Canada’s unlikeliest rock star

Stephen Harper may not want to quit his day job. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t.


FedElxn Conservatives 20110422

Though Stephen Harper has on several occasions made reference to his weakness for karaoke, during almost four years in office, he’d never approached a microphone in public to do much more than speak. And while he often cited his piano playing skills as evidence of a love of the arts, few had actually seen him tickle the ivories. All that changed on Saturday when the prime minister strutted out on stage during a gala at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

As he took his place at the piano and readied himself to play with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, no one, it seems, knew quite what to expect. After all, immovably hairsprayed tresses aren’t generally the mark of a classic rock front man. But by the time he’d finished the first verse of the Beatles’s “With a Little Help from My Friends,” it became apparent that Harper’s got talent. “He had decent tone, a clean voice,” says Zack Werner, the mercurial Canadian Idol judge known for his brutal honesty. “More than anything, it was like watching a little boy with a really pure love of the song. His love for the piece of music was actually rather infectious.”

In the aftermath of what has turned out to be a rather brilliant public relations move, Werner is not the only expert commending the Prime Minister for his musical prowess.  Mike Daley, one of the musical directors for Classic Albums Live, called Harper’s performance “surprisingly good.” Daley should know—for the past six years, he has overseen Classic Albums’s “note for note, cut for cut” performances of Beatles records, including Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band Club. As with other songs John Lennon and Paul McCartney penned for drummer Ringo Starr, Daley says that “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the second track on the 1967 album, was written within a five-note range, making it one of their easier tunes to sing. Still, Harper handled all five of those notes “just about as well as Ringo,” he says. “We could probably use him in Classic Albums Live.”


Harper was no slouch in the frontman department either, says Larry LeBlanc, who ran the Canadian bureau of Billboard for nearly two decades and now writes for Celebrity Access. Though the song calls for only “basic chords” and the carrying of a relatively simple tune, “this isn’t just somebody who has done some karaoke,” Leblanc says. “This is somebody who is comfortable out on that stage.” Amateur musicians can often be distracted by the bright lights and “the music coming back through the monitor speakers,” LeBlanc says. But with Harper, “There’s no hesitancy. There’s absolutely no nervousness.” What’s more, it’s a confidence that appears to have been won after only a handful of practices. Phil Nolan, the percussionist for the Ottawa-based band Herringbone, which accompanied Harper, Yo-Yo Ma and the orchestra, told reporters that they had started rehearsing just a week before the NAC gala.

Harper was good, that much is sure. But was he too good? Though the experts agree it was Harper on vocals and keys, Dave Bidini, a founding member of The Rheostatics, wondered whether the performance was in fact pre-recorded. Bidini, says he knows “how difficult it is to sing, to have proper mic technique with a four-piece band, let alone a 17-piece orchestra.” But when Harper plays, says Bidini, “You can hear every word. Every note is in key. The fidelity of the performance seems remarkably, bizarrely good. It just raises my suspicion about whether it was live.” But according to PMO spokesman Dmitri Soudas, “The performance was live. Unequivocally.” Suggestions of trickery were also refuted by Carl Martin, a spokesman for NAC, who says that although Harper “did benefit from a rehearsal that morning […] there was no enhancement of any sort.” Says Martin, “I think we all discovered his talent at the same time.”

On his Facebook profile, the PM says he “won’t hesitate to lend a voice when warranted,” but concedes “politics was, by far, the better career choice.” Still, if Harper ever quits his day job, he might consider giving music a go. Werner says he “wouldn’t vote yes” if Harper auditioned for Canadian Idol, but suggests “He could do a nice little fundraising record. I bet there would be some people that would buy it.” Better still, says LeBlanc, Harper could put aside his partisan views and team up with the Liberals’ amateur pianist, foreign affairs critic Bob Rae. “Maybe there’s a duo here,” says Leblanc, “the Canadian version of Elton John and Billy Joel.”


Canada’s unlikeliest rock star

  1. Man what I wouldn't pay to see Harper do Staying Alive in a BeeGees suit and hair all combed out.

    • I second that motion!

    • You're right. I wouldn't pay, either.


  2. Harper may not have experience in front of a mic as a singer, but he certainly does as a politician. He's also used to performing with the distracting negative feedback of question period. I would think that lip-syncing would be just as difficult to master as using a mic.

    Which is not to say I like the guy any better.

  3. I want to hear an encore! Maybe "Don't Pass Me By"!

  4. He could dedicate a song to Iggy, "Hit the road jack and Don't come back anymore!"

    • joe you are hilarious!…correction though, should read…. and don't come back no more

  5. I think the part that comes through the best is the transition from the beginning when he comes in and plunks himself down and gets right down to bsuiness and then does not bat an eye to the nervous laughter everywhere, no doubt by quite a few people who were expecting some sort of joke routine only to find themselves getting into into it by the eight bar and being somewhat experienced a musician myself in the past, I know the feeling when suddenly the energy in the audience picks up and translates into a group experience and at the end the standing ovation was real and not forced or an expected symbolic experience but one that genuine and no doubt has now contributed to a real image of Harper that can only be attained by something authentic. The harper haters of course will try their best to cut himdown but it won't work and in point of fact only earn him more Kudos from those that are not hyper partisan … ROFL truly brilliant

    • Great observations and if you watch, very early on, I detected a tinge of stage fright. That moment, made this a very human story for me. I loved it!

    • And your point is what? That you are an idiot!! Harper has the everyman's appreciation of 'art' rather than the 'elites' view that art must be only understood and interpreted by those with vast amounts of training and if it supported on the public dime then it must be the bestest art in the world.

  6. Sour grapes from you, while Harper reaps an unexpected but deserved harvest. : )

    • And the piont is what… Instead of doing the job we pay him for he is running around Canada , trying to win a popularity contest looking for votes. Three differnt political partieas under his belt, now he wants to start rock group.

  7. So where can we go to actually see Harper's performance at the NAC. Surely they didn't go to this much trouble and not have a tape for the public…?

  8. youtube it

  9. Too bad he chose to be politician. He should have stuck with music…at least he has a grasp of it.

  10. What strikes me is that your Musical "Experts" fail to notice that the 17 members (of 60) NACO members remaining on stage are not playing at all – they're laughing & chatting before & sometimes during tthe PM's performance !

    LeBlanc & Bidini comment on how difficult it is to perform with such an orchestra & on & on as if they knew what they were talking about !

  11. It certainly appears that canned audio was being piped into the NAC for Harper's vocals. Even when his head is so off direction to the microphone, the sound is the same as when he's right on the mic. Yo-Yo Ma is no stranger to faking a performance. Why should it surprise anyone that the PM would want a fool-proof political chord?

  12. the guy has talent the likes of mick and the boys and possibly the late great elvis presley and michael jackson…his public relations person should grab onto this while its hot stuff and he should make a cd for the love of this procon party…but would the taxpayers pay for it or what… duh?

  13. I wonder how much Harper paid Maclean's for the 6-page spread in the latest hard-copy magazine. 6 pages is about 5.5 pages too long based on newsworthiness, but an appropriate length for campaign PR fluff.

  14. I wish he would quit his day job

  15. The guy has talent I tell you that. He's pretty determined though. I can see by the look on his face.

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