Downie and The Hip paved the way for a Canadian music scene
For many Canadians, Gord Downie’s death marks the loss of a national icon. The outpouring of public grief and appreciation for the Tragically Hip’s frontman is well-deserved.
For over 30 years, they travelled the country performing their unique blend of bluesy rock and roll, their songs peppered with lyrical references drawn from Canadian history, geography, and popular culture. In so doing, they became Canada’s house-band, uniting Canadians and becoming as iconic as Canadian Tire, Tim Hortons, and hockey.
But while I appreciate and understand the national outpouring, Gord’s death is a bit more personal for me. I went to high school — Kingston Collegiate Vocational Institute — with the members of the Tragically Hip. Robbie Baker and Gord Sinclair were a year ahead of me, Johnny Fay was a couple of years behind, but Paul Langlois and Gord Downie were in my classes and we played high school sports together. At Queen’s University, Gord, Paul, and I would work as teaching assistants for the Queen’s Summer School of English. As a result, I was fortunate to witness the genesis of the Hip.
Before The Hip were Canada’s band they were Ontario’s band, before that a Kingston band, and before that a Queen’s University band. And even before they were The Hip, they were in a collection of KCVI bands. In the early 1980s, KCVI was not short of musical talent. High school bands included members like Hugh Dillon who went on to form the Headstones, Finny McConnell and Andrew Brown who started The Mahones, and, of course, members of the Tragically Hip who had been in The Rodents, The Slinks, and the Filters.
So it’s no surprise that by the mid-1980s Kingston had a growing music scene. Bars and pubs, like Alfie’s, the Terrapin Tavern, the Manor, and the Dukes were alive with great music of all kinds. And it wasn’t just local bands. A veritable who’s-who of Canadian rock and pop-music all cut their teeth playing regularly at Kingston’s various venues, as they did in numerous other Canadian cities: Rush, April Wine, Triumph, Max Webster, Teenage Head, K.D. Lang, Jeff Healy, 54-40, Rheostatics, the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Cowboy Junkies, Sarah McLachlan, Sloan, to name just a few.
When The Hip weren’t playing, they were always taking in the music scene and encouraging friends to come out and discover new music. They were passionate about music and didn’t care if they had never heard of the band before. The fun was to discover a new band before anyone else had heard of them and turn others on to them. They never lost this passion. This was a central idea behind their Roadside Attraction summer tours — bringing along bands that THEY loved, that THEY wanted Canadians to hear.
By the time The Hip started performing in 1984, the first line-up didn’t include Paul Langlois, but instead had saxophonist Davis Manning. Their repertoire was largely 1960s rhythm and blues, early Rolling Stones, Yard Birds, Pretty Things, the Animals, CCR, and, yes, even the Monkees (their cover of “Steppin’ Stone” was unreal!). They played very few contemporary covers — a hilarious “We got the Beat” by the Go-Gos being one of the few exceptions — and this often worked against them. In the summer of 1985, Paul and I were running around town putting up Tragically Hip posters and trying to get as many people out to the shows as possible. At first it was a tough sell. Sadly, people aren’t easily persuaded to take a chance on new bands, especially a band playing “old” ’60s tunes. Some of the early gigs were, sadly, poorly attended.
But they never gave up. Slowly, a following grew largely because of the energy and tightness of the band, and Gord’s legendary antics on stage. Some of the early gigs at The Terrapin were electric. Some 200 people jammed tightly in a 100-capacity bar, dancing wildly, urged on by a gyrating, leaping, jumping Gord, his long locks thrashing the air, drenching the fans pressed tight to the stage with his sweat, who welcomed it with hands raised, like manna from the gods. The Hip played the night The Terrapin closed down and the crowd got really rowdy, egged on by Gord. I remember him admonishing the crowd to support live music and keep music venues alive.
When Davis left and Paul joined The Hip in 1986, they began to slowly integrate more and more of their original music, some of which became well-known hits, others that were never recorded (including a very funky “Freeform Baptist Blues” which always got people up dancing). The next few years were busy years as the band was constantly on the road touring across the country and earned the reputation as Canada’s hardest working band. Playing the same songs night after night in small venues, for little or no money — sometimes being ripped off and treated horribly by bar owners and venue mangers — they certainly paid their professional dues in spades.
Their first video was “Small Town Bringdown” and it was shot at the Manor, just down from the Kingston Penitentiary. This was an incredible night. A bunch of us had been invited. The live part took three takes, but we didn’t mind, we kept dancing and groovin’. We knew the boys were good, but that night we knew The Hip were going places. By 1990, they were awarded the most promising Group of the Year at the Junos and the following year, Entertainer of the Year. After that, as they say, the rest is history.
The music scene in Kingston remains as solid as ever. Over the years, a number of successful artists and bands formed in the fertile musical furrows ploughed by The Hip — in addition to The Headstones and The Mahones, there were The Inbreds, The Arrogant Worms, Sarah Harmer, Bedouin Soundclash, and The Abram Brothers. In one way or another, they all owe a lot to The Hip.
I’ll always remember the early days of the Tragically Hip. As a sociologist, I am intrigued by the impact my hometown band has had on the Canadian national identity. But there’s another dimension. I’m also interested in the role music scenes have on creating public spaces that contribute as community hubs that bring friends and neighbours together. As a volunteer music programmer for Rose City Roots Music Society and the Bailey Theatre, The Hip’s early road tales motivate me to ensure that bands are paid fairly and treated well. But more than anything, The Hip’s passion for discovering new music lingers with me.
My fellow board members and I continue to search for, book, and promote new bands and artists. It makes for memorable nights and unforgettable performances — like when the Sheepdogs performed at Scalliwags well before they made the cover of Rolling Stone.
We’d love the music scene in Camrose to continue to grow and we encourage people to take in live music whether it is at the Bailey, the Lougheed Performing Arts Centre, the Alice, the Windsor, or wherever. There are a lot of undiscovered and under-appreciated musicians out there and you never know who’s going to grace your local stages.
Thanks, Gord. You are one-of-a-kind.