The Tragically Hip have been called “the most Canadian band in the world” by the BBC. The New York Times described them as “the band that for many has come closest to defining [Canada]’s cultural identity.” Between 1987 and 2016, they cemented themselves as the most popular Canadian band ever — despite having limited success outside the country. Their records have sold over six million copies in Canada. Nine of the band’s 13 studio albums topped the Canadian sales chart. The Hip amassed 46 Juno Award nominations and 15 trophies, including three wins each for Entertainer of the Year, Group of the Year and Rock Album of the Year. They also received the Juno’s Humanitarian Award and were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame. After lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie announced he had terminal brain cancer in 2016, the band undertook a farewell tour that rivetted much of the country. Downie was named the Canadian Press Newsmaker of the Year in 2016 and 2017 — the first entertainer to receive the honour.
Formation and Early Years
Gord Sinclair (bass guitar) and Johnny Fay (drums) grew up across the street from each other and have been best friends since they were infants. They met Gord Downie (vocals) and Rob Baker (lead guitar) in high school in Kingston, Ontario. They formed the Tragically Hip in 1983 with saxophonist Davis Manning. In 1986, Manning left the band and was replaced by Paul Langlois (rhythm guitar).
The group’s name is derived from a skit in the 1981 Michael Nesmith comedy Elephant Parts, in which a character exclaims, “Send some money to the foundation for the tragically hip.” The term is also used by Elvis Costello in his 1982 song “Town Cryer” (“Other boys use the splendour of their trembling lip / They’re so teddy bear tender and tragically hip.”) Fans often refer to the group simply as the Hip.
The band developed a loyal local fan base in Kingston and toured heavily throughout Southern Ontario, honing a riff-heavy blues-rock sound. They caught the interest of future Canadian Idol co-host Jake Gold. He became the band’s manager for almost 20 years as part of The Management Trust.
Debut EP, The Tragically Hip (1987)
During a performance at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto in 1986, the group caught the attention of MCA Records president Bruce Dickinson. He signed the band to the US label, which released the Hip’s self-titled, eight-song EP in 1987. Produced by Red Rider’s Ken Greer, the EP is raw and energetic. Though Downie’s lyrics had yet to reach their full poetic potential, songs such as “Small Town Bringdown” and “Last American Exit” set the stage for what was to follow. Nine years after its release, The Tragically Hip was certified double-platinum for selling 200,000 copies in Canada.
Up to Here (1989)
The Tragically Hip travelled to Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, in January 1989 to record their second album, Up to Here. It was produced by Don Smith (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Traveling Wilburys). The album’s heartland rock sound was influenced by swampy blues elements. Its gritty sound took a back seat to a lighter acoustic approach on such songs as “Boots Or Hearts” and “38 Years Old.” Such propulsive hits and endearing concert favourites as “Blow At High Dough” and “New Orleans Is Sinking” helped launch the band to stardom in Canada.
Up to Here earned the Tragically Hip a 1990 Juno Award for most promising group. The band’s thrilling performances, highlighted by Downie’s wildly animated stage presence and hyperactive ad libbing, helped it earn the Canadian Entertainer of the Year title at the 1991 Juno Awards. Up to Here went on to achieve a rare diamond certification for selling more than one million copies in Canada. (See Music Canada Sales Certifications.)
Road Apples (1991)
The band suggested several potential album titles for its second full-length record, the working title of which was Saskadelphia. However, all their proposed titles were rejected by their US label as being too Canadian. So, the band jokingly suggested road apples — a slang term for horse manure. Thinking that the title referred to “songs written on the road,” the label enthusiastically approved.
Road Apples was again produced by Don Smith, this time in New Orleans. It was released in February 1991 and became the band’s first No. 1 album in Canada. The sound followed a similar path as its predecessor and spawned the singles “Little Bones,” “Twist My Arm,” “Long Time Running” and “Three Pistols,” about Canadian painter Tom Thomson. Other enduring songs from the album include “Born in the Water,” “On the Verge” and “Fiddler’s Green,” which Downie wrote about the death of his nephew from a heart condition.
Road Apples earned the band Juno Award nominations for Album of the Year, Group of the Year and Canadian Entertainer of the Year. The album went on to receive an octuple-platinum certification for selling more than 800,000 units in Canada.
