40 at 40: Remember when Barenaked Ladies were indie rock trailblazers?

With a new single dropping today, the Scarborough band looks back at the era of their 1991 NOW cover


Barenaked Ladies really wanted to be on the cover of NOW Magazine.

“You know, we were 20-year-old kids from Toronto,” says singer/guitarist Ed Robertson. “Getting on the cover of NOW was a huge fucking deal for us.”

Before Robertson and his now-departed-BNL co-leader Steven Page made that dream come true in 1991, they’d set up with their acoustic guitars and busk in front of the NOW office on the Danforth. 

But it wasn’t just NOW. That was their go-to move. 

“We’d busk at magazines, at every radio station. We used to busk outside of the venues we were playing at to get people to buy tickets to come see us that night,” Robertson remembers. 

“When our first record came out in America, we did a ‘tour’ of our label head office. We went around Warner Brothers and played in the mailroom, in the video department, the promo department. We did probably 20 shows around the Warner Brothers head office in L.A.”

That strategy paid off. Famously (in Canada), they also crammed into the Speakers’ Corner booth at Queen and John to play their single Be My Yoko Ono, and the clip ended up in heavy rotation on MuchMusic – essentially their first music video, produced for one dollar. 

“It’s one thing we have that’s unassailable,” says Robertson. “Here’s a bunch of guys having a good time playing music, singing harmony. I guess if you’re too hipster to enjoy people enjoying music, then go fuck yourself. But, it won a lot of people over.”

Three decades later, Barenaked Ladies don’t have to win people over in the same way. They’re more than established enough to put out a new single, Flip (which dropped today) and not have to show up at your office to get your attention. It heralds the bands’ upcoming 16th (!) album, Detour De Force, which they took some extra time to polish after their tour was postponed.

But they still embrace the play-anywhere-anyhow mentality, which has come in handy throughout the pandemic. They spent the last year releasing “SelfieCamJams” – a series of videos of the band members playing together remotely, each raising money for a different charity. 

And, on April 18, they’ll play it live along with their greatest hits in a virtual concert called Flip n’ Hits with BNL: A Night of Monster Jams of Pandemic Proportions (tickets available here) They recorded it at the Danforth Music Hall slightly before Ontario cancelled livestreams, and Robertson says it’s a venue that holds a lot of significance for the band. 

But their big “make-it” moment was around this cover story in 1991 when they played the Bathurst Street Theatre (now the Randolph Theatre), their first soft-seat engagement. For an independent local band, that was a huge deal. 

It’s strange to think now that the term has a cooler-than-thou connotation, but Barenaked Ladies are Canadian indie rock heroes. They were the opposite of too-cool – they were wacky and energetic, the nerdy boys next door. Now, they’re more like your goofy uncles – just try to say the words “it’s been” without doing it in the voice of Steven Page in One Week. But they were trailblazers, and they don’t always get credit for it.

“It’s hard to imagine now in this era of DIY but fledgling bands doing their own thing and releasing stuff independently was really quite novel at that time, and Barenaked Ladies were local trailblazers (soon followed by Lowest of the Low and countless others, though few as impressive). NOW had to put them on the cover,” reflects writer Kim Hughes, who penned the 1991 cover story, in an email. “Besides, there’s only so many times you can laud Men Without Hats.”  

At the time, Barenaked Ladies had yet to put out their debut album, Gordon. Instead, they’d blown up from a self-released demo cassette called The Yellow Tape, which included three of their still-best-known songs, Yoko Ono, Brian Wilson, an early version of If I Had $1,000,000 and a short acoustic cover of Public Enemy’s Fight The Power (strangely, in that 1991 story, they describe their music as “acoustic hip-hop”). It’s still one of the highest-selling independent releases ever in Canada.

“I remember going into Sam The Record Man on Dundas and seeing our little five-song cassette in the number one spot ahead of U2 and Madonna. That was a strange time,” Robertson says. “It was the first time that major stores were starting to stock indie music nationally. And it was really based on the success of that cassette.”

They still recognize the importance those tapes have on their career. They’ll even release a new cassingle for this year’s Record Store Day.

“Hopefully people will be able to find a 1986 Pontiac Grand to go out and listen to it in,” Robertson quips. 

