t’s a concert that begins with familiar cues. Polite applause for a mildly entertaining opening act. Excited trips to the beer carts. Small anticipatory cheers for the roadie testing out the acoustics. Massive lines for the Merchandise table. The house lights dim, the lighters flare up, and five dim figures assume their onstage positions. But no one wonders what song will be played first at this concert. Everyone is aware that they will hear either one of two things: a kickoff drum beat, which will signal the beginning of the epic “Grace, Too,” or a three chord riff, which indicates the commencement of “My Music at Work” and its modern rocking glory to follow. Regardless of the choice (or the occasional shocking differentiation from this standard), a frenzy is quickly whipped up by the audience and the next series of moments in your life are inhabited by Rob Baker, Gord Downie, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois, and Gord Sinclair.
The entire structure that The Tragically Hip are situated upon is an intriguing one. The music they play has many influences (and has had many over the years) that meld together in a fantastic blend, but is certainly nothing groundbreaking. Their lyrics can be equal parts beautifully metaphoric and utterly mind-boggling. Their live stage presence is the stuff of legend, and it is not an uncommon sight to see signs among the spectators with the words “Gord Is God” emblazoned upon them (which refer to front man Downie). The band whole-heartedly endorses the unauthorized recording of every live set that they play, and furthermore, they endorse the usually frowned-upon act of sharing these bootlegs amongst all fans of the band. They host a database on their official website, which collects written entries from any willing participant on an experience they had during a concert or that was somehow connected to the band in some respect. And, perhaps most importantly, they bring attention to the most fascinating microscopic facets of Canadian history and culture. This is a success story that is unique unto itself, its country, and most definitely its band.
For those unfamiliar: a quick history lesson. For those that are: feel free to skip ahead.
Originally formed as a six-piece band (Davis Manning left the band before their first recorded album) in Kingston, Ontario in 1983, The Tragically Hip took their name from a skit found in the film Elephant Parts. While their later offerings would be more heavily influenced by edgier sounds, their debut EP’s brand of roots-rock sent obvious nods towards fellow Canadians of notable stature—Neil Young and The Band. That 1987 self-titled EP showed enough raw energy that The Hip were inked for a full-length debut with MCA Records. Up To Here and Road Apples, their first two albums, continued the musical template set out in their debut EP. Releasing the albums almost exclusively to Canadian consumers, The Hip gained instant fandom for their great songcraft on classics like “Blow At High Dough,” “New Orleans Is Sinking,” and “Little Bones.” This early trio of hits have gone on to reign as barroom standards across the country, prompting women and men, young and old, to bust out in congruent wailings of familiar lines like “Two-fifty for a highball / And a buck and a half for a beer / Happy Hour, Happy Hour / Happy Hour is here!”
Though the airplay attention had been captured, The Hip’s first two albums on whole possessed a largely one-dimensional sound. The secret weapon was Gord Downie’s lyrics and vocal delivery, which gave The Tragically Hip something that no one else had. Each single or live performance became an event. And the listeners and viewers thought……well, it’s unclear what they thought about it all. A film critic once wrote following about Stanley Kubrick: “The world did not know what to do with Stanley. So they decided to praise him. And it turned out that that was the right thing to do.” I think that’s maybe how we all felt about Gord Downie, and it turns out that we were right too.
The group’s third album, 1992’s Fully Completely, was the cornerstone album for The Hip. Suddenly the one-dimensional sound started to discover more layers. Whereas the first albums were chiefly guitar driven, Fully Completely placed the six-strings at the periphery, gave the drums the power to drive the songs forward, and (maybe most importantly) placed Downie as their centerpiece. The album produced no less than five Canadian singles (one of which, “Courage,” became their biggest hit to date), but more importantly it formed the portrait of the band as it is most commonly known. Three album tracks, “Courage,” “Fifty Mission Cap,” and “Wheat Kings,” all dealt with or were written for/about a different and unique person within a small microcosm of the Canadian conscience. “Courage,” as mentioned in the liner notes, was written for famous Halifax author Hugh MacLennan, who had passed away two years prior to the album’s release. “Wheat Kings” told the story of a still-battling David Milgaard, a man who was, at that very time, fighting and winning a battle against his wrongful imprisonment of 22 years. “Fifty Mission Cap” examined a hockey story that rivals the Bambino curse in spookiness. Bill Barilko, who had scored the Stanley Cup-winning mark in 1951 for Toronto’s Maple Leafs, was lost while fishing in central Manitoba later that summer and not found until more than a dozen years later. The Leafs did not win the Stanley Cup again until the very year that Barilko’s body was finally recovered.
