The first time I became aware of a band called The Barenaked Ladies was sometime in 1991 when I saw a clip on television of these five goofy guys from Scarborough, crammed into the City TV Speakers’ Corner booth (no. 8 video on this link), singing “Be My Yoko Ono.”
Crazy kids. What a lark!
They jumped off this self-promoting intro – I suspect if YouTube existed back then, they would have been a viral sensation – to become a well-known band both in Canada and the U.S. At times, it was hard to shake that concept of them being a nutty novelty act. After all, the name: Barenaked Ladies! Something a charming, overexcited three-year-old boy might say.
Preparing to write this reflection, I read dozens of Barenaked Ladies lyrics. Sure, there’s some silly stuff, like “If I Had a Million Dollars” but many of the words recall times of sadness, frustration, betrayal and loneliness.
There’s an oft-quoted and oft-mangled saying, attributed to various actors and writers, along the line of death (or tragedy) is easy. Comedy is hard. Somehow, the Ladies made comedy look easy – they became famous for improv and onstage banter, even if many of their songs are sombre.
One day, I got a backstage look into just how much work went into that ease.
In 2005, I was still the publicist for the Stratford Festival, which had commissioned The Barenaked Ladies to compose and record music and songs for its upcoming production of As You Like It, set in the 1960s. After various negotiations, it was agreed that two select journalists would join the band for a day as it worked on the show music at the studio at Fresh Baked Woods, the country property of Barenaked Ladies’ co-founder Steven Page. Evan Solomon and a CBC TV camera crew were there, along with Marsha Lederman, then with CBC radio, and photographer Patti Gower. I was the person hiding as much as possible behind piles of coats and music equipment to stay out of the video and camera shots.
Page, an onstage comedian-clown, was intense and focused in the rehearsal space and studio. They had some musical themes sketched out and worked hour after hour with director Antoni Cimolino about shaping the music to match what was needed to support the action onstage. Only drummer Tyler Stewart gave the odd wink to the media visitors observing the action.
When the group took breaks in the kitchen area, there was the kind of banter I’d been expecting. I’ve always liked the picture that accompanies this post of Page howling at something his co-founder Ed Robertson had just cracked.
In 2008, in what would have been the band’s 20th anniversary year, the wheels fell off their collective bus. Page was arrested for cocaine possession. Robertson crashed his single-engine plane. Within months, Page left the group and spoke publicly about his struggles with depression; in the decade since, he has pursued a solo career.
The four remaining Ladies carry on the band’s name and repertoire, adding new work each year. Four of 26 dates on their 2017 tour are already sold out. To date they’ve sold more than 15 million recordings.
On the other side of the 2008 bump in their road, the key to success behind The Barenaked Ladies’ easy-breezy persona remains the same. “I don’t think there’s a secret,” Ed Robertson said in a recent People magazine interview. “It’s work.”
Photo: Patti Gower