Entire essays could be written about different facets of Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion: How it got the name, humour, Canadiana, dealing with a major label, touring, the slight rise and inevitable fall, the album, the players….
But to answer the question of whatever happened, Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion metamorphosed after one album into Little Games. All the members are still involved in music to some degree. At one point, three of Lumpy, the band for which I’m currently singing (Ron Hyslop, Bruce Faulkner, Tom Harrison) were BGM alumni.
We got our name from the first bassist, Grenville Newton. The band had a gig coming soon but no name. At the same time, Gren wasn’t getting along with his girlfriend. As they walked Lonsdale in North Vancouver, Gren stopped to observe some TVs in the display window of an electronics appliance store. There, on the TVs, was a bunch of Bruno Gerussis, shirt opened to the waist and revealing a gleaming medallion, as they cooked on a show called Celebrity Chefs. Thus inspired, Gren exclaimed “Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion.” His girlfriend turned to him and said, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
To spite her, Gren appended the name to us. Thus, we became Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion. A few of us might have had our misgivings initially but we warmed to it as we saw how people reacted to the name, and then we became defiant.
I was appointed singer, a role to which I gravitated. In a previous band, The Potatoes, the singer was late for practice every time. Rather than wait for him, I would sing in his absence. When BGM formed, ostensibly as a heavy metal parody, I was moved off drums and put upfront.
The first gig was at the Wet Coast Festival during the afternoon at the Waterfront Corral on Powell Street. There were a few big shots from the Vancouver music business in attendance, which compounded my nervousness. However, 30 seconds after we were announced and into our first song, I realized that my legs might have been shaking uncontrollably, but, “Hey, I like this.”
Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion was on its way to wherever. We didn’t know and never had a plan.
Initially, we did covers, mostly of 60s garage-rock. Eventually, we started to write our own songs and, just as inevitably, we recorded a few of them. After a while we had recorded enough songs for an album. There were three primary recording sessions with each one featuring a different line-up. At Bullfrog, there were Grenville, Ron Hyslop, Bruce Faulkner, Don Harrison (my brother) and me. At Profile, Jimmy Walker had replaced Grenville, which left Ron Hyslop, Faulkner and me as founders. Ron Scott had replaced Don but Ron was proving unreliable. Don came back and brought a couple of songs with him. At Ocean, Jimmy now was on guitar, Jim Elliott was on bass, Don had left again (eventually to form Sons Of Freedom), but Hyslop, Faulkner and I were still there.
Not long after, we realized we had 10 songs that could be an album. I was riding around town with Dave Tollington of the publicity department of Warner Bros. Canada. I asked him how many albums a new band had to sell before the WB label broke even. The figure was low (about 2,000) and I speculated that a major label worthy of the name could sell that. He took that idea with him back to Toronto. He also liked the song “Who’s Behind The Wheel?” and our story (admittedly centred on my involvement as a music critic) and that we were giving WB everything at no cost. No advance money, no costs, nothing.
Tollington thought this could add up to a fluke hit. BGM signed to Warner Bros. Canada.
We shot an album cover, made a video and cooled our heels as we waited for the album to be released. By this time, my head was filled with ideas such as publishing a newsletter, Medallion Oblongatta. Warners didn’t mind because we were paying for it and this was 1989, years before the advent of email, band websites, Facebook, Twitter et al. I would print up items on my primitive printer and Warners would reprint Medallion Oblongatta and include it in its newsletter. Looked horribly amateurish.
Maybe here I should discuss our relationship with Warner Bros.. As the years have passed I am kinder to Warner. The company took a huge chance on letting a reporter into its fold, who could see how a major label conducts business. Likely, nobody at the label ever considered that this could have been a mistake, but I didn’t abuse the privilege and was determined to keep my reporter’s role out of it. I was extremely sensitive to a perceived conflict of interest.
