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David Clayton Thomas and the Bossmen

David  Clayton Thomas and the Bossmen - Brainwashed / Barbie-Lee - 7

Brainwashed / Barbie-Lee - 7"
Roman - 1966

Michael Panontin
Even back in the day, when David Clayton-Thomas was riding high as the frontman for Blood Sweat and Tears with their string of top-ten international hits, few knew that the golden-throated singer was actually Canadian much less that he had a reputation as a quick-tempered street fighter. The Surrey (U.K.)-born David Thomsett came to Toronto as a child but by the age of fourteen was sleeping rough and nicking food and clothing to survive. After spending much of his teen years in and out of jail and juvenile detention, the 21-year-old made his way to the sleazy Yonge Street strip, drawing the attention of the unofficial mayor of that r'n'b-obsessed street, Ronnie Hawkins, and forming David Clayton Thomas and the Fabulous Shays not long after.

The band managed a string of local and regional hits, but as Shays bassist Scott Richards tells it, the punch-ups were almost as common as gigs. In Nicholas Jennings' Before the Gold Rush , he recalls how the well-dressed hipsters had sat down to a late-night meal in small-town Hagersville, Ontario when some local tough started accosting the "fairies from Toronto" as they ate. "After he knocked the guy's teeth all over the restaurant and practically ripped his nose off his face," says Richards, "David calmly wiped his hands with a napkin and finished his dinner. He was that cool."

By 1966, Clayton-Thomas had drifted a few blocks north to the coffee houses in the more hippie-friendly Yorkville neighbourhood, soaking up the music of John Lee Hooker, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, as well as local jazz players like Lenny Breau, Oscar Peterson and Moe Koffman. With a new band, the Bossmen, he and jazz pianist Tony Collacott got down to writing some songs that would fuse jazz and rock. Clayton-Thomas' idea was to take the force of three electric guitars, orchestrate them as if they were horns, and then buttress them with a jazz-oriented rhythm section, all the while keeping it a rock band.

The result, the fiercely anti-war 'Brainwashed', was a powerful anthem that scaled the Canadian charts in the summer of 1966, just as the Vietnam debacle was starting to escalate. Of course, with cheeky lyrics like "We won ourselves a victory / The casualties were light / Judgin' by the news machine / it ain't much of a fight / Sixty million people readin' all about Vietnam / and 85 per cent of them don't give a damn!" the song pretty well tanked south of the border. But up here in Canuckistan, with American draft dodgers starting to trickle across the border, the song's in-your-face defiance, searing electric guitar and, as one YouTube listener wrote, a bass riff that could kill a man, rocketed it to number one nationally. By the fall, 'Brainwashed' had spent an impressive sixteen weeks up in the charts. Today, however, save for the occasional spin on the AM oldies circuit, Clayton-Thomas' gutsy fusion of jazz and rock is all but forgotten, with 'Brainwashed' unavailable on CD or vinyl since BMG's long out-of-print Made in Canada - Volume Three (1990) comp.

(David Clayton-Thomas's autobiography Blood, Sweat and Tears was published in 2010 by Penguin Books.)

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