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The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness

Rock group

Moe Berg, Canadian icon, lead singer and songwriter of Toronto's The Pursuit of Happiness was once described as, "gifted with an almost patentable ability to turn the tables on pop cliches," by Geoffrey Davis in Canadian Musician. Considering the band's first, and biggest hit, 1986/88's "I'm an Adult Now," was a semi-ironic in-your-face adolescent pop jab, the band often surprised critics by continuing to evolve and grow throughout the '90s. Unfortunately, their geek-chic brand of rock was a little too early for mass success in the United States; TPOH had a small handful of platinum and gold albums in Canada. "The whole loser, creep, nerd thing came just after us," Berg told Now. "I kinda wish we'd been around to get the payoff. I wish I'd been a nerd when it was a good thing—we chose maybe not such a great time for it."

Raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Berg met future TPOH drummer Dave Gilby in their old band Troc '59. In 1985, they relocated to Toronto where Berg played solo acoustic shows at any venue that would have him. He met guitarist Johnny Sinclair and twin vocalists Tasha and Tam Amabile and together with Gilby started TPOH in 1986.

The new group recorded a song that Berg had written the previous year called "I'm an Adult Now." Audiences began to respond to their refreshing pop-rock and quickly bought out all the self-pressed 12″ vinyl copies of "I'm an Adult Now." The band gave a copy of the song's video to Much Music, thinking it might possibly make the locally based City Limits show on the video station. To the band's surprise, Much Music put the video into heavy rotation, creating an instant demand for a single that had yet to be pressed or released to record stores. The band pressed 1,000 copies right away but as soon as radio stations picked up on the hit, the single sold out quickly. When they pressed another 500, the entire stock sold out in one weekend. The group found manager Jeff Rogers, who attracted WEA to distribute the record with an option to sign the band. WEA eventually let the option go but pressed and actively promoted the single, which earned the band two 1987 Juno Nominations for Most Promising Group and Best Video.

Two years later, after the Amabile sisters left and guitarist Kris Abbott and background singer Leslie Stanwyck joined, the band released Love Junk, produced by pop icon Todd Rundgren, on the Chrysalis label. The album, which included a re-recorded version of "I'm An Adult Now," quickly went platinum in sales. Doole explained in Music Express, "The title of The Pursuit of Happiness' debut album, Love Junk, perfectly encapsulates leader Moe Berg's songwriting philosophy. This androgynous enfant terrible of Canadian rock isn't willing to write and sing about the plight of the Third World because that's trendy now. His specialty is 'songs about things surrounding love; sexual politics, infidelity, the by-products of love'—hence Love Junk." Doole went on to praise the album. "Berg's oft funny, twisted and lewd ditties are rocketed into power-pop heaven by the combination of his sly voice and tough guitar … In these safe, corporate times, there is a refreshing rebelliousness about Moe Berg. Songs like 'Going Down' and 'Looking For Girls' (guess the rhyme he used for 'luck') will scare radio programmers, but he seems to enjoy offending the straight-laced." The album went platinum in Canada and sold more than 100,000 copies in the U.S.

In 1990 the group released their second Todd Rundgren-produced album, One Sided Story, and soon after, Stanwyck and Sinclair left the band to form Universal Honey. In stepped bassist Brad Barker and vocalist Susan Murumets while TPOH subsequently moved to Mercury/Polydor Records. After a three-year hiatus, and the addition of vocalist Rachel Oldfield, in 1993, The Downward Road was released. Berg explained the album's title in Canadian Musician: "… that idea of the 'downward road' or the road to hell as the centerpiece conceptually … it's not literally about the road to hell, but more about things falling apart, the descent to adulthood." Featuring the single "Cigarette Dangles," with its accompanying video directed by Bruce McDonald of Highway 61 fame, many critics acclaimed the album.

"One line of thought has it that all Moe wants to do is get us hot and bothered with his imagery," Davis pointed out in Canadian Musician, "but this type of examination is necessary for him to be able to explore the humour, ironies and nonsense of romance and relationships." Berg explained to Davis, "A lot of the songs you hear are about sex. Other writers are just a little more hidden about it. Those songs are nice and comfy and safe. I just try to say it like I see it. In these situations, that's just the way things occur to me. Other people may see it in a 'moon, June …' kind of way—that might really be the way they see the whole thing. The way I think about the subject is the way it ends up on the record." Berg later added, "It's mostly made up stuff. I unfortunately don't have the ability to walk through the woods and notice the beauty of it. Everything is somewhat made up." Davis concluded, "The Downward Road shows the band in a cleaner, tighter, more focused sounding frame than the previous two releases."

