7. The Coon Creek Girls

DISCOGRAPHY SOURCES PLAYLISTS

Lily May Ledford, six feet tall, wearing a black and white floral robe, leans back in her armchair and smokes a cigarette. It’s a January day in 1977, in Lexington, Kentucky.

“You know, many times I have sat here,” she says. A sweep of her cigarette hand takes in the living room, its TV, its gold-colored velvet couches and matching drapes. “And the Coon Creek Girls and everything that happened—none of it ever was. It was just a dream or not me at all.”

“Then someone like you comes to see me,” she nods to her interviewer, Ellesa Clay High, and to High’s tape recorder, which purrs on the coffee table. “And hear me play, and I know that it did happen, is still happening, and my music does matter.”

“Just sometimes it seems so long ago and I guess a lot of it was.”

Sowing on the Mountain

There are four of them here this morning in Chicago, eight AM on the second-to-last day of May, 1938. The Coon Creek Girls, from Pinch-Em Tight Holler in the Red River Gorge of eastern Kentucky (a fib—only two are; the others are Yankees).

Lily May Ledford, a radio pro but still uneasy at the microphone, looks sharply around the studio. She sings and plays banjo and fiddle. Rosie Ledford, jovial where her younger sister is reserved, sings and plays guitar. On mandolin, Esther Koehler, stage name “Violet,” the dreamiest and most shadowy of the quartet. And on bass fiddle, Evelyn “Daisy” Lange, a showbiz kid who elbowed her way into the group, playing an instrument that she’d never touched until half a year ago.

They are the first all-woman country string band in the United States, or at least they’re the first who recorded. None of them are more than twenty-two years old.

They set up around the microphone. John Lair, their manager, has chosen the selections. The record business is still getting back on its feet after being leveled by the Depression, and Vocalion wants variety in the titles. So Lair’s picked old-time love and murder ballads, hillbilly comedy numbers, uptempo pieces, songs soaked in religion but not quite gospel.

The first thing that the Coon Creek Girls cut is the latter. “Sowing on the Mountain” works over the Carter Family’s “Sow ‘Em on the Mountain,” from 1930. As he often did, A.P. Carter had knocked a song together from a few Appalachian folk pieces, nicking gospel lines as well. The refrain—sow ’em on the mountain, reap ’em in the valley, you’re going to reap just what you sow—is from the Bible (see Job 4:8 (“they that plow iniquity and sow wickedness reap the same”) or Galatians 6:7 (“for whatever a man soweth, so shall he reap”)). But because the song is such a stitchwork, the metaphor doesn’t hold together. You’re supposed to sow and reap the same field. Sowing in the mountains but reaping in the valley seems like you might be getting away with something.

The Coon Creek Girls make the Carters sound genteel. They take the song fast, rocketing through the changes (“their zeal is so irrepressible you’d swear they were gaining momentum with each successive verse,” Bill Frizkics-Warren wrote). Where Sara Carter has a steady phrasing, singing like a judge, the Ledfords are the wild angels of rebuke, giving a lash to the first syllables in their ranks of sinners: drunnk-ard, gamm-bler, liii-errr. Lily May takes to the field against the gossipers:

Ohh if you been a TATT LER, you better quit TATT LIN’
Better hold your TONGUE and keep it from a-RATT LIN’

The Gorge

Red River Gorge today, as seen in its 2020 hiking guide

Fifty miles southeast of Lexington is the Red River Gorge, a piece of the jagged border between the Appalachian Mountains and the bluegrass fields. “A country of overtowering edges,” Wendell Berry called the Gorge in 1971. House-high boulders, deep hollows, and everywhere water, which runs from the mountains in countless trickles and gushes, “all moving towards their union in the river,” Berry wrote. He likened the Red River to a great tree, “steadily incising its branches into the land.”

Centuries upon centuries ago, the Adena lived here; later, the Shawnee. Settlers, mostly from Virginia, came after the Revolutionary War and drove the Shawnee out. The story of the modern Gorge is one of successive extractions. Spindly coal deposits. Saltpeter and pine tar and iron ore. Most of all, lumber. In the half-century after the Civil War, men logged through the Gorge, at first dragging trunks of oak and poplar and birch to the river and sailing them down. Then the railroads came. In 1910, engineers for the Dana Lumber Company dynamited through solid limestone to make the Nada Tunnel (a photo of its opening is below).

These were the boom times: logging shantytowns built along tracks that snaked through the Gorge; the occasional drunken murder on a Saturday night; revival meetings by the riverside with snake-handling Pentecostals. By the Twenties, the land was logged out; the railroads left, taking most of the workers with them. Those who remained were families that had farmed by the Red River for generations, some holding deeds granted by Patrick Henry. And the people of the Upper Gorge, scattered through the hollows and hills, who scratched out a living by moonshining and tenant farming. “People just had to make do with what they could get,” as Lily May Ledford said.

The Soldier and the Lady

The Coon Creek Girls take five while engineers get the next platters ready, then fall back into position around the mike, making some furtive tunings. The next number is an ancient one, dating to the 17th Century: “One Morning in May,” also known as “The Nightingale’s Song” and “The Bold Grenadier.” Their version is called “The Soldier and the Lady.”

The story’s the same no matter what it’s titled. The singer sees a young woman walking with a soldier. The pair sit by the riverside, he woos her with his fiddle. Afterwards she asks him to marry her and he tells her he has to go. Sometimes he says he’s already married, sometimes he lies and says he’ll be back in the spring.

Over a waltz rhythm on Rosie’s guitar, the Ledfords sing in a knowing harmony, fastening on high notes to make “orchard” and “lady” and “affection” ache with tension, then sliding deep in their range to put a verse to rest. Their mother had hummed songs like this over her busy cradle, half-remembered remnants of the old country. She’d know one verse, a neighbor in the Gorge would know another, someone’s grandmother knew a third. Here in Chicago, the Ledfords commit the song to a record, making it a final thing.

The Uplanders

Photos of Red River Gorge, ca. 1970, by Ralph Meatyard

Daw White Ledford and Stella May Tackett lived in the Gorge and had fourteen children, several of which died in infancy or early childhood. They had Rosie in 1915, Lily May on St. Patrick’s Day, 1917. Their home in Chimney Top was a tiny three-room house that could barely hold all the Ledfords: four brothers slept in one cornshuck bed and fought each other all the night through.

“If it hadn’t been such a rich, rich country, it would have been impossible for us to have lived on what we raised,” Lily May recalled to Ellesa Clay High. “The woods was full of nuts and berries and all kinds of things to eat and beautiful things to look at.” She and her siblings picked huckleberries to sell to motorists on Highway 15, alongside moonshiners who sold bottles of white lightning from stands in which you couldn’t see the man cooped inside.

Their parents were ill-matched. Stella, pregnant nearly every year for two decades, was hard-tempered and pitiless. “She wasn’t a pampering woman,” Lily May said of her mother. “Nobody got petted but the baby.” As Lily May’s daughter Barbara Greenlief said of Stella, “she had very defined roles in her mind about [what] women should do and men should do. She didn’t view it as musical talent, which a lot of [her children] got. She viewed it as learning to be lazy from their father.”

Daw took what fortune gave him and played music every night (“you couldn’t get no work from him,” Lily May said of her father. “It was his books and the fiddle.”). He’d once made good money in the oil fields but now he was sharecropping for his brother, a savvier type who’d bought a few parcels of the Gorge. When the floods and bad crop years came, Daw’s family sank deep into poverty.

With all those tunes running so clear through my head all the time, I wasn’t worth a dime at home or at school. I just felt that was keeping me from what I wanted to do.

Lily May Ledford.

One day Lily May took a thin rubber string from an inner tube and tied each end to a green willow stick. She’d meant to make a bow, then found that the string, when plucked, sang a boinging low note. Soon she learned to work out a tune by moving her mouth along the string.

She took up banjo as well: her brothers had fashioned one from hickory wood, groundhog hide, and strings from the Montgomery Ward catalog. But the fiddle was how she spoke.

Out in the fields, she saw a boy swinging a fiddle around, whacking the tops of weeds with it. “Now to me, a fiddle was a sacred thing, like something alive,” she recalled. Lily May traded with him for it, giving him a box of crayons, a sweater, and a flashlight without batteries.

“I believe it was fate, because I never heard or saw that boy again.”

She Will Have Music

Lily May for Pinex cough syrup, in the 28 November 1936 WLS’ Stand By. The strip ran weekly beginning in October 1936 (other 1936 strips are above and below); by early 1937, “Lily May” was no longer a fiddler but more of a Lil’ Abner type.

Her fiddle was a mere shape (“it didn’t have nothing on it, no strings and keys or apron”). She whittled a tailpiece and pegs; she found “old scraps of banjo strings” and, using a hot wire, burned holes in the wood to hold them. She mortared wood-cracks with mud and put a rattlesnake rattle inside the fiddle, to give her tone a buzzing ring and to keep out moisture. For a bow, she used a green willow stick and hair from a white horse’s tail, rosined with pine tar.

“I tuned it to that old-fashioned A tuning and learned to play ‘Callahan’ that very day. It’s one that kept ringing in my ear that I hadn’t heard my daddy play in two or three years.”

The songs came from her father, who’d fiddle tunes like “Old Joe Clark” and “Sourwood Mountain” in his nightly performances (“those songs were all in my head,” she recalled). They came from an Edison phonograph the family owned for a time, playing sides from boxes of Riley Puckett, Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers 78s that Daw had bought during some moment of prosperity.

And the songs came from her mother, despite Stella’s hatred of the fiddle, which she considered the voice of drunkenness and sloth. “Her people were hard-shell Baptists and string music wasn’t allowed in the house—it was of the Devil and so on,” Lily May said. “So any ballads she learned she had to slip in and hide.”

By her mid-teens, Lily May was in a string band, the Red River Ramblers, a quartet formed by three Ledford kids—Lily May and her brother Coyen on fiddle, sister Rosie on guitar—and a neighbor boy, Morgan Skidmore, on whose family farm the Ledfords worked. By the early Thirties, the Ledfords had moved to the Red River, the Gorge’s greater-populated region, and closer to Stanton, the county seat, where string bands from Lexington came down to play. There were fiddling contests on those nights and the Ramblers started winning them.

Coyen was an accomplished fiddler but Lily May was the star, bowing “Pop Goes the Weasel” behind her back, behind her knees, atop her head. The Ramblers grew in demand for house parties and square dances along the river. Her mother saw nothing but doom in this. “They’ll marry someone down in Stanton that’s of their own standing,” Lily May recalled her saying about boys at the dances. “They’re prosperous people—you are poor girls—your reputations are all you’ve got.”