Fully Completely (1992)
Chris Tsangarides (Anvil, Concrete Blonde) was chosen to produce the Hip’s next album. It was recorded at Battery Studios in London, England. Fully Completely is considered by many to be the high-water mark of Tragically Hip records. It sold 200,000 copies in Canada in its first two weeks and produced six hit singles. The Canadiana was front and centre in “Fifty Mission Cap” (about Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko), “Wheat Kings” (about the wrongly convicted David Milgaard), “Courage (For Hugh MacLennan),” “Looking For A Place To Happen” (which references Jacques Cartier), and “At The Hundredth Meridian.”
Fully Completely showed a maturing band that had mastered its craft and was broadening its horizons. While it wasn’t the international breakthrough the band and its fans had hoped for, the album sold more than one million copies in Canada, earning it diamond certification. At the 1993 Juno Awards, the band was nominated for Group of the Year, Album of the Year and Best Video (“Locked in the Trunk of a Car”) and won the award for Canadian Entertainer of the Year. The band also received 1994 Juno nominations for Single of the Year for “Courage (For Hugh MacLennan),” Canadian Entertainer of the Year and Best Selling Album (Fully Completely).
A remastered “deluxe edition” of Fully Completely, with two new tracks from the original recording sessions and a second disc featuring a 1992 concert at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern, was released in 2014. Heksenketel, a film released on videotape that featured concert footage and clips of the band from its 1993 Another Roadside Attraction Tour, came out that same year and earned a gold sales certification.
Day for Night (1994)
The Tragically Hip returned to New Orleans to record 1994’s Day for Night with producer Mark Howard (REM, Tom Waits). A darker and denser album than its predecessors, it nonetheless boasts majestic power in such hit singles as “Nautical Disaster,” “So Hard Done By,” “Greasy Jungle,” “Scared” and “Grace, Too.” Day for Night became the first album to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s Canadian albums chart. It was certified six-times platinum within a year for sales of more than 600,000 copies and earned the band five Juno Award nominations. They won for Entertainer of the Year and Group of the Year.
They played arguably their highest-profile gig to date when they performed on Saturday Night Live on 25 March 1995. A year later, they headlined the three-day Edenfest festival that attracted more than 70,000 people to Mosport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario.
Trouble at the Henhouse (1996) and Live Between Us (1997)
Mark Vreeken and the band convened to record 1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse in New Orleans and the group’s own Bathouse studio in the Kingston suburb of Bath. It debuted at No. 1 in Canada and stayed there for four weeks on the way to a quintuple-platinum certification. The album’s singles included the chart-topping “Ahead By A Century” and “Gift Shop,” which were both mid-tempo numbers. Trouble at the Henhouse was named album and rock album of the year at the Junos and also earned The Tragically Hip a group of the year award.
During the tour in support of Trouble at the Henhouse, the Hip recorded a concert at the Cobo Arena in Detroit, Michigan, on 23 November 1996. It was released the following year on the 14-track Live Between Us, which debuted at No. 1 and sold 400,000 units by the end of 1997.
Phantom Power (1998)
The hit single “Poets” introduced Phantom Power, which entered the Canadian sales chart at No. 1 in July 1998. A more upbeat album, it was produced by Steve Berlin (who had previously produced Canadian groups The Crash Test Dummies and Prairie Oyster) of the Los Angeles band Los Lobos, who had toured with the Hip a year earlier. Subsequent singles included “Something On,” “Fireworks” and “Bobcaygeon,” all of which included prominent Canadian references. Phantom Power was certified triple-platinum. It received the Juno Award for Best Rock Album while “Bobcaygeon” was named Best Single.
Also in 1998, the band composed the instrumental piece “Antares” for a figure skating routine by Kurt Browning. In 1999, they played to approximately 200,000 people at the infamous Woodstock 99 festival. The group was also the first to play at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena) when it opened in 1999.
The 1990s will go down as the Tragically Hip’s most commercially successful decade. But their popularity only waned slightly in the 2000s and the band continued to make fine music. The group began the new millennium with Music @ Work (2000). It followed a similar musical path as its predecessor and featured the same production team working in the now familiar confines of The Bathouse. Lead single “My Music at Work” was the biggest hit from the album, which won the 2001 Juno Award for Best Rock Album. It went on to sell more than 200,000 units.
Producer Hugh Padgham (David Bowie, The Police) and engineer Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Lenny Kravitz) were enlisted to work on In Violet Light (2002) at Manning’s Compass Point studio in the Bahamas. Padgham achieved his goal of capturing the Hip’s live energy in the studio while simultaneously showcasing Downie’s lyrics. Its singles were “The Darkest One,” the propulsive “Silver Jet” and “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken,” which had a video with appearances by the Trailer Park Boys and Don Cherry.
