GOLD STAR FOR ROBOT BOY: notes on Guided By Voices' work from 1992 to 1997 -- Jordan Davis

In 1993, Flying Saucer Attack and Guided by Voices were both tipped for greatness: Both loved melodic electric guitar played through a distortion pedal one note to every beat, 4/4, and a high hat on every eighth note. Both blurred the distinction between exuberance and willful naivete. The boyfriend/girlfriend team FSA packed it in three albums later; GbV has recorded more songs than Hank Aaron hit home runs, and if they continue at their current rate will pass Sadaharu Oh's 868 early in 2006.

Who are Guided By Voices, why do I have at least fifteen recordings by them, and how can it be that those cds constitute less than half of their recorded output?

Constants I derived from music journalism and the official web site: Bob Pollard, a former fourth-grade teacher, has written most of the melodies and lyrics since the band started recording in 1986. Key words: gold, king, queen, am, of.


Why so many songs? The band publishes under the name "Needmore Songs." Kurt Cobain said he just took the best things R.E.M. did and repeated them over and over (tho Nirvana's signature pp-ff changes more likely came from the Pixies). Pollard takes the best things of both Lennon/McCartney and Pete Townsend and imitates them ad astra. Most run under two minutes. Verse chorus verse. Tonic dominant subdominant.

For the most part poetry gave up the requirement of rhyme going on a hundred years ago. Punk bands enjoyed the stupidity of rhyme - think of Johnny Rotten forcing anarchist to rhyme with antichrist, or Wire saying that "you ain't got a number / you just want to rhumba." The verbal equivalent of concord, of ending back at the tonic.

Early recordings - very jangly songs, fairly conventional lyrics. Indistinguishable from the hundreds of R.E.M. clones then making the college circuit. They keep playing. The melodies start to borrow more from the British Invasion and the rhythms from Cheap Trick.

The lyrics. A tension between saying whatever it takes to get famous and saying whatever. Around '91 Pollard ups the contrast between sense and nonsense:

On the street where we live
In the land that we knew
You couldn't be so obsolete now
You had better things to do
I'm gonna lay my head and not look back
I'm gonna lay down on the railroad track
I'm gonna find out where I'm coming from
I'm gonna roll out like a big red thumb
("Short on Posters" on Self Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia )

The from/thumb rhyme is promisingly weird, and obsolete is a great rock trisyllable - the standard is Alex Chilton's stunning probable in "Thank You Friends." Robyn Hitchcockish titles such as "The Future Is In Eggs" but mercifully free of Hitchcock's endless mugging and checking for a reaction.( Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson are two more names that get checked with respect to GbV; I'm no diagnostician but I don't hear classifiable psychosis in Pollard's combinations. )


"This song does not rock," says Pollard in the fake-live intro to "Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox." But it does. "Traveler's diagram/ For where I am for what I am" could be any band after Yes, and "Let's throw the great party/Today for the rest of our lives/The fun is just about to get started/So throw the switch/It's rock-and-roll time" is your basic rockist carpe diem chorus. With half-rhyme and a nebulous "our," they're lines that could have been written any decade of the rock era, but that's exactly the timelessness Pollard demonstrates he's aware he's shooting for when in 1997 he titles what may be GbV's most concise slice-of-life "Dayton, Ohio - Nineteen Something and Five."

Pollard's said that putting together Bee Thousand he assembled the best parts of his work so far into new combinations; he did it on Propellor, too. "Over the Neptune" rewrites "Kisses to the Crying Cooks" from the Fast Japanese Spin Cycle EP. There, the "great party" chorus replaces the hedonism pep rally with some dark free-associating: "And days away from your army / And spend with whimsy kings and slaves / A girl of God becomes a cash flower / A catalog of garden and grave."

"Weedking" travesties anthemic rock, with a slight phasing on Pollard's vocals creating that more-stereo-than-stereo sound that makes millions for posing howlers. When Pollard growls, "And if it all goes well we'll laugh a lot/ And then take photographs/ Of what we made, lemonade/ Freedom cake, quick to bake/ Trim the tree collectively / Breathe the air from the fair," even with the fuzzy bass and muddy production, it's clear that GbV's approach to the arena sound isn't the marketable introversion and negativity of, say, Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins, but absolute goofiness. Not dorky smartasses a la They Might Be Giants, but absurdist jackasses, like the Beatles circa Hard Day's Night. So secure in their ability to rock that they care enough to send the very best.

