The Story of Prism

Last Revised: October 29, 2008 

In the late 1960's, the punkish Vancouver band "Seeds of Time" formed the basis for what would eventually become Prism. Their bad-boy image was evinced in an early regional hit single "My Home Town" in 1969. Marking the band as recording artists, the record and follow-up "Cryin' the Blues" scored modest success in an infant Canadian music market. Ten years later bandmates Lindsay Mitchell, Al Harlow, Rocket Norton, and John Hall would find themselves together again, climbing international charts as Prism. Other key players who made Prism possible came from an early '70s Vancouver jazz band "Sunshyne", yielding trumpeter Bruce Fairbairn plus songwriter & multi-instrumentalist Jim Vallance. Singer Ron Tabak was recruited from the local circuit, and this loose community of musicians combined resources in a Vancouver recording studio in July, 1975.

The original studio lineup was a "who's-who" of the Vancouver rock scene.

In what can be considered the first Prism track, "Open Soul Surgery" became a concert favorite, showcasing the hard-rock leanings of Ron Tabak and Mitchell. It was on the strength of this first recording that the group landed a contract with the now-defunct GRT Records. The band performed a showcase gig as "Under Construction" at Vancouver nightspot The Body Shop, where several record company representatives attended to bid on the band. With Fairbairn and BTO manager Bruce Allen handling negotiations, GRT won out.

The group deliberated over a band name until the first self-titled album "Prism" was chosen to reflect their multiple influences, which included blues, rock and jazz.

At the time, Jim Vallance was attending the University of BC, desiring his schoolmates not suspect he was in a rock band. He assumed the pseudonym "Rodney Higgs", on the writing credits for Prism anthems "Spacship Superstar", "Take Me to the Kaptin" and "It's Over", all Billboard flagship singles from the first album. The resulting success suggests Jim had little to worry about from his classmates. Following one concert tour of the US and Canada, Vallance decided against road work, and was replaced by ex-Seeds of Time drummer Rocket Norton in September 1977.

Similar early departures of Ab Bryant and Tom Lavin led Prism to recruit final Seeds of Time alumnus Al Harlow, fronting his own band at the time. As guitarist and bassist, Harlow also brought songwriting and outgoing flair to the quintet as they entered the studio in January 1978 to record their second album, "See Forever Eyes". The album was a rapid platinum seller, furthering the band's US touring cache and spawning several singles. Tunesmith Harlow's "Take Me Away" and "Flying" were chart successes, along with Hall & Mitchell's title track. "Flying" was a US Top 10 radio spin of the year.

An anomaly was a live US album, "Live Tonight" recorded at Detroit's Royal Oak Theatre in July '78, strictly for US radio broadcast on the Superstar Network. A limited press run on blue vinyl was issued by Ariola America, the band's US label at the time, and to this day collectors trade copies and bootlegs on eBay. The band became a force onstage with relentless tours of the US and Canada.

The "definitive" Prism lineup from 1978-1981

1979 saw Prism making bold musical statements in the studio, with the "Armageddon" album and tour building on previous success. Lindsay Mitchell conceived the title song during August 1978 in Memphis, where Prism played a concert to the backdrop of the city's police strike, the National Guard controlling the hysteria surrounding the first anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. As Prism flew over Graceland by helicopter, crowds swarming Elvis' shrine below, the events took on an apocalyptic scale in Armageddon's lyrics. Also noteworthy were contributions by 19-year-old Vancouver songwriter Bryan Adams, in "You Walked Away Again" and "Jealousy", reworked on a later Adams album. Prism manager Bruce Allen quickly signed the burgeoning star.

Armageddon earned immediate double-platinum status. Despite the success of both Prism and label mates such as Dan Hill, executive problems at GRT resulted in the label going into receivership in 1980. Capitol Records signed Prism to one of the biggest worldwide contracts of the era, and Armageddon's eventual sales exceeded a million, still counting.

"Night to Remember" took the SOCAN Song of the Year award, while the album provided epic material for Prism's live show. One critic described the band onstage as "the most bombastic entrance since Cleopatra's."

Prism's arena-scale touring included a record-breaking crowd of 18,000 at Ontario Place in Toronto, returning to headline Maple Leaf Gardens within a year; 120,000 at the Mosport Canada Jam, with a general habit of setting sales records in major Canadian arenas. Their US tours with major acts of the day were punctuated by breakout headline shows in Atlanta, Detroit, New York and Los Angeles.

