Formed in 1983 in Kingston, Ont, the band took its name from a skit in ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith’s movie, “Elephant Parts.” Fronted by Gordon Downie on vocals and guitars, the initial lineup also consisted of guitarist Bobby Baker, Gord Sinclair on bass, drummer Johnny Fay, and Davis Manning, briefly, on sax. They moved to Toronto and Manning was soon out, and guitarist Paul Langlois was in, and started building a following for their energetic live shows around the area. These often included many improvisations to the material, which would evolve into one of the band’s trademarks. Downie’s rants and rambles often become lyrics, and several live, unrehearsed guitar solos become the basis to future songs.|
While performing at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern one spring night in 1987, they were noticed by MCA president Bruce Dickinson. He signed them to a deal and sent them off to the other end of the city to Sounds Interchange and Phase One studios that same year with producer Ken Greer of Red Rider fame. The self-titled debut EP was released before year’s end to a Canadian only audience and little fanfare. Simplistic and raw, neither single, “Small Town Bringdown,” the band’s first video as well, about being trapped and wanting to escape to bigger and better things, or “Last American Exit” charted. Still, the label had confidence in the band, and they spent the next year on the regional circuit with a few jaunts out west and south of the border – all the while writing more original material. Five other tracks were contained on the record, including what would later be a hit, “Highway Girl,” which told the story of a troubled teen’s suicide.
For the next project, they were shipped to Memphis in the spring of ’89 to work with Don Smith, and the result later that year was the album that practically made them a household name overnight . UP TO HERE was an instant hit at home and turned several ears in the US as well. From the lead-off “Blow At High Dough” to the final chords of “Opiated,” the album bristled with energy and was one of four singles to crack the top 20. “New Orleans Is Sinking,” which over the years became one of the band’s most anticipated live songs because of Downie’s improvisations, “Boots Or Hearts,” and “38 Years Old,” the fictional account of a convict’s escape from Kingston’s Millhaven Institution, all helped turn the album triple platinum. The band toured across Canada and into the US for the better part of a year and a half. The next year they recieved the Juno Award for Most Promising Group.
Expecting to duplicate the success, Smith was brought back for the next album, ROAD APPLES. Recorded again in New Orleans, it was released in February of ’91 and picked up where its predecessor left off. Following the success of the singles “Little Bones,” “Long Time Running,” “On The Verge,” and “Three Pistols,” about Canadian painter Tom Thomson, as well as Remembrance Day, all fuelled the band’s relentless touring across the continent. “Three Pistols” was just one of several lyrical references to the band’s native homeland that it would gain a reputation for. “The Luxury” refers to Quebec’s symbol – the fleur-de-lis, provincial symbol of Quebec. “Born in the Water” is about the controversy surrounding Ontario municipalities declaring themselves “English-only” in the dying days of the Meech Lake Accord debate. In order to capitalize on their upcoming tour of Australia, “Twist My Arm” became the fifth single. By the time the returned home over a year later, they’d become one of Canada’s hottest commodities, and captured the Juno for Canadian Entertainer of the Year.
Recorded in London with Chris Tsangarides, FULLY COMPLETELY was next up in 1992, and in many ways was a huge step away from the charged up blues-inspired sound on earlier records. Lyrically, the album often alternated between despair and mere pessimism. “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” is sort of a fictional first-hand account of a serial killer from his eyes, and became the band’s first chart topper. “Courage” is inspired by a chapter in Hugh MacLennan’s book “The Watch That Ends the Night,” interpreted by some people to be about someone’s contemplations of suicide. “Fifty Mission Cap” is about Toronto Maple Leaf Bill Barilko, who mysteriously disappeared in 1951, while the other two singles, “At The Hundredth Meridian” and “Looking For A Place To Happen” helped keep the band on the charts over the next year, topping RPM’s charts for the first time. Other noteable tracks included “Wheat Kings,” about David Milgaard, wrongfully convicted of murder in the 1960s. “Pigeon Camera” tells the real life First World War story of pigeons that had cameras attached to their legs and used as spy tools.
In ’93 they released the video called HEKSENKETEL, which means “witches cauldron” in Dutch, documenting life on the road with the band and crew during the “Another Roadside Attraction” tour, which would become a staple of the summer festivals across the country. Heksenketel was originally the name of this tour before it was changed, which attracts thousands of people each at each stop and highlights not only their own performances, but dozens of other acts, as well. Despite all their success at home, the American market was still for the most part unattained, although a US deal through Atlantic was signed.
The band returned to New Orleans for the majority of the recording of 1994’s DAY FOR NIGHT with Mark Howard behind the controls, along with some by Mark Vreeken back home in Kingston. Overall, the record has a more mellow vibe than its predecessor, but still retains some of the dark flavours of FULLY COMPLETELY. Five singles were released – “Grace, Too,” “Greasy Jungle,” “So Hard Done By,” “Nautical Disaster,” and “Scared” made the record the band’s most commercially successful to date. Part of this is due to the band’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live” early the next year.
TROUBLE AT THE HENHOUSE, released in May of ’96, became the band’s fifth record to at least go gold. Backed by one of their most successful singles to date, “Ahead By A Century,” “Gift Shop,” “700 Ft. Ceiling,” “Flamenco,” and “Butts Wigglin’,” more tours ensued, and the band captured the Junos the next year for Rock Album and Group of the Year. “Butts Wigglin'” was used on the soundtrack to the Kids in The Hall movie, “Brain Candy.”
