In July of ’94, I made what would be the first of many trips to one of the truly great cities of the world, Toronto. I discovered lots of wonderful things you can’t find in Atlanta: quality public art, clothes by Roots, and Canadian music. It was here I first heard Spirit of the West, the Rheostatics, the Tragically Hip, and a band that was still a relative newcomer at the time, Barenaked Ladies.
This was the month before the band’s second album, “Maybe You Should Drive” came out, but MuchMusic was still playing tracks from their debut two years after its release, so my intro was “Be My Yoko Ono,’ watching with a friend, who shared (and I presume still does) that album’s title: “Gordon.”
“Gordon” (album, not friend) was born from a series of indie-release cassettes spanning from 1989 to 1991. That year, “Barenaked Ladies,” aka “the Yellow Tape’, was the band’s demo for South X Southwest and became their first commercial release. The tape contained early versions of what would become some of their signature tunes, including “Brian Wilson,” “Be My Yoko Ono,” and “If I Had $1,000,000.” In a scenario akin to the Cars’ breakthrough almost 15 years before, commercial radio picked up on it, including the influential Toronto-are modern rock outlet CFNY.
Besides hawking the tapes, the band made the lowest-budget video ever – one loonie – by squeezing into the “Speaker’s Corner” public-access booth outside the MuchMusic studios in downtown Toronto and performing “Yoko Ono.” MuchMusic made good use of the freebie, putting it into heavy rotation.
The big break came when CFNY gave the band $100K to record a new album as part of its Discovery-to-Disc grant program. In 1992 BNL signed with Sire and went into the studio with Canadian uber-producer Michael-Philip Wojewoda.
It’s said of first albums that you have your whole life to write the songs and it held true here. The band had about 20 here to choose from; Wojewoda later said they were already pretty much fully shaped and it was mostly a matter of choosing what fit best to get to the final 14. “Gordon” made its debut on July 28, 1992. Thirty years later, it’s still fresh, with a wild sense of abandon and an infectious joy that’s never been duplicated.
“Gordon” sold more than 500,00 copies in Canada in its first year of release on the strength of four hit singles (“Enid,” “What A Good Boy” and re-recorded versions of “If I Had $1000000” and “Brian Wilson.”). It spent eight weeks in the Number One slot on the Canadian albums chart; was nominated for a Juno for Album of the Year and “Enid” got one for Single of the Year. By 2000, it had diamond status in Canada. In 2015, CBC Music named “Brian Wilson” one of the 50 Best Songs of the 1990s, and in 2017 “Gordon” was named one of the 25 Best Canadian Debut Albums by CBC Music. Response in the U.S. was a little slower, where the album took until 1998 to go gold.
In 2013, LA Weekly’s Andy Hermann wrote, “Amidst the clenched-jaw rock singers of the day, “Gordon” was a breath of fresh air: a harmony-rich, mostly acoustic, wildly inventive goof of a record.” But you don’t make quirkiness in music work, let alone last, unless you can back it up – ask Was (Not Was) or Weird Al. BNL brings solid musicianship, sharp songwriting, and exquisite Kingston Trio-esque harmonies, and it was all there, fully formed, on “Gordon”.
The worst cover art in the history of pop?
Sire opted to market the “goof” factor, with cover art that proved that they were completely confused by their new signees: shots of them mugging between the letters spelling out the title. The band hated it, but the floating Pepsi logo just may be worse.
It’s true that humor has been Barenaked Ladies’ calling card from the start, and it’s all over here, from the third track, “Grade 9,” with a sonic reference to Rush’s Tom Sawyer and lyrics that perfectly capture freshman angst:
First day of school and I’m already failing….
