Old Apartment by Barenaked Ladies: Song #16/250…The Great Canadian Road Trip.

The stories behind great Canadian songs that mention great Canadian places.

The BNL lineup: Page, Creeggan, Robertson, Hearn and Stewart.

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.

The Gordon album featuring much younger versions of themselves.

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.

The Barenaked Ladies terrific live album, Rock Spectacle which would launch the band in the US.

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, “Old Apartment” by The Barenaked Ladies can be found here. ***The link to the lyrics version can be found here.

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.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #22: God Only Knows by The Beach Boys.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #22: God Only Knows by The Beach Boys.

Paul McCartney is famously quoted as saying that “God Only Knows” is the best written and musically-constructed song of all-time. Barry Gibb, of the BeeGees, stated that he and his brothers spent the entirety of their career chasing the magic that “God Only Knows” possessed; trying to re-create it in their own songs. The man, himself, Brian Wilson, proclaimed this as his best work.

“God Only Knows” appeared on The Beach Boys epic album, “Pet Sounds”. It came at a time when Brian Wilson had heard what The Beatles were doing with their music in the album, “Revolver” and had decided that the “surf sound” that had been the trademark of his band, was no longer good enough to satisfy his own criteria as to what a song could be. The whole of “Pet Sounds” was created without the other members of the band being present for the construction of the songs. Their role came only during the recording process. Prior to that, Brian Wilson and a man named Tony Asher wrote most of the lyrical content together and then, Brian Wilson dove into the well of his own creative genius and began constructing songs in a way that was revolutionary at the time. In order to do this song justice, I am first going to talk about the lyrics and what the song is actually about. Then, after that, I will try my best to describe, in adequate enough detail, what was so groundbreaking about how Brian Wilson manipulated the sounds that ended up creating the perfect soundscape for this song. So, buckle up! Here we go!

“God Only Knows” is a love song. But, it is a love song in the spiritual sense, more than the romantic sense. Like many musicians at the time, Brian Wilson dreamed of living in a better world; one that was governed by a sense of cosmic harmony, of peace and of compassion and beauty. So, on the one hand, “God Only Knows” is about the feelings of euphoria and rapture that come from attaining a state of nirvana but, it is, also, about how life would feel if that was all lost. Because of equal time being given to the potential for such a catastrophic emotional loss, there were many people who, upon hearing “God Only Knows” for the first time, thought it was a song about suicide. This bothered Wilson greatly because, in fact, he was striving for the exact opposite message; one that revolved around the blissfulness of living in harmony with others and with the world, itself and how that was worth fighting for and protecting, rather than giving up and dying.

Secondly, up until the release of this song, it was unheard of for “God” to be referenced in a Pop song. “God” was supposed to be an exulted figure and, as such, should only be spoken about in church hymns or else, in patriotic songs such as “God Bless America” by Kate Smith. To some, the inclusion of “God” in the title of a Pop song cheapened Him and was viewed as extremely inappropriate. So, there was much discussion between Wilson and Tony Asher about whether or not to use the word, “God” in the song, let alone, the title, itself. But, in the end, Wilson and Asher agreed that if that subject was to ever be broached in a public way, it stood the best chance in a song as beautiful and positive and uplifting as this one. So, “God Only Knows” was recorded and released and was, as expected, immediately banned in several states. In order to soften the financial blowback, “God Only Knows” was released as a B-Side single and, as such, was never eligible to have sales totals recorded and noted in the Pop charts. Yet, when the album, “Pet Sounds” was released and people, from McCartney, to music critics to casual fans, all got to hear the song, everyone thought it was a magnificent accomplishment. In order to understand what makes this song stand out, it is important to understand how Brian Wilson viewed the idea of “sound”. I will do my best to convey the depth of his genius but, I am no expert in this field.

This is one of those songs that I suggest you listen to twice. The first time, just let the beauty of the song wash over you. The harmonies are fantastic, as one would expect from The Beach Boys. The lyrics are very inspirational, as we have already discussed. So, listen and enjoy then song. Then, I want you to listen to it again. This time, I want you to listen to all that is going on in the background. There is a veritable carnival of sounds at play all throughout the song. There are sleigh bells, the “clomp, clomp” of horses hooves on cobblestones, various instruments, of course, voices that swirl in and out and around each other and a thousand other noises and notes that all act in an, almost, magical way. It is musical alchemy.

I am not skilled enough to describe how one sound elevates another or competes against it and, by doing so, causes the human ear to pick up sounds differently that they normally would but, that is what is happening with “God Only Knows”. The song is constructed in a way that challenges our normal manner of hearing sounds and causes our brain to re-imagine what it is that we are actually hearing. I apologize for not possessing the skill to adequately explain this phenomenon but, in my research, I read about how the song begins with two, competing chords being used and how our ears will instinctively wish to hear the one chord but, because of how Brian Wilson deliberately placed his sounds, the brain focuses on the lesser chord which becomes amplified by the major chord which, in turn, causes us to hear the sounds in this song differently than we, otherwise, would. I dunno. It is voodoo of the very best kind because the end result is this wall of harmonies that make up “God Only Knows”. A simple device that Wilson used and, that I do understand, is how he ended the song with several rounds of the line, “God only knows what I’d be without you“. He said that by ending the song this way…..which was very unusual for a Pop song….it gave the song a sense of endlessness and of eternity, which was what he was going after.

Writing all of these music posts has taught me a lot about the songs we all listen to and the people who compose and perform them. I have a great appreciation for the extraordinary lengths many of these top performers went to when it came to the tiniest of details they included in their work that, in the end, made the song rise from merely good, to unbelievably great. For me, Brian Wilson has emerged as one of the best at his craft. His savant-like ability to create such an intricate tapestry of sounds that play like angels singing in the highest, tightest of harmony, is one of the grandest accomplishments of all that I have written about. The man is a genius in my eyes. I know he hasn’t had the most stable of lives but, along with Bjork and Kate Bush, Brian Wilson is another one of those people I would love to sit down with and share a meal and listen to him talk about his creative process. I imagine it would be like listening to Hawking talking about the universe.

In any case, here is easily one of the most beautiful and creatively-constructed songs ever written. Please enjoy, “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys.

The link to the video for the song, “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys, can be found here.

The link to a couple of behind the scenes videos about “God Only Knows”, can be found here and here.

The link to the official website for The Beach Boys, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.