Op-ed: The Tragically Hip and Canadiana
The following is an op-ed from Kurt Markstrom, associate professor in music history and musicology in the Desautels Faculty of Music.
Although known as the ultimate Canadian band because of the numerous references to Canada in their songs, the rock equivalent of Gordon Lightfoot and Stompin’ Tom, the roots of the band are clearly in post-punk indie or alternative rock and as such, their songs tend to have dark undertones that go considerably beyond simple nationalism.
The band was formed in Kingston by two childhood friends, Rob Baker and Gord Sinclair on lead guitar and bass, who were joined by Gord Downie on lead vocals, Johnny Fay on drums and Davis Manning on saxophone. Although the latter greatly influenced their early repertoire, he left the band and was replaced by Paul Langlois on rhythm guitar and vocals. The band was discovered by Allen Gregg, the political pollster and music impresario, and the Toronto band manager Jake Gold.
A successful audition at Larry’s Hideaway in Toronto, led to an MCA recording contract and the release of an EP in 1987, which they then took on the road. Although the EP was not overly successful, the band built up a solid fan base on tour, one town at a time.
Their first album, Up to Here, is essentially their touring repertoire up to 1989 and features several of their best-known songs, “Blow at High Dough” and “New Orleans Is Sinking”. Many of the Hip’s songs originated from Gord Downie’s practice of ranting to the audience during the middle of songs, these rants, in turn, becoming new songs, as Reebee Garofalo and Rob Bowman note in the Canadian edition of their book Rockin’ Out. Their songs are mostly simple riff-driven songs in the tradition of the Rolling Stones, often with interlocking patterns in the guitars or “circular bass,” often organized in strophic or verse/chorus forms that build to a repeated refrain or chorus and then resolve onto a guitar break to serve as conclusion.
Beginning with their third album Road Apples from 1991 their songs begin to make reference to Canadian places, events and people, such as the mysterious death of the painter Tom Thompson in “Three Pistols” and the on-going language debate in “In the Water”.
“I started using Canadian references not just for their own sake, but because I wanted to pick up my birthright which is this massive country full of stories,” says Downie in Michael Barclay’s book Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995.
The Canadiana aspect is particularly apparent in their fourth album Fully Completely from 1992. Downie had recently discovered The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera which had a big impact on his “stream-of-consciousness writing,” as noted in Barclay’s book. The first fruits of this impact, was the title song “Fully Completely” that was built up from “a simple one-chord riff which gathered into fury around a brief Downie interpretation of existence,” writes Barclay.
Fully Completely contains some of the band’s greatest songs. The album is to the Hip what Ten is to Pearl Jam, both albums from 1992. Most of these songs feature strong and distinctive Canadian content: “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” inspired by the latter’s novel Watch That Ends the Night, “Wheat Kings” referencing the David Milgaard story and “Looking for a Place to Happen”, with its surreal appearance of Jacques Cartier at one of the Hip’s tour stops.
One of the band’s most famous and most Canadian songs is “Fifty-Mission Cap,” based on a strange text in which Downie combined two completely unrelated ideas: the story of the mysterious death of the Toronto hockey legend Bill Barilko, taken from the back of a hockey card, and a reference to the fifty mission cap which was given to bomber crews during WWII when they completed fifty bombing missions. As Downie notes in Barclay’s book: “I probably put both images in and just couldn’t take either out, so I had to figure a way to loosely stitch these things together[… and it is] the stitching that provides any kind of meaning”; the final line of the song serves as an enigmatic reminder of that stitching process, as the hockey card is carefully folded into the cap: “I worked it in to look like that”.
The inspiration for “At the Hundreth Meridian” comes from the sign on the TransCanada just before Winnipeg that inspired the powerful refrain: “At the hundredth meridian where the great plains begin”. The opening strophe poses a question “Me debunk an American myth? And take my life in my hands?” which is then enigmatically answered in the fourth strophe with: “If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me they bury me someplace I don’t want to be…,” culminating on the refrain “At the hundredth meridian where the great plains begin”.
The band’s all-Canadian image was further emphasized by their creation of the Another Roadside Attraction summer festival, based on the American alternate rock festival Lollapalooza, but featuring Canadian indie bands with the Hip as the highlighter. Another Roadside Attraction succeeded in furthering the careers of numerous Canadian artists, such as the Rheostatics, the Mahones, the Watchmen, Treble Charger, the Headstones, Sarah Harmer and others, contributing mightily to the CanRock Renaissance of the 1990s, writes Barclay.
Although known as the ultimate Canadian band, the nationalistic overtones that have become attached to their music has become something of a mixed blessing, especially for Gord Downie the lead singer and lyricist of the band who insists that he is “not a nationalist”.
The roots of the band are clearly in post-punk indie or alternative rock and as such, their songs tend to have a dark, menacing and at times violent undertones even in their Canadiana songs: for example “Locked in the Truck of a Car,” based on a notorious double murder in Toronto.
The dark, violent aspect of their post-punk roots comes to the fore in their next album Day for Night from 1994, especially in songs such as “Nautical Disaster,” “Scared,” and “Fire in the Hole”. The Canadian imagery, however, makes a tentative return on Trouble at the Henhouse from 1996 with the backyard skating rink in “700 Ft. Ceiling,” and in a more pronounced way in Phantom Power from 1998, with the Montreal ice storm in “Something On,” hockey in “Fireworks,” and “Thompson Girl” set in Northern Manitoba.
Even after all these years, and all the successful albums and classic songs, the Tragically Hip have remained primarily a Canadian phenomenon, as rock musicologist Rob Bowman has said: “the band routinely sells out arenas across Canada, is able to play small theatres in border cities such as Detroit, and is regulated to clubs in the rest of the United States.”
This lack of success in the United States and abroad, as opposed to other notable Canadian bands such as the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, has ironically contributed further to their Canadian image, “their lack of popularity abroad attests, they can only be understood by ‘us,’” writes Ryan Edwardson in Canuck Rock: A History of Canadian Popular Music.
In addition to their status as “the People’s Band of Canada,” the Tragically Hip should also be regarded as Canada’s greatest alternative rock band, the Canadian equivalent of R.E.M., Nirvana and Pearl Jam, that unfortunately has been overshadowed on the world stage not only by their counterparts in the United States, but also by their female counterparts in Canada, k.d. lang, Alanis Morissette, Sarah McLachlan and other divas who have achieved tremendous international success. The cancer diagnosis of Gord Downie, the solar plexus of the band, this past year, is as tragic an event to hit the Canadian arts community as the disappearance of Tom Thomson in 1917.