John McGale may be the most influential writer/musician in Quebec. He joined the most famous band in the province, called Offenbach, writing eight of the 11 songs featured in their first recording together. He also played guitar, saxophone and flute on these songs.
This interview was recorded at Long and McGuade in North Bay because Cogeco’s studio was closed due to Covid. You can find the video interview playing on YourTV, the second part just recently coming to air, the next one scheduled Monday, Dec. 25 at 6:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.
John passed away Oct. 30, 2022, as the result of a car accident in Quebec. It was his 66th birthday. Most of the transcription below was published as a three-page feature in the Back in the Bay Magazine’s Winter 2023-24 Edition.
Mike Gelinas: Now John, you were born and raised in North Bay?
John McGale: Well, it was actually Called Widdifield when I was born here in the 1950s.
And your mom still lives in North Bay?
My mom still lives here
And you live in Callander and Montreal.
That’s right. I bought the house I built with my father in the 70s. It was a lot of fun to have a project like that with my dad. To live in it now, it’s just like every time I go home, it’s like I’m home…and it’s on the lake. Two years of being locked … it’s nice to have a place that you can dive in.
Now who was your first band in North Bay?
I had several bands growing up. I was always getting my neighbours and my friends to play an instrument. The first actual band that I got paid, was a band called Axle, formed in 1969, I believe, when I was still at Sacred Heart school, with Ronnie Marleau on bass, Dan Treleaven on guitar and Steven Marleau on drums. And we continued in 1970, 71, 72, 73 even. With that group playing, I was only 13 or 14 playing in night clubs, playing at the Blue Spruce hotel. The drinking age had just come down from 21 to 18 and I guess at 13, I looked like 18.
There were so many venues to play in those days.
It was wonderful and there were so many good musicians to look up to in all styles. I mean, OK, North Bay, primarily the groups were playing country and western back when I was growing up. But you would have bands come out like Urge and Buster and groups like this, local bands that were just really good rocking … the rhythm and blues band that were incredibly inspiring to watch. And North Bay in particular, I think, has per capita, more musicians than any other town in Canada because the quality of musicianship that comes out of this little city is outstanding.
I agree with you, but this a lot more of the older generation. How many kids do you know that are 14, or 15 and starting a band?
Not too many
Do you think its because there’s no venues to play? Or not as many venues to play.
Well, coming out of this pandemic, its kind of hard to really make any judgment. The whole world has been turned on its butt, if you will. It really made a big difference for all of us. I play because I enjoy playing. I will play whether I get paid or not. It’s not that important for me. I mean I have to live and I don’t give it away but I play for me, I have to. If I don’t, it’s like not eating or breathing.
So having this down time was actually good for me because it really was like a reset button. I kind of got into the singing in the Irish pub thing to pay the rent and take care of business stuff like that. But I found myself falling into a trap, doing the same songs, doing the same cover tunes, doing all cover tunes and coasting. I don’t really like to coast. I like to move forward.
Now with the two years we have had to reflect and to practice, I have been playing an entirely different way. I am not doing the songs every night. By playing the same songs every night, I did not rehearse during the day.
So now I’m not playing at night and when I do practice, I am playing something completely different.
I really think it’s refreshing. I like it.
I remember for a while you were the bomber? Unabomber?
Ha Ha! The Unisonger…I started growing this beard for this pandemic …I’m Irish and the Irish are not known for having beards. But I wanted to find out if I could grow one and I wanted to do it while I was not playing at somebody’s wedding. I did not want to look like a bum and the first couple weeks of growing a beard, you look like bum. I figured now’s the chance to see if I could do it. My mom absolutely hates it. Every time I walk into the door, she says “You look like an old man. Well, I’m 65.
So, from North Bay, playing with all these bands in North Bay you decide to go to Sudbury, or you get hired by a band from Sudbury? Or you start a band Nickel?
I did not start that band. They had already been formed. In fact, I was the social convenor at my school, Widdifield Secondary school, in 1974-1975. I hired Nickel to play at my school. I got into the habit of hiring two bands. I liked the idea of having a band from Toronto and a local band so that the band from Toronto was the headliner, and they would set up at one end of the gym, and the other band, sometimes Axle, sometimes Buster, sometimes Calico Silver whatever, a local band, would play on their break. So, it was full music all night. It gave the local guys credibility. People loved it.
