A helicopter is seen flying over a sea of people in San Bernardino California back on Memorial Day Weekend in 1983. That chopper was carrying the members of the Canadian band Triumph, who were about to play their biggest show ever in front of 375,000 screaming fans during Heavy Metal Day at the U.S. Festival.
The record-setting crowd had already been entertained by Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, Judas Priest and Ozzy Osborne, but they were about to be greeted by the band in white.
"We definitely didn't look like the other bands playing that day," said Rik Emmett during a recent interview with 80s Central.
The Canadian power trio were greeted by festival organizer and Apple Computers co-founder Steve Wozniak, who would later introduce the band to the masses in what the band calls "a highlight of their career."
That memory from 1983 is just one of the slew of memories that the members of Triumph reminisce about in the documentary on the band that is set to make its streaming premiere on Friday night.
Triumph: Rock & Roll Machine is available worldwide on several streaming services, including Amazon Prime.
The 97-minute film, directed by Sam Dunn and Marc Ricciardelli for Banger Films, was in pre-production in 2019 with plans for a 2020 release, but the COVID-19 pandemic stalled those plans. But finally in 2022, fans around the world will be able to dig deeper into their favorite band than many thought possible.
" The Triumph story was compelling to me, Marc, and the Banger team because it was an opportunity to piece together a broken puzzle,” says Sam Dunn. “We wanted to know how and why the band dissolved at the peak of their powers.”
The documentary tries to piece that broken puzzle together, something that Emmett was reluctant to do at first.
"I quit the band. I had had enough. It was that simple," Emmett said. "So when they asked me to do the documentary, I didn't want to be dragging skeletons out of closets. I had some trepidation, but I thought if I was going to have the courage to accept olive branches and attempt reconciliation and have the reunion back in 2008, I can suck it up enough to get through shooting a documentary."
Emmett doesn't deny that there was something special about combination of himself, Moore and Levine - on and off the stage.
" There was something about Triumph in its early stages that it felt like there was a manifest destiny that was being fulfilled," Emmett said. "But in the end, it really boiled down to Gil had that persistent ambition that the documentary really shows. And Levine had this riverboat gambler attitude. And when I joined the band, now they sort of had somebody who could play a little bit and could write songs. That combination of us three made it so you could deny the band on any level."
As the band was making their way up the club circuit ladder back in the mid 1970s, Emmett said that Triumph was a little different than your regular bar band. Most bands that were playing high schools and bars were driving around in a small van, but Emmett said Triumph had a tracker-trailer to haul their massive stage equipment to their gigs complete with pyrotechnics that included a huge torch that would shoot out into the air from the drum riser.
"In what made Triumph unique is that we went to the bank, borrowed a bunch of money and we bought our own sound and lights," Emmett said. "So if we wanted to break a market in let's say Pittsburgh, the record company would tell us that they'd get us an opening slot on some other band's tour. We'd tell them that was no good because we've got to use our own lights and shoot off our own pyro. So we told them we're going to need a small theater and we'd get them to pay for that. We'd get with the local radio station and we'll do a 'radio station presents' and sell the tickets for $1.99. Now, the local promoter is telling us that he's not going to be able to pay us more than $1,000 but we tell them that he's got to pay us $2,500 for our lights and $2,500 for our PA system, so we were able to make it work and break the market. And that business model helped us break a lot of markets."
But a phone call from Texas in 1977 led to the end of the band's days of play bars and high schools.
San Antonio is featured prominently in the band's documentary and in mind's of all the Texas fans who came to see that first show in the Alamo City back in 1977.
The band was playing clubs and small halls at the time back in Canada and were getting no interest from American promoters for spots on any rock and roll tours. That is until a chance cancellation by Sammy Hagar gave Triumph the big break they were looking for.
" There was a show in San Antonio with Sammy Hagar, The Runaways and Y&T," Emmett said. "Sammy got a chance to open for I think for KISS at Madison Square Garden, so he exited about 4-6 weeks before the show. Radio guys like Joe Anthony (at KMAC) were playing the heck out of our first record. We had a huge following there and were selling a lot of import records out of San Antonio. At the time, we didn't have an American record deal. So Joe suggested to the promoter that Triumph had a ready-made market in San Antonio and they should book us. We got the call to come down and headline the show and we told them 'No, we're not ready.' But they talked us into it."
"This was the Municipal Auditorium, a 5,500 seat venue, so not a small venue at all," explained Moore in the documentary. "We realize that we don't know what we're doing. We're capable of playing high schools and bars at this point and we get a shot at the big time."
So on Feb. 18, 1977, Triumph made its American debut headlining at the Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio. And the hurdles the band had to overcome to take that stage were not just logistically, but a matter of confidence.
