The Band Comes Together

Page, the son of teacher Victor Page and Joanne Simmons, first performed in a group named Scary Movie Breakfast with high-school friend Geoff Pounsett. Robertson, the youngest of five children born to Earl Robertson and his wife Wilma Shannon, was a Rush fan who honed his stage skills with a teenaged rock band that was variously named Rude Awakening, Three Guys From Barrie and The Rage. The two debuted as Barenaked Ladies (a gag name the two invented while attending a Bob Dylan concert in Toronto) at a food-bank benefit held at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. During their first year, they mixed original material with songs by Talking Heads, Madonna and the Proclaimers while becoming known for their quick wit and comic stage presence.

After touring nationally with comedy troupe Corky & The Juice Pigs, the duo enlisted the Creeggan brothers, then Stewart, to record a live-in-the-studio, five-song debut titled The Yellow Tape. Featuring stark versions of such early fan favourites as "Brian Wilson," "Be My Yoko Ono" and "If I Had $1,000,000," it was released strictly as a cassette and distributed by friends and family. The tape rapidly became an inspirational model for independent artists in Canada by selling 83,000 copies and earning national airplay beginning with heavy support from Brampton, Ont, modern-rock station CFNY-FM. (That station's Discovery-to-Disk grant program awarded the band $100,000 to record a full album.) A cover of Bruce Cockburn's "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" was also an airplay hit and its video went into high rotation at MuchMusic.

A World-Wide Deal

A showcase at New York's New Music Seminar in July 1991 generated US label interest, and group manager Nigel Best parlayed maximum publicity from the City of Toronto's decision to ban the group from a city-sponsored concert on the grounds that some might find its name offensive. In April 1992 BNL signed (on the front steps of Scarborough City Hall) a world-wide deal with New York-based Sire Records. Gordon, produced in Toronto by Michael Phillip-Wojewoda, was released in July. In Canada, it spent eight weeks at number one on the album charts, sold 800,000 copies and spun off four hit singles - "Enid," "What A Good Boy" and new versions of "If I Had $1,000,000" and "Brian Wilson." The commercial impact was relatively slight in the US, though critics were quick to champion the band; wrote Jon Pareles in the New York Times, "it's not easy being hyperactive, brooding and whimsical all at once, but the Barenaked Ladies do just that, balancing breezy melodies with unsentimental songwriting."

The first album was a tough act to follow. The more introspective Maybe You Should Drive (1994), produced by k.d. lang collaborator Ben Mink, was met with something of a public backlash at home. Both it and Born On A Pirate Ship (1995) sold relatively poorly despite the solid airplay given "Jane" and "Shoe Box," their respective lead singles. The group's popularity as a live attraction was undiminished, however, and the concert recording Rock Spectacle (1996) surprisingly earned gold-level sales (500,000 units) in America. Much of the credit went to new managers Terry McBride and Pierre Tremblay of Vancouver-based Nettwerk Management, who had begun applying the same grassroots marketing strategies then being used to transform another Nettwerk artist, Sarah McLachlan, into a commercial force. "The Old Apartment" became the band's first US top-40 single.

New Management Brings New Success

Seemingly out of left field, Stunt (Jul 1998) became a top-10 album in the US on the heels of the number one Billboard single "One Week" (which was later nominated for a Grammy Award). A publicity blitz secured slots on everything from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to Saturday Night Live. Stunt sold 4 million copies in North America, and BNL played to its biggest-ever audiences while performing with Blues Traveler and Ben Harper on the US HORDE festival tour. Beverly Hills 90210 actor Jason Priestley directed the "rockumentary" Barenaked In America, which featured cameos by talk-show hosts Conan O'Brien and Jon Stewart. A second single, "It's All Been Done," also reached the US top-10.

Missing from the line-up following the Stunt recording sessions was Hearn, who had been diagnosed with leukemia and was to spend two years in a successful battle against cancer. He was replaced for touring purposes by Chris Brown, formerly of the Toronto group Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. Hearn was back for Maroon (Jul 2000), helmed by American superstar producer Don Was (Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones). While it didn't match the success of Stunt, Maroon sold 1.5 million copies worldwide and included a brace of popular singles in "Pinch Me" (BNL's second U.S. top-10 hit), "Too Little Too Late" and "Falling for the First Time."

Other Projects

Disc One: All Their Greatest Hits (1991-2001) wrapped up BNL's first decade. In a career that has seen the band collect (as of 2005) 16 Juno Awards nominations and 7 awards, the group hosted the 2002 Junos at Mile One Stadium in St. John's, Nfld. They were back at the podium in 2004 to receive Junos in the group and pop album categories for a sixth studio album, Everything to Everyone (2003). The "Au Naturale" tour of U.S. arenas in summer 2004 paired BNL with Alanis Morissette. The band's festive spirit, which first emerged when Robertson wrote "Green Christmas" for the How The Grinch Stole Christmas soundtrack in 2000, continued with the full-length album Barenaked For The Holidays (2004), recorded at Page's Fresh Baked Woods studio north of Toronto.

Band members have participated in a variety of side projects. Stewart's Don't Talk Dance project released a self-titled 1995 album featuring fellow "cheesmonauts" Chris Brown and Big Sugar's Gordie Johnson. Robertson has recorded with The Waltons and Melanie Doane. Page and long-time collaborator Stephen Duffy, formerly of UK group The Lilac Time, released an album as The Vanity Project in 2005. Hearn, originally a member of Toronto's The Look People, has released the solo albums Mothball Mint (1997) and H Wing (1999) as well as an album with the group Thin Buckle titled Night Light (2002). Jim Creeggan was a contributor to Sarah McLachlan's Surfacing (1997) and has recorded four albums with Andy as The Brothers Creeggan.