Guided by Voices – The Official Ironmen Rally Song
My name is Glyph, and I am a recovering Guided by Voices addict.
Guided by Voices frontman and primary songwriter Robert Pollard has been writing songs at an alarming rate for much of his life. Wikipedia shows him with 1,600 songs registered with BMI, a probably-conservative number that was in any case almost certainly immediately overtaken as soon as it was posted.
A surprising number of those songs are actually listenable, and a far more surprising number are good-to-great. He has recorded these not only under the GbV moniker, but many, many other aliases and solo/band configurations.
As a fan of British Invasion groups like the Beatles and the Who, Pollard – despite being from Dayton, OH – sings with a British accent. He’s also a former athlete who threw the first no-hitter in the history of Wright State University, and for many years he made music strictly as a hobby while he worked full-time as a fourth-grade schoolteacher, getting together on weekends with drinking buddies for marathon boozy 4-track recording sessions in any available basement or rec room. “Guided by Voices” was essentially Pollard plus whoever was playing with him that day, though a core group of regulars had begun to coalesce.
He was just about to hang it up and get on with “real” life in 1992 when people started noticing that somewhere along the way, these Midwestern weirdo nobodies had gotten good, expertly blending into short, sharp songs what Pollard (a lifelong student of pop and rock music history) calls the 4 P’s: pop, punk, prog, and psychedelia.
The music they started producing around this time became less indebted to early R.E.M., now sounding more like Beatles bootlegs.
For example: “Game Of Pricks”, in which an admittedly-unreliable narrator – a cheat and liar, maybe a maudlin alcoholic manipulator not above using his addiction as excuse (“I climb up on the house / Weep to water the trees / And when you come calling me down, I put on my disease“) – nonetheless speaks the truth, in a line reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”: “You can never be strong / You can only be free“:
Guided by Voices – Game of Pricks
At the band’s peak, they made 4-track recording to tape (on consumer-grade equipment, such as the one pictured on the post – originally an economic choice for them, later an aesthetic one) into an art form; its portability, low cost and immediately-tangible results encouraged a spontaneity in songwriting and performance. There’s often an audible sense of guys feverishly bashing out ideas as fast as they can, racing desperately to get to the next one before it evaporates – a “good enough, next!” ethos that permits these strange little lo-fidelity songs to go out into the world before the ephemeral flames of their inspiration can be smothered by overthought and rework.
Guided by Voices – Exit Flagger
The songs themselves are usually brief (often very brief), sometimes just snippets of rhythm or melody, excised of anything extraneous and stuffed together on record in such a way as to maximize striking juxtapositions of sounds and moods. Between this knack for aural collage (Pollard also makes the visual collage art that usually adorns the records’ sleeves) and using the medium’s limitations to their artistic advantage, what can sound at first like mistakes often reveal themselves to be fully intentional (or at least serendipitous).
Here is another rockin’, drivin’, escapin’ (but not really) song. It sounds so exciting, so triumphant, that it’s easy to miss the lyrics sneakily doubling back into bitterness and despair (“You can be anyone they told you to” ; “when you free yourself / from the chance of a lifetime“).
So then, maybe not a million miles away from “Born To Run”:
Guided by Voices – Auditorium/Motor Away
The sonic scruffiness is usually the biggest hurdle for first-time listeners, but be warned: you may come to find it addictive.
Not only does it add texture and character; but the seeming paradox of such melodically-confident and casually-ambitious songs, presented in such a brief and sonically-obscured way, can produce an unexpectedly moving emotional effect.
Like you are by chance picking up, staticky and between stations, shards of some parallel universe’s Top 40 radio broadcast, sounding both tantalizingly familiar and strangely, strikingly off – ghosts of hits that never were. Is this plastic AM transistor radio broken? Wait – is it even plugged in?
Or like opening your fridge on a lonely Friday night, to grab a beer and a slice of leftover pizza, and unexpectedly encountering – Zuul-like, roiling dry ice clouds and all – Cheap Trick, rockin’ at Budokan.
Or like going to see an elementary school fantasy play that somehow stealthily transcends its poorly-painted cardboard sets and barely-adequate child players, and magically transports you to the real Oz or Narnia – some limitless place where animals speak, and anything is possible.
Before I had a child, this song hit me hard. Now, it hits me harder. “Say that you’ll never run too far away / Even with all the answers out there / Where it’s brighter but no one will care / Half as much as I care about you“:
Guided by Voices – Learning to Hunt
Pollard’s way with melody and album sequencing is undisputed, but his lyrics – full of wordplay and fantastical scenarios (“chain smoke rings like a vapor snake kiss“) – sometimes get written off as dadaist nonsense. There is maybe some truth to that, though he’d probably be the first to say that it’s more important that a rock lyric sound good than mean something.
Guided by Voices – The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
But taken line by line, his lyrics often make perfect sense; if not literally, then on a deeper intuitive or poetic level. Two themes come up repeatedly: The desire for escape (flying/plane images abound), and a powerful melancholy or sadness.
More than just standard rock tropes, these are inseparably tied to his hometown; both a declining industrial center, with plenty of blue-collar factory dreamers hanging on in quiet desperation, and the home of the Wright Brothers and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
These primal emotions temper the more silly, surreal and epic “rock” moments, and the contrast makes each element stronger. Listen for long, and soon pieces start to fall into place: you realize Pollard has conjured a whole other imaginary world from the cloth of his quotidian middle-America existence.
