[28 March 2008]
The late 1980s and early 1990s will probably be remembered mostly as the onset of grunge, the years when Nirvana and Pearl Jam duked it out for the top of the alternative rock heap. And yet, there were alternatives, even to alternative rock, bands that never fit into the marketing categories well enough to make it big, and one of the best of these bands was Big Dipper. This three-CD set collects essentially all of the band’s recorded work, including its three Homestead releases, unreleased tracks and alternate takes, as well as the long unavailable material recorded for Epic and then never released.
Formed in the late 1980s, and drawing members from Volcano Suns and the Embarrassment, Big Dipper hitched the jangly guitars and swooning harmonies of college rock (they sound like the dBs on their poppiest tracks) with the raucous rhythms and dissonant guitar interplay of post-punk. They were jokers too, writing slyly funny songs about UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster and Abraham Lincoln, thus upending any attempt to take them too seriously. The video for “Faith Healer”, shows them dancing spastically in someone’s living room, a stuffed bear looking on in mortification as the four principals writhe to jittery guitar riffs. Anticipating the indie boy look by at least a decade, the film catches band members in argyle sweaters and bowling shirts, skinny, rapt and absolutely unafraid to look silly. In the video, it is hard to tell whether they are serious or putting you on, and if you’re smart, you’ll get used to that feeling, because a good number of Big Dipper’s songs were bald-faced, brazen goofballisms, only a hint of over-enthusiasm giving away the joke.
“Faith Healer” from the band’s 1987 debut Boo-Boo, began life as an Embarrassment song, brought to Big Dipper by guitarist Bill Goffrier, and yet, in some ways it sets the template for Big Dipper’s later work. It is manic, crazed, bouncy as a pogo stick, as Goffrier and Gay Waleik trade rapid, off-kilter guitar licks. And yet there’s a sweetness spliced in, somewhere in the tightly harmonized vocals is a crazily touching vulnerability. Even at their most rackety and abrasive, here was a band that could make your heart skip a beat.
The first full-length, out a year later, brought that pop sensibility to the foreground, with the lovely “She’s Fetching”, a song as catchily sweet as any power pop chestnut. (It might remind you a little of the Records’ “Starry Eyes”, though less slickly recorded.) This same album, however, had its share of the harder stuff, too. “The Younger Bums” is built on a blistering, confrontational guitar riff that slashes in and out of group-shouted choruses. It was inspired, according to the notes, by a conversation between bass player Steve Michener and his old Volcano Suns friend Peter Prescott, and it has the rough, post-punk urgency of that band’s best work. And if pop and post-punk are two sides of the triangle, with off-center humor as the third, then Heavens has all three. You only have to listen to “When Men Were Trains” (written by Michael Cudahy of Christmas and later Combustible Edison ) to get the distinct sense that Big Dipper is messing with you. Take them too seriously at your own risk.
Craps, the last Homestead-released Big Dipper album, is perhaps the best of the three, with definitive songs like “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House”, “Meet the Witch” and “Bells of Love”. The best track on Craps, though, and maybe the best song Big Dipper ever recorded, is “A Song to Be Beautiful”. It is four minutes of raucous mayhem, dual guitars blaring over one another, pounding drums, and the band locked into a call-and-response of “For a song to be beautiful”, answered in a shout by, “The artist must be brave.” It is as beautiful as a punk song can be, and currently shows twice as many plays as any of the 49 Big Dipper songs on my iPod, because I almost always play it twice.
Big Dipper was signed by Epic for 1990’s Slam and spent a year or so trying to fit into the major label world. Gary Waleik puts it this way: “We discovered what that vague ‘next level’ to which we aspired consisted of. We alienated (ironic term in the Big Dipper context, no?) our fans and failed to reach any new ones. We embarked on a disastrous two-month summer tour and Steve quit. We started writing what we assumed would be the make-good follow-up LP, but the label shamelessly strung us along while simultaneously planning to drop us.”
The album that would have become Very Loud Array was dropped, and it is its 15 up-to-now unreleased tracks that will be of most interest to long-time Big Dipper fans. They range from the flat-out gorgeous, “Restaurant Cloud”, with its circling, swirling guitar lines and trippy harmonies, to the jangle-punk urgency of “Wake Up the King”, to the frayed and distorted onslaught of “Nowhere to Put My Love.” There’s an angst and vitriol to these cuts that doesn’t appear in earlier recordings. You can tell that the songwriters were up against a wall, and yet, it’s an attractive, sardonic form of anger that blows through songs in the harder rhythms and more aggressive guitars. “Lifetime Achievement Award”, from this record, seems to be, simultaneously, a sideways sneer and a wistful goodbye to the idea of commercial success. Even after everything that the music industry could throw at these guys, they retained some of the open-hearted, idiosyncratic sincerity that percolated through Boo-Boo.
Completists will also be interested in a set of nine unreleased tracks included on Disc Two, including alternate takes of “Ron Klaus” and “San Quentin, CA”. These are not throwaways, but rather among the retrospective’s best. “Lou Gerhig’s Disease” is a blistering slice of chaos, with clanky post-punk-ish bass lines and the band’s two guitar players pinging and colliding and throwing sparks off each other. And “He Is God”, with its happy-go-lucky rhymes and straight-from-the-bible retelling of the loaves and fishes parable, could be the song that the cool, long-haired pastor digs out at church retreats. Only a certain undefinable glee clues you in that Big Dipper is not quite serious.
Supercluster is very nicely packaged, with an introduction from WFMU DJ Tom Sharpling (whose relentless advocacy is one reason that the reissue exists at all), and an essay on the Very Loud Array tracks from guitarist Gary Waleik. The first two discs have track-by-track commentary from the band’s four members; it is always self-deprecating, often quite funny and uniformly interesting. We learn, for instance, that the band The Fire Show adopted “A Song to Be Beautiful” as its unofficial motto, much to Big Dipper’s amusement. “I hate to break it to them,” says Steve Michener, “but I think Gary was goofing on people who read grandiose messages into rock music.”
And yet there is something grand about the song, the band and this wonderful retrospective. It’s a glimpse into an alternate universe of possibilities, where Big Dipper might have ruled late 1980s MTV, and songs like “She’s Fetching” and “Bells of Love” might have been played at the cooler kinds of proms. Instead, we got grunge and the Gin Blossoms and Toad the Wet Sprocket, and we are all much poorer for it.