Listen to this track by Canadian art-rock doyens Rheostatics. It’s “Bad Time To Be Poor”, a crunchy and ragged Neil Youngian study in short-sighted economic policy on the part of the then-Conservative provincial government around the time the song, and the album off of which it comes, The Blue Hysteria, was released in 1996.
The band was made up of four guys hailing from the outlying Toronto-area, specifically the City of Etobicoke (the “k” is silent for you out-of-towners). As writers, they had always worn their cultural context on their sleeve, even if some of their music explored the gamut of the rock spectrum. Here, it turns to life in the province of Ontario, under the Mike Harris provincial government in the mid-90s.
This was not an era (1995-2002) known for support of the arts or social welfare to say the least. It was a time when policies arising out of right wing ideological stances (known in this context as the Common Sense Revolution) were beginning to run rampant internationally, even before the age of George W. Bush. This was certainly the state of affairs in Ontario, in Canada, a country known for its sturdy social safety net held, very simplistically, in opposition to American neo-conservatism.
It was clear that the safety net was wearing thin, or more to the point it was being worn thin by a government who wasn’t interested in funding it. The Rheos submitted this song to address that trend, during a time when writing about oppressive policies was a matter of course. And they even got radio play! But, where did it lead them otherwise?
Rheostatics followed their own artistic path in nearly every respect, with all four members adding musical ideas and textures which often resulted in some very unconventional results. They are best known for their single hit “Claire”, featured in the film of Paul Quarrington‘s Whale Music as written by the Brian Wilson-like central character Desmond Howl; a love song to Claire, his live-in fan and muse. It was written very deliberately as a hit single, which it was in real life.
But, even if the Rheos could write straight-ahead pop songs, their interest in folk rock, progressive rock, and post-punk were of equal interest to them. That is a heady, and in many ways contradictory, mix. Here in this song, it’s the crunchy folk-grunge that the band turns to, resulting in the first single on the record. In addition to its inclusion on The Blue Hysteria, it was also submitted to the GASCD compilation album in support of various social justice causes at the time.
Once again, this was an age where music that spoke out against the lack of insight, foresight, and the lack of vision of governments served a sort of cultural counterweight to the right wing agendas of the day. Much like today, the mid-90s was a time when corporate welfare was thought of in a different box by many policy makers and had a different rationale than did social welfare, with the former being supposedly good for all, and the latter being treated as nothing but a drain on the system. The sentiment of “Bad Time To Be Poor” (when is it ever a good time, after all …) is sadly pretty timeless in this respect, since that way of thinking seems to be the status quo today as much as it was then, if not more so.
The record got them the attention of another prominent Canadian band, The Tragically Hip, with whom they toured in 1997, and where they enjoyed some of the largest audiences of their career to date. During the course of the next decade, of course, neo-conservative agendas and candidates would also enjoy great success and bigger audiences, despite outcries from the public about the importance of a socially-aware government in touch with the needs of those who voted them into power.
After a long career of putting out interesting and idiosyncratic records, Rheostatics broke up amicably in 2007.
To find out more, investigate Rheostatics.ca.
For more information still , check out guitarist, songwriter, and author, Dave Bidini’s site.
And here’s singer and lead guitarist Martin Tielli’s site for good measure.