Also in 2002, the band performed in Salt Lake City, Utah, during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. They appeared in the Paul Gross curling movie, Men With Brooms, and played two songs as part of a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II later in the year. They also recorded “Black Day in July” for the tribute album Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot (2003). (See Gordon Lightfoot.)
In Between Evolution (2004), produced by Adam Kasper (Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters) at Studio X in Seattle, was the Hip’s first album since it left The Management Trust to join the roster of Vancouver-based Macklam/Feldman Management, which also handled the careers of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Diana Krall, among others. The record debuted at No. 1 in Canada and featured some of the shortest and fastest songs that the group had ever recorded. It included the singles “Vaccination Scar,” “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” and “Summer Is Killing Us,” which helped push sales past the platinum certification mark. The Hip also performed as the halftime show at the 2004 Grey Cup in Ottawa.
“No Threat” and the acoustic “The New Maybe” were the two new songs included on Yer Favourites (2005), a two-record set comprised of 37 songs chosen by fans. The career retrospective was also included in the box set Hipeponymous, which featured two compact discs along with a concert DVD and another DVD containing all of the Hip’s videos, short films and a 50-minute documentary called Macroscopic. Yer Favourites was certified double-platinum and Hipeponymoushas reached platinum status. The latter also won the 2006 Juno Award for best music DVD.
World Container was released in Canada in October 2006 and in the United States five months later. It was recorded with producer Bob Rock (Our Lady Peace, Simple Plan) at studios in Maui, Vancouver and Toronto. Lead single “In View” reached the top of the Canadian singles chart. The album debuted at No. 2 on the sales chart before selling more than 100,000 copies. In 2008, the band became the first to play Kingston’s K-Rock Centre, which is located on The Tragically Hip Way — a street named in their honour.
There was a longer than usual break before the next album, We Are The Same, which was produced by Rock at the Bathouse and arrived in April 2009. It became the group’s eighth album to top the Canadian sales chart. It also reached the revised platinum sales standard of 80,000. (See Music Canada Sales Certifications.) We Are The Same, “Love is A First” and the Tragically Hip were nominated for 2010 Juno Awards for rock album, single and group of the year, respectively
2012 to 2016
Now For Plan A, the Hip’s shortest full-length album, followed in 2012. It was produced by Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Metric) and entered the Canadian sales chart at No. 3. It was the band’s first album since Road Apples (1991) not to debut at No. 1 or No. 2.
Bobcaygeon, a 2012 documentary directed by Andy Keen, showcased a concert by the Hip in the small Ontario town named in the title. It was named Best Music DVD at the 2013 Juno Awards.
After that, the band took an unusually long recording hiatus. Man Machine Poem, released on 16 June 2016, was named after a track from Now For Plan A. It was produced at the Bathouse by The Stills’ Dave Hamelin and Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew. The album was introduced by the single “In a World Possessed by the Human Mind” and returned The Tragically Hip to the top of the Canadian sales chart. Edmonton Journal reviewer Fish Griwkowsky said the album is “innovative, beautiful and creates truly new systems for Gord Downie’s tireless voice.”
In May 2016, it was announced that Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in December 2015. By that time, Man Machine Poem had already been written and recorded. Most of Downie’s brain tumour was removed in surgery. He then underwent six weeks of daily radiation treatments combined with an oral chemotherapy drug called temozolomide.
People across Canada, even if they weren’t big Tragically Hip fans, instantly reacted with an outpouring of shocked sympathy for Downie and his bandmates. The Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research was established by the Sunnybrook Foundation.
Final Concert Tour
Despite Downie’s condition, The Tragically Hip set out on a 10-city, 15-show Canadian arena tour in the summer of 2016, starting on 22 July in Victoria, BC. Tickets to every concert sold out within minutes. Every city along the route hosted pre-concert parties to raise money for the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research. The tour was documented in Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier’s film Long Time Running, which premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
The final performance, on 20 August at the K-Rock Centre in Kingston, was broadcast live without commercial breaks on CBC Television, CBC Radio One, CBC Radio 2 and CBC Music, as well as on those outlets’ YouTube and Facebook pages. Many venues also hosted screenings of the concert to raise money for the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research. The concert became a national event and was attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It was viewed by 11.7 million people, with 4 million alone tuning into the TV broadcast.
