Earlier this month we heard a band paying tribute to a deceased member, the new Stranglers single “If You Should See Dave”, for their late keyboard player Dave Greenfield. Today we have an even spookier sort of shout-out from beyond the grave. Two days ago Canada’s eternally-popular Tragically Hip released a new record – Saskadelphia. The six song album/EP comes almost four years after the sad death of the band’s charismatic singer/lyricist, Gord Downie.
Now, this came as a surprise to the legion of Canadian fans, in no small part due to the fact that the remaining quartet of the Hip clearly stated upon Downie’s death due to cancer that it was the end of the Tragically Hip. They’d had a great run of over 30 years, putting out 14 platinum-selling albums there, winning 16 Juno Awards and performing in front of the Prime Minister in a nationally-televised concert. But without Downie, there was no Tragically Hip. So just how do we have a new album?
Well, turns out it’s an honest release, not some change of heart cash-grab with a new singer. The songs on Saskadelphia were recorded in 1990 in New Orleans as part of their recording session for the album which became Road Apples. Diehard fans might recall that the former was actually the band’s choice of album names, but the record company thought it too hard to spell and too Canadian-sounding, so Road Apples – another very Canuck term – was used instead. At the time, the band had a huge amount of material and wanted to put out a double-album but MCA quashed that idea. After all, at the time, they were still a young band whose debut album, Up to Here, had done fairly well (cracking the top 10) at home, but they were still a long ways from being a household name yet. They whittled it down to a single album. Canadian music historian Alan Cross suggests that some of the last tracks used came down to a coin toss by the band. That single album became their first #1 hit. Needless to say, this meant there were unreleased tracks left behind.
Which is where the story gets a bit odd. They likely didn’t think much about those songs when they were rolling along with a string of new hits, Fast forward about 17 years and there was the gigantic Universal Studios fire which wiped out thousands upon thousands of original recordings stored by Universal Music. The Hip were told their masters, including these outtakes, were among them. Gone forever.
However, as it turns out for some odd reason Universal in California had sent the Tragically Hip material back to Canada in 2001, which probably gives you an idea of the parent company’s appraisal of the band’s worldwide commercial appeal. Somehow, the band found out about this and went looking. According to Cross, who has an interview with the four remaining members coming up soon, the boxes weren’t labeled at all so it was a tedious process to find any new songs. Then the tapes had to be “baked” before using to keep the 30-year + old tapes from breaking up when played. Eventually they were usable and digitized, with five of the originals appearing on the new record. One track though, “Montreal”, was a part of that recording session, but they couldn’t locate the original master. The version on Saskadelphia was recorded live, in Montreal appropriately enough, in 2001. They were appearing on the 11th anniversary of a horrific college shooting in the city, which opaquely inspired the song. They remembered the tune and decided to play it there. Johnny Fay of the band says “Downie wasn’t quite sure about the lyrics” but remarkably they found them online and “he did a quick once over and said, ‘OK, we got this!’”.
Hearing the “lost” songs was quite an experience for the band themselves. Rob Baker says “I went ‘wow’ when I heard ‘Ouch’ (one of the new tracks) after all this time. We were a pretty good little band!”
Fans will no doubt agree when they hear Saskadelphia, which was released on Friday on vinyl, CD or digital copies.
Initial listens suggest that the six, including “Ouch”, “Not Necessary” and “Reformed Baptist Blue” sound quite inline with the band’s early-’90s work we’re familiar with, a jaunty blues rock sound with poetic lyrics, little surprise given the history of the recording. But for fans, it’ll be a great reminder that indeed, they were a “pretty good little band.”