These three songs would characterize a trend that The Hip would continue on every album they’ve since released: writing songs about Canada’s cultural history. They would tackle incidents during times of war, important hockey games in our nation’s history, the idiosyncrasies of a mid-sized oddly-titled town called Bobcaygeon, and even a recent death of a National Hockey Leaguer at the hands of his own teammate. Over these years, this is one thing that has truly drawn the people of my country to this band. In a nation that is continually conscious of maintaining our own identity in the face of an Americanized culture, we have had a band that has made an effort to produce something that we can proudly call our own. There are Canucks that you could talk to that seriously believe that Downie and the boys should be in charge of the Heritage Canada department of our government. One might even be tempted to label these songs as some form of propaganda, if it wasn’t as informative and nostalgic as The Hip have made it. Listening to these songs is kind of like the Canadian’s way of saying “Remember the Alamo.”
The major Canadian success that started with Fully Completely was magnified with their next album, Day For Night. Seemingly a meditation on all things morbid, the album’s saw the band employing more complex sonic structuring and an atmospheric, space-filling sound. “Nautical Disaster,” “Grace, Too,” and “Scared,” stand out as some of the most wonderfully emotional output the band has ever produced. Continuing to experiment with their sound (but turning the echo down a bit), 1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse went from minimalist mood pieces (“Flamenco”) to pitch perfect rock songs that build it up and tear it back down again (“Gift Shop”). Which doesn’t even take into account “Ahead By a Century,” the album’s lead single, which might just be the greatest modern rock single produced in the last 15 years.
With Phantom Power The Tragically Hip’s next album, the group crafted one of the finest (if not their finest) album of their career. It is easily the most well rounded of any Hip album, as the singles and standout tracks flow through the track listing effortlessly. But if all the stars were in alignment for that release, 2000’s Music @ Work found things decidedly different. While it’s probably their gutsiest and most ambitious record, it’s also clear from early on in the album that it didn’t come together as well as they intended. For the first time in their careers, their lofty ambitions caught up with them. It did, however, produce one popular single (“My Music at Work”) and a handful of excellent and unique material (“Toronto #4,” “The Bastard,” “Freak Turbulence”). Coming down from the peak of their artistic height, 2002’s In Violet Light contains some of their most artful touches, and reigns as the massively underrated gem of The Hip’s collection.
On the last full-length album of new material from The Hip, In Between Evolution, the group explored the gap in the sonic headspace between Day For Night and Henhouse to decent success, but it was clear that their time had passed as massive Canadian popstars. Luckily, with their impressive discography, the group members (as far as Canadians are concerned) are already considered living legends: if there is any doubt, one needs to only take a peek at the sales numbers for their recently released boxed set, Hipeponymous. The legions of Hip fans may be smaller than they once were, but they are undoubtedly a faithful bunch.
The music, though consistently solid, only tells us half the story of The Tragically Hip. Bands rarely become legends on music alone: The Beatles had LSD and Yoko Ono, The Stones had Keith Richards and Altamont, Nirvana had suicide and MTV Unplugged, and so on and so forth. The Tragically Hip have Gord Downie, and because of Gord Downie, The Tragically Hip have one of the most memorable live performance reputations this side of the 49th parallel. Sure, the sound is spot on, and the instruments rarely miss a step, but you can only hear them. The show isn’t in the instruments.
To attempt to describe Downie’s stage presence is an exercise in proper usage of adjectives and adverbs to attempt to convey…who am I kidding? Downie gives true meaning to the term “performing artist.” He’s a slam-poetry reader, an abstract actor, a mad mime, a rambling lunatic, a brilliant philosopher, and Howard Beal all rolled into one. He is the show. To provide an example, during one performance of meta-hit “New Orleans Is Sinking” in the early 1990s, he told a story over the band’s melodies about working as a clean and scrub man at an aquarium. His job was to wash the killer whale tank. This story went on, non-stop, for four-and-a-half minutes, doubling the length of the song. This is considered a coherent version of Downie’s ranting.
That, in essence, is what seeing The Tragically Hip live is all about.
The stream of consciousness that Downie exists within on stage is a thing of sheer unabashed creative genius. Here he is, renowned rock star of possibly the biggest rock band in the country, raving in the middle of his songs about how “the snow is so merciless on poor old Montreal” (Live Between Us). This is not what the cookie-cutter rock star would do. They might belt out their power ballad, scream once or thrice, and offer some awkward banter in between tracks about meaning and feelings and dedications. They are not waxing incoherently poetic. And yet, Downie is the most revered performer in Canadian rock music today (maybe ever). His popularity comes from his penchant for the abstract, not his looks, charm, or singing voice. This is not uncommon for smaller niche market performers, but Downie’s success and notoriety on such a grand scale is what boggles the mind.
