Archivaria article on the Tragically Hip

“In this gradual transformation of the archivist from passive keeper guarding the past to active mediator self-consciously shaping society’s collective memory, the archive(s) itself is changed from an unquestioned storehouse of history waiting to be found to itself becoming a contested site for identity and memory formation.”

— Terry Cook, “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country,” Canadian Historical Review 90, no. 3 (2009), p. 533

“Our conversation is as faint a sound in my memory
As those fingernails scratching on my hull.”

— The Tragically Hip, “Nautical Disaster,” Day for Night (1994)

Terry Cook’s comments on the changing role of archives invite us to reconsider who is doing the work of archiving in the present, especially in contexts where traditional archival institutions haven’t always ventured. In an article just published in Archivaria, titled “Looking for a Place to Happen: Collective Memory, Digital Archiving, and The Tragically Hip,” I look at the online archival practices of fans of Canada’s most popular rock band. A public version of the article is available via the University of Toronto’s institutional repository (with thanks to Archivaria for their open-access and self-archiving policy):

Alan Galey, “Looking for a Place to Happen: Collective Memory, Digital Music Archiving, and The Tragically Hip,” Archivaria 86 (2018): 6-43. [https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/92528]

Although Canada is home to some excellent music archives — including the Media Commons Archives at my home institution — the field is still challenged by questions about how best to preserve something as ordinary (and extraordinary) as a concert tour. This post describes some of the themes that I develop in more detail in the article, and also provides some links to images and audio recordings that I wasn’t able to include in the published article. (If you’re here for the audio links, just skip down to the end.)

We can learn a lot from The Tragically Hip as a case-study in digital archiving by online communities for a few reasons. For one, The Hip had a longstanding policy of allowing audience taping of their concerts for non-commercial purposes. As with The Grateful Dead and other taping-friendly bands, a large corpus of fan-curated performances accumulated over The Hip’s 30+ years of touring. Much of this material has made its way online, especially thanks to the website HipBase.com, which functions as a setlist archive and digital repository for audience recordings (and a few FM radio broadcasts). As longtime Hip fans know, these recordings can shed light on the band’s songwriting process thanks to lead singer Gord Downie’s tendency to experiment with lyrics in performance, ranging from dropped-in phrases to whole stories told mid-song — any of which might show up in songs on the next album. For this reason, not to mention Gord’s and the band’s typically energetic delivery, no two Hip shows are exactly alike, and their live performances offer a glimpse into their songwriting workshop.

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The Tragically Hip performing at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on the 2016 Man Machine Poem Tour. Uncredited image from a Toronto Maple Leafs Twitter post on 18 October 2016.

In addition to fans’ online curation of Hip recordings as history, another reason to consider The Hip from an archival perspective is that their music is so often about Canadian history. Some have blamed this for their relative lack of popularity outside of Canada, but it undoubtedly contributes to their massive popularity within their home country.

For example, in the foreground of the image above hangs the retired #5 banner for legendary Maple Leafs defenseman Bill Barilko, whose mysterious disappearance is the subject of the song “Fifty Mission Cap” (with lyrics adapted from a hockey card). When the band would perform the song at the Air Canada Centre, and especially in its predecessor, Fifty Mission Cap, Toronto 1995Maple Leaf Gardens (where Barilko played with the Leafs), the Toronto audiences would usually go nuts. The image on the right comes from a video of a 1995 concert in Maple Leaf Gardens, apparently shot with a video camera hidden under a coat, and shows the climactic moment when the song was first performed on Bill Barilko’s home ice on the Day for Night tour. Barilko’s banner would be visible to the crowd thanks to the stage lights which illuminate the arena during each chorus. (You can find the video here; the song starts at about 26 minutes. See also Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack, and Jason Schneider’s discussion of this moment in their book Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance, 1985–1995, rev. ed. [Toronto: ECW Press, 2011], p. 611.)

The band’s songs are filled with enigmatic historical references to Canada and beyond — though not usually in a straightforward name-checking, historical-plaque kind of way, but more often with a poetic twist that complicates how we relate to the idea of history. For a band that’s so closely associated with Canada as a nation, right down to the Canadian flags in their logo and merchandise, their music is anything but jingoistic nationalism. The complexity and topicality of the Hip’s lyrics has inspired an unusual amount of research and interpretation by fans, best represented by Stephen Dame’s website, A Museum After Dark.

Finally, the Hip should be of particular interest as a case-study in music archiving because their final tour, in 2016, took place after Gord Downie had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Although the band did not frame it as a farewell tour — it was ostensibly the summer tour for their new album, Man Machine Poem — the public knowledge about Gord’s diagnosis meant that fans were certain they were seeing the Hip for the last time on stage. When I was lucky enough to see them play in Toronto on August 12th, it was the most emotional concert I’d ever seen, and likely ever will. Also one of the best.

From an archival perspective, this was an extraordinary set of circumstances thanks to a fan community who were already used to documenting the band’s performances with great care, but who were now attending concerts (if they could get tickets) with a sense of history unfolding before their eyes (and cellphone cameras), but also with a sense of how unique and special these performances were as live events.

