13 Engines are a long forgotten Canadian band. But, for awhile, they were the next big thing. They emerged out of York University in Toronto in the mid-80s, formed under the name The Ikons. John Critchley was the frontman, singing and playing guitar; Mike Robbins played guitar; Jim Hughes played bass, and Grant Ethier was the drummer. In 1986, they changed their name to 13 Engines, in honour of the automobile industry in the Detroit/Windsor region, where the band was first embraced by audiences. I’ve always thought that to be kinda cool, really, a shoutout to their earliest fans in the very name of the band. They released two now kind of legendary indie albums at the end of the decade, Before Our Time (1987) and Byram Lake Blues (1989). I came across them a few years later, probably around 1992, in a used record store in Toronto, and, though I’ve long since lost my cassette copies, I remember blasts of guitar, and a vaguely Neil Youngesque inflection. They made it to the big leagues for their 1991 release, A Blur To Me Now, on SBK/Capitol/EMI.
A Blur to Me Now announced them to a larger Canadian audience, and was the first of their albums I bought when it was new. I saw the video for ‘King of Saturday Night’ on MuchMusic, it was in heavy rotation and might have actually charted on the station. It was a great track, jagged guitars, thick bassline, and Critchley’s sneering vocals about a barroom brawler who comes apart. This wasn’t my usual fare of music in 1991, more focused on the new punk coming out of Seattle (having grown up in Vancouver, it was always easy to access these bands) and, more exciting, the Madchester sound coming from across the Atlantic in England. But, I was also a huge fan of The Hip, as pretty much every Anglo Canadian is/was, so I guess 13 Engines carried in that vein. Blur was full of guitar rock, from the FM friendly ‘King of Saturday Night’ to the smouldering ‘You’re Nothing if You’re Not Strong,’ to the blistering ‘Abandoned.’ But they still got dropped by SBK.
Their 1993 album, Perpetual Motion Machine, produced by Critchley, came out on Atlantic, and was their introduction to the mainstream in Canada. I could just as easily be writing about this album. I played the shit out of it. Loved it, an explosion of guitar-rock fury, sped up, slowed down, and furious. Critchley’s nasally voice was the perfect counterpoint to the guitar fury. The album was a minor hit in Canada and they landed on the very first of The Hip’s Another Roadside Attraction tours, which me and my Main Man Mike saw at Seabird Island of the Sto:Lo indigenous nation. This was a purposeful choice by The Hip, of course, as the late frontman, Gord Downie, sought to push Canada forward on healing its relationship with the indigenous. Not that Canada really listened. Anyway. 13 Engines were part of the draw for Mike and I, having blasted the shit out of that album all summer. And they did not disappoint.
This was the third time I’d seen them live. The first had been in a grimy bar in Ottawa, I can’t, for the life of me remember which one. I don’t think it was Zaphod Beeblebrox, or Zaphods, Ottawa’s most legendary club, as it was closed, the original location having been shut down for reasons I can no longer recall, and the new location, in the Byward Market not yet open. It was an epic gig. Sweaty and loud. The next time I saw them was at the National Arts Centre, where they opened for the Grapes of Wrath in 1992. They were quieter for this audience, but no less fun. But, then the Grapes hit the stage and suddenly all the teeny bopper girls in the audience made sense, as they pushed forward to get at the Grapes, particularly Kevin Kane and Tom Hooper, the two frontmen. My girlfriend and I were crushed against the barricades, and let it be known I am not a small man and was only a year removed from my football-playing days. We both had to be extracted by the bouncers, thought we did get to see the rest of the gig from the side of the stage. Later that night, we both discovered our backs and our necks were covered with scratchmarks from the teeny-boppers’ nails.
If their first four albums, the indies and major labels, saw the band slowly evolve their sound, from the Neil Youngesque sonic blasts to the jagged guitars to the distortion of Perpetual Motion Machine, Conquistador was something else entirely. It was mellower, it was countrified. I had no idea what to make of it when I bought in not long after it came out in 1995. I just knew I liked it.
Beginning in a flourish of Hughes’ bass, the guitars show up, and then we move into ‘Beneath My Hand,’ which sounds like classic 13 Engines, loud guitars, driving rhythm section. It’s not as distorted and loud as anything on Perpetual Motion Machine, but it would be hard to come back with that sound even just two years later. But this is very much part of their larger oeuvre. The guitar solo that is actually both Robbins and Critchley shredding, though very short, is epic. This feeds into ‘Reptile Boy,’ which sees us down in Florida, and Critchley singing about the reptile boy growing up there, none too bright, it seems, though Critchley seems to think this poor lad is smarter than he lets on. We also get the lyric that leads to the lizard on the cover of the album, ‘we see a reptile cross the road/somewhere in Florida.’
But it’s the third track of this album, ‘Menefreghista,’ that is its centre-point. A nostalgia-tinged track, with a country-fried sound, we see Critchley looking back on an old friend, seemingly after the relationship died, and their complicated relationship:
So his friend went suburban, as was beginning to happen to me and my friends at the time. We were approaching our mid-20s and beginning to wonder what the future held. Vancouver was an insanely expensive city in the mid-90s. It still is. It was just not affordable, none of us were going to be able to afford to buy homes in the city, or even condos as things were going. But, aside from my girlfriend, Christine, and our housemates, Alisa and Paul, all of my friends, like me, were suburban refugees. We had fled the conformity and boredom of the burbs for the bright lights of the city. And, as it turned out, all my friends went back to the burbs, including my Main Man Mike, who is married, has kids and lives in the very suburbs we escaped. Why? Because it’s sort of affordable. Can’t say I blame him. At all. Me? I stayed in the city, going from Vancouver back to Ottawa to Montréal. And then it was onto the small towns of New England, Alabama, and Tennessee.
‘Naked’ is also one of my favourite tracks, beginning with a looping bassline, and loud guitars, and I’ve never really figured out the lyrics, whether it’s a put down or a love song:
You were a little too naked
With your fingers at your breast
A little too honest a little too strong
A little too faithful in your song
But you couldn’t pull back, you couldn’t hide
You couldn’t pull back, no, you could not smile
You were a little too naked, but I like you like that
I like you like that
And then a little later, Critchley confesses that:
Destroyed all my masks, that task was pretty grim
Destroyed all my masks before I finished them.
And now, suddenly, he is the naked one.
‘Tailpipe Blues’ is one of the nastiest songs I think I’ve ever heard as Critchley sings about the sprawl of the city, ‘spreading like a virus,’ which seems oddly prescient in the present-day, and then he uncorks his fury on his unnamed prey:
Tell me more, tell me more, who do you think, who do you think you are?Some kind of prophet or some kind of a priestWell you can wrap your lips around the tailpipe of my car.