Prism
Recording Artist: Prism
 
Release Date: 1977
Songs By Jim Vallance: Amelia
It's Over
Julie
Open Soul Surgery
Spaceship Superstar
Take Me To the Kaptin
Vladivostok
Charts: #137 - Billboard Album Chart / 1977 (10 weeks on the chart)
Certification: 1x Platinum Canada (100,000 sales) 1983
World: Approximately 250,000 sales
Comments:
I met Tom Keenlyside in September 1970 when we were both enrolled in first-year music courses at the University of British Columbia. We lost touch for a while, but towards the end of 1972 Tom asked me to play drums for him ... a one-night gig at a small club in Surrey, near Vancouver.
 
I did a few more jobs with Tom after that (among other things, I recall playing jazz at a fashion show).  Then, in April 1973 Tom asked me to audition for Sunshyne, a group he'd formed with trumpet player Bruce Fairbairn. Sunshyne had a reputation for innovative musicianship, and I jumped at the chance to join.

The band included Tom on sax and flute, Bruce on trumpet, Ralph Eppel on trombone, Richard Christie on bass, Bill Buckingham on guitar (later replaced by David Sinclair), and keyboardist Peter Bjerring, a 19-year-old musical genius with an impressive background in classical, jazz and rock styles.

Sunshyne rehearsed in Peter's parents' basement and the results were inspiring, to say the least. Not only was there a high level of musicianship, but a friendly competition existed amongst the band members to see who could write the most inventive arrangements.

Unfortunately there were few opportunities to perform our style of music for the public, but that changed during the summer of 1973 ...
 
Sunshyne on the steps of the old Vancouver
Court House, summer 1973.
Canadian Prime Minister
Pierre Elliot Trudeau
Two years earlier Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau had established a "summer works program" called Opportunities For Youth (OFY for short). Young Canadians were invited to propose self-styled "summer projects" for which the government would pay the grand sum of $75 a week to each participant. The criteria was extremely loose and flexible. Bruce Fairbairn's proposal for "seven musicians playing Dixieland music in the streets, with a juggler" was readily accepted and approved.

Eventually (and rightly so, as I now see it) Canadian taxpayers grew weary of OFY's "hand-outs to hippies". A significant number of citizens and politicians voiced their vehement opposition and the program was cancelled in the autumn of 1974.

In the meantime, for much of the summer of 1973 I dressed-up in a silly costume with a snare drum strapped over my shoulder. Tom traded his flute for a valve trombone, Peter played clarinet, David played banjo, Richard pounded on a bass drum, while Bruce and Ralph played trumpet and slide trombone.

Most of our "performances" took place on the streets of Vancouver, however we also travelled to other British Columbia communities, marching in parades and performing at outdoor music festivals.
Me and Richard Christie,
Burrard Street, Vancouver,
Summer 1973.
 
One hot July day found us marching in the Penticton Peach Festival parade, sandwiched between a motorized "float" and a troupe of baton-twirling pre-teens. At one point Bruce yelled "About face!", at which point we turned and started marching in the wrong direction. We walked right through the baton troupe, scattering girls and batons in every direction. We made our way around a few more "floats", through a school band, and eventually we encountered the "Royal Canadian Mounted Police Pipe and Drum Band" ... big burly cops in kilts.
 
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Pipe & Drum Band
 
We managed to severely disrupt their performance, and we thought nothing more of it until later that day when someone told us the cops were looking for us, with a view to taking us behind the arena for a bit of roughing up. We loaded our gear in the van and headed out of town as quickly and quietly as possible!
 
 
 
Summer of 1973, some members of the Sunshyne band, left to right: David Sinclair, Richard Christie, Bruce Fairbairn, Ralph Eppel.
When the summer of '73 ended so did our OFY funding. The band dispersed. Peter Bjerring and I went back to university, but six weeks into our studies we decided we'd had enough. One Sunday evening, over a bottle of Yago, Peter and I hatched a plan to quit school and travel to Europe.

