Rediscovering the Unique Sound of Canadian Rockers National Velvet

Rediscovering the Unique Sound of Canadian Rockers National Velvet

This is a personal retrospective and tribute to somewhat lesser known 80s/90s Canadian rock group, National Velvet.

1980s TV & Canadian Rock Music

Back in the 1980s, the thrill of discovering new music often came from late-night TV shows. As a kid who couldn’t always stay up late, I’d record shows like “Friday Night Videos” to catch up the next morning. An entire generation would literally record TV shows that featured music videos and then watch them again and again! The options were so limited yet we loved what bubbled to the top and was presented to us. What a time to be alive!

On one show, I don’t recall which, I was watching my recording of it and the host of the show announced that “National Velvet has their newest song and album out.” The host was so good at their job that it made me think that this band had been around for a while and I had been missing out (that’s some quality marketing right there, LOL!). That’s how I first stumbled onto National Velvet. A band introduced as already popular, which was news to me at the time!

Distinctive Rock Sound

National Velvet, with their distinctive rock vibe, stood out immediately. Lead singer Maria Del Mar’s statuesque appearance encapsulated their style perfectly. But it was their unique sound that captivated me the most. Many called it a gothic rock sound which may be accurate in some circles, although I don’t really see it that way. Nonetheless, the singer’s voice had a haunting quality, perfectly complementing the band’s innovative use of guitars. They weren’t just playing music, they were crafting an auditory rock experience. Even today, decades later, you can listen to their albums, feel the power of their music and wonder why they weren’t more well-known. Songs like “Weebles” highlighted their signature breaks, with moments where the music paused and Del Mar’s breath could be distinctly heard, creating a dramatic effect that was all their own.

They weren’t just playing music, they were crafting an auditory rock experience.

In addition to Del Mar, the band has featured Mark Crossley, Mich Gzowski, Tim Welch on guitars, Mark Storm on bass, Ken Sinclair and Garry Flint on drums, and Chris Reis on saxophone. Formed in Toronto, the group’s approach to guitar work mixing in with this dramatic singing style was particularly noteworthy.

The twangy sounds of “Flesh Under Skin” and the cheerful interjections in “Change My Mind” showcased their ability to surprise and captivate listeners. While “Sex Gorilla” was among their most popular tracks, it was never a personal favourite. Instead, I was drawn to the songs filled with unexpected hooks and that one special part that no other band could replicate. Del Mar’s singing style is a bit reminiscent of how Freddie Mercury used his vocal range to make Queen songs so distinct.

“Border Patrol” was another standout, a track where Del Mar experimented with her vocal style against a backdrop of industrial and vehicle sounds. This use of backgrounds was sometimes used among alternative 80s rock bands. It illustrated the band’s willingness to explore and evolve.

I would also compare Del Mar’s voice to Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees. This was especially notable in tracks that whisk you away into the narrative, like the vivid storytelling down to the “dirty laundry” in “First One” or the details of the party scene in “68 Hours.”

Among their musical offerings, “(A Place Called) Hysteria” stands out as one of their best songs and is one of the better Canadian rock ballads of the time. The song is a testament to their versatility and depth. It’s a song that has endured on my playlists over the years.

National Velvet Live

Despite not being known for their album cover artwork, which obviously never reached the iconic status of bands like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, the music itself never needed visual crutches. National Velvet’s strength lay in their sound and live performances. I was fortunate enough to attend one of their concerts, an intimate yet exciting experience that confirmed their capability to handle much larger venues. Watching Del Mar command the stage with her captivating presence was unforgettable. I’d go see them again today if I knew they were performing.

The Return

National Velvet is one of those bands that might fade from your regular rotation, only to resurface years later, triggering a flood of lyrical memories that feel fresh yet familiar. Their music is marked by a certain confidence to try new things, resulting in a sound distinctly their own. Revisiting National Velvet is like reconnecting with an old friend, where the conversation picks up right where it left off.

Get Them On Spotify!

While many may view them as a band with fairly limited commercial success, the album “Courage” actually certified gold which I believe means they sold 40,000 copies. That’s actually impressive for Canada! Unfortunately, I can’t find them on Spotify and I really wish I could. At this point, I can only hear some of their music because in the past I purchased their songs through iTunes so they’re still on my phone. Alternately, you can hear them on YouTube. I no longer own a cassette player so I can’t listen to them that way. Now, aside from limited access to their music in the digital age, they do have a wikipedia entry for the band and for their singer so that’s a positive.

Lasting Impression

I’ll never understand why this band didn’t go further. Their form of rock should have not only reached more Canadians but gone far beyond the borders of Canada in my opinion. I mean, they didn’t even really crack the Canadian code that much. I know part of that is due to their dealings with record companies and all that. But bands like this had the potential to take off even further without the bureaucracy.

National Velvet left a lasting impression. My two favourite albums were “National Velvet” (1988) and “Courage” (1990), and both are worth a listen. Their sound is one of genuine originality and they remain a great listen for anyone who appreciates raw rock with a dramatic singing style. Highly recommended!

Click to add a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Not only is Brian the editor-in-chief, he's an award-winning writer and author, a well…