Canada is in the grip of a collective obsession. On August 21st, nearly a third of the country’s population – 11.7m people – tuned into a concert by the rock band The Tragically Hip. It was broadcast live by Canada’s state-owned media company CBC, interrupting its Olympic coverage. “The sounds of The Hip have been the soundtrack of my life”, said the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, as he entered the K-Rock stadium in the band’s hometown, Kingston, Ontario.
Staying in a remote log cabin with unreliable internet access, I had to depend on a radio for news of the outside world. Yet every time I switched it on there seemed to be another item on The Hip. CBC’s listeners were invited to nominate their favourite song by the group, and panel upon panel was convened to discuss the importance of the band, who formed in 1983.
In May, it was announced that Gord Downie, the 52-year-old lead singer, had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive and incurable brain cancer. It made headline news. Following radiation treatment, chemotherapy and surgery Downie was pronounced healthy enough to do a ten-stop, cross-Canada tour, which the band has been careful not to call its last. Still, sympathy (tinged, perhaps, with an element of ghoulish voyeurism) does not fully explain why tickets to see The Hip sold out within minutes, nor why an estimated 25,000 people unable to get tickets to the final concert of the tour gathered outside the K-Rock stadium.
The scenes inside provided clues. Waiting for the show to start, fans passed a massive Canadian flag over their heads and launched into an impromptu rendition of “O Canada”, the national anthem. A significant slice of the population – predominantly white, English speakers – sees the The Hip as Canada’s band.
Stylistically, their music is – like Canadian identity – hard to describe. It ranges from folk to blues, to bar-band rock to full-on, stadium anthems. The metallic suits Downie favours hark back to the days of glam rock. But what elevated The Hip to iconic status in Canada was not their tunes – which are not exactly hummable – but their lyrics, which refer to places and events instantly recognisable to Canadians, and probably no one else.
Their songs are sprinkled with the names of small towns like Bobcaygeon, Ontario (“Bobcaygeon”), and remote areas like Clayquot Sound in British Columbia (“Silver Jet”) and Ile aux Morts in Newfoundland and Labrador (“The Dire Wolf”). They contain references to the ice storm of 1998, which killed 35 people (“Something On”); the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of a Canadian man, David Milgard, for a 1969 murder he did not commit (“Wheat Kings”) and the mysterious death in 1917 of wilderness painter Tom Thomson, who disappeared leaving only his canoe (“Three Pistols”).
Even Downie’s own plight has echoes of another famous Canadian, Terry Fox, who, having lost his lower right leg to cancer, ran thousands of miles across the country to raise funds for cancer research, before dying aged 22.
Without being strident or defensively nationalistic, The Hip inspire a quiet pride in being Canadian – something particularly marketable at a time when Trudeau’s brand of personality-driven politics is putting Canada in the spotlight internationally.
But despite selling more records to Canadians than The Beatles, The Hip has never gained much traction abroad, even among their closest neighbours. There is a feeling among Canadian musicians that you haven’t really made it until you make it in that huge, vibrant market to the south. A long line of stars, including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Céline Dion and Justin Bieber, have made the US their home.
The Tragically Hip were not immune to this magnetic pull. Yet despite touring America numerous times over the decades, their best showing on the Billboard Top 200 was a lowly 129 in 2012 for “Now for Plan A” (which, incidentally, was their worst-selling album in Canada). Far from damaging the band, however, their failure to make it in the States has been good PR for The Hip.
Canadians have a love-hate relationship with America, stretching right back to the country’s formation. Canada was hastily put together in 1867 by the British who feared that armed and dangerous Americans would turn their sights to the poorly defended British colonies to the north following the end of the civil war. Despite all the talk of being friendly neighbours over the years, fear of American economic and cultural domination lurks just below the surface of the Canadian psyche.
Listening to the songs of The Tragically Hip rule the country’s airwaves during what was probably their last concert, American cultural dominance couldn’t seem less likely. As Justin Trudeau told an interviewer, expressing the sentiments of millions of Canadians, “I’m so glad they are all ours.”