Below, find the 1990 cover story on Barenaked Ladies, republished from NOW’s August 8, 1991 issue

Barenaked Ladies: Combo sparkles with satirical nuance 

By KIM HUGHES

Toronto’s Barenaked Ladies are fast becoming a local phenomenon. And their apparently inexhaustible well of wit and genuine warmth is giving the fun and wacky quintent a popular resilience that’s surprising even the band’s own members. 

Massive local popularity wasn’t exactly what core members Steven Page and Ed Robertson envisioned when they started the Ladies as a musical sideline to their academic studies in late 88. 

If anything, the Iwo were content being on the fringes as a novelty act – exactly what their near-slapstick performances, silly name and twisted musical sensibilities led most people to believe they were.

 But audiences have not let the term novelty – often used dismissively – discourage their interest in the Ladies’ inspired ironies. 

The Ladies’ lunacy has prompted a sellout of their Friday (August 9) show at the Bathurst Street Theatre – demand for a first-hand look at the Ladies forced the slating of a second show Saturday (August 10). And fans of their all-acoustic instrumental lineup, crystal clear vocal harmonies and genre-bending songs already range from modest suburbanites to Sean Lannon and Yoko Ono. 

The unpredictable entertainers frankly enjoy crossing over fans and venues, Indeed, Ladies vocalist Page, guitarist Robertson, drummer Tyler Stewart, bassist Jim Creeggan and Andy Creeggan on congas are as likely to turn up and play an impromptu set at a backyard barbeque party at the invitation of a group of fans as they are to host the Ultrasound under a pseudonym to limit the number of fans who turn up.

Whatever the setting, their shows invariably find crisp, buoyant songs unfurling amid a blinding barrage of words, raps, entwined voices. Squeals and yelps backed by economical bass, guitar and conga lines.

Controlled frenzy is the catchphrase that comes to mind, yet there’s more to it than that. While the Ladies are indeed spontaneous, tapping into the mood and feedback of any given audience, they never lose sight of the songs and the particular nuances of each. 

When Page waxes mournful in a heavier, vocally-driven number like Brian Wilson, for instance, the potential humour of the reference pales beside the irony of using a beleaguered, bizarre icon as a measure of his own neuroses. 

Ironic influence 

“Now that we’re more experienced, we can analyze what I guess you’d call satire,” says Page. “We’re finding out what’s stupid about what we thought was great when we were kids.

“Even in our straight songs there’s irony and influence,” Page continues, sipping tea. “We always call ourselves acoustic hip-hop, and what that really means is we sample from different styles. So there’s a musical humour even in the more serious songs.” 

Sitting across from one another in a Riverdale restaurant, Page and guitarist Robertson are relaxed and friendly but focused on the task at hand – not zany as one might expect, given their stage personas.

Things are changing fast and the Ladies are finding that success has its drawbacks too. There was the matter of a recent daily newspaper article which suggested – erroneously – that the Ladies had already inked a deal with a major label. 

It was a careless error that could have brought serious repercussions to a band still shopping the market and by no means tied to anyone. The result, at least as far as Page and Robertson go, is a little extra caution in what they say. 

Of the two, Page is the more  vocal. Still, he and Robertson tend to complete one another’s sentences – apparently unconsciously. It’s a god indication of how much time they’ve spent together and of how alike their views are on the group. 

“Ed and I knew each other in public school. I was in grade five and Ed was in grade four,” Page says. “But we didn’t hang around. Ed was a tough guy, a bully.” 

“I never fought him,” Robertson offers in his defence. Page levels a deadpan look. “You didn’t have to.” 

“We started out not really confident in ourselves as musicians,” Page continues. “We wanted to be a novelty act. The idea was to make ourselves laugh and make the audience laugh. 

“So we’d dress up in weird matching outfits and ended up going out across Canada supporting (comedy troupe) Corky and the Juice Pigs at college campuses. Some people do keep those misconceptions that we’re a novelty act – but not those who keep coming back to the shows.”

Eccentricity coupled with a lack of a band mystique are essential parts of the Ladies’ appeal. Where other bands like to keep it mysterious, cultivating impenetrable images, the Ladies thirst for real contact with their listeners.

