This is one of my go to songs for feel good days. It takes me back to being a kid again, and that is never a bad thing. That is, unless you were a bad kid.
One of Canada’s premier folk artists, Valdy had an improbable hit with a rock song about a decidedly hostile audience heckling a soft-spoken minstrel. The square-peg-in-a-round-hole story recounts Valdy’s experience playing at the Aldergrove Rock Festival in 1968, where the 25,000-strong rock-loving audience jeered his folk offerings.
Valdy’s response was to write an inspired hit rock song about the gig, featuring an ungrammatical double-negative chorus (“Play me a rock and roll song / Or don’t play me no song at all”) that underlines the frustration of both audience and singer. He first recorded Play Me a Rock and Roll Song in Vancouver in 1971, with producer Terry Jacks (of Poppy Family fame), but that version was never released. Valdy waited a few years before re-recording it in July 1972 in Hollywood, California, in an arrangement that he wrote (he had studied orchestration in Victoria) with Claire Lawrence (Collectors, Chilliwack).
The 1972 recording of Play Me a Rock and Roll Song featured Jim Gordon on drums and Brett Wade (Stallion Thumbrock) playing the electric guitar. Gordon was a session player who had been touring with Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and the recording of Valdy’s hit song was among his first sessions upon his return. Both Gordon and Wade are credited for the bold drum fill and iconic electric guitar riff in the song’s tag ending. Play Me a Rock and Roll Song was released on Valdy’s “Country Man” folk album, and as the A side of a single on Haida Records’ new Klavic Music label, with Hello, Mr. Record Man on the B side, and was distributed by A&M Records.
Play Me a Rock and Roll Song features an ironic driving rock-waltz setting, contrasting effectively with lyrics in which the gentle folksinger pleads with his unruly audience. The response to this intriguing combination was immediately positive. The Globe and Mail newspaper prophetically said the song had Top 40 possibilities. The song had won Valdy the Moffat Canadian Talent Award in 1972 for record of the year, competing against such acts as Anne Murray, the Guess Who, and Neil Young.
By May 1973 The Music Scene magazine was calling this streak “Valdy’s phenomenal one-year success story.” The single featured on RPM’s top singles chart for Canada through August to late December 1972, peaking on December 2 at No. 17 and spending an impressive 12 weeks in the Top 40; the album went gold in Canada by 1975.
Play Me a Rock and Roll Song’s success is attributable in part to several factors: It cleverly played into the hippy counter-culture movement, while embodying the tensions between rock and folk fans (which Bob Dylan discovered when he infamously used electric instruments at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival). The song may also have derived assistance from the Canadian Content regulations introduced in 1971.
Valdy has always recognized the irony that a bad gig turned into a hit: In 2012, he told an interviewer, “I was hired as a folk singer to go and play at a rock festival. I was out of place and … I got the reception I deserved, let’s put it that way. They wanted rock, they gave me a hard time about it, and I got a great song out of it.”
Valdy has made Play Me a Rock and Roll Song a staple of his repertoire. It was recorded live on April 4, 1974 at Massey Hall for his “Family Gathering” album, and it was a B-side single (along with Renaissance) that same year. In 1982, A&M Records included the song on a promotional set of cassettes, and in 1996 it was featured on the Junos’ “Oh What A Feeling” album. It was heard in the 2009 TV movie “This Beat Goes On: Canadian Pop Music in the 1970s” (originally aired on CBC’s “Doc Zone”), and appears on several Valdy albums. The song has been covered by many artists including John Kay of Steppenwolf, and has even inspired a painting. Play Me a Rock and Roll Song earned Valdy a SOCAN Classics Award in 1999, for 25,000 radio plays.
Born Paul-Valdemar Horsdal in Ottawa, Ontario, Play Me a Rock and Roll Song launched Valdy’s recording career of 18 albums, 24 singles, four gold albums and more than half a million copies sold worldwide. Valdy has garnered the 1971 RPM Gold Leaf Award for Folk Singer of the Year, and two Juno Awards (Folk Entertainer of the Year, 1972 and Outstanding Performance of the Year – Folk, 1973).
He received SOCAN’s National Achievement Award in 2005, was awarded the Order of Canada in 2011 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2013, and is in the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame and (ironically) the Victoria Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame.
Through forty years of recording and touring, Valdy remains at the heart of Canada’s musical landscape. He is a prolific songwriter, singer, musician, and performer, and personifies the original stylings of the folk music idiom. As of 2015, he lived with his wife Kathleen in British Columbia and continued to perform up to two hundred gigs a year, being a perennial favourite at folk festivals.