Rough Trade was a trailblazing, politically-charged, punk-inspired New Wave rock band, formed in Toronto in 1975 by multi-instrumentalist Kevan Staples and Manchester-born, Scarborough-raised vocalist Carole Pope. Notorious for the openly sexual nature of their songs and the burlesque theatricality of their live performances — which often included bondage and sexual satire — the band was one of the first mainstream musical acts to include explicitly gay and lesbian references. They enjoyed critical and commercial success in the early 1980s before disbanding in 1986, and are perhaps best-known for the risqué, controversial hit single “High School Confidential.”
Pope and Staples began collaborating in 1968, playing as a duo in Yorkville clubs and developing a reputation for their avant-garde blend of pop and sexual politics. They founded two bands — O, and the Bullwhip Brothers — in the early 1970s before forming Rough Trade in 1975. They played regularly at Toronto’s Grossman’s Tavern and in 1977 released their first album, Rough Trade Live! Recorded direct-to-disc in the studio, the album was not a live concert recording. Later that year they staged the theatre revue Restless Underwear, co-starring the American transvestite Divine, at Massey Hall.
Early 1980s Success
After catching the attention of influential producer Jack Richardson (The Guess Who, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger), the band — which now included Terry Wilkins (bass, vocals), Bucky Berger (drums) and Dave McMorrow (keyboards, vocals) — signed with indie label True North Records and released their second album, Avoid Freud (1980). “Fashion Victim,” the B-side of the deliberately controversial “What’s The Furor About The Fuhrer?” became a Top 40 hit in Canada, and the following single, “High School Confidential,” became one of the most controversial songs ever in Canadian music.
The song’s sexually suggestive content and risqué lyrics (including the line, “It makes me cream my jeans when she comes my way,” which was edited for radio play), along with its R&B dance groove and smooth, catchy chorus, drove it to No. 12 on the Canadian singles chart. Avoid Freud achieved platinum status and producer Gene Martynec won a Producer of the Year Juno Award for his work on “High School Confidential,” which was ranked the 38th greatest Canadian song of all time on the 2005 CBC Radio One series “50 Tracks: The Canadian Version.”
The band’s song “Shakedown” was used in the Al Pacino film Cruising (1980), and their third album For Those Who Think Young (1981) made the Top 10 album chart in Canada. It was certified gold on the strength of their biggest commercial success, the hit single “All Touch,” which reached No. 12 in Canada and No. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100. For Those Who Think Young also featured backing vocals from English pop singer Dusty Springfield, who covered the Rough Trade songs “Soft Core” and “I Am Curious” on her 1982 album White Heat and was, at the time, in a romantic relationship with Pope.
Their next album, Shaking the Foundations (1982), entered the Top 10 in Canada and included the Top 20 hit “Crime of Passion.” The album included guest vocals from Bruce Cockburn and American soul singer Nona Hendryx. Weapons (1983) went gold and later that year “Never Said I Loved You,” Pope’s duet with Paul Hyde of the Payola$, was a Top 10 hit. Rough Trade recorded their sixth album, O Tempora! O Mores! (1984), with Rush producer Terry Brown, but it was not commercially successful and would prove to be their last. The band released the greatest hits compilation Birds of a Feather in 1985, and in 1986 held a farewell tour that culminated in a final concert at Le Spectrum in Montréal (see link below). The show included performances by Hendryx and Springfield.
Provocative and outspoken, and one of the first openly gay pop stars, “the Pope” (as she is often referred to by her fans) has been cited as a key influence by Peaches (who covered “High School Confidential” on her 1995 album Fancypants Hoodlum) and k.d. lang. Pope received a Juno Award in 1981 for Most Promising Female Vocalist, and in 1983 and 1984 for Best Female Vocalist. Following the end of Rough Trade she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career writing scores for film and television, and begin a solo career. She performed in R. Murray Schafer’s Patria in 1987 and released the EPs Nothing But a Heartache (1989), Radiate (1995) and The Silencer (1999). She lost her brother to AIDS in 1996 and wrote a no-holds-barred autobiography, Anti Diva, which was published in 2000. Her solo albums include Transcend (2005) and the critically well-received Landfall (2011).
Producer of the Year (Gene Martynec), Juno Awards (1981)
Most Promising Female Vocalist of the Year (Carole Pope), Juno Awards (1981)
Best Female Vocalist of the Year (Carole Pope), Juno Awards (1983)
Best Female Vocalist of the Year (Carole Pope), Juno Awards (1984)
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.