Released on 21 May 2021, the EP Saskadelphia features six songs that were among those written in 1990 for Road Apples. (Saskadelphia was the working title of that album, but it was rejected by the record label.) Five of the tracks were recorded during that same session, while the sixth, “Montreal,” was recorded live in concert in 2000. The tracks possess the same rollicking, bar-band energy of Road Apples, though they are generally more raw and less polished. “Ouch” was released as the lead single, along with a music video, which is set in “Saskadelphia” and stars notable Hip fans Jay Baruchel and Rick Mercer. The video, directed by Sara Basso, reportedly contains “more than 30 hidden visual nods to the band’s storied history,” according to Universal Music Canada.
Observers have been somewhat perplexed by the Hip’s paradoxical appeal. The band is as beloved by high-minded intellectuals, who read Downie’s lyrics as literature on par with the work of Al Purdy, Margaret Atwood and Hugh MacLennan, as they are by beer-swilling hosers who fist-pumped their way through the band’s concerts, mouthing Downie’s cryptic lyrics every step of the way. This tension between those who see the Hip as a cultured alternative art-rock band in the vein of REM and Talking Heads, and those who see them as hard-rocking hometown heroes like Rush and April Wine was perhaps exemplified by a line from Sloan’s 1994 single “Coax Me”: “It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans.”
As John Mazerolle wrote in the Globe and Mail in 2016, “The band offers up enough contradictions to give many different people something to latch onto: an alternative band on mainstream radio; a shy lyricist who dances on stage like no one is watching; Canadian lyrics that are never nationalistic.” On this last count, Downie expressed in a 1996 interview his interest in expressing “the Canada of the Self and not the Canada that is sold to us.” (See also A Place to Happen.)
In their 2001 book Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995, Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider wrote that “the Tragically Hip's music has tapped into a well of youthful Canadian energy. It has become an entity that embodies the long-held virtues of rock and roll, but more importantly, the indelible qualities that each person in attendance feels identifies them as Canadian…. The Canadiana references therefore became guideposts into a song’s depths, and the resulting marriage of language and music produced an invigorating experience that had never been so directly aimed at young Canadians before.”
“We've never consciously tried to elicit a patriotic response from our fans, nor have we tried to embody that in our lyrics… You write about what you know, stories that move you in some way, or about themes you want to explore. Over the years, we have written some songs that refer to Canadian events specifically, and others that reflect our response as Canadians to other themes and issues, because of who we are and how we've been raised. That's where it begins and ends for us… If some of our fans can only identify with us on a nationalistic level, instead of a musical one, then I think that reflects more on them than it does on us. Travelling abroad as much as we do has led us to appreciate where we live and who we are and I think our work reflects that; but we have definitely learned that there is no one distinct Canadian voice. All perspectives are valid.” — bassist Gord Sinclair
Gord Downie released three solo projects: Coke Machine Glow (an album and a book of poetry by the same name) in 2001; Battle of the Nudes in 2003; and The Grand Bounce in 2010. He collaborated with Canadian alt-country band The Sadies on Gord Downie, The Sadies and the Conquering Son (2014). Downie also had a cameo in the Joshua Jackson cross-Canada road trip movie One Week (2008), in which he plays a cancer survivor who advocates marijuana use as a remedy.
Paul Langlois founded the Ching Music record label in 2005 to issue The High Cost of Low Living, the debut solo album from Headstones frontman and actor Hugh Dillon. Langlois released his first solo album, Fix This Head, in 2010. He followed it with Not Guilty in 2013.
Rob Baker formed the band Stripper’s Union with Odds member Craig Northey. The group issued Stripper's Union Local 518 in 2004 and The Deuce in 2011. Johnny Fay also played in a group called The Stellar Band of Neighbours. Gord Sinclair produced a 2010 album by Peterborough rock band The Spades titled Subatomic.
The Tragically Hip launched its “Another Roadside Attraction” tour in 1993 with a lineup that included Midnight Oil, Daniel Lanois, Crash Vegas and Hothouse Flowers. Together these five acts released the charity single “Land” (1993) to protest clear-cutting in British Columbia. The tour was reprised in 1995 and 1997. All three editions raised money for various charities and included international acts as well as Canadians, such as Ron Sexsmith, Rheostatics, Spirit of the West, Eric’s Trip and The Inbreds.
The group also staged numerous fundraising concerts for Camp Trillium, an Ontario recreation and support centre for children with cancer. The Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research was established by the Sunnybrook Foundation in 2016.
