In the ‘80s, Toronto’s Platinum Blonde was known for big hair — and even bigger hits. The group’s second album, Alien Shores, was produced by Brit Eddy Offord (Yes, ELP) and launched their biggest radio single, “Crying Over You,” featuring a cameo guitar solo from Rush’s Alex Lifeson. (The album also introduced new bandmember Kenny MacLean, who died suddenly in 2008.) The Blondes have been enjoying renewed attention of late: an induction into the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Hall of Fame in 2010, some selected reunion shows, and cover of their track “Not in Love” by Crystal Castles. Founder/vocalist Mark Holmes reflects on what it meant to score a hit in the era of mega-hits.
Alien Shores is a bit of a concept album. Was “Crying Over You” written to be part of a narrative?
No. It was on Side A, which was all radio-friendly tracks. Side B was the concept side. It wasn’t even supposed to be for my band. I loved Madonna at the time and I wanted to send her a song that she could use. … I played it to the guys at Sony and told them I was sending it off to Madonna. And one guy said, “That’s got a hook you can hang a winter coat on.” The next day, the label and management came in and said, “That song can’t go anywhere. You have to do it.”
What was the seed of the song?
I was dicking around at home with a guitar riff, then I came up with a sort of vocal line. I went into a studio owned by Bill Petrie, where I programmed the drums, put down the bass and guitar lead and sang it. Then Kenny [MacLean] came by and he started doing backing vocals. He would always come up with funny stuff at first, then the solid stuff.
How did Kenny joining the band change your songwriting?
Kenny was in a band called The Deserters. And I listened to both of their records every day. I loved them so much. They had a really cool reggae feel. I think I based part of the sound of Platinum Blonde on them. And then Kenny became available. He loved music, he didn’t care if he was playing bass, guitar, whatever. So at first I had him playing keyboards and backing vocals. One thing led to another and he started playing bass in the band, and it was great. In “Crying Over You,” the verse guitar bits, Kenny came up with that.
In what ways did the success of this song impact you?
When you come up with a big smash like that, it cuts two ways. It’s a lot of pressure to come up with something like it again. All of a sudden all these business people come in, and all your songs have to be like that. And you’re trying to write these massive hits, which is not the way to write an album. But in the 1980s everything had to be a massive smash. Rather than having four members of the band there were 60 members of the band. … I would have done anything to get away from that. And I did. I went back to England for a while, I couldn’t stand it.
Looking back, what do you think the song says about who you were at the time?
Fearless. We’d done our first record, I knew the second record was going to be better, the technology and the studio vibe was very exciting. So Mark Holmes at that time was full of optimism. I just believed. I never had doubt that the songs I was writing would not be massive. It’s easy to write a song when you don’t have doubt. If you’re writing a song that you really believe, that’s when it will mean something to someone else.