By the end of the 1980s, The Tragically Hip already had six years of writing and performing under their belts, gaining a loyal following around Kingston and southern Ontario. They had garnered a reputation for their blisteringly loud and notoriously rowdy concerts, and were eventually discovered by MCA Vice President Bruce Dickinson, who travelled to Toronto to see the band play at the Horseshoe Tavern.
They signed a long-term contract with MCA, releasing a debut EP and their first full-length, Up To Here, in 1989. Their early releases received significant airplay on Canadian radio, with standout singles like “Blow At High Dough” and “New Orleans Is Sinking,” and earned the band a Juno Award for Most Promising Artist.
But when it came to recording their second album, like most Canadian bands they aimed to gain traction and build their fanbase in America. Released in 1991, Road Apples would ultimately fall short of the band’s expectations south of the border, but it hit number one in their home country, a first for the band and a major breakthrough on their journey to becoming one of Canada’s most beloved bands of all time.
After a relentless tour in support of Up To Here, the band had headed south to Daniel Lanois’ French mansion in New Orleans to record their follow-up album, originally titled Saskadelphia, with producer Don Smith, who previously recorded with Keith Richards, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison.
Smith was able to highlight the band’s raw, bluesy sound, capturing the vibe of their raw, sweaty club shows for which The Tragically Hip had become known. There are almost zero overdubs on the record.
The Hip got their start as a cover band, performing songs by Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, and the Monkees before slowly (and sometimes covertly) adding original material into their setlist. Gord Sinclair wrote the bulk of the lyrics before Downie took the reins, and Road Apples marks the point in the band’s career where Gord Downie became the band’s de-facto lyricist.
“I think Gord Downie is definitely in the tradition of great Canadian poets,” Bruce Dickinson recalled in a 2016 interview. “There can be a certain darkness in the lyrics, in some ways that reminded me of reading and listening to Leonard Cohen or Robertson Davies. I think that’s all part of what appeals to Canadian fans. They’re five Canadian guys who go up on stage and they look like their audience. I think that everyman quality matters.”
Tackling everything from small-town politics on “Born in the Water,” which criticizes Sault Ste. Marie’s controversial declaration that the town was to be “English only,” to the mysterious death of iconic Canadian painter Tom Thomson on “Three Pistols,” Gord Downie was already demonstrating his unique lyrical style that drew inspiration from the hidden, untapped corners of Canadian history.
But at the same time, the Hip faced pushback from their label for being “too Canadian,” and were compelled to changed the name of the record from Saskadelphia to something more accessible to their potential American audience.
Cheekily, the band suggested an alternative, Road Apples, which the American label execs thought was great. What the label failed to realize was that Road Apples was Canadian slang for horse manure, which when frozen was frequently used as a makeshift hockey puck.
Road Apples was a huge success in Canada, reaching number one on the charts and turning the band into a household name in their home country. But despite efforts by the band and the label, it failed to gain traction in America, a trend that would continue for the entirety of the band’s career.
The album provides a perfect encapsulation of the band’s early years as a loud, bluesy bar-rock band, as their 1992 follow-up album Fully, Completely would see the band exploring and evolving into broader sonic territory.
Within the Hip’s extensive catalogue, Road Apples marks the moment where the band finalized the blueprint for their future success. They’d spend the next few decades as home-grown heroes who, inexplicably to most Canadians, never won approval in America, but frankly didn’t need it.