The next day we cancelled our classes, packed our knapsacks and guitars, and on November 26, 1973 we boarded a flight to Amsterdam. Peter's friend Tom Mirhady also came along (with a large cello-case in tow) hoping to study with a famous teacher in Stuttgart ... which he did.

On a previous trip to Europe (1971) I'd met a talented guitarist named Hartmut Dowidat. Hartmut lived in Landsberg, a picturesque village in southern Germany. We'd kept in touch, and part of the plan was for Peter and Tom and I to hook up with Hartmut, and perhaps form a band. When we arrived in Landsberg we discovered that Hartmut's older brother Anselm had already put a band together and was eagerly awaiting our arrival.
Peter Bjerring, myself and Tom Mirhady, at Mama Germano's hostel in Rome, December 1973 >
Anselm was an intelligent, soft-spoken man who had given up a successful career in fashion photography to pursue his dream of writing and recording an album. He was also an intensely devout Mormon who constantly preached "the way of the Lord" to the other band members. We'd only been in Landsberg a week or two when Peter and Tom reached the end of their tether with Anselm and his preaching. We caught the next train out of town.

After Landsberg the three of us travelled to Rome and Florence. At some point we decided to go our separate ways. Tom stayed in Germany to study cello, and Peter returned to Vancouver. I flew home a few months after Peter.
 
 
 
 
I arrived back in Vancouver in March '74, eager to re-join Sunshyne for another summer of fun. Unfortunately, not knowing when (or if) I would return, the band had hired another drummer, Dave Calder. I was disappointed -- devastated, in fact -- but I couldn't blame the band for carrying on in my absence, and I couldn't blame them for hiring Dave, a superb drummer.

I spent most of the next year doing sporadic studio work as a drummer (radio commercials, etc.) and one-night stands (wedding receptions, bar mitzvah's, office parties, bowling clubs).

Meanwhile, with the addition of singer-guitarist Lindsay Mitchell, Sunshyne had deviated from its jazz-rock roots. They were now writing R&B-influenced pop songs in hopes of securing a recording contract. But despite submitting dozens of demo's and knocking on countless music industry doors, by mid-1975 the band remained unsigned.

Bruce Fairbairn decided it was time to shake up the recipe.
 
 
 
Bruce Fairbairn is one of the smartest guys I've ever known.  Aside from being an accomplished musician, he also had a black belt in karate and a masters degree in Urban Planning. 

I don't know if the other Sunshyne members were aware of it, but Bruce had made a pact with himself. He'd decided to try the music business for another year or two, to see if he could make a living at it.  If not, then he had a secure, well-paying job waiting for him at BC Hydro, the company that provides electricity to the province of British Columbia.  Had he not been successful at music, I believe Bruce would eventually have become president of BC Hydro!  That's the kind of guy he was ... a leader, never a follower. 

Bruce didn't get a chance to pursue the BC Hydro job offer.  In fact, by the mid 1980' Bruce had become one of the most successful and sought-after producers in the world, directing career-altering albums for artists like Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, AC/DC and many others.  But that's another story for another time.
Bruce came to my house one day in May 1975 and played me everything Sunshyne had recorded during the past year. He asked me to comment on the material, and make recommendations as to how "the presentation" might be improved.

To my ear there were only two songs that stood out, both of them Lindsay Mitchell compositions: "Don't Let Me Find Out" and "I Ain't Lookin' Anymore" (which includes one of my favourite all-time lyric lines: "I love you more than my guitar"). 

The rest of the material, in my opinion, wasn't strong enough -- or "radio friendly" enough -- to attract the interest of a record company. Truth be told, most of it was awful.

Bruce asked me to become involved. He hoped I could suggest changes to the musical arrangements on Lindsay's two songs and perhaps contribute a song or two of my own. Having sat on the sidelines since returning from Europe I was thrilled to be active again.

The most recent Sunshyne demo's -- the ones Bruce had played for me -- had been recorded at Kaye-Smith Studios, a "state of the art" facility in Seattle.   It was also a very expensive studio, and the band's bank account had been depleted.  In search of a more affordable facility Bruce and I visited two Vancouver recording studios ... Little Mountain Sound and Can-Base (soon to be renamed Mushroom). 

