The first time Bruce Dickinson, then a vice-president at MCA Records, saw The Tragically Hip play live was at the Toronto Music Awards in 1988. “I guess it was during the first song,” Dickinson told the National Post in 2016. “Gord [Downie, the band’s lead singer] drops the mic on the floor inadvertently. It comes unattached from the cord, and the top of the mic comes off. I remember distinctly, Bobby Baker [guitar] and Gord Sinclair [bass] just looked at each other like, ‘Oh, crap. What are we going to do?’ Downie, as you know, is a great improviser. He just picks up the mic, puts it back together and tells a whole story in the middle of the song that involves the mic. I thought that was really cool.”
Dickinson was ready to sign the band after seeing that performance, but the Hip’s manager wanted him to catch a full show the next evening at Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern. That second show only strengthened Dickinson’s commitment to signing The Tragically Hip to MCA, which remained the band’s Canadian label for the rest of their nearly 30-year run. In the US, the Hip’s records would be distributed by MCA, Atlantic, Sire, and, finally, Zoë Records.
The Tragically Hip’s The Bathouse Recording Studio, Bath, Ontario, Canada
MCA/Universal Music remained strong in its support of The Tragically Hip in Canada because the band was enormously popular in its own country. The Hip had pockets of loyalty in the US, especially in Buffalo and Detroit, but in Canada they filled arenas and stadiums. In the US, they played theaters, and often the audience at those American shows was packed with Canadians who had driven down to see them. One of the several Hip shows my wife and I caught was at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC, and the parking lot was full of cars bearing Canadian plates. Washington is about an eight-hour drive from the Canadian border.
The members of The Tragically Hip grew up in Kingston, Ontario, a city located midway between Toronto and Montreal. Gord Sinclair and Rob Baker played together in a punk band, Rick and the Rodents, at their high school, Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute. Downie, guitarist Paul Langlois, and drummer Johnny Fay also attended the school; they were a couple of years younger and also active in Kingston’s live music scene. By 1984, Downie was enrolled at the city’s university, Queen’s, and playing in a band with Baker and Sinclair. They brought in Fay to play drums, along with a sax player, who would be replaced by Langlois on guitar in 1986.
By then, the band had already chosen their name, The Tragically Hip, from a skit included in Mike Nesmith’s Elephant Parts, a one-hour comedy special put together by the former Monkee. “We had to choose a name for [a] gig,” Sinclair told a reporter from Kingston’s newspaper, The Kingston Whig-Standard, in 1991.
A later article on the band’s history in the Whig-Standard noted that “like most smaller Ontario cities during the 1980s, Kingston wasn’t exactly fertile ground for bands wanting to play original music.” The Hip chose to play lesser-known songs by well-established acts and to throw in some original tunes. In 1986, just before the band’s recording debut, Downie explained to the paper how they selected the repertoire: “Our only rule is that we play songs that people know, but are not overly exposed to. It has to be cover material we like, but our original stuff is also in the same style.”
The band cast a wide net for its covers—the Stones’ “2000 Light Years from Home,” Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything,” as well as songs by the Monkees, the Pretty Things, and the Yardbirds. Recordings of the band’s various covers throughout the years can be found online, and they make an impressive list.
They began slipping in their own tunes, which eventually caught on with the people coming out to hear them in Kingston’s bars and clubs. The Hip began getting some buzz and soon was playing throughout Ontario; in late 1988, Bruce Dickinson heard one of the band’s songs on a compilation CD and flew to Toronto to hear the Hip live.
The song that caught Dickinson’s attention was from The Tragically Hip EP, a seven-song collection that RCA Records had picked up for distribution in Canada. The EP had been released in Kingston in late 1987, and throughout Canada in January 1988. The Hip and its managers had initially handled distribution themselves, and the now-defunct CMJ New Music Monthly magazine included the track on the CD sampler that Dickinson had heard. MCA picked up the EP from RCA for international distribution and signed the band.
“Highway Girl” is the only song on the EP that gives any suggestion of what the Hip would become. “Small Town Bringdown” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tom Petty album, and most of the songs are marred by a late-1980s production style—bright and shiny and lacking the toughness that makes the Hip’s rock tunes so compelling. Johnny Fay’s drums are too far back in the mix, and the guitars are a bit reserved. Despite those limitations, it’s possible to hear how The Tragically Hip could grow into a great rock’n’roll band. In particular, Downie’s distinctive voice sets the band apart. It was what grabbed Dickinson’s attention when he heard the CD sampler.
