The Tragically Hip’s inability to gain any recognition in this country is mind-blowing to me. It’s not just because I’m a fan, but because A) in Canada, they are U2, REM, and The Beatles rolled into one. B) if Nickelback can cross over, then really, WTF, USA?
If there was ever an opportunity for the band to break through it was in the mid-nineties: REM was hugely popular, and The Tragically Hip’s lead singer/holder of one of the most Canadian names ever, Gordie Downie, has that Michael Stipe-like warble. Plus the band has never shied away from acoustic instrumentation. Dan Ackroyd, a proud Canuck, pushed to have the band on Saturday Night Live in 1995, but the appearance went nowhere, largely because their main single from Day For Night, the album they were promoting, was an overwrought, chorus-less not-ballad called “A Nautical Disaster,” that, from what could be gathered from the discernible lyrics, was about an actual nautical disaster (and include an awkward yelping of the words “the coast of France!”).
Keep in mind that, around the same time period, the band was headlining festivals in Canada and playing to 70,000 people. Their problem wasn’t that nobody liked the music; just nobody liked it here, not even in the world of commodified alternative whatever, where every other band being pushed by major label subsidiaries was an REM knock-off. The single from their record after that, Trouble At The Henhouse, was called “Ahead By A Century,” and while it had an actual chorus, an electric guitar doesn’t appear until halfway through the song, and drums don’t drop in until the end, while warbling persists throughout. It might have had a better chance here, but they stuck to Canada, where they have since performed for the Queen, won every imaginable award, and stayed as relevant for three decades as they’ve remained irrelevant here.
There have been many bands over the years that have cultivated an intense regional fanbase without larger recognition; D Generation used to sell out Irving Plaza in New York without being able to draw small club crowds on tour, The Insane Clown Posse are cult-inspiring in Detroit and a joke most everywhere else, and there are too many huge-only-in-England bands to count. Even the huge-in-England bands are known-on-college-radio in the US, however, and there’s a big difference between having a large audience in only one city without branching out and being the biggest rock band in the history of a country and having zero name recognition 100 miles to the south.
Even if you don’t like “The Hip,” as they are called (and frankly, I don’t), their almost-total invisibility in the US is still odd. I doubt the band cares—nothing is more Canadian than having ambivalent feelings about the US, and this a band who appeared on a Gordon Lightfoot Tribute album and has a place on the Canadian Walk of Fame. But America should care, at least a fraction as much as they once cared about The Barenaked Ladies, and yet, as surely as I know that the clearest words to that song are “the coast of France!”, I know America will not.