Lily May wanted nothing to do with school, nor with farming, nor with getting married. “I know she viewed Mom as lazy,” Barbara Greenlief said, speaking of her grandmother. “Mom was a real daydreamer…I think she viewed Mom as her most worthless child in terms of what she would ever become.”

Carrying her fiddle in a flour sack, Lily May would walk eight miles on Sundays to Natural Bridge, where tourist trains ran from Cincinnati. She sat on the platform and played all day, joining in with any other musician who showed up, passing the hat for pennies and chewing gum. “That’s all in the world I wanted.”

It always helps to have prosperous friends. Morgan Skidmore had family in Indiana who came to visit and loved the Red River Ramblers. With the Indiana Skidmores’ help, the Ramblers auditioned for radio in Fort Wayne and did sets between movies in a Rochester cinema.

Their big audition was for the 50,000-watt WLS in Chicago, the greatest “hillbilly music” station in the Midwest. The program director John Lair liked what he heard, but Coyen was too young to sign a contract and Lair didn’t think the other two were needed. He only signed Lily May, whom he transformed into the Mountain Gal, to be depicted in comic strip ads in WLS’ magazine Stand By as a tall, barefoot, feisty Appalachian girl in a tight dress.

While waiting for Lair’s contract, Lily May worked on the River Road in the Gorge—New Deal money was flowing in and the county was widening and flattening the roads for cars. At the end of August 1936, her friends put her on the train at Winchester. She wore her best outfit, a grey flannel suit that was stifling in the late summer heat and which she realized was well out of fashion upon boarding the train. No matter. “I had my fiddle in its case shaped like a coffin beside me,” she told High. “I was already on my way. I was nineteen years old.”

Banjo Pickin’ Girl

She never slowed down during a tune; if anything, she went to going faster.

Mike Seeger, recalling Lily May Ledford

The Coon Creek Girls move on to “Banjo Pickin’ Girl.” They’re keyed up. This isn’t some old hokum, it’s theirs, it’s what they tell their crowds every night. I’m goin’ round the world, baby mine, Lily May and Rosie sing while the guitar, banjo, and mandolin dance in tight circles around Evelyn Lange’s fluid bass (Lange gives the Girls a touch of swing). The band pushes through the song, they are moving, they’re not staying home. I’m goin’ to Arkansas, you stay here with maw and pawI’m goin’ across the ocean, if I don’t change my notion

Another goulash like “Sowing on the Mountain,” “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” took melodies and lyrics from “Baby Mine,” a late 19th Century parlor song, while its direct ancestor was Emry Arthur’s “Going Around the World” (1928). But where Arthur’s bringing his banjo girl along on his world tour, the Coon Creek Girls ditch the guy to become the headliners.

“We just had one verse of it. It was a man’s song,” Lily May said decades later. Her brother had heard the song while working in Pike County, but only came back with a slice of it, the opening title verse. “Well us girls sat down with Mr. Lair and we made up thirty or forty verses of that and had a lot of fun doing it, and finally we got right silly with it and quit, but we saved about seven or eight verses of it for our recording session.” (Needless to say, none of them got songwriting credit.)

At her WLS audition, she’d played the banjo along with guitar but she assumed she’d mostly fiddle on the air, as that was what she most loved to do, that’s what she was best at. But John Lair said there were so many fiddlers out there, even girl fiddlers. Now a girl who played the banjo—that was new, that could make your name. As with many things Lair would tell her over the next twenty years, she had doubts but accepted it. “I can see [the song being] a double-edged sword for her, since she was sort of forced to be a banjo picking girl,” said her friend Sue Massek, of the Reel World String Band.

Lily May once said of her banjo playing that her thumb wasn’t as flexible as it should have been. “I could never bend it, it stays stiff. And that way I make a bigger racket than I should sometimes.”

Mr. Lair

John Lair and WLS fan mail, ca. 1936

I think [Lily May] both loved and hated the man. She resented his control over her, his control over everybody. Just practically owned everything…She couldn’t even take…the sheet music that they’d done on the day’s show, she could not take that home.

Sue Massek

John Lair liked to say that women were the musical half of his family—his great-grandmother and grandmother were ballad singers, while his father and grandfather didn’t care for fiddle playing and dancing. Born in Kentucky in 1894, Lair served in the “entertainment forces” during World War One and taught high school for a time. When he was thirty, he married a former student of his.

At WLS, Lair built a “pipeline between the Upper South and the [WLS] National Barn Dance,” as Anthony Harkins wrote, and worked his musicians over to make them more rustic, more “mountain.” Lair even wrote his radio program copy in grotesque hillbilly dialect: “the genuwine article…no frills and no furbelows, jest plain folks frum the hills of Kintuck and Tennessee whur they bin livin purty much the same lives that their foreparents lived…most of the songs they know ar purty much the same ez they wuz when these same foreparents…wuz choppin Ameriky out of the Wilderness.”

Lair was always searching for a down-home country girl. First he turned a Chicago nightclub singer named Jean Muenich into Linda Parker, the Sunbonnet Girl. After Parker left WLS, and died of appendicitis not long afterward, Lair found Myrtle Cooper, who was a Linda Parker fan. He christened Cooper Lulu Belle, his new radio queen. Then Lair auditioned Lily May Ledford. At last: a musician who didn’t need a name change nor biographical fabrication. She really had been born in the Kentucky mountains, she really had made her own fiddle, she was “even more real than Lulu Belle.” He signed her to a five-year contract: not with WLS, but as her manager. Lair was about to go off on his own.

Stand By welcomes the new talent; 26 September 1936

Mr. Lair preached to me all the time about staying that way…Don’t start getting permanent waves. Don’t overdo the makeup. And don’t lose your mountain brogue. It will get you a million dollars. ‘Course, it didn’t get me a million dollars.

Lily May Ledford

Thanks to the stacks of letters WLS got, Lair knew his audience: Southerners who’d left their ancestral homes, heading to the cities of the Midwest to work the auto plants and factories. Sore with nostalgia, they longed for songs about mountain hollers and grandpa with his fiddle, Sunday morning biscuits and log cabins down the lane. For some, modern musical styles were calamities akin to the Depression. “Please don’t let Lulu Belle sing any more popular songs,” pleaded one letter writer to Stand By. “Anybody can sing jazz but there is only one Lulu Belle and if you spoil her, you’ll never find anyone to take her place.”

Lair would devote his life to fabricating a past for these people, a better past, a past cut to suit the present: he was a modernist.

In 1937, he left WLS, taking many of his radio stars with him. At first broadcasting the Renfro Valley Barn Dance on WLW in Cincinnati and Dayton, by the end of the decade Lair had moved operations to a newly-built complex close to where he grew up in Rockcastle County, Kentucky. Lair positioned Renfro Valley as the modest cousin of the Grand Ole Opry. “They were local. Opry was Hollywood,” the writer Jack Womack, who grew up in Kentucky in the Sixties, told me.

For Renfro Valley, Lair wanted an all-girl string band, centered on Lily May. He was exacting as to their look, telling them to buy gingham and calico cloth (at their expense) and for each to sew her own dress, which should come down halfway on the lower leg, with big sleeves and frilly skirts. High-top shoes, white cotton stockings, and ribbons and flowers for their hair. His girls would hail from a non-existent creek in a lost Kentucky, and would be photographed on farms and wading in brooks. Their names would all be flowers. They would be modest and unaffected, offering the conceit that they’d learned their songs at their grandfather’s hearth, as if their families didn’t own the radios on which their performances were heard.

Inventing Coon Creek

The original, classic Coon Creek Girls: Rosie Ledford, “Violet” Koehler, Lily May Ledford, “Daisy” Lange

Rosie Ledford: I just didn’t feel like I was quite as good as the other girls. I had a lot of convincing to do to get on that all-girl band. I’ll tell you one thing, though—I wasn’t quite as good but I believe I was really the loudest one of the bunch.

Lily May Ledford: You had more pep than all the rest of them put together on stage. [to interviewer] She was very cute on stage and the audience loved her better than any of us.

Rosie: Oh, well, you’re too kind.

Interview with Charles Faurot, 1966

Rosie Ledford was a rarity among siblings in that she freely acknowledged that her younger sister was more talented. Where Lily May, had life permitted it, would have devoted her waking hours to the fiddle (“the only time Mom was truly happy was when she was playing or when she was going to play,” Greenlief said), Rosie took things easier. She was “the one in the family who was most outspoken and funny, and she had a real funny flair to her personality.”

“Lily May had already gotten her job at WLS, even though I’m the older of the two, she got the job, and I kind of flunked,” Rosie recalled in 1966. She soon won a talent contest on her own. “I got in there with my yodel and won that, and that’s how I got that little job. About a year later, I joined Sis up at WLS and she kind of managed and helped me to get on the road shows…I believe Sis’ homesickness got me up there…That was before the Coon Creek Girl band was formed. And so when the girl band was formed, of course it included we two sisters along with Violet and Daisy.”

I was going to play no matter what, anything to be with the girls, to be on the radio. I didn’t care what I had to do, stand on my head or whatever.

Evelyn “Daisy” Lange, 1993

Lair already had auditioned Esther Koehler, a ballad singer from the Milwaukee area. All we know of Koehler is through the words of others—she was, to my knowledge, never interviewed in her life. Given the stage name “Violet,” she was reserved, the band’s Romantic, playing mandolin, singing mournful ballads and writing mournful poetry (when Linda Parker died, Koehler sent a poem to Stand By dedicated to her: “Silent Singer,” in which she hoped to meet Parker in heaven). “Strange girl, hard to understand her thinking,” her bandmate Evelyn Lange once said. “She was kind of an altogether different person than we were.” Koehler eventually married one of the Ledford brothers and vanished into the family.

Evelyn Lange, born in 1919, got her first fiddle at age seven; she learned her repertoire from the radio. “I would hear a song one week, get one line of it, because they were fast, two weeks later hear it again…I learned my hoedowns that way,” she said in 1993. Living in Ohio put her at the crossroads of musical styles. “I learned to play the fiddle in not bluegrass but just kind of a conglomeration of everything.”

She became a stage performer, a red-haired girl in a white sailor suit, fiddling all afternoon long to win a pound of coffee or a five-pound sack of flour. She played medicine shows and accompanied silent movies. When she was seventeen, she auditioned for Lair after winning an amateur show in Union City, Ohio. Lair said he couldn’t use her but added that “he was getting ready to start a barn dance in Cincinnati, he was going to bring Lily May down from Chicago and her sister Rosie and there was a girl in Wisconsin that he’d found that sang a lot of sweet songs and played mandolin and guitar.”

