On my birthday, just under a month ago, my wife Victoria suggested I put on a record. (She does that every once in a while.) And I think I surprised her by slipping on Barenaked Ladies’ debut album, “Gordon”. The surprise to her was likely that I liked the album enough to purchase it on vinyl. Admittedly, I haven’t always been a fan of a lot of their work, but as I explained to her, they were fresh and new when they first hit the scene. They quickly amassed a following for their hilarious and energetic live shows, where the improvised banter between the two principals, Steven Page and Ed Robertson, between songs or during, was a frequent occurrence. Now, it’s hard to capture that energy on a studio recording but they tried really hard on the debut, as well as showing the band’s propensity for crossing and blending genres. That album is now a classic and one that I know intimately, even its weakest links.
But before “Gordon” and its major label release, Barenaked Ladies were already being heavily played on Toronto’s alternative radio station, CFNY: demo tapes, self-released music, and shoddily recorded live clips, really, anything they could get their hands on. My own early favourite of their songs was a live recording of the band’s cover of Dean Friedman’s “(I’m in love with a) McDonald’s girl”. If you can find it, do so.
In 1991, Barenaked Ladies, then consisting of Page, Robertson, Tyler Stewart, and brothers Andy and Jim Creeggan, independently released their release, a cassette tape with a yellow cover and the band name printed on the front. “The yellow tape”, as it went on to be known, ended up become the first indie tape to reach platinum status in Canada. The tape consisted of five songs, four of which would be re-recorded for “Gordon” and become some of the band’s best-known songs, the fifth was a cover of Public Enemy’s “Fight the power”.
Today, if you started singing “If I had $1000000” anywhere in public in Canada, chances are that someone would join you in singing it. It was such a huge hit here, even before “Gordon” was released and the only version we had was the demo-style, stripped down version on the “Yellow tape”. Personally, when I first heard the version on “Gordon”, I didn’t like it, finding it too polished, but I can appreciate both now. The music isn’t complex on the original, acoustic guitar strumming, standup bass, and simple drumming, but the vocal interplay and harmonies between Page and Robertson really make the song. The concept behind it, too, is a simple one that most of us can identify with, that of dreaming what we would do if we suddenly came into a lot of money, though these days we might need more than $1000000 to really be considered rich. And beneath all the hilarious ideas of what they might buy – art (“a Picasso or a Garfunkel”, a green dress (“but not a real green dress, that’s cruel”) – there appears to be an understory of the singer pining for a girl for whom he may not feel quite good enough.
Universal, yes. Classic, indeed.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.