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Fans gathered to watch The Tragically Hip’s final concert on a video screen in Kingston’s Springer Market Square near the Rogers K-Rock Centre arena, where the concert took place. Image courtesy of Kelly Turner.

It was such that the CBC took the unusual step of broadcasting the band’s final concert, in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, live and commercial-free. Not only that, but the CBC pre-empted their own primetime Olympics coverage to show the broadcast. The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was present (in jeans and a Hip t-shirt, just like everyone else). Thousands of people travelled to Kingston just to watch the concert outside the arena, and there were viewing parties all over the country in bars, backyards, and public parks. As I mention in the article, an estimated 11.7 million people watched the broadcast, which means that one-third of the population of Canada stopped what it was doing to watch a rock concert together.

I think there’s much here to be learned about communities, documents, performance, the experience of history, and especially the digital archiving that happens outside of traditional cultural heritage institutions. The Archivaria article unpacks these ideas in detail, and I don’t want to repeat too many of the same points here. However, one thing I wasn’t able to do in a traditional article format was integrate audio of the songs in question. I wrote this post and included some links below partly to make up for that.

As I was writing the piece during the spring and summer of 2018, I was re-listening to the Hip’s recordings to let the music and words sink in. Obviously the published studio and live albums were a big part of that, but I also had the good fortune to have access to the Doug McClement fonds at the University of Toronto’s Media Commons Archive. Doug McClement has worked as an audio engineer in Ontario since the late 1970’s, and the numerous archival boxes of DAT’s, CD’s, and other formats which he donated to U of T include numerous soundboard recordings of Hip concerts over the band’s career. (This collection is really amazing and extends well beyond The Hip. I’m planning another blog post about it down the road.)

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A peek inside one of many, many boxes of DAT soundboard recordings from the Doug McClement fonds at the University of Toronto’s Media Commons Archives.

For example, I remember when I first heard the soundboard recording of an extended version of “New Orleans Is Sinking,” performed at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, in 1991, which includes an alternate version of Gord’s famous “Killerwhaletank” story. Most fans probably know “Killerwhaletank” through this recording (sourced from a Westwood One radio broadcast of a 1991 show at The Roxy in West Hollywood, later released as a B-side on the “Long Time Running” single). But the Kingston version gave me the shivers when I heard a fragment of what would become “Nautical Disaster,” played over a climactic moment in Gord’s story about a hapless aquarium worker caught in a cetacean love triangle. It’s just a brief guitar figure played over two chords (Em–Dmaj), but it helped me understand how the band approached the relationship between performance and composition, and between the stage and the studio.

From that point I started trying to recover the live workshop moments that helped the band craft what would become the song “Nautical Disaster.” Thanks to the McClement fonds and HipBase.com, that involved listening to every surviving live recording of “New Orleans Is Sinking,” in order, during the years leading up to the release of “Nautical Disaster” on Day for Night in 1994. The funny thing about doing archival research on creative works is that sometimes the research process begins to take on the hue of the images and themes from the materials themselves. While attempting to follow “Nautical Disaster” through its composition history – that is, the incomplete history documented by live recordings – I couldn’t shake the uncanny connections to this song about an individual’s memories, told through images from a dream about the sinking of the Bismarck, with its haunting depiction of survivors’ guilt imagined as the sound of fingernails beneath the hull of a lifeboat. It’s a song about the seeming arbitrariness of survival and loss. Archivists and archival researchers have to reckon with the same thing, and fans of the band were reckoning with that arbitrariness, too, as they said goodbye to Gord on the final tour.

Thankfully, a great many of the band’s unpublished performance recordings have survived, and the McClement fonds includes many (like the 1991 Kingston soundboard) that have not circulated. The Media Commons Archive cannot publish these recordings because they don’t hold the rights, and they’re careful to ensure that unpublished recordings are not leaked, and can only be heard on-site at Media Commons in the Robarts Library complex. The trust relationship between donors, rights-holders, and media archives is essential because without it, we might not have access to these materials at all. (The McClement fonds are currently accessible to researchers on-site; see this page.) While I can’t share access to any of those soundboard recordings — I don’t even have copies myself — there are audience-recorded versions of some of the same performances on HipBase.com, possible thanks to the band’s longstanding policy of permitting taping for non-commercial use. (For example, see their statement on audience recording for the 2016 tour, which was still online at the time of posting.)

In the article, I also mention how fans initially circulated copies of the CBC broadcast online. Now that it’s been officially released, I recommend supporting the artists by purchasing it in its published form: The Tragically Hip: A National Celebration (Universal Music Canada, 2017). Just to be clear, bootlegging in the form of illicitly recording artists’ work and selling it for profit is piracy, and I don’t support it. It’s also important to understand that the online communities I focus on in the article are amateur tape-traders, not pirates. They curate and share audience recordings, which in the Hip’s case are made for non-commercial use with the band’s consent. Other kinds of online communities actually undercut the pirates by publicly sharing bootlegs online.

