A little over a month ago, on October 17th, an entire country stopped to remember a singer. His name was Gord Downie, he was the frontman of Canada’s The Tragically Hip, and he had passed away from terminal brain cancer, almost a year and a half after the band made an emotional final tour across the country. If you’re not Canadian, it might be a bit difficult to understand why this rock band was so important to so many of us, and with this Artist’s Spotlight I’m going to do my best to explain it, first with an overview of the band’s history and discography, and then go over what made them special, at least from my perspective.
The Tragically Hip formed in 1984 in Kingston, Ontario, a small city at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, roughly halfway between Toronto and Montreal. The five piece consisted of Downie on lead vocals, Rob Baker on lead guitar, Gord Sinclair on bass, Johnny Fay on drums, and Davis Manning on saxophone. By 1986 the band was starting to play more shows outside the local area, and Manning decided that he didn’t want to be constantly away on tour and quit the band. He ended up being replaced by Paul Langois on rhythm guitar, which would be the Hip’s final lineup.
In 1987, the band was signed to a record deal with MCA, after playing a show at Toronto’s storied Horseshoe Tavern that was attended by the label’s vice-president. They released a self-titled EP that same year which was a minor success, but The Tragically Hip were still far from a household name. It would be 1989’s Up To Here, their first full-length release, that would launch the band into the public conciousness. The album hit number 13 in the Canadian charts, and two singles made it to number one, “Blow at High Dough” and “New Orleans is Sinking.”
Quick note: I tried to select YouTube links that I didn’t think would be region-locked, please let me know if you can’t play any of these.
Two years later, they would release Road Apples, which followed in the sonic footsteps of their first album with more polished blues-tinged rock. It also began to introduce more Canadiana into the lyrics, with the single “Three Pistols” referencing Canadian artist Tom Thompson, as well as a greater variety of slower acoustic tracks, such as “Fiddler’s Green.” The album would end up hitting the number one position on the Canadian charts.
From there, the band’s dominance of the Canadian rock charts was firmly established. Their next five albums (Fully Completely, Day for Night, Trouble at the Henhouse, Phantom Power, and Music @ Work) would all hit number one in the sales charts, and their singles would become a permanent fixture on Canadian radio. They would also establish a reputation as an excellent live band, as Downie was a charismatic and energetic lead singer with a penchant for improvised rants and unpredictability. Meanwhile, the rest of the band were invariably tight and polished behind him, adapting to unexpected changes in his delivery with ease. The final result made for live performances that never failed to me memorable.
Throughout this time, their songwriting became more sophisticated, and Downie became known for his very poetic and complex lyrics. Take “Nautical Disaster,” from Day For Night, a song about a man dreaming of a disastrous shipwreck, which has inspired many debates and musings about how it should be interpreted. Or take one of their most popular songs, “Bobcaygeon” from Phantom Power, which is about a big city cop who finds solace with a loved one in a small town in cottage country, while also incorporating secondary themes that obliquely touch on racism and fascism. It also contains this wonderfully evocative verse:
“Went back to bed this morning
And as I’m pullin’ down the blind
Yeah, the sky was dull and hypothetical
And fallin’ one cloud at a time”
By 2002, the band had begun to lose some of their lustre, as the relatively quiet and introspective In Violet Light became their first album to fail to hit the top of the Canadian sales charts (in fairness, it did peak at number 2). That album was followed by 2004’s In Between Evolution, which marked an abrupt shift back towards harder-edged, occasionally somewhat atonal rock music. The album did mark a return to the top of the Canadian sales charts, but none of the album’s singles really captured public imagination the same way that their hits of the 1990s did.
The band followed this album up by again turning to songwriting that tended to be quieter and more introspective, releasing World Container in 2006, We Are the Same in 2009, and Now for Plan A in 2012, the last of which would become their first album to fail to hit number two in the Canadian sales charts. In spite of their cooler reception, these albums have some of the band’s most interesting work and many of the Hip’s hardcore fans will point to songs from this stretch of albums as being among their favourites.
At this point, it seemed like The Tragically Hip would follow the classic late-career pattern of a rock band: still beloved by the core fanbase, but never quite recapturing the zeitgeist of their prime with increasingly irregular studio releases. Sadly, that was not to be the case, as in May 2016 the band announced the Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer the previous December. A week later, they released their final studio album, Man Machine Poem, perhaps the most creatively ambitious album of their career. It has a frequently experimental sound, occasionally drifting into something that could probably be called art-rock, while still circling back to their core sound regularly to keep everything grounded. Lyrically, it’s a surprisingly hopeful work, frequently reaching to touchstones about love and human connections to cut through the darkness of the album’s context.
And that brings us to the final tour in support of the album. Despite Downie’s illness, the band was committed to a cross-country tour. They never played on any back-to-back nights to allow him time to recover, despite playing multiple shows in several cities. When tickets went on sale, the shows were sold out within minutes, which would actually prompt the province of Ontario to change the law to make it harder for scalpers to buy tickets to events. The final show took place in their hometown of Kingston on August 20, and was broadcast and streamed live by the CBC and 11.7 million Canadians watched at least part of the performance. For perspective, that’s just under a third of the population of the country, and is the fourth-highest rating for a television broadcast in Canadian history, behind only the Vancouver Olympics. While the band played in the local area a few blocks away, thousands packed themselves into the main square in downtown Kingston to watch the broadcast.
Personally, I was lucky enough to get tickets to the final show in Toronto, at the Air Canada Centre on August 14, 2016. I’ve seen the Hip live many times, but that show was a different experience, with a strange energy in the building. It was obvious that Gord was not at 100%; his voice was a bit rough, he forgot lyrics a number of times, and he lacked a lot of the spontaneous energy that he normally has. But his personality shone through, and you could really see that the band was supporting him and helping him through the show. The final show in Kingston was much the same, it wasn’t necessarily a great performance from a technical perspective, but it was incredible to behold regardless, and a very emotional experience.
Non-Canadians, if this video is region-locked try this link for a mirror
So, that brings me back to where I started: why was this band so important to Canada and to Canadians? I think there are a few factors, but it all comes back to the way that they embraced their own identity and culture as Canadians. A perfect example is the first two verses of the song “Fireworks,” which tells a short love story through an extended hockey metaphor:
“If there’s a goal that everyone remembers
It was back in old ’72
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
And all I remember is sitting beside you
You said you didn’t give a fuck about hockey
And I never saw someone say that before
You held my hand and we walked home the long way
You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr”
Beyond the hockey references, the Hip had a connection to the land and the people that’s a bit hard to describe. They became strong supporters of Native rights in the country, and before Downie’s diagnosis they made trips to and played shows at remote northern reserves as a show of support and a way to raise exposure of the issues that they face. It was things like that which showed that the band didn’t just drop references to Canadian culture and events because they knew it would help them sell records, but because it was important to them and it mattered.
With that, I’m going to draw this to an end. If you weren’t familiar with the band before this, I hope you’ve learned something about them, and if you were a fan, I hope you feel I’ve done them justice. I’ll leave you the same way the band left us in Kingston last August, with “Ahead By a Century,” one of their biggest and best songs.
Thanks for reading.