King Shit: An Overview Of Guided By Voices
, November 28th, 2011 06:13
As the band announces a new album and headline performance at I’ll Be Your Mirror next year, Wyndham Wallace spends a week wading through the Guided By Voices catalogue so you too can find a way in…
Sixteen official albums, with another due in January 2012 and a second new collection said to be already in the can. A 32 track ‘Best Of’, a fanclub only album and five box sets, mainly comprising hitherto unreleased material. At least 16 EPs and a good 20 or so singles, five DVDs, an old VHS concert film, even two books, plus solo records, side projects, split singles and bootlegs: countless, numerous bootlegs. Oh, and quite possibly more musicians than Mark E. Smith has ever fired. And yet you want me to find ten easy ways into the World of Guided By Voices?
In their almost thirty years of existence, Guided By Voices have proven themselves to be one of the most prolific acts of all time. Such is main man Robert Pollard’s ability to write a showstopping tune, one suspects that even his Budweiser-fuelled belches have an unforgettable melody. By 1996, he claimed to have written some 5,000 songs, and though many of them (especially in the early part of the band’s career) last little more than a minute or two and were recorded to, at best, four track cassette – helping to popularise the lo-fi movement of the early 1990s (alongside acts like Smog, Sebadoh and Beck) – very few of them can be dismissed as disposable. As if to prove this, Pollard polished up the band’s sound in the late ‘90s to make it more accessible, but the new production values alienated some fans, especially when 1999’s Do The Collapse was recorded with The Cars’ Ric Ocasek. Still, Pollard soldiered on regardless, prolific as ever, operating with a variety of line-ups and releasing four more GBV albums between 2001 and 2004 until finally he called time on the project with a four hour performance in Chicago on New Year’s Eve, 2004.
Theirs is an extraordinary tale, given that, in the early years, much of Guided By Voice’s so-called reality took place in the imaginations of Pollard and his early collaborator, Tobin Sprout: they were recording songs, creating artwork and staging publicity photo-shoots long before anyone had ever expressed an interest in them. For a while, they refused even to perform in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio after early reactions to their bar shows proved inauspicious. But their persistence, the growing patronage of celebrity fans and, quite simply, their all-round brilliance, slowly paid off, so much that even Pollard and Sprout’s wildest fantasies can’t have anticipated the excitement generated by news last year of the reformation of the band’s legendary mid-‘90s line up.
At their finest, Guided by Voices come across like a masterclass in the writing of popular music. Pollard’s astonishing ear for a tune, combined with his love of classic rock – whether it be The Who, The Beatles, Cheap Trick, REM, Big Star, The Rolling Stones or even Amon Duul, – permeates almost everything he’s released, despite the early hiss, wow and flutter. Live performances, too, are often chaotic but they’re equally unforgettable, and emphasise the strangely anthemic nature of much of that the band created. Furthermore, while Pollard’s lyrics may at times reflect his no doubt feverish, cluttered state of mind, he’s still capable of throwing out striking, often surreal, lines with unnatural regularity. Take the 104 seconds of ‘Hot Freaks’, and then zoom in on that opening verse: “I met a non-dairy creamer/ Explicitly laid out like a fruitcake/ With a wet spot/ Bigger than a great lake”. Part Edward Lear, part T.S. Eliot, Pollard has a gift for identifying illuminating phrases that suit his style perfectly, and the results are often simple but intoxicatingly effective, revealing a love of language exhibited by very few songwriters today. (But Bob, if perchance you’re reading: what happened to that song you once promised to write for me, ‘Grooming The Vicar’s Beard’?)
Finding an authoritative way into the work of Guided By Voices is essentially impossible, and this list cannot hope to satisfy cognoscenti. For starters, it leans almost exclusively on the first half of the band’s career. But here, at least, are ten ways to start your descent into the rabbit hole. As Pollard sings on ‘A Salty Salute’, from 1995’s Alien Lanes, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon: the club is open!”