Built in the mid-1960s, Can-Base had recently been purchased by a young music impresario named Shelly Siegel, following the studio's near bankruptcy the year before (1974).  Shelly was also in the process of launching a new label, Mushroom Records. Initially Shelly expressed interest in signing Sunshyne to his label, although nothing ever came of it.

Regardless, Bruce and I decided to use Shelly's studio for the next round of Sunshyne recordings. We had a "production meeting" with engineer Rolf Hennemann on July 14, 1975, and subsequently booked a session for the weekend of July 18-20.

If Kaye-Smith Studio was "state of the art" then Can-Base was the polar opposite, although not without some charm. 

The centre-piece of Can-Base Studios was their Universal Audio mixing console, custom built by UA founder Bill Putnam in the 1950s and purchased in 1971 by original Can-Base owner Jack Herschorn.  The console had a sterling pedigree, having been used on Los Angeles sessions for Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Phil Spector and countless others. It looked every bit the "antique" that it was, with large, black rotary knobs instead of the more modern sliding faders.  Plus, it sounded great.

Can-Base would be Sunshyne's "home", on and off, for the next eighteen months.
 
 
 
 
On the evening of Wednesday July 16, 1975 I met the members of Sunshyne at Jericho, an abandoned World War II military base, to rehearse the new arrangements I'd prepared for Lindsay's tunes.  It was bad enough that my car had "died" that day, but even worse, it was soon apparent that some of the band members were not particularly enthusiastic. Bruce may have welcomed my involvement, but clearly some of the others did not ... in fact, their attitude bordered on hostility. It was an unexpected and difficult situation to be in, but it just made me want to work harder to prove myself.

With rehearsals complete, we spent Friday and Saturday at Can-Base with engineer Rolf Hennemann recording basic tracks and overdubs for Lindsay's two songs -- everything but the vocals. We needed more time in the studio, but first we had to find a way to pay the bills!

Bruce booked the band for a six-night run at the Fraser Arms Pub, with Lindsay on guitar and vocals, Richard Christie on bass, Dave Calder on drums, Bruce Fairbairn, Ralph Eppel and Tom Keenlyside on horns, and myself on percussion. The musicians' salaries would be pooled to pay the recording debt.

A week later (July 28, 1975) we were back at Can-Base cutting three more tracks: my songs "Open Soul Surgery"and "Julie", and a brilliant seven-minute Peter Bjerring epic titled "Lost Horizons".
Lindsay Mitchell, 1975
Ron Tabak
With five tracks completed we booked two additional sessions -- July 31st and August 4th -- to record Lindsay's vocals ... but an hour into the first session Lindsay "folded". He'd lost confidence in his ability to carry the project vocally, and he no longer wanted the responsibility of fronting the band. 

Fortunately he had a replacement in mind.

Lindsay had recently seen a young singer at a New Westminster nightclub. His name was Ron Tabak. On August 7th Ron auditioned for Bruce, Lindsay and I at Can-Base.  We were blown away by his vocal ability and we asked him to join the band on the spot.

Ron was a big guy, tall and muscular, but gentle as a kitten. He had a speech impediment, a terrible stutter that made it difficult to understand him at times ... but he sang like an angel and he had a heart of gold. Ron was six inches taller than me, a giant by comparison, but all the years I knew him he called me "Big Buddy".

The following week we were back in the studio. Ron effortlessly replaced Lindsay’s vocals, and suddenly everything started coming together.  By the end of August 1975 we'd completed five tracks, including vocals and rough mixes.

Things were going extremely well ... or so I thought.
 
 
One night I attended a jazz concert at a small Vancouver club.  Two Sunshyne band-members were also in the audience. After the concert they asked if they could come back to my house and hear the recently completed rough mixes.  Of course, I agreed. 

Back at the house I played them the rough mixes ... but nothing could prepare me for what came next. To my utter shock and amazement, for most of an hour they delivered a brutal "verbal beating". 

Among other things they accused me of hi-jacking their band and replacing Sunshyne's jazz-rock sound with pedestrian pop songs. I was devastated. Of course, I'd been aware of the initial resistance to my involvement, but I thought we'd got past that. And anyway, I was only doing what Bruce Fairbairn had hired me to do ... write and arrange songs for a band who'd not had a single positive response from a record company.
 
