Top five tunes: The Tragically Hip

Who? The Tragically Hip

Years active: 1983 – present

Band members:
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 of 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 on nights like that. It’s quiet and riveting and emotionally charged. Like tears welling in your eyes for no reason at all 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.”

For other top five lists in this series, click here.


Best tunes of 1990: #25 Spirit of the West “Save this house”

<< #26    |    #24 >>

The first time I remember hearing Spirit of the West was one Friday night circa 1991, while watching Good Rockin’ Tonite. They were doing a feature on the Canadian music scene and the final video they played was the one for “D is for democracy” off “Go figure”. It initially caught my attention because the accordion player, Linda McRae, was wearing a Wonder Stuff (of whom I was a fan) concert T in the video but the song quickly grew on me as well. I would go on to fall in love with (what I would later learn was a reinterpretation of) “Political”, off that same album, and bought “Go figure” based on that. Months later, I procured “Save this house” as one of my many “9 albums for a cent” shopping sprees from either BMG or Columbia House and it would become a perennial mainstay in my CD player, most definitely during the summers of 93, 94, and 95. It wasn’t long before Spirit of the West was one of my favourite bands and to this day, they’re tied with Stars and Spiritualized as the band I’ve seen the most times live. I would see them again in a New York minute but unfortunately, they’ve broken up.

Spirit of the West were a Vancouver-based Celtic folk rock band that was formed in 1983 by John Mann, Geoffrey Kelly, and J. Knutson. The last of these departed three years into their run and was replaced by Hugh MacMillan and the aforementioned accordion player, Linda McRae, joined not long after. On a tour of England in support of “Save this house”, they met and played some shows with The Wonder Stuff. This meeting was the impetus behind SOTW adding a drummer and incorporating more of a rock edge to their sound (and also likely where McRae got her shirt). The group would go on to become quite popular in Canada in the 90s, not just on the strength of their albums but also of their energetic and fun live shows.

“Save this house” is the title track and the high energy opener off their major label debut, their last before they “went electric” with the help of drummer Vince Ditrich. At a mere three minutes in length, it’s a song that packs a wallop. It commences with a funky groove (if you can call celtic folk funky) but it’s not long before the chorus and the frenetic acoustic guitars kick in and you just want to jump up and save whatever house John Mann and crew are looking to rescue. In this case, though, it’s a rough task to take on because their target is the planet Earth. They’re calling for an end to the house party that’s been trashing our home for years.

“The welcome mat’s worn out, the roof will never mend, the furniture’s on fire, this house is a disgrace. Someone change the locks before we trash this place.”


For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.


Top five tunes: Spirit of the West

Who? Spirit of the West

Years active: 1983 – 2016

Band members:
John Mann (vocals, guitars) 1983-2016
Geoffrey Kelly (flutes, whistles, bodhran, guitars, vocals) 1983-2016
Hugh McMillan (multi-instrumentalist) 1986-2016
Vince Ditrich (drums) 1989-2016
Tobin Frank (bass, piano, organ, and accordion) 1997-2016
Matthew Harder (guitar) 2014-2016
J. Knutson (bass, bouzouki, guitar, mandolin, vocals) 1983-1986
Linda McRae (accordion) 1989-1996
Daniel Lapp (multiple instrument) 1988-1989

Spirit of the West (1984)
Tripping up the stairs (1986)
Labour day (1988)
Save this house (1990)
Go figure (1991)
Faithlift (1993)
Two headed (1995)
Open heart symphony (1996)
Weights and measures (1997)
Star trails (2004)

Spirit of the West originated as the trio of John Mann, Geoffrey Kelly, and J. Knutson under the dubious moniker Eavesdropper. It wasn’t long, though, before the name was changed to Spirit of the West and the band began releasing albums of traditional folk music. After only two albums, Knutson left the group and was replaced by Hugh McMillan. Linda McRae was later added in time for their major label debut, “Save this house”. It was while on tour in support of this album that they met, performed, and became friends with The Wonder Stuff, another of my favourite 90s bands, in England.

The Stuffies would go on to influence Spirit of the West to experiment with more of a rock sound. They brought in drummer Vince Ditrich and “Go figure” was born, and afterwards, with each successive album, more and more of their early folk sound would give way to rock. Linda McRae left the band at the height of their popularity in 1996 and to my mind, they were never the same. They released two more albums, “Weights and measures” in 1997 and “Star trails” in 2004, and a couple of compilations but became mostly a touring outfit, albeit sporadically, for many years afterwards. In 2014, frontman John Mann announced he had been diagnosed with early onset alzheimers and although they continued to play shows for a while, with an additional guitarist and with Mann using an iPad to help with the lyrics, the band finally called it quits in 2016.

I have been a fan of Spirit of the West since high school and have seen them live many times over the years. There’s many good reasons that I’ve seen them so many times and own most of their albums, not least of which are the quality of their entertaining live performances, musicianship, songwriting, and the personal attachment I have to the material. So the news of their breakup struck me hard in 2018, even though it had been years since I had seen them perform and really, since they had released any new material. I had hoped that the band would make a swing through Ottawa on its final tour so I could see them play one last time. However, as it turned out, they didn’t and I had to be satisfied with watching footage from their last concerts online and watching the excellent documentary, “Spirit unforgettable”, that showed the band and Mann’s struggles in their final year.

