by J. Kathleen Thompson
A conversation with Grand Forks resident Danny Norton, who once courted the big time in rock ’n roll, summons a magical time in Canadian musical history. He grew up in Winnipeg in the 1960s, and animatedly sketches the scene that inspired his first venture into music:
“In 1968, Winnipeg was the rock ’n roll capital of Canada, with 200 garage rock bands riding the wave of the success of The Guess Who and Neil Young and The Squires. With the British invasion, and the Liverpool-like feeding frenzy to catch the next big thing coming out of this unknown town, many of these bands were suddenly being offered recording contracts.”
One of these bands was Expedition to Earth who made their recording debut with two tunes: Expedition to Earth and Time, Time, Time, written by its lead guitarist, Danny Norton. The sound was patently ’60’s psychedelic rock (think The Byrds, The Doors, early Guess Who) with tightly knit song forms, sweet vocal harmonies, crystal-clear lyrics, novel fuzz guitar effects and cryptic messages. And compellingly good.
The band, however, didn’t ever get to record the rest of the album—more pressing gigs and tours and an eventual fall-out with their agent squashed further expeditions to the recording studio.
And now, almost 50 years later, Norton, 69, from his home now in Grand Forks, wants to complete what was left undone, and bring to fruition a project ignited in his youth. The time travel involved in compiling an oeuvre began in the ’60s not only reconnects him to especially creative times in his life, but, in its own way, documents a cultural phenomenon that began in Winnipeg during the 1960s.
“That period in music in Winnipeg was so alive you could taste it. Everyone got caught up in the creative vibe,” he said. “I’m really excited about the chance to finally lay down all those tracks of music I’ve been hearing in my head since that incredible time. And while the times they have changed, the sound from that era is still in my bones and I find myself unconsciously working within that familiar palette of sounds and ideas.
“The lyrics of my songs, for instance, still have an anti-war, peace/love sentiment, probably a throwback to the ’60s when we were all protesting the Vietnam war. Today, considering the turmoil around the world, messages of hope and peace are as important as they ever were.”
There were other triggers for Norton’s new resolve to get back to the recording studio. In 2008, while living in Grand Forks with his wife, Darcie Lee, he was encouraged by new and old fans and historians back in Manitoba to get back in the saddle and ‘give us more new old stuff’! Then, when the Nortons discovered that a copy of the single seven-inch 45 recording Expedition to Earth released in 1968 was, in 2016, fetching $1,137 on eBay, they knew there was indeed a huge interest in music of that time.
“Our single had become a coveted collector’s item, referred to as “one of the very best Canadian all-time killer psychedelic fuzz garage releases,” Norton said. “People were not only wanting a piece of history, but also realizing the lyrical value of our songs. In comparison to much of the vapid popular music you hear today, we had something to say!”
Actualizing decades of songwriting began at Zib City, a recording studio here in Grand Forks, with John Zibin. A trip to Winnipeg last November, and a collaboration between Danny, Darcie and two Winnipeg musicians (Greg Gardner and Kerry Hannah) nailed down 16 bed tracks which have now been handed over to John Tucker, an independent record producer in Nelson, for their final mix.
Securing Tucker’s services was fortuitous as he is highly regarded in his field, enthusiastic about the project and is a versatile keyboard player to boot! Norton is clearly delighted with the partnership.
“Working with John initially meant two or three trips to Nelson every week but now, as the final mix involves minor tweaking—changing the register of the keyboard, opting for a B3 rather than a piano sound, adding more depth to the vocals—we can do that through on-line communication. It’s great to see how it’s all taking shape through everyone’s contribution. The fact that John Tucker does not believe in auto tune means the recordings are real.”
The recording is close to release, both as a CD (entitled Cosmic Collision) and as a vinyl LP. (entitled Beyond the Expedition to Earth), as well as three singles on vinyl. The vinyl records will have a limited run of 500 copies each.
A release party is tentatively planned for the city of the music’s genesis, Winnipeg. For interested musicophiles, limited copies of the CD and vinyl will be available this fall at The Source, 334 Market Avenue, Grand Forks, just before you have to bid on e-Bay to get your collector’s copy!
A wait list of purchasers has been established for the serious collector.