The little house where much of Prism's
first album was written and demo'd.
 
The next morning I phoned Fairbairn to explain what had happened. I apologized for causing friction in the band and I offered my resignation.

Bruce was caught completely off guard, but he assured me I was still a welcome member of the team, and it was "full steam ahead".
 
 
 
 
A few weeks later Bruce sent our new mixes to the record companies. Eventually our tape came to the attention of Jeff Burns, A&R director for GRT Records in Toronto. Jeff liked what he heard and offered Sunshyne a recording contract. 

Excellent news!

With a "real" budget at our disposal we returned to the studio to cut some more tracks.

In the meantime GRT decided to "test the waters"  They released a 45 RPM vinyl single of Lindsay's song "I Ain't Lookin' Anymore", with "Don't Let Me Find Out" on the b-side. Instead of Sunshyne they called the group Stanley Screamer (a word-play on Stanley Steamer, a steam-powered automobile manufactured between 1897 and 1927). 

Not unlike the steam-powered car, our single was ignored.

Regardless, work continued at Can-Base. I don't recall the dates or the order, but we recorded several more of my songs including "It's Over", "Spaceship Superstar", "Amelia" and "Take Me To The Kaptin". Lindsay brought in his friend Tom Lavin, who contributed the song "Freewill". By early 1977, with the addition of "Julie" and "Vladivostok", Prism's debut album was finished and ready for release.

Jeff Burns shopped the finished tapes south of the border and secured a U.S. deal with Ariola America, an aggressive young company run by Jay Lasker (among other things, Jay had been responsible for the success of The Mamas and Papas and Three Dog Night).
 
 
With the album's imminent release, a touring band had to be assembled.

Up to this point there hadn't been a "real band" in the studio, just a loose collection of Sunshyne members and various Vancouver musicians (Steve Pugsley, Richard Christie, Peter Bjerring, Dave Calder, Tom and Jack Lavin, David Sinclair, Dave Pickell, Graeme Coleman, etc). That left myself, Lindsay Mitchell, Ron Tabak, Tom Keenlyside and Bruce Fairbairn as the core members. To fill out the keyboard and bass positions I recommended John Hall and Ab Bryant, two excellent musicians from my old band "Jet".
 
"Jet", circa 1975: Dave Jonsson, Ab Bryant, Kenny McColl, Jim Grant, John Hall
 
To warm up for the tour Bruce booked a gig at Vancouver's Body Shop night-club. At Jeff Burns' suggestion we had already scrapped the name "Sunshyne", but we hadn't yet found a suitable replacement (Stanley Screamer wasn't a majority favourite, although I rather liked it). Instead, for the Body Shop gig we appeared as "Under Construction".

The performance was well received, and we felt ready to take on the world.
 
 
A group photo was hastily arranged for the album cover ... but before we'd even had a chance to rehearse, Ab accepted an invitation to join another Vancouver group, the Headpins. Tom Lavin replaced Ab on bass.

By this time everyone had agreed on "Prism" as the new name for the band. With this in mind photographer James Omara designed the album graphics.

The front cover was photographed on a sunny day at Vancouver's "Spanish Banks" beach.  It was a picture of a hand holding a mirror, reflecting another hand holding a prism. The back cover showed the same hand, this time holding a photo of the band instead of a mirror.
 
Prism outside Psi-Chord recording studio, 3rd Avenue, Vancouver, 1977. Left to right: Jim Vallance (Rodney Higgs), Tom Lavin, Lindsay Mitchell, Ron Tabak, John Hall, Ab Bryant.  Tom Lavin later fronted the Powder Blues Band. Ab Bryant became bassist for Headpins and then Chilliwack. 
The sleeve for Prism's debut vinyl album, 1977.
Prism's self-titled album was released in May 1977 and became the first debut album by a Canadian artist to achieve platinum status in Canada.  The first single off the album was "Spaceship Superstar", with Rodney Higgs credited as songwriter.

