ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 26, 1992
By Steve Newton
If there were a CRTC regulation that based Canadian content on actual lyrics as opposed to the citizenship of a song’s composer, the Tragically Hip would be the darlings of CanCon advocates across the country. On their new album, Fully Completely, the Hipsters mention everything from the CBC to Jacques Cartier to former Toronto Maple Leafs hero Bill Barilko. There’s even a tune called “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)”.
“For some odd reason, I was drawn to Hugh MacLennan in this last year,” explains vocalist Gordon Downie. “I’d never read anything by him and then just sort of ploughed through a bunch of books. He’s just a great Canadian voice, and I found that coupling that with the reading of the Globe and Mail, you see a lot of similarities and how a lot of things just haven’t changed.
“And I think a lot of people in Canada are moving towards some kind of things that identify us. Maybe there’s some kind of resurgence in Canadiana. I mean, we’re certainly doing our part.”
Because Fully Completely was released before the Blue Jays won the World Series, Downie didn’t have the opportunity to wax poetic about the social ramifications of Canada stealing from the States’ national pastime, but in “Fifty Mission Cap”, he dabbles in Canadian sports with a tune based on the mysterious story of ’50s NHL player Bill Barilko.
“Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, he was on a fishing trip/The last goal he ever scored won the Leafs the cup/They didn’t win another until 1962, the year he was discovered…”
“It’s a good story,” says Downie. “That series, all five games went into overtime and the winner was his, and he wasn’t necessarily noted as a scorer. But that summer, he went on a fishing trip and disappeared in a plane with a dentist, and then all kinds of stories sort of arose. There were thoughts that maybe he had defected, you know, during the McCarthy era, defected back to the Soviet Union and was a spy and playing hockey for the Russians. And someone else had him high-grading gold with this dentist friend of his, which was entirely illegal. And then they just couldn’t find the body…
“And the story itself, to me, it’s really haunting in that I hadn’t heard it before, and once I started thinking about it, you know, basically ripping off verbatim a hockey card, I started talking to people about it. And it was interesting, the different stories that came out from the old-timers and such. I went to the reference library here in Toronto and checked out the old Toronto Stars from 1951 and basically followed the chronology of events from the playoff semi-finals right up to the Hercules [military aircraft] flying over Timmins looking for him. And it was creepy.”
“Fifty Mission Cap” is just one of a number of thought-provoking and thoroughly rocking tunes on Fully Completely, the band’s first full-length release—after Up to Here and Road Apples—not produced by American Don Smith. This time around, the band went to England to work with Englishman Chris Tsangarides of Thin Lizzy, Ozzy Osbourne, and Judas Priest fame.
“It was the same sort of general principles [as working with Smith] in the sense that we were all chipping in and conjuring up things and trying out different things. And Chris acted in a lot of different capacities—our liaison and nanny and all kinds of different things.
“But in these sessions there seemed to be no tension involved, which is not to say that in the recording of the last records they were tension-filled, but in this there was, like, none. I mean, normally in some sort of creative process—especially a collaboration of that many people—you would naturally run into snags and problems. But this seemed to be completely devoid of that, and it was probably because we had the songs so well fitted.”
Another thing that Downie felt fit the Fully Completely project was the striking album cover, created on a Canon colour photocopier by Dutch artist Lieve Prins. It’s a weird collage of the band members’ heads, two contorted, semi-topless women, and a bunch of numbers, coins, flowers, and sea creatures.
“Lieve’s an artist in laser photocopiers, and Robby [guitarist Bobby Baker] spotted her stuff in this Italian art magazine. So we contacted her and asked her if she’d be interested, and she came over to London where we were recording. We just took a weekend off and set it all up in the studio. Basically, those squares in which we are involved in the cover are templates, and she took them and the title of the record and the lyrics and mulled it over for a month or so and came up with this. And I think it’s pretty cool.”
Fully Completely’s puzzling, you-figure-it-out cover art reflects the Tragically Hip’s music, which cross-breeds an easily accessible, groove-oriented sound with out-there, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. But Downie doesn’t see it that way.
“Well, to me, the grooves are complex. But that’s to me. I mean, they certainly invoke complex movements from the likes of me. And the lyrics, I dunno…the weird thing is, to me, they fit perfectly. Because on this album, especially, I basically let the music do the talkin’, let the music evoke images, and then tried to capture those images on paper before I could ruin them with too much thought. I also tried for the words that dance and sing the best.”
Speaking of dancing and singing, one might wonder what the story is on Downie’s Joe Cocker-with-a-seizure performing style, the one he’ll no doubt be displaying during the band’s sold-out show at the PNE Forum on Wednesday (December 2). I mean, does the guy go into some kind of trance or have an out-of-body experience on stage? What’s up?
“It really depends on the situation,” says Downie. “Generally, when the band is feeling good and the music is feeling good, I go in and out. I sort of…you know, I go in and out. It’s an interesting thing for me, and…yeah, special to me.”
Donate to the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research by clicking sunnybrook.ca/gord.