The stories behind great Canadian songs that mention great Canadian places.
One of the most exhilarating about being a fan of a singer/band is finding out that they are even better in person than they are on their studio recordings. The Barenaked Ladies definitely fall into this category. Right from the very earliest days of their career, The Barenaked Ladies were known for the high entertainment factor that was always present in their live shows. Not only were the members of the band all very talented musicians in their own right but, they exuded a sense of charm that dazzled audiences everywhere. Many of their earliest songs such as “If I Had a Million Dollars” and “Be My Yoko Ono” came across as almost novelty-type songs because of the humorous tract the band followed. But the high energy nature of the way they played and the razor-sharp repartee between singers Ed Roberston and Steven Page allowed them to rise above the other bands that mined the same ground such as Moxy Fruvous, The Shuffle Demons and so on in the Toronto music scene of the late 1980s and into the 1990s. But, in addition to putting on great live shows, what really helped propel The Barenaked Ladies into the upper echelon of the Canadian music scene was how innovative they were when it came to marketing themselves. These guys should teach a course or write a book or both about how to develop and market a brand because they did an excellent job. The story of today’s song, “The Old Apartment” is but one example from many that illustrate how clever these guys truly were. Let’s have a look inside the music and marketing genius that was The Barenaked Ladies!
Originally, the band began waaaaaay back when Ed Robertson and Steven Page met in elementary school. They went to the same school and soon discovered that they followed the same bands and through that shared interest, they began to hang out and became best friends. One of the things that helped bond their friendship was the ability the boys had to offer witty observational commentary when watching other bands play. For instance, they once attended a Bob Dylan concert and proceeded to offer a running commentary of what they were seeing, as if they were play-by-play announcers. Apparently, they were more funny than annoying and soon were encouraged to develop their craft and share it with others. While appearing at open mic nights and battles-of-the-band competitions, Robertson and Page developed a reputation for being witty performers. The next phase of their development involved adding other musicians and becoming a real band, which they did with the additions of Stewart and, at the time, two Creeggan brothers, Jim and Andrew. They started performing as the opening act for the local Toronto-area comedic band, Corky and the Juice Pigs, which presented them with the type of audience that was perfectly suited for their particular brand of entertainment. But then, two things happened in close proximity to each other that launched the band into the national spotlight.
The first was that they got themselves some free publicity by being banned by the Mayor of Toronto from performing in front of City Hall in Nathan Phillips Square because their name was deemed inappropriate. Of course, there was nothing the least bit unseemly about the band members or the type of music they played so, in all the uproar over the rush to judgment by Mayor Rowlands, The Barenaked Ladies received a boatload of free publicity from the media. This helped open the door for the band, serving as a public introduction to the City of Toronto which was (and still is) Canada’s largest commercial market for music. With all of that publicity percolating away for the band, they looked for ways to get their own original songs out to the public in a free yet mass way. So, what they did next is how I first became aware of them. In Toronto there exists a local television station known as CITY-TV. In the 1980s, CITY-TV was at the forefront of a broadcasting experiment. That experiment was to remove the walls that separated broadcasters from their audience and make everything as open and transparent and interactive as possible. One of the things CITY-TV did was to place their broadcasting studios on the ground floor of a building on Queen Street that had huge windows at street level. This allowed passersby to see directly into the studios while they were live on-air, much the same way as shoppers passing department stores might look at the goods for sale in a store window. One additional thing City-TV did to encourage interactivity was to install a booth in the corner of their building that would allow anyone to stop by and record a message. This booth was called Speaker’s Corner and became a popular way for Torontonians to offer opinions, air grievances and to promote events such as charity drives and rallies. Robertson and Page saw Speaker’s Corner as a free and easy way to introduce themselves and their music to their audience. So the boys all squeezed into the tiny recording booth on Queen Street, introduced themselves and then sang “If I Had a Million Dollars” and “Be My Yoko Ono”. CITY-TV used to use the content of all those messages that were left on Speaker’s Corner and aired it as a packaged show. This is where I saw The Barenaked Ladies for the first time. It turned out that I was not alone.
Not long after this, the band started marketing a cassette tape of songs that they had recorded. This tape became known as the Yellow Tape and was made available at local record stores (when record stores were still a popular and vibrant enterprise). Demand for the Yellow Tape was so great that it became one of Toronto’s best selling musical recordings, outstripping musical heavyweights such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston in the local market. In fact, sales of the Yellow Tape were so great that it eventually reached Platinum status making it the very first independent recording to ever achieve that level of success. Needless to say, the very same record companies who turned down the band just one year earlier, mocking them as a novelty act, were all now rushing to sign them. Soon a contract was proffered and an official album named Gordon was released. This album contained the two songs they had sung on Speaker’s Corner, plus other hits like “Enid”, “Grade 9” and a song that would help launch them in the US, “Brian Wilson”. In the end, Gordon sold over one million copies.
