One of Canada’s all-time greatest rock bands is undeniably The Tragically Hip. Referred to by most people simply as “The Hip”, this 5-piece blues/rock/folk-fusion band from Kingston, Ontario has been on the Canadian music scene for more than 30 years! The Hip owned the 1990’s rock airwaves in Canada, and their distinctly Canadian-themed songs, their philosophical lyrics and their distinctive sound has earned them a following of millions of people across the country!
The Hip formed in Queen’s University in 1983 when lead singer Gordon Downie and lead guitarist Rob Baker came together with bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay. They started rocking the University pub scene and “the Gords” started pumping out their own original content that they would throw into each set now and again. Fans loved them and they developed a loyal University following and started on cross-country campus tours in 1985. In 1986 they picked up a second guitarist, Paul Langlois and rounded out the band.
The extra guitar, their unique sound and their loyal fan base attracted the attention of a talent scout at MCA Records. He followed a couple of their shows before approaching the band and offering them a recording deal. Naturally, they jumped at the opportunity and the Tragically Hip dynasty was born!
Up To Here
Their first EP, recorded in 1989, was the self-titled The Tragically Hip. They got two radio-friendly singles off that album, Small Town Bring-Down and Highway Girl. With better-than-anticipated success, MCA extended their contract and in 1991 they recorded their groundbreaking album “Up To Here”. This album launched them into the national spotlight when their hit singles New Orleans is Sinking, Blow at High Dough and 38 Years Old all reached number 1 on the Canadian charts! Before they knew it they were selling out shows and were soon were touring not as headliners but as the main act!
Their second studio album, Road Apples, was released in 1991 and one of the songs from the album, “Little Bones”, ran up to #1 and was a hit with the bar crowd across the country. During their concert tour to promote their new album, frontman Gordon Downey became famous for his whimsical stories and rants that he was able to convert into hit songs, including a song based off the back of a hockey card!
Their third album, Fully Completely, was another smash hit, with “Wheat Kings” reaching the Canadian top ten and “Courage” reaching #1 on the Canadian charts and even debuting on the US rock charts (where it reached #17) in 1992. In the summer of ’92 The Hip teamed up with Ziggy Marley and Pere Ubu for the “Another Roadside Attraction Tour” across North America, showcasing their music and drawing tens of thousands of fans. During this tour The Hip tested out some new material that would go on to be hits from their next album.
Day For Night
In 1994 The Hip released their much anticipated fourth album, many songs which they had played live during their touring the year before. Day For Night was their most successful album, selling more than fifteen million copies with 5 hit singles including two #1 singles, “Grace, Too” and “Nautical Disaster.” This album also propelled their US music career as they played on Saturday Night Live twice, Jay Leno once and joined the Alapalooza tour for 20 cities. This album is touted as The Hip’s breakaway from their blues roots, becoming more confident and fuller and finding a unique sound that is recognizably their own. It earned them critical acclaim from the international music scene and was one of their best albums, in this author’s opinion.
Trouble At The Henhouse
Their 1996 album, Trouble At The Henhouse, brought The Hip some limited international recognition when their #1 hit song, “Ahead By A Century” made it to billboards around the world, including America, Britain, Australia and Japan. In Canada “Ahead By A Century” stayed on the top of the charts for two months, and was followed by “Gift Shop”. Trouble At The Henhouse earned The Hip another Juno Award.
The Hip’s seventh full-length album, Phantom Power, won the 1999 Juno Awards for Best Album and Best Album Design, while five songs made it to the charts with two of them, “Poets” and “Bobcaygeon”, reaching #1 in Canada. “Poets” reached #12 in the US in that same year, and The Hip embarked on their fifth large North American tour, including a stop at the much-touted Woodstock ’99 concert.
Music @ Work and In Violet Light
The new millenium didn’t start all that well for the Tragically Hip. Their 2000 release, Music @ Work, was received with criticism and, although it won a Juno Award for best rock album, many fans and critics alike complained that the album was lacking the usual soul and character of the Tragically Hip. In 2002 The Hip recorded another album, In Violet Light, this time with Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. The album had one single and met with some success, but fans and critics still decried the gradual decline of The Tragically Hip.
In Between Evolution
After several years of decline in popularity, The Hip came back with In Between Evolution in 2004. The album reached #1 for sales in Canada by 2005 and has since gone platinum, although many people complained that The Hip were finished.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Canadian radio stations stopped playing “New Orleans Is Sinking” out of respect for the people in the devastated areas, and the song wasn’t heard on the airwaves for a full year. During this time, The Hip embarked on a different route than their ailing studio recording career. Joining up with new Canadian rocker Sam Roberts, The Hip began a career of cross-country tours, bringing their music, both the rock and the whimsical, to small, intimate venues in Canada and the United States. Playing to packed bars and small concert halls, or to large outdoor festivals, The Hip have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the past few years, and have recently put out a double “Greatest Hits” album as well as several live albums recording their small-town tours.
The Tragically Hip are Canadian icons and a household name. Every person in Canada knows at least one Hip song, and knows who they are, whether they like them or not. Unlike other Canadian musical icons, The Hip have stayed genuinely Canadian and have resisted the lure of big money in the US recording industry, opting instead to remain in Canada and return to their loyal fan base with their small venue tours. These giants of Canadian rock are sure to bring musical happiness to generations of Canadians for years to come!