IN HARMONY'S WAYFRESH ACT BARENAKED LADIES IS LEARNING TO ROCK

When the history of pop music is written, the chapter on Canada will be a strange one.

Ignoring Bryan Adams (what else?), the biggest names in Canadian pop-rock music are the Guess Who and its more famous Mormon offshoot, Bachman-Turner Overdrive. From there Canadian pop history devolves to Rush, a band known for a high-voiced, big-nosed vocalist and a drummer who required a kit the size of the lunar lander. In more recent days, there have been a middling alternative band, Tragically Hip; an undeniably great chanteuse, k.d. lang; and a harmony-happy Toronto street band, the Leslie Spit Treeo.

The latter-day, doo-wop vocal tradition that the Treeo represents--one that revels in five- and six-part harmonies--is one of Canada's most lasting contributions to the pop lexicon. Accompanied mostly by acoustic guitars, this distinctly Canadian creation now has a second internationally known exponent, the Barenaked Ladies.

Unlike the grubby Spitsters, who still look like they need a hot shower, the Ladies are a squeaky clean, all-male ensemble with many sonic similarities with the most famous Canadian vocal ensemble, the Nylons. Describing his group as a "folk-rock band," Ladies leader Steven Page says the New Kidslike photo and cutesy type that adorn its first American release, Gordon, make the group appear more bubble gum than it is.

"We may have made a mistake with the album cover," Page says over a mobile phone from the band's tour bus. The Ladies are currently on tour with Elvis Costello clone John Wesley Harding. "When it came time to do the album cover, we said, 'We just got done making the record. We don't care about the cover. Let's just act like idiots. Let's act silly.'"
"Silly" is the operative word for a band whose only Canadian Top 10 hit is titled "Be My Yoko Ono." Although Page says it's a plea to finally put all that "Yoko broke up the Beatles" nonsense to rest, the tune also manages to poke some incisive fun at Yoko herself. When the band wanted to reproduce Yoko's shrieking vocal style, it brought in turkeys and let them gobble. There are also lines like "Don't blame it on Yokey." Fortunately, Yoko approves of both the band and its song.

"In the summer of 1991, when we were at New Music Seminar, we saw Sean Lennon sitting in a club," Page begins. "We went up and introduced ourselves and he told us he loved the song and he'd played it for his mother and she thought it was funny. Later we saw her interviewed on Canadian television and she actually said she loved it."
The Ladies were formed in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough in 1988 when Page and Ed Robertson began singing together, as Page explains, "as a time-waster. To keep us distracted from school." Slowly, they got serious, adding the Creeggan brothers, Jim (bass) and Andy (piano, congas), and Tyler Stewart (drums).

When it began routinely selling out larger halls, the group decided it was time to take a shot at making a record. The resulting five-song EP, The Barenaked Ladies, which included "Be My Yoko Ono," sold an astounding 80,000 copies despite being distributed by Page's father out of the family's basement. That number and the popularity of the "Yoko" single is what convinced WEA's Sire Records to give the band a shot. The Ladies have literally been on tour ever since. According to Page, the band is working hard on its stage act, trying to give it a less folky edge.

"We've taught ourselves to rock," he says. "We're not going to become Mudhoney anytime soon, but it's a lot harder than it used to be." Still, there's no denying that this is a band that makes shiny, happy music. No gut wrenchers about darkness of the soul here. About as meaningful as this band gets is a tune called "I Love You." Despite the serious-sounding title, the song begins by comparing loving "you" to loving "ice cream," "soup" and "fish sticks." Page maintains, however, that despite its love of silliness, the Ladies' goal is to strike a balance between being a novelty act and an adult pop band. "The trick," he says, "is to have a sense of humor without being a comedy act.

 
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