Among these communities there’s an ethos of supporting the artists by purchasing their official releases (and concert tickets, t-shirts, etc.). Serious bootleg-collecting blogs even take down individual tracks if the artists subsequently release them on official live records. I have no interest in validating music piracy, but it would be worthwhile for recording artists and music archivists alike to understand how some valuable archival work is being carried out by pro-am collectors, many of whom are preserving music history that might otherwise be lost. I wrote the article partly to pay tribute to the work they do.

If you read the article, I suggest the following playlist to go along with it. This includes the album versions of some of the songs I mention (such as “Fifty Mission Cap”), but also links to some of the unpublished recordings which are the focus of the article. The following list more or less follows the order of songs that are discussed in any detail:

  1. “Gift Shop,” from Trouble at the Henhouse (MCA Records, 1996). Lyrics and streaming audio available on the band’s website.
  2. The most well-known example of “New Orleans Is Sinking” being used as a workshop song is one where Gord and the band share some work in progress through an extended jam. It became known as the “Killerwhaletank” story (one word). It was recorded at The Roxy in West Hollywood in 1991, broadcast on the Westwood One radio network, released only as a B-side to the single “Long Time Running,” and circulated on a bootleg known as Live at the Roxy (with some variants). An official, published copy is hard to find (I tried) but there are numerous versions from the bootleg on YouTube.
  3. A second, lesser-known but (imho) better version of the “Killerwhaletank” story can be found in an extended performance of “New Orleans Is Sinking” from a concert in Kingston, Ontario, on 29 August 1991. There’s a soundboard version in the McClement fonds, but an audience recording of the same performance can be found on HipBase.com’s live archive (see the section labelled “Master-MP3”; here’s a direct link). You can hear the chord changes that would become part of “Nautical Disaster” starting at about 5:20, just as Gord describes getting in the water with the whales.
  4. The first full performance of “Nautical Disaster” as a complete song (that I’m aware of) took place at the Kumbaya Festival at Ontario Place in Toronto on 5 September 1993. Gord introduces “Nautical Disaster” by name as a new song, though the band still performed it as an interpolation in the middle of their workshop song, “New Orleans Is Sinking.” An audio version sourced from a TV broadcast can be found on HipBase.com (in the section labelled “Master-MP3”; direct link here), and the video itself can be found on YouTube (the song starts at about 16:30; also check out “At the Hundredth Meridian” for lyrics that would later show up in “Scared.”)
  5. “Nautical Disaster” in its final version on the Day for Night album (MCA Records, 1994). Lyrics and streaming audio available on the band’s website.
  6. “Fifty Mission Cap,” from Fully Completely (MCA Records, 1992). Lyrics and streaming audio available on the band’s website.
  7. “Wheat Kings,” from Fully Completely (MCA Records, 1992). Lyrics and streaming audio available on the band’s website.
  8. “Montréal,” a haunting song about the 1989 mass shooting at the city’s École Polytechnique, was recorded during the sessions for 1991’s Road Apples and occasionally performed but never officially released. The lyrics are posted on the band’s website in their “Unreleased Songs” section. There are numerous versions of the studio version to be found on YouTube. As I mention in the article, the most significant performance of the song was its last: in the city of Montéal on 7 December 2000, captured on a fan-shot video posted to YouTube (the song begins at about 1:49:40; again, thanks to Tony Rampling for posting).
  9. Another mid-song story from the same 1991 Roxy show that brought us “Killerwhaletank”: this time, the darkly comic “Double Suicide” love story, told over an extended jam in the middle of the song “Highway Girl.” As with “Killerwhaletank,” linked above, there are numerous versions from the Live at the Roxy bootleg on YouTube.  The only official (and hard to find) release of this live version was as a B-side to the single “Twist My Arm” from Fully Completely.
  10. “Looking for a Place to Happen,” from Fully Completely (MCA Records, 1992). Lyrics and streaming audio available on the band’s website.
  11. As I mention in the article, on the final 2016 tour Gord didn’t say a whole lot to audiences from the stage. But on the Toronto concert on August 12, he happened to make some poignant comments about memory and recording during the ending of the final song of the night, “Ahead By a Century.” You can find an audience recording of that show on HipBase.com (in the section labelled “Master-FLAC”; direct link here). I was lucky enough to be at that show, but as I mention at the end of the article, I wouldn’t have known what Gord said at the end if someone hadn’t recorded and posted the show. (Thanks, whoever you are.) You can read more in the published article, and I’ll leave it to the recording to speak for itself.

If you read the article, I hope you enjoy it. (Sorry it’s so long.) If you’re new to The Tragically Hip and other Canadian bands like them, I hope you enjoy the music and support the artists however you can. And if you’re a longtime Hip fan or tape-trader, I hope you’ll check out the work of archival researchers in open-access journals like Archivaria (currently everything up to 2015 is available), and see some common purpose in making the materials of popular cultural heritage accessible for the future. There are a lot of music fans out there exploring archives of all kinds, and there’s more work to do.