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Why weâ€™re attached to the Tragically Hip
By Jason Anderson
November 24, 2005
It was shaping up to be Canadaâ€™s most memorable southward salvo since some British colonials burned down the White House in 1814. March 25, 1995: another episode in another middling season of Saturday Night Live. Though the show that evening was hosted by John Goodman, his buddy Dan Aykroyd had the honour of introducing the musical guests. As a native of Canada, Aykroyd clearly saw this as a golden opportunity to promote the biggest band in his homeland, a quintet of Kingston lads whoâ€™d already sold millions north of the border with their sturdy yet enigmatic songs. Surely it was only a matter of time and timing before America caught on.
The Tragically Hipâ€™s choice of song that night was the first indication that the conquest was not to be. Although the brooding, lumbering Grace, Too is in many ways a prototypical Hip song, it can hardly be considered an instant grabber. The song relies on restraint rather than standard rock â€™nâ€™ roll catharsis for effect. And as is so often the case, the only real colour is provided by Bobby Bakerâ€™s lacerating lead guitar and Gord Downieâ€™s strained yet indefatigable yelp of a voice. Devoted largely to the boasts and promises of a sinister man whoâ€™s â€œfabulously rich,â€ the lyrics are defiantly cryptic. â€œThe secret rules of engagement are hard to enforce,â€ Downie wailed before SNLâ€™s cameras, â€œwhen the appearance of conflict beats the appearance of force.â€
â€œWha?â€ said the masses, who heard a song that was miles from slick alt-rock or burly grunge and promptly turned the channel.
The SNL appearance gave the Tragically Hip only a marginal boost. Day for Night (the album that featured Grace, Too) was released in the States in 1995, but did not crack Billboardâ€™s album charts; Trouble at the Henhouse (1996) made it to No. 134. Two years later, Phantom Power hit No. 142 and became the bandâ€™s last album for Atlantic Records. Though still a strong live draw, especially in the northeastern states, the Tragically Hipâ€™s career â€” summarized in a handy new four-disc set called Hipeponymous â€” was fated to be a homegrown phenomenon.
Why that should be such a sticking point is hard to figure. Even though the Hip has shifted over six million units and still sells out the countryâ€™s biggest arenas, the bandâ€™s success is often regarded as incomplete without the validation of American record buyers. Confronted with this quandary in a Toronto Sun interview last year, Downie was frustrated it even remains an issue.
â€œI could do hours on this subject,â€ he said. â€œYou know, why not? Why isnâ€™t Canadian film big down there? Is Paul Martin big down there? Margaret Atwood? Who are you comparing us to? The Barenaked Ladies? Our music is entirely different. Nickelback? Avril? Because of the people we are and the music we make, we get the success we deserve.â€
Hipeponymous. Courtesy Universal Music.
Listening to the two discsâ€™ worth of songs on Hipeponymous â€” selected by votes on the bandâ€™s website, hence the name Yer Favourites â€” the big question is not why didnâ€™t the band fly in the U.S., but how did such thorny, idiosyncratic music succeed anywhere? From the sweaty barroom boogie of its early days to the unrepentantly arty excursions on recent discs, the Tragically Hipâ€™s music has rarely fit comfortably into rockâ€™s mainstream. The fact that the band could become so popular reflects well on fans, who seem happy to accept any musical challenge the band throws at them.
Thatâ€™s not to say the likes of Blow at High Dough do not retain a meat-and-potatoes appeal. The bluesy rock of the bandâ€™s self-titled debut (1987) and Up to Here (1989) was music built for drinking and dancing and fighting. (You canâ€™t discount the latter. My older brother Jim used to regale me with tales of scraps that heâ€™d gotten into every time the Tragically Hip played the University of Alberta. It was something of a tradition.) It was with Fully Completely (1992) and Day for Night (1994), however, that the bandâ€™s artistic ambitions became more pronounced. Songs were more likely to roam than burrow into a groove, though they still did an awful lot of that as well, as Grace, Too demonstrates. A patriotic strain became prominent in songs like Wheat Kings, a haunting number inspired by the miscarriage of justice that sent David Milgaard to prison; more than a few songs mentioned dead hockey players. Having made their live rep on extended versions of New Orleans Is Sinking, the band was now fully embracing its countryâ€™s mythology.
And despite the earnestness the Tragically Hip displayed in its early days, a dark sense of humour emerged, too. Even though the band was far too popular with the jocks to gain much favour with the cognoscenti, Downie was always too artsy, too flagrantly odd, to ever qualify as king of the hosers. The 1998 single Poets confirmed his egghead allegiances: â€œPorn speaks to its splintered legions,â€ he rants, â€œto the pink amid the withered corn stalks in them winter regions.â€
â€œWha?!â€ we replied, though secretly we thought it was pretty effing cool that such a Beat-like spiel could come from the singer in Canadaâ€™s biggest band.