And they get it. When they gather on stage wearing baggies, caps and sneakers, their audience feels an instant bond. After all, they’re looking at five young guys – average age 20, and all but one still living at home in the suburbs – who look and act just like they do.

“If you can relate to your audience,” Robertson adds, “on a level like, ‘Hey, we’re just guys,’ then you can sing all these different things and it comes across just like changing conversation.” 

“There was one time in Halifax.” Page recalls.”when a woman invited us back to her house for dinner.” 

Live mirth 

Robertson again interjects to flesh out the details. “We got there and she served up all these amazing hors d’oeuvres and drinks. Then the main course came and it was Kraft Dinner. She said she served it because a line in one of our songs (If I Had $l,000,000) mentioned that we liked Kraft Dinner. That was so great.” 

While the Ladies revel in a growing reputation for delivering pure entertainment when gigging live, they’ve had to live with the question of whether they could capture the humour, spirit and mirth of their live shows on record. 

Page himself is the first to wonder if abundant humour can foil what he calls the “fast forward” syndrome evident in music that works once but wears thin over time. 

Still, he’s more confident than nervous. “I’m not scared of the album and I don’t think our audience should ve,” Page says. “I know people who come to our shows regularly accept the songs for what they are. They want to ride the wave with us.” 

In practice, the success of their independently released five-song casstate, Barenaked Ladies, proves that the recording process needn’t leech the Ladies’ material of its freshness or zing. Possibly more important to a record company, the fivesome’s release shows plenty of musical diversity and great commercial appeal. 

In its first two months of issue, the cassette sold 1,500 copies at live shows and through retail chains Sam’s and HMV. Be My Yoko Ono — a spritely number that uses the obvious love between Ono and John Lennon as a yardstick by which passion, commitment and companionship can be gauged – quickly emerged as the single and elbowed its way onto radio station CFNY’s top 30 chart – determined by listener requests throughout the week. 

Chart support 

The song entered the chart at number 27 and rose during the next three weeks. When it began to slide in its fifth week, listener requests started up again. Re My Yoko Ono was returned, for a second time, to the top 20, solely because of the support of fans. 

More significantly, Be My Yoko Ono ended up as one of the top 10 all-time favourite Canadian songs – as determined by CFNY listeners – along with established acts the Tragically Hip, the Pursuit of Happiness and Grapes of Wrath. 

It was, of course, that frivolous and very funny tune that got Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono interested in the band. 

“We mostly just wanted Yoko to hear our song,” says Page of the Ladies’ trademark tune. “Ed and I were in the Palladium the night before our showcase. We walked into the back room and it’s like. ‘Oh my god, there’s Scan Lennon.’ 

Ed just walks right over and says ‘Hi! I’m Ed from Canada. We’ve been trying to get in touch with your mom all week.’ 

“Sean was son of baffled, saying, ‘My mom? Oh, you’re those Barenaked Ladies guys. I heard your tape this morning.'” Ladies’ manager, mentor and source of sardonic wit Nigel Best had forwarded a copy to Ono prior to the band’s arrival in NYC. 

“We sort of jumped all over each other,” Page continues, “and thought that was the end of that. But he came out to our showcase the next night. Afterwards he came back and raved about the show just like a 15-year-old kid would, which was great. 

“Then Nigel saw him the next night and Sean said he had played the song for his mother and she really liked it.” 

But the band hasn’t let the existence of such elite fans or the fact of their two sold-out Bathurst Street Theatre shows — unheard of for a local unsigned hand — change their aspirations. It just keeps them cooking. 

“I don’t expect or want to play Skydome or Madison Square Garden,” Page says honestly. “But I would like to have a sizable fan base across North America and Europe. That’s where my daydreams are. For me, what validates us is selling out a night at the Bathurst Street Theatre. 

“I want people to see there’s good songs in there and a really high level of musicianship. A sense of fun is really important to the band but I’d also like the other side to be recognized, the music that we make.” 

Robertson steps in, offering his own explanation. “We feel like what we do is being validated all the time. People will say, ‘You do this and that for me. Your show did this for me. Little things that happen all along make you feel good. 

“Things like (host of CBC radio program Morningside) Peter Gzowski asking us to play his golf tournament. I mean, Peter Gzowski! We’ve got to be doing something right.” 

@nowtoronto

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