Bassist Brian Edwards, who was once an overseas rock legend, now calls Saskatoon home
Editor’s Note – This story was originally published in Planet S Magazine, May 2013.
The phrase “big in Japan” is a rock cliché, but it can certainly be applied without hesitation to Canadian psychedelic band Mashmakhan.
Formed in Montréal in 1969, the band released two albums and was best known for their catchy radio hit “As The Years Go By.” They had hit gold record status in their native country and sold over 500,000 copies in the U.S., but the band was—for a brief, glorious time — a rock legend overseas.
This is something that Brian Edwards still vividly remembers.
Edwards was the bassist of Mashmakhan, and a career musician for over four decades. He also partied with the likes of Janis Joplin, and Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead. Originally from Québec, he now calls Saskatoon his home. Considering the heights, however short-lived, that Mashmakhan soared to, it feels a bit surreal to be interviewing Edwards in a Saskatoon coffee shop.
Seriously: this guy has sold more records than any Saskatchewan resident past or present, other than Joni Mitchell (she barely counts) — and almost no one knows his story.
Edwards, who was barely out of his teens when the band began to blow up, says there was no way to prepare for the success of the Mashmakhan.
Edwards first met bandmates Pierre Senecal and Rayburn Blake in the early 1960s in Montréal. While the band was gigging around the city under various names, including The Phantoms, Ray Blake’s Combo, The Dominoes and The Triangle, Edwards left to play in Florida, on a contract with another band as the lead singer.
After returning north and rejoining his previous band, the group rechristened themselves Mashmakhan, named after a variety of hash sold by a local dealer. The band was rounded out by drummer Jerry Mercer, who would eventually go on to play with April Wine.
Edwards barely had time to catch his footing in the group before they would record their first hit album.
“We flew down to New York and were staying in a hotel, and I was practicing like crazy. I only had three or four weeks to learn the songs — I was definitely nervous about the whole thing,” he says. “I hadn’t really been in a real studio before.
“We were all pretty green back then,” he continues. “The whole management thing was way different. Nowadays you would get a lawyer to look over everything before you even signed. But we didn’t really know any better.”
Having been discovered by producer Bob Hahn during a stint supporting local soul singer Trevor Payne, Mashmakhan’s self-titled first album combined funk-laden rhythms with intricate, psychedelic, prog jams. Released in 1970, the album slowly but surely began cracking the Top 40 radio charts.
“There was a house that we all jammed at. We were back in Canada and I was taking a bus to practice, and I remember hearing our song on the radio,” says Edwards. “They had just started breaking it in Montréal. I had absolutely no money at all, but I didn’t really care back then because it didn’t matter. I was doing what I loved.”
The band got their big break later that year when they joined a national train tour called Festival Express. Travelling via a chartered Canadian National Railways train, Mashmakhan joined groups such as Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Band, playing in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary on the tour.
Billed as “the longest party in rock and roll history,” a documentary of the event was eventually released in 2003, featuring footage of epic jam sessions and partying, in addition to Mashmakhan playing their hit live.
“It was a pretty interesting idea for the time,” says Edwards. “It went all across Canada, and everyone was pretty into the sauce, big-time. Janis Joplin was a pretty heavy drinker then. She would show up to breakfast with two mickeys.”
Edwards’ summation of the experience is understated, to say the least. The documentary is a testimonial to the endless partying that was synonymous with the post-hippie music movement of the time. (And Joplin is more or less incomprehensible, at least when she wasn’t actually singing.)
Featuring a motley collection of longhairs, Festival Express is a genuine, at times hilarious, trip into nostalgia, groupies and psychedelics.
“The music was good though, and it was a lot of fun — there was always a lot of jamming in the train cars,” says Edwards.
Meanwhile, “As The Years Go By” became a radio hit, launching the band’s career even further. The song opens with a moody, psychedelic-soaked organ riff before bursting into a ‘60s sunshine pop strut. With a heavy groove, memorable hooks and upbeat vocals, “As The Years Go By” is a bona fide anthem of the time, and introduced the band to the rest of North America.
And it was all something of an accident.
Originally penned as a bookend to a rather lengthy and melodramatic song on the original sessions of their first LP, the band was shocked when they received the test pressings for the record — the other song was dropped, and “As The Years Go By” was featured more prominently in the album. The song began charting across the country at the same time as the train tour. It was magic, says Edwards.
“It took awhile for us to break because Montréal is funny like that — it took longer for it to break out into the rest of the country. And a lot of American stations wouldn’t touch Canadian content. At least, not like they do now.”
Amazingly, the single also catapulted the band to superstardom in Japan, something Edwards still can’t quite explain.
“We got a gold record out of the deal. And the song was definitely big in Japan. The song had that sort of flavour to it. We would just get mobbed every time we would go over there,” says Edwards with a laugh. “We would leave the hotel and there would just be so many people after us. It was quite an experience.
“They wanted us there, and we went wherever they wanted us,” he continues. “We ended up touring in the States quite a bit after that. We did some stuff with Grand Funk Railroad as well. We would play Québec City, which became our second home-base back then.”
Ultimately Mashmakhan split up in 1971, after the members began moving on to other interests.
Edwards and Blake continued to play music together as Riverson, which featured Franki Blake on vocals. The band released several singles in 1973, including a remake of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” and a subsequent self-titled album.
Good luck tracking that one down as well: Edwards admits that he doesn’t even have a copy of the LP.
“It was a great album,” says Edwards. “It was really ahead of its time. And this is where I did most of my writing. This was when I would lock myself in a room and try to create songs.”
Blake went on to join the Lisa Hartt Band before meeting his wife in Montréal while working on a TV show. The duo would go on to play music together in Calgary and on cruise ships before eventually settling down in Saskatoon.
Pierre Senecal would eventually attempt to revive Mashmakhan a few years after the original line-up broke up, with the band releasing the song “Dance A Little Step” as a single. The track never caught on in the same way their earlier material had, and the group once again disbanded.
Nowadays, Edwards owns a small trucking business and rarely plays. But he still owns his ‘52 Fender Precision bass, which is hanging on his wall, and looks back on the experience with a great fondness.
“I still have original copies of the [Mashmakhan] LPs at home,” says Edwards. “I wish the business side of things had been different. I think if we had continued we wouldn’t have been such a one-hit wonder. But it was a lot of fun and we all had a passion for it.
“I played for 45 years, and I loved every minute of it.”