I got to meet the Nickel boys and originally when I left North Bay, it was to play in a band in London, Ontario. I had been invited down, I thought I can go any time I want and I had a job. That was the impression I had. They had not discussed it with the manager yet. When I showed up, with my guitar in London, they kind of went “our manager won’t let us have a fifth member in the band.” So, they put me in with a bunch of other guys who could not play. I was going “what am I doing here, I just left North Bay where everybody plays very well, and lots of places to work.” But there isn’t any type of advancement. Here I am playing with guys, sorry, not pulling their weight. But I’m in St. Thomas this week, and I will be in Niagara Falls next week and I will be in Toronto. I’m playing around. I was getting out of Sturgeon Falls and Mattawa. It was tough playing with that band. It was not much fun. It was baptism by fire.
When I got the call from Nickel, it was… Wow! Thank God, these guys can play. I was actually getting homesick and Sudbury is near North Bay. I joined these guys for about two years. Nickel was an exceptional band and as we were touring, the bands who were on the same circuit were getting signed. There was Max Webster, Triumph, Saga, even Rush at one point was in the same circuit. We would see the posters when we would show up at Larry’s Hideaway or some place.
All these guys were getting signed. I kept thinking that if we stick by our guns and we write some good songs, we would be next.
But unfortunately, I got the surprise of my life at the end of November in ‘77 and we were playing in a hotel either in Amos or La Sarre in Northern Quebec. It was really cold. We were at the end of our rope. The keyboard player and the bass player both announced that they were quitting the band. We are gong to do next week in Niagara Falls and were done. I was mad and didn’t like that idea. I came back to North Bay and fiddled for a couple of months. Hard to find a job in January or February in North Bay. Not a good time to put together a band. We did a gig in Sturgeon, we did a gig at the Legion, few and far between and no pay, it was depressing. Then I had heard about Offenbach. They actually contacted me a couple of times because Nickel was very popular in Northern Quebec and one of the bars we played at, Offenbach played the same place a few weeks later, and had heard about me.
Let me get back a few steps. When you were touring with Nickel, you met Breen Leboeuf?
Oh, yes, absolutely, Breen was on the same circuit. He worked out of Toronto, we were out of Sudbury. We were all doing the same circuit. The thing to remember is that in Ontario we played Monday to Saturday. You did six nights a week, Saturday matinee, Saturday night show, five sets a night. That’s a lot of work. You’re really learning your craft by doing that.
But when you were going to Quebec, the bars were open on Sunday. They would start on Tuesday to Sunday, and Monday was your day off, which was fine if you were travelling from Toronto and going to Quebec, because it would take two days to get there. But If you’re playing in Amos, Quebec and finish on a Sunday night, and your next gig is Larry’s Hideaway in Toronto or the Dug-out in Niagara Falls, you got to get up early in the morning, drive all day and get there just on time to set up and play your first set. It used to be crazy
But the worst part was those bands who were coming from Ontario to Quebec would show up While the other band was still there on contract. You had a day when you had no hotel room.
And that’s usually where I would run into Breen because his band would be playing or my band would be playing, We’d be trying to figure out… Do you want to bunk up in my room? What are we going to do? How we gonna get through this?
So, Breen and I got to know each other quite well. We played Saturday matinees together and he ended up joining Offenbach because they were promoting an English album in Ontario at that time and Breen was in Toronto when they were looking for a bass player and a guitar player.
They got Breen and another guitar player who was exceptional, named Doug McCaskell. But Doug, after six weeks or maybe two months, he didn’t like living in Quebec. He wanted to speak English and he wanted to be around his friends and wanted to get back to Toronto.
So, he quit the band and I just happen to run in to Breen in North Bay at a corner store.
I saw him walking to the street and I was riding a bicycle. I didn’t even have my driver’s licence. I saw him going to a corner store.
I pulled in and started talking to him and told him Gerry had called me to join Offenbach and I basically said no I was not interested, but if you’re in the band, I’m interested now.
Breen was a legend in North Bay.