Warner Bros. did a few things for us it didn’t have to do, such as make up posters for distribution, manufacture a 12 inch version of our first single, “Who’s Behind The Wheel?”, special cassettes to represent us at COCA (an annual convention of talent buyers from colleges), and various promotions including Medallion Oblongatta.
Much that I perceived was wrong about Warner’s was that it seemed weary of coming up against an industry system in need of change. It would shrug as if saying, “This is the way it is; face it.” To give a specific example, the A&A chain had a central buyer in Toronto who based his national distribution on what Toronto radio was playing. This meant that an act had the minimum of two copies of its album in each store across the country. Unless, that is, it was on Toronto radio. As we were from Vancouver, we were getting decent radio play out west but nothing in Toronto. By contrast, Lorraine Segato, late of Parachute Club, was getting heard a lot in hometown TO. Thus, if we checked out the A&A in Port Coquitlam it would be knee deep in Lorraine’s album even though she wasn’t being played on the West Coast. Our two albums had been sold and so weren’t in stock. Even though we were getting enough radio play to create a demand, A&A had no plan to re-order.
In London, I chanced to talk to the late Sam Sniderman of Sam’s Records about how BGM couldn’t find our record in his London stores. He demanded to know if the stores ever had our record. As far as I knew, it did. Two apiece. He looked at me rather smugly as if to say Sam’s had done its job. That same afternoon, the owner of an independent store around the corner from the club where we were soundchecking, Call The Office, told the club’s manager that she didn’t know we were playing there, nobody had told her. If she’d known, she said, she could have sold 50 copies of our record.
Suspecting there was a real problem here, I suggested to Warner’s that maybe we should sell the record from the stage. You can’t do that, said Tollington. The stores would lose sales and wouldn’t stock your record. Right.
We were also told of two things that might explain why we eventually were dropped from the label. The first was that a first album can be a question mark to buyers, who don’t want to be caught short if the record is a hit. They buy a calculated maximum. By the second album, the element of surprise is gone. If there wasn’t a hit, they know what you sold. They therefore buy half of what they did before. At this point, it’s no longer worth the label’s while.
That ties in with the second thing. Warner Bros. would have this rule of “expectation.” If it expected to sell 2,000 albums, that’s how many it would make. Come the second album, it would factor in the buying policy of the chains and make maybe 1,000. Yep. At this point, it’s no longer worth the label’s while.
Our relationship with Warner’s was going downhill rapidly anyway. As a music critic, I often heard complaints by acts that blamed the failure of their record on massive changes within the label. I wasn’t sympathetic. I figured they just didn’t want to accept the responsibility of making a bad record, or having bad management, or doing something wrong. They wanted to place the blame anywhere but at their own feet.
When it happens to you, however, you quickly understand. Even before the record was released, Tollington was moved up from National Publicity to Vice President and no longer had the time for us. His closest assistant went to Capitol.
The woman who set up our first interviews got a job in New York. In Vancouver, the local rep, who knew us well, was fired.
As each new person came in to take over from the person who understood us and the signing, something else was lost in the translation. The new person misunderstood, probably thought we were a novelty to be humoured, and BGM never recovered. Maybe, if “”Who’s Behind The Wheel?”” had become a hit, which it nearly did, the whole exercise would have justified itself and everybody would have been happy. Second single, “”Ginger’s Alright,”” didn’t do as well, though, and third single, “”I Wish I Was Your Mother,”” should have been shipped with a tombstone. The album did well at the college level and “”Who’s Behind The Wheel?,”” scored well in Billboard’s specialty chart, even if I don’t remember which one. It got Warner’s excited, though.
In the meantime, our relationship with Bruno was changing. At first he didn’t like the name at all, which is understandable. It was a dig at him, yes, but the dig also was aimed at that macho attitude embodied by Celebrity Chefs. Apparently, the person who liked us even less was Judge Nancy Morrison. Bruno’s mistress, she’s reported to have given him the medallion he wore on Celebrity Chefs.
