are we going to add this time? We’re going to add more flash pots. Are we going to go for lasers? Can we afford it? Who cares if we can afford it? Let’s do it anyway.
We were into the big show from the beginning, but not just for the sake of doing it. It was always, okay, how do we use it to enhance the music? So, dark makes light look great. The light makes dark look great. Quiet makes loud sound great. Loud makes quiet sound great.
So, an old adage from Jerry Wexler who I actually had the pleasure of meeting was, he says, “People don’t always hear with the ears; they hear with their eyes too.” And that’s definitely true. So, the visual part of our show was there to enhance the music. And that’s how we paced the show. It was up and down, and then on a good graph; it started off here, and here’s the chart on the stock; it started in a buck and now it’s at 120. But it didn’t go all the way to the top straight up; there was lulls and it’s progression. And that’s how we programmed the shown to be.
So, what was the thinking behind you guys building Metalworks Studio? Where were your aspirations at that time?
So, that was prior to the Allied Forces record. So, we had done the Progressions of Power record, which didn’t do as good as we thought it might, but not deterred at all. We continued on and we need to be able to have a place where we could do demos; that would be very helpful.
So, I’m on vacation and we had a warehouse and with a couple of little offices in front of it. And the warehouse we stored here and we rehearsed in, but it was a warehouse.
One day, Joe Kai was looking in Jamaica, actually. Joe calls me and says, “Hey, what do you think about setting up at demos studio in the warehouse?”
And I said, “Hey, if you want to take that on, buddy, you know, price it out.”
So, he went to work and he phoned me a week later. He goes, “Well, it doesn’t make sense if we don’t have a controller, a little controller.”
And I said, “Yeah, you’re right. Okay, let’s go for it.”
Week later he calls me, “I can get this deal, a sponsorship deal on these MCI desk recording console and 2-24 track machines.”
I went, “You can?”
He says, “Yeah, it’s an unbelievable deal.”
I said, “Okay, it sounds pretty good.”
Over the course of two months, we based on the phone, and I give this all on Gil because he did all the heavy lifting, but the studio got designed; we had a control designed by the top guy in Canada. We had some of the best recording gear ever. And we had a record by early late 1980, I guess. We had a full-blown 48 track recording studio. Of course, when we wanted to use, it was rented.
Of course. So, we had to have someone come in and actually use it. That had to be done, so a band out to Vancouver called Doug and the Slugs used it to make their album, which went gold Canada, by the way. But they loved it. The sound that came out of there was good, and it was just an incredibly pleasing experience for them.
But we go in there for Allied Forces and we spend weeks rehearsing songs and rewriting them and rewriting the hooks, rewriting the verses, coming up with better intros, better solos. And then we were ready to make a record, finally. And I think that record really was the one that set us apart, 100%.
It had Magic Power and Fight the Good Fight, and just it was a game changer. Just the studio was definitely a major part of that. Plus we had become a little better as writers and performers and musicians, et cetera. And being able to say, “Just because we wrote it doesn’t mean that it smells really good.” Shit is shit, it always smells bad.
So, we were able to go, you know what, because we could then go and then that demo processed, we go, okay, let’s lay down a bed track. So, we have drum space guitar, put a scratch vocal on it and go, that song really stinks. You can’t repair it. There’s no way that you could…
You could work on it for 10 years, but it’ll never get any better than what is. Hit erase button and it disappeared forever.
What’s so funny, everybody thinks of Canadians as being gentle, maybe not willing to give their opinion on things. And you’ve just went counter to that, Mike.
Well, yeah, I’m the anti-apathetic Canadian. I don’t like Canadians for that because they go, oh well, gee whiz. And I guess I spent a lot of time in America early on in my life and met people that were hardcore Democrats or hardcore Republicans.
In Canada, nobody’s hardcore. They just go, oh well, I guess I have to vote. I guess that’s just the way it is.
So, the documentary, I love the documentary, oh my God, Rock and Roll Machine. Talk about the process of working on that and how that felt sort of going back in time.
