by Mat Snow, Mojo, September 2006
If perfect pop is the jinxing designation applied by music journalists to the kind of thing that might have insprired milkmen to whistle in 1966 - yet fails today to be actually popular - then Love Junk by The Pursuit of Happiness was and is perfect pop. Or almost perfect. For this debut album actually went platinum in Canada - a solid platform, surely, for even bigger things for the Toronto band who sang like hornily guilt-ridden nerds yet rocked like jocks, and so should have united both sides of the high school divide in a multi-platinum fan base.
It didn't, but for a while The Pursuit of Happiness lived the dream. Brought up in a small town outside Edmonton, Alberta, Murray 'Moe' Berg was given a guitar by his country-picking dad who abandonded the family when his son was seven. Skipping college, Moe wanted to write songs in the style of his heroes. "My lyrical influences were the same as my musical, even as a teenager: The Who, Badfinger, The Raspberries, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Todd Rundgren. In the rock world it was important to write from personal experience and I was very inspired by Paul Westerberg of The Replacements on songs like Unsatisfied. He also had a self-depreciating wit on his more comic songs I tried to emulate. Canada is associated with comic actors and funny bands, which we probably get from our British heritage. I'm a self-depreciating person. I never thought I was a good guitarist or singer, but I thought no one's ever going to sing my lyrics, so I guess I'm the one who'd have to sing. Same with the guitar solos."
The songs, written in the three years before Love Junk's 1988 recording, seldom play for laughs yet are savagely funny, capturing with wit and elegiac resonance the modern Western kidult's inner battle of lover and horn-dog, romantic and predator, grown-up and teen. And the sound - stomping riff-rock three-dimensionalised by plaintive singing and girly backing vocals - dramatises the emotional conflicts that beset today's Peter Pans. "In many cultures I would have been fully an adult, but when you live in a large urban area, your teenage years can last well into your thirties."
Berg's CV boasted various small Edmonton bands, before he and drummer Dave Gilby moved to Toronto, where in the evenings the band grew out of Moe's acoustic solo act. With bassist Johnny Sinclair and backing singer sisters Tam and Tasha Amabile, they did his songs and spent $200 making a video for a live favourite, I'm An Adult Now. "It was, let's shoot a video on Sunday afternoon and hand it in to the local video station, and maybe they'll play it on one of their specialty shows." They did. Soon stores were being asked for the I'm An Adult Now track. "We borrowed some money from our parents and pressed it ourselves. Then the phones started ringing."
The band signed to Chrysalis, whose A&R person Kate Hyman braved the Winnipeg winter to see them play to one man and a dog. Who would produce the album? Berg said Todd Rundgren, never thinking his whim would be granted. "We're playing back in Winnipeg, and there's a phone call for us at soundcheck. It's Todd. They'd sent him the demo, and he told me what a terrible guitar player I was, what songs weren't good enough for the record. He was on board!"
Via phone calls, Rundgren disciplined both songsmith and band into readiness to record the minute they entered his studio in upstate New York. The Amabiles had left, replaced by singer-guitarist Kris Abbott and singer Leslie Stanwyck, whose backing vocals were recorded in a single session on a day when she and Rundgren weren't speaking following a huge row. "Love Junk was finished in about 10 days, mix down included," Rundgren recalled last year, his enthusiasm for the band's "pre-grunge genius" undimmed. "These songs are so taut, vicious, fat-free. Even the word 'fuck' was used in its proper context."
Two years later, their next album, One Sided Story, offered more of the enjoyable same, yet it sold half its predecessor's numbers. Subsequent releases haven't even managed that.
Now father of a baby girl, partnered to a schoolteacher, Moe has published a book of short stories, DJs in a bar on Saturday nights, produces local bands and occasionally reunites The Pursuit of Happiness. "We never broke up so left the door open, but to a degree we've all moved on," he says. "But if the right opportunity came along, anything's possible."