Christopher Ward has worn many hats during an eventful career in the music industry. He’s been a recording artist, a late-night TV host, improv comedian, one of Canada’s first Much Music Veejays, a successful songwriter, radio host, and a TV talent judge. Now you can add author to his credits with the January release of Dead Brilliant, published by Dundurn Press.
On the phone from Los Angeles, Ward explains that “Dead Brilliant” tells the story of fading rock star, Roc Molotov, who has just broken up with his band, lost his girlfriend and is about to see his best ever release, dumped by his record company. Salvation comes in the form of manager Uncle Strange who devises a plan for Molotov to fake his death dramatically in front of the MTV cameras, thus creating a posthumous boost in record sales, a plan that backfires when Molotov realizes that being a dead rock star isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Actually, “Dead Brilliant” is Ward’s second book, but first novel, having previously penned a children’s book “Mac in the City of Light” and although Roc Molotov evolved from a number of characters Ward has observed during his length stay in Los Angeles, he feels the story is a tongue-in-cheek yet fairly accurate account of life in the music industry.
Ward, who hit the song-writing jackpot when he co-wrote (with Dave Tyson) `Black Velvet’ for his then-girlfriend Alannah Myles which soared to Number One on the Billboard charts, says that being a song writer in L.A gave him access to a number of situations which became focal points in his book.
“Roc Molotov is typical of the people you meet in this business who will do anything to fulfil their notion of success,” explains Ward. “As a song writer, I am in a position of being a little bit invisible, the proverbial fly on the wall. “ You’re not a star and you are not trying to be one but you are there to serve them. I am an observer by nature, a note taker, so by hanging around the rich and famous and it’s fun to see how they conduct themselves.”
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Ward noted that just everyday observations became fodder for his book. “I am sitting by the pool at the Sunset Marquis Hotel and there’s Michael Bolton making a big production of taking off his shirt and then putting it back on, just to draw attention. Then Gloria Estefan walks by with a group of handlers rushing along in her wake and then comedian Joe Piscopo (who’s seen better days) was standing there just looking for attention. He had been reduced to hawking jewelry on late night TV. That scene was a microcosm of what it’s like in Hollywood on any given day. A scene I replicated in my book.”
Ward says he started writing the novel about seven or eight years ago but originally set it aside while he tackled other projects. “I wrote a kids book for my daughter while we were living in Paris yet my novel kept calling me to finish it,” explained Ward. “It took me a couple of years to write the book because I had never written a novel before. Yet I found the freedom to write the book liberating because there was no one to spy on me to tell me I wasn’t doing it right.”
A native Torontonian who studied at Trent University in Peterborough, Ward joined forces with fellow song writer Stephen Stohn to record an album for Warner Music which spawned a couple of radio friendly singles. “The truth is that I was originally an artist because I couldn’t find anyone else to record my songs,” he laughed. That changed when he met Alannah Myles.
Admittedly it took almost seven years for Myles to record her debut self-titled record for Atlantic Records, but when it took off, first with the single `Love Is’ and then with her mega-selling ode to Elvis Presley, `Black Velvet’ both Myles and Ward were heading for stardom, even though by 1987, the pair were no longer a couple.
“I knew we had a hit when one night, I was waiting for a taxi cab outside of the Much Music building and I saw this somewhat inebriated chap, weaving down the road singing the chorus to `Love Is,’ at the top of his lungs “reflected Ward. “At that moment, I thought to myself, Chris I think you’ve cracked it.”
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Unfortunately for Myles, she reacted negatively to suggestions that she was an `overnight success’ and constant bouts with the media would have a negative effect on future recordings.
“Alannah was abrasive by nature and really got in your face, “confessed Ward. “That approach works better if you are a male artist, say like David Lee Roth, but some people were really upset by her, she rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”
Ward thought timing was the key for `Black Velvet’ to receive such massive radio exposure. “Yes a hit has to be a great song with a great lyric and a great melody but the song also has to have context to what is being played on the radio at the time,” he noted. “That song just jumped out of the radio at that time, because it was so different from what else was being played at the time.”
Yet the downside of having such a monster debut album is that Myles and her song-writing team of Ward and Tyson couldn’t possibly match those sales figures when they released the follow-up “Rockinghorse” in 1992. “Alannah’s first album sold over one million copies in the States and 1.2 million copies in Canada but Rockinghorse only went triple platinum at home and that was deemed to be a disappointment. We should all be that disappointed?”
“When we recorded the first album, we had no interference from the record company, they just left us alone to record it,” continued Ward. “But because Alannah’s debut was such a monster hit, the record company was hovering all over the second record. As a result, there was tremendous pressure on us and it didn’t help that there were changes within the company that were detrimental to us.”
As Ward was shaping Myles’ career, he was also performing improv with the famed Second City troupe when CITY TV producer John Martin tapped him to join CITY. “At first I didn’t want to be on television, I didn’t even like television and I didn’t watch much television,” revealed Ward. “But I am in John’s office on the Monday and offered me this spot on an all-night show called City Limits and gave me the license to do anything I wanted” One of Ward’s frequent guests was a budding comedian called Mike Myers who used Ward’s show to debut his Wayne’s World character.
Myers later reciprocated Ward’s hospitality by featuring Christopher as rhythm guitarist in his Austin Powers’ celebrity band, Ming Tea, singing `BBC’ in the original Austin Powers’ movie and `Daddy Wasn’t There’ in the third, “Goldmember” release.
City TV had successfully vied for an all-music channel, similar to the all-ready established MTV, and when Canada’s Much Music network debuted September 1st 1984, Ward and the channel’s New Music alumnus, J.D Roberts’ were the network’s first Veejays.
“It was just J.D and myself for the first two months and then we got Mike Williams and our first female was originally Catherine McClenahan before Erica Ehm joined us,” noted Ward. “Much Music was great because it gave instant overnight exposure to many up and coming acts. Without Much Music I don’t think many people would have ever heard of The Parachute Club, Platinum Blonde or Glass Tiger. We gave them a new outlet to promote themselves and a lot of them were savvy enough to use us.”
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Ward also briefly served as the voice of Music Express radio, following J.D Roberts, before the success he was enjoying with `Black Velvet’ lured him to Los Angeles where he continued his career as a successful song writer, penning tunes for the likes of Diana Ross and The Backstreet Boys.
Ward returned to Canada to act as judge on YTV’s The Next Star television and has also embarked on a sequel to his Mac children’s book series. He also renewed acquaintances with former song-writing partner Stephen Stohn, now working as executive producer for two television series, DeGrassi Next Generation and Instant Star. Ward wrote material for both series plus music for both “Degrassi Takes Manhattan” and “ DeGrassi Goes Hollywood” TV movies.
His next music book target may involve stories about Much Music. Whether real or fictional, Ward certainly has the insight on what was a golden period in Canadian music. And based on his writing skills with Dead Brilliant, Ward probably has a raft of Canadian characters that could rival the exploits of Roc Molotov.
You can order the book Dead Brilliant from Dundurn Publishing: