Best tunes of 1991: #14 Barenaked Ladies “If I had $1 000 000”

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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.

Vinyl love: Barenaked Ladies “Gordon”

(Vinyl Love is a series of posts that quite simply lists, describes, and displays the pieces in my growing vinyl collection. You can bet that each record was given a spin during the drafting of each corresponding post.)

Artist: Barenaked Ladies
Album Title: Gordon
Year released: 1992
Year reissued: 2017
Details: Black vinyl, 2 x LP, 180 gram Gatefold sleeve, 25th anniversary edition

The skinny: I blame my friend Pat for my having pre-ordered this one early last summer but when I first slipped it on the turntable, I was glad I did. Such memories. Twenty-five years ago, Barenaked Ladies released this, their debut album, and though not all of the songs have aged gracefully, there are those, like the one below, that are now classics.

Standout track: “Brian Wilson”

100 best covers: #96 Barenaked Ladies “Lovers in a dangerous time”

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Pay no mind to the above photo. Barenaked Ladies were cool in 1991… Well, okay, we thought they were at the time anyway.

The duo of Ed Robertson and Steven Page formed In 1988, adding band camp friends, brothers Andy and Jim McCreegan, two years later. Tyler Stewart joined the same year to temporarily fill Andy’s spot while the drummer went to Europe and then, stayed on upon his return. The band made a name for themselves with their hilarious, energetic, and often improvisational live shows, a fame that only grew with their DIY videos that they made using a video booth in downtown Toronto called “Speaker’s corner”, and that became a notoriety when they were banned from playing the city’s live New Year’s Eve show because of their “provocative” name. Then, their self-produced and self-released five song demo tape, the now famous “Yellow tape”, became the first ever indie release to reach platinum level sales in Canada. Needless to say, that attracted all the right attention. They released their debut album, “Gordon” in 1992, another classic. Six years later, BNL hit it big in the US with the single, “One week” and the rest is history.

But just as they were getting started, even before “Gordon”, they recorded this cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a dangerous time” for a tribute called “Kick at the darkness”, from a line taken from this very song. Bruce Cockburn is a Canadian icon, a prolific singer/songwriter, whose lyrics are part poetry, part social activism. Inspired by watching teenagers kissing and the thoughts that invoked, “Lovers in a dangerous time” is one of his more popular songs and one of the few I would recognize as his if you played it for me.

Going back to listen to Cockburn’s original before writing this post, I realized how dated it sounds. It is still a great song and the way Cockburn sings it is just right but it really does sound so 1980s. I almost think I like Barenaked Ladies’ cover more than the original, blasphemous though that statement might be. It’s no surprise they chose to cover one of his more popular songs, a bigger one being that they played it straight, something rare for them in those days. The cover is really quite lovely with Robertson’s and Page’s now familiar vocal harmonies, the acoustic guitars, and Creegan’s cello providing the backbone.

Make sure you check the video below of band playing in the back of a pickup, touring the streets of their hometown of Scarborough. It smacks a little of the Monkees but with a Canadian touch.

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.