When The Tragically Hip went to record its first full album at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, with Don Smith in the producer’s chair, the band had already had a solid year of playing gigs across Canada. Smith didn’t have a lot of experience as a producer, but he had engineered and mixed albums by Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Keith Richards, in a career that reached back to the early 1970s. The band that entered Ardent was more experienced as players than when they had recorded the EP, and Smith knew how to present them. The drums are further up in the mix than they are in the debut recording, the guitars sound bigger, and the bass is fuller and more prominent.
MCA released Up to Here in September 1989. All those nights of playing live had paid off for the Hip. Their songwriting was stronger than on the debut EP, they were tighter, and they had developed a more personal style. Langlois and Baker interact throughout the album with the power and elegance of the Mick Taylor–era Stones, Langlois driving the band, à la Keith Richards, and Baker providing the fluid and refined counterpoint. As with the best bands, the members absorbed their influences to create a unique blend. Langlois stepped forward on the album as a vocalist to create harmonies that enrich the songs and provide a contrast to Downie’s unique voice.
Downie’s lyrics had grown in sophistication to combine a storyteller’s imagination with a poet’s ear. “Blow at High Dough,” a phrase Downie’s grandmother used to warn people about getting ahead of themselves, is the story of a movie company coming to a small town and creating temporary jobs and quick money. Elvis Presley makes an appearance, but the reference is to his movie career, something the singer came to dislike. The lyrics examine the allure—and danger—of easy money and the trappings of materialism.
One of the strongest songs on the album, backed by acoustic guitar, is the tale of a jailbreak and its aftermath. There are currently six penitentiaries in Kingston, and the city has had as many as eight in the past. Downie used a 1972 jailbreak at Millhaven Institution, originally built outside the city to replace the aging Kingston Penitentiary, as the basis for the song “38 Years Old.” In Downie’s fictional retelling, 12 inmates escape (in 1973, to fit the rhyming scheme) and one of them returns to his family. He was doing time for murdering the man who had raped his sister. The lyrics describe the incidents and emotions surrounding the crime, and Downie shows a short-story writer’s ability to crystalize the impact and aftermath of an action taken in a single moment:
See my sister got raped so a man got killed
Local boy went to prison, man’s buried on the hill
Folks went back to normal when they closed the case
They still stare at their shoes when they pass our place
Up to Here proved that Bruce Dickinson’s instincts were right. The Tragically Hip wrote unique songs that fit well into the rising alternative rock movement, but they had a firm grounding in the blues that a lot of alternative bands lacked. In addition, the songs played to the band’s strongest feature: Gord Downie’s voice. “New Orleans Is Sinking” is a great rock’n’roll tune with a signature guitar riff and a great hook, but the imagery of Downie’s lyrics and the intensity of his vocals lift the tune out of the ordinary.
When the Hip went into the Kingsway Studio in New Orleans in September 1990 to record their second album, Don Smith was again producing. Up to that point, the band’s songs had included lyrics by Sinclair and Langlois, but with the second LP, Downie became The Tragically Hip’s sole lyricist. The group originally wanted to call the completed album Saskadelphia, but the label rejected the title as confusing and too Canadian.* The Hip chose an alternative, Road Apples, slang for horse droppings.
That didn’t keep Downie from reminding listeners of the Hip’s Canadian roots. “Three Pistols” features the Canadian painter Tom Thomson and “Born In the Water” has a reference to Sault Ste. Marie, a city on the Canada/US border that had recently passed an ordinance making English its official language (“Smart as trees in Sault Saint Marie / I can speak my mother tongue / Passing laws, just because / And singing songs of the English unsung”).
The album’s themes were not predominantly Canadian, however, and the songs were even more finely crafted than those on Up to Here. They were also more emphatically the work of a band that had formed a strong songwriting and performing alliance. Downie was still the band’s frontman, but it was impossible to imagine another group of musicians providing the same backing and momentum to bring his voice and poetic—and often, indirect—lyrics to life.