But, as I said off the top, being even better live than you are in-studio is such a bonus for an artist or a band. What The Barenaked Ladies had as their next inspiration was to bottle that live stage energy, as it were, in the form of an album that would be a recording of a live show or combination of live shows. This live album became known as Rock Spectacle. This album contained recordings of live concerts that the band played in Chicago, of all places. In any case, the magic of their showmanship was on full display all through Rock Spectacle. While all of the songs of this album came across well, the song “Brian Wilson” really turned out well and helped serve as the song that opened the door into the US market for the band. For those who don’t know, “Brian Wilson” tells the semi-autobiographical story of legendary musical genius, Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame. Wilson was one of the most innovative musicians ever but had a variety of mental and emotional issues following his experience making The Beach Boys seminal album, Pet Sounds. The Barenaked Ladies song, “Brian Wilson” takes a sympathetic look at his life while in the care of psychiatrists who may or may not have had his best interest at heart. There is a depth to the emotional story being told in this song that helped elevate the public view of The Barenaked Ladies as being something more than a band who sing songs laden with puns. In addition to “Brian Wilson”, Rock Spectacle contained two other songs that went on to become huge hits for the band…”One Week” and today’s song, “Old Apartment”.
The song “Old Apartment” is a song whose lyrical content foreshadowed, in some ways, how the band members themselves were dealing with their meteoric rise to fame. The song name drops a famous neighbourhood in Toronto called The Danforth. Like many major cities, Toronto has various neighbourhoods that have become known for specific things (many of those being ethnic-oriented) such as Chinatown or Little Italy. The Danforth area of Toronto was known for being the Greek enclave in the city. It was also undergoing a period of gentrification which meant that it was evolving into an area of the city where non-Greeks were moving to because it was becoming trendy and hip to be associated with that part of town. The song, “Old Apartment” talks about an experience that many young adults have when they first start out in the world. It talks about those first apartments we tended to live in. The ones that were in basements or above storefronts and were never viewed as being a forever home by anyone who moved in and moved out shortly thereafter. Those first apartments were just stepping stones on the road to where we really wanted to be. But, in many ways, those times spent in those dive apartments also corresponded with a time in our lives when we were unencumbered by many of the responsibilities of life and, in a way, were at our most free. There is a certain nostalgia factor at play that traps some people into believing that the past was the best that life has to offer. That is a tough way to deal with the present and the future where we all have to actually live our lives.
For The Barenaked Ladies, much greater fame and fortune awaited them after the success of Rock Spectacle. The band had several other hits, the most noteworthy of which was singing the theme song to the big TV show hit, The Big Bang Theory. The band was also featured on the television show, 90210 (Jason Priestly was a huge fan) and got to play a showcase of songs at the show’s musical venue, The Peach Pit. However, in time, the price of fame and fortune weighed heavily upon the band. Steven Page began having issues with drug addiction and, at one point, was arrested for possession as he attempted to cross the border. Eventually, he and his childhood friend, Ed Robertson stopped talking to each other and Page was fired from the band. While the remaining members of The Barenaked Ladies have soldiered on, Page’s firing effectively ended the era of greatest success for The Barenaked Ladies. There was much hope that if Steven Page entered drug rehab and got his life back on track that there would be a Barenaked Ladies reunion at some point. But, the truth of the matter is that the only time the original lineup has played together since the firing was when the band was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame. *(You can watch that clip here). That one-off concert seemed to go well and there was a lot of optimism that all would be well. But, as the song “Old Apartment” makes clear, living in the past is not really living at all. So, as for the future, the band has no plans for a reunion….at all.
However disappointing that may be, we must temper our feelings with an appreciation for how innovative The Barenaked Ladies were in their prime. In addition to taking advantage of avenues of access such as Speaker’s Corner in Toronto to market their Yellow Tape cassette, The Barenaked Ladies were among the very first bands to run their own website. On this website, they were one of the very first bands to employ such tools as interactive blogs, podcasts, free downloads and so much more. They were also one of the very first bands to sell a CD (Barenaked for the Holidays…their Christmas collection) and include with the CD an MP3 plug-in device so that listeners could take their music with them and plug it in anywhere there was a USB jack. This predates streaming technology that we enjoy today. The Barenaked Ladies always had one eye on the future. If only they could have taken all that was great about the future and marry it to all that was great about the past then their present would have been perfect.
The link to the video for the song, “Brian Wilson” from the album Rock Spectacle by The Barenaked Ladies can be found here.
The link to the video that shows The Barenaked Ladies as they appeared on Speaker’s Corner in Toronto can be found here. ***Some cringey/interesting cameos by other “celebrities”, too.
The link to the official website for The Barenaked Ladies can be found here.
The link to the official website for Taste Of The Danforth Cultural Festival can be found here.
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