Rodney who?

As some Prism fans know, Rodney Higgs was actually Jim Vallance. For many years, when asked to explain the reasons behind the pseudonym, I offered one of two answers:

(1). I didn’t want my university classmates to know I was in a rock band, or ...
(2). I didn’t want my family to know I was in a rock band.

I'm the source of both of these stories, and both are untrue.

The truth is, quite simply, I was terrified.  Prism was my first recording project, and with seven of the album's nine songs credited to me, I felt vulnerable and exposed. What if the album failed? 

So, I took the coward's way out and hid behind a fictitious name. That way, if the album "tanked" no-one could point a finger at Jim Vallance! Rodney Higgs would take the blame.

I admit it was goofy, and certainly a cop-out. In fact, thirty years later I'm still mildly embarrassed by my decision!
 
Japanese cassette, 1977.
Click on image to view.
 
 
 
Prism's first tour was a short one.  We opened for "Heart" at two Oregon State Fairs (Yakima and Medford), and we opened for "Foreigner" at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle.

It was in Medford that I first heard "Spaceship Superstar" on the radio.  In fact, it was the first time I'd ever heard a song of mine on the radio. I was at the wheel of the band's rental car, and I was so excited I drove right through a red light! - (luckily it was late at night and there was no traffic).

After the tour we returned to Vancouver and played to a small but receptive audience at the Pacific Coliseum on August 28, 1977, opening for "Dr. Hook" (best known for their 1972 song "Cover Of The Rolling Stone").

Shortly after the tour I quit the band.

I believed then, as I believe now, that a "hit" record must have several necessary components: a strong lyric and melody (obviously), but also an innovative musical arrangement. It doesn't have to be complicated -- in fact it can be dead simple -- but it has to be unique in some way, different than anything that's come before.

To the contrary, Lindsay Mitchell's first love was improvisational blues. By his own admission Lindsay had little interest in rehearsing, or learning arrangements. He preferred to "jam" in the studio and see what came of it. That was his style.

The more I insisted we rehearse, the more Lindsay resisted ... which put us on a collision course.  One of us had to go.   I volunteered.

Now (2006) Lindsay and I get along splendidly. But back then we were young and defiant, with fire in our bellies, and our heads full of ideas that we believed were worth fighting for. 

If only we'd known then what we know now.
"Rodney Higgs" hanging around backstage at the Pacific Coliseum, Vancouver, Aug. 28, 1977
 
 
  Prism - Version 2.0  
 
In the late 1960's Lindsay Mitchell's band "The Seeds Of Time" enjoyed some west-coast success with their single "My Home Town". When I quit Prism Lindsay recruited two members from his former band: drummer Rocket Norton and guitarist-bassist Al Harlow. John Hall -- already a member of Prism -- had also been in "The Seeds Of Time".
 
 
In 1978 the new Prism lineup went into Mushroom Studios to record their second album "See Forever Eyes", including two of my songs ... "You're Like The Wind" and"N- n-no". The album reached "double platinum" status in Canada.

A year after "See Forever Eyes", Prism were back in the studio recording their third and most successful album, "Armageddon" (1979). Only one of my songs appears on that album, the somewhat mediocre "Take It Or Leave It" ... however I also contributed to the album as an un-credited "session musician". There were renewed tensions within the band, and for some of the "Armageddon" sessions producer Bruce Fairbairn returned to the format used on the first Prism album, where outside musicians were brought in as needed.
 
Prism / Version 2.0 - Lindsay Mitchell, Rocket Norton, Ron Tabak, Al Harlow, John Hall, 1978 (image kindly provided by Maxine Elliott Kendall)
 
On "Take It Or Leave It" Ron Tabak (vocal) and Lindsay Mitchell (guitar solo) are the only Prism members who appear. The other instruments (keyboards, rhythm guitar, bass and drums) were played by myself.

On "You Walked Away Again", recorded at Pinewood and Little Mountain, the arpeggiated verse guitar was played by David Sinclair.  Bryan Adams played the heavy guitars in the chorus.  I provided bass, drums, keyboards and slide guitar. Nancy Nash joins Ron on backing vocals, and Lindsay plays the guitar solo. The entire recording was completed in two long sessions, and I remember it being a lot of fun.

