I recollect reading an essay a few years back penned by an esteemed academic musicologist, who, in the process of dissecting Paul McCartney’s song, “She’s Leaving Home”, traced its various melodic transitions and modal maneuvers to specific classical music conventions. His technical analysis concluded with the pithy assertion that “of course, McCartney had no idea he was doing all this”.
This anecdote comes to mind as I reflect upon the 20-year career of Guided By Voices (G.B.V.) and its singer-songwriter and sole mainstay, Bob Pollard. In some respects a spiritual successor to McCartney and The Beatles, Pollard’s prolific output of soaring two-minute rock gems strikes one as the work of the “effortless” and of a “natural”; what the musicologist appeared to be thinking when he marveled at McCartney’s apparently innate creative skills. Pollard, like McCartney, has that “how does he do it?” talent, and, further, “how does he keep doing it?” Veering away from this implied “genius” tag, though, a less romantic perception might be to see the likes of Pollard (and McCartney) as “fans” or loving listeners of a musical heritage that then seeps through the songwriting pores, emerging re-born as immaculate conceptions of words and music. However, although these songs evoke and embody a past, they are never enslaved by it; they were created from a love of rock for the love(rs) of rock.
With the release of their latest studio album, Half Smiles of the Decomposed (2004), and the (three-legged) cross-country tour to support it, The Electrifying Conclusion Tour, Bob Pollard has decided to finally lay Guided by Voices to rest, drawing to a close a two-decade career well-deserving of a retrospective tribute.
Hailing from Dayton, Ohio in the mid-1980s, the first of what was to be many mutations of Guided by Voices crept onto Southern Ohio stages with a whimper more than a scream. Drifting between classic (metal) rock and R.E.M.-like pop-rock, the band had released four full-length albums before really finding their “voices” of distinction. Indeed, those early records (yes, records) were intriguing less for the musical stylings (demo-stage, R.E.M.-like workouts) than for the curious titles, mixed-metaphor lyrics, and home-made artwork. Sandbox (1987), Devil Between My Toes (1987), Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (1989), and Same Place the Fly Got Smashed (1990), hinted at what was to become the G.B.V. lo-fi aesthetic, but their content lacked the authority and swagger that Pollard was later to mine in his craftsmanship.
That said, the cut ‘n’ paste collage album covers and obtuse, infantile song titles (“3 Year Old Man”, “The Future is in Eggs”, “An Earful O’ Wax”) hinted at a child-like adventurism and warped humor soon to become mainstays in the G.B.V. oeuvre. Indeed, the doodlings of these early years evince Pollard’s creative world of arrested development, wide-eyed innocence, and concomitant charm. When subsequently submerged in a haze of fantasy and beer, the resulting rock potion tasted of the elixir of G.B.V. Word was creeping out: either Syd Barrett had finally emerged from his mother’s home, or there was a new and strange imagination on the loose in—of all places—Dayton, Ohio.
It is throughout G.B.V’s mid-period (from 1992 to 1996), that the material most likely to form the basis of the band’s legacy was produced. During this period eccentricities became aesthetics, experiments became innovations, and lo-fi became an inspirational movement to alternative rock culture.
The lo-fi alt.-rock bands of the early/mid-1990s—G.B.V., Pavement, Beat Happenings, Sebadoh, Grifters—were characterized by their eschewing of the digital recording technology that was newly available at this time. Breakthrough studio gadgetry was starting to create cleaner sounding, “bigger” recordings, with high production values. Despite their “grunge” tag, Nirvana’s Nevermind was a beneficiary of such new (digital) technology, and was rightly regarded as a breakthrough album in its enormity of sound and distinction of instrumental clarity. Conversely, Guided by Voices led the counter-charge, embracing a primitive production aesthetic, borne partially out of economic necessity, but mostly out of a doggedly neo-Luddite aesthetic policy.