Lair didn’t contact her once he’d set up in Cincinnati. She took a bus, tracked him down, told him if he didn’t give her a job, she’d move on to Nashville. “He was in such a hurry to get rid of me he said, ‘well, meet [me] at my sister’s house,’ at a certain date. She lived in Covington, right across the river.” If Lair meant to put her off again, he failed again. Lange went to Covington on the specified date and “met the rest of the girls.”

The Ledfords, Koehler, and Lange, stage-dubbed “Daisy,” got along from the start. They soon could all communicate without hardly talking, and fell to rehearsing. But the group already had a master fiddler in Lily May (though Rosie Ledford later claimed “Daisy was a better fiddler than Sis was maybe”) and Lair envisioned the Ledfords as the lead singers. There wasn’t a place for Lange until Lair said they needed someone to play string bass.

“I had never touched a bass fiddle in my life but I said well, maybe I can learn to play the bass,” Lange recalled. “I wasn’t going to miss out on a good deal.” One of the Cumberland Ridge Runners taught her a few chords, and she plucked the bass strings until she blistered her fingers (she wore black kid gloves after that). “Two weeks after we all got together, we did our first show on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance.”

Flowers Blooming in the Wildwood

In Chicago, the Coon Creek Girls are cutting “Flowers Blooming in the Wildwood.” Like “Banjo Pickin’ Girl,” it reworks an Emry Arthur song of the late Twenties. It’s also their theme song. They often kick off radio performances with it, tweaking a verse so that all of their stage names appear in the lyric (“there’s a Lily that’s blooming in the wildwood…a Violet sweet with dew and a Daisy there too.”)

They had wanted to call themselves The Wildwood Flowers, but Lair said no, that a “country name would be better,” that anyone hearing ‘Coon Creek Girls’ on the radio would “know at once the type of music to expect,” Lily May said.

It’s been a frustrating session at times. “It was a frightening thing for us: it was our very first attempt at it,” Rosie recalled in 1966. “They had an awful time with us; all those instruments, you know, and some voices much louder than others.” Here, their voices jostle and jar together but there’s strength in their union.

“No Man’s Got a Chanct Agin’ Female Competition”

It was mostly the middle-aged and old people, farm people and the very, very poor that went for the Coon Creek Girls.Now the higher-class people were embarrassed by us, I guess.

Lily May Ledford

The Renfro Valley Barn Dance, at the Cincinnati Music Hall, 9 October 1937. John Lair’s warm voice rings out: Well, you’ve heard and you’ve seen the Ridge Runners, and Ramblin’ Red Foley. Now let’s have a big welcome for our newest act, making their grand debut on this very evening: the Coon Creek Girls, straight from Pinch-Em Tight Holler back home in Kentucky!

Four women run on stage in billowing gingham dresses, clutching their instruments. They break into “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat?” Lily May recalled people in the seats looking startled at first, “they stared like they didn’t believe and craned their necks, but by the time we got done, they tore the house down with applause…we took on like a house on fire the first week.”

It’s a shame that the Coon Creek Girls are mostly documented by their handful of studio recordings, as their shows were of a different caliber: full of improvised bits and madcap solos, the mood on stage raucous, the band’s pace relentless, the Girls determined to bowl their audiences over. “Everybody applauded because they’d never seen an all-girl hillbilly band,” Lange said, adding that the Girls would run out on stage “like we were going to a fire.” Rosie “was so expressive on stage,” her niece Barbara Greenlief recalled. “Mom had the audience in terms of being charismatic [but] Rosie would dance, she would just fling herself, just anything on stage she felt like doing she would do. She was kind of a Jonathan Winters of traditional music. There needs to be a person like that in a band, who’s kind of the comedian, more social with an audience.”

They are always passing instruments from one to another. Mr. Lair speaks of two solos, two duets, three trios and two quartets among the four, but that is a fine point.

The New York Times, “Coon Creek Girls from the Kentucky Hills,” 4 June 1939

The Coon Creek Girls remade themselves with each number; they were eight groups nestled within one quartet. Lange, who could play reels and hornpipes on fiddle, would open a set with a solo. She and Koehler did mandolin duets, she and Lily May doubled on fiddle, tearing through “Golden Slippers.” “We were writing songs,” Lily May wrote in her autobiography. “We did vocal duets, trios, even quartets with me singing bass. We did fiddle duets, mandolin duets with Violet and Daisy. Violet would do songs and poems and old ballads. Rosie would sing tenor and do an occasional Jimmie Rodgers solo, yodeling her best. I had the best rollicking guitar backup behind my banjo breakdowns that I ever had.”

They played fast, jumping up and down as if angling to crack the stage boards, “sometimes ruining some of our songs by laughing at each other,” Lily May said. Rosie, if carried away by a tune, would let out a yell so high-pitched it sounded like someone had yanked a steam whistle.

Each of them got $40 a week, which was winnowed to almost nothing once they had paid for their housing, wardrobe, and food. “We were all so happy then,” Lily May recalled.

Old Uncle Dudy

Mr. Lair wanted me to sing little funny songs. But I didn’t feel funny. I liked lonesome songs.

Lily May Ledford, 1966

In the early days, the Coon Creek Girls’ mere existence on stage unsettled some. They weren’t married; they weren’t kid sisters of another Renfro Valley act; they didn’t sing with a backing group. They spent their thirty minutes on the boards whooping and hollering and carrying on, doing the sort of daredevil solos and wild improvisations normally reserved to the likes of the Georgia Yellow Hammers.

“A lot of people frowned on us playing instruments, [so we] got An’t Idy Harper and Little Clifford, who was three hundred pounds,” Lange recalled. “They tied us in as a family, showed the audience we weren’t out there doing something we weren’t supposed to do.”

An’t Idy Harper was born Margaret Lillie. She was an older vaudevillian who in early 1937 wrote to Lair to say she wanted to be on the radio, that “I have a blues voice [but] also sing hillbilly songs.” Lair, intrigued, said he couldn’t promise her much money at first but thought he could create a “Lum and Abner“-type act for her and his nephew Harry Mullins, who would become “Little Clifford.” He soon roped the Coon Creek Girls to Idy and Clifford, turning them into the wards of the Renfro family.

Early in the 1938 session, the Coon Creek Girls cut four sides with their chaperone. An’t Idy sounds vaudeville-bluesy and a bit sauced (see “The Old Apple Tree,” on which the Girls provide a mighty harmony for the refrains; it’s a gruesome tale of townspeople lynching an adulterous neighbor). Along with one of the breeziest versions of the murder ballad “Omie Wise” ever recorded, the Coon Creek Girls and An’t Idy plow through two Carter Family songs, with “Lulu Wall” the prime cut, Idy on the make and lusting over Lulu’s “aggervatin’ beauty.”

The benefit of the An’t Idy tracks is that they document the Coon Creek Girls as a full unit, with Lily May on fiddle and Rosie, Lange, and Koehler as a supple accompaniment. It carries over into their own “Old Uncle Dudy,” which is the closest we have to how freewheeling they were on stage: jazz harmonies in the refrains, goofball hayseed voices for the verses, seasoned with fiddle breaks.

Coon Creek Mania, 1938

Something went off the rails in this caption (Reddy May?); Indianapolis Star, 4 May 1938

We just played music, and that’s all we wanted in the world to do and we didn’t pay attention to anything else.

Evelyn Lange

There were days in 1938 and 1939 when Lily May didn’t take off her shoes except to change into her stage clogs.

They were a punk band in the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Benny Goodman [see Quartet No. 5]. “We’d get out there, play hard and fast, do our part and off the stage,” Lange recalled. “They didn’t really have a chance to cut in on us, we were making too much noise. Had we not been that young, we couldn’t have taken it. But we had a lot of ambition, we could sleep standing on our heads.”

Within months, the Coon Creek Girls were one of the biggest acts on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Lair worked them hard: multiple sets for the Saturday night broadcasts in Cincinnati or Dayton; local radio spots; touring around Ohio and Kentucky and Indiana, playing movie theaters and fireman’s benefits, PTA meetings and county fairs. Plenty of what Lily May called “bicycle dates,” when the band was booked in two theaters in the same town, running from one to the other all day, staying in costume and lugging their gear (Lange had it the worst), playing five sets at each venue. Lange recalled being out “for a week at a time. Our clothes would get wrinkled and dirty because a lot of the fairs…we didn’t have a decent dressing room and the fairs are just naturally kind of dirty anyway…Once in a while, we’d have a day off.”

The demands of their stage work freed them from strict repertoires—Lair only cared about the songs they chose for the Saturday night show. They “sang all sorts of things and made up songs and sang them, and we all tried our hand at making up songs,” Lily May said. “And we just had a good time. Nobody bothered us.” The band could test on stage what worked, with Rosie recalling the audiences “liked those holy roller songs…and they were pretty crazy about the banjo. All the banjo tunes.”

We worked all the time and were not allowed to date. The boss watched us carefully. We were all very young and very dumb. We trusted everybody, we didn’t know there was mean people in the world.

Evelyn Lange

The bigger the Coon Creek Girls got, the more Lair wanted to preserve their image as four daughters straight from the hollers, girls who wouldn’t “upset the applecart in their community,” as Barbara Greenlief said. Lily May chafed at it sometimes, resenting the long, old-fashioned dresses and high-top lace-up shoes that he made them wear, which made her feel “like an old lady and not at all pretty.” She had gone to Chicago in part to get away from farm life, to live in the big city, to travel the world.

But Lair would tell her to not wear makeup, not curl her hair, not try to speak “proper” English. Stay a mountain girl, stay as you were when you first came here, he’d say. Be genuine and plain at all times. But don’t be common, have manners and grace. Be spunky on stage, yet don’t be pert. It was a life as the endless threading of a needle.

The Girls always took care as to what they wore, how they looked, how they acted on the street, Lange said, “because we didn’t know who was looking at us…we always tried to dress and look very presentable…we didn’t want anything to ruin our image. To be four nice good country girls. And we lived that way too. We didn’t want to do anything to disappoint our fans. Because they all knew us as being like that and that’s the way we were….People were different then than they are now.” Fans mailed them letters written on paper sacks. Once during a radio performance, a girl in a wheelchair was borne up a long flight of stairs to give each Coon Creek Girl hand-made pictures of birds, with real feathers. Lange, decades later, said she still had her card. “I change the pictures around. I wish I could have gotten her name.”

