We came to see some cool indie band my younger brother read about online. Instead, we found Billy Idol.
We were in Amsterdam during the summer of 2005, on a trip through Europe with our parents after I graduated high school. One night, my brother and I made our way to a big club called the Paradiso for a Broken Social Scene concert (because what better way to spend a European vacation than watching Canadian indie rock?). We didn’t realize the place had two stages. We walked straight onto the main floor and watched the end of Idol’s set (we missed “White Wedding” and “Rebel Yell”), then stuck around for like 15 minutes afterward before we realized there probably wasn’t going to be another act after Billy Idol. Hey, we were dumbass teenagers in a foreign country, okay? When we finally found our way to the auxiliary stage upstairs, Broken Social Scene was already on, but we hadn’t missed much.
Through the haze of the years, I remember the room as a long narrow corridor, filled with swirls of lazy smoke lit through by deep blue stage lights, heavy with mood and mystery. This is probably much more romantic than reality, but that’s how these things work, right? I’d seen a few bands in smallish venues before — the Strokes, Interpol, Sonic Youth — but nothing quite like this. Even though (or perhaps because) their stage was packed with skinny, sweaty figures, my attention locked onto the long-haired front man, Kevin Drew. I liked him immediately, and I’m not quite sure why. Maybe I longed for the extroverted bravado he threw off as he transitioned seamlessly from impassioned wailing to easy banter, or maybe I just thought it was incredibly novel when he handed out beers to the people in the front row.
Either way, the music more than justified Drew’s swaggering stage presence. It was a small space, and the band filled every inch of it with sound. Distorted guitars stacked one on top of another on top of another, bombastic brass blasted the room, and a frantic drum beat held the mess together. The set bordered on chaos, the cacophony always threatening to swell out of control, but it never spun off entirely. These loud songs were a revelation to me, with their wondrous fusion of noise and harmony, but it’s a quiet one that sticks with me most.
Maybe there are some eighteen year olds who can process the emotional vulnerability and raw sexiness of “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl”; I certainly couldn’t. Today I can see the knowing melodrama in lines like, “park that car/ drop that phone/ sleep on the floor/ dream about me,” but on that night, as the melancholy strings swam through the air and a singer who was probably not Emily Haines breathed those sultry words to life, I was enchanted.
As I remember that concert, I can see so clearly why the bands people listen to at that age stay with them so long. Eight years ago, Broken Social Scene made me feel like nothing ever had before, a sense memory now buried deep inside me. After that night, I had no choice but to love that music for the rest of my life.
A few weeks ago, Kevin asked me to write about the tenth anniversary of You Forgot it in People, Broken Social Scene’s seminal sophomore album, which came out in 2002. Well, eleven is a cooler number than ten anyway, and as you might be able to deduce by now, I’ve actually only known about the band for eight years, so let’s roll with it.
Really, I don’t need much of an excuse to talk about You Forgot It because after I saw them in Amsterdam, I became obsessed with that album. Even today it’s my go-to when I need to listen to something upbeat, energetic, and really fucking good. So, why is that?
To start, for an album that was originally the debut release from a tiny Toronto-specific label, the amount of talent on it is unbelievable in hindsight. Just look at its list of contributors. You’ve got Feist, Metric, and Stars casually chipping in, and those are just the names people have heard of. The record is a singularly spectacular explosion of creativity that launched a ton of other great acts, which is cool.
And You Forgot It makes sure to put every bit of that creativity on display. The songs overflow with all sorts of wild noises, yet somehow they all work together. But it doesn’t give you the good stuff right away. The ambient opener “Capture the Flag” is a sterile waiting room, teasing the riot to come. “Here, chew on these airy, atmospheric synths,” it says, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Then the opening riff from “KC Accidental” kicks you down a flight of stairs, and you know shit just got serious. The drums and guitar crash in and recede like the tide, building toward a violent, dissonant surge. Then the instruments drop to a lonely violin, and we finally hear Drew’s plaintive voice for the first time, howling something that kind of sounds like “chemicals.” The lyrics aren’t even close to the point of Broken Social Scene; “KC Accidental” takes us on a sprawling emotional journey without a single discernible syllable.
Next comes “Stars and Sons,” a song I haven’t given an analytical thought too in a decade, but which the passive, music absorbing part of my brain unconditionally adores. It’s a flawless piece of mostly conventional pop, with a thrumming bass line that causes involuntary rhythmic motion in the human body. Drew’s vocals recede into the mix, coming through as a hoarse whisper desperately searching for a connection until it’s ultimately swallowed up. The song shows how the band’s phalanx of musicians can create something subtle and reserved. It makes an ideal lead-in to the next track, which is the death of all subtlety.
In retrospectives like these, it’s completely unfair, and also a lot of fun, to dig up misguided quotes from old reviews. Tiny Mix Tapes is actually on target with its evaluation, so I don’t mind pointing out its description of “Almost Crimes,” which is just, “a more upbeat track.” This isn’t wrong, per se, but it bears so little resemblance to my relationship with the song. To me, “Almost Crimes” is an overwhelming inferno of uptempo rock perfection. When it comes on, I can never turn it up high enough; I’d deafen myself blasting it if I had speakers that could. From the second the unrelenting kick drum explodes through the rambling intro, the band pours on high-energy instrumentation with maniacal abandon. The core of the song is the driving guitar and bass, but from that foundation sprouts a lavish menagerie of horns, keyboards, buzzes, and beeps. Drew delivers his most full-throated performance, and when Feist’s soaring warble lifts the chorus to its climax, the song transcends reality.
And here’s what makes You Forgot It a true classic: from that high point, it never runs out of gas. The mellow “Looks Just Like the Sun” cools the pace back down without ever feeling small. “Cause = Time” marks another straightforward rock hit that sets Brendan Canning’s bass guitar to maximum groove. And “Shampoo Suicide” is a masterpiece of experimental production, growing from a spare clattering of bass line and percussion into a bellowing hurricane of overlapping noise that sounds utterly beautiful for no reason I can discern.
Musically, the album is a marvel of creative excess, so vibrant and exciting it can never feel old. But there’s one more thing that makes You Forgot it in People special to me — something I felt when I first heard the band play these songs those many years ago, and that I still feel today. It sounds like music for people who are cooler than me. I can hear it in the easy cynicism when Drew sings “they all want to fuck the cause,” or in the oh-so-tragic romance of “Anthems.” As good rock music should, it paints a portrait of a way of life, of young people whose cockiness and insecurity layer over each other in a complex web, just like their instruments, creating dazzling fireworks of chaos, beauty, heartbreak, and joy. When I was eighteen, I thought I wanted that too, because how could I not be seduced? Eight years on, I’m glad I’m not like that, but when I listen to You Forgot it in People, for a little while I can still pretend.