Even more than his kindred spirit contemporaries, Bob Pollard had passions immersed in the garage aesthetics found in pockets of past rock music. Inspired by the ‘60s British Invasion and by ‘70s punk, Pollard embraced lo-fi aesthetics because such music had long embraced him as a fan. To him, the new slick product constituted cyborg rock; to him, perfection masked humanity; to him, surface noise and hiss were not annoyances, but the very soundtracks of real life. Lo-fi faith saw G.B.V. re-record their Propeller album—initially a 24-track recording—to a four-track sound, creating a raunchy minimalism akin to the sound of the early Yardbirds and Kinks. Lo-fi faith led to 1st takes being chosen, despite errors, in the name of human immediacy. Lo-fi faith looked not only to capture the real, but the feel of the real.
Guided by Voices did not only explore a lo-fi sound; they sometimes argued for it implicitly in musical manifesto fashion. The opening track on Bee Thousand (1994), “Hardcore U.F.O.s”, showcases a recording breakdown (i.e. calculated mistake) half way through the first verse, where the sound literally falls down in the mix, soon to climb its way back into the recording. The defamiliarizing effect on the listener is striking; it prods us to juxtapose the song next to the slicker alt.-rock output then in vogue, and to question the techno-socialization that conflates polished with better. In the “U.F.O.s” gesture we hear the precedent of Elvis Presley halting his early cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (the flip side of his debut “That’s Alright Mama” single) to order the band to get “real, real gone”. Just as Presley’s immortal call jolted country into rock and roll, so G.B.V.‘s production deconstruction summoned a return to basics, for humans to determine the machinery rather than vice versa. In short, it was a fan’s call for the return of the heart and soul to rock music.
During G.B.V.‘s lo-fi heyday—Propeller (1992), Bee Thousand (1994), Alien Lanes (1995), and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (1996)—Bob Pollard wrote a startling array of 2-minute pop anthems: “Quality of Armor”, “Motor Away”, “Game of Pricks”, “Cut-Out Witch”, “Don’t Stop Now”, to name but a few. Ironically mightier by sounding smaller, the lo-fi production compressed the sound of these songs into a raw, elemental wall of sound. Pollard tagged the results, “Lo-fi arena rock”. Somehow the melody and charm of these songs are heightened and fore fronted by the four-track mode, and what is sometimes lost in a song’s instrumental distinction is compensated for by the primal understatement of the whole. One feels that in the hands of a mainstream producer working in a high-tech studio, G.B.V.‘s dominant aesthetic would have been diminished. As lo-fi, though, the band’s early 90’s repertoire satiates the fan’s craving for not just great songs, but attitude and cool, integral parts of the rock experience. The pride of the maverick is apparent here, the rock underdog snarling “lo-fi or no-fi”.
Beyond production, Pollard in mid-career was tapping his inspirations and re-inventing the finest features of rock history from 1962 to 1992, writing recognizable yet distinct pop nuggets with the apparent ease of a latter-day John Lennon or Pete Shelley. “Echoes Myron”, for example, tips its hat to rock’s great heritage, while simultaneously transcending it, too, with a new sound inspired by past models, new bait on old “hooks”. Lyrically, the song appears to self-consciously reflect back upon itself, echoing its past manifestations, re-inventing itself anew; borne of the past, bound for the future: “Most of us are quite pleased with the same old song/And all of a sudden I’m relatively sane/With everything to lose and nothing to gain/Or something like that/.... And we’re finally here and shit yeah it’s cool/And shouldn’t it be/Or something like that”. The song then proceeds to fade away to the sounds of its own hypnotic melody.
As the above lyrical cut and interpretation might suggest, the words of Bob Pollard are elusive yet suggestive, eccentric yet evocative. A cursory listen might have you dismissing them as mere absurdist ramblings. However, on closer scrutiny G.B.V. lyrics always manage to evoke potential meanings, if not definitive ones. I find myself pushed into a new imaginary world where patterns of images and suggestions start to form into sense-shapes. Once asked to explain the impetus for his world of words, Pollard responded, “I feel like I’m being inspired in an abstract way”. Furthermore, there is a discernible musicality to the lyrical phrasing, his lines often an alliterative flow of abstract thoughts and images. In the context of the songs, the words become sonic devices, musical accompaniments; or, as Pollard once responded when asked to unravel a particularly strange tongue-twister: “It sounded cool”.
