While Nirvana were causing upheaval south of the border, the Barenaked Ladies were igniting an indie-rock revolution right here in Toronto.
It’s probably pretty scary for Gen Xers to see Nirvana’s Nevermind, the album that defined their generation, being treated to deluxe anniversary packaging and a tribute concert—precisely the kind of consumerism-fuelled baby-boomer trappings that Gen X was supposed to reject. But the best part about the massive retrospective love-in for Nevermind is that it requires no revisionism whatsoever. Nirvana’s breakthrough effort came out 20 years ago last month; today, it still sounds and feels like it could level the pop landscape. Back in 1991, when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was playing literally everywhere, the pop culture ether vibrated with the sense that times were about to change.
While Nirvana’s landmark album came to us via the big-machine marketing of the majorest of major labels (Geffen), the band’s indie roots with Seattle label Sub Pop effectively ushered in what came to be known as the alternative nation. The story, well known now thanks to countless books and VH1 specials, is that within the year, grunge music and alternative culture dominated the airwaves and magazine covers—essentially becoming the mainstream.
But Nevermind wasn’t the only game-changing album that made its ascent in the fall of 1991. It’s not even the only one that helped bust open the door for the next two decades of alternative- and indie-rock. Right here in Toronto, an independently released cassette (remember those?) by a jokey-folky group faux-offensively named The Barenaked Ladies was making the rounds. Nevermind may have marked the birth of popular indie-rock, but The Yellow Tape might just be Toronto’s greatest indie-rock record.
Recorded as a demo—one that was rejected by pretty much every label they sent it to—BNL’s Yellow Tape epitomizes the quirky Canadian appeal of the Toronto quintet. It contains three of the band’s most recognizable tunes (“Be My Yoko Ono,” “Brian Wilson” and “If I Had $1,000,000”) and boasts the well-oiled vocal interplay, acoustic-funk grooves and good-natured humour that would become the template for the band’s future multi-platinum success.
In 1991, BNL were playing anywhere and everywhere they could, opening for comedy acts and straight up busking in Toronto’s streets. Their reputation rested largely on the strength of these performances, an effective Speaker’s Corner appearance and much word of mouth. At first, they sold their modest five-song tape exclusively at shows; later, they hand-delivered the cassette to shops like Sam the Record Man, where it was stocked on the “Independent” racks.
Self-financed, and with no proper distribution—singer Steven Page’s dad eventually quit his job to keep up with demand for the thing—The Yellow Tape was the ultimate DIY effort. It wasn’t even on an indie label; it was more like sub-indie. But amazingly, the release sold upwards of 50,000 units in a fraction of the time it took Nirvana to sell that many copies of their Sub Pop debut, Bleach. The Yellow Tape went on to be certified platinum in Canada, the first time that happened for an independent release.
As the current retro-fanfare proves, Nirvana’s legacy remains uncontested. But for whatever reason—their slide towards generically populist pop, a messy split between Page and the rest of the band—Barenaked Ladies’ indie legacy is almost never mentioned.
And yet, the band proved that the normal channels for pop-world recognition weren’t necessary for success. With The Yellow Tape, BNL inadvertently laid the groundwork for everyone from Broken Social Scene to Fucked Up to The Weeknd. The cassette’s quaint, handmade packaging facilitated an invaluable personal bond between artist and fans, not unlike what Fucked Up have achieved with their series of self-produced, collectible singles. And the idea of playing in non-traditional settings continues to this day: Recently, Wavelength (the former weekly series that helped break Broken Social Scene) hosted local faves Hooded Fang’s record release show at a gymnasium.
None of this is unique to the Barenaked Ladies, but at the time it was revelatory to see this kind of grassroots approach succeed in Toronto and have it extend to the rest of the country. Nirvana’s music may have inspired a generation of kids to pick up guitars and try to write their own grunge anthems. But the BNL approach gave that same generation a way to get past an industry that might otherwise have said, “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.”