By Steve Newton
A quarter-century ago last Tuesday–on October 21, 1989–the Tragically Hip played the second of two shows at Vancouver’s 86 Street Music Hall, touring behind its then-new album, Up to Here. That’s the one with “Blow at High Dough”, “New Orleans is Sinking”, and “38 Years Old”.
You know that one.
I don’t remember the show–although I’m sure I went, seeing as they were one of my fave bands back then. But I do recall interviewing Hip vocalist Gordon Downie, who was 25 years old at the time. It was the first article I did on the Hip, though far from the last.
Here’s the story that ran in the Georgia Straight newspaper the week before the gig.
What’s the most important element in a new band as far as making it in rock goes? Some might say financial backing, although when you look at groups like Kiss or the Sex Pistols it’s pretty clear that image and/or hype are as effective as big bucks. And the latter two bands are a good example that talent isn’t a prerequisite of rock glory.
When it comes right down to it, a band is just a group of people making music and getting along, and in that respect friendship is the key. Just ask the Tragically Hip, five good pals from Kingston, Ontario, who’ll be hitting town October 20 and 21 at 86 Street.
“If we weren’t in this band, some of us wouldn’t be playing at all,” says Gordon Downie, the band’s lead singer/lyricist. “You have tiffs with someone when he has smelly feet in the touring van, but we all respect each other as friends first.”
Downie has known Tragically Hip guitarist/vocalist Paul Langlois for nine years; guitarist Bobby Baker and bassist Gord Sinclair have been friends since they were three. Along with drummer Johnny Fay, the Hipsters are a closely knit unit whose “all for one and one for all” credo has put them in good stead since the quintet emerged from Kingston in 1984. Four years later, the band was handed a worldwide recording deal by heavyweight MCA Records, but the signing–which would be a dream come true for most musicians–did not come as a big surprise to Downie.
“If you’re aiming for a hole in one, and you get one, you feel lucky–but at the same time you can justifiably say, ‘Well, I was aiming for the hole anyway.’ This is what we were shooting for, so we were very much involved in the step-by-step process of trying to get a world-wide deal. It’s something that we were consciously chasing.”
After securing the sought-after signing, Downie and his mates had to find a producer and a studio in which to record their first full-length album (they’d released a seven-song mini-album through RCA in early ’88). They chose Don Smith, who had recently worked with Tom Petty, the Traveling Wilburys, Keith Richards, and Roy Orbison. And the studio of choice was Ardent, in Memphis, Tennessee.
“The Replacements recorded Pleased to Meet Me there,” says Downie, “and Steve Earle did Copperhead Road there. And ‘The Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin was recorded there, too. But you mainly just go by other people’s opinions, and we certainly trusted Don. We wanted to be in a place where we’d be comfortable.”
Close friends and a comfy atmosphere helped the Tragically Hip put a winning shine on Up to Here, the 11-song LP that resulted from their Memphis stay. It’s an incredibly mature-sounding collection of thoroughly rockin’ tunes that belies the band’s average age of 25. Guitarists Langlois and Baker prove worthy graduates of both the Keith Richards School of Choppy Rhythms and Billy Gibbons Academy of Liquid Leads. And with Fay and Sinclair channeling the flow, Downie’s distinctive, quavering vocals spin out lyrics that are poignant and incisive (even if titles like “Blow at High Dough” are difficult to decipher). One particularly striking tune, “38 Years Old”, was inspired by an event that occured in 1973 at the Millhaven Penitentiary near Kingston.
“One summer there was this huge jailbreak,” says Downie, “which threw the whole outyling area into a real panic. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is scary,’ but at the same time it made that summer very memorable. So I just thought it would be good to pretend, and take the actual jailbreak on a personal level.”
Downie met Baker and Sinclair while studying at Kingston’s Queens University, where he dabbled in political science and whatever else interested him at the time.
“I did quite a tour of the various faculties,” he admits, “but I didn’t go to enough classes for any of it to rub off on this album.”
When it came time to pick a name for the new-found band, Downie and Co. looked to Elephant Parts, a video compiliation by former Monkee Mike Nesmith.
“There’s one skit in there that is sort like a TV plea: ‘Send some money to the Foundation for the Tragically Hip.’ And that phrase has also appeared in an Elvis Costello song. It crops up every now and again, and it’s just a name that we like.”
As for people that like the Tragically Hip, Downie says that he hasn’t bothered to try and figure out the kind of crowd his group attracts.
“When I’m in front of a crowd, I don’t think ‘Oh, there’s some hard-core metalheads and some alternative fringe types, so we should be okay.’ When we finish a track in the studio, we might say, ‘That was great; that gave me a good feeling,’ but it’s not like [he switches to a radio announcer’s voice] ‘This will appeal to the under-16-female-white-audience.’ I mean, you leave that to the deejays and the people who write bios.”