When it comes to Canadian rock groups, The Tragically Hip are almost always on the top of the list. And it makes sense. Over the years they have released tons of memorable songs.
For Rock 95 Top 500 Countdown, I was asked to rank 3 songs by the Tragically Hip – “Ahead by a Century”, “New Orleans Is Sinking” and “Wheat Kings.”
As far as I’m concerned, all these songs will appear in the Top 100, if not the Top 50. Here’s the order I would want to see them in …
3. “Ahead By A Century”
“Ahead By A Century” has always been a hit. The lyrics share the story of a young boy and girl talking about everything life holds for them.
But the lyrics were not always the ones we know today. In an interview, Gord Downie explained that “Originally that song was entirely different. The lyrics were almost totally overhauled, which is not usually my style. But whatever, it seemed like the way to go.”
The intro lyrics were originally:
First thing we climb a tree
And maybe then we’ll talk
I will touch your c*nt
You will touch my c*ck
Then we’ll be married
Then we won’t have to hide
“They said to me ‘innocence’. And that’s what I thought because I thought it’s just two little kids and they don’t know what a c*nt is and they don’t know what a c*ck is. They just heard them called that.” Downie continues, “Certain people picked up on that within the band. But then it became apparent that I was gonna have a fight on my hands and that I was going to have to defend one’s right to use swear words and use words that possibly offend other people.”
Downie goes on to explain that the concern was that “no ones going to get to hear this song cause no ones going to play it.” If people did listen to the song, the bigger concern was “they’re only going to hear those lines and then they’re not going to listen to the rest of the song cause … people’s ears are gonna race to those words and [they’ll] start, in their mind, having a little debate about what those words mean and not listen to the song. So that forced me to take out that line. But I couldn’t take out that line and replace it with another line so by taking out that line the whole verse crumbled like a house of cards and I had to rewrite it.”
2. “New Orleans Is Sinking”
Released in 1989, “New Orleans Is Sinking” reached No. 1 on Canadian Charts and was the first Hip song to rank in the US.
Like many of the songs by Tragically Hip, this one has many interpretations. Some see it as a metaphor for the destruction of everything authentic and honest. Others believe it’s a song about learning to live in the moment. Sometimes the song is a little too on the nose. Especially when rising tides, erosion and disasters like Hurricane Katrina remind us just how close New Orleans is to sinking.
As can be expected Gord Downie hasn’t said much about the song. But he supposedly did an interview where he explained that the message in the song is actually a positive one – no matter what happens, the city can’t be beat and will continue to rise again and again.
1. “Wheat Kings”
In 1969 a Canadian man by the name of David Milgaard was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of Gail Miller. He spent 23 years in prison before being released in 1992.
While serving time, his family fought for his freedom. His aunt even reached out to the Tragically Hip. When she told the band about the case, the Hip helped the family get signatures to reopen the case and raise funds for his defense.
Upon his release, the band wrote “Wheat Kings.” In later years, Downie talked in more detail about the inspiration behind the song.
“[It’s] about David Milgaard and his faith in himself … and about his mother, Joyce, and her absolute faith in her son’s innocence. And about our big country and its faith in man’s fallibility. And about Gail Miller, all those mornings ago, just lying there, all her faith bleeding out into that Saskatoon snowbank.”
I’ve looked at the results from past years and they have never shown up in this order. “Wheat Kings” is always at the back of the pack. But I think it should easily be in the Top 10.
If it was up to you, how would you rank these Tragically Hip songs?