Kim Clarke Champniss' book cover
Kim Clarke Champniss' book cover

A Conversation With ... Kim Clarke Champniss

I still recall the debut of the Spoons video, "Nova Heart," created by Rob Quartly, on MuchMusic. Fresh faces most of us had never heard of before, all part of the coming visual dominance ushered in by the arrival of MuchMusic. Bands had faces, bodies moved, colors flashed about and, suddenly, the music world shifted from the near invisible, mostly captured in a still photograph, to animated bodies, most making an attempt at surreal dancing. At least one part of the physical body was in time with the music.

Kim Clarke Champniss was there from the beginning, spinning discs and savoring the times. There was a long transition beginning in the ‘60s as young people took to clubs for one purpose, dance! The late ‘70s burst wide open and today, dance dominates. I caught up with Kim and got a sense of what’s between the covers of his latest ‘look-back’ in time - Skinheads, Fur Traders and DJs – Dundurn Press. Enjoy.

What’s the idea behind Skinheads, Fur Traders and DJs?

Just a second, let me get settled, I’ve just moved to Niagara Falls.

Recently?

One week ago. I’m right downtown and at the library at the moment. It’s beautiful here, kind of an adventure. I’m just off Queen Street; it’s the funky area of town. It’s where all the artists are – an area with high potential.

I was ready for a change and as you know, Toronto is getting so expensive and so busy. I wanted a new adventure and thought, coming down here, let’s kick-start something. I also want to write the next book as well.

The current book is the second one. I’ve done the ‘80s – this one’s the ‘70s and I want to do one on the ‘90s. Skinheads, Fur Traders and DJs is a memoir based in the 1970s. It essentially follows me from England when I was a teenager hanging out in discotheques and trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life like every other teenager at the time. The context is 1972-1973. The world is changing, Vietnam, Watergate, skinhead culture in England, football hooliganism, while I’m hanging out in discotheques and having the time of my life – meeting girls and dancing. In my heart of hearts, I want to be a DJ. Of course, this is not possible. In 1972 there was still only one radio station in Great Britain at the time, a pop music station, BBC Radio One.

My father suggests I apply for the Hudson Bay Company and what do you know, I got the job and go to the Arctic and four days after leaving England, I end up in Eskimo Point, Northwest Territories. I work for the company for year, helping to run the store, buying furs, and living with Inuit. It changed my life.

I left almost a year to the day. I’m in this new country Canada, and know nothing about it. I head to Winnipeg, pick up my meager paycheck, buy a car and end up traveling across Canada; first the east coast then the west coast and landing in Vancouver in 1975 I decide to go to the University of British Columbia. At that time, disco had just hit the lower mainland and I still had all of my records from England. I put myself through university as a disco DJ. There are all of these exploits that happened. One of the main ones was, at one point I had to work with Paul Snider, who ended up marrying and murdering playmate Dorothy Stratten. That’s the book in a nutshell.

Being out there, young and adventurous, you must have found yourself in some odd situations and settings?

You yourself leaving the states during the Vietnam era then coming up here, also the rise of the drug culture, rock n’ roll. Rock 'n roll culture dominates by the mid 1970s.

There was always a challenge no matter what it was. If you were young then, and. mainly, if you were looking for adventure or a different road to travel, there seemed to be opportunities there that no longer exist.

During my travels and residence in and around LA – to Greenwich Village to San Francisco during the 60s’, the heaviest drugs I was ever exposed to were pot and acid. After living in Canada from 1970-1976 and returning to the US, I found it was radically different, it was now the ‘cocaine culture.’

Of course, disco was at the heart of it all. What I do in the book is trace the rise of disco culture, the rise of the DJ. The roots of that culture in the mid 1970s now dominate. I started DJing when tracks were on 7 inch 45s – the 12 inch 45 hadn’t even arrived yet. I trace the history of how it evolved out of the progressive soul of the early 70s into the Philadelphia Sound - the technical changes that occur with the 12 inch 45 - the drug culture and most particularly, the cocaine culture.

I caught the first wave of disco playing Trudy Heller’s in Greenwich Village and was thinking about the set list. Heller demanded bands play the same songs – Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour” - Sam & Dave “Hold on I’m Comin’, “ James Brown's  “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”.

Then Saturday Night Fever hits.

The story in the book ends around 1979. I get influenced by New Wave then punk comes along. I’m not a punk guy, still a disco guy and thinking the punk thing would pass. Of course, it mutates into New Wave. I become one of the new players in the Vancouver west coast new wave scene. I end up being one of the new DJs in arguably the most influential new wave club in north America, the Luv-A-Fair. A cavern of a club. Out of that scene I ended up managing one of Canada’s first electronic bands, Images in Vogue - the drummer of which becomes Skinny Puppy, and Nettwerk Records comes out of that scene. Just before I enter that scene I set the chapter up by saying it’s another story and here’s where this one ends.

The MuchMusic years?

That one's out there. It’s an E-book published in partnership with Warner Music Canada and it came out in 2013.  I was there fifteen years – 1986 to 2001. I had the best job in the world. I was the rock n’ roll news guy and everyday was an adventure, I did the City Limits alternative show and worked on the New Music on special assignment. Everything people talk about or say about the golden days of Much Music is true, and then some!

It was a gladiatorial arena. You entered the room in the morning and of course, it was open-concept and there would be all of the veejays from Erica Ehm to J.D. Roberts – to Steve Anthony – to myself – to Denise Donlon, all towering personalities with different influences and we all met on that area floor and then suddenly someone would say, George Harrison is coming through at one o’clock – get ready for that, oh, we have Fleetwood Mac at two o’clock – who’s doing the interview? – New Music is on the road – it was wonderfully crazy. I think we kind of thought that culture would continue but then came the corporatizing of MuchMusic and now YouTube has become the new video channel. It was a golden period, that’s for sure!

Leave a comment