MUSIC

Naked ambition

The Barenaked Ladies blend rock and satire

NICHOLAS JENNINGS March 8 1993
MUSIC

Naked ambition

The Barenaked Ladies blend rock and satire

NICHOLAS JENNINGS March 8 1993

Naked ambition

The Barenaked Ladies blend rock and satire

MUSIC

With its strip malls and doughnut shops, car dealerships and hydro power corridors, Scarborough, Ont., has all the elements of a suburban wasteland. Stretching out on the eastern fringes of Toronto, it is just waiting to be lampooned—or so it seemed to Steven Page and Ed Robertson. When the two wisecracking graduates of Scarborough’s Woburn Collegiate decided to form a musical group in 1988, they found an abundance of comic raw material right on their own turf. The band began satirizing suburbia in songs about high school, Kraft Dinner and McDonald’s cashiers. And to underscore the point, the self-described “nerds” adopted “geek wear” consisting of dime-store shirts and Bermuda shorts. Now one of Canada’s hottest acts (they are currently on a 3V2-month cross-country tour, which began in Victoria on Feb. 13), the Barenaked Ladies are also beginning to win serious attention outside their home country. The U.S.-based entertainment magazine Billboard has praised the band for producing “some of the most clever and catchy songs we’ve heard in quite some time,” while London’s Melody Maker declared, “They are, quite deliberately, fun.”

An oddball success stoiy, the Ladies (actually five males—guitarists Page, 23, and Robertson, 23, drummer Tyler Stewart, 26, and brothers Jim and Andy Creeggan, 23 and 22, on bass and keyboards, respectively) have defied music-industry norms from the start. Working from the basement rec rooms of their parents’ homes, in 1991 the group released an independent cassette, which sold an unprecedented 80,000 copies domestically. Featuring a breezy acoustic sound, the band’s whimsical songs— especially those about pop-music figures Brian Wilson and Yoko Ono—became instant radio hits. Since signing with New York City-based Sire Records, whose roster includes Madonna, the group has reached another milestone: its debut album, Gordon, released in July, has sold 500,000 copies in Canada—almost unheard-of for a new act.

At the same time, the Ladies have spearheaded a new brand of Canadian music—rock ’n’ roll comedy. The movement includes such rising talents as Toronto’s Moxy Friivous and Corky & the Juice Pigs. But the trend owes as much to TV comedy performers like The Kids in the Hall or Mike Myers as it does to other musical acts. Humor has, on occasion, plunged the Barenaked Ladies into the hot waters of political correctness: their ironic name got the group banned from Toronto’s city hall early last year when one official decreed that it objectified women. And recently, Métis leaders objected to a line from If I Had $1,000,000, a satirical Ladies’ song that refers to the wearing of fur as

a “cruel” act, because they said that it threatened their livelihood.

During an interview in Page’s cluttered thirdfloor apartment, on the eve of the Ladies’ cur-

rent tour, he and drummer Stewart insisted that the group is neither sexist nor insensitive to native traditions. “The last thing we want to look like is stupid rock dudes,” said the bespectacled, bearded Page. “But we also don’t want to look like we’re pontificating all the time about issues. I just think it’s important to have a little humor in music.”

Their fans seem to agree. Ladies concerts are orgies of unadulterated fun. Made up of mostly high-school and college students, audiences scream in delight at their heroes’ goofy imitations of Madonna or The New Kids on the Block—and throw Kraft Dinner boxes onto the stage in recognition of the band’s professed

love of low-brow food. Page, who along with Robertson writes most of the band’s songs, suggests that young people are attracted to the Ladies’ lack of rock ’n’ roll posing. “It’s the geeky thing,” he said. “We don’t pretend to have been born with leather jackets and slide guitars in our hands. Scarborough has always had a really low self-image. Growing up, we were ashamed to come from there. But I think that’s where our humor comes from.”

As students, Page and Robertson were both in the gifted program of the Scarborough school board. Bright but bored, they met at a music camp and found a creative outlet in writing and singing songs that dealt glibly with pop

culture and their own suburban roots. Like Wayne’s World, in which Myers and Dana Carvey send up rock and teenagehood, the Ladies’ material offers a series of rapid-fire references for a generation weaned on a diet of music and television. “We’ve done a pretty tasteful job of doing this,” said Page, pointing an imaginary channel changer at the entertainment system that dominates his small living room, and pretending to sample either music tracks or TV shows. Added the musician: ‘You could say we were kids who grew up with silver remote controls in our hands.”

NICHOLAS JENNINGS