The 1996 show in Detroit became the basis for the band’s first live record, LIVE BETWEEN US, releaesd the following year. But The Hip was still having problems getting airplay in the US, with Atlantic choosing not to distribute the album Stateside, which the band did itself. The album’s title came inadvertently from ex sax player Davis Manning. One evening following a show while the band was still based in Kingston, he graffiti’d a wall with the phrase ‘The Hip live between us,’ along with a weeping eye and a shooting star – apparently in reference to his girlfriend at the time. He eventually chose the girl and left the band. The mural stood until 2005, and the band used a photo of it for the album’s cover, and featured 14 of the tracks that had formulated their career, including several of Downie’s now-infamous improvisations. In fact, Downie begins several other artists’ songs on the record, including David Bowie’s “China Girl,” The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” Jane Siberry‘s “The Temple” and The Rheostatics’ “Bad Time to Be Poor.” In the week following the album’s release, Canadian radio stations played it so extensively that eight songs appeared in the week’s Top 20 singles chart. The album topped Canada’s chart.
Under the realm of new distributor Universal Records, PHANTOM POWER hit the record shelves in ’98, recorded in Kingston and produced primarily by Steve Berlin. It spawned five singles – “Poets,” “Something On,” recorded while band was stuck in the studio during the infamous ice storm of 1998 that brought havoc to much of Ontario, Quebec and the north eastern US, “Bobcaygeon,” “Fireworks.” and “Escape Is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man, a tribute to suicide victim Jim Ellison of Material Issue, all pushed the album gold on the heels of constant touring at home, in the US, and abroad. The band received Junos in ’99 for Best Rock Album and Best Album Design, and Single of The Year in 2000 for “Bobcaygeon.” That same year, the song “Emergency” appeared on the ’30 Hour Famine’ compilation album.
The band utilized Berlin and Mark Vreeken again for the highly anticipated follow-up, MUSIC AT WORK. With a title taken from a Toronto radio station slogan, it was released in 2000 and debuted at the top of the Canadian albums chart, making it their sixth straight album to do so. It was observed by some critics to be a radical departure from previous works on many levels, but one thing that remained constant were the string of singles. It eventually went double platinum on the back of the success of “My Music At Work,” “The Completists,” and “Lake Fever.” The album would eventually capture more Junos for the band, winning the 2001 award for Best Rock Album.
IN VIOLET LIGHT saw the light of day in the summer of ’02. Recorded primarily in Nassau with producer Hugh Padgham, it was packaged with a membership card for the band’s online fan club, which offered three bonus tracks for download – “Forest Edge”, “Problem Bears,” and “Ultra Mundane”. The whimsical video for “The Darkest One” featured Don Cherry and the Trailer Park Boys. That fall, they also had opportunity to play in front of your queen during a ceremony in Ottawa, where they performed “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken” and “Poets.”
The band contributed to the album BEAUTIFUL – A TRIBUTE TO GORDON LIGHTFOOT in 2003, covering “Black Day In July,” about the 1967 12th Street riot in Detroit. A few months later in ’04 their version of “All Tore Up” was featured on the Xbox video game “NHL Rivals 2004,” the first time their music was licensed for such purposes.
This was just prior to the release of the band’s tenth studio effort, IN BETWEEN EVOLUTION. The band wanted fresh ideas and environment, so it was recorded in Seattle’s Studio X by producer Adam Kasper. The album debuted atop of Canada’s chart, and saw four singles released, all of which cracked the top 20 – “Vaccination Scar,” “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” (which was also featured on an episode of the TV program “Corner Gas”), “Summer’s Killing Us,” and “Gus: The Polar Bear from Central Park.” Other noteable cuts from the album included “Heaven Is A Btter Place Today,” which was about both Dan Snyder, the Atlanta Thrasher who died in a horrific auto collision only months prior to the album’s release, as well as the young men and women who were fighting in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Three Ontario shows from the subsequent tour were releasedas online downloads, recorded in Toronto, London, and Ottawa.
The following spring, the band received a star on the Canadian Walk of Fame. In November, HIPEPONYMOUS was released. The 4-cd box set included an animated short film with the band doing the score called “The Right Whale” (which also featured two new songs) on one disc, 37 songs picked by 150,000 fans on the ‘best of’ disc, the full show from a different Toronto concert on the previous tour on DVD, and 23 music videos spanning the band’s career on another DVD. A week later, the ‘best of’ disc was issued as YER FAVOURITES and the Toronto concert was released as THAT NIGHT IN TORONTO. Also in 2005, the band performed a three-song set during the Barrie, Ont portion of the Live 8 concert. Joining them on stage playing harmonica was Dan Ackroyd, who also guest hosted SNL years ealier when the band was the musical guests. In an effort to expand his horizons, guitarist Bobby Baker also formed a side project entitled Stripper’s Union Local 518, and released their self-titled debut that year.
The band never really took little time off from the road during this period, only stopping sporadically long enough in the spring to hit the studios in Toronto, Vancouver, and Hawaii with producer Bob Rock. The result was WORLD CONTAINER, released in the fall of ’06. “In View” was the first single, and topped Canada’s chart. It was followed by “The Lonely End of the Rink,” a hockey player’s lament which was featured on “Hockey Night In Canada” on several occasions, “Yer Not the Ocean,” and “Family Band.” As the album continued to climb the charts on its way to double platinum status, they continued touring across North America and overseas for more than a year, including opening dates for TheWho in several US cities.
Rock was brought back as producer for the band’s next release, 2009’s WE ARE THE SAME. As a promotional stunt, the CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos interviewed the band at their Bathouse Studio in Bath, Ont. The feed was shown live in over 80 theatres across Canada. Fans could pick up a copy of the new disc for only a loonie more than the price of admission. The first single, “Love Is a First,” reached #22 on Canada’s Hot 100 chart, and was followed by “Speed River” and “Morning Moon.”
That same year, LIVE FROM THE VAULTS was released, featuring a concert performance from the DAY FOR NIGHT tour in ’94.