They became street-wise quickly. They walked as a group from their apartment to the theater, dealing with stage-door Johnnies and “wolves” in jalopies who whistled and yelled at them to get in their cars. “They knew who we were, we didn’t know who they were,” Lange said. Once Rosie got so fed up that she threw her purse at a lecher (“they got going real quick when they had her purse.”) “I didn’t trust any boy,” Lange said. “We weren’t supposed to trust anybody so we didn’t.”

Here and there in their recollections, you catch glimpses of the off-stage Coon Creek Girls. Lily May and Rosie smoking like chimneys. Lily May standing on a Chicago corner and eating popcorn, walking as if she owned the street. The band sneaking out to play to Black audiences between sets in segregated towns, doing jigs and reels behind the theater.

Lulu Lee

Lily May recalled “Lonesome Lulu Lee” (which she often sings as “Lula” on the Vocalion track) as being one of John Lair’s songs, though he’s not credited on the label as he is on “Old Uncle Dudy.”

If it is a Lair song, it’s one of his best, a catchy assembly of country tropes—lonesome girls, penitentiary stays, log cabins. Cutting “Lulu Lee” in Chicago, the Girls train-whistle yodel in the spirit of Jimmie Rodgers. “We just went wild about that,” Lily May recalled in 1966 about hearing Rodgers’ records for the first time. “Like kids do with the Beatle music nowadays.”

High Society, 1939

In June 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to the United States on a goodwill tour. The royals were a scouting party. Franklin Roosevelt believed war between Germany and Britain was inevitable, so one aim for the royal visit was to strengthen family ties between parent and wayward child countries, at a time when American Nazi sympathizers could fill Madison Square Garden. The Windsors would provide elegance and grace, the Americans would charm with homespun truths and folk art.

For a White House reception on the evening of 8 June 1939, the musical entertainment would demonstrate, as per the program notes, that “American music today is made up of three distinct living idioms—a folk, a pop, and an art music.” For art: the contralto Marian Anderson and the baritone Lawrence Tibbett. For pop, Kate Smith, singing “These Foolish Things.” The folk contingent was the largest: Bascom Lamar Lunsford and the Soco Gap square dance team; Alan Lomax singing cowboy ballads; the North Carolina Spiritual Singers.

And the Coon Creek Girls, who were there “to represent the mountain kind of music,” Lily May later said.

Their presence was owed to the friendship of Lair and Lunsford. After meeting at a folk festival in North Carolina, Lair asked Lunsford to recommend prospects for WLS (Lunsford, who had recorded the uncanny “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” in 1928, also performed for the station). The two organized the Ohio Valley Folk Festival and suggested acts for the National Folk Festival in 1938. The latter were key—Alan Lomax saw the Coon Creek Girls at these festivals and, as he was in contact with Eleanor Roosevelt and National Folk Festival organizer Gertrude Knott as to who to invite for the royal performance, he suggested the Girls. Lunsford seconded him.

Lomax disliked the “hillbilly” acts he’d seen at Ohio Valley, which he regarded as cheapened music for radio stay-at-homes and movie cowboys. He had a sympathetic ear in the First Lady, who considered folk festivals a necessary bulwark against rising commercialism in music. As Kristine McCusker wrote, this was a core New Deal aesthetic: a return to an earlier age of American idealism, “moving residents back to a simpler time where communities supposedly shared with each other, not unlike the image of community that the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and early WLS shows broadcast on the radio.” 

The music of FDR’s America, as presented to the King and Queen, wouldn’t be hillbilly fare or jazz. It would be either refined or raw.

Lair played up the Girls’ mountain roots even more than usual. Thus you had the New York Times taking his word that he’d discovered Lily May singing old Appalachian ballads while lifting rocks on her father’s farm. That the Coon Creek Girls wouldn’t need to practice for the White House, as “all they need to do is be ‘nacharal.'”

From “A Program of American Music,” 8 June 1939 (FDR papers)

Of course they did rehearse, on the afternoon of the performance. Vice President “Cactus Jack” Garner—estranged from Roosevelt, eyeing his own bid for the presidency, destined to be a footnote—turned up and traded off with Lily May on fiddle for a time.

The Coon Creek Girls recalled having to all but sneak into their own performance. “We met a little bit of difficulty getting into the White House. I guess we didn’t look the part,” Rosie said. “I don’t know. They didn’t much want us in there. We had to show the invitations to every guard. It seemed like miles of hallways…the dressing room looked like a mansion to us.”

Lily May, in her autobiography, recalled “we were scared. This was no school house or movie theatre. All that splendor! Dresses, white tie and tails, jewels, jewels, jewels!” Lair had allowed them to dress up for once, wearing different-colored gowns, silk hose, and patent leather shoes. Each wore a velvet ribbon around her neck and her namesake flower in her hair.

The setlist was “Soldier and the Lady,” to show how the songs of England were still in the American air; the folk song “Cindy” and “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat,” which came out of the minstrel shows. (The program says they did “Buffalo Gals,” too, but no one there remembered this.) “Biscuits” was the opener: the Coon Creek Girls worked over the set of assorted dignitaries, society snobs, ennobled bureaucrats, secret royalists, and Jim Crow politicians as if they were playing a fair in Hillsboro.

Lily May sized up the guests of honor from the corner of her eye. FDR was smiling broadly; the queen, politely (“on their faces was a different look than I was used to—a look of refinement and the kind of smiles that are…what you’d call ’em, rehearsed, and I began to get worried we wouldn’t go over with these people.”). The king was tough work, as he “could have been dead and just propped up. I thought he’d rather be in jail than be here.” At last she caught him discreetly tapping his foot; she claimed victory.

Within weeks, Lair was billing the Coon Creek Girls as the band who had played for democracy and royalty. From late June into July, they worked the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh in the Mercury Theatre’s production of The Green Goddess, with Orson Welles as a rajah (“all right if you go in for hill-billy mouthings,” was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s review of the Girls). A variation on the White House royal performance, the Stanley revue was another American congress: Jack Lanney and the Statler Twins, a dance team; Jack Talley and Terry Howard, a comedy duo; a screening of Captain Fury; the Coon Creek Girls; Welles, in a turban, his play often beset by technical difficulties.

Lily May recalled Welles as being foreboding (“I heard him bawl out his valet in a manner that scared me”) although he asked her to help him with a bit. After the Girls’ last song, he said, Lily May was to tell the audience to hold onto their pocketbooks and boots—Welles would then kill the lights and plunge the theater into darkness. After delivering her warning, he said, “pick up your skirts and run to beat hell!” Welles, notorious terrorizer of crowds after The War of the Worlds, had a reputation to maintain.

Little Birdie

The last song of the Chicago session. The band, wearied by the long day, sets up one more time. The engineers have experimented all afternoon with positioning, moving Lily May back from the mike, moving Koehler closer.

“Little Birdie” is deep Appalachia, a banjo song dating to 1900, if not earlier. A song of freedom, longing, movement, “Little Birdie,” in some of its versions, is also a song of betrayal. “Purty woman, purty woman/ just see what you’ve done,” goes one 1931 variation. “You caused me to love you/ now your husband has come.”

Lily May sings it as if, in the breath before each line, as Rosie’s guitar, Koehler’s mandolin and Lange’s bass roll beneath her, she surveys the land ahead and decides how long of a stride to make.

The Split

She would say, ‘you girls don’t get married, it’ll break your band up.

Sue Massek, on Lily May Ledford

In the fall of 1939, the Renfro Valley complex was finished. Lair’s acts would now live in Renfro Valley as well as work there. Soon before the move, the Coon Creek Girls fell apart.

There had been trouble since the 1938 Vocalion session, where Koehler and Lange were often reduced to a barely-audible backing group. “Their music was a little different from ours,” Lily May recalled to Faurot. “They were hurt and disappointed that they didn’t get to sing more.” The Ledfords had had trouble harmonizing with Koehler in particular. “She spoke her words differently,” Lily May said. “We managed to get a pretty good blend in voice but our words couldn’t seem to fit. She tried real hard.” Rosie added that “we changed some, she changed some.”

Lair needed the Coon Creek Girls to have the deep country pedigree of the Ledford sisters, and “didn’t want a thing that would show those [other] two girls were from up North and Yankees,” Lily May said. “So they were kept in the background or at least not pushed for solos.” As there was another Ledford sister eager to join (Minnie, see below), Lair had few regrets about Koehler and Lange leaving. He reconstructed his all-girl string band as an all-family affair.

But money was the main issue. The Coon Creek Girls were a prime attraction of Renfro Valley but had never gotten a raise. Lange once estimated that Lair was bringing in $3,000 a week just on Coon Creek Girls shows, while paying the group a relative pittance (“we paid for a lot of Renfro Valley”). Further, they had to cover their expenses and Lair was constantly penny-pinching: he never gave the Girls copies of any of their records, for instance.

After some desultory efforts to find other work, they confronted Lair, asked for larger salaries, said they wanted their fair share of what Renfro Valley was bringing in. “We were carrying the Barn Dance load,” Lange said. “We were drawing all these crowds, the four of us…we were just barely making ends meet and we were working just like crazy.” Lair said he had no money to spare, that every dime was going back into the business, that he struggled to cover the tremendous overhead. Rosie broke down, said that Lair should stop paying her entirely if it would help keep the show going.

With that, the band broke. As Lange said, she and Koehler were sophisticates by comparison to the Ledfords—Koehler had lived in Milwaukee, Lange had been in show business since she was a kid. “I think we were a little more alert to what was going on, that we knew to put two and two together to realize that we were paying for a lot of the others’ salaries and we were doing the work…So we were the instigators, Violet and I.” They saw the move to Kentucky as Lair tightening his grip on them even further, and balked. They headed west, working shows in Tulsa and Dallas. (An’t Idy and Red Foley also quit rather than move to Renfro Valley.)

Barbara Greenlief said her mother and aunt had been homesick for Kentucky and didn’t mind going to Renfro Valley. But they also “didn’t know what else to do. They didn’t know that you could find people to represent you to get other jobs.”

Not long before she died, Lily May wrote to Lange. “She said it was never the same after we split up,” Lange remembered.

The Seashell Years

Lily May Ledford and Woody Guthrie, ca. 1944

Lair prospered during the war. His traveling bands averaged $5,000 in earnings a week. Billboard reported in 1944 that there were over 10,000 paid admissions on three different Saturday nights at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, with 5,000 as the average Saturday night’s audience.

Renfro Valley was a carnival now—there were trained mules, show horses, Rex the Wonder Dog. The gargantuan “Little Eller” was paired with the four-foot-nine pipe-smoking “Granny Harper.” Shows started at two in the afternoon and ran without a stop. Renfro Valley gave you both a modest Saturday night’s romp (the Barn Dance) and a Sunday morning’s repentance (the Sunday Morning Gathering).