I went out for the football team to prove that I’m a man
Guess I shouldn’t tell them that I like Duran Duran
But there’s a shadow side to Barenaked Ladies. Turn off the sunny street of songs like these and you’ll find the dark alleys, filled with the quiet suburbanite desperation that shows up in “What a Good Boy”:
We’ve got these chains
Hanging ’round our necks
People want to strangle us with them
Before we take our first breath
Afraid of change
Afraid of staying the same
When temptation calls
We just look away
White middle-class ennui may seem a twee luxury in the world we live in now, but it’s still very real. Eight years later, the terror morphed into weary resignation on “Pinch Me,” from the band’s 2000 album “Maroon”:
Like a dream you try to remember but it’s gone
(Pinch me) Then you try to scream but it only comes out as a yawn
Starting with “Gordon,” violence lingers in those shadows too, wrapped in those pretty harmonies on “Wrap Your Arms Around Me:”
I put my hands around your neck
You wrap your arms around me
I regret every time I raised my voice
And it wouldn’t be that bright of me to say I had no choice
I can kiss your eyes, your hair, your neck
Until we forget
The band would take this further on its third studio album, “Born on a Pirate Ship” with not one, but two songs about violent stalkers. “Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank” was inspired by the famous Anne Murray stalking case from the 70s and borrows lyrics from Murray’s “You Needed Me” and “Snowbird.” Fortunately, Murray’s story ended better: The narrator in “Hank” shoots the object of his obsession dead in her front door. More subtle but still terrifying is “The Old Apartment,” the most upbeat song about a violent stalker ever to break the Top 40. The clincher is the fact that the narrator doesn’t seem to understand why his former relationship is over:
Why did you plaster over
The hole I punched in the door?
When I saw the band in 1998, it was a little surreal to see hundreds of tweens/young teens bopping happily to this song, seemingly oblivious.
And in the BNL universe, love isn’t so much passionate romance as it is an uneasy détente, made explicit on “Gordon” in “The Flag:”
He tells her he’s sorry, she tells him it’s over
He tells her he’s sorry, she says over and over
You’ve never really known that when the white flag is flown
No one, no one, no one has won the war
The ultimate example of a BNL anti-love song comes on the “Pirate Ship” album, in what may be one of the most wrenching relationship songs ever written, “Break Your Heart”:
The bravest thing I’ve ever done
Was to run away and hide.
But not this time.
Not this time.
And the weakest thing I’ve ever done
Was to stay right by your side.
Just like this time
And every time.
I couldn’t tell you I was happy you were gone,
So I lied and said that I missed you when we were apart.
I couldn’t tell you, so I had to lead you on
But I didn’t mean to break your heart.
In between the comedy and tragedy, the songs on “Gordon” explore eccentric character sketches (“King of Bedside Manor” (with its side trip through Styx’ “Mr. Roboto”), the joys of a break with reality (“Crazy”) and two tracks that skewer the downside of fame. “Box Set” is a tragically comic look at pop-star career trajectories:
I never thought that words like “product”
Could ever leave my lips
But something happened to me somewhere
That made me lose my grip
While “New Kid on the Block” looks at boy band success from the inside out:
Now I’m a new kid on the block
Well I’m twenty-three and they won’t let me grow up
And on an album packed with gems, there’s a special jewel in one of the band’s signature songs, the poignant, beautiful “Brian Wilson”:
Drove downtown in the rain
Nine-thirty on a Tuesday night
Just to check out the late-night record shop…
While some elements from “Gordon” would carry over into the band’s later work, it was probably inevitable that the freedom and eclecticism would be left behind. With their second album, “Maybe You Should Drive,” Barenaked Ladies would display more discipline and find a cohesive voice that would bring them success on a global scale. But the maturity and complex wordplay of the songwriting was all there (Hello, Songwriter’s Hall of Fame?). And the jazzy arrangements propelled by Jim Creegan’s dancing bass lines were already defined. “Gordon” checks all the boxes not just as one of the strongest debut albums ever, but one of the best of its decade and a true all-time classic.
But time goes on, things change. The band’s “bunch of buddies” image may have been overstated to begin with, and as mainstream success grew, so did the tensions. Page’s coke bust in 2008 couldn’t have been more ill-timed, coming on the heels of the release of a children’s album and a planned relationship with Disney. Page left the band in 2009, citing a need for more of a songwriting outlet but later interviews on both sides revealed deep reserves of anger. The guys’ reunion for their Canadian Music Hall of Fame induction was cordial, but it seems clear that it was a destined to be a one-off.
I haven’t been to Toronto in years, and Gord and I lost touch almost as long ago. And I drifted away from BNL for good after “Barenaked Ladies are Men/Barenaked Ladies Are Me.” But “Gordon” remains a desert island disc, forever conjuring the image of the spinning neon turntables of the Sam the Record Man sign on Yonge Street, funky Thai fusion on Queen West, and the memory of a summer when life seemed expansive, exciting, and new.