He was seven or eight years older than I am so he was gone when I was developing as a musician.
Now you had gotten an offer from another band.
Yes, Lighthouse called me at the same time. They wanted me to replace Ralph Coles, the guitar player because he had a good job apparently building aircraft engines in Detroit. He did not want to give up his pension and job to go play with Lighthouse. They contacted me and I said, yeah, let’s forget Offenbach, let’s do Lighthouse. The Lighthouse thing fell through. By that time, Offenbach had found another guitar player. I missed that opportunity.
But it just kept coming back, three times I got called to join Offenbach. Third time’s a charm. “Jamais deux sans trois” as they say in French. So, I decided to give it a shot.
The Voyager Bus
Now so you leave North Bay on the bus with your guitar, a suitcase and a milk crate full of albums.
That is true. But I also had my saxophone, and I had a Marshall amplifier cabinet, four twelves, and a mesa boogie amplifier, all on the Voyager bus.
I get to Montreal, it’s about 10 o’clock at night and the Voyager bus is on strike. The guys were out there with a picket line. The bus would not let us off at the station because they did not want to cross the picket line. So, they leave me at the corner of Berry-Demontigny and Ste. Catherine Street right in the heart of downtown Montreal. I’ve got all this stuff and I had my amplifier, and a boogie and a Les Paul and a Martin and a saxophone.
I’m trying to figure out how I am going to a phone booth to call Getty to come and pick me up.
First of all, I don’t see any phone booth anywhere, I don’t know where I am, I am downtown Montreal, this is completely new to me. Everybody speaks French, I haven’t got a clue what’s going on.
Eventually, I managed to find one and I would bring my gear five or 10 feet, and then go back to get some more, and five or 10 feet and just keep going back before I got to the phone.
I called Gerry up. He picked me up in literally 15 minutes.
The language issue
How does John McGale, the Irish guy from North Bay, communicate with a guy like Gerry or the other guys?
Oh, everybody was bilingual. Yes, Gerry was fluently bilingual. He was from St-Jean sur Richelieu… one of the biggest military bases in Canada. And you can’t be in the military if you are unilingual. You have to speak both languages. He was going to school with Irishmen, Scotsmen and British and everything else. His English was very, very good. He never had a problem. He was never looking for words.
And Johnny had a very interesting way of speaking English, I always understood what he said.
Every once in a while, He’d pull out a word and I would say “where did you hear that”? It was quite amazing.
So, the band spoke English which is good.
All our band meetings in the car, backstage was in English. Surprised the heck out of a lot of people.
Now you learned French? I remember hearing you on a French program and you held your own.
Yes, I can speak it. In Ontario, the French I learned in high school, was Parisian French. I had no problem with that but it really does not translate well in the Quebecois Joual.
Offenbach was a really much a “Joual” band. Very much of a different dialect. It is called “Joual” because this is how the farmers would talk to their “chevals.” The way they talked to their horses. So it is a real, rural, guttural, French with a lot of Anglicism that they don’t know they’re Anglos.
So instead of saying “merci” they would say “Marci”
Instead of vous, …toi, ……instead of nous,… toi …it’s a bunch of little things , a lot of apostrophises in joual, hard to sing apostrophises.
I think if you go further north of North Bay, you see a lot of that joual, around the Kapuskasing area.
Oh yes of course, of course, all of Northern Quebec. The funny thing is, when I first joined the band, I thought all the French lessons I took at school were just a complete waste of time.
I had only been in the band for maybe six months when we were in France for the very first time at the Charles De Gaulle airport, I was waiting for my luggage to come down the carousel. It was like turning the lights on. I tuned in to all the conversations. They were speaking French. They were rolling their “R’s.…They were saying …”Bonjour Monsieur Thibeaul, comment allez vous”? If you want to get beat up in Quebec, say that to somebody. “Comment allez vous”. They will tell you “Hey Tabarnacle, chu ok.”
It was kinda funny that way. I do not regret learning the Parisian French. It was interesting. If you’re going to learn a language, you learn it properly. Dialects would come afterwards. It was interesting how people reacted. They heard me speaking French, they thought I was making fun of them or I was being a snob. I got to the point I would just shut up.
