Who? The Tragically Hip
Years active: 1983 – present
Gordon Downie (lead vocals) 1983 – present
Paul Langlois (guitars) 1983 – present
Rob Baker (guitars) 1983 – present
Gord Sinclair (bass) 1983 – present
Johnny Fay (drums) 1983 – present
Davis Manning (saxophone) 1983 – 1986
Up to Here (1989)
Road Apples (1991)
Fully Completely (1992)
Day for Night (1994)
Trouble at the Henhouse (1996)
Phantom Power (1998)
Music @ Work (2000)
In Violet Light (2002)
In Between Evolution (2004)
World Container (2006)
We Are the Same (2009)
Now for Plan A (2012)
Man machine poem (2016)
It’s Canada’s 150th birthday today and I can’t think of another homegrown band that is as well-known and is as loved across this large country of ours as The Tragically Hip.
For a good stretch from the 1990s to the early 2000s, they were definitely the undisputed heavyweight champions of Canadian rock. Their blues-infused rock with folk storytelling style leant itself well to sit beside pretty much every genre of music so they were played on all radio formats, from rock to pop to alternative to top 40. In those days, everyone in Canada knew who they were and you were a either a diehard fan of the band or you were just a casual fan. But nobody really hated them. Unfortunately, this phenomenon never translated to international success. Besides a bit of love from Australia, New Zealand, and patches of Europe, The Tragically Hip never really gained traction outside of Canada.
Right up to last year, they played to massive arenas and stadiums and headlined festivals here in Canada but if you crossed the border into the states, you could catch them playing tiny club shows. However, last May, frontman, Gord Downie, announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The Hip embarked upon what many called their final Canadian tour that summer, culminating in a concert in their hometown of Kingston that was attended by the Prime Minister and televised across the country.
Personally, I never actually owned a Tragically Hip album until my wife’s CD collection merged with my own when we began cohabiting and her copy of “Trouble at the hen house” was filed beside my copy of Travis’s “The man who”. I think it was four years later that they released their first ever “best of” compilation. I went out and procured a copy of the two disc version of “Yer favourites” (it was also released as a deluxe edition including DVDs called “Hipeponymous”) because although I couldn’t ever see myself listening to their albums, they had a few singles that I really loved.
I finally saw The Tragically Hip live for the first time with my wife at the Ottawa Bluesfest a few years ago. We both considered it almost like a rite of passage as Canadians and though neither of us have ever been the biggest fans, both of us knew every single song that they performed. It was almost as if the band’s music was in our bones and in our blood, and it all felt as natural as knowing the words to “O Canada”.
If you’re not Canadian and have never heard them before, these five songs can serve as a great introduction. But if you are Canadian, well… you know all these songs. You might as well sing along. It is Canada day, after all…
The top five:
#5: Bobcaygeon (from “Phantom power”, 1999)
This song and its mellow acoustic groove makes the list mostly because it’s named after a tiny town in central Ontario that I’ve driven through a million times but have never stopped in. But it also reminds me of my first real job after university working in a tool rental shop. “Bobcaygeon” received so much radio play that it drove my boss, Cam, nuts. It wasn’t long before I began randomly mimicking Gord Downie’s whine of the chorus to drive him even more nuts, and strangely, a fondness for the song grew. I still love it today.
Favourite lyric: “Could have been the Willie Nelson, could have been the wine.”
#4: New Orleans Is Sinking (from “Up to here”, 1989)
For a while in 2005, certain radio stations took this song out of their rotations out of sensitivity for the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It’s The Hip’s second ever single and perhaps best representation of their blues rock influences with its killer guitar zingers. Despite being released twenty-five years ago, it is considered one of the band’s best-known tracks and a fan favourite at their live shows. Speaking of which, if you’ve ever seen them perform “New Orleans is Sinking”, you might have also inadvertently caught a glimpse of a future song in development. The Hip often use the middle of this song to test out new songs. “Nautical disaster” and “Ahead by a century” both started out as bridges to this track live.
Favourite lyric: “My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in? New Orleans is sinking, man, and I don’t want to swim.”
#3: Scared (from “Day for night”, 1995)
Don’t ask me why but this song evokes images of late-night chill sessions for me, candles lit and incense burning, people passed out on the floor, and empty red wine bottles everywhere. It’s not as if I lived that sort of lifestyle (he says smiling facetiously) but if I had, this might be just the sort of song that would have been on my stereo of nights like that. It’s quiet and riveting and emotionally charged. Like tears welling in your eyes for no reason but that are wiped away before anyone notices.
Favourite lyric: “Now there’s a focus group that can prove this is all nothing but cold calculation.”
#2: Ahead by a century (from “Trouble at the henhouse”, 1996)
This song was released during what was perhaps the peak period of The Hip’s career trajectory and is likely one of their biggest songs. I was entering the late stages of my university career. It was there, living in residence, that I discovered the ferociousness of their fans. Up to that point, I had only paid them minimal attention but on many occasions in 1995 and 1996, I was subject to polemics from multiple sources on the intricacies of their guitar work and the beauty of Gord Downie’s poetry. He “spoke” to their fans. So when he said in this particular track that life is “no dress rehearsal”, a whole generation of young Canadians swooned.
Favourite lyric: “And disappointing you is getting me down.”
#1: Courage (for Hugh Maclennan) (from “Fully completely”, 1993)
“Courage” has always been my favourite Tragically Hip, even before I learned of the dedication to Canadian author Hugh Maclennan in the parentheses to the title. It’s never even been a close race with number two but that attribution of this loftiest of personality traits to a fellow wordsmith only improved it for me. Never mind that the synergy of the driving drum track with the guitar hook wizardry makes the song arena encore ready, complete with devils horns salutes and white male air guitar dancing. And even as I am writing this down, I can’t believe I am writing it. Without the song to back them up, my words don’t aptly describe something I would normally listen to and enjoy. Yet I do love this track. Perhaps that’s the magic of The Hip and their ability to transcend genre and appeal to Canadians from across the country.
Turn it up! You know you want to.
Favourite lyric: “Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.”