These words exist as pieces of poetic, fictional, and (on occasion) non-fictional entities all unto themselves. They are not bound by a verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus structure so many others trap themselves into, but they are not above utilizing such structures either. Downie has frequently explored different forms of songwriting, from historical recollection (Phantom Power’s “Fireworks”) to paragraphed, unrhymed storytelling (Day For Night’s “Nautical Disaster”). Serving as another dichotomous pairing, these lyrics are set across the band’s trademark backdrop of modern and classic rock-influenced sound (the Hip have never attempted a musical reinvention of Kid A-like proportions). Stadium and radio rock is not supposed to be this artistic, and if it is then it is certainly not supposed to be this well-liked by the masses. The plethora of explanations for this range from plausible to downright cheesy, but the most convincing argument I’ve ever heard concerning this point is a simple one: The Tragically Hip’s music is just that much more compelling.
But why is it just a Canadian thing? When one looks at the following outside their native land, there only seem to be scattered pockets of fans that “get it.” Even in the United States, a country that has wholeheartedly supported (for better or worse) imports like Neil Young, The Band, The Guess Who, Alanis Morrissete, Nickelback, The Arcade Fire, and Broken Social Scene (to name a bare minimum), The Tragically Hip exist only at a cult-level. And 90% of that support is received from displaced Canucks that still love The Hip as much as those who reside north of the border. Some markets do have larger followings, like Seattle, Detroit, and Minnesota (though this is chiefly due to geographic location more than anything).
This is because The Hip provide, for a great many of its expatriate fans, a great deal of Canadian identification it—which would explain why our neighbors to the south either don’t fully understand or care. But this might be the same reason that a Canadian might not completely identify with Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Springsteen offers a good comparison because his popularity appears very similar in his country to The Tragically Hip in their own. I don’t believe that The Hip have ever released a truly Canadian album like Springsteen, but they have made a conscious and unswerving commitment to the nation in a great deal of their songs.
But where Springsteen finds massive legions of fans within Canada’s borders, The Tragically Hip find enough fans to fill small club gigs on American soil. And this has never concerned the band one iota. Where some bands may try and produce a more universally-appealing product (i.e. Barenaked Ladies) to crash the huge American marketplace, Downie and company understand their target market and aim to please them. They have embraced their anonymity in the US, and they never fail at making a good sized tour to some of their favorite locations within Yankeeland, so as not to disappoint the fans that they do have there. This is an honest approach to touring that is rarely seen in the smallest of marketable bands, let alone a multi-platinum selling artist.
Integrity of The Tragically Hip, especially in the eyes of those that adore them, might be what makes their star shine brightest. The selflessness of the band’s philosophy remains their most endearing quality; there is no hidden agenda in The Hip’s repertoire. Watch any interview done with the band since 1987, if you doubt it. Possibly the most political statement the group has ever made was last year’s appearance at the Live 8 concert in Barrie, Ontario, thousands of miles away from the likes of Bono and Sir Bob. There was no campaigning or publicized outcries by The Hip, they lent their celebrity for the greater good as so many others did. Similarly, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana (a place where they had recorded a number of their albums), they asked radio stations to stop playing their 1989 huge hit song “New Orleans Is Sinking (maybe their biggest ever) out of respect. These boys are all class.
What may endear them more to their fans, though, is the fact that the Hip have legalized and wholeheartedly promoted personal recordings of their live shows. But instead of sponsoring an underground culture of bootleg live albums, they actually provide a web-based method of sharing these live versions. Each live track you hear of theirs is a unique experience unto itself, and this is an opportunity that the band feels their fans do not deserve to miss out on. The band’s (and especially Downie’s) performances are almost always unique and providing new spins on their familiar material. They may pull out the acoustic six strings now and again for tracks that are unfamiliar to their sound. Johnny Fay may speed things up a little or mellow things out with his frame-shaping drums. Paul Langlois may echo his Les Paul to make a simple riff soar to unattainable heights. The live show is their art gallery, their instruments and voices their tools and display cases, and the sounds plow us over with their art. And you can hear it all here.
It’s difficult to discern whether The Tragically Hip have ever compromised their integrity in their more than twenty-year career. Emulating their example, the legions of their worldwide (yes, Canadians do live in all parts of the world) faithful remain fast in their praise and fellowship. People display “Gord Is God” signs at virtually every large show they play to, and don’t think for a second that those people don’t believe what they display. It truly appears that The Tragically Hip have got a leg up on this music industry of ours, but they don’t really want to brag about it. In fact, as they put it, “It’s better for us if you don’t understand.”
For those of you who may be inspired to hear more from The Hip, or for those of you that love a trip down Memory Road (Apples), here is a three CD set of suggestions of places to start. They have been broken into 10-track sections ranging from the more accessible to the more obscure. Enjoy…
01. Highway Girl (Self-Titled EP)
The best from their humble beginnings, before they realized how much further their ambitions could take them.
