In May, Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie revealed that he had a glioblastoma, an inoperable and quickly fatal brain tumor. Canada’s collective heart broke — this was their rock hero, the music star they could claim as their own, the man who The Washington post recently referred to as “Canada’s unofficial poet laureate.” And now, fans learned, his days are numbered.
The band quickly planned and embarked on an 11 show farewell tour throughout Canada. For their final performance, they chose their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, but a national clamoring to see their beloved Hip one last time led to the show being livecast around the country and around the world. It was streamed on Facebook and broadcast on the CBC, and viewing parties throughout the Great White North were held. Even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been a fan for years, was in attendance at the Rogers K-Rock Centre at the last show, and he received a heartfelt shout out from Downie toward the end of the night.
The Tragically Hip’s concert on August 20 was the Saturday night event in Canada. In the United States, though, the occurrence was barely on anyone’s radar, and many music fans in the states were left scratching their heads after the fact. The Tragically What? Who is this insanely popular band, why do Canadians love them so much, and why have I never heard of them? Read on for a better late than never primer.
Who Are The Tragically Hip?
A rock band from Kingston, the Tragically Hip are a quintet made up of guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair, drummer Johnny Fay, and highly recognizable frontman Gord Downie. Their music is straight up rock and roll, informed by English blues, with lots of electric guitars, heavy drums, and the bass upfront in the mix. It’s not pop music by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s not to say that the Tragically Hip don’t know their way around a good hook, or that they aren’t popular. Most Hip songs contain catchy melodic progressions, and they’re easily the biggest band in the country, uniting members of different generations through music. Amid the continuous onslaught of prog rock bands over the years, the Tragically Hip have been able to maintain a unique sound that’s widely appealing.
The five guys in the Tragically Hip are also completely without pretense. These are not your traditional rockstars, with experimental hairstyles and flashy clothes and overt playing to the crowd. They’re a bunch of dudes from Kingston who wear blue jeans and plaid shirts and corduroy jackets and sometimes knit hats, because it gets cold in Canada. Downie himself is at once down to earth and enigmatic. He seems like the kind of guy you could go get a beer with and have a chat, but his side of the conversation might veer toward strange metaphysical territory. He’s also a compelling onstage presence, with lots of between-song banter and just enough dramatic posing to be entertaining — think several notches below Freddie Mercury.
All of this sounds like the perfect recipe for worldwide success, and they were popular in some cities outside of Canada. The Hip did find captive audiences in some northern US cities like Detroit, MI, Buffalo, NY, and anywhere Canadian radio airwaves trickled across the border. However, mass adoration outside of their native country never came,.
The Crossover Problem
It’s not like there are no Canadian artists who have gone on to international stardom. Bryan Adams did, as did Rush and Celine Dion and (sorry for this) Justin Bieber — they’ve all had excellent careers in the United States. Why did the arena rock of the Tragically Hip stay north of the border? While it’s hard to point to a definitive reason, there are some possible explanations.
For starters, the Tragically Hip are unapologetically Canadian. Their lyrics are about Canadian history and contain lots of Canadian imagery. Downie and the boys don’t write about love and romance in the traditional pop music sense; you’ll never hear them singing about getting their girl back or loving someone forever. Their lyrics are definitely about emotion and the human experience, but maybe not in a way that American audiences are used to.
Plus, frontman Gord Downie is a little odd. He’s quirky in the way that all great rock stars are, but it’s all on his own terms. He’s not art school weird like David Byrne, or experimental weird like David Bowie, or disturbing weird like Marilyn Manson. He’s just weird: he makes faces when he sings and is prone to jerky movements to the music. His voice isn’t conventionally beautiful, either; it has a quaver that he makes no effort to hide and even accentuates in many songs. His is a unique presence, and it’s something that has become as much a part of Canadian culture as maple syrup, kick saves, and pale lagers with a respectable alcohol content.
Dan Ackroyd even insisted that the Hip be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live when he hosted the show in 1995. He introduced them to the American audience as “my friends,” and the band did “Grace Too” and “Nautical Disaster,” two stellar tracks from their 1994 album Day for Night. Their performance was excellent, truly the Hip at their best, as they were aware that they were showcasing their stuff for American audiences. But as we all know, nothing came of it.
The Tragically Hip were just never able to break through the loud wall of noise that is the American music scene. That didn’t seem to bother the band, though, as they were so beloved in their native land that they really didn’t have much incentive to force the issue. Their attitude came across as, you don’t like us America? It’s cool. We’re national heroes in Canada, and that’s good enough.
Where to Start
If you’re an American fan of rock and roll who is eager to hear some of the Hip’s music, it can be a little intimidating to get started. After all, this is a band that’s released 13 studio albums of new original music, nine of which went to number one on the Canadian Albums Chart. What do you listen to first?
If you want the Hip at their most elegantly raucous and accessible, you’d do best to start with their mid-1990s work. For example, their 1992 record Fully Completely was supposed to be the album that would break them internationally. That never happened, but it’s still a great listen from beginning to end, with rockers like “Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)” and “Fifty Mission Cap,” plus the glorious ballad “Wheat Kings.” Their 1994 followup Day for Night is also a masterpiece, especially the single “Grace Too” and the ballad “Scared.”
The band’s first two albums, 1989’s Up to Here and 1991’s Road Apples, are more youthful and raw, but they’re no less excellent, and they served to establish the band as a rock and roll force in Canada. Later albums like Phantom Power, Music @ Work, and their most recent effort Man Machine Poem feature the band digging deeper into storytelling in their lyrics and experimenting more with meter and melody.
Ultimately, though, you really can’t go wrong with any Tragically Hip recording, as this is a band that simply doesn’t do filler. As a music fan who is blissfully unfamiliar with their work, you’re in for a momentous discovery: the treasure trove that is the entire back catalog of the Hip’s work. Getting started with the Tragically Hip is a decision you won’t regret. In fact, the only regret you might have is not getting to see the band before Downie’s horrible diagnosis ended the Hip’s run. It was a great one, though, and as always, the music remains.
Written by Amy S