“Cordelia” begins with a simple guitar arpeggio from Baker in the right channel, with Langlois playing a few understated riffs and Sinclair giving the music shape with a strong bass line. Downie sings the opening lines in a reserved voice:
Angst on the planks, spittin’ from a bridge
Just to see how far down it really is
Robbing a bank, jumping on a train
Old antiques a man alone can entertain
It takes all your power
To prove that you don’t care
I’m not Cordelia, I will not be there
I will not be there, I will not be there
After that chorus (“It takes all your power . . .”), the whole band kicks in. As the song continues, the guitars intertwine, the bass is both hard-thumping and melodic, and each time the chorus begins the guitars hit a powerful, menacing riff that focuses and carries Downie’s affecting and dramatic singing. The force and conviction of the band give muscle to the song’s fast-moving message about the dangers of taking needless risks.
With Road Apples, The Tragically Hip became a fully formed and established band. They rocked with ease and might, but handled ballads, such as “Long Time Running,” with equal care. The heartbreaking “Fiddler’s Green,” written in response to the death of one of Downie’s nephews, is a restrained acoustic-guitar ballad with deeply affecting slide guitar by Baker. “Long Time Running” shows a familiarity with Stax/Volt soul, and “Bring It All Back” proves that the Hip could play ferocious rock’n’roll that embraces the music’s roots while moving it forward.
Road Apples reached No.1 on the Canadian charts and yielded three singles. The Hip had toured North America, and even ventured onto stages in Europe, but they remained most popular in Canada. Bruce Dickinson was eager for them to reach an international audience, so he gave them a bigger budget for their next album and suggested using Chris Tsangarides, a British producer. Tsangarides had made successful albums with Thin Lizzy and a series of metal bands before helping Concrete Blonde create their breakthrough third album, Bloodletting, in 1990.
The Tragically Hip flew to London in the spring of 1992 to begin more than five weeks of recording for the band’s third album, Fully Completely. Don Smith’s approach with the two previous albums had been to recreate the spirit of the band’s live performances. “It was us playing live in the studio, trying to capture that live energy,” Rob Baker told Toronto’s The Globe and Mail in 2015. “Chris Tsangarides’s approach was, ‘Let me create the live energy. I can do it for you. You guys just work with me.’”
According to The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip, Michael Barclay’s 2018 history of the band, some of the Hip, especially Sinclair and Baker, have had reservations about the sound of Fully Completely, but the album is a masterpiece. It is also, ironically for an album looking to reach a wider audience, undeniably Canadian in its themes and subjects. “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” is dedicated to the Canadian novelist, who had died two years earlier. The song paraphrases lines from his book The Watch That Ends the Night.
“Looking for a Place to Happen” examines the legacy of Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who, in 1534, was one of the first Europeans to visit and map the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and whose exploitation of the First Nations people he encountered in his travels along the St. Lawrence River anticipated the plight that would be suffered by indigenous peoples throughout North America:
I’ve got a job, I explore, I follow every little whiff
And I want my life to smell like this
To find a place, an ancient race
The kind you’d like to gamble with
Where they’d stamp on burning bags of shit
Looking for a place to happen
Making stops along the way, hey
A couple of verses later, Downie names his subject:
Jacques Cartier, right this way,
I’ll put your coat up on the bed
There’s an element of parody in the lyrics, especially the reference to an age-old prank in the first verse (“Where they’d stamp on burning bags of shit”) as a metaphor for exploitation, but the song’s litany of poor treatment of First Nations people in Canada—and, by extension, in the rest of North America—is told with righteous anger, aided by the band’s knife-edged playing. Downie would remain committed to First Nations causes for the rest of his life.
Fully Completely yielded six hit singles in Canada, including “At the Hundredth Meridian,” another song that addresses Downie’s concerns about exploitation of North America’s land and indigenous people (“Me debunk an American myth? And take my life in my hands?”). As with many of Downie’s lyrics, other meanings are hinted at. The hundredth meridian is the longitudinal line that separates western North America from the eastern part of the continent; it’s also a line of cultural demarcation in both the US and Canada. Downie refers to garbage-bag trees in “Looking for a Place to Happen,” and they return in “At the Hundredth Meridian,” a symbol of the modern world’s destruction of nature:
If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me
They bury me some place I don’t want to be
You’ll dig me up and transport me
Unceremoniously away from the swollen city breeze
Garbage bag trees, whispers of disease
And acts of enormity
And lower me slowly, and sadly, and properly
Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy
Another single from the album, “Fifty-Mission Cap,” takes as its subject the disappearance of Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Bill Barilko, who died in a 1951 plane crash while returning from a fishing trip. The song’s lyrics tell Barilko’s story, including the fact that his team had won the 1951 Stanley Cup with a goal he scored in overtime, and that they didn’t win the Cup again until 1962, the year the wreckage of his plane was found. The song embraces love for Canada’s favorite sport, the myths and superstitions that sometimes surround sport, and the legends, fables, and fabrications that grow out of history and tradition.