‘Over The Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox’
Enough with the preconceptions. GBV’s reputation amongst those unfamiliar with their music is of an exclusively lo-fi act made of social rejects in their middle ages writing 90 second songs because they’re too stoned to go further. ‘Over The Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox’ shatters that illusion. Propeller was their fifth album, and, due to their lack of commercial success and growing domestic responsibilities, it was also slated to be their farewell album, even though this was only 1992. Its opening track was prefaced with loud audience chants – “GBV! GBV!” – even if, for the most part, the only shows where this happened were in their minds. But audiences hadn’t heard this five and a half minute magnum opus, its lyrics full of wild exhortations (“And hey, let's throw the big party/ Today for the rest of our lives/ The fun is just about to get started/ So throw the switch/ It's rock & roll time”), hypnagogic imagery (“And then the onion lady blows/ Kisses to the crying cooks with baited hooks and lady looks”) and even a dash of romance: “Time's wasting and you're not gonna live forever/ And if you do I'll come back and marry you/ No use changin' now/ You couldn't anyhow." All this is done over a song – two songs, actually – that’s broken into three movements, all of equal flair, and though they have no right to fit together, somehow the result sounds like The Who playing Queen, but much, much better than that. A true rock anthem.
The Breeders: ‘Shocker In Gloomtown’
GBV always had their fair share of admirers: The Strokes, Green Day, Slash, Beastie Boys, Thurston Moore, Thom Yorke and even Ray Davies are all said to be fans. But, arguably, their most influential supporter was former Pixie Kim Deal, who for a while lived in Dayton, Ohio, and so loved the band that for a while their destinies intertwined. Deal took The Amps (the band she set up during Breeders downtime) out on a UK tour opening for GBV – where yours truly found himself unexpectedly propping her up as she pogo-ed in a packed crowd at Kings College, London – and also produced part of 1996’s Under The Bushes, Under The Stars (though not to Pollard’s satisfaction). It was, however, The Breeders’ 1994 cover of ‘Shocker In Gloomtown’ (recorded for their Head To Toe EP and lifted from GBV’s Grand Hour EP, released a year earlier) that best highlights her genuine passion for their work. Accelerating the track’s pace slightly, Deal throws a little sugar into the grit with an elated performance that captures the succinct genius of the song in less than ninety seconds, and even invited her new idols to appear in the video, where they appear as scruffy passers-by peering through the windows of The Breeders’ practise garage. One additional, random fact: 'P.S. Dump Your Boyfriend' was actually the name of a local covers band…
The Classic Line Up: Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes & Under The Bushes, Under The Stars
It’s said that the devil has all the best tunes, but it seems like he dropped a bunch en route to hell. Pollard must have stumbled upon them, because otherwise there’s no excuse for his extraordinary, unrestrained creativity, and by Bee Thousand it seemed he could not only shit great songs but also polish a turd. Its 20 tracks may still be messily recorded (though a massive improvement on the production values employed by the previous year’s Vampire On Titus), but there’s not a duff tune here: ‘The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory’, ‘Tractor Rape Chain’, ‘Gold Star For Robot Boy’ and ‘I Am A Scientist’ rank amongst their all time greats. It was also enough to win a lucrative deal with Matador Records, though biographer Jim Greer, also a member of the band at one stage, notes that, "the cost for recording (follow-up) Alien Lanes, if you leave out the beer, was about ten dollars."
Auditorium / Motor Away (from Alien Lanes)
By this time, Pollard’s loose gang of associates – Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell on guitars, Greg Demos on bass and Kevin Fennel on drums – had coalesced into a functioning band, and consequently Alien Lanes is tighter, though it still wallows in hiss. Listening to its 28 songs – amongst them yet more classics like ‘Motor Away’, ‘Game Of Pricks’, 'Watch Me Jumpstart’, ‘Blimps Go 90’, the 43 second ‘Pimple Zoo’ – is like stumbling upon a young child overflowing with joyful enthusiasm and naïve wonder after they’ve first discovered the concept of melody. And the songs kept coming: 1996’s 'Under The Bushes', 'Under The Stars' contained 18 credited tracks and, at their label’s insistence, a further six shoehorned in anonymously at the end. It’s cleaner, a little more conventional, but ‘Cut Out Witch’, ‘Lord Of Overstock’, ‘Don’t Stop Now’ and Tobin Sprout’s Lennon-meets-Barrett ‘To Remake The Young Flyer’ highlight why this line-up was so badly missed when it dissolved soon afterwards, and why its reunion has been met with such glee. These were the records where the magic really started, and they’re what GBV are, ultimately, all about.