Although in 1940 Lair wrote to a business partner that he was looking for “new and better talent,” as the Coon Creek Girls “seem to have gone to hell generally as far as their work goes,” the Coon Creek Girls were essential to Renfro Valley. But they weren’t the same group. Minnie Ledford, born in 1922 and stage-named “Black Eyed Susan,” now joined her sisters; she sang, played guitar and bass.

By the early Forties, the Coon Creek Girls became a rotating set of players—a Ledford sister would take time off and some newcomer to the Valley would fill her place. Photos of the Coon Creek Girls of the period include a number of faces lost to history (one later member was Norma Madge Mullins).

Some of its performers recalled Renfro Valley as being a good place to work—the cast eating supper together, doing jitterbug dances after hours. When someone got pregnant, they could take leave, have another Valley performer sub for them, and rejoin the troupe in a year or so. Lair didn’t hold grudges when a musician left: he welcomed back An’t Idy and Koehler later in the decade.

At one point Lair considered building a nursing home for his performers when they retired; it’s a wonder that he didn’t run a school for their children.

Lair and a version of the Coon Creek Girls with the Ledford sisters and Koehler

For a short while, Lily May had a life beyond Renfro Valley. In 1944, she took part in a New York radio broadcast of The Martins and the Coys, written by Elizabeth Lomax and arranged by Alan Lomax. She worked with Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie.

She visited Guthrie’s apartment on Mermaid Avenue on Coney Island, sitting on the floor as plates of Polish sausage, cheese chunks, and hard rolls were passed around (“you’d cut your own bread, everything was served roughly”); she remembered seeing Guthrie walk down Broadway and nudge his way through the crowds while playing his guitar.

The Coon Creek Girls got an offer from the Village nightclub Cafe Society: a six-month contract that could lead to further residencies. Now Guthrie played Lair’s usual role. He sent a letter that had a lengthy, opaque passage about sea shells, which the Ledfords interpreted as saying, once again, for the Girls to remain humble, down-home, “to stay as we were—clean,” Lily May said. “Those Uptown and Downtown Cafe Societies were stepping stones to Hollywood and other places, and if we went higher, Woody knew the fights and temptations we would go through.” So they would never go higher.

Lily May Ledford and Burl Ives, ca. 1944

Lair changed once the Renfro Valley complex opened—he became more isolated, more controlling of his performers’ lives. “Bloom had an Idea; now the idea has him,” Christopher Ricks once wrote of the critic Harold Bloom. Something of the same held for Lair. Devoted to preserving his ideal past within postwar modernity, he fortified the borders of his Valley to keep it secure. “He owned them, lock, stock and barrel,” Barbara Greenlief said. “Almost like a coal company….He had them sign contracts that they couldn’t record anything unless he said so; they couldn’t talk to other people; they couldn’t make any other deals.”

“John was smart that way,” said Jerry Byrd, a steel guitarist who worked at Renfro Valley. “He got a lot out of his people for very little money because they felt like they were at least doing something on their own that could possibly bode well in the future. Whereas the Grand Ole Opry wasn’t that way at all…[But] if you stayed there [at Renfro Valley], you’d dry rot.”

As Renfro Valley Barn Dance was on network radio for well over a decade, Lair’s signal failure was to develop his acts as recording artists—the Coon Creek Girls, for instance, issued only a handful of singles after 1938, none memorable. He was determined as always to keep everything in-house, to cut his own records for his own label, but his studio was plagued by defective equipment and soon enough burned down.

By the mid-Fifties, Renfro Valley declined in popularity, losing younger audiences to rock ‘n’ roll, older ones to the developing countrypolitan sound of Nashville. College students, who would take up folk music and make a star of Viper, Kentucky’s balladeer Jean Ritchie, rarely came to Renfro Valley. When the Coon Creek Girls went on the road, Lily May would cross to the other side of the street when she saw a group of young people. She’d be wearing her calico stage dress and “invariably one of them would say something and the rest would laugh.”

“Sometimes we were teased or ridiculed about our old-fashioned music, and I think we let that intimidate us a little bit,” she said in 1966. “We finally decided our music was obsolete and there was no use to keep it up because nobody wanted to hear it. I felt that way for five years before I left Renfro Valley. And then my own children begin to like rock ‘n’ roll music.” The Coon Creek Girls broke up in 1957.

Television also stole from Renfro Valley, even though there was a Renfro Valley TV show in the mid-Fifties (see the Coon Creek Girls do “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat?” on one clip). Lair’s isolationism again hobbled him. His sponsor found doing remote shows too costly, and wanted Renfro Valley broadcast from a city studio. But Lair stayed in his valley, content to have his facilities used as backdrops for a few films. Hee Haw, a variety show filmed in Nashville starting in 1969, was Lair’s nightmare fulfilled: a Renfro Valley with “Hee Haw Honeys,” Laugh-In inspired redneck gags, and contemporary country performers. It was a hit; it aired for more than two decades.

By the mid-Sixties, Lair was no longer paying salaries, just giving performers a percentage of the door. In 1966 a group that included Willie Nelson, Ray Price, and the music publisher Hal Smith leased the Valley complex; Smith bought it in full two years later. Lair kept the radio show, and continued Renfro Valley in some way or another until he died in 1985. Among his last acts was to form the New Coon Creek Girls in 1979. They allegedly had Lily May’s blessing (she’d taught Vicki Simmons, a founding member, how to play clawhammer banjo), not that it was needed: Lair owned the band name.

Pretty Polly

I learned that from Mama. She was raised in Pike County.

Lily May Ledford, on “Pretty Polly.”

Lily May plays banjo for the length of this song, in her hard-picked, fast, utterly precise “frail” style, here with a G modal tuning. “On songs like ‘Pretty Polly’ [it] expresses the tragic side of life,” Lily May’s granddaughter Cari Norris said. “The drone string of banjo is constant and effective for conveying a sense of tragedy. You know in the song the man kills Pretty Polly and there are different ways to die.”

Sue Massek said of Lily May that “both of us like playing in the minor modal tunings…more melancholy and haunting. And crooked tunes. A measure too many or one too few. And it sort of makes you never know where the end of the song is. It’s crooked.”

“Pretty Polly” is an old crooked song; it was carried over the water, like the Scotch pine, from England to the Appalachians. Its details vary, its story is eternal. A man lures a young woman into a forest, where he murders her and leaves her corpse behind, the birds as her only mourners. The singer often, as Lily May does here, shifts from first person—the murderer, Willie (“Oh Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me”); the victim, Polly (“Oh Willie, oh Willie, please spare me my life”)—to third person at the end of the killing verse. It could be Willie disassociating, Polly abstracting her own murder as the knife goes in. It’s when the song finds itself unbearable.

Lily May sings fast, without effect, not indulging in suspense, only drawing out the last note of each phrase. The other Coon Creek Girls make a drone far in the distance. She recounts, she assesses evidence, while her fingers ring on the banjo. The song once had more colors—Willie was a ship’s carpenter, Polly was pregnant, she haunts him for eternity. None of that is here. Just Polly, with her little white hands, who follows her lover up the hills and into the valleys until she knows she’s going to die, and he says her guess is about right. He stabs her, dumps her in the grave that he dug the night before and goes home: unpunished, unrepentant.

This has happened before; it will happen again. The shabby cruelty of a small killing. Lily May sings “Pretty Polly” as a recurrence, as if you’re hearing one brief cycle of something which has no end. She stays a touch longer on her closing notes in the final verses and when she sings “into her grave Pretty Polly did go,” she holds the “ohhhh” long enough for it to link to the start of the next line. It is the only mourning she will allow.

A Big Time

Lily May in her local paper, 1983

In 1971, Evelyn Lange went down to Kentucky. “There was Lily May and Rosie was there and Violet was living there,” she recalled. “I think we were at Rosie’s house in Berea. I told somebody to get a tape, I wanted to see if we could do anything.”

Sitting in a living room, the original Coon Creek Girls played together for the first time in over thirty years, and for the last time in their lives. “Everybody knew their part and we just went right straight through this,” Lange said. “We just had a big time.” (The tape was reportedly aired on a Cincinnati radio station; I don’t know if it survives; I hope it does.)

The Coon Creek Girls—the Ledford sisters trio, which would be its last incarnation—had reformed in the mid-Sixties. They played the Newport Folk Festival (this performance of “Cacklin’ Hen” is for the ages—I wish it went on for twenty minutes) and, at last, cut an album, a self-titled collection for County Records in 1968. The long years were now in their voices, the Ledford sisters said at the time. “Gradually we got away from our way of singing,” Lily May said. “It’s not as nasal as it was, not as keen, not as high-pitched.” “It was lonesome-sounding,” Rosie added. “More a mountain type, lonesome and soul-stirring.”

The Ledfords—Susie, Lily May, Rosie—as the last Coon Creek Girls (Berea College Appalachian Center)

Barbara Greenlief, in 1996, is talking about her late mother, a woman who had to live within the parameters that men set for her, whether it was Lair, or her first husband, “a powerful man in Berea, owned a lot of coal trucks, had a lot of money, wanted to marry a Coon Creek Girl,” or her second, a union that produced J.P. Pennington, co-singer of Exile’s 1978 disco-country hit “Kiss You All Over” (he’s the higher voice), and thus offering the strangest footnote of the Coon Creek story.

“That combination of having that inbred talent, mixed with the kind of subservient view that women had to men was a really difficult thing all her life,” Greenlief said. “She could not openly challenge a man, so that John Lair, the other men she worked with, both of her husbands—pretty much set the stage for what her life would be, in terms of her success. She was always privately angry about the manipulation but she would not confront it. She was so strong-willed that it ate her up because she was angry about it.”

“She knew she wasn’t treated like she should [have been] treated. She empowered herself through her music. But that was the only power she had.”

Lily May had a good Seventies. She met and befriended Mike Seeger and Loyal Jones, played folk festivals, got an NEA grant, was an artist-in-residence at Berea College, wrote her autobiography, made solo recordings. She moved to Lexington, read Wendell Berry and Maya Angelou, became a local activist—she joined the effort to keep the Army Corps. of Engineers from building a dam on the Red River that would have turned most of the Gorge into a lake.

At parties she liked to play the hard-driving songs, not so much the old ballads. She’d sang those around the house while raising her children, as her mother had. She wasn’t fond of bluegrass, came to love gospel. She always called what she played “mountain music.” She liked to drink beer, garden, and read. After two marriages, living on her own at last in Lexington, “she was able to voice some of what she’d never been able to voice before,” her daughter said.

