If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with PRIMER, in which we guide you through the varied careers of renowned indie icons. This week, Chris Hampton tells you everything you need to know about indie rock legends Guided By Voices, who are set to release a new album entitled English Little League on April 30.
t wouldn’t be crazy to call Guided By Voices “the greatest band in the world.” A lot of people have. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney believes it well enough to assert something like that— casually but quickly, as though it were a truism — alongside matters of foreign relations and the war in Afghanistan. It is a matter of deadly seriousness.
Their recorded catalogue, which numbers between 800 and 1,000 songs depending on what you count, contains more could-be classic riffs and sing-along melodies than any other discography in the history of everything — their creative output ranks alongside the agriculture exports of a small country. And, yeah, they give rock nerds a big enough hard-on to say shit like that.
Their onstage antics — the front-kicks, the travelling neon sign that says “THE CLUB IS OPEN,” and certainly, the 1,000,000 beers — are the stuff of legend. But, to be sure, their off-stage lives colour their lore just as vividly: that singer/ songwriter Robert Pollard taught grade school well into his 30s before “making it” (whatever that means); the Monument Club, what Pollard calls his core group of drinking buddies in Dayton, OH who meet weekly and are the subject of much of the GBV mythology; and the Freedom Cruises – another Dayton thing – during which a young Pollard and his buddies would drive around piss hammered or getting piss hammered (before that kind of thing was frowned upon or illegal altogether) and blare music for an evening of entertainment.
Despite the richness of their history and maybe because of the intimidating vastness of their catalogue, GBV are in danger of being remembered as simply a cult band — the forebears of the lo-fi aesthetic, two exemplary albums to their name — barely worth a page in the big book of rock and roll.
In this PRIMER, I’m going to undo that shit and make a GBV fan out of you yet, just in time for their upcoming album English Little League, due out April 30. They aren’t just some hiss and fuzz band out of Palookaville. They belong as much beside The Who, The Byrds, and Bobby Pollard’s hero, John Lennon, as they do beside ’90s acts like Sebadoh and Pavement (both great bands in their own right, don’t get me wrong).
If we’re trying to perk ears, we might as well start with their two most lauded albums, ’95′s Alien Lanes and ’94′s Bee Thousand, which isn’t quite chronological, but bear with me. It should be noted here that, along with assorted helpers, these two feature the “classic lineup:” Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell on the guitars, Greg Demos on bass, Kevin Fennell on drums, and as always, Bob Pollard.
Pollard says “Game of Pricks,” above, is one of the best songs he’s ever written. It’s track 7 on Alien Lanes, but, really, it could be track 14 on A Hard Day’s Night. That’s if the ’64 Beatles could’ve found the piss and vinegar to write such a paranoid “fuck you” song. But this gets at the thesis that GBV weren’t so much post-punk acolytes as they were a garage band with arena rock fantasies, jamming their take on classic rock (read: British Invasion) and recording it with whatever equipment allowed them the freedom to not stop drinking beers and horsing around — namely a four-tracker. I’d venture the genesis of their sound owes as much, if not more, to the freedom, control, and cheapness of home-tracking as it does to any artistic commitment to low fidelity. The byproduct is just something they grew to prefer.
Below is another gem from Alien Lanes (it’s a goddamn diamond mine). To further that arena-rock-done-dirty idea, listen as Pollard et al. make something that lands between The Cars and The Who’s “I Can’t Explain.”
It must be noted that titles are important to Pollard. The ’94 classic Bee Thousand was named so in part by a misreading of a movie marquee for Beethoven, and part because “if you hold your tongue and say ‘Bee Thousand’ it sounds like ‘Pete Townshend.” Now you’re starting to see the centrality of the British Invasion in the Pollard universe, right? Anyways, “I am a Scientist” started off as just a title, on a list of titles, as many GBV songs do, and Bob filled in the music and lyrics later. It’s great songwriting and a standout track on Bee Thousand, exemplary of their trademark aesthetic, but what I think is most important is how the song stands as a declaration of the whole Guided By Voices/Bob Pollard ethos. It’s a song about studying yourself and the world around you. It’s also about Rock and Roll as salvation, a fantasy that anybody who’s ever strapped on a guitar or picked up a pair of drum sticks can get behind.
Now that the GBV have your attention, it’s time to shuttle back for a more historical look. To think of Guided By Voices as a ’90s band wouldn’t be wrong, but it forsakes a bunch of the great groundwork they did in the ’80s. After spending too much money going down to Kentucky to record their first EP Forever Since Breakfast in a proper studio, Bob decided to record their second release Devil Between My Toes at a friend’s house in Dayton who had an 8-tracker in his garage. The album, released in 1987, hints at the lo-fi aesthetic the band would later explore. The song “Captain’s Dead,” below, shows that their British pop and American psych rock influences — think “Eight Miles High” — were audible even at the band’s beginning.
