Barenaked Ladies Biography
Last updated: 07/13/2011 11:00:00 AM
THOUGH some critics have derided them as a mere novelty act, Barenaked Ladies offer testimony that persistence and hard work can pay off in big ways. Thanks to relentless touring and impressive media savvy — as well as undeniable pop smarts — the Canadian band has seen its grassroots following grow into a solid fan base both in its native country and abroad. By sticking, for the most part, to a philosophy that espouses good times (as opposed to grand statement), the group has carved out a niche of its own, and its prospects for a long musical future look better than ever.
Initially a duo, Barenaked Ladies got its start in 1988, when childhood friends Steven Page (vocals/guitar) and Ed Robertson (guitar) discovered they enjoyed singing together at summer camp. The idea for the band name (which the two were forced to defend repeatedly in the group's early years) came to them during a giggling fit at a Bob Dylan concert. After several months spent performing as opening act for a traveling comedy troupe, the duo recruited high school classmates (and brothers) Jim Creeggan (bass) and Andrew Creeggan (keyboards), and the foursome recorded a demo tape, titled Barenaked Lunch. A performance at the annual Buskers Festival in Waterloo, Ontario, led to an encounter with like-minded drummer Tyler Stewart, and the group was complete.
Funding the project themselves, Barenaked Ladies recorded a self-titled, five-song cassette in 1991 that became the only independent release to ever reach platinum status in Canada. Widely known as The Yellow Tape, the cassette featured the signature hit, "Be My Yoko Ono," which garnered extensive play on Canadian alternative radio stations. (Incidentally, then high-schooler Sean Lennon reportedly gave a copy of the tape to his mother, who was much taken with the song.) Noting the group's success north of the border, as well as its growing popularity as a live act, Sire/Reprise signed the band to a contract in 1992, and that summer the group released its major-label debut.
Titled Gordon, the band's first album proved a smash in Canada, but failed to generate much excitement among American audiences. Foregoing the dourness and angst fashionable among its alternative peers, Barenaked Ladies served notice they were fun loving, spirited, and not above dipping into novelty. Sporting songs such as "If I Had a Million Dollars" (which featured the line, "If I had a million dollars, I'd buy you … a Picasso or a Garfunkel"), and a remake of "Be My Yoko Ono," Gordon unfurled a brand a humor that many people brushed off as juvenile, and out of step with the times. Nonetheless, the album occupied the No. 1 spot on the Canadian pop charts for eight weeks, and it remained in the Canadian Top 10 for ten months. Total sales ultimately topped 800,000, earning the band Group of the Year honors at the prestigious Juno Awards (Canada's equivalent of the Grammys).
Following an exhaustive tour that saw the group perform more than 150 shows, Barenaked Ladies returned to the studio in early 1994 to begin work on its second album. Released in August, Maybe You Should Drive downplayed the group's zany spirit in favor of a more subdued approach. Although the strategy was partly attributable to the influence of producer Ben Mink (best known for his work with k.d. lang), the album's relative somberness accurately reflected a period of upheaval for the band. First, the group decided to part ways with its long-time manager Nigel Best, who (in the band's view) wasn't striving hard enough to break them in the states. (He was replaced by Nettwerk management's Terry McBride, who had overseen Sarah McLachlan's meteoric rise). Secondly, keyboardist Andrew Creeggan decided to leave the band in order to pursue other musical and academic interests.
Maybe You Should Drive marked the beginning of a temporary commercial slide for Barenaked Ladies, as the release sold less than 300,000 copies. With newly recruited keyboard player Kevin Hearn in tow, however, the group set its sights on winning over American audiences. Rumblings of a Stateside conquest began with Born on a Pirate Ship, which was released in 1996 and marked a return to the group's slapstick humor. Though it took nearly a year to do so, a single from the album, "The Old Apartment," cracked the Top 40 in early 1997, and another song ("Shoe Box") was selected for inclusion on the Friends soundtrack CD. Heartened by this success, the group quickly assembled a live album, titled Rock Spectacle, which captured the band's showman-esque spirit in all its glory. Sales of the album exploded, ultimately topping 500,000 in the U.S.
Their star in full ascendance, Barenaked Ladies suddenly became darlings of the American media. Thanks to help from profiles by CNN's Showbiz Today, NPR's All Things Considered, VH1's Hard Rock Live, Beverly Hills, 90210 (actor Jason Priestley, incidentally, directed the video for "The Old Apartment"), as well as multiple appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, the band bombarded the American consciousness with increasing regularity. On the strength of the smash hit, "Brian Wilson," Rock Spectacle spent more than a year on Billboard's Heatseekers chart for up-and-coming artists, before finally breaking into the Top 100 and ultimately selling more than 500,000 copies in the U.S. Concurrent with this onslaught of attention, the group contemplated its next move.
That move came on July 7, 1998, when Barenaked Ladies released its fifth album, titled Stunt. First, however, the group was dealt a potentially devastating blow, when keyboardist Kevin Hearn was diagnosed with leukemia. Undergoing treatments that began in March of 1998, Hearn took an 18-month-long sabbatical from all band activities, during which time Chris Brown served as his replacement. Happily, after a grueling recovery that included a bone-marrow transplant, Hearn was given a clean bill of health and has since rejoined the band.
Meanwhile, Barenaked Ladies' fortunes have rocketed. Since debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard music charts, Stunt has gone on to achieve double-platinum status in the U.S., with the single, "One Week," hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. (The group's latest single is "It's All Been Done.") Following a series of headlining shows on the 1998 H.O.R.D.E. tour, the tireless group undertook a series of dates on its own, and this summer they're back on the road again. Finally, in a true measure of how far the band has come, Weird Al Yankovic parodied "One Week" on his most recent album, Running With Scissors.