Music

What ever happened to Geoff Hughes?

40 years ago, he had a hit song and then disappeared from the public eye. Until now.

40 years ago, he had a hit song and then disappeared from the public eye. Until now.

This image cutout is from Geoff Hughes' self-titled 1981 debut, after which the singer-songwriter retreated almost completely from the spotlight. (Image cutout from the album cover.)

"Are you sure Canada's ready for this?"

The year was 1981 and Geoff Hughes was asking a fair question. 

He had green hair, six-inch suede shoes and a Welsh accent. His lead singer performance style was brewed from "a steaming cauldron of creativity," a.k.a London, England, in the '70s, where he'd lived in squats alongside a collection of friends and soon-to-be-famous acquaintances and collaborators who were at the forefront of punk and new wave.

It turned out Canada wasn't quite ready for Hughes' self-titled debut, which was one of the first new-wave albums in Canada, but the country did embrace its strangest and most surreal single. "Happy Birthday Kid" is unnerving, creative and wild, a richly detailed haunted house of a song that pulls you in and reveals new surprises at every turn. The song spent 10 weeks on the charts, peaking at  No. 20 and beating out songs like Rush's "Tom Sawyer" (peaked at No. 24) and April Wine's "Just Between You and Me."

Hughes vanished from the public eye, and "Happy Birthday Kid" was relegated to one-hit-wonder status before eventually morphing into something almost mythical. "Does anybody know where Geoff Hughes went? Who remembers this crazy song?" spread like a collective fever dream on message boards and social media, ultimately becoming one of Canada's biggest unsolved musical mysteries. 

Whatever happened to Geoff Hughes?

 

Wanted: lead singer

Long before he was a noted songwriter and producer (Roch Voisine, Francine Raymond) with a host of credits to his name, musician Christian Péloquin was living out his teenage rock 'n' roll dream: playing in a band called Hollywood & Vine with his brother, Michael, and their friends in their dad's garage. When they needed a new lead singer, they turned to Montreal's local rock station CHOM FM and placed an ad. 

"We got a call from this guy with an accent from Wales or something and he said, 'I'm into it! I just got to Montreal, and I'm looking for musicians,'" Péloquin tells CBC Music over the phone. "My brother had a car and we picked him up at the metro station and brought him to the garage. He took the repertoire and he was singing and it was really weird, but it was fun."

Hollywood & Vine were into the Allman Brothers and southern rock, and Péloquin says they weren't just influenced by their heroes' sound, but also their look.  

"When Geoff came in, he was more into the beginning of the punk era, and actually it wasn't a great fit if you look at it this way," Péloquin laughs. "I was younger than him and I guess a little narrow-minded, because of our style of music and all that. He opened [us up] to punk and to new wave."

They played some gigs and eventually Hughes began working on his own songs, turning to Péloquin and another musician friend, Stéphane Morency, for help. Morency had known Hughes for a few years, and was impressed that Hughes learned French, and spoke it perfectly, in just six months. They bonded over a shared love of music and started writing songs together. Like Péloquin, Morency was struck by Hughes' unique look and sound. 

"He was an interesting guy," Morency remembers. "He wasn't the greatest singer, was not really a musician, but he came with that authenticity, energy and creativity that the British had."

But Morency believed in Hughes as a songwriter and as a frontman. By 1978, Morency had already made two albums for the Atlantic record label with his jazz-prog rock band Aquarelle. He says he introduced Hughes to his label connection at WEA (Warner, Elektra, Atlantic) and arranged the deal for Hughes debut. Hughes wrote the bulk of the album with Morency and Péloquin (who was credited as Chris Pelo) and when it came time to record, they approached Chuck Gray, engineer and owner of the now-defunct Studio Six in Montreal.

"It was like, let's take the Eagles and record the Clash album," Morency says with a laugh. 

Ahead of his time

When "Happy Birthday Kid" hit the charts in the fall of 1981, it was kind of a surprise to everyone involved. Morency was confident in the song's quality, and he thought there was a chance it could become a hit. He was validated when it reached the top 20, and even though they toured in support of the album, none of the other songs charted. 

Happy birthday, kid
Here's my present to you
One year older we're through
Now don't take it hard
And try not to cry
The truth is I must fly

"Geoff introduced me to some level of creativity," Morency says. "And the bad thing about Geoff — well, not the bad thing but the sad thing is that he was ahead of his time. Coming from the new wave, punk music — two-tone suits with matching eyeliner and stuff like that — the British were into that. Here, he was like a zombie. So people were not ready for that. Maybe English Canada was a bit more, but not that much, I can tell you that. We did some tour and were in Brandon and Brantford and people were — rednecks were thinking, 'Whoa, what is this animal?' But they enjoyed our show. They were up on their feet at the end. They'd say, 'What just happened here? I can't believe this guy just gave us that show!'"