Up top of the post is “The Official Ironmen Rally Song” – a call to arms, it seeks to enlist us, to “trigger a synapse / And free us from our traps“. The image suggests a connection being made, an idea being born, a spark catching fire – the “Eureka!” snap of a finger, the click of a lock closing, then opening. (A triggered trap syn-aps shut).
Thus, in the listener’s brain and mind, the lyric incites the very effect it describes – neat trick!
Lots of cool imagery/phrasing in this one, actually (“Knockout punches for the freaks / Happy little babies with red cheeks / who will rock them gently out of sync?“) It’s got a very Peter Buck-style guitar riff, and the way Pollard’s vocal effortlessly leaps an octave mid-song thrills me every time.
“I Am A Scientist” is similarly a statement of purpose; only instead of the usual obliqueness, this time Pollard is explicit about having no less an aim than the seeking of truth and self-knowledge (“to just unlock my mind“), and therefore freedom, via his chosen profession and his art. “I am a lost soul, I shoot myself with rock and roll / The hole I dig is bottomless, but nothing else can set me free”:
Guided by Voices – I Am A Scientist
This post is already going long, so here’s some things I won’t delve into: A second, also-very-talented-but-merely-humanly-prolific songwriter in the band named Tobin Sprout (!!) who often serves as a melodic foil to Pollard’s weirder side trips, sometimes providing sweet harmonies and great little songs of his own. A mostly-unsuccessful attempt (at least commercially, if not always artistically) to take the band big-league, recording in expensive studios with well-known producers. Breakups, reunions, and a revolving band member (and related bands) roster that numbers in the dozens. GbV concerts, which are heroic in length and power and audience camaraderie and (probably not coincidentally) booze consumption (they give the Replacements a run for their money here)…
WAY too long. We need…
The TL; DR version
The Beatles; The Who; The Hollies; Big Star; Cheap Trick; R.E.M.; The Replacements; Wire; Devo; The Soft Boys; Pixies; The Breeders; Pavement; Archers of Loaf; Spoon; The Clean; Times New Viking; lost Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd demo tapes that have been buried for millions of years and transformed by time, heat and pressure into dirt-encrusted diamonds; the voices of 40 years of rock blenderized and filtered through one particular, peculiar brain.
Album to start with:
1996’s Under the Bushes, Under the Stars – the perfect midpoint between the lo-fi 4-track weirdness and (almost) radio-ready rock, this is my recommended spot to ease your toes in. Decently-if-unfussily-recorded, and more conventional in song length and structure, it’s not too jarring a listening experience. If you like IRS-era R.E.M., Pixies, or the Breeders (fellow Daytonians who were known to cover GbV – that’s the band looking in their windows), this album won’t strike you as too far out there.
Guided by Voices – Don’t Stop Now
If you don’t hate UTBUTS, move backwards to:
Bee Thousand (1994) & Alien Lanes (1995) – Now you’ll be deep in the treble and hiss. Be patient – that which seems initially erroneous to your ear, often has beautiful and irreplaceable purpose. And if you don’t like what you are hearing, the songs are so short that it won’t be long before you’ve moved on to another anyway.
Bee Thousand is a bona fide outsider-pop classic; fragmented and ultra-compact (20 songs in 36 minutes), it nonetheless feels like an epic journey. An “album” in the best sense of the word, it needs to be taken in at a single sitting for maximum impact.
Its more rocking follow-up Alien Lanes is arguably just as good; though not much longer (28 songs in 41 minutes) than Bee Thousand, it somehow seems more sprawling, and its ratio of alternate-universe “hits” or catchy pop songs is maybe even higher.
If you want to hear Pollard’s bid at polished pop stardom, try 2001’s Isolation Drills – radio-ready without sacrificing the edge, this one should appeal to most anyone who likes lean and melodic rock music.
Guided by Voices – Glad Girls
These albums are the ones that I would call indispensable (and are almost certainly the band’s most consistent records), but if you like what you hear, there are plenty more where they came from. I can’t promise you won’t have to do some digging – The Pollard/GbV discography is huge and unwieldy and wildly uneven – but there are gems scattered all through it, and the hunting is part of the fun.
Unsurprisingly funny, and surprisingly profound: Life Lessons From Robert Pollard.
Guided by Voices – Class Clown Spots a UFO
A much better piece on GbV than the one you just read. I had discovered the band long before I discovered the writer, but he’s a better writer than me; even long after the fact, I really enjoyed reading his reactions as he’d delved in, many of which mirrored my own (confusion, rapidly morphing into delight and obsession.)
For example, he says of Bee Thousand, “I sit, rapt, as it plays. It finishes, and I start it over again. I can’t stop listening to it.”
My first GbV record was Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. As I pored over it, trying to decipher what it was doing and how, my then-girlfriend asked me if I liked it.
And I replied, “I’m not sure…but I can’t stop listening to it!”
Glyph’s GbV Top 50 (as of today, anyway, and ordered roughly chronologically rather than ranked, and excluding solo/side projects, and that were available on Spotify, and HOW MANY OTHER ARTISTS COULD YOU EVEN DO THIS WITH?):