"I remember we had to fly as much of our gear in as we could and then had to rent the rest of it," said Mike Levine. "I don't remember EVER being that nervous for a gig as I was before we went on in San Antonio that first time. I didn't know what to expect. We were definitely out of our comfort zone. But when we walked on the stage it was like we owned the place. Everybody was on their feet, the balcony in the Municipal Auditorium was shaking. It was an incredible experience. From then on, promoters and record companies took notice of us and the word got out that Triumph can rock. San Antonio gave us our start in America and the first place we became an arena band."
And the band knew that this was the big break in America that Triumph needed, so they came prepared. Not with just their gear and rock and roll attitude, but a secret weapon that was going to announce to not only Canada, but the U.S. that Triumph was for real.
"We weren't going to make any money (on the San Antonio gig), but this was our opportunity to break big in the States," Emmett said. "And not only did we bring our gear, but we brought a media guy with us that would take photos and write stories. The next week, we were on the cover of Record Week, which was the trade magazine, with a map of Texas and a circle around San Antonio. That gave us a big boost back in Canada and word of mouth filtered down to the United States."
After breaking the doors down in the States on the concert circuit, Triumph finally broke on FM radio in 1979 with the Top 40 hit "Hold On" and the rock anthem "Lay It on the Line" from the band's third album "Just A Game."
"By the third album, I thought I was living up to this thing called recording artist," Emmett said. "And when I presented the guys with 'Lay It On the Line', they both said this was good.
And radio really went for that song. That was huge for us."
"Lay It On the Line" became that anthemic song that brought the kids to their feet and helped them cross over onto FM radio.
"That's when FM radio really embraced us," said Levine.
On the strength of two hit singles, "Just A Game" sold 500,000 copies and went gold in the United States, which brought the band to bigger venues and a lot more fans.
But their masterpiece was just around the corner.
In 1981, Triumph released "Allied Forces," which was the band's most successful album, going platinum and spawning such hits as "Fight the Good Fight," "Say Goodbye" and "Magic Power," and a host of others that have become staples on rock radio. Triumph went on a rocket ride to filling major arenas around the world after the release of "Allied Forces," which has been called the quintessential Triumph album.
Levine said that not only was making the "Allied Forces" album a joy, but he believes they finally came into their own as a band and as songwriters.
" Prior to making "Allied Forces," we had built our own studio (Metalworks Studios in Canada) and that was a huge bonus for us. That meant that we could go in there and write in the studio and do things we couldn't do or afford to do in a regular studio," he said. "And as far as the progression of the band, we improved as musicians, improved as studio guys, and improved as songwriters. Most every band peaks at some point, and we were lucky to peak during "Allied Forces" and were able to stay in that groove for three more albums. It was an awakening for us to know that we could make an album that good."
Emmett explains in the documentary how much he's come into his own as a songwriter and was ready to stretch his wings on "Allied Forces."
"On 'Allied Forces,' I'm feeling my oats as a writer," he said. "I'm thinking that I could write almost anything."
Many fans will be shocked to know that one of the album's biggest songs "Magic Power" came close to not making it on the album at all. It took some inspiration from The Who to give that track the magic they felt it needed.
" While working on "Magic Power," we felt that the song was too poppy, for lack of a better word," he said. "We just couldn't find a groove. We knew it was a really good song. We tried all different kinds of things like changing guitar parts, drum beats and bass parts. I think we demoed it 50 times and we still couldn't get it to sound right. One day, one of us remarked that the song sounded like a Who-type song. So we asked ourselves 'What would The Who do?' So we put keys on it with the piano playing eighth notes in the background to give it some drive. We played the drums like Keith Moon and the bass like John Entwistle. That's when the lightbulb went off and we knew we had something special."
Now that the album was finished, there was one more challenge that most musicians don't have to worry about in the digital age: sequencing for vinyl.
"Back in the day, the biggest challenge in making an album was ending Side 1 so that the listener would want to turn it over and play Side 2. You had to be thinking about this stuff when you were sequencing the record," he said. "For "Allied Forces," it was an easy sequence because all the songs were really good. We didn't have a lousy song where we had to find a place to bury it on the record. You just pray that the fans love the album as much as we did."
The documentary touches on the breakup of the band where tensions surfaced during the making of the "Sport of Kings" album in 1986 and led to Emmett leaving in 1988. It would be 20 years before those olive branches were exchanged, a bit of reconciliation and a reunion that saw Triumph play a pair of shows in Sweden and at Rocklahoma in 2008.
But the real payoff is the fan exclusive show the band plays at Metal Works Studio in 2019. The invitation-only event saw fans from all over the world join the band playing all their hits one last time. Just for the fans.
"It was a special night," Emmett said. "We owed it to the fans to thank them for sticking by us all these years."
CLICK HERE for more information on Triumph.