About the Author

Michael Barclay

Co-author of Have Not Been the Same, Michael Barclay is the Associate Editor of Exclaim! Magazine, a national free monthly devoted to underground music. He is also a contributing writer to Toronto’s eye Weekly and a freelance writer and broadcaster. Between 1993 and 1999 he was the Music Editor of Southwestern Ontario’s Id Magazine and played keyboards in the band Black Cabbage. Michael lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Books by this Author
Have Not Been the Same

Have Not Been the Same

The CanRock Renaissance 1985–1995
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Have Not Been the Same (rev)
Excerpt

 

You Can Come From Here

 

One of the most revolutionary changes wrought by the CanRock renaissance also stems from folk, something so obvious that it seems incredulous that it should even be an issue. But before 1985, Canadian rock acts rarely ever sang specifically about their own country, avoiding place names or other signifiers like a plague.

There are plenty of theories as to why this was. Perhaps bands didn’t want to appear “far too Canadian,” to borrow a phrase from Spirit of the West, because Canadianisms were the epitome of uncool in a scene that still pined to be anywhere else but here. For more commercially minded bands, perhaps they made a decision, conscious or not, to make their songs more “universal” and not limit them to Canada. When the Tragically Hip became superstars in Canada and nowhere else, some crippling culture commentators on both sides of the border suggested that the band’s fate was doomed to their own country because of Gord Downie’s choice of subject matter. For a songwriter like John K. Samson, however, “Gord Downie has such a remarkable and original voice, both on the page and in the air. He certainly made a great contribution to songwriters in this land. The Hip made all the difference. There was suddenly less striving, less grasping. People were more comfortable with who they are and where they’re from.”

Of all the prominent Canadian rock musicians to come of age in the ’60s — if you relegate Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia and Leonard Cohen to the folk world — only the Guess Who made a point of “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon,” although their biggest hit, “American Woman,” was Canadian only as reflected through a negative, by defining Americans as an “other.” Otherwise, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young only slipped into Canadian specifics when they were homesick ( as in “River” and “Helpless,” respectively ); Robbie Robertson was too wrapped up in American mythology to bother with his native land. British writer Barney Hoskyns, author of a biography of the Band, notes that the first lyrical manifestation of Robertson’s roots was “Acadian Driftwood,” written at the Band’s twilight. “It took Robbie Robertson almost a decade of living in America to write a song about Canada,” Hoskyns writes in Across the Great Divide. “Sitting in his Malibu beach house in the summer of 1975, he was writing about his homeland with the same empathy and compassion that had infused ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’ Canada had finally become as distant and romantic to Robertson as the American South had seemed to him back in 1960.” With this evidence forming Canada’s musical canon, it’s no wonder that it took years to overcome this cultural insecurity in song.

“In Canadian music,” says Kurt Swinghammer, “there was always a sense that if you wanted to be successful, you had to hide the fact that you’re from Canada, which is so stupid. It’s way more accepted now. Maybe that’s just part of the evolution of a culture that’s still young and growing and shaking off some insecurities about where it’s from.”

“I’ve always loved peculiarities and regionalism in stories,” says Joel Plaskett, who was a budding teenage songwriter when he saw Sloan’s second show. There, the band played a song called “Underwhelmed,” which referenced a girl who tells the narrator to loosen up on his way to the L.C.— a reference to the liquor commission of the province. “You don’t call the liquor store the ‘liquor commission’ in the States or in any other province except Nova Scotia, and I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I thought it was beautifully insular, and it totally spoke to me.”

John K. Samson grew up admiring the Prairie pop band the Northern Pikes, both for their early independent success and the way they “crafted really remarkable songs and wrote about small towns and cities in an unpatronizing way.” But it was hearing two artists from Toronto — a city which, Samson admits as a Westerner, he was raised to despise — changed the way he thought about writing locally. “The Rheostatics were a big deal to me,” he says. “They sang about things that I didn’t think people could sing about, while making this beautiful and unique music. They could have been from Austin, Texas, as far as I’m concerned: Toronto was so far away for me; it was a foreign land. And hearing Ron Hawkins of Lowest of the Low sing about the Carlaw Bridge [ in Toronto ] or places that I’d never been to certainly reinforced the idea that I could write about the places that I was from, that it wasn’t unrealistic or a stupid idea. There were writers here [ in Winnipeg ] at the time who were enforcing the same thing, but mostly they were poets and fiction writers. Those Toronto people reinforced that it could be done in a musical way.”

Tom Wilson of Junkhouse and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings welcomed the change. “People like Blue Rodeo and Gord Downie have been embraced in such a huge way,” says Wilson, “that suddenly you didn’t have to be singing about the Mississippi River or have a poncey British accent to get your point across. You could sing about Lake Ontario or wheat kings or do what the Rheostatics do so fabulously well. That became really important to a generation of listeners. In the early ’90s, it was a rediscovery. It’s all there: we should stop being so British and asking what our identity is, stop worrying about how many books or records or movies we sell in the States, and be happy with who we are.”

John Critchley of 13 Engines says, “We were proud to be from Canada and we definitely had Canadian influences in our music, as well as others from around the world. I’m proud of where I’m from and I’ve written songs about where I’m from. But I don’t think music and politics should be confused. You should be proud of where you’re from and write about what you know.” But, he adds, sometimes doing so runs the risk of jingoism.

 

close this panel
The Never-Ending Present

The Never-Ending Present

The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

Chapter Eight: You Want It Darker

 

1994–95: DAY FOR NIGHT

 

~

INTERVIEWER: “Did you want to destroy your audience as soon as you got it?”