‘My Valuable Hunting Knife’ (re-recording)
If Britain hadn’t been obsessed with Britpop, it might have embraced this 1995 A-side to their hearts and we could all have been spared the undignified spectacle of Oasis’ decline from mere Beatles burglars to mindless, egotistical thugs. (Pollard once responded to the Gallaghers’ claim that they’d be bigger than The Beatles with the comment, “Well, we're going to be fatter than Elvis. And drunker than Meat Loaf.") Included on the Tigerbomb EP (later given away with early pressings of Under The Bushes… and also included in the Hardcore UFOs boxset), this version of an Alien Lanes standout swapped the four-track recorder for Dayton’s Refraze Studio. Pollard still sounds like he’s singing down the phone for the song’s first half, but the slightly slower pace, as well as the bigger production – with additional hand claps bulking out an already heavier take on the track’s central, staccato drumbeat – mean that, when the song explodes halfway through, it does so with a volume-fuelled conviction that ensures anyone hearing it will spend the rest of their day singing about how they “want to start a new life/ with my valuable hunting knife”. This, surely, is a far more imaginative example of rhyming nonsense than “I know a girl called Elsa/ She’s into Alka Seltzer”.
Watch Me Jumpstart (DVD)
Named after a track on Alien Lanes, Banks Tarver’s 45 minute documentary captures the lo-fi aesthetic of GBV’s “classic line-up” albums perfectly. Tarver may now be involved in talent shows and fly-on-the-wall documentaries like the recent I Want To Work For Diddy, but he summarises the band’s history up to Under The Bushes… using intimate interviews with the band’s members and key associates, including Pete Jamison, the ‘Manager-For-Life’ whose role wasn’t so permanent after all, but who oversaw the band’s early DIY releases and screen-printed their merch.
It’s a remarkable story, charting the transformation of schoolteacher Pollard’s daydreams into reality, and highlights their down-to-earth charms, their drab existence in Dayton, Ohio, and their extraordinary live shows (of which more later). Quietly spoken Tobin Sprout is revealed as an invaluable foil in Pollard’s songwriting process, Mitch Mitchell is goofy but sweet, while Kevin Fennel – who would soon temporarily return to his tragically alcoholic ways – highlights how desperately some people need music to escape their small town environment. Pollard, meanwhile, comes across as an excitable, charismatic, ambitious and likeable rock historian still untouched by standard industry cynicism. You can’t help but wish you were in the band.
Tonics & Twisted Chasers LP
Once you pop, you can’t stop, and Tonics & Twisted Chasers was evidence that Pollard and Sprout were a relentlessly productive team. Originally released as a fanclub only album between Under The Bushes… and 1997’s Mag! Earwhig, it featured 19 songs considerably more stripped back and melancholic than anything they’d done since Bee Thousand. It was also less immediate, but if you’ve already worked your way through their ‘official’ albums the chances are you’re looking for something a little more challenging. ‘Dayton, Ohio – 19 Something And Five’ is a touching, twisted ode to their hometown, ‘Key Losers’ is a gentle but sweet strum, and the version of ‘Knock ‘Em Flying’ (later re-recorded for Mag! Earwhig) is far more intimate and effective. ‘Universal Nurse Finger’ sees Pollard’s voice sped up to an unlikely helium level over a solo piano – an unusual instrument for a GBV recording – while ‘Reptilian Beauty Secrets’ sounds like it was written as they recorded, and ‘Satellite’ could be early Sonic Youth on nitrous oxide. But ‘158 Years Of Beautiful Sex’, put simply, is tantalising.
The June 18, 1996 Peel Session
Most GBV afficionados agree that the mid 1990s line-up was the finest. It’s hard on latter formations, but there was something magical in the mess and honesty of the Alien Lanes group that was perhaps lacking later on, especially when Pollard became a rock star in reality (in America, at least) rather than just in his head. Since many of the era’s recordings are lo-fi, it’s not always obvious just how immediate they are, and instead they sound sometimes like a cheap radio in the next-door room playing FM classics. John Peel, fortunately, brought the band into the BBC studios on two occasions, and their June 1996 visit captures the power of their live shows in the ‘no frills’ fashion that was the hallmark of his Maida Vale sessions. Plus, alongside killer versions of ‘Cut Out Witch’, ‘Striped White Jets’ and ‘Atom Eyes’, there’s a beautiful version of Vampire On Titus’ ‘Wondering Boy Poet’ employing a piano the band found in the studio. It’s sixty seconds long, but one of the sweetest things they ever recorded.