In 1980 the band once again returned to the studio to record a fourth album, "Young and Restless", with Mitchell and Harlow as writing partners. That year also saw Prism win Juno Awards for Group of the Year, the title track "Young and Restless" nominated in the Song category, and a Producer of the Year win for Fairbairn's work on Armageddon.

But tensions ensued as internal creative battles began to fracture the group. A falling out between Ron Tabak and Mitchell became a flashpoint for all of the band's tensions. The vocalist was fired in late 1980, with John Hall departing soon after. The last recording featuring the two was the single "Cover Girl", recorded after the death of Vancouver starlet Dorothy Stratton, who had presented platinum awards to the band the previous year. The song was a bonus track for the "All the Best From Prism" greatest hits album, conspicuous in a switch of producers. Bruce Fairbairn had left the band's studio team, with Los Angeles-based John Carter taking over, his track record with Tina Turner and Sammy Hagar deemed a good fit for Prism.

In June, with hastily installed vocalist Henry Small, Prism entered Sunset Sound in Hollywood to record "Small Change". Actually a huge change from the Tabak vocal sound fans were accustomed to, the album nevertheless had merits, including a couple of standout singles in "Don't Let Him Know" and "Rain". The former won writers Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance Japan's prestigious Yamaha Award for Song of The Year, with the duo performing the song on the Japanese TV ceremony. But Prism fans couldn't accept the change in vocalists; indeed Small himself admitted his aspirations lay more in a solo career, with Prism a mere vehicle to that end.

The members of Prism disbanded in 1982. Small, Prism's management and Capitol recorded "Beat Street", essentially a solo album, under the band name. Prism fans weren't buying, and the project soon dissolved.

In 1984, the five original members of Prism began to put the pieces back together, discussing a reunion, Ron Tabak having corrected personal issues.

Then disaster struck on Christmas Eve, 1984. Tabak was cycling across Vancouver to visit friend and bandmate Al Harlow. As the two had planned to spend Christmas together, Harlow last saw Tabak on the afternoon of the 24th when he drove to pick up Tabak and his luggage. He instead insisted on bicycling to Harlow's Kitsilano apartment as part of his fitness activity. Tabak was struck on the head during a fall when brushed by a passing car at about 8:PM. He was brought to Burnaby General Hospital by ambulance and was told there were no injuries. In fact pressure from an anneurism in his brain was causing Tabak to behave erratically, and police attending the ER arrested him. After several hours in a jail cell, proper diagnosis and a transfer to Vancouver General Hospital for emergency surgery, it was too late. Early Christmas Day, Tabak's mother was advised by telephone that her son's condition was grave: A scan had revealed a blood clot on the right side of his brain, as a neurosurgeon prepared to operate. Ron did not regain consciousness and died December 26, 1984.

With the death of their lead vocalist, Prism remained silent until 1988 when Norton, Harlow and Mitchell entered the studio with singer Darcy Deutsch and keyboardist Andy Lorimer to record a new single, "Good to be Back". The track, written by Harlow, Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams, outlines the history of the band including a lyrical tribute to the late Ron Tabak. The strength of the single spawned the 1993 indie album "Jericho", a critical success, curious for its pastiche of writers. Rick Springfield and Randy Bachman credits augment Vallance, Harlow and Mitchell compositions. The album remains a singular beacon of Prism's '90s output.

The band toured steadily, attracting first-class sidemen along the way. At various times Darrell Mayes and Johnny Ferreira of Colin James' band, among others worked in Prism. The untimely death of Bruce Fairbairn in May 1999 gave pause not only to mourn a comrade and consider the long road traveled, but also to salute Bruce's stellar achievements as producer for AC/DC, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith, among others.

In time Norton, Deutsch and Mitchell departed, Rocket moving to TV and stage musical production, John Hall remaining active as a pianist in Vancouver while breeding purebred Afghan hounds.

Meantime Al Harlow kept the flame. Always the high-harmony voice, in 2003 Harlow took over lead vocals in Prism, flourishing again as showman. The stellar 2008 album "Big Black Sky" put the band back on the map as a creative force.

With drummer Gary Grace, keyboardist Marc Gladstone and bassist Tad Goddard, Prism still tours constantly, headlining festivals, sports arenas and clubs. The road is long, but Prism continues to deliver with a rocking energy that promises more to come.