02. Blow At High Dough (Up To Here)
As good a classic rock song as the Hip can make. Also a great introduction to Downie’s enigmatic style of warbling.
03. New Orleans Is Sinking (Up To Here)
With the greatest respects to the city itself, this song will have you humming its guitar solo-esque hook for hours.
04. Little Bones (Road Apples)
There may be greater rock songs to play loudly in a Canadian pub, but I can’t think of any.
05. Courage (Fully Completely)
The song that simultaneously cemented their reputation as a great rock band and introduced us to how effective Downie’s lyrics can be when they are subtle.
06. Scared (Day For Night)
The drums are resting, and Gord takes the wheel for a while, showing his most fragile self.
07. Ahead By a Century (Trouble At The Henhouse)
As previously mentioned, this is the greatest modern rock single of the past 15 years. If you listen to nothing else by the band ever again, listen to this.
08. Poets (Phantom Power)
The lyrics are pure abstractness, but damn this is fun!
09. The Darkest One (In Violet Light)
Bonus points go to the music video, which stars the members of Canada’s most vulgar comedy, Trailer Park Boys. Gord has never wailed better than in this track.
10. Vaccination Scar (In Between Evolution)
Classic Hip structure salted with a twangy Nashville guitar that works surprisingly well.
01. Grace, Too (Day For Night)
As magnificent an opening opus to an album as can be found in The Hip’s archives. Sublime.
02. Boots or Hearts (Up To Here)
Not so experimental, but it serves as the band’s one true foray into becoming a roots rock band. Might not have been so bad, actually.
03. Lake Fever (Music @ Work)
Great track that lost its shot at greatness when fans turned their back on the album far too quickly.
04. Escape Is At Hand for the Traveling Man (Phantom Power)
Easily the best song title in the catalogue, and also one of the best storytelling mood pieces the band ever produced.
05. The Luxury (Live) (Live Between Us)
The original is a fine soft-spoken gem, but there is something about this song done live and the contrast between the subdued verses and the crashing chorus.
06. Bobcaygeon (Phantom Power)
Named for a small Ontario town, and probably one of the most unlikely successful singles the band cited for the spotlight. Plus, the line “I saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time” is an all-timer.
07. The Dire Wolf (In Violet Light)
The background two-note guitar plucks that anchor the song are the real kicker. Downie’s voice is at its compelling best.
08. Thugs (Day For Night)
Tiny drums and funky bass lines. Isn’t this all a really good song ever needs?
09. Locked in the Trunk of a Car (Fully Completely)
Lyrics are told from the perspective of a serial killer. If that isn’t enough to creep you out, Downie yelling “LET ME OOOOOUUUUUTTTT!!!” at the end of the song will.
10. Fireworks (Phantom Power)
I don’t know what distortion they put on that opening guitar, but it always leaves me begging for more. Also, contains the shocking “You said you didn’t give a fuck about hockey” line, a sacrilegious one to Canadians everywhere.
01. Nautical Disaster (Day For Night)
For my money, the single greatest song the band has ever made. The lyrics are sung paragraphs, and the memories they drum up are so vivid in their unsettling nature. Brilliant from start to finish.
02. Thompson Girl (Phantom Power)
Gord’s almost-there falsetto in the chorus acts as a metaphor for the dizzying weather the song obviously exists within.
03. ‘It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken’ (In Violet Light)
The most ambient song The Hip have made to date. Downie’s much more vulnerable here, but the slow build of things steadies the ground underneath him.
04. The Bastard (Music @ Work)
It’s the unique structuring, and not the sounds emitting from it, that lend the edge to this needle in the haystack.
05. Flamenco (Trouble At The Henhouse)
The whole song is barely there, but it still beckons to us: “Walk like a matador / Don’t be chicken shit.”
06. Toronto #4 (Music @ Work)
A song you must simply put in the stereo and listen to. Not doing anything else. If you listen close enough, you can feel yourself sitting in on a Tragically Hip jam session.
07. Butts Wigglin’ (Trouble At The Henhouse)
Maybe the biggest head scratcher in the collection, but more for the lyrics than anything else. Could it be that’s what makes it so compelling? Maybe it’s just the sheer amount of funk just laying around.
08. Don’t Wake Daddy (Trouble At The Henhouse)
To be filed under “Queer songs with crazy lyrics that are named after short-lived children’s board games.” I’m sure it’s not a large file.
09. The Last of the Unplucked Gems (Road Apples)
Closing track to Road Apples that truly hinted at what was to come from the band. Very spacey and light.
10. New Orleans Is Sinking (Killer Whale Tank Version)
Epitomizes the abstractness of their live show. If the sheer randomness of the story does not make you want to see this band perform live, we can never see eye to eye.