But after the press cycle for the album, and after "Happy Birthday Kid" disappeared from the charts and the airwaves, so, too, did Geoff Hughes. He dropped out of the public eye, is almost impossible to find online, and his old friends haven't seen him, either. 

Finding Geoff Hughes

"I haven't heard about him for the last 30 years," Péloquin says. "It's kind of a bizarre attitude. I think Stéphane tried a couple of times to reach him when he had some news and he was not really open to that."

Morency has been in touch with Hughes fleetingly over the years, and in a strange, sad coincidence, was on the verge of emailing the reclusive musician himself when CBC Music's interview request hit Morency's inbox. Chuck Gray's son had recently been in touch with Morency following Gray's death. He had come across the masters of both the Aquarelle records and Geoff Hughes. Did Morency want them?

When July comes along 
And it's your turn to dance
The walls with your dreams
Remember the way 
You cut through my life
And the day I cracked at the seams

"It's funny, your timing," Morency says. "It's weird because I have to find Geoff now and say, 'Hey, do you want your masters back? Would you like to do something with that?' Now the whole business has changed. Maybe we could remaster it and throw it on the internet and sell 2,000 in Poland, you never know now."

A good falsetto 

Geoff Hughes is alive and well. He doesn't talk much about his brief stint as a rock star and he hasn't given an interview in a very, very long time. But Morency passed along CBC Music's request and now the distinctive and melodious voice with the Welsh accent is on the other end of the phone, laughing and performing the high-pitched backing chorus to "Happy Birthday Kid" as fresh as if it's 1981, not 2021. 

"You know that 'ah-ah-ah?' I used to have a really good falsetto voice from a very early age. Because I grew up in Wales. Did you know that? My mum played piano and we all were singing in the house and singing in the chapel on Sundays. I was a local star." Hughes puts an extra little emphasis on 'star,' loading the word with a perfect balance of skepticism and pride. "In Wales we have something called the eisteddfods, which are huge cultural festivals in Wales once every year. And I won first prize in a couple of years singing boy soprano. So I've been singing for all my life. I love singing and I still sing of course." 

Remember when you sang
Someone's waiting upstairs
With my name on his lips
He's singing happy birthday, kid
At least we had some kicks

Hughes' love of singing took on a different shape in London in the mid-'70s. He went to Oxford with the intention of studying architecture. 

"I couldn't handle it, and I ran off to join the circus. Do you remember Pinocchio?" Hughes laughs. He and his best friend, Ed, joined a professional theatre company. "Slowly, rock music became incorporated with most of the British street theatre companies in England in the late '70s, early '80s. And I picked up the bass, I learned the bass for the theatre. So even when I was playing music, I was still onstage acting."

Learning the bass led to Hughes joining the Iron Jelloids, "one of the biggest street bands" in London. They even toured Holland with the Sex Pistols on one of the iconic punk band's first-ever tours. Hughes clearly savours the memories of living in London during that time.

"You cannot imagine!" he says. "It was a steaming cauldron of creativity. All the squats where we were all living. None of us could afford real places. People like Sting, the Pretenders, Dave Stewart. I was singing with the old boys from Dire Straits before Mark [Knopfler] came back. It was, like, incredible. There was a club opening every day in London, a new band with the new wave taking off. That's what really excited me and a lot of the visuals stuck with me." 

Montreal calling

But around the same time, Hughes met a girl in London who brought him back to discover Quebec in the summer. He loved it. He began flying back and forth between Montreal and  London. The relationship didn't last, but the girlfriend's impact was life-changing: Hughes settled in Montreal permanently and when it came time to start working on his record, he had a song in his pocket. "Happy Birthday Kid" was about her.  

The present come and the past is gone
With no more tears
The simple life at last alone
With no more fear
No, no, no don't buy me no games
To play with myself
I'll find my own roads
Just disappear, you can't hurt me no more

"This girl that dragged me to Quebec, she was in a theatre company in London with Dave Stewart's girlfriend before Annie Lennox," Hughes recalls. "That's how I met Dave. We split up in London. She had just given me a chess set for my birthday. So that was the game you can play with yourself, you know to get in the chess. It's her singing to me, 'Happy birthday, kid, here's my present to you. One year older, hey, babe, we're through.' That's what that was. 'But don't take it hard and try not to cry. The truth is I must fly.' And she was off. And it was cool. It was cool. But it motivated the song; I guess I was hurt a bit actually."

