CBC Radio 3 host Grant Lawrence calls Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet “Canada’s best instrumental rock band of all time.” And yet for more than a decade, the group’s discography has been out of print—unavailable, but not forgotten. Their theme song for The Kids in the Hall lives on in reruns, and fans cherish memories of a band as silly as it was musically sophisticated, a band that once packaged a 45-rpm single in a Jiffy Pop container and titled their best album Dim the Lights, Chill the Ham. Though they split up 15 years ago, last year they were finalists in a Toronto Star readers’ poll choosing the best Toronto band ever, beating out Blue Rodeo and Broken Social Scene.
That’s part of the reason why the surviving Shadowy Men—bassist Reid Diamond died of brain cancer in 2001 at age 42—are reissuing the group’s three albums, and making them available digitally for the first time. So why now, other than the fact that the original albums were fetching $50 or more on eBay? The answer is neither economic nor philosophical. “There was actual mould growing on the box of tape reels for our first single,” says drummer Don Pyle who, along with guitarist Brian Connelly, had stored the tapes at home. Others were melting from heat exposure. The engineer they hired to digitize everything “had to vacuum the mould off.”
Pyle was also inspired when, in 2010, he went to see ’60s punk icon Iggy Pop and the Stooges, which had only two surviving members. “Iggy stormed the stage and yelled, ‘We are the f–king remains of the f–king Stooges and we’re going to play some songs before we’re all dead,’ ” Pyle recalls. “It was so shocking and irreverent, it actually took my breath away. Then they played the most scorching, incredible set I could ever imagine. What he said had such panic and urgency to it, and I thought of Reid.”
Shadowy Men existed for 12 years, selling 175,000 albums entirely independently. Their cheap, odd, imaginative videos got regular play on MuchMusic. They beat David Foster for Best Instrumental Artist at the Junos in 1992. The Pixies and Jethro Tull both wanted Shadowy Men to tour with them (they turned both down). They were erroneously pegged as a surf band, but drew from punk, country, new wave and Warner Brothers cartoon soundtracks.
When Shadowy Men signed up for Kids in the Hall, the lawyers for producer Lorne Michaels wanted ownership of all the music; the group refused. “The lawyers said, ‘Well, we can’t do that, that never happens!’ recalls Kids in the Hall’s Bruce McCulloch, who grew up with Diamond and Connelly in Calgary. “Shadowy Men stuck to their guns, and the big boys caved.”
Shadowy Men’s music was richly inventive with accessible, cross-generational appeal, but they were conceptual artists as much as they were a musical group. “We occupied a unique place where some people thought of us as dumb rock and some thought of us as a snooty art project,” says Pyle. “Ultimately, we were both. We worked pretty much every day. So much of that was making things other than music.” They once spent two days building a rocket ship for a cabaret put on by singer Mary Margaret O’Hara. One show had people on roller skates carrying placards announcing song titles. McCulloch remembers their first TV taping, in front of a studio audience, where Shadowy Men “had built a huge clamshell to go behind them. I went up to Reid and said, ‘Hey, what’s up with the clamshell?’ He said, ‘We have to give a show, too.’ ”
To celebrate the reissues, there will be two Shadowy Men shows this summer: one at Calgary’s Sled Island festival on June 20 and one in Toronto on July 14. Filling in for Diamond is Dallas Good of the Sadies, a long-time friend of the band, whose Shadowy influences are clearly audible. Diamond’s absence makes the whole affair bittersweet. “In so many ways it can never feel like or ever really be Shadowy Men,” says Pyle, “but we are certainly the best Shadowy Men cover band ever.” Reid Diamond will be present in more than spirit. Courtesy of Diamond’s widow, Good will take the stage playing the Shadowy Man’s Gibson Thunderbird bass guitar.