Origin: Scarborough, Ontario, 🇨🇦
Rough Trade was a trailblazing, politically charged, punk-inspired New Wave rock band. It was 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 and won four Juno Awards before disbanding in 1986. They are perhaps best known for the risqué, controversial hit single “High School Confidential,” which was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in September 2020.
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. 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 was certified platinum in Canada for sales of more than 100,000 copies. Producer Gene Martynec won a Producer of the Year Juno Award for his work on “High School Confidential.” The song was ranked the 38th greatest Canadian song of all time on the 2005 CBC Radio One series 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version. “High School Confidential” was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on 10 September 2020. It is included in the Hall’s permanent and interactive exhibition at the National Music Centre in Calgary.
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. She 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.
Rough Trade’s 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 Montreal. 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 to 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).
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Producer of the Year (Gene Martynec, “High School Confidential”), 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)
Inductee (“High School Confidential”), Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2020)
Written by Carole Pope and Kevan Staples, founders of the band Rough Trade, the controversial High School Confidential ushered in a new era of sexual openness for LGBT and women artists. The breakthrough hit also propelled Rough Trade from the underground Toronto club scene to the national spotlight.
Rough Trade recorded the raunchy High School Confidential in 1980 at Toronto’s Manta Sound studio and released it on the True North label on the album “Avoid Freud” (TN-43).
The second single off the album, High School Confidential borrows its title from the 1958 film, and like the film is fraught with teenage hormones and jealousies.
True North released the single despite concerns about its very explicit lyrics. A month later, CHUM radio’s music director called Bernie Finkelstein to ask if the band could record an edited version to remove one particularly over-the-top lyric. “I took the idea to Carole and Kevan and although they were somewhat reluctant they were willing to give it a shot,” Finkelstein remembered. After some experimentation, they simply bleeped out the offending words.
CHUM aired this edited version, and as Finkelstein explained, “The phone lines lit up. For a while, it was the most requested song on the station….The bleep was like honey to a bear.” Listeners rushed out in droves to buy the album in order to hear the uncensored version, driving album sales to platinum.
Pushed by the controversy, the single rose to Top 10 on radio stations including CHUM (No. 8 on May 30, 1981) and CFUN Vancouver (No. 9), and to No. 12 on RPM’s Top 100 chart that June.
Rough Trade then infamously performed High School Confidential at the 1982 Juno awards with frontwoman Carole Pope, on live national television, making a gesture that was considered obscene (but that Justin Timberlake, Madonna and others have since adopted as normal).
The impact was felt across the music world. Staples later told the CBC that “The appearance on the Junos… was a life-changing moment.”
That evening Pope won the Juno award for most promising female vocalist, and Gene Martynec won producer of the year. Pope and Staples were also nominated for songwriter of the year, and the song for best-selling single.
Written as an anthem to teenage hormones, the lyrics were intended to be gender-ambiguous. In fact, Pope originally wrote High School Confidential for a man to sing, but ended up singing it herself. She told a newspaper, “I didn’t think it would be a big deal that I would be singing about a woman. But when I sang it, it was full of innuendo — a lesbian love song. Quite frankly, we were surprised at how successful we were.”
Pope’s no-holds-barred performance style proved a powerful influence on women artists like Lorraine Segato and k.d. lang.
High School Confidential was chosen for the “Oh What a Feeling” compilation, and by the CBC as one of the 1980s’ 50 best songs. Peaches and others have recorded it, and Pope re-recorded it for TV’s “Queer as Folk.”
In 2017, High School Confidential was honoured with a SOCAN Classic award.
Songwriter and vocalist Carole Pope was born in Manchester, England and came to Canada as a child. A three-time Juno winner, she is now based in California. She has also written the best-selling autobiography, “Anti Diva.”
Composer Kevan Staples, born in Toronto, is a Juno-winning songwriter. Through his agency Rhythm Division, he composes music for television and film.