Evelyn Lange Perry in the Journal and Courier, 23 June 1983

Esther “Violet” Koehler Ledford died in 1973, Charlotte Rosie Ledford Foley in 1976, Minnie Ledford Jennings in 1987. Lily May Ledford Pennington died, at sixty-eight, of lung cancer in the summer of 1985, a month after she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship. They all lie in Berea Cemetery, seventy miles west of the Gorge.

Evelyn Lange Perry would be the only Coon Creek Girl to see the 21st Century.

After some adventures in the Southwest, Lange got married in 1941. For a long while, it meant the end of her musical life. “I was having kids left and right and there wasn’t any way I could do it then,” she said, fifty years later. She and her husband moved to Frankfort, Indiana, where he bought a concrete-block plant. “There was no time to think about going [some] place and playing the fiddle. I was raised that when you got married, you raised your family , you kept house, you cooked and did what a wife is supposed to do. So I didn’t really think much about it that [my husband] didn’t want me to play the fiddle and travel around.” It wasn’t until the Seventies when she would play the fiddle again.

She dug out her fiddle one day and wondered if she could still play it. “I got it all tuned up and I thought, ‘this bow is terrible.’ Well, it wasn’t the bow, it was me!”

In 1978, she was invited to Nashville for a reunion concert with some other Renfro Valley acts, including Lulu Belle and the Girls of the Golden West. She said she was scared to death, as she hadn’t played before an audience since Franklin Roosevelt was president, and back then she was part of a quartet. She went on stage and played her fiddle to an audience of 13,000; PBS broadcast the show. Evelyn Lange: a solo artist at last. She kept performing, here and there (“I’m a ham, I guess,” she told her local newspaper). She died in February 2002.

Lily May at Midnight

Lily May in her later years (Jim Broadwater)

Ellesa Clay High, a young Southern writer, visits a small town in central Kentucky in the bicentennial summer. She’s considering writing about the Red River Gorge and, in 1979, she will live in a farmer’s tenant house in the lower Gorge for a summer, sharing her bedroom with a wasp’s nest “the size of a grapefruit.” In 1984, she publishes Past Titan Rock, a collection of memoir, reportage, and fiction based on her experiences and interviews.

There’s a party at night for a local farmer. At some “unseen signal,” High recalls, “instruments were pulled from closets and corners…the musicians inspected each other’s instruments, joked and offered a tentative song.” She’s struck by how easy and unassuming their performance is, how the room works in time with the music. The party guests clap along, then fall back into conversation, get some zucchini bread and fried chicken from the kitchen, sing along again.

A tall woman comes in. “Gray haired, smiling, and soft spoken.” The mood in the room changes at once—there’s a sense of happy reverence. The musicians stand and, each in turn, shake her hand. One offers Lily May Ledford his fiddle. She accepts, picks up the bow, places the fiddle on her chest and rips into “Sourwood Mountain.” A song her father had taught her, a song she’s been playing since before many people in the room were born.

The room fills with dancers, thumping the plank floor. By midnight, Lily May has played her way through the whole Coon Creek Girls instrumental repertoire—she moves from bass fiddle to guitar, mandolin to banjo. High will later describe Lily May as playing the banjo “with the expression of a child hovering over a birthday cake.”

Sue Massek once said she heard in Lily May’s playing an affirmation: “I know what I’m doing and I’m right here, and I’m going to show you all.”

It’s one in the morning, and High leaves at last, “jigged and shouted out.” The party is still going as High walks towards her car. Lily May Ledford is still playing, and she will play on, deep into the summer night, a musician who drops into a party and makes a room dance and sing, for hour after bright hour. An artist; a great one.

6. The Bangles

DISCOGRAPHY SOURCES PLAY LIST

Late August 1989: Susanna Hoffs sits in a hotel room in Kansas City, doing a phone interview. Her band, which got a #1 hit earlier in the year, is cracking apart.

She’s asked about The Bangles; more precisely, as she often is, she’s asked What The Bangles Are. “We’re lumped into some kind of weird category,” she tells the reporter, Steve Appleford. “People can’t really view us in the same breath as Guns ‘n’ Roses or U2 or even female artists like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman. We’re like in the strange all-girl-band category. And it’s sort of annoying, to be honest.”

She’s said variations on this for nearly ten years. No, we do play our instruments. No, we do write our songs, and those we cover are by songwriters we like. No, our label didn’t force “Eternal Flame” down our throats—I wrote “Eternal Flame.” “People kind of lump us and then push us to the side: ‘Oh yeah, they’re an all-girl band, isn’t that cute.’ …We have a tremendous number of Bangles fans out there who really appreciate what we do. I don’t want to belittle that in any way.”

“It’s just an overall feeling I get sometimes.”

The second of September 1989, at the Redwood Amphitheatre in Santa Clara, California. The Bangles are playing their last show.

They’re a bit worn down. Even the vocals, always their core strength, are frayed. Midway through the set, they do a regular bit: The Herstory of The Bangles. “Snap your fingers! clap your hands! stomp your feet!” Vicki Peterson exhorts the audience, which, as the papers often report, is greatly composed of teenage girls. Peterson’s guitar is the sole accompaniment, apart from snaps and claps and stomps.

Hoffs begins:

On a cold January night way back in 1981, in California [cheers!], this great state, in the garage of my parents’ house in Los Angeles, we met for the very first time there, in this garage…So we’re sitting around trying to get to know each other…we decided to sing some old songs from the Sixties we like. And much to our surprise, as soon as we started to sing, it came out in four-part harmony. This never happened before! This is a very good sign. We decided to become The Bangles and keep singing four-part harmonies. It sounded a little something like this.

They sing a chorus of “I Fought the Law,” segue into “If She Knew What She Wants.”

Jules Shear wrote this one, in the voice of a man trying to puzzle out his girlfriend (“if she knew what she wants, I’d be giving it to her”). The Bangles shift the perspective. They become the mutual friends of the couple, those with the clearest eyes. She wants too much from him, he knows it, he lacks the strength and imagination to pull it off. They will both suffer. Hoffs narrates, other Bangles color in details. She stresses a word early in each line, they land their weight on the last three notes.

But she wants everything (he can pretend to give her everything)
Or there’s nothing she wants (she don’t want to sort it out)
He’s crazy for this girl (but she don’t know what she’s looking for)
If she knew what she wants he’d be giving it to her….

The Kids of Boss Radio

You asked whether the Bangles are representative of their generation. We are—in the sense that there’s no mass transit in Los Angeles, so we became aware of music listening to AM radio in the back of the station wagon. We won’t have made it till we’re on AM radio.

Susanna Hoffs, 1985

Each Bangle was once a kid in the back seat of a car, en route to school, singing along to the radio. To KLRA, home of Casey Kasem and Bob Eubanks. To KHJ, 930 AM, “Boss Radio”: the Top 40 booming from Simi Valley to Yorba Linda.

These are the children of the south Californian Sixties. The Peterson sisters, from Northridge; Sue Hoffs and David Roback, from Brentwood; Susan Thomas (the one-day Michael Steele) of Pasadena; Annette Zilinskas, from Van Nuys; Michael Quercio, of Carson; Steve Wynn, from LA via Santa Monica.

To narrow in, these are the younger brothers and sisters of the south Californian Sixties, who grow up on wars, riots, and murders on the nightly news, and pop music on AM radio. They are the wards of the massive-watt stations, the great oxygenators, transmitting the hits and jingles: I saw her agaaaain last night…kicks just keep gettin’ harder to find…Ell-eh-nor gee I think you’re SWELL….this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on…Save a nickel, save a dime, save at Thrifty every time…Geor-gia, headed for the Frisco bay.…Ban won’t wear off as the day wears on!…searchin’ in the sun for another ohhh-ver-looaaad...Lash Bright lashes, look through the world through lovelier eyes…parking tickets were just like flags stuck on my wind-screen…bus stop wet day she’s there I say…that little gold ring you wear on your hand makes me un-der-staaaand…suddenly! you’re an imp wearing angels’ wings in Heaven Scent!…sidewalk crouches at her feet…life would be ecstasy you and me end less lee..

The Bangles, from the start, wanted to be on pop radio, to be the harmonies and riffs that a kid heard in the back seat of a station wagon while going to school. With “Walk Like an Egyptian,” “Manic Monday,” “Eternal Flame,” “If She Knew What She Wants,” “In Your Room,” “Hazy Shade of Winter,” they closed the circle.

For this they were, sometimes still are, written off as an Eighties sell-out—Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh [see Quartet No. 2] would use “Bangles” as a term of disparagement. The turncoats of the Paisley Underground. The Bangles are an act whom everyone knows, an act reunited for decades now. But sometimes it’s as though they’ve disappeared in plain sight.

Two Sisters

Ca. 1979 article from unknown, presumably local LA paper, via Macari

Vicki Peterson was born in 1958, her sister Debbi in 1961. They are the daughters of a classic postwar California pair. Their father was an engineer at TRW, an aerospace corporation, essentially Thomas Pynchon’s “Yoyodyne” in The Crying of Lot 49. Their mother, a former model, worked for Congressman Glenn Anderson.

In high school (Rolling Hills High, in Palos Verdes), Vicki was a cheerleader, as she confessed to LA Weekly a decade later. “Way out there beyond the valley of the super uncool, I know. But in high school the biggest audience is found at the football games, and an uncured ham I am.”

Being an uncured ham was at the heart of Vicki Peterson, performing musician. In The Bangles, she’d play the role of Paul Stanley in KISS—the band’s hype woman, the one who’s having a blast, who makes the jokes, who’s in on the joke. She sees you in the crowd, she tells you that by coming to the show, by being here tonight, by making noise! and screaming and singing along, you’re as much a part of it as the band is.

A great rock ‘n’ roll guitarist, Vicki was a soloist dedicated to the eight- or twelve-bar break (listen to the one on “All About You,” worthy of Beatles For Sale) and a craftswoman of opening hooks. See, among many, the divebombing riff on “Want You,” the swaggering one on “Restless.” The Bangles was her band. In the early years, she was “the controlling factor,” as her sister called her. She did the bookings, the songwriting, the press, the guitar heroics.

She got her first “serious” guitar when she was nine: an Electro ES-17, with an eight-watt Rickenbacker amp. She moved on to a Univox Ripper, but when someone stole that (“a gift in disguise”), she got a 1972 Gibson Les Paul Custom. “I soon found I was very lazy about practicing scales and that writing my own songs was much more fun,” she recalled in 2013.