The ’92 album Propeller was a breakthrough for GBV. Pollard was about to call it quits because the band really couldn’t escape Dayton. This was to be the farewell album. But the few copies that were mailed out to fanzines and distributors ended up in the right hands — tastemakers like Matt Sweeney, Thurston Moore, and Mark Ibold who helped champion the band.
On Propeller, GBV come into their fuzzy, raucous own. The thing doesn’t have a bald spot either, it’s anthem after anthem. “Exit Flagger” is a high octane stadium rock jam and “Weed King” sees the boys strike a darker psychedelic pose, something strikingly akin to a Syd Barret tune. Potheady in the same way, too. “Freedom cake/ Quick to bake.”
And then this is the spot in the truncated GBV history where Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes would fall. So I won’t say anything except enjoy!
In 1996, Pollard and the classic lineup wanted to take another shot at big studio recording. Bob had planned a concept album called The Power of Suck. GBV went to Chicago and recorded with Steve Albini, and fellow daytonian Kim Deal from The Pixies and The Breeders produced another session in Memphis. Pollard wasn’t happy with the recordings and so he scrapped The Power of Suck. They recorded some new songs they’d been playing on tour at Cro-Magnon in Dayton and included a few vestiges from the Deal and Albini sessions. That’s how Under the Bushes Under the Stars was made. It was the last album to feature the classic lineup until their 2012 reunion. It’s also one of the band’s most ambitious albums in terms of composition. And, as always, it features some great Bob songwriting.
Check out “Don’t Stop Now,” a hangover from the Kim sessions that Bob had demoed years earlier. This song contains the second appearance of Big Daddy (who first appeared on the cover of Devil Between My Toes), a vicious pet rooster Bobby had bought for his son Bryan.
And this is where GBV history usually gets a bit muddled. A lot of people turn around this series of events saying something like “And then Bob fired everybody” or “Bob outgrew his bandmates,” but the truth is, GBV is more like a club, and memberships are mostly permanent. Tobin had his second child and wanted to be with his family. Greg Demos could never fully commit to the band because he was a practicing lawyer. Kevin Fennel had some drug issues that were really getting in the way, and he might have been the only one you could say was really fired. Mitch Mitchell stuck around, but he didn’t dig it much when Pollard replaced the whole band with a Cleaveland glam rock group called Cobra Verde and asked him to play bass. So when things got tired, he left too.
But this began a different era in GBV history. Pollard recruited Cobra Verde because he liked their guitar player Doug Gillard. He was exactly the kind of lead player that neither Tobin or Mitch were, he played flashy licks and solos. In his arena rock aspirations, Bob had always wanted a proper lead guitar.
The Guided By Verde experiment only lasted one album, Mag Earwhig!, but Gillard was there to stay. Wrestling Demos back on board as well as The Breeders’ Jim Macpherson on drums, Guided By Voices was signed to TVT Records and worked with Ric Ocasek for GBV’s 11th record/major label debut. Some will tell you that new wave weirdo Ocasek fucked up the album big time — too slick, shiny, goopy. But really, there are some excellent songs on Do The Collapse and it was a fruitful era for songwriting. “Things I Will Keep” is another song that Bob counts among his best and “Teenage FBI” is a fan favourite. But watch the live version below before you check out this album version. Because, yeah, sometimes Ocasek did fuck some things up.
Isolation Drills, GBV’s 12th full album, was released in 2001. Again they worked under the TVT label, and again they worked under a producer. This time, it was Robert Schnapf, who was responsible for producing most of Elliot Smith’s recorded catalogue. While the cheesy synths of Do The Collapse were abandoned, it isn’t quite business as usual. This is about the same time that Bob split up with his wife (infidelity problems on the road) and some say that the turmoil is audible, that those sunny boppers seem to mask a real sadness at the core of the album. But Bob says that’s wrong. Whatever. If you want to hear GBV do some fluffy college rock, they do it pretty well.
And the story could end there — Bob the lone ranger riding off into the sunset, his best work behind him, and his hometown bandmates left even farther back — but it doesn’t. Remember GBV is like a club, so when Bobby Pollard calls and says he’s getting the band back together, the good people jump to it. Last year the classic lineup released three albums. Three. They weren’t half bad either. On the latest, The Bears For Lunch, this stripped-down beauty tells you that 27 years on, the club is very much still open.