Glass Tiger with special guest Jessica Mitchell, Centennial Theatre, Sunday, Nov. 11, 7:30 p.m. Tickets $42.50 (plus Facility Fee and Service Charge). Charge by phone at 604-984-4484 or online at centennialtheatre.com.
There was no ego at play when Alan Frew wrote the lyrics: “Someday you’ll be shedding your tears to cry over me.”
“I know it sounds a little self-indulgent but what people don’t realize is I’m not necessarily writing about me,” says the prolific songwriter.
In fact, Frew might be the most modest musician to come out of the 1980s.
Before Frew became the lead singer of seminal Canadian synth-rock band Glass Tiger, he was working in a morgue doing autopsies while dipping a toe in the Newmarket, Ont., wedding singer scene.
When other musicians discovered Frew’s intoxicating vocals, they would try to coax him into their bands. But the Scottish transplant, a registered nurse at this point, was pretty resistant to the allure of the rock star lifestyle.
“I said: ‘That’s it, I’m done – I don’t want be a musician, I want to be a doctor,’” recalls Frew this week, from his Mission hotel that some Glass Tiger fans have been staking out.
While Frew was focused on becoming an MD, the music always managed to find him.
After working a nursing shift at the local hospital, he would moonlight as a singer in the band Onyx, adamant it was just going to be a hobby.
That is until Frew and his Onyx bandmate, Wayne Parker, were recruited to join a new group called Tokyo.
“They loved my voice, and I was like: s***, here I go again,” says Frew, sounding more like Whitesnake than Glass Tiger.
In the summer of 1984, Tokyo twice opened for Boy George and Culture Club at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, dazzling audiences with their dynamic, original sound.
A record deal soon followed, inked at Capitol Records, and Glass Tiger was ready to roar.
“The last thing I was going to do before I wrote “Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone” was I wanted to scrub,” reveals Frew. “I had just started the operating room course.”
On the day his song first hit the airwaves, Frew tuned a bunch of transistor radios in his home to different stations.
“Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone” had been embargoed until 5 p.m. but when the infectious song came out of the gate, there was no stopping it.
“It’s such an undeniably, pleasant, uplifting, fun song,” says Frew. “You could feel the effect that it was having on the DJs who were playing it. It truly was a fantastic moment.”
Nothing could prepare Frew for what was coming next. There were breathless updates from his manager about how many people were buying into Glass Tiger. The numbers were skyrocketing so fast the band didn’t have a chance to acclimatize.
“I remember one of the men from the record company saying: ‘Hold on to your hat – it’s coming.’ And it did,” says Frew.
“Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone,” featuring backing vocals by Bryan Adams, reached No. 1 in Canada and No. 2 in the United States in 1986. South of the Border, Glass Tiger’s hit single was kept out of the top spot by Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You.”
Glass Tiger’s debut record itself, The Thin Red Line, was the fastest selling in Canadian history at the time. The album has been certified quadruple platinum in Canada, and went gold in the United States.
Glass Tiger also earned three Junos in their freshman year, including Album of the Year and Single of the Year. The band followed that up the next year with two more Junos and a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist.
A strategic move by the record company saw Glass Tiger become an opening act for shows outside of Canada. The band performed in the U.S. as part of the Raised on Radio Tour and in Europe on Tina Turner’s Break Every Rule Tour.
“Hindsight is an amazing thing,” says Frew, ruminating on the band being relegated to the opening act. “Glass Tiger did extremely well and I can’t complain. But just that small step, for example, between say, Glass Tiger and Duran Duran, and you wonder … . And that’s just the way it goes.”
But Frew does have a great Simon Le Bon story. Duran Duran and Glass Tiger were signed to the same label, with the former big fans of the latter.
Glass Tiger came face-to-face with Duran Duran at a variety show in Germany.
As Frew tells it, Le Bon was signing autographs by the stage door when all of a sudden, fans went running toward Frew.
“And Le Bon had a look on his face like: ‘Who is hell is that guy?’” recalls Frew.
Glass Tiger would later take the Birmingham band’s breath away.
“It wasn’t until we came on and did ‘Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone’ that (Duran Duran) came into our dressing room and were like: ‘Wow guys, this is great,’” says Frew.
You don’t have to look further than the YouTube commenting section to see that ‘80s music evokes a strong nostalgia for a pre-Internet generation. The teased hair, the jean jackets – a classic ‘80s esthetic is on full display in the video “Someday,” which features both a payphone and a rotary phone.
Frew theorizes on why the music that came out of that decade landed so hard in people’s souls.