By the time of the Saturday Night Live appearance, the band had already reached its high-water mark in terms of domestic sales powerâ€” tallies for studio albums would decline from Up to Hereâ€™s peak of 1.25 million to Day for Nightâ€™s 780,000 to 101,000 for last yearâ€™s In Between Evolution. Yet, the bandâ€™s ability to fill stadiums in this country has remained miraculously unimpaired. Nor has any other Canadian band replaced them in fansâ€™ affections. With its reheated bozo-rock clichÃ©s, Nickelback seems as flagrantly American as Bryan Adams ever did (which is a lot). And despite the star-making prowess of Allan Gregg and Jake Gold, the Hipâ€™s original managers, the duoâ€™s Management Trust company did not accomplish the same trick with the Watchmen or Big Wreck.
Major-label Can-rock bands were not the ones the Tragically Hip tended to support, anyway. For opening acts, they preferred indie hopefuls like Change of Heart, the Rheostatics and the Joel Plaskett Emergency. If the Tragically Hip has any true stylistic heir among younger acts, itâ€™s another recent tour mate, Winnipeg folk-punkers the Weakerthans. Both bands are fronted by sensitive-minded wordsmiths whose flights of fancy are sometimes compromised by the musicâ€™s more plebeian nature. And both find more reasons to celebrate their countryâ€™s heritage than to ignore it. (Not that the Weakerthans could be described as civic boosters; their song One Great City has turned the phrase â€œI hate Winnipeg!â€ into a rallying cry.)
Given that the Hipâ€™s achievements tend to be regarded as more admirable than interesting, Hipeponymous provides a surprisingly colourful view of the bandâ€™s history. Because the accompanying booklet is largely devoted to a collage of old gig posters, weird illustrations and hastily scrawled notes, the set obfuscates as much as it clarifies.
The most surreal moment in the two discsâ€™ worth of concert footage, videos and other audiovisual material lies in the recent tour documentary Macroscopic. Director Christopher Millsâ€™s camera captures the band as they brave the wintry outdoors to take the halftime stage at the 92nd Grey Cup in Ottawa. They play Courage (for Hugh MacLennan), a song that may be even more beloved by their fanbase than Grace, Too (perhaps because itâ€™s easier to hum along to). But who else but Downie would use an exuberant folk-pop song as a place to pay homage to CanLit giant Hugh MacLennan? Downie goes so far as to paraphrase passages from MacLennanâ€™s 1958 novel The Watch That Ends the Night. The DVD cuts between the bandâ€™s live performance and an earlier stadium sound check attended chiefly by a gaggle of cheerleaders.
â€œSo thereâ€™s no simple explanation for anything important any of us do,â€ Downie sings, his breath frosty but his convictions clear. â€œAnd yeah, the human tragedy consists in the necessity of living with the consequences.â€ Undaunted by the songâ€™s fatalistic air, the football fans and the cheerleaders greeted Courage as if it were the national anthem. And maybe it is.
Jason Anderson is a Toronto writer.
True Patriot Love
The five most Canadian Hip songs ever
Fifty Mission Cap
This dearly loved Fully Completely rocker makes much of two world-historical events in 1962: the Maple Leafsâ€™ Stanley Cup victory and the discovery of the remains of the Leaf defenceman who scored the winning goal in the â€™51 playoffs. The plane carrying Bill Barilko and his pilot friend Henry Hudson disappeared en route to a fishing trip on Seal River. The mystery fuelled an array of wild rumours, including the story that the Russian-born defenceman had defected to the Soviet Union. The truth is, the plane went down in the woods near Cochrane, Ont. The fact that most of this data was gleaned off the back of a hockey card could not be more Canuck.
This Road Apples track opens with Tom Thomson paddling past. â€œBring on a brand new Renaissance,â€ he says, apparently unworried about the shakiness of his hands or the depth of the water. Alas, the Hipâ€™s Group of Seven cred was trumped when the Rheostatics did a whole album about them.
This elegiac hit from Phantom Power praises the constellations seen above the eponymous Ontario town, prompting questions about whether Kapuskasing and Nipigon will ever get their due. The song also includes a nostalgic reverie about a Toronto concert by the Men They Couldnâ€™t Hang, â€™80s protest-rockers who were not actually Canadian but were earnest enough to pass as such.
My Music at Work
True, the only geographic signifier in this portrait of drudgery is the River Ganges, which runs nowhere near Flin Flon. But the title is borrowed from the slogan for EZ Rock, a Toronto FM radio station that promises â€œsoft rock with less talk.â€ The video was directed by Bruce McCulloch, who shoots it as if it were one of the Kids in the Hallâ€™s acute satires of office life.
Fireworks (a.k.a. the other big Hip song about hockey)
Here, Downie sings of â€œthe goal that everyone remembersâ€: Paul Hendersonâ€™s series-winner in the â€™72 Canada Cup. When Downieâ€™s female companion says she â€œdidnâ€™t give a f— about hockey,â€ he begins to wonder what else there is to life.