Most important, it rocks fiercely. Langlois and Baker have an ear for creating chord progressions that are brutally tough but, at the same time, harmonically arresting. Sinclair plays a fat, slamming bass line against the chords, and Fay’s snare drum echoes out with shotgun force. The song is full of passion, fire, and exhilaration. And, as with the best rock’n’roll, things come together in ways that can’t be explained by chords, backbeats, or lyrics. The song just demands your attention and hits you full on, even if you don’t know a thing about hockey.
Fully Completely was hugely popular in Canada, and went on to sell a million copies there. In the US, MCA stopped promoting the album two weeks after its release. The Tragically Hip had ardent fans in the US (not all of them Canadian expats), but record sales there never reached the numbers they did in Canada. Rather than dwell on that fact, the band continued to make good records.
Whatever reservations The Tragically Hip had about the approach Tsangarides took in recording Fully Completely, the albums that followed it continued to use recording studio technology to help to achieve the band’s goals. Their next album, Day for Night (1994), is sonically denser than its predecessor, and more textured. “Grace, Too,” “Fire in the Hole,” and “Nautical Disaster” became concert favorites, and “Scared” added to the band’s impressive list of acoustic ballads.
Trouble at the Henhouse (1996) included the lovely “Ahead by a Century,” which opens with an unusual, almost Middle Eastern riff on acoustic guitar. The song builds in drama as layers of instrumentation enter to create a complex interaction. The album had its share of harder-edged tunes that showed the band embracing its talent for energetic rock’n’roll while experimenting with ways to vary their sound, but still retaining their edge.
Phantom Power (1998), the Hip’s next studio album, included the medium-tempo acoustic song “Bobcaygeon,” which went on to become one of the band’s most popular tunes, and the rock tunes on the album were some of the rawest the band had recorded since Road Apples. The Tragically Hip’s 2000 album, Music @ Work, was one of its most sonically daring. In Violet Light (2002) received a generous notice in Rolling Stone, but upon hearing it the first time it sounds a little soft at the edges. Of all the Hip’s releases, however, it’s the one that benefits most from repeated listening, and “It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken” became a fan favorite.
Adam Kasper produced In Between Evolution (2004), and helped the Hip produce one of their strongest discs since Road Apples and Fully Completely. “Heaven Is a Better Place Today” is Downie’s tribute to Dan Snyder, a center for the Atlanta Thrashers. The Canadian hockey player had died in a car accident a year earlier, and the song was also a lament and protest for soldiers dying in Iraq. “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” is a swipe at country singer Toby Keith, who was a vocal supporter of the war.
Political metaphors run through the album, but while Downie makes his points vigorously, he doesn’t hector. “Gus: The Polar Bear from Central Park” is based on the true story of an animal in captivity that was showing signs of depression, and is a veiled reference to George W. Bush’s loss of credibility after the Iraq fiasco. Other tunes, such as “Vaccination Scar,” also touch on politics, and a number of the songs examine the rigors of fame and the difficulties of human interaction as well.
Kasper gave the Hip a rougher-edged sound on In Between Evolution, which underlined the conviction of Downie’s lyrics. Some of the best songs, including “Mean Streak” and “Goodnight Josephine,” balanced forceful, loud passages with quieter sections that created tension and excitement. The album sounds overdriven and sometimes overstuffed, but its rawness was the right approach for the band.
Bob Rock produced The Tragically Hip’s next album, perhaps in another attempt to reach a larger audience for the band outside of Canada. Rock had produced hits by David Lee Roth, Metallica, Mötley Crüe, and many other bands, and his influence on World Container (2006) gave it a polished sound, presumably for broader audience appeal. The album has some strong tunes and Rock did allow the band’s rock’n’roll spirit to come through. Even though “Luv (Sic)” was a nod to U2, it still ended up sounding like the Hip.
