Saturday, January 1, 2011

Beyond the Arena Organ: New Music Tuesday's Favorite Hockey Songs

In an effort to continually expand the reach of this blog's offerings, this special non-Tuesday post marks the second in a series of a irregular commentary on music topics beyond the weekly review of an emerging band or album. This follows last December's Red Sweater Days entry on our top 20 holiday tunes. In today's installment, we'll list our top 10 hockey-related numbers, which is fitting considering this time of year is not only the heart of the National Hockey League's regular season, but today's Winter Classic match-up between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, as well as the ongoing International Ice Hockey Federation's under-20 World Junior Championships in Buffalo, New York. In this listing, video or audio of our selections will be provided whenever possible. Once again, we'll proceed in ascending order...

#10 – "Uncle Gordie" - Planet Smashers (Attack of the Planet Smashers, 1997)

Nothing goes together quite as well as hockey and ska. Ok, well, it's still a fantastic, upbeat ode to one of the game's greats, while taking jabs at other well-known players like Dougie Gilmour and Theo Fluery. The Montreal-based quintet – around since 1994 – do their composition justice with lines like, "when I grow up I want to play in the NHL, on the same line with Oleg and his brother Kjell."

(listen to and download "Uncle Gordie" here)

#9 – "Me Like Hockey" - Arrogant Worms (Live Bait, 1997)

Expressing the rather neanderthalan tendencies of some hockey fans, the Kingston, Ontario-based musical comedy troupe Arrogant Worms first debuted their lovingly mocking tribute on their 1997 live recording. Amongst the potshots at foreign-born players and Canadian-flavored self-depreciation, the three-piece outfit properly notes the importance of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) excellent Saturday evening hockey coverage, Hockey Night in Canada, which is certainly among the best sports programming ever delivered.

#8 – "Frozen Puck to the Head" - Captain Tractor (Bought the Farm, 1999)

If, by now, you're noticing a certain strain of irreverence in these hockey-related selections, your observations are not misplaced. Perhaps owing to the nature of the sport itself, most good numbers concerning the fastest and toughest team sport are tongue-in-cheek affairs. The same is true of the Edmonton-based folk rock quintet Captain Tractor's tale of a love-struck goalie. It takes a special talent to rhyme "puck stop" with "truck stop," while blending references to "jello in the window display" and Rita McNeil, and the tune is all the better for it.

#7 – "Fireworks" - The Tragically Hip (Phantom Power, 1998)

Although not a hockey song in its entirety, the first verse of this brilliant heartland rocker justifies its position on this list:

If there's a goal that everyone remembers it was back in ole' 72
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
And all I remember was sitting beside you
You said you didn't give a fuck about hockey
And I never saw someone say that before
You held my hand and we walked home the long way
You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr

Highlighting the captivating talent of the Boston Bruins' hall of fame defenseman Bobby Orr, the verse is a poetic nod to the game as can be found, made possible by one of Canada's most talented bands, who are often touted as the nation's version of R.E.M.

#6 – "We're Gonna Win That Cup - Tommy Calandra/Donna McDaniel (45" single, 1975)

This selection is undeniably a case of homerism, but that's just the way its gonna be. To correspond with the Buffalo Sabres' 1975 campaign that led them to the Stanley Cup finals only to be bested by the nasty Broad Street Bullies, local songwriter Tommy Calandra crafted this piano-ditty to inspire the hometown faithful, along with several others. The song was so revered by fans of the skating swords that Calandra offered a re-worked version for the team's 1999 run to the Cup finals. Not only does this blog's author strongly identify with this bit of Sabres nostalgia, but also had the honor of singing at Calandra's funeral in 1998. "And where there's a Gil there's a way..."

#5 – "The Goal Judge" - Moxy Früvous (The C Album, 2000)

Once again returning to a more lighthearted homage to the sport, the talented Frülads from Toronto – now on indefinite and, sadly, likely permanent hiatus – included this nod to the off-ice officials responsible for signaling that a goal has been scored on their second b-sides collection in 2000. Here, quasi-frontman and drummer (the four-piece rotated lead vocals) Jian Ghomeshi – now Canada's most popular radio personality – correctly notes that absent the little-noticed goal judge, "there would be no hockey game." Well said.