So you get hired by Offenbach, you take the bus to Montreal, you meet Gerry. You play for six weeks,
Then Gerry says… Were going to France.
Yeah, absolutely, but before we go, we have to make a new record. We have to go in the studio right now and record a 45.
We have to do one song, a ballad, for the ballad radio stations, and we have to do a real good rock song for CHOM FM for the guys that play rock. We got to the rehearsal hall, we stared rehearsing, nobody had any idea for songs.
So, I pulled out one that I wrote with Nickel. The guys all got on board, they started playing it.
We contacted a French interpreter who wrote the lyrics for it, we recorded the song and my God we had a hit. I had only been in the band for a few weeks. The youngest member of the band, the only Anglophone, I was 21, he (Gerry) was 33.
With the strength of the single we went back to France looking for a record label…and we found one. We ended up getting signed by a label in France and the next time we went back was to release that album, which is called “Transition” which, incidentally, will be released on vinyl again.
So, you’re in France, they make a movie about Gerry,
They did that before, in 73 or 74.
So this was a autobiography?
No this was the very first ‘Reality TV’ show.
The camera filmed 24 hours per day while they are living in a house. It gets pretty crazy at times. It makes the Osbornes and the Jean Simmons look like a picnic. I mean it gets pretty crazy sometime. That was an underground hit
It was a two-sided axe too because all people in the business, record company guys said, wow, I am not going anywhere near this band. the fans loved it because it showed out of control crazy Quebecers putting cars on fire in France.
They ended up having a following. And when they came back, that’s when they did the English album, they were touring in Ontario when two of the guys who were Quebec separatists decided they did not want have anything to do with the English market.
They formed a band called Corbeau. Gerry always wanted an international career. He had always dreamed of having and international career. He had always dreamed of having a career like Ray Charles
Let’s talk about the fact that every province in Canada has their biggest band.
Manitoba had the Guess Who, Calgary had the Stampeders, Halifax had April Wine, Quebec had Offenbach. The rest of the bands mentioned went across Canada. Offenbach never did make it across Canada. Was it because of the language?
Yup that is exactly what it was. Only every time we did an album, it was during the referendum. Just bad timing. So, the rest of English Canada couldn’t care less what was coming out of Quebec and the Quebecers looked at their favourite French band saying they we were traitors.
If we did that now, we would not have any problems. People are a lot less flag-waiving Separatists. But in the 70’s and 80’s that was impossible.
Especially with the Joual dialect.
That’s the thing. Because we were singing Joual, it made us more or less a novelty act in France, 90% of people in France could not understand what we were saying. It was like Charlie Farquharson or trailer park boys. The language was so bizarre that they could not quite grasp it. But they thought it was funny. So, they liked the band and besides, we rocked. There was nobody in France doing that kind of music.
They sort of knew it was in French. We did an Edith Piaf song which was a brilliant idea. That was one of Gerry’s ideas to do “Lhymme A l’amour”: That endeared us to the French population
So, Offenbach comes back to Quebec. They are a major hit in Quebec,
They play all over the place. They play at the forum
First Montreal band to ever headline at the Montreal forum on April 3, 1980.
And it was sold out. And everybody talked about it.
It became almost an annual thing. We did it four times in five years. Then … Gerry decided to pursue a solo career.
But before that, you also played at the holiest shrine in Quebec.
St Joseph’s Oratory, twice. When the English world was doing Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, which is what gave Paul Shaffer his break, he went from Thunder Bay to do Godspell on Broadway. The rest is history.
Offenbach had the idea to make a mass for the dead at St Joseph’s oratory, one of the most, holiest Shrines in North America. The mass for the dead is mostly in Latin, a little bit of French, a little bit of English, mostly Latin. And it was an amazing feat.
This was in 1972, the FLQ were all over the place. It was getting bad. Mailboxes were being blown up; I mean it was getting ugly. The FLQ saw this as a perfect opportunity to raise a stink.
They went to St Joseph’s oratory. They sat in the back with bricks and baseball bats.
The show was so good, when they left, they left all that crap under the pews, it was still there when the show was over, and they were packing up, the security found all this crap and they were going to start smashing and throwing bricks through the windows.