Twenty six years after they burst on the Canadian music scene in a riotous, pre-grunge explosion of hype, hope and a heroic kick in the pants to the boring synth-pop then in vogue, it’s interesting to compare the fortunes of Kingston-bred rock titans The Tragically Hip with their behemoth Irish counterparts, U2.
Both bands — combining arena-styled anthems with quirky self-reflection — have boasted remarkable longevity and fervent fan loyalty in an industry known for flavour-of-the-month pop concoctions and eating its young.
Both showcase charismatic, poetically minded leaders — U2’s Bono and The Hip’s Gord Downie — whose social conscience goes beyond rock and roll, Bono with his celebrated humanitarian work, Downie with his support of environmental issues.
Both display flashes of tongue-in-cheek humour that prick their earnest images and deflect charges of pretence (well, mostly), U2 with a week long gig on David Letterman that saw band members shovelling snow outside NBC, The Hip through Downie’s deadpan appearances on TV’s Corner Gas and Canuck cult hit Trailer Park Boys.
More significantly, perhaps, both bands are rewriting the book on aging gracefully in rock, having just released mid-career albums — U2’s No Line On The Horizon, The Hip’s We Are The Same — that fight the ravages of approaching geezerhood with edgy, experimental songs that attempt, with some success, to reinvent the wheel, musically.
The differences? U2 is one of the biggest bands on the planet. The Tragically Hip? Er . . . not so much, though we Canadians can’t get enough of ’em.
“We’re essentially an indie act down here,” Downie, who turned down an interview request from The Record, told The Toronto Star before a gig at the 2007 South By Southwest rock festival in Austin, Texas.
“There are certain places where we arrive to a lot of acclaim, if certainly not to screaming girls at JFK (airport). At this point, we’ve had not one shred of national-profile-enhancing anything. We’ve played on Saturday Night Live (in 1995) and got not even a Rolling Stone review. Nothing. Which I’m not lamenting, really, but it gives you an idea of how we’ve been doing it, which is 50 people at a time — literally.”
Band members profess not to care, having attained Godlike status in Canada through mesmerizing live performances and iconic hits like Blow at High Dough, New Orleans is Sinking, Little Bones, Fifty-Mission Cap and Bobcaygeon.
But it’s generally acknowledged that the biggest impediment to worldwide success — and this may be the thing that makes them truly great — is the defiant indie sensibility that infuses everything they do.
“We haven’t had that one song,” Downie told The Star. “I think (Canuck music legend) Randy Bachman said that about us once. My tight-lipped response to a radio interviewer in New York . . . was — after I thought ‘(Bleep) you, Randy Bachman,’ under my breath — that he’s probably right.”
But there’s more to it: Downie’s penchant for rambling lyrical excursions, literary song references to Raymond Carver and Wallace Stevens and the band members defiantly un-rock and roll image as minivan-driving family men.
And at this point, let’s face it, if you’re not a videogenic 20-something gyrating around a stripper pole on MTV, you’ll have more luck unloading CDs by standing on the corner of Frederick and King.
But The Hip — as firmly embedded in the Canadian psyche as maple syrup, Mounties and bad Canadian sitcoms — are past all that lobbying-for-attention stuff, opting to take care of business, to reference Bachman’s own famed anthem, for a fan base that, in the best possible way, verges on fanatical.
“I throw myself on the altar of song and I see my own personal musical life in fast flashes of faces and names and colours and sounds,” Downie told Maclean’s magazine in a stream-of-consciousness riff on the musical muse that endears him to many.
“And I get lost in the euphoria of standing up there like Howlin’ Wolf or Otis Redding or David Bowie with a mike in my hand and an audience that’s ready.
“I’m really riding something up there, and it’s a hell of a ride. . . . I go for it: I sing, I dance, I listen to this great band. I do what the music urges . . . it isn’t a rehearsed routine.”
It may not give The Hip the U.S. cache they have long deserved, but that just makes Canadians love them even more.