I remember when the first full-length release from the Tragically Hip arrived at my college radio station. It was at the beginning of my second year, when my footing was a little sounder and I finally had an inkling of the rhythms of the calendar when it came to new music pitched at student broadcasters. There was a certain confidence on the part of MCA Records, the major label that was home to the Canadian band, in putting the album in college organization mailboxes around September of 1989. It was right at the start of the school year, as many students were returning from summers at home, desperate to cleanse their ears and minds of the barrage of insipid pop hits that romped all over commercial radio. So there were all sorts of major left-of-the-dial bands — like Love and Rockets, Big Audio Dynamite, and Camper Van Beethoven — all lined up, ready to compete for the attention of those eager student programmers. A new band with an odd but cool name was facing stiff competition.
But the Tragically Hip had sleeves full of aces. As much as college radio could quickly fall sway to acts with offbeat musical innovations or a snarky sense of humor (matching the prevailing sensibility of the twenty-ish self-defined outcasts who were signing transmitters logs at stations coast to coast), there was a more straightforward quality that was equally rare and treasured. The Tragically Hip exuded a rough-hewn authenticity that played particularly well for those student broadcasters — like, for example, me — whose formative music experiences came a few years earlier, when Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp made their rock ‘n’ roll stands for the heartland. We spent a lot of time chasing music that was aggressive, brash, intoxicating, distracting in its pounding insistence on upending the norm. But there was still a pleasure in material that was earnest and true, inviting head bobs of recognition as the songs played out.
Up to Here opens perfectly, with the thumping, building “Blow at High Dough.” It’s deeply satisfying, in an irresistible stick-to-the-ribs way. But it stands apart from some of the most notable college rock singles of that era in that it also stirs interest to hear what else this band can do, how they can expand and challenge and bends the most familiar tones of rock ‘n’ roll to their collective will. Lead singer Gord Downie makes every word sound like pure testimony, so he immediately convinces that he can — and should — be followed anywhere. To put in plainly, as fine as the song is on its own, it’s the inherent promise that there is more like this — and the performers obviously have the chops to deliver the goods endlessly —that makes it special.
Although all journeys — intellectual, personal, creative — must end at some point, resonant memories of the beginning can make even the most trodden path look new again when the time for reflection arrives. And no matter what happens, the music endures, offering a sort of renewal every time it plays again.
Listen or download –> The Tragically Hip, “Blow at High Dough”
(Disclaimer: I’m not sure about the status of Up to Here, or any of the albums in the Tragically Hips catalog. Since the band was consistently celebrated in their Canadian homeland, I assume most of the releases are readily available. So I share this track in this space at this time not as a replacement for commerce, but as encouragement to engage with it. Head out to your favorite local, independently-owned record store and see what’s there. It’s all worthwhile. Although I mean no fiscal harm to anyone in sharing this song, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove it from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)