Roland Barthes once said that the death of the author is the birth of the reader, and I suspect we can each find our own meanings and each have our own imaginations tweaked, in the following G.B.V. lyrical snippets: “Little man bleeding little heart beating so/Evil speakers blow my circuits—oh.” (“Evil Speakers); “To seek the blood of precious stones is blasphemy/The perfect angels monitor your intentions” (“I Wanna Be a Dumbcharger”); “Introducing the amazing rockethead/You know what the deal is dude/Excuse me Napoleon but I gotta go/Where I gotta stand” (“Big Chief Chinese Restaurant”); “Chain smoke rings like a vapor snake kiss” (“Closer You Are”); “Dream kid the size does not matter/Bad luck anyway you call it/Red ants and mercy giants/The angels of the bars” (“They’re Not Witches”). Such combinations of meaning-suggestion, sonic phrasing, and “cool” aura open up in us an adventure playground of the un-tamed child’s imagination; it is an intent and achievement that has precedents. Pollard’s mix ‘n’ match collection of non-sequiturs and cryptic phrases brings to mind William Burroughs’ “cut-up” writing technique, one later developed by David Bowie, who found the method conducive to prying the imagination open into realms that linear thought discourages.
Pollard’s avant-garde predilections, whether in lyrical abstraction, minimalist soundscapes, or production deconstruction, would eventually begin to lose their absolutist extremes. Whether he felt he’d pushed lo-fi as far as it could go, or grew weary of the perpetual (and self-imposed) marginal obscurity such a style brought, by 1997 major changes were afoot. Not for the first time (some have claimed for the 50th time!), Pollard re-configured Guided by Voices with wholesale line-up changes. Out was his long-time side-kick, guitarist (and sometimes songwriter), Tobin Sprout; in was Doug Gillard, a veteran guitar player of the Cleveland rock scene. In Gillard, Pollard found a musician who would out-last all other G.B.V. band members, remaining as main riff-master from 97 to the present. Furthermore, the rhythm guitarist, bass player, and drummer were also all replaced (Bob Pollard may lay claim to playing with more drummers than Spinal Tap). These changes were not cosmetic; they signaled a move away from pure lo-fi, and an attempted move towards the commercial mainstream.
The arrival of Mag Earwhig (1997) ushered in a fatter production, with guitars more full-bodied, and a rhythm section pounding with a new kick and clout. Furthermore, many of the new songs broke the 2-minute barrier and contained lyrical sections that (occasionally) spoke with lucidity and contained a thesis. Indeed, “I Am Produced” sees Pollard in self-deprecation mode, wryly observing his band’s “everyman” shift towards product-shifter (what many diehard fans regarded as “sell out”): “I am pressed, printed, stamped, and strategically removed/I am everybody/Insane without innocence/I am trapped, tricked, packaged, and shipped out”. The album even pitched an M.T.V-friendly video for the single, the Pavement-esque swagger-rocker “Bulldog Skin”.
Alas, failing to break from the indie-rock margins with Mag Earwhig, Guided by Voices jumped ship from their long-time record company, Matador, signing with TVT Records, a company with a broader marketing scope and a roster of more established artists. The next two albums, Do The Collapse (1999) and Isolation Drills (2001), continued Pollard’s new rock aspirations as he hired hit-maker producers in Ric Ocasek (for Collapse) and Rob Schnapf (for Drills). The result was a body of songs that was recognizably G.B.V. in melody, but with a spit and polish that transformed them from the Wire-like primates of old into new Who-like “big rock” anthems. At times, the lyrics were positively comprehensible, such as in the chart-targeted, strings-soaked ballad, “Hold on Hope”, with its bitter-sweet chorus line: “Everybody’s got a hold on hope/It’s the last thing that’s holding me.” “The Brides Have Hit Glass”, from Isolation Drills, is Pollard’s sober reflection on his then-recent divorce; it displays plaintive lyrical candor: “I don’t come around/Never call or let her know/I got a life of my own/You know I hate to be around her/When she’s like that/I wrote a song once about her/Called ‘The Brides Have Hit Glass.’” As the smoke cleared from the prior fire of the lo-fi period, G.B.V.‘s new clarity of sound, lyrics, and mission interestingly recalled a similar journey taken by R.E.M. (G.B.V.‘s premiere role models) in the mid-1980s when they transformed themselves from mumbling minimalist neo-folkies into international rock icons. In both instances, many “old school” supporters were less-than-impressed.
