How CanCon Created The Guess Who

Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

Geographically-speaking, Canada is the second-largest country in the world by total area, after Russia. But its overall population is just a little less than the state of California, which has historically meant, among other things, that its musicians were fighting a losing battle when it came to radio airplay against the powerhouses of the U.S. and the U.K. Radio stations across Canada played the Beatles and the Beach Boys and had little room on their playlists for local bands trying to break out. So in 1968, the so-called “Canadian Content” law was enacted, which (at that time) required every radio station to dedicate 25 percent of each broadcast hour to Canadian content. “Content” had a broad definition—the law considered a song that was composed in whole or in part by a Canadian, or that was recorded in a Canadian studio or was produced by a Canadian citizen, to fit the bill.

One band that benefited from the new law was Chad Allen and the Expressions, a Manitoba-based group that had been pounding the pavement since 1962. In 1965 they recorded a cover version of “Shakin’ All Over” under the pseudonym “Guess Who?” in hopes that the mysterious name would coax DJs to play the song and invite listeners to identify the band. Instead, the song became a Canadian Number One with the artist listed as “The Guess Who.” The band officially changed their name and, thanks to CanCon, received their first significant North American airplay in 1970 with “American Woman.”

The now-classic guitar riff that opens the song came about strictly by accident; the band was playing at a curling rink in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1970 when Randy Bachman broke a guitar string. He didn’t have a spare guitar, so he knelt in front of the piano trying to subtly play keys and tune the lower strings of his guitar. As he played a repeating riff on the lowest two strings, the audience ceased chattering and began to pay attention. The drummer and bass guitarist joined in the impromptu jam and then Bachman called out to vocalist Burton Cummings, “Sing something!” Cummings sat down at the piano, joined in the abbreviated melody, and for whatever reason started singing “American woman, stay away from me….”

Two weeks later, the group had completed the tune and recorded it. It went to Number One both in Canada and the U.S. At the time, the band was ambivalent about the song’s success, feeling that if it was a law that it had to be played, well, would the single have sold so well on its own merit? Some 30-plus years later, both Cummings and Bachman have acknowledged that still hearing “American Woman,” “No Sugar Tonight,” “These Eyes,” and other songs in their catalog in regular rotation on classic rock stations around the world assures them that their music does indeed have staying power.