Being the most popular doesn’t necessarily make you the best. Being real and true to yourself does. The Tragically Hip were the best Canadian band ever.
The Tragically Hip never compromised their music for commercial success, yet found great success in the great white north. Making music that is real and true is what The Hip were always all about. From 1989 to 2016, The Tragically Hip were Canada’s rock and roll ambassadors to the world. Even though they gave their last performance in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario in 2016 – a televised performance viewed live by a third of all Canadians – they are still considered by many to be the band that best defines Canada today. Gord Downie, who was taken from us way too soon by brain cancer, was a lyricist who was quite possibly the most prolific Canadian poet ever.
“Trouble at the Henhouse” is one of my favorite albums by The Tragically Hip; my all-time favorite Canadian band. It is their 6th of 14 albums, all of which are in my vinyl collection.
The guitar hanging in the background was signed by all the members of The Hip. I asked Gord Downie to put some words of wisdom on it. He wrote:
“Play to live. Das Hips”.
Most Americans will admit without hesitation that our neighbors to the north (or to the south if you live in Detroit) know how to rock. Granted, you recently gave us Justin Bieber, but you also gave us bands like The Guess Who, so we’ll let you slide on your more recent export.
The Guess who were popular in Canada long before America eventually discovered them. Once they broke onto the American music scene in the late 1960s, they seemed to be an unstoppable musical force, due in part to Randy Bachman’s guitar and Burton Cummings unmistakable vocals. Within a few short years, they had amassed enough popularity to easily fill a compilation album of hit songs along with a couple early fan favorites which they released in 1971.
Randy Bachman would eventually leave The Guess Who at the height of their popularity due to creative differences. He would go on to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive, another Canadian band who gained huge success in Canada and the United States.
Canadians like to Rock!
When I think of bands from the great white North, the first three bands from the golden age of vinyl that come to mind are Bachman Turner Overdrive, Rush, and Triumph. Maybe it’s having to put out more energy in order to deal with all that snow and the bitter cold up there. I don’t know. But those are three of the hardest rocking bands from the ’70s.
“Allied Forces” is the fifth album by Triumph. It is, in my opinion, the album that best defines the Canadian power trio – and not just because it contains their two most successful songs, “Fight the Good Fight” and “Magic Power”. The songs on this album are collectively everything a good hard rock album should be. They are gritty, powerful, melodic, and lyrically inspiring.
Many bands go through changes. Sometimes it’s to avoid getting bored, wanting to try something new. Sometimes it’s an attempt to better find their footing. Sometimes it’s a search for that ever elusive radio friendly single. For Rush, “A Farewell To Kings” was an attempt at all three.
Rush’s debut, self-titled album, was a combination of hard rock and metal. Their second, “Fly By Night” was not as rough around the edges and more straightforward hard rock. Their third, “Caress of Steel” ventured more into progressive rock territory. It was a change that alienated much of their established fan base. Although a good record, it was for the most part was a flop for the Canadian trio. “2112”, their fourth album, struck gold for them with its melding together the styles of its predecessors.
But what really had eluded Rush to this point, and what their musical career needed, was significant radio airplay. “Closer to the Heart” the sole single released from their fifth studio album, “A Farewell To Kings”, would change that.
For the most part, “A Farewell to Kings” revisited the progressive rock elements that had not done so well for them earlier. But by this time, Rush’s songwriting talents had become more refined and their fans had come to expect more diversity from them.
Being just shy of three minutes long. “Closer to the Heart” was one of Rush’s shortest songs, which made it a great contender to be picked up for heavy rotation on rock radio stations. The fact that it had a beautiful underlying melody, insightful lyrics, and high-caliber musicianship with a great guitar solo, made it an inevitable choice. Consequently, “A Farewell to Kings” and it’s accompanying single, “Closer to the Heart”, catapulted Rush’s popularity to the next level.
The Tragically Hip are one of Canada’s most successful rock bands – at least in their native country. Although they never achieved the success across the border in the US, except for some bordering cities like Detroit and Buffalo, NY. In Canada, the received numerous accolades including 16 Juno Awards. They’ve also had numerous Gold Records and several number one singles in Canada. They’ve always been one of my favorite Canadian bands.
One of the only Radio contest I have ever won was to see meet and greet The Tragically Hip at a small recording studio, where they would perform the private concert for 50 winners and a guest as well as tickets to see them at the Palace of Auburn Hills, a large concert venue outside Detroit. I really wanted to be one of the winners in that contest but new my odds of winning were slim to none. But that didn’t stop me from trying.
One day on my way home from work, the radio DJ announced that caller ten would be one of the winners for the contest just as I was pulling in the driveway. I figured once I got inside, I’d make the call and give it a shot. So I closed my car door, casually walked in the front door, sat my stuff down on the dining room table, picked up the phone and dialed the station. The voice on the other end said “Congratulations! You’re caller 10!”
I was absolutely astonished that I had won. The DJ gave me the details of where the recording studio was and told me I could bring along any one item for them to sign. I had just bought a cheap electric guitar at a garage sale the a few weekends prior, so I knew what I would be carrying into the studio with me, along with a silver Sharpie. That guitar proudly hangs on the wall in my man cave.
I have to say, the guys in The Tragically Hip are some of the most genuinely nice bunch of guys I have ever met. There was no rock star arrogance and a real appreciation for their fans. They are one of the few bands I know of that during their 32 years as a band, always had the same members.
Unfortunately, a few years back Gordon Downie, their lead singer and primary lyricist, was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away in 2016. A very sad day for Canadian Rock.