Rock’s second production for The Tragically Hip, We Are the Same (2009), appeared to be trying to disprove the album’s title. The band didn’t sound the same at all, and fans didn’t care for it. Now for Plan A (2012), produced by Gavin Brown, seemed at first to be an attempt to make amends for We Are the Same, and it was the kind of tough, forceful rock’n’roll the band did best.
Man Machine Poem (2016) succeeded in moving the band forward while letting it retain its identity, underlining the ways We Are the Same fell short. Producers Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene) and Dave Hamelin (The Stills) gave the Hip sonic variety and strangeness, and the band responded with songs that lent themselves to studio enhancements. The result was an album that reaffirmed The Tragically Hip’s greatness and suggested a bright future.
That future would not be fulfilled. Two months before the release of Man Machine Poem, The Tragically Hip announced that Gord Downie had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Despite this, the band went on tour, culminating with a farewell concert in the Hip’s hometown on October 6, 2016. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired the performance live from Kingston’s Rogers K-Rock Centre. The show was broadcast and livestreamed without commercials, and was viewed by 11.7 million people, about one-third of Canada’s population.
Gord Downie died on October 17, 2017. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, gave a moving tribute to the singer. “Our buddy Gord,” Trudeau said, “who loved this country with everything he had—and not just loved it in a nebulous, ‘Oh, I love Canada’ way. He loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life.” The band later announced that it would not be continuing without Downie.
Gord Edgar Downie Pier, in Kingston, Ontario, opened in July 2018
Downie released five solo studio albums while he was alive, and two more have appeared posthumously. They’re fine examples of his poetic gifts, especially Secret Path, an album about Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy from the Marten Falls First Nation, who died of exposure after running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School to return to his home almost 400 miles away. The two posthumous discs are tributes to Downie’s creative spirit, which remained undimmed, even as he was dying.
But while The Tragically Hip’s decision not to continue without Downie showed how important he was to their music and vision, his solo albums, while very good, demonstrate that it was only with the band that his poetry and vocals truly came to life. His lyrics are playful and allusive, and he was given to sometimes obscure references. “Tiger the Lion,” from Music @ Work, contained a paraphrased quote from composer John Cage, and “Use It Up,” from In Violet Light, includes references to writers Raymond Carver and John Gardner. What kept those songs from being too precious or pretentious was Downie’s impassioned singing and the sympathetic, forceful backing of his band.
“[Interviewers] always ask us about our success or lack of success in the States, which I find absurd,” Downie once said. The Hip did have a following in the US, one strong enough to allow them to play medium to large theaters, such as the Fillmore in San Francisco and Emo’s in Austin, Texas. It’s true, however, that in America the band never achieved anything like the popularity they enjoyed in Canada. Plenty of great musicians never cracked the US market. Paul Weller enjoys massive popularity in England, but his solo career has never gained traction in the US.
The Tragically Hip was no more strictly Canadian than the Kinks were strictly English or Midnight Oil strictly Australian. Gordon Downie was an eccentric and distinctive singer, but so are Michael Stipe, Axl Rose, and, come to think of it, Bob Dylan, and they sold a lot of records worldwide. What The Tragically Hip does have in common with those artists is that the band made great records that will very likely endure.
A good place to start appreciating The Tragically Hip is the two-disc Yer Favourites, a 2005 compilation that gives a solid overview of their music up to that point. Live Between Us (1997) provides a glimpse of the band’s live potency, but releases from the group’s own From the Vault series of live recordings are often more electrifying. There are many live performances by The Tragically Hip on YouTube that give a taste of how strong they could be in concert.
The Tragically Hip has never seemed like a band whose reach should be limited to Canada. I firmly believe that a critical reappraisal of its recordings will place it among the very best rock’n’roll bands of the 1990s. In fact, I count Road Apples and Fully Completely among the strongest rock albums ever recorded, and many other Tragically Hip records aren’t far behind. The Hip are beloved in Canada. They should have that same adulation everywhere else.
*Saskadelphia, an EP comprising previously unreleased songs from the Road Apples sessions, was released on May 21, 2021.
. . . Joseph Taylor