We also were shocked to learn that Bruno Gerussi wasn’t well liked in Gibson’s Landing, where another of Gerussi’s TV series, The Beachcombers, was shot. BGM was booked to play at Gibson’s sole night club, known as Elphie’s. Inside the club were posters advertising us but with a disclaimer at the bottom that read, “”Has nothing to do with the TV show.”” Or something like that.
Turned out that the club had had two brushes with Gerussi. The first time he was turfed for drunken behaviour. The second time, the club wouldn’t let him in…because he already was drunk. We did our weekend at Elphie’s looking out the window at Bruno Gerussi’s big house across the water, overlooking Gibson’s Landing. We wondered if Gerussi’s would come down off the hill and check us out, maybe give us hell.
A little later, Gerussi somehow was a guest on the Tonight Show. A mystified Johnny Carson asked, just how popular are you in Canada? Gerussi paused for a second and answered, Well, there’s a band up there named after me. That’s an apocryphal story but is confirmed by Ronnie. Gerussi might be warming to us.
This was confirmed by my first meeting with Bruno. The Province entertainment editor thought it would be funny to send me to review him in a Christmas pantomime in Victoria. Panto is a British tradition in which male actors dress as women. Brits think this is enormously funny. So it came to be that I interviewed a Bruno Gerussi clad in a white frock with large green polka dots, wearing a wig and gaudily lipsticked. When I told him who I was, he admitted that he hated the band at first and then realized we were only having some fun and he began to appreciate us. “”It’s not like you’re pushing needles up your nose and spouting revolution,”” he said.
Afterward, he came to our record release party, offered to direct a video,which was not to be, and eventually appeared onstage with BGM at the final Beachcombers wrap party.
This brought us back to Gibson’s Landing. After 18 years, The Beachcombers was signing off. The producers thought it would be appropriate if we played their last dance at a sweaty warehouse. For this, I chose a song for Bruno to sing. It seemed fitting to do the Isley Brothers’ “”Nobody But Me,”” which was a hit for the Human Beinz. I sent him a cassette of the song and lyrics that underlined his part.
Later, in the buffet line, someone in The Beachcombers’ crew heard about this and warned me that Gerussi never prepared beforehand. Just went in front of a camera and did his lines on the spot. Sure enough, Bruno had no idea of where to come in, what the vocal line was, or any knowledge of the song. In a weird way, he turned it into a rap, speaking the parts he could remember as though he were back in some Shakespearean play at Stratford. There was fond applause and we finished our set while Gerussi and Morrison danced.
Although it should have been obvious that BGM was having a bit of fun, we were unabashedly Canadian. Didn’t think anything of it. In 1989 the media, especially, ran from anything Canadian. It nursed, even perpetuated, this thing that came to be known as the Canadian inferiority complex. I don’t think the average Canadian was aware of it and if asked about it, probably didn’t care.
In this century we tend to embrace all things Canadian and call it Canadiana. We celebrate the difference. Twenty-one years ago, we wanted to be just like Americans or Britons and we rated our would-be stars by an international recognition factor.
In our small way, we were victims of that. Some radio stations wouldn’t play us simply because of the Gerussi name. At a Toronto record store, the album already was in the used rack. The man behind the counter was asked if the record was any good. He’d never heard it because “”We wouldn’t play anything like that in our store.”
In Banff, the woman running the General Store there figured we’d find In Search Of The Fourth Chord in the soundtrack section of its records. I don’t know if that qualifies as a Canadian bias, but it does indicate the confusion we caused.
This extended outside the Canadian border. Warner Bros. wanted to release us worldwide but couldn’t. I understood why. If you were trying to deal with, say, Germany, you’d be asked about your style of music. If you replied that it was unadulterated but melodic rock and roll, the German eyes would light up. Then, you’d be asked who Bruno Gerussi is. That would take a lot of explanation and, by the time you summed it all up with “”Canadian in-joke,”” an impenetrable veil had come down over those German eyes. No deal. And soon, no Bruno Geruusi’s Medallion.