NEIL YOUNG: “Turnover. Like in clubs where they turn over the audience. Did you ever notice that if the same audience stays, the second set usually isn’t as good as the first set? But if they turn the audience over, the second set could be better than the first set? Because with me that’s the way it is.”

Jimmy McDonough, Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, 2002

~

Rock’n’roll should make you scared. It’s kinda what it does. Scared with the thrill of intoxication, of sexuality, of danger, of staring into either the darkest abyss or the most blinding light.

If you’re the money man, however, your greatest fear is that the record just won’t sell.

When Allan Gregg first heard Day for Night, he called Jake Gold. He told him, “Look, ‘Nautical Disaster’ is a radio hit. The rest is almost unlistenable. They’re not finished. They have to go back into the studio.” Gold brought this news to the band. It did not go over well. A meeting was called. “This is the finished record,” the band insisted. Then, being Canadian, they offered Gregg a gentle out: “We think it might be better to have you as a friend than as a manager.”

Gregg was ready for this news. He’d had a hell of a year, during which the Hip’s continued ascent was the only good thing going for him. In the fall of 1992, he led the failed referendum campaign in favour of the Charlottetown Accord. One year later, he was campaign manager for prime minister Kim Campbell, in which the governing Progressive Conservatives were driven to a fifth-place finish in the general election, threatening to wipe the country’s founding political party off the map. On top of that, he was surrounded by cancer: both his father and his best friend died of it, and his wife was diagnosed with it, too. He wasn’t totally happy with recent band decisions, either: they had gone to Australia and filmed a video for “At the Hundredth Meridian” that Gregg thought was a “fucking abomination.”

He was exhausted. So when the Tragically Hip dropped off a mysterious, murky album on his desk with no obvious singles, he was less than receptive. “Look,” he told them at the band meeting, “at the end of the day, your fucking name is on this record—not mine. If you can live with this shit, that’s up to you. But I won’t have any part of it.” Though he remained a financial partner with Jake Gold in the Management Trust, Gregg receded from any advisory role in the Tragically Hip’s career.

Day for Night sold 300,000 copies in the first four days of its release on September 6, 1994. It went on to sell 300,000 more. (Fully Completely, by comparison, took three months to sell its first 200,000 copies.) It spawned six radio singles and four videos. In February 1995, it allowed the band to launch the biggest-ever tour of Canada by a homegrown band, playing arenas in every major market, sometimes with multiple dates, as well as in secondary markets often missed by the biggest acts; it was a feat they would repeat two years later.

It was by no means a sure bet; Allan Gregg had every reason to be antsy. The Tragically Hip had gone dark. It’s right there in the title, borrowed from a Francois Truffault film. They left the radio-ready ways of Fully Completely behind. They could have gone bright pop. They could have cashed in and gone grunge, playing catch-up with Pearl Jam. They could have wrapped themselves in the flag. They didn’t. Because of Fully Completely’s blockbuster status, the Hip found themselves in a position to indulge. It was time to roll the dice.

~

An artist’s first album after a massive success is always tricky. Do you try to climb the same mountain? Do you try to climb a similar mountain? Or do you try deep-sea diving instead? Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Prince’s Around the World in a Day. Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. Nirvana’s In Utero. Radiohead’s Kid A. All those records rejected a formula that had reaped considerable commercial reward just a few years before, a formula that made all those artists household names. All those records were welcomed by a collective WTF, only to later be embraced as classics, some sooner than later.

The Hip didn’t necessarily know what they wanted, but they knew what they didn’t: a repeat of the Fully Completely experience. Downie had described the London studio where it was made as a “fairly sterile environment” and that they “were lucky enough to pull a record out of it that we liked and had some sense of atmosphere. We vowed never to do that again.” Gord Sinclair said that although the band had the Canadian music industry on their side, that industry “wanted us to make Fully Completely Part Two.”

The Tragically Hip knew who they wanted to help them shake up their sound. The choice was obvious: Daniel Lanois, with whom they’d toured on the 1993 Another Roadside Attraction tour. His first two solo albums, Acadie and For the Beauty of Wynona, were Hip favourites. He’d made three of the biggest international records of the last 10 years: Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Not to mention Robbie Robertson’s solo album, the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon, Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and a slew of great Canadian new wave records in the early ’80s (Martha and the Muffins, Parachute Club, Luba), as well as his work with Brian Eno on ambient music. The biggest new rock band in Canada working with the country’s most internationally acclaimed producer: it seemed like a perfect fit.

Except that Lanois turned them down. Twice, as his name had been floated for Fully Completely as well. But the Hip were also friendly with Lanois’s right-hand man, engineer Mark Howard, who was responsible for helping Lanois translate his ideas to tape and also assisted in setting up his studios in wonderfully weird parts of North America. It was Howard who, as Lanois’s front-of-house engineer during the first Another Roadside Attraction, recorded the “Land” single in Calgary, featuring Midnight Oil, Crash Vegas, Lanois and the Hip. Watching him work was a revelation after Fully Completely. “When they saw how I made that song with them on the road,” said Howard, “it opened their eyes to thinking, ‘Wow, we could make a whole record like this.’”

The Hip decided to go back to New Orleans and hire Howard as co-producer. After years under Lanois’s wing, this was his first production credit for a major client. Lanois wasn’t around; he and Howard had just finished setting up shop in a Mexican mountain cave. “The walls were all natural rock and there was a grass roof over it and it looked over the Sea of Cortez,” said Howard. After making that new studio functional, Howard flew back to New Orleans and started work on what would be Day for Night.

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...