Well, it’s really a weird experience because it’s started, I would say around, I’m going to say 2015, when it first began its embryonic stage. And it was a friend of ours named Bryant Houston and a director named Don Allen, and Don had done a ton of Triumph videos. They got together and said, “We should get the boys to make a film.”
And so that’s kind of started, and went, “Yeah, that sounds good.” And then there was a screenwriter hired and Don went about business trying to raise funds. And that, out of Canada you get a lot of government funding if you’re smart and you’re playing the game right. So Don, did a great job, but he was really lousy at getting funding.
So, it went by the wayside for a while and then it reared its ugly head again, I guess early 2019 when we said to Todd, “Todd, either we got to do something or you’re out.”
And he said, “Well, let me go to the boys at Banger Films and see if we could do some kind of co-production.”
They said, “Sure, we’re in.” And they went and raised the rest of the money, money that was needed. And then we still went to work on it. And they wanted to do something, because they had done Iron Maiden and Alice Cooper and Rush, and they were like the gold standard of guys doing rock docs.
But they wanted to do something different with us. They wanted to tell the story of the band from the point of view of here are three guys that came from nowhere and built this incredible career. And how did they do it and how did the fans react? And let’s not make it all about, well, here’s a picture of Mike having dinner with his parents. Isn’t that swell.
They wanted to have the fans engaged with it, too, which I thought they did a great job, to make it more like a movie than a documentary. And I think at the end of the day, when I look at the finished product, I think they did an absolutely incredible job. It pushes all the buttons; it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you happy, it makes you angry.
So, where can folks see it right now?
It debuted on AXS TV last week? I think you can rent, rent or buy it the Amazon and through our merch store.
So, tell me about the tribute album that produced by Mike Clink. Tell me about that.
So, the tribute album, Mike Clink, who’s one of the great record producers of all time, he did Appetite for Destruction, Whitesnake, you name it; he’s done Mötley Crüe. He thought there’d be a good idea to do a Triumph tribute record. So, we went to Round Hill Music, who owns our recording rights, got a budget and went to work, basically. So, it’s really his project.
We have a little bit of input into it, but there’s some incredible people on it, like ]; you got Mickey Thomas and Tyler Connolly and Larry Gowan, and Joey Belladonna, Sebastian Bach amongst others. And the players from Phil X to Brian Tichi to Tavi Aldrich to Anita Straus to Bumblefoot.
He’s got great players and what I’ve heard so far it’s been really good. So, that should be out in… They’re hoping he’ll be finished in a couple of weeks and have it available by the summertime.
Well, I think folks should check out triumphmusic.com, too, because it not only updates what’s going on as far as the doc and other cool happenings, but it’s also where folks can get limited edition vinyl, right?
Yeah, there’s lots of vinyl going on. Colored vinyl more than just straight vinyl, like neat colors and that kind of thing. So, it’s all limited edition stuff and a lot of it is existing product, but a lot of it’s going to be a totally unheard of live stuff that we’ve found at our vaults and that are… Maybe we’ll do a bootleg series won’t be the greatest quality because they’re bootlegs, but it would be fun to have that out too.
Well, Mike, in closing, what would we do in our life if we didn’t have music?
Man, that would be, I don’t think life would be anything. You figure that music touches everybody in some way, shape, or form on a daily basis. So, I think it’s more important than a car, although still need a car to listen to music sometimes. But it’s, music is one of the great experiences, entertainment experience as you’ll ever have.
Plus it’s got emotion to it. And the letters that we get, I think it’s referred to in the doc that we get letters from people how music changed their lives, our music in particular. But everybody’s music touches somebody in some way. And it’s something that I think all musicians, all recording artists, all promo guys, all radio guys should be very proud of. They contribute to that whole process.
Well I got to thank you for all the music that you and the band certainly gave us, gave me. I hear from friends from back in the day that say, “I was just listening to the radio and Magic Power came on and I thought of our time together. It just brings you back.”
So, I can’t thank you enough for all of that and all of our hijinks together as well. And I’m really grateful that we were on Takin a Walk.
Well, it’s a pleasure to be walking with you, Buzz. You’re a hero in my books.
No, you’re the man. Thank you very much.
Takin a Walk with Buzz Night is available on Spotify, Apple Podcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.