Song of the day – 429: Guided By Voices
I’m back in love with this sound.
Thank Shellshag. They reminded me how much I once loved the human error, Disney tunes and flotsam of Sebadaoh and Quasi. Thank half the independent non-triple j bands in Australia. Sound is saturated these days. Vocals turned up on cheap amplifiers just enough to distort. Guitar strokes are bold. Songs are short, long enough to germinate an idea, move on. I can’t deny those lost hot October nights. I can’t deny the legs kicking outwards. Funny how the remnants of those who fought in the indie trenches during the 90s hold up GbV as a classic band, above many. I have no idea whether it’s because of the image, the drinking, the lyrics diving among the half-closed warehouse stores (Not So Shabby) and chubby and tubby lounging on the beach, whether it’s cos they’re so male – and secretly, an alt. rock fan loves nothing more than an all-male band playing classic all-male rock songs – or the myth.
It’s probably all the above, plus America never had a Fall of its own.*
I first saw GbV at the New Music Seminar in New York, 1993. Gerard Cosloy had tipped me the wink, in between drunken street fights where we would chase one another out the Knitting Factory with pints and shouts. It was the energy I loved. The way Robert Pollard moved on stage, the jovial excitement, the edge of desperation, the oblique take on music I wasn’t particularly familiar with, never having been reared on Pat Benator or Cheap Trick. (That education came several years later, courtesy of Kathleen Wilson, when I was working at The Stranger in Seattle. I was supposed to replace her when I arrived in town, but the local music scene claimed to hate her and she drank alcohol like I drank alcohol so I insisted she stayed on.)
The tunes. There weren’t many of us watching – me, Gerard (who was shortly to sign GbV to Matador), a handful of friends from Ohio, my photographer.
I went up to the singer afterwards, where he was gamely trying to sell tank tops and vinyl LPs to disinterested industry ‘insiders’ along the railings at the back of CBGBs. I told him I liked his band. I told him I’d like to interview them. He told me no one had ever asked them to do an interview before, and they’d been going for decades. He pressed upon me a copy of every single record they’d ever released – and every single shirt and tank top too – and refused to take any money for them. I like to think I bought him a few beers in compensation. Who knows?
I recall the interview the following morning. The Gramercy Park Hotel, midtown, was my preferred residence when I visited New York – they recognised me when I checked in, and didn’t give a shit I had no credit card (vital back then) – and it was in the lobby there that GbV’s first interview took place. Soon as I took a sip from my pint of lager, another one would magically appear on the table next to it. I have no recollection of what was said; indeed, the resulting interview was not choice at all. But we did print a nice big fucking picture of Robert Pollard’s leg when my New Music Seminar report appeared in Melody Maker a couple of weeks later.
For years afterwards, Pollard would check me in every interview his band did. I met Chrissie Hynde backstage at one of their shows: I wrestled drunkenly with Kim Deal at another; at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne 2000, R0bert insisted I introduce his band between songs … you could tell how much I’d had to drink by the coherency of my intros. He claims that I went up to him backstage, grappled him and announced: “You’re famous, I’m famous … who the FUCK are all these other people?”
I was in Cincinnati Ohio the day I heard Kurt Cobain had killed himself, just wondering how I was going to blag the trip across to Dayton.
What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever been asked in an interview?
Bob: The first question I was ever asked in the first interview I ever did was from this guy Everett True from the [English music paper] Melody Maker, he’s like a legend in England-he even calls himself The Legend and put out a Sub Pop single under that name-but he’s pretty cool. He thinks he discovered us, which he probably did [as far as England was concerned]. Anyway, here’s the question he asked [puts on ultra-British accent]: “What’s your definition of beauty?” I just didn’t know what to say. Imagine the first question you’re ever asked in an interview [being that]. Of course my answer was completely fucking [useless].
You should have said, “You, Everett. You’re my definition of beauty.”
Bob: Yeah, I wanted to. “Your house shoes, they’re beautiful.”
I would’ve been wearing my slippers when I interviewed them.
(The original review appeared in Melody Maker, I can still recall my shock and occasional nod of agreement, but then I was still reeling in the fall-out from ’94 and a particularly calamitous visit to America in 1995. I would also have been put off by all those retro rock dullards at Spin Magazine – who followed what I did, only 18 months later – adopting them as their house band. And likewise Pitchfork, recently. It matters who your enemies like. Of course it does.)
GUIDED BY VOICES
UNDER THE BUSHES, UNDER THE STARS
by Simon Reynolds
Guided By Voices offends me. In this age of cultural overload and aesthetic surfeit, GBV is monstrously, disgustingly prolific. The band averages about 24 songs per album; last year, GBV put out a four-CD ‘Box’ of early, frankly dubious material; singer/songsmith Robert Pollard has a backlog of some 2000 tunes, but is still planning to write a ‘Tommy’ style rock opera. Who among us has a life empty enough to accomodate such a glut of undistinguished creativity?
GBV is basically America’s very own Oasis. Both bands are led by incorrigibly incontinent songwriters who are morbidly obsessed with English rock of the mid-to-late Sixties, and who have nothing to say but insist on saying it. If–in the age of mostly instrumental, studio-warped genres like trip hop, jungle, post-rock, ambient etc–you’re gonna stick with a craft as quaint as songsmithery, you should at least make sure you have something compelling or uniquely idiosyncratic to say. Oasis don’t, but are at least shameless about it: Noel Gallagher’s lyrics are a jumble of doggerel and epic-sounding phrases that allow fans to read whatever they like into them. But with Pollard, you can’t be absolutely sure he has nothing to say, because every expression is convoluted and coded; he gets in the way. Titles like “The Official Ironmen Rally Song”, “Bright Paper Werewolves” and “Rhine Jive Click” are the most daftly, wilfully oblique titles since Amon Duul II (who at least had LSD as an excuse).
Another similarity with Oasis is GBV’s relentlessly upbeat mood: a neo-mod, bright-eyed poptimism that proclaims “it’s 1966, the future is wide-open!”. In England, such empty triumphalism elevated Oasis into a huge pop phenomenon, by tapping into young kids’ desire to fly in the face of grim present reality. In America, GBV’s Anglophile/necrophile quasi-anthems make the band a hit only with rockcrits and others steeped in the canon of classic rock (and thus able to appreciate the reverence and the references). Everything on “Under The Bushes” is tuneful in that deja vu, Tom Petty/Sebadoh way, while the riffs trigger your kneejerk-reflexes, conditioned by years of exposure to classic rock. And so the stop-start dynamics of “The Perfect Life” thrill mildly, in a oh-alright-one-more-time-then sort of way; “Underwater Explosions” is the Monkees on downers; “Atom Eyes” is as melodious as an American Squeeze. Can I be the only listener for whom half-liking a GBV song is unavoidably accompanied by shame?
GBV is just one more fat fly crawling over the dungheap of rock history, sucking it up and pooping it out. “Under The Bushes” is just one more dropping in a copious trail of disgrace.