Hills, Peterson, potato chips, ca. 1979 (via Vicki Peterson’s FB)

Graduating in 1976, she formed her first band, an evolution of her high school group Crista Galli (“a small bone at the back of the head”), a folkie duo with her best friend, Amanda Hills. Simon & Garfunkel harmonies and Joni Mitchell acoustic guitar: a holding pattern for the mid-Seventies. “I was writing in the style of Joni…but my true love was the Hollies and the Beatles,” Vicki said in 1987.

Crista Galli became, for a happily brief time, Aisha (“life and positive vibes,” as per Vicki). They were The Muze by late 1978. And a trio: they now had a drummer.

Debbi and Vicki Peterson, ca. 1978

I was a little worried at first, knowing that they wanted to be rock stars. I was concerned that there weren’t too many young women who were doing that.

Jeanne Peterson, Vicki and Debbi’s mother, to Susan Orlean, 1987

Debbi Peterson was always going to be in the thick of it. In the family Buick, when the Peterson kids were singing along to the radio, “Debbi, even at a very young age, was especially good at skipping to whatever harmony was lacking in our songs,” Vicki later said. “Debbi…is a natural. If we had needed a French horn player, she probably would’ve nailed that too.”

“I wanted to be a musician, I [just] didn’t know what I wanted to do,” as Debbi described her childhood to Pat Francis in 2013. It was Hills who suggested that Vicki’s kid sister play drums. After all, that was a lot easier than auditioning strangers. “I’d never played drums before, but there was opportunity,” Debbi recalled.” I sat down and started playing. I guess all the air drumming and air guitar playing worked out for me.”

Debbi would be the genial reality principle of the Bangles, their wryest, sweetest voice—see “Live” and “Going Down to Liverpool.” A backbeat drummer, she rarely draws attention to herself on the kit. She got compared to Ringo Starr often, and like Ringo, she’ll still surprise you when you really listen to her—the odd fill like a looping signature, a run on the toms to quicken a song.

“The Bangles’ sound does require a simple, basic beat most of the time,” she told Modern Drummer in 1986. “There’s so much going on in our songs that it would be foolish to force all these heavy fills and complex riffs into the music. I’m sure you can hear all the guitars ringing all over the place. And don’t forget, there are four voices in the band. I couldn’t play drums like Keith Moon, for example, and expect the girls to think that’s what’s needed.”

Asked to describe her style, she said she couldn’t “because I can’t separate myself from it.” Drumming was an extension of her personality. She favored playing live, where she fed off a crowd’s energy, over studio work, where her producer would push to use electronic drums and angled to have someone else re-cut her tracks.

The Fans (l to r: Vicki, Hills, Debbi), ca. October 1979 (via Bang Go the Bangles)

The Muze (oft referred to in local listings as “an all-woman trio”) added on lead guitar Lynn Elkind, who worked at a binding plant in Culver City. They became The Fans by March 1979 or so, earning enough of a local rep that another striving band wrote a song in homage—The Panics’ “I’m a Fan”, 1980 (“over in the corner some newlyweds [sung with contempt] were sayin’ you weren’t bad for a girl”).

They’d play a club two or three times a week, rehearse on other nights: working Club 88 and the Blue Lagoon Saloon in Santa Monica, out at the Driftwood at Redondo Beach, regulars at The Londoner and the Hong Kong Cafe (as wonderfully, thoroughly chronicled by Rachel Macari here). They got noticed. They were young, fun, exuberant, sharp, interspersing “oldies” covers (“My Boyfriend’s Back”) with power-pop originals.

Ca. 1980, “Those Girls” era

By summer 1980, by now known as Those Girls and having fired Elkind, they were ascending the LA band hierarchy, often seen at the Troubadour, sharing the stage with the Angry Samoans. Then, a crisis. Vicki, who’d been going to UCLA, quit school to devote herself to the band just as Hills quit the band to devote herself to school (she became an Ancient Near East historian and is a professor at Cal State Polytechnic University).

Vicki Peterson’s band, after four years, was winnowed to her and her younger sister. Though only twenty-two, she feared time was running out. “There were all these bands like the Go-Go’s and the Knack that were focusing attention on LA,” she recalled in 1987. “And I was afraid it would all leave me behind.”

The Petersons placed a listing in The Recycler, an LA weekly, of which Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn said “you’d look through there if you want to form a band. They’re the worst listings—if you wanted a guitarist, all you’d find would be ‘into Rush, into Led Zeppelin.’ I’d have to go for that, because the pickings are so small, you’d go for anything you could get.”

Hoffs’ 1980 flyer, via her Twitter

Another Recycler ad was the lucky strike. Elkind placed it, looking to start a new band. A recent Berkeley graduate responded. Vicki answered the phone (the Petersons and Elkind were still roommates). It was the day after John Lennon’s murder and the two women, still in shock, were grateful to find someone to grieve with. After a few more calls, they agreed they should play music together, see what happened.

In January 1981 the Peterson sisters and Susanna Hoffs first met, in the garage of the latter’s parents’ house in Brentwood. Hoffs had converted it into her apartment, pasting the walls with photos of Audrey Hepburn and Mod legends. She’d also been putting up flyers in LA clubs, wanting to start a Boss All-Girl Group. Influences: (legacy) Byrds, Ventures, Beau Brummels; (contemporary) The Go-Go’s, The Last. Only requirement: must be nice.

The Brentwood Bohemians

Hoffs in NO Mag, 1983 (Bruce Kalberg)

The Hoffses—Tamar, a filmmaker, and Joshua, a psychoanalyst—moved to LA “to get away from their parents, the thing to do in 1959,” as their only daughter Susanna recalled to Creem decades later. She described the Hoffses of Brentwood as “an uprooted liberal East Coast family, sorta beatnik, into [Jackson] Pollock and jazz….this atheist and intellectual creative world…Freud was our religion.”

It was the sort of childhood where you hung out with Leonard Nimoy’s kids and watched their dad on TV (another Hoffs friend was Laura Salenger, daughter of a CBS executive, and the future Brix Smith Start), where you got the Beatles records before they hit the stores, as the Hoffses had a friend at Capitol. “I remember staring at the [Beatles’] album covers and having daydreams about Paul McCartney,” Susanna recalled in 1984. “My brothers and I used to stand in front of the mirror and pretend we were the Beatles.” She grew exacting in her Beatles tastes—her brothers could have everything post-Revolver, she said. Her core albums were Rubber Soul and Yesterday and Today.

The first things she learned on guitar were folk songs—“John Reilly” and “Tom Dooley”—and by eight she was writing “vintagey” songs of her own. She loved Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt. But when home for winter break from Berkeley, she found that her brother (then at Yale) was a convert to the New York sound: “He walks in and he had the Ramones and Blondie.” An epiphany. She liked playing music but had considered it the province of “musicians who were kind of like rock gods or these kind of golden singer-songwriter brilliant people,” she said in 2012. “Then all of a sudden it was like kids are doing it…it seems like something you could do.”

Hoffs spent the late Seventies in the clubs of San Francisco, seeing Talking Heads at the Boarding House, the last Sex Pistols show at Winterland. Having started at Berkeley as a theater major, she switched to dance and wound up an art major, doing “mostly acrylics..abstract color fields,” and spending much of her time with her childhood friend David Roback, who was now her boyfriend and collaborator.

David Roback, senior photo, Palisades High, 1975

Roback and Hoffs made chamber rock music: hushed, “excruciatingly slow versions of things,” especially Velvet Underground songs (though one uptempo piece eventually became “Call On Me.”) Hoffs soon played the Petersons tapes of her Berkeley recordings, the early drafts of what Roback would do in Opal and Mazzy Star. His and Hoffs’ 1983 version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is the closest we have to what they sounded like.

“It was like I married a stranger,” Hoffs once said of The Bangles. She and the Petersons had started from different points on the map. The latter had worked LA clubs for years, vying to win over the indifferent couple at the bar, out-playing the next band on the bill. Hoffs considered making music a private act. “Rock and roll is sitting alone in your room,” she said. “Listening to your stereo or playing guitar or whatever. It’s a totally personal thing.”

She and Roback at Berkeley were in their own world, “this little bohemian art scene with my friend.” She’d long be the Bangle least comfortable on stage, and her legendary eye darts started as a coping mechanism for stage fright. “I would pick three people in the audience—one person on my left, one person on my right, and one person in the middle—and I’d kind of sing to them all night,” she said in 2009.

Hoffs in Stony Island (Davis, 1978)

In the fall of 1980, she was back home in Brentwood. As her mother was a filmmaker, as she’d already had a small role in a movie while in college, a career in film might have worked out. She was an art major, could’ve pursued that line. She had every option that a bright, attractive, upper-class college graduate would have had. But she wanted to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band. As she and Roback had broken up, though remaining friends, “our band was not functional without that component. So I was on a path to find bandmates.”

She’d also become a Sixties pop obsessive. “I rediscovered all the music that I had heard in the car on Top 40 radio…studying the soundtrack of my childhood.” Her favorite local band was The Last, whom she felt did the proper work of achieving a faithful “modern” Sixties sound. It was her great fortune that the sisters she discovered via The Recycler were as fervent devotees. “When I met Vicki and Debbi it was like our own little Beatles convention at my garage.”

Meet The Bangs

She suspected the disk jockey spot…was a way of letting the Top 200, and even the news copy that came jabbering out of the machine—all the fraudulent dream of teenage appetites—be a buffer between him and that lot.

Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49.

At first, they were The Colours (English spelling, naturally). Their first documented gig was on 13 June 1981 at The Basement, a club in, naturally, the basement of the Echo Park Methodist Church on N. Alvarado Street, near Sunset. For bassists, they got the occasional assist from Amanda Hills. More often, they used a nineteen-year-old musician from Van Nuys, Annette Zilinskas. She was in a country & western duo at the time.

When Hoffs and the Petersons first rehearsed in Hoffs’ garage, they fell into harmony almost instinctively, singing “White Rabbit” and “I Fought the Law” and Mamas and Papas hits (the Grass Roots’ “Where Were You When I Needed You” was often in their sets). Their harmonies were their cornerstone—all that their producer David Kahne would come to want from them. “They weren’t world beaters as musicians, but damn they could sing,” Rain Parade’s Matt Piucci said. No one in LA sounded like them, this heaven-tripled voice (even The Go-Go’s, inevitable source of comparison, were a parliament in which Belinda Carlisle was prime minister).

There’s been little written about how The Bangles sang. One of few descriptions I’ve found is from Vicki to the Tampa Tribune, in 1984: “We work our voices around each other, and if someone’s singing lead, it doesn’t mean it’s the only thing you’re focusing on, because there’s another melody line weaving in and out of it that’s just as interesting.” (“Your ear will focus on that other voice you heard sing lead on the track before,” Hoffs added.)