‘I Am A Tree'
Part of GBV’s early appeal was that, where most bands would seek to elevate their songwriting through impressive production, they insisted their audience recognise the splendour of their work through a haze of tape dropouts and mistakes. Inevitably that had to change: success brought greater goals and a heavier workload, as well as deepening friction within the band. “We were getting a little sick of looking at each other. And there are certain things - personal goals - people need to do,” Pollard told the Dayton Daily News in September 1996, before hiring Cleveland, Ohio’s Cobra Verde as his new backing band. Their recorded debut called upon Pollard’s love of prog and perhaps overemphasised his rock star fantasies: Mag! Earwhig was pitched as a rock opera, and for many it was a step too far from the lo-fi template, lacking some of the idiosyncrasies of earlier work, even though members of the old guard still contributed. But, taken independently, Pollard’s newfound pop sensibility still offered rewards such as ‘Bulldog Skin’ and ‘Sad If I Lost It’. Its highlight was ‘I Am A Tree’, actually written by Cobra Verde’s Doug Gillard rather than Pollard and constructed around a giant guitar riff that nods subtly to The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’. Throwaway, perhaps, but bubblegum always is.
The Suitcases & The Briefcases
One of the great joys of discovering a band with a back catalogue is exploring it, but in the case of Guided By Voices that’s also what holds many people back: the sheer quantity of material out there is simply overwhelming. Still, those wishing to invest time and money into the pursuit, and who have already explored the rarer releases, can stare into an almost bottomless abyss when they pick up the three Suitcase compilations which contain a total of 300 songs – rejected recordings, jams, alternative versions and demos of, largely, previously unheard tracks. If that’s too much, there are three compact versions: single disc digests of the highlights called 'Briefcase 1, 2 and 3'. Either way, these offer an exhaustive and sometimes exhausting trawl through the darkest corners of the GBV archives that highlights the completely deranged and uninhibited inventiveness of Pollard and his associates. It’s worth noting, at this stage, that the company Pollard set up to publish his work is called Needmore Songs.
Guided By Voices Live
‘Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox’ from unreleased Stormtroopers In London bootleg, recorded at The Garage, London on June 21, 1996
Amongst many memorable shows over the past 20 years or so, I’ve been moved to tears by Björk, watched Monotonix set a Nashville club on fire, seen John Lydon threaten to take out one of his own fans and been blown away by Rammstein in a 300 capacity Berlin venue. But I’ve never seen anything better than GBV on form, and nothing beats standing in a heaving, sweaty crowd shouting for their favourite freakily titled songs – “‘Bright Paper Werewolves’!” “’Optical Hopscotch’!” “’Some Drilling Implied’!” “’The Official Ironmen Rally Song’!” – except when they actually dedicate your favourite song to you. Bob Pollard’s scissor kicks and microphone twirls are the fulfilment of every male’s rock star dreams, and – whatever line-up is backing him – their shows are an endless stream of hook-heavy nuggets, banged out one after another from behind a wall of Bud bottles pulled from the onstage cooler.
There’s plenty of documentary evidence available: The Electrifying Conclusion (the official DVD of their 63 song final performance on New Year’s Eve, 2004), Live In Austin, TX (a 2CD or DVD collection from the same year, Pollard declaring, “Let me tell you something that Guided By Voices taught the world: that you can suck and still rule”) plus bootlegs like Crying Your Knife Away (recorded in Dayton, 1994) and even the two track 7” given away with Fear & Loathing zine, which begins with Pollard’s immortal words, “One of these days you’re gonna want to be a rock star and it’s gonna be too late. Maybe not. Maybe not…”
And now it turns out that it’s not too late to see them, and that’s something everyone should do at least once in their life. There’s quite simply no better way to experience Guided By Voices or, indeed, indie rock. As Pollard himself sings:
“We’re finally here – and shit, yeah, it’s cool!”
Let’s Go Eat The Factory is released on January 16, 2012. Guided By Voices headline I’ll Be Your Mirror at Alexandra Palace, London, on May 27, 2012
New album Let's Go Eat The Factory is due for release on January 16th through Fire Records. We're very pleased to be hosting a free download of new Guided By Voices track 'Doughnut For A Snowman' - click here to listen and download.