In 1995, with new vocalist Jennifer Foster in and Oldfield out, the band signed with independent label Iron Music Group to release Where's the Bone? They followed that the next year with Welcome to the Wonderful World of The Pursuit of Happiness. Stephen Hubbard commended the effort in Network as "A delightful throwback to another age, when brevity was considered a virtue in songwriting. Though still featuring Moe Berg's distinctive wordplay and, once again examining the bizarre nature of human relationship, Welcome is the band's most overtly pop album; a 13-song suite in which there is no separation between tracks." Berg explained to Hubbard, "The idea with this record was to format it so that a person could listen to the entire thing in one sitting, and since it's just over a half an hour it's definitely something people can get through without much effort."

Though Berg and his bandmates were now at an age far past the youthful stages found on Love Junk, their fans still looked to TPOH for a frankness not found in many other bands. They were still young-at-heart, Berg still hadn't found the right girl, and fans struggled right alongside him. "… Berg's fans and followers have suffered with him through loves found and lost, the sucker punch of growing older in a young man's world, and the frustration of chasing stardom when the cards are inexplicably stacked against him," wrote Alan Niester in the Globe and Mail.

Welcome was not a huge commercial success, however, and the band was at a crossroads. By 1996, rumors flew that The Pursuit of Happiness had broken up. As Berg told Now's Jason Keller, they just "ran out of gas," and when on a semi-permanent hiatus. Berg, drummer Dave Gilby, and bassist Brad Barker were often seen playing on the side as Monteforte, a semijoke cover band. In 1997, Berg released his first solo album, Summer's Over and was often busy producing other bands including Grace Babies, Robin Black and the Intergalactic Rock Stars, Jennifer Foster and National Anthem. To fans, it was a sure sign TPOH had called it quits.

In 2000, Razor and Tie Records released Sex and Food: The Best of TPOH, a greatest hits package sold solely in the United States. A contributor to magazines and literary journals, in 2000 Berg released The Green Room, a book of fiction work. The other members of the band continued with their own projects, musical and nonmusical. TPOH got together to play three shows in 2002 and two in 2003.

For the Record …

Members include Kris Abbott (joined group, 1988), guitar, vocals; Moe Berg (born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), vocals, guitar; Dave Gilby, drums; Brad Parker (joined group, 1990), bass, vocals; Renee Suchy (joined group, 1996), vocals. Past members include Tam Amabile, vocals; Tasha Amabile, vocals; Jennifer Foster, vocals; Susan Murumets, vocals; Rachel Oldfield, vocals; Johnny Sinclair, bass, vocals; Leslie Stanwyck, vocals.

Group formed in Toronto, 1986; recorded the single "I'm An Adult Now," 1986; released Love Junk, 1988; released One Sided Story, 1990; soon after, with a slight change in their lineup, the band moved to Mercury/Polydor Records; released The Downward Road, 1993; signed with Iron Music, released Where's the Bone? and Welcome to the Wonderful World of The Pursuit of Happiness, 1995; band went on permanent hiatus in 1997; reunited to record tracks in 2005 for EMI's When We Ruled: The Best of The Pursuit of Happiness.

Awards: CASBY Award, Most Promising Group and Best Independent Video ("I'm An Adult Now"), 1987; Canadian Independent Music Award, Indie Hall of Fame, 2006.

Addresses: Record company—EMI, 119 Spadina Ave., Toronto, Ontario, M5V 2L1, Canada.

In September of 2005, the band went into the recording studio to record two new tracks together. A cover of Prince's "When Doves Cry" and a new track, "Hey Mary Anne," were to be included on the band's first Canadian "best of" album to be released later in the year. In November, EMI released When We Ruled: The Best of the Pursuit of Happiness. As Berg told Keller, "I guess I felt like we weren't getting our due. We were part of the public consciousness for several years, and I wanted to be recognized with an anthology or some kind of statement that we were around at that time." The band reunited for a week of shows between Christmas and New Years to promote the new disc, but made no plans for a new album or future tours.

Berg, who is now married with a child, told Keller that he takes his career for what it was. "It was such an amazing experience to be able to travel and play in a band. If I have any regrets, it's that I didn't love every second of it."

Selected discography

"I'm An Adult Now," Independent, 1986.
Love Junk, Chrysalis, 1988.
One Sided Story, Chrysalis, 1990.
The Downward Road, Mercury/Polygram, 1993.
Where's the Bone?, Iron Music, 1995.
Welcome to the Wonderful World of The Pursuit of Happiness, Iron Music, 1995.
Sex and Food: The Best of TPOH, Razor and Tie, 2000.
When We Ruled: The Best of The Pursuit of Happiness, EMI, 2005.

Sources

Periodicals

Canadian Musician, June 1988; June 1993.

Globe and Mail, February 27, 1993; March 1, 1993; December 16, 1996.

Impact, September 1995.

Music Express, December 1988.

Network, December 1995.

Now, December 12-18, 1996; December 22, 2005.

Toronto Star, December 12, 1996.

Online

Jam! Showbiz/Canoe Network, http://www.jamshowbiz.com (February 26, 2006).

Additional information was obtained from an interview with Moe Berg on February 27, 2006.

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