TRUE TALES OF THE ROAD: Harlequin blows up good

One of the most powerful figures in the Canadian music business was once arrested for trying to bring explosives on an airplane.

Oh, my, that doesn’t sound good, does it? Just imagine if that had happened today – and not in 1978, when airport security wasn’t so serious.

“He’d probably still be in jail,” says Harlequin singer George Belanger, talking about the band’s founder, bass player Ralph James, who is now president of the Agency Group in Toronto. These guys take a cut of every rock tour that crosses Canada. Well, half, anyway.

Harlequin, which played Century Casino on Saturday night, was just getting going in 1978. Innocence, their biggest hit, was still three years away. They’d been making some progress in the Toronto scene and were getting ready to head back home, to Winnipeg, to play a show at the drummer’s high school, Windsor Park Collegiate.

“He was excited to come back and show everybody how he’s a rock star. It was a big deal for him,” Belanger says.

Apparently Toronto was the only place to buy good pyro in those days, so they stocked up on some flash powder, which James packed into his carry-on bag. “We didn’t know any better,” Belanger says. “Honest to God, we were that stupid.”

It doesn’t take long for airport personnel to find the suspicious powder in James’ satchel – and he is promptly arrested.

Reached at his office in Toronto this week, James confirms the story, after taking a moment to dredge up the memory, “They thought it was drugs. That’s the funny part. That was their big concern. They were pretty embarrassed to find out it wasn’t drugs, so they were still trying to pin something on me.”

Like transporting explosives on an airplane? You could still smoke on airplanes in those days. So James is detained while the rest of the band makes the flight back to Winnipeg just in time for the gig that night. Minus their bass player, minus the pyro.

Belanger recalls, “If you knew Ralph, you know he’s not the kind of guy who gets pushed around easily. He’s protesting all the way, making noise, threatening to sue everybody. That’s how we left him – yelling at all the customs officers. So we get to the gig and start setting up. The drummer’s freaked out because it’s his alma mater. Now the principal’s breathing down our necks saying we’re five minutes late and Ralph still isn’t here. It turned out that our keyboard player also played bass, so there’s a few songs we did that didn’t require keyboards.”

Not many, though, as Harlequin was in the vanguard what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll Synths, and all the big hair and spandex that went with it.

“We had this song called Shame Shame, on the first album, so we played that about six times,” Belanger goes on. “But we ran out of songs. We managed to play 45 minutes and told the crowd, ‘We’re going to take a break and we’ll be right back.’ In the dressing room, we’re saying, ‘Holy fuck, what do we do now?’ Apparently Ralph’s still in jail. The principal is on our case again: ‘What’s the deal with repeating all those songs?’ We have no choice. We go back up. So we’re a couple of songs into the second set and Ralph finally shows up. They day was saved. They dropped all the charges when they realized we weren’t trying to blow up any airplanes. We’re just in a band and not the smartest guys around.”

Which leads us to the second Harlequin pyrotechnical mishap – at The Gasworks bar in Toronto a few years later. Small stage, massive drum kit, giant gong, and flash pots timed to go off at the beginning of the opening song, spewing flames 20 feet into the air in a club whose ceiling was only 10 feet high.

“We were crazy,” says Belanger.

One problem: The guitar amp isn’t working, so a roadie runs up to fix it and rests his arm on the flash pot for a moment as the drummer – who can’t see a thing for all his drums – starts counting in the song.

“I turned around to Dave and yelled ‘STOP!’ And he said ‘four’ and the lightman threw the switch,” Belanger says. “The roadie got severely burned. He spent the night in the hospital. But his first reaction was to run back to the lighting guy to punch him out – he tried to, but he couldn’t catch him.”

Ralph James apparently never lost his love for pyro. He was one of the first major Canadian agents to book Nickelback – whose use of pyro in concerts is legendary.

Not so much for Belanger and the rest of Harlequin (he is the only original member left, though some of the guys have been in the band longer than most of the original members were). He says, “Ralph loved pyro, he likes the hype, he was always into that shit. Pyro is exciting for the crowd, it does bring people in, but it’s not my thing anymore. Plus you stink of gunpowder all night.”