Classic Canadian record label resurrected in Hamilton

Greg Hambleton is reinventing his shuttered Axe Records label - over four decades after it was shuttered.

Axe Records lives again, decades after it was created

Greg Hambleton is reinventing his shuttered Axe Records label - over four decades after it was shuttered. (Courtesy Greg Hambleton)

Greg Hambleton worked on Tragedy Trail, the second record from a guy by the name of Stompin' Tom Connors. The producer/engineer's handiwork is all over early records by the Stampeders and the Irish Rovers.

Hambleton was there during the birth and infancy of Canada's home-grown music industry.

Four decades later,  he's working his way back into the music scene from his new base in Hamilton. His project? To revive Axe Records — a record label with a small catalogue of albums he ran decades ago.

Remember 70s Can-rock Sabbath/Deep Purple knock-off, Thundermug? It released its debut record Thundermug Strikes on Axe Records. He launched the label’s new website just over a week ago.

For Hambleton, it's been a long road, wrought with health issues that left him blind for years. But has the industry moved on past him?

He is entering a scene that has changed an almost impossible amount. He is hoping to use the Internet — he's still getting the feel for it — to market CDs to a new young audience. As for downloads? He's not there yet.

While Hambleton may be a man out of his time, he's excited about new music and new opportunities — and finding his place in a new music landscape.

Legally blind for two decades

"Radio stations from all over have continued to play these songs for years and years," Hambleton told CBC Hamilton. "It's amazing."

The songs Hambleton worked on were AM radio gems, in a time when Canadian music was blossoming. He worked in many studios in the 60s and 70s, like RCA and Sound Canada — starting as a recording engineer before moving on to be a producer and then onto finding and signing new talent.

It was a much simpler industry then. Radio still ruled and singles were an essential part of an artist's success. In the early 70s the drinking age in Ontario was still 21, so many bands played high school dances to get by. Some of the best made upwards of $2,500 a night, Hambleton says — an unheard of amount, even by today's inflation-adjusted standards.

The Yorkville scene was churning out what would be big names, like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot – and Hambleton was there, part of all of it. "It was quite a lively scene," he said. "It’s just one of those things that in that area at that time there was a lot of pent up energy for bands."

He attributes the talent that came out of Yorkville as a right time, right place scenario, with loads of coffee shops for people to play in – like The Riverboat, one of the most famous in Canada.

As the years went by, the Yorkville scene shrunk and moved on, as most music scenes do.

Hambleton hung onto the masters and the licensing rights of the recordings on the Axe label – something a lot of people didn’t do, he says. "Most of the labels that were formed around that time sold out to other bigger companies."

Ontario riff-rockers Thundermug are one of the bands who had a debut on Axe Records. (Courtesy Greg Hambleton)

It was a good idea, because come the 80s, labels were folding and FM radio was overshadowing the AM dial.

It was also around that time that his eyesight started failing. His vision crept down and down until he was legally blind — barely able to read or write. He lived off royalties for years, unable to work.

He spent the better part of two decades struggling, and moved to Hamilton to be closer to family. He has a daughter here and his brother is a professor at McMaster. "It’s also a quieter and less expensive city to live in," he said.

At the behest of one of his daughters, Hambleton tried his hand at recording his own music from way back – some of the songs coming from his first and only tour back in 1965.

He did so in his east-end Hamilton apartment for the first time, using Cubase, a digital recording program. It didn’t come easy for a man who grew up with reel-to-reel tape and analogue consoles.

"It took a while," he laughed. About nine months of his face pressed close to the screen, learning how to edit audio files with failing eyesight.

"It’s amazing," he said. "I wish I’d had [Cubase] years ago." Hambleton said.

He emerged from the sessions with Summer Songs — his first collection of his own songs. But just as it was finished, Hambleton became very ill, and was forced to undergo emergency surgery at the risk of totally losing his eyesight. He came out with his vision totally restored.

"The fact that I have eyesight now is just a miracle," he said. "I’m sort of like Rip Van Winkle. I can suddenly see after 20 years."

You can't find Axe Records on Facebook

Hambleton emerged from surgery with the urge to get the Axe Records back catalogue out there once again. "Now that I have the opportunity, I want to make sure these great recordings get heard," he said. "But it won’t be easy because the industry has changed so much."

That might be an understatement. The music business has experienced more upheaval in the last 15 years than it probably ever has. Piracy and digital sales have all but killed CD sales. Labels have folded at worst, and at best, struggled to figure out how to survive underneath radically different distribution methods.

This is the world that a senior citizen (who refuses to give his exact age) is venturing into to resurrect a label of obscure Canadian acts from the early 70s.

This is a guy who isn’t used to social media. He isn’t rushing to get a Twitter account. You can’t find his label on Facebook. In fact, the Axe Records website doesn’t even show up on the first page if you Google it.

Still, he’s intent on mastering the internet. "In the long run, I think it will be a help," he said. "It’s amazing how word can get around."

Once the 15 or so albums in the Axe catalogue are straightened away, Hambleton will turn his attention to signing new bands, he says. His main drive remains reissuing recordings by Canadian artists that have been unavailable, in some cases, for over 30 years.

As for making money?

"Ask me again in a year," he said.