The Canadian hitmaker’s U.S. breakthrough revisited
For over 50 years, Canadian radio stations have been required to have a certain percentage of their programming be deemed Canadian content.
Now, the percentage has changed over the years, as has the methodology for determining what’s sufficiently Canadian. But it’s created an opportunity for Canadian artists who might not have had it otherwise and, sometimes, broken artists globally.
It was 40 years ago this week that Canadian content provider Bryan Adams released his breakthrough in America — Cuts Like a Knife.
Adams was a young veteran of the music business at that point. He was all of 16 when he became the lead singer of Sweeney Todd, replacing Nick Gilder’s replacement after a few months. While Gilder would have a solo hit in “Hot Child in the City”, Sweeney Todd’s album with Adams flopped.
Adams left the band. He soon met Jim Vallance, who’d left Canadian band Prism and was focused on a songwriting career. The two hit it off, with Adams crediting Vallance, seven years his senior, with helping him learn to write songs that actually worked.
The pair were signed to a writing deal by A&M, with a solo artist deal for Adams soon following.
His self-titled debut in 1980 wasn’t a big hit, but did well enough to allow him a follow-up.
Adams’ sense of humor led him to title it Bryan Adams Hasn’t Heard of You Either. A&M didn’t have the same comedic view, thus giving it the title You Want It, You Got It.
This time, Adams and Vallance didn’t produce the album. Adams worked with American Bob Clearmountain, who brought a more radio-friendly sensibility, complete with the booming drums that would be prevalent on a number of ’80s albums.
You Want It, You Got It showed an improvement in the songwriting, aided by testing new material on the road. “Lonely Nights”, at its core, is a killer power pop tune in album rock drag. To date, it’s still on the short list of Adams’ best singles. The punchier “Fits Ya Good” also showed the Adams/Vallance duo’s propensity for a hook.
The album went gold in Canada. “Lonely Nights” reached the album rock tracks in the States. Opening slots for bands like Foreigner (on their successful IV tour) and the Kinks followed.
Those gigs helped get Adams ready for when he went into the studio to record Cuts Like a Knife. “There was a real focus in my mind as to, you know, what I wanted to sound like. So, when we went into the studio, I had written songs around the idea of performing them live. So what you have with Cuts like a Knife are songs which are very accessible live,” Adams told Redbeard on In The Studio.
At the time, a fair share of the songwriting sessions started with Adams humming and singing different melodies and fragments. He and Vallance going back over the hummed melodies, “mumbles” Adams called them,to find some they could build a song from.
The title track was one of the first things cut. “I think that I’m one of the world’s best mumblers, I can mumble some of the best lyrics, but putting them together is another story,” Adams told the Georgia Straight newspaper in 1988. “I think that’s where Jim is really good — he can piece a story together. It’s just a good thing to have the tape rolling when you’re recording me. The best example was when we wrote ‘Cuts Like A Knife’, which was just literally a mumble. We looked at each other, rolled the tape back, and it sounded like ‘cuts like a knife’, so we started singing that.
Vallance added the “but it feels so right” kicker and they were off and running.
The wounded heart rocker when Adams was at smaller venues as a headliner, it shows he was rapidly becoming capable of stepping up to arenas, complete with the “na na nas” in the out choruses.
Throughout these early years of Adams’ solo career, he also co-wrote songs with an eye towards pitching them for other artists. For example, “Lonely Nights” was written with the idea of getting Pat Benatar to record it. There was enough of a lull between albums that “Jump” went to Loverboy and “Don’t Let Him Know” went to Prism, both being successful for those bands.
VIDEO: Bryan Adams “Straight From The Heart”
“Straight From The Heart,” co-written by Adams and Eric Vagna, dated back to the late ‘70s. Ian Lloyd recorded a version of it for his 1980 album 3WC.
It was the last song recorded for the album that October. It’s not radically different from Lloyd’s version, only much more polished, with the addition of backing harmonies. The hooky ballad was bound to be a hit for somebody. It was Adams’ as the lead single.
The album focused more on rockers than ballads, however.
“The Only One” is a capable opener that could have been a hit if it weren’t so obviously written to be what amounts to “Lonely Nights, Pt. 2.”
“This Time” is even catchier, with lyrics of yearning and hope for romantic wish fulfillment.