It’s actually one of the easiest things for us, singing in harmony. [We learned] how to sing in clubs where you can’t hear yourself.

Hoffs, 2000

To generalize, Hoffs was often the highest-pitched voice, with the Petersons as a shifting set of lower interval harmonies; when Michael Steele joined, she’d often provide the bottom end. Yet it’s difficult to pluck out a single voice from their harmonies, as they blended together so well, making a Bangles plural.

The first recordings we have of them are demos that a friend taped in the summer of 1981 on TDK cassettes. On “Outside Chance,” a 1966 Turtles B-side written by Warren Zevon, Vicki sings lead, Debbi’s a punisher on her kit. While the group follows the Turtles blueprint—the singer affirms that you don’t stand an outside chaaance [higher harmonies] you don’t staaand an outside chaaance [higher lead with higher harmonies] you don’t stand an OUTSIDE CHANCE [solo close] but YOU CAN TRY!—the three torch though the choruses, making The Turtles sound like formalists.

Another cover, of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Steppin’ Out.” Vicki seizes the macho perspective of the Revere track: now she’s the one who’s dodging the draft, who gives her loser boyfriend back his ring, who tells the choir to stay home. As on the original, the refrain has harmonizers backing the lead singer’s play. But where the Raiders keep to a close huddle, the Petersons and Hoffs sing wild, jabbing harmonies, especially towards the fade, where they’re bristling to thrash up the guy: STEPSTEPSTEPSTEPSTEPSTEP STEPPIN’ OUUUUUUUUTONMEEEEE STEPPIN’ OUUUTTONMEEEE.

The Second Sixties

The Supersonic Bang in Esquire, “Hair!,” July 1965

Even though it was the beginning of a new decade, the ’80s… I think we very consciously wanted to drag the ’60s into the ’80s. We were pretty brazen about it.

Hoffs, 2018

A lot of people would say the real groups [of the Paisley Underground] are The Dream Syndicate, The Bangs and The Salvation Army. They wouldn’t go beyond those three.

Steve Wynn, Dream Syndicate

For what it’s worth, the only Paisley Underground was The Dream Syndicate, Three O’Clock, The Rain Parade and The Bangs, with the Long Ryders and Green on Red following behind them. All those bands drank beer together and lent each other amps.

Sid Griffin, Long Ryders

A month after the Petersons and Hoffs first played together, Michael Quercio’s band The Salvation Army formed in his garage in Carson. They demoed two songs, “Happened Happened (Doris Day)” (“Mother’s Little Helper” sequel) and “Mind Gardens” (Byrds nod), sent them to Rodney Bingenheimer at KROQ, cut them in July 1981 as a single on The Minutemen’s label, New Alliance. Quercio sounded like Pete Shelley with a head cold. The songs were tight and nervy: “Doris Day…is melting ah-waaaay now!” Over three days in March 1982, The Salvation Army cut an album, issued less than two months later on Lisa Fancher‘s Frontier Records.

The year before, Steve Wynn put out a single, “That’s What You Always Say,” under the name 15 Minutes (Andy Warhol reference). While going to UCLA, Wynn worked at the Rhino record store on Westwood Blvd., where he first met Hoffs and Vicki Peterson. All of them, they discovered, loved The Salvation Army.

LA Weekly, 17 June 1982

By summer 1982, these friendships were an LA scene: Wynn’s Dream Syndicate, which he’d formed with Karl Precoda, Dennis Duck, and Kendra Smith; the Hoffs-Petersons band, now called The Bangs after a hairdo in a 1965 Esquire piece (“The Supersonic Bang”); Quercio’s band, rechristened Three O’Clock after the real Salvation Army got wind of them (new name via F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Pasting It Together”: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always 3 o’clock in the morning”); David Roback’s Rain Parade, whose debut single “What She’s Done to Your Mind” was about Roback seeing Hoffs on stage at a Bangs gig (her eyes are on the single sleeve).

Wynn was a common denominator for other allied groups: True West, founded by guitarists who’d played with him and Smith; The Long Ryders, helmed by Sid Griffin, who’d played with Wynn; Green on Red, whose first EP came out on Wynn’s label, Down There.

They hung out at gigs, parties, at Green on Red’s barbecues at their apartment in Hollywood. In June 1982, many of them went to Catalina Island, where they camped out, got high, played songs. They shared studios (Ethan James’ Radio Tokyo), strings, and amps; they talked to NO Mag (The Bangs did a jingle), Flipside, the LA Weekly; they got played on Bingenheimer’s show and George Gimarc’s “Rock and Roll Alternative” (The Bangs did a jingle). Vicki once described it as a group of bands who were all in love with each other. “There was nothing else like this going on,” Quercio recalled. “The new wave scene was over, and even the hardcore scene was on the wane because there was so much violence that the clubs wouldn’t let a lot of these bands play.”

Quercio called it the Paisley Underground in a late 1982 interview: a brilliant impromptu label.

LA Times, 18 December 1983

What united these bands, apart from being friends, was that they were translators of the dead Sixties into the fledgling Eighties. One reason Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson dressed as they did was because they found heaps of Sixties wigs and outfits in the dumpsters and landfills of Athens, Georgia—the detritus from a spent period. “At that time, it was sort of anachronistic,” Vicki recalled in 2012. “People our age liked Pat Benatar and Tom Petty, who I also liked, [but] for someone like Susanna to come along who knew who the Grass Roots were, to know who Arthur Lee and Love was, was a really big deal to me.” Sure, “The Sixties” had never really gone away—Blondie recorded with Ellie Greenwich, Talking Heads had sung “1-2-3 Red Light.” But the excavations were now the dig-work of the radio kids, who seized what they vaguely remembered, who treated it with more love than irony.

Bangs at the Lhasa Club, Hollywood, 7 October 1982 (photog uncredited)

So: The Bangs’ debut 45, self-distributed around Christmas 1981. “Getting Out of Hand,” which clouds over in its refrain: “Beware! It’s getting out of haaand, out of haaand,” Hoffs sings; the Petersons agree; the conclusion is a blank “yeah” from Hoffs. Vicki’s guitar solo is a variation on George Harrison on Help!Call on Me” is an answer song to “I’m Looking Through You,” Jane Asher at last talking back to Paul McCartney. “You wish you were dead/ take a breath instead.”

“All the groups were vaguely Sixties-influenced guitar pop, bands who’d moved on from punk,” Griffin recalled to Barney Hoskyns. The Paisley Underground, mostly middle-class white kids whose audiences didn’t punch each other out during sets, were an easy sell to LA club owners. (“Why should they be so hateful?” Quercio said of skinheads to the LA Times in 1983. “They live in a middle-class society. They have food. They’re just angry because it’s cool to be angry.”) The Bangs wore Shindig! outfits, Dream Syndicate had guitar battles to rival Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison. The groups made for solid bills. Dream Syndicate-Bangs-Three O’Clock-Rain Parade were a must-see at the Music Machine at the end of 1982.

The first harvest of Paisley records in 1982 was a rich one: Dream Syndicate’s Down There EP and Days of Wine and Roses (plus an essential KPFK broadcast); True West’s “Lucifer Sam” 45; Salvation Army’s self-titled LP and Three O’Clock’s Baroque Hoedown; the first Green on Red EP. The first Bangs EP was meant to be part of it.

Bangs at Cathay de Grande, ca. 1982 (photog credit again unknown)

But its release was delayed after a band in New Jersey claimed dibs on their name. Thus The Bangs—a great modernist sex name—had to get a suffix.

The Bangles. It still worked. The Bangles suggested something knocked off, discounted, whose value you might have missed at first glance. Plus it was an Electric Prunes song.

The old Sixties sounds were safe. They were the old tricks that had come around for me, and I used them, every one in the book.

Hoffs, 1991

The group should really concentrate on its original tunes. The band also needs to bear in mind the fine line between innocent fun and cutesy vapidity…these girls are clearly in love with the music they play.

Los Angeles Times review of an early Bangs show, 8 May 1982

The Bangles (originally, of course, The Bangs) was recorded in summer 1982, during an early ferment period when the band was playing LA clubs weekly. A five-song opening statement, with requisite obscure Sixties cover as finale (The Changin’ Times’ “How Is the Air Up There”).

I’m In Line” (“about a guy Debbi liked who was seeing someone else,” as per her sister), among the first songs The Bangles wrote together, establishes Debbi Peterson’s Bangles persona—someone in a sea of troubles but whose perspective is a cheery acceptance of disaster. One of several early Bangles songs carved out of “Taxman,” it starts with a demand–I don’t want to wait in liiiiiine for you!—that falls flat, as by the refrain, Debbi’s “in line for you my daaa-rling.” Highlights: Vicki’s margin commentary in the second verse and righteous eight-bar solo, answered halfway through by a tom-heavy drum retort; the canyon-echo harmonies on “RISE!” in the second verse, and the trumpet-like flourish on “tii-ay-ay-iime” in the third; Hoffs’ ska rhythm versus Vicki’s needling lead in the outro.

The Bangs in Flipside No. 34, 1982, with a layout predicting Ray Gun

Vicki’s spotlight number (“a song I wrote in seven minutes and it sounds like it”), ”Want You” is bonkers-horny: she’s not waiting in line for this guy. Highlights: the ascending ah-Ah-AHHHs on “you don’t like my looks”; Vicki’s two solos (contained, exuberant); how she sings “with you!” as if she’s robbing a bank; the oooo-AHH–ooh-AAAAH breaks over thundering drums (The Bangles had an alternate life as a surf band—see “Bitchen Summer,” tucked away on a long-forgotten compilation); the soured Beatles closing chord.

Hoffs’ “The Real World” dates to the 1981 demos. “I was focused on getting everything right, every chord change I made was perfect,” she recalled of the first Bangs shows. After gigs opening for The Blasters and The Descendents (Hoffs was once whacked so hard with a milk carton that her forehead bled), she realized “I can do whatever I want on stage…they don’t know who I am, they don’t know I’m this girl who graduated from college and came home and learned all her chords and wants to play everything perfectly.”

When I was a little girl, she sings, I wanted everything ideal. But love, at least the kind she’s dealing with here, isn’t that—it’s a messy new reality, conveyed in “the sweet use of the minor five chord,” as Matt Piucci said. “It has the ache-the ephemeral quality you hear in the best of old country and Big Star’s Third.” Debbi’s drum pattern, homage to Ringo on “Ticket to Ride,” adds more topsy-turvy, as do the piano dubs. Vicki’s solo is an