The song is almost its own rock opera: melodramatic, glamorous and evocative with its use of repetition and layered vocals, and massive tonal shifts between chorus and verse. Every time "Happy Birthday Kid" threatens to slip into novelty song territory, a new detail in the production or arrangement or vocal performance pulls it back. It is a great song, a weirdly genius kind of song, that's playful and almost ominous, particularly as the synthesizers kick in and Hughes spits out the chorus "At least we had some kicks," savouring "kicks" every time.  

"I think it's the bitterness coming out," Hughes says, considering the word ominous. "Bitterness with a menace. There's a certain menace there, you're right, but I'm not a violent person. So there was no threat of violence, but there was definitely a, 'Hey, OK. Pissed me off with this, babe. I'm gonna let you know about it.'" Hughes laughs. 

Vanishing act

After the release of Geoff Hughes, the label funded a second set of demos and Hughes, Morency and Péloquin got to work. Then the economy tanked. 

"There was a big recession and Warner got rid of all their artists except Daniel Lanois, they kept him," Hughes recalls. "He was a big star in Quebec, they had to keep him and everybody else including Geoff Hughes was let go ... I've still got the masters of the demos. There's some good stuff there. Unfortunately, there was nothing that stuck out, nothing as good as 'Happy Birthday Kid.'" 

New wave hadn't hit Canada yet, it came just after me, but I would never say I'm ahead of my time.- Geoff Hughes

Hughes kept writing songs and even wrote for other artists, but he also began working in A&R for his manager, Paul Levesque [the man who "discovered" Céline Dion and introduced her to Reneé Angelil]. Levesque had his own artist management company and also owned his own label, Artiste Records. Hughes even spent a year travelling Quebec digging up demos in basements and penthouse apartments alike for a heavy metal compilation album, Moose Molten Metal. He recorded new demos with his new band, but when his mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer, Hughes stepped in to help run her company. 

"Towards the end of the '80s, I stopped working in bars and bands and nightclubs and touring and demos and the whole thing," Hughes says. "I got out of the music scene as much as one can. My daughter was born and it was tough coming in at three in the morning, and partying of course, always partying.... And I didn't do any more music after that." 

At least not professionally, Hughes clarifies, though he's continued to play with his friends and local folks. "We'd do Christmas parties," he says. "I love performing and I still like to keep my voice in shape." 

In the 2000s, Hughes began getting heavily involved in classical music, jazz and choirs. 

"I love classical music and jazz," Hughes says. "Of course, one does at my age, one drifts into that. I still love the heavier electric guitar though, it still taunts me and I love it." Before the pandemic, he did a few shows with a local choir and realized he's moved well past "best boy soprano" and is no longer a tenor but a baritone. 

But when Hughes stepped away from rock 'n' roll, he truly left it behind. He didn't want people contacting him and asking him questions about what happened or if another record was coming or what was next. Growing up, his three kids knew almost nothing of their dad's brief brush with fame, he says, or his role in Canadian music history.

The full album isn't streaming anywhere, not even on YouTube as of this writing, though a couple tracks (including "Happy Birthday Kid," of course) have been uploaded. But with the recent passing of Chuck Gray and the resurfacing of the masters, there's a possibility that could change. Morency sees some possibility, and Péloquin is intrigued about the idea of reconnecting with Hughes again. Scour the comments or search for Geoff Hughes and people are still talking about "Happy Birthday Kid" and wondering where he went. 

Hughes marvels for a moment that 2021 marks the 40th anniversary of his debut. He's still not eager to be in the public eye, and he's reluctant to afford the record, or himself, too much credit, but he does think Geoff Hughes was probably the first new wave album in Canada. And maybe Canada really wasn't quite ready for him yet. 

"New wave hadn't hit Canada yet, it came just after me, but I would never say I'm ahead of my time, never," Hughes laughs. [He's close. The Pointed Sticks' Perfect Youth came out via a small label in 1980 and is considered to be among the first new wave/punk/power pop records in Canada.] Hughes stopped writing songs about four or five years ago, and his kids know about his rock star past. His oldest son is 28 years old and plays music himself, and they used to jam a bit but the pandemic kind of put a stop to that. 

"But it's always there, the music will always be there," Hughes says. "I'm not worried about that. And I have no regrets about any phases in my career jumping and changing and ending, you know, nothing. No regrets ... I've been very lucky. Super lucky."

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