I also contributed bass to the Bryan Adams-Lindsay Mitchell composition "Jealously".
 
 
For the title track, "Armageddon", Fairbairn brought in former Sunshyne member Peter Bjerring to write the orchestral arrangement and play piano and synthesizer. Peter also arranged Lindsay's "Night To Remember", a beautiful ballad, and in my opinion one of the best Prism recordings ever.

My only contribution on the next album, "Young And Restless" (1980), was the arrangement for the title track (Lindsay and I recorded a demo in my basement studio, providing a template for the master recording).  I also earned a co-writing credit for the song "Partyline" -- but really, my participation was minimal.
 
Peter Bjerring, Jim Vallance at Little Mountain Sound
 
Also in 1980 Capitol Records released "All The Best From Prism", a greatest hits package. Ron Tabak, who'd been struggling with personal issues, left the band at the end of that year.

Singer Henry Small was brought in to replace Ron, and Prism's next album, Small Change, was released in 1981. It was the first Prism album not produced by Fairbairn. Instead, John Carter was at the helm ... ("Carter", as he prefers to be called, co-wrote the 1967 hit "Incense and Peppermints" and also produced two tracks on Tina Turner's "Private Dancer" album).

Adams and I wrote "Don't Let Him Know" for the "Small Change" album, and also contributed one of our very early songs, written in 1978, titled "Stay" (prior to Prism recording the song, Bryan and I added a new "bridge" section in the middle).
 
 
 

(image provided by
Maxine Elliott Kendall)
The 1983 album "Beat Street", although credited as a Prism release, was essentially a Henry Small solo album. It was again produced by Carter, and Henry is the only "Prism" member who appears on the recording (Los Angeles session musicians were hired to cut the tracks).

Towards the end of 1984 the original line-up, including singer Ron Tabak, began making plans to regroup ... but it was never to be. Sadly, in December of that year Ron was killed in an accident. He'd been riding his bicycle on a busy snow-covered Vancouver street, after dark and without a helmet. It’s believed he was side-swiped by a car, hitting his head on the pavement as he fell. He was taken to hospital where he became erratic and uncooperative. His behaviour, the result of the head injury, was mistakenly diagnosed as drug or alcohol related.  Rather than receiving medical attention, Ron was arrested. He died a few hours later in police custody on Christmas Day 1984.

Ron Tabak was a sweet, gentle guy and we all miss him terribly.

In 1993 a revised "Prism" was formed to record the album "Jericho". Released on the "Spinner" label in Canada the new line-up included Al Harlow on bass, Rocket Norton on drums, Lindsay Mitchell on guitar, Darcy Deutsch on lead vocals, and Andy Lorimer on keyboards (Andy and Darcy were recruited from the Vancouver band Simon Kaos). The album was not well-received by the record-buying public.

In 1988 Capitol released a compilation package titled "Over Sixty Minutes With Prism". Al Harlow asked me to co-write a "bonus track" for the album, and we came up with "Good To Be Back" (Bryan Adams also contributed to the song). We recorded and mixed the music in my basement studio with Al on guitar and bass and myself on keyboards and drums. Lindsay played the guitar solo. Lead singer Darcy Deutsch is backed by session singers Paul Janz and Marc La France.

"Good To Be Back" was included on the "Jericho" album, as was another Vallance-Harlow co-write, "Way Of The World". In addition, a song I'd written with Rick Springfield ("Stand Up For Love") also appears. All three of these tracks were recorded in my home studio and were produced and primarily performed by Al Harlow and myself.

Yet another hits package, "The Best Of Prism" was released in 1996, and finally, in 1997 the U.S.-based "Renaissance" label released "From The Vaults", a collection of 20 rare and unreleased tracks, B-sides, and alternate versions from previous Prism recordings.
There's a jazz band in Japan, formed circa 2000, who call themselves  "Prism". Is it possible their album cover (top) might have drawn inspiration from our 1977 album cover (bottom)?
 
 
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