In May 2017, the band announced that they had entered into an investment and marketing partnership with Newstrike Brands Ltd., a producer of medical marijuana. In January 2018, the band helped finance Newstrike’s acquisition of CanniMed Therapeutics Inc., a licensed marijuana producer. The band’s share in the company was estimated to be worth $39 million.
The Tragically Hip were inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2002 and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2005. As the Toronto Star’s Ben Rayner pointed out in reference to the Hall of Fame induction, “To put how quickly that honour was bestowed on the Hip somewhat into perspective, this meant that the band made it into the Hall of Fame ahead of Bryan Adams, k.d. lang, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Burton Cummings, April Wine and Loverboy, all artists who’d been performing far longer than the Hip.”
In 2008, the band was awarded the National Arts Centre Award at the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards. In conjunction with the event, the National Film Board produced the short documentary Family Band. Also in 2008, when the K-Rock Centre opened in Kingston, the street it is on was named The Tragically Hip Way in the band’s honour. They were also the inaugural act at the venue. In 2010, PlayStation 3 added “Blow at High Dough” to its popular game Rock Band.
Canada Post recognized the group’s influence when it issued a Tragically Hip postage stamp in 2013, along with stamps portraying fellow bands Rush, The Guess Who and Beau Dommage. Stoney Ridge Winery introduced Fully Completely Grand Reserve Red (2014) and Ahead By A Century (2016), a VQA Chardonnay, in honour of the band.
The Tragically Hip were described by Spirit of the West’s Vince Ditich as “a garage rock band with a gifted poet at the helm” The band proved that it was possible to be distinctly, idiosyncratically Canadian and have a hugely successful career in Canada, even without the benefit of success in larger markets. They were a key inspiration for many contemporary and younger Canadian bands that followed, often mentoring younger musicians and touring with emerging bands to help them establish themselves.
Dave Bidini of the Rheostatics once told the CBC, “They’re both square and weird at the same time, which is kind of like Canada in a way. One of the reasons the Hip are popular is because they are different.” Sarah Harmer said, “Culturally and emotionally, and as a sense of identity, the Hip have really sustained people in this country over the years, and just given us new ideas about ourselves and about our history.”
Filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who used a cover of “Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)” sung by Sarah Polley in his film The Sweet Hereafter (1997), said “Gord’s lyrics are just so rich, so allusive and so full of possible interpretation and meaning, as any great poetry is.” The band’s songs have also been used in other Canadian films and television shows, including Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996), Trailer Park Boys: The Movie (2001), Men With Brooms (2002) and Corner Gas. “Ahead by a Century” was used as the title song in the CBC/Netflix adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, Anne with an E (2017–19). In 2014, Juno Award-winning folk singer singer-songwriter Justin Rutledge released a tribute album titled Daredevil, consisting of his covers of 10 Tragically Hip songs.
Novelist Joseph Boyden has observed that, “What Gord is able to do is to capture a novel’s worth of content and beauty in a single song.” Singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith echoed the opinion of many when he said, “In some ways, they’ve become the ultimate Canadian band — an enigma to the rest of the world perhaps, but our enigma.”
See also Gord Downie, Ahead by a Century; A Place to Happen; Canadian Rock Music Explodes; Canadian Rock Music on a Roll.
- Most Promising Group of the Year (1990)
- Canadian Entertainer of the Year (1991)
- Canadian Entertainer of the Year (1993)
- Entertainer of the Year (1995)
- Group of the Year (1995)
- Group of the Year (1997)
- Rock Album of the Year (Trouble at the Henhouse) (1997)
- Album of the Year (Trouble at the Henhouse) (1997)
- Best Rock Album (Phantom Power) (1999)
- Best Single ("Bobcaygeon") (2000)
- Best Rock Album (Music @ Work) (2001)
- Inductees, Canadian Music Hall of Fame (2005)
- Music DVD of the Year (Hipeponymous) (2006)
- Music DVD of the Year (Bobcaygeon) (2013)
- Group of the Year (2017)
- Rock Album of the Year (Man Machine Poem) (2017)
- Humanitarian Award (2021)
MuchMusic Video Awards
- Best Video (“Locked in the Trunk of a Car”) (1993)
- Fan Fave Video (“At The Hundredth Meridian”) (1993)
- Best Video (“Ahead by a Century”) (1996)
- Best Cinematography (“Gift Shop”) 1997
- National Achievement Award (1997)
- Canada’s Walk of Fame (2002)
- Honorary Fellowships, Royal Conservatory of Music (2006)
- Governor General’s Performing Arts Award (2008)
- Honorary Degrees, Queen’s University (2016)