“Take Me Back” was developed during those opening sets on tour.
“That was the song that saved my ass so many times on the road that I can’t even tell you,” Adams said in a 1983 interview with Dean Hill.
It turned into an audience participation number, complete with Adams improvising with occasional profanity, which helped him win over crowds there to see the headliner.
“I’m Ready” might not have been a hit, but it’s a pretty solid example of mainstream album rock of the period and of the fuller sound Adams wanted from Clearmountain.
Originally recorded for You Want It, You Got It, Adams wasn’t happy with it then, but was pleased with the results when they tackled it with more energy and a changed arrangement in those 1982 sessions.
He knew what he was aiming for on the album, having seen it at shows over the years and from those opening slots.
It also opened the door for a guest. Foreigner frontman Lou Gramm accepted his offer to join the sessions, singing backup on seven of its 10 songs.
If “Don’t Let Him Know” had been written and arranged with “Bette Davis Eyes” as a bit of an influence in its versions, the lyrical flipside of Cuts Like a Knife’s “Let Him Know” sounds like it was written with the idea of having Ronnie Spector record it.
The album’s other ballad, “The Best Was Yet to Come ” was inspired by the death of Dorothy Stratton, a Playboy Playmate and actor who’d been murdered by her abusive ex. Although they’d never met, Stratton was Adams’ age and came from a Vancouver neighborhood not far from where he and Vallance lived. It veers further into the saccharine than “Straight From The Heart,” but Adams’ and Vallance’s hearts were in the right place.
VIDEO: Bryan Adams “Cuts Like a Knife”
The combination of improved songwriting, an audience ready for this kind of mainstream pop rock in 1983 and a little help from MTV all boded well for Cuts Like a Knife.
“That whole year was just an extended tour. I don’t remember seeing my home much that year,” Adams told Hill. The work paid off, as the album went platinum in the States and triple-platinum in Canada.
The question of what Adams could do for an encore would be answered with 1984’s Reckless, which is a story for another day.
The Adams-Vallance writing partnership lasted until the late ’80s. Adams felt Vallance’s outside songwriting (he’d started a successful run of contributions for Aerosmith) was distracting from their co-writing. Vallance agreed to focus solely on writing with Adams, but the sessions didn’t yield much.
Vallance walked away. It would be over a decade until they wrote together again, after Adams approached him in 2003.
In the meantime, Adams didn’t skip a beat for a while. He teamed up with Mutt Lange to write what would become 1991’s Waking Up the Neighbours, yet another multi-platinum smash. He also was part of “All For Love,” a 1994 collaboration with Sting and Rod Stewart. As for the song, it was a hit despite not being anywhere near a career highlight for any of these gentlemen.
Waking Up the Neighbours also brought about change to those Canadian content requirements. All of the songs on it were co-writes with Lange. That, coupled with it being recorded outside Canada, meant that Adams’ album wasn’t Canadian enough.
You read that correctly. Adams, a man whose Canadian status later became a South Park punchline (“Now, now, the Canadian government has apologized for Bryan Adams on numerous occasions”), wasn’t Canadian enough.
The content rules were changed, especially when the album would have passed muster if Adams had written all the music or all the lyrics.
Adams continues to tour and record.
The COVID-19 pandemic took Adams off the road, as it did every other singer and band. He initially challenged his frustrations into unfortunate opinions on the pandemic’s origins. A long-time supporter of animal rights, he proved that his veganism didn’t preclude him from putting his foot in his mouth. He soon apologized.
He then channeled his time off into song, teaming back up with Lange for last year’s So Happy It Hurts, an album that showed he could still work well in the musical wheelhouse that made him, although the production sounded thin compared to Adams’ work with Clearmountain or Lange’s work with Def Leppard over the same period.
Adams and Vallance took their team-up to Broadway in recent yers, writing the music and lyrics for Pretty Woman, a 2019 musical based on the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere movie. It was an experience Adams described to Metro News in the Netherlands as, “a masterclass in songwriting, but also a masterclass in not going crazy.”
What gets called mainstream rock these days is different than it was when Adams hit it big. But Adams, say what you will about him, if that genre’s not your cup of tea, has stuck to it.
He knows what works best for him. And when things click as they did on Cuts Like a Knife, the result left his fans, Canadian and otherwise, feeling content, indeed.