“We came out of a darker time, you know?” Rock, and lots of drugs, and a little of darkness, and Vietnam, and protests and whatnot. And all of a sudden music took a little bit of a left turn and it became a little bit more uplifting, a little bit more fun. It was OK to want to dance again.”
“Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone is what is it. It’s three-and-a-half minutes of a crafted pop song that if you’re in a traffic jam and it comes on and it lifts your spirits – then it’s doing its job.”
But it wasn’t all bubble gum pop for Glass Tiger, many of whose songs were progressive for their time and rooted in deeper themes.
Take “The Thin Red Line,” a song about Scottish soldiers valiantly fighting during the Crimean War, for example. “That song certainly showed another side of Glass Tiger,” says Frew.
More than 30 year later, there’s still a thirst for Glass Tiger’s music.
While the summertime was reserved for fans to see Glass Tiger at full throttle – for this fall tour, they are reimagining the classics in intimate venues, like Centennial Theatre.
“We put some serious time and effort into creating the new CD, 31, where we took a whole different approach to the classic songs that we’re known for,” explains Frew.
The new album contains 11 Glass Tiger hit songs reimagined with traditional acoustic instruments, along with two new tracks, “Wae Yer Family” and “Fire It Up.”
Serendipitous events in Frew’s life led him to 31.
A few years earlier Frew had collaborated with Canadian country artist Johnny Reid on the big hit, “Fire it Up.”
Then Frew suffered a stroke in his sleep in 2015, causing trauma to his right side.
“I never had any profound ‘this is my life’ moment,” he says. “I just got back in the saddle and started performing and started writing – just like I always have.”
During his recovery, which was filled with swimming, Scrabble and crossword puzzles, Frew spent time with Reid who suggested Glass Tiger make a CD that reflects friendship, family, community, love and kindness.
Along with Reid’s contributions, 31 includes guest performances from Julian Lennon and Alan Doyle, among other great musicians.
For Frew, who was musically nourished by The Beatles as a child, sharing a booth with Julian Lennon was the ultimate.
“I’d be lying if I told you that you don’t think about it at times,” says Frew. “When Julian was in the booth singing, he has a tone to his voice that certainly has that Lennon-esque vibe about it.”
Still, Frew says the focus was not on John’s immortal greatness, but the two lads’ friendship and bond over music.
“When I had my stroke, Julian was one of the first people to write to me … as a concerned pal would,” says Frew.
Performing on stage and performing charity work are synonymous for Frew. He was honoured with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of his service to the Canadian arts, and for his dedication to helping poverty-stricken children.
“First and foremost, I felt the pressure all my life as a human being,” says Frew of what makes him give back. “It’s who I am, and that’s why I was a registered nurse. The celebrity part of it just gives you a bigger reach.”
Glass Tiger is currently helping to raise funds for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
The band has done meet-and-greets with families who have been touched by mental illness. Frew feels a personal connection to them, having watched one of his own flesh and blood battle with demons and make it through to the other side.
“So it’s near and dear to my heart,” says Frew. “It’s just one of those things, there’s such a stigma attached to it – people have to stand up and speak out. I really feel that addictions and mental health is striking a chord with everyone.”
While Frew may be well known for Glass Tiger, he’s also had a successful solo career. Frew lent his songwriting talents to the Toronto Maple Leafs for their theme song, “Free to Be.”
He also co-wrote the Vancouver Olympics’ theme song, “I Believe,” which was played during Canadian Olympic TV broadcasts.
Fans of Glass Tiger will want to see them unplugged, and hear the classic songs that have passed “the campfire test.” The theory being that any great song can be played in any format and still have the same effect.
With limited instruments, Glass Tiger put that theory to the test in Afghanistan, where they entertained some soldiers.
“All you had was a little dinky keyboard and a voice coming out of the little speaker in the keyboard – and maybe an acoustic guitar if I was lucky,” recalls Frew. “That’s when you realize how great some of these songs are.”
Frew is joined on stage by original Glass Tiger bandmates Sam Reid and Al Connelly. (Parker has taken a leave of absence.) It makes you wonder how the band has stuck together all these years.
“The first thing that comes to mind is we’re good friends,” says Frew. “We actually like each other’s company. When someone has a problem, the other ones are there. We really are a family.”
Frew lives by words tattooed in Greek lettering around his neck: “Know thyself.” Those letters are bookended in ink by a moth and a Celtic sun.
“With the idea being that the moth is constantly searching for the eternal light,” says Frew.