Chapter 1: Intro

From long-haired students to Canadian rock stars

On May 19, 2016, on the familiar stage of Grant Hall where their careers began, the members of one of Canada’s most iconic rock bands received honorary Doctorates of Law from Queen’s University.

Dressed in their blue graduation gowns, holding their newly acquired degrees, one face was missing from the famed Tragically Hip – lead singer Gord Downie.

Less than a week later, Downie and the Hip released a public statement that struck fans all over North America to the core. Front man Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

Media outlets and fans alike were shocked by the tragic news.

But the Hip’s journey was far from over. In the face of the devastating news, they aren’t going away quietly. Downie and the Hip are going out the only way know how — on tour, ending in their hometown of Kingston.

And that’s where this story begins.

Hip
From left: Baker, Downie, Sinclair and Fay in a photo accompanying the first Journal article on the Hip — published Jan. 25, 1985.

The Hip are Kingston’s pride and joy. The city even bears the marks of its celebrated musicians, in 2012 the City of Kingston renamed the portion of street in front of the K-Rock Centre “Tragically Hip Way”.

But before they became known as a “Kingston band”, they were the Queen’s campus band.

“Formed for fun and profit,” when the Hip first started playing, they quickly became Queen’s favourites, packing campus venues like Alfie’s (now The Underground) and Clark Hall Pub.

“The Tragically Hip is a vibrant group of Queen’s students offering a refreshing alternative to the campus music scene,” wrote Catherine Harley in the first known profile of the band in the January 28, 1985 edition of The Journal.

It was clear that unlike many college bands, this group of friends struck a chord early.

Early on the band didn’t take themselves too seriously, they were just out there to promote having a good time Downie told The Journal’s reporters.

Going through The Queen’s Journal’s archives to research this project, that sentiment has become more and more clear, even though only Baker, Downie and Sinclair attended Queen’s as students.

Describing themselves as a refreshing alternative sound to the campus music scene, The Hip played a fusion of rock, rhythm and blues — becoming “high energy dance music” in Downie’s words.

During their early years, the band’s set lists were 30 per cent original material, the rest were covers of rockers such as the Yardbirds, the Monkeys and Elvis Presley. The band ultimately found their own sound with inspirations like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and the early Rolling Stones.

“Everywhere you go you seem to see the same bands,” said a young Gord Downie, adding that Queen’s, “can use an injection of something new and different.”

Hip
The Hip playing at the on-campus venue, Alfie's (now The Underground) - published Oct. 19, 1987.

What the Hip offered ending up being much more than just new and different for the campus music scene.

The original lineup of long-haired 20-year-olds consisted of Gord Downie as their front man, Rob Baker on lead guitar, John Fay on drums and Gord Sinclair on bass.

The first profile of the group doesn’t mention Davis Manning on saxophone but he’d play with the group for roughly a year before leaving in ’86, the same year Paul Langlois joined on rhythm guitar “to get back to a more rhythmic, guitar oriented feel”.

Most people know the next part of the band’s history: following a show at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern in ‘86, the small-town band signed with MCA, and released their first EP in ‘87 entitled The Tragically Hip.

The kids from Kingston had made it big.

However, even after the big record deal, the Hip was still a Queen’s band for the students who recognized them from their early days of covering 50s and 60s standards.

That was until ’89 — the first year since October ‘85 that the Hip didn’t play a show in Kingston for Queen’s Homecoming weekend.

That year, the Hip released their first full length album, Up to Here, which later earned them a Juno Award for Most Promising Artists in ‘90.

A couple of weeks into the new decade, the Hip returned to play in Kingston, but something had changed, The Journal’s Tom Megginson reported.

“The image of the Hip as a campus band only exists as a legend to most current students, and some are even unaware of the Queen’s connection,” Megginson wrote in a Journal article published January 16, 1990.

Hip
Downie performing at Super Bash 1988 - published Jan. 19, 1988.

The Hip had moved on to bigger and better things and the students who were at their first shows in ’85 had graduated.

Album after album, the Hip kept putting out hits, topping Canadian charts in 1991 with the release of Road Apples, followed by Fully Completely in 1992.

At the heart of their songs are things that make each and every one of us Canadian. Led by Downie’s poetic lyrics, the Hip describe the vast and ever changing Canadian landscape, a love for hockey, small-town life and so much more.

But, with all the stardom, they always managed to make their way home. Even though they might not be the same campus band they were in the 1980s — the Hip have never wavered from both their Kingston and Queen’s roots.

“This place shaped who and what we’ve become. We learned how to perform in front of students and locals alike in campus pubs and local dives. We saw early on how music has the power to move people and bring them together,” Sinclair said, addressing his fellow graduates at the 2016 convocation ceremony.

Hip
Paul Langlois - published Oct. 22, 1988.

Like so many summers since the Hip began, they’ve spent July and August on the road with a tour for their latest album, Man Machine Poem, crossing the Canadian landscape they’ve spent their careers rocking to.

In the end, they’ll finish their journey in the city where it all started. And while the crowd might be slightly different than the students who filled Alfie’s in the 80s, the energy they share with their audience has remained unchanged.

Thousands will pack into the K-Rock Centre on August 20 and hundreds if not thousands more will fill Market Square — where the concert will be live streamed — to sing, dance, laugh and maybe even cry along with the band.

With each song and chord, Kingston’s finest will sign off on over 30-years of Canadian history – and until then all we can do is look at how it all began.

Chapter 2:Archives

Chapter 3:Coverage of the Hip's final concert