Perhaps Pollard heard the complaining cries of some of the guidehead hardcore when he charted his next course for the band. The final chapter of the G.B.V. story witnesses Pollard synthesizing the 2 distinct arenas of sound he had inhabited over the prior decade. Universal Truths and Cycles (2002), Earthquake Glue (2003), and Half Smiles of the Decomposed (2004) each have the edge of the lo-fi years and the backbone of the high(er)-fi period. Returning to Matador Records for these final albums, and hiring the bass player’s brother, Todd Tobias, for knob-twiddling duties, the final G.B.V. albums jettison the kind of hit-armed pop songs featured on the preceding albums (“Glad Girls”, “Chasing Heather Crazy”, “Hold on Hope”). Instead, we get an eclectic array of what Pollard calls “4-P’s” rock (pop, progressive, psychedelia, punk). The prolific songwriter who once claimed to write five songs each time he goes to the toilet (and three of them are good!) continues to display his range, invention, and knack for “the hook” on these final albums. Still, Bob serves as the medium of rock past, an intermediary transferring myriad musical moments—Beatles to Who to Big Star to Wire to R.E.M.—re-constituting that legacy in the form of re-fueled hybrids. Still a prodigious talent with abundant output, Bob Pollard, nevertheless, recently decided that Guided by Voices will no longer be his vehicle from hereon.
This tribute has reflected upon the lyrics, music, production, and art work of G.B.V. as the canvases upon which Bob Pollard has painted his rock vision; it is a vision that pays tribute to the past and its regenerative possibilities for the future. However, it would be remiss not to speak of another significant feature of G.B.V., one that speaks further of the band as lovers of the rock form: the live shows that have uplifted the guideheads and converted the uninitiated over the last two decades. It is here where the band most vividly evokes the playground of fandom and the fantasy myths of rock ritual. It is here, also, where you hear and see the grandeur in the band’s two-minute pop anthems. A Guided by Voices show usually consists of at least 50 songs, performed from a stage littered with coolers of Budweiser (“Guided by Beer”, some claim), and a neon-lit sign proclaiming “the club is open” (in reference to the song, “A Salty Salute”, and beyond).
Bob and the boys put on a tongue-in-cheeky party performance, taking themselves and their audience on a glorious regressive journey back to the carefree world of youth and to the innocence residing at the heart of the rock spirit. Part reverence, part reference, and a large part self-deprecation, Pollard acts out “rock god” theatrics on-stage as he swings his microphone, helicopter-style like Roger Daltrey, or as the gig progresses, stumbles drunkenly like Jim Morrison. A G.B.V. live show is a child playing air guitar on the tennis court; it is the adolescent blasting the stereo and singing to his comb as he prepares to head out to a show. A G.B.V. show is pure rock fantasy: a band still playing in the garage, happily… dreaming.
“Fans, first and foremost” is a phrase Bob Pollard once used to describe the Guided By Voices rock cause, and it encapsulates the inspiration, execution, and celebration that mark the band’s 20-year recording and performing history. Perhaps Pollard wrote the most fitting epitaph for his band when—in a rare moment of lyrical precision—he reflected in the 1994 single, “I Am a Scientist”, “I am a pharmacist/Prescriptions I will fill you/Potions, pills, and medicines to ease your painful lives/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 embody the liberating sentiments of the rock fan—fantasy, adventure, spirit, creativity, innocence, empathy, authenticity—and we, the recipients, can continue to be guided by such voices.