Spirit of the West and their music will forever be inextricably tied to certain memories that I share with my wife, Victoria. They are one of the many bands I introduced her to years ago and they also played a special part in our collective history. It was on the night of one of their concerts back in 1996 that our relationship became more than the friendship it had been previously. We had known each other for three years already but on a night where we decided to go to a Spirit of the West show at the university pub together, everything just fell into place. We have since seen the band perform twice more and ensured that we included a few of their songs in the celebrations of our big day when we finally married back in 2009.

All that to say, Spirit of the West was a great band that deserved to be more successful than they were, as is evinced by the number of great musicians that turned up at their final shows as guests. For me, they will always rank up there was one of my all-time favourites.

The top five:

#5: And if Venice is sinking (from “Faithlift”, 1993)

Besides a certain drinking song that I’ll get to in just a bit, “And if Venice is sinking” would easily be the band’s most recognizable song. It was their highest-charting single off their best-selling record. It’s a joyful sounding tune, Linda McRae’s prominent accordion kept pace with the deep thumps of a tuba and the warbling strum on the mandolin, a carnival-like reflection of the energy of Northern Italy. Classic paintings, gondolas, and churches abound in the world famous living museum that is Venice. The lyrics were a reflection of John Mann’s honeymoon there and I couldn’t help humming the tune when my wife and I followed him there over fifteen years later on our own honeymoon. We, too, never wanted to leave such an enchanting city. “And if Venice is sinking, I’m going under, ’cause beauty’s religion and it’s christened me with wonder.” Indeed.

#4: Far too Canadian (from “Go figure”, 1991)

The music on “Go figure” was my very first introduction to the band. The cassette tape was pretty near a constant fixture in my Sony Sports Walkman in my final year of high school. The final song on the album was this six and a half minute number railing against the Mulroney Conservative government of the day and the perception of Canadians as quiescent sheep, starting off with Mann singing so forlornly over the strumming of his acoustic. He is later joined by the flute and accordion as the passion increases. I’ve always loved the song for its calling out of Canadians to be stronger than we appear. “I am the face of my country, expressionless and small, weak at the knees, shaking badly, can’t straighten up at all. I watch the spine of my country bend and break.” Going through my old things recently, I found my grade thirteen art journal and in it, I had written out the lyrics in total, surrounded by random doodles. Interestingly, the music video that I found for the song (below) is a collage of truly Canadian images, painting a completely different picture.

#3: The crawl (from “Tripping up the stairs”, 1986)

“Home for a rest” isn’t SOTW’s only great drinking song you know! Four years before they wrote about drinking through their way through the pubs in England, John Mann and Geoffrey Kelly penned this humdinger detailing an epic pub crawl along the north shore in Vancouver. Kelly takes the lead on vocals but Mann joins in on the roaring chorus: “Well, we’re good old boys, we come from the North Shore, drinkers and carousers the likes you’ve never seen. And this night, by God! We drank till there was no more, from the Troller to the Raven with all stops in between.” Though it is one of the band’s oldest songs, it was still a regular in their live sets right up to the end and perhaps because of its prominent place in their encores, it has long since become a fan favourite. From what I’ve read, many of the pubs referred to in the song still stand and fans and drinkers alike organize pub crawls along the route, hitting all the same pubs that the band purportedly did drink at regularly. Something to keep in mind for my next trip out west.

#2: Home for a rest (from “Save this house”, 1990)

You had to know that this song would be on this list somewhere but you likely had it pegged at the number one spot. For many Canadians, this is like an alternate national anthem and have spent many a beer-soaked night singing along with Mann and the rest of the group. What many people don’t know is that as popular as the track is, it was never released as a single off “Save this house”. It slowly grew in popularity over the years, reaching its apex in the late nineties, largely thanks to its inclusion on the popular “Frosh” CD compilations. It is a great track to say the least. The lyrics are smart and hilarious, some of my favourite that the band has written, like: “The gas heater’s empty, it’s damp as a tomb. The spirits we drank are now ghosts in the room. I’m knackered again, come on sleep take me soon and don’t lift up my head ’til the twelve bells of noon.” But with the exception of the slow, warming up intro, the pace is frenetic, perfect for hopping around, ‘Lord of the dance’ style on a packed pub dance floor. Personally, I’ll never forget a particular St. Patty’s day back in university where I got so blottoed that I got up to sing the vocals because the musical entertainment at the pub that evening didn’t know the words and the likewise drunken crowd wanted to hear it. It was an occasion that will likely never be repeated.

#1: Political (from “Labour day”, 1988)

This song is so great the band recorded it twice. It originally appeared on 1988’s “Labour day” and later, with some added drums and a healthy dose of rock, was re-released on 1991’s “Go figure”. This latter version is the one I first heard and loved it from the beginning for both the words and the sound but after hearing the more stripped down original years later, I rarely choose to listen to the second version. I think many fans prefer the original. There’s even a story going around about how, back in the day, the band were presented with a signed petition asking them to play the song as it was originally arranged. The song itself is not politically charged, despite its name, but is actually about the end of a relationship, apparently based on John Mann’s ancient history with the near iconic frontwoman of Mecca Normal, Jean Smith. It also happens to be my wife Victoria’s favourite Spirit of the West song because some of the lyrics in the song remind her of the early days in our relationship. In a sense, I agree with her but unlike the subjects in the song, we survived the tumultuous days of our youth and lived to sing along with one of our favourite bands. “Why did everything, every little thing, every little thing with you and me have to be so political?”

For other top five lists in this series, click here.