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Glenn Dixon realizes he is letting the cat out of the bag.
Still, a part of him hopes that he and his bandmates are convincing enough playing 1970s-era rockers Downtown Exit that they inspire some some mild confusion, or perhaps conjure some false memories, for those stumbling upon a new EP under the name on Spotify. The band is purely fictional and the focus of Dixon’s upcoming novel with Simon and Schuster. Scheduled for an April 2021 release, Bootleg Stardust tells the story of a young musician named Levi Jaxon who wins a dream gig with the aforementioned Downtown Exit, an already-established band who invites our young protagonist to join them on a European tour and recording session at Abbey Road Studios.
We won’t give too many details away about the plot, but the members of Downtown Exit eventually find themselves locked in some conflicts and complications that were fairly typical for rising rock stars in the 1970s: infighting, battles with record labels over creative control, the destruction of hotel rooms and other rock ‘n’ roll shenanigans.
However, it wasn’t long into the creation of the book that Dixon began thinking how much he wanted to write and record the songs that are part of the narrative. Luckily, alongside his literary pursuits, Dixon has been playing guitar for five years in Barrel Dogs, a rootsy Calgary rock band that doesn’t sound all that different from what Dixon imagined a rootsy rock band would have sounded like back in 1974.
“We have three lead singers and three songwriters,” says Dixon. “So we have a lot of versatility to create this whole fake discography for this fictional band. I wanted to make it as if Downtown Exit are almost like a real band. It’s like, ‘Do you remember Downtown Exit from 1974? They had this song.’ I’d love it if people would say, ‘Yeah … I think I remember them.’ But, really, it’s entirely fictional.”
The Barrel Dogs is made up of Dixon on guitars and vocals, bassist-singer Richard Maruk, drummer Darren Stinson, keyboard player Michael Dangelmaier and lead vocalist Jim Sarantis. While the book is certainly not autobiographical, each member is an avatar of sorts for a fictional band member. Dixon’s real bandmates also read early drafts of Bootleg Stardust to better understand their “characters.” Eventually, 14 or 15 songs will be recorded under the Downtown Exit banner. For now, curious listeners can check out the band’s EP, which consists of three original songs by Dangelmaier and cover of Ian Thomas’s 1973 hit Painted Ladies. These initial songs are meant to represent the early years of Downtown Exit prior to them meeting up with Jaxon. Dixon and Sarantis will also be contributing songs to the project, which will trace the evolution of the band’s sound.
The first EP certainly includes songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1970s FM-radio playlist. They include the rollicking, Maruk-sung gem The Blues Don’t Live Here No More, which is meant to be the band’s early breakout hit. For a video trailer announcing the project, the band even designed an authentic-looking Billboard Hot 100 chart from Oct. 26, 1974, that lists the song at No. 7 beneath Elton John’s The Bitch is Back and Bad Company’s Can’t Get Enough.
While rare, creating a soundtrack for a book is not a completely new concept. Calgary songwriter Tom Phillips did one for Will Ferguson’s 2007 novel Spanish Fly, which is believed to be a Canadian first. But for Bootleg Stardust, many of the songs the band created are not just part of a soundtrack but integral to the narrative.
“Some of this was happening as the book was being written,” Dixon says. “Five or six of them are really embedded right into the plot. One of the songs on the four-song EP is called 29 Streetlights, by Michael. It’s the story about where that particular band member comes from, a small town in which there are only 29 street lights. He had written this song that is a memory under each streetlight, which will be 29 verses. In the plot of the novel, the record company thinks it’s a hit song but it’s way too long and they want to cut it down, as did happen in those days. The band refused to cut it down so they get into all these issues with the record company.”
Bootleg Stardust is Dixon’s first novel. Before this, the former teacher and language consultant was primarily known as a writer of travel books, including 2013’s Tripping the World Fantastic: A Journey Through the Music of Our Planet. He mixed travel with a more intimate memoir for his 2017 followup, Juliet’s Answer, which chronicles a 2014 trip he took to Verona, Italy, while recovering from a broken heart. While there, he became the sole male “secretary” for Shakespeare’s Juliet, joining a group of women who answer letters from people seeking advice from the Bard’s tragic heroine.
While the era depicted in Bootleg Stardust is a bit before Dixon’s time, he said he had older siblings who were well-schooled in the music from the late-1960s to mid-1970s. Obviously, it was a heady time for music and culture in general, which made it a colourful backdrop to explore. Dixon and his band got an extra dose of authenticity when they began recording two years ago by using the Rolling Stones Mobile Recording Studio, currently housed at Studio Bell’s National Music Centre. The studio was used to capture classics such as the Stones’ Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers and Led Zeppelin’s third and fourth records, among dozens of other iconic recordings. The National Music Centre also provided its manager of building audio, Jason Tawkin, to engineer the sessions and choice artifacts from its formidable collection.
“I remember Jason coming to us when we were already set up and he said, ‘Do you want to use Neil Young’s microphone?'” Dixon says. “Yes, yes we do. They had gotten that from Neil Young’s ranch in California. They had all kinds of amazing equipment that we got to use and get this sound. It’s the sound of 1974.”
So how do you top recording in the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio? Well, for an obsessed Beatles fan such as Dixon, you travel to London to master the songs at the iconic Abbey Road Studio. Five of the songs were mastered there in September.
“I didn’t even know that was possible,” Dixon says. “Sometimes I guess you just do research and ask around and, sure enough, we would be allowed to go there. I’m a big Beatles freak so this was an amazing experience for me: to walk across that famous crosswalk, which is actually there. I was able to walk up those steps just like John, Paul, George and Ringo. They have a little cafeteria in the basement. There’s pictures on the wall. There’s a picture of Ringo Starr eating french fries in the same room I was sitting in.”
Downtown Exit, the EP, is now available on Spotify and other streaming services. Bootleg Stardust will be published April 2021.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020