(download "The Goal Judge" here)

#4 – "The Hockey Song" - Stompin' Tom Connors (Stompin' Tom and the Hockey Song, 1973)

Anyone who's ever attended a hockey game at any level has likely heard this iconic number. Often played between breaks in play, Connors' tune describes a fictional game in a succession of periods, goals and plays – a play-by-play in song. The New Brunswick-born Connors' twangy pitch and unassuming style are a fitting match for the game, and serves much the same role as "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" does for its sport.

#3 – "Helmethead" - Great Big Sea (Something Beautiful, 2004)

The first of two homages on this list to one of the unique roles in hockey – a team's dedicated brawler – the boys from St. John's, Newfoundland offer a humorous take on the concept. With the group's multi-instrumentalist Bob Hallett getting a rare turn at lead vocals, his scruffy baritone suits the fighter's identity perfectly, as he warns listeners to "never trust a fella with a helmet on his advice." Wise advice.

#2 – "Hit Somebody" – Warren Zevon (My Ride's Here, 2002)

Following the Newfie lads' interpretation of the hockey pugilist in song is another such depiction, although this time in a bit more serious vein. In terms of background details, this number might be the most interesting on this list. Not only performed by one of rock music's most under-appreciated artists – the late Warren Zevon – the lyrics were penned by noted author and sports commentator Mitch Albom, a friend of Zevon. Moreover, other close friends of Zevon – David Letterman and his Late Show musical colleagues Paul Shaffer and several of his bandmates – perform on the song, with Letterman shouting the track's title during the chorus as if he were a disgruntled fan. After all that, Albom's story of a veteran bruiser longing for his first and only goal stands strong as Zevon once again demonstrates his narrative talent.

#1 – "Fifty Mission Cap" - The Tragically Hip (Fully Completely, 1992)

Even better than a fictional hockey tale set to music is an actual one, such as The Hip's "Fifity Mission Cap," telling the true story of the disappearance of Bill Barilko of the Toronto Maple Leafs. In fact, lead singer and lyricist Gordon Downie's single verse is so efficiently crafted that is tells Barilko's – and the song's – story in full:

Bill Barilko disappeared that summer; he was on a fishing trip. The last goal he ever scored won the Leafs the cup. They didn't win another until 1962, the year he was discovered.

I stole this from a hockey card, I kept tucked up fifty mission cap.

His talented bandmates likewise do their part, delivering a haunting accompaniment that lines-up well with the subject matter. The number truly brings the story contained on the 1991/1992 Pro Set hockey card which inspired it to life.

PS: New Music Tuesday's Top Hockey Films

Since this is a forum devoted to music and not the screen, this list will be keep short. As there are a number of outstanding songs devoted to the game, a similar number of excellent movies capture the sport visually.

#5 – Mystery, Alaska: Featuring Russel Crowe, Burt Lancaster and Hank Azaria, the 1999 story of a fictional match-up between a small-town Alaska team and the New York Rangers could receive some credit for spurring thoughts of outdoor hockey, which has been a significant success for the promotion of the sport in recent years.

#4 – The Mighty Ducks: Although primarily a kids movie, the 1992 Disney effort rather faithfully captured youth hockey in Minnesota, paid homage to the then-Minnesota North Stars and ultimately led to the creation of an actual N.H.L. team in Anaheim. What other sports movie achieved so much?

#3 – Youngblood: Brat pack alum Rob Lowe resembles a young Pat LaFontaine in this 1986 tale of a prospect dealing with maturing into a credible, well-rounded player as opponents target his natural offensive skill with the more physical elements of the game – a aspect still pervasive in the sport at all levels.

#2 – Miracle: Kurt Russell's 2004 portrayal of hockey hall of famer Herb Brooks – the coach who led the underdog U.S.A. squad against the Soviet Union in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics – is iconic and largely faithful to actual events and personalities.

#1 – Slapshot: The quintessential hockey film. Irreverent. Gritty. This 1977 Paul Newman project captures much of the feel of both 1970s society along with the quirky dispositions of the game and its players, while launching the Hanson Brothers to enduring fame.

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