GbV commentators get hung up on the lo-fi tag. It's true that by 1997's Mag Earwhig, Pollard and Sprout have earned the industry complaints of "I Am Produced" - the combination of production polish and cheesy guitar on that record, coming after the turgid moping of the 1996 EP Sunfish Holy Breakfast, were enough to put me off their trail inside of fifteen minutes - but up through there the sound of the recordings is impossible to separate from the stripped-down playing.

Mixing and matching, putting what feels good front and center and stopping immediately after it's over, those are the best parts of Guided by Voices songs, and from Propellor through Under the Bushes Under the Stars they're the best parts of the albums too. Hard driving nonsense rock interspersed with abrupt little evasive chamber pieces. Not coincidentally, this is the period during which Pollard most shares the billing with Sprout.

One critic has said that Pollard tries to be all four Beatles wrapped up into one, and it's child's play to attribute the correct author to what gets credited to Lennon/McCartney, but as the words I've been quoting blithely indicate, this is a kind of poetry that is always in danger of being taken for solipsism, surrealism, or cheap pranks. Reviews of Bee Thousand dwell on dweebish outrages such as "Kicker of Elves," "Hot Freaks," "Tractor Rape Chain," missing the poignancy: "Why is it every time I think about you/Something that you have said or implied makes me doubt you?" Reception was ever thus, e.g., The New York Times on Stevens' Harmonium: "And so far as rhythms and vowels and consonants may be substituted for musical notes, the volume is an achievement. But the achievement is not poetry, it is a tour de force, a "stunt" in the fantastic and the bizarre. From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead."


Indie rock has always set itself up as a kind of Protestantism - the church of classic rock having strayed from the true path of celebrating how good it felt to be alive, especially with a girl, in a car, with no one to tell you what to do. T. Rex as reformist. Important corollaries: the Smiths and the Cure refresh Elvis and Roy Orbison's message that it can also feel good to feel bad. R.E.M and the Smiths (Husker Du less explicitly) note that everybody is a boy and a girl. Tracy Chapman restates Alex Chilton's depressing insight that driving fast in a big car only changes where you are, not who or what you are. Indie believers accept these inversions of the basic principles of rock, preferring them to a) settling for the toxic hybrid of glam and hard rock that since the early 80s is marketed alongside jingoistic power fantasy movies, and b) wearing out every pleasurable moment of the classic rock canon. From a vantage point of twenty years later (a thousand years in rock time), the schisms indie rock thrived on are ridiculous: either a band wants to rock or it doesn't.

Re: sufficiency and necessity, Pollard doesn't just want to rock, he needs to. Concrete nouns, active verbs, strong identification with the natural world, frequent yielding to naughty impulses. His linguistic world isn't the Hamlet-zone of adolescent angst indie rockers have taken as their birthright; instead, its topography is common to the middle-to-late elementary school years and somewhat-adjusted adulthood.

Emotional information comes through not in the wild adjective-noun combinations but in the tiny qualifiers.

But I believed you
No need for further questioning
("Smothered in Hugs," Bee Thousand, 1994)

You could never be strong
You can only be free
And I'll never ask for the truth
But you owe that to me

("Game of Pricks," Alien Lanes, 1995)

Isn't it great to exist
At this point in time?
Where the produce is rotten
But no one's forgotten
On Strawberry Philadelphia Drive
Children in the sprinkler
Junkies on the corner
Honor the smell of fried foods
And pure hot tar
Now you needn't travel far
To feel completely alive
Strawberry Philadelphia Drive
A hazy day in Nineteen Something and Five

("Dayton, Ohio - Nineteen Something and Five," Tonics and Twisted Chasers, 1997)

"But" is usually used to exclude or point out a distinction but Pollard almost always uses it to appeal to unity - creating a situation in which the listener is always about to break up with him, so he can win us back? In "Motor Away," the appeal to absolute freedom: "When you free yourself from the chance of a lifetime."

As the band prepares to release a six-disc retrospective set, I can't shake the unsettling feeling that Pollard really doesn't care what words he sings as much as what he sounds like. Doing a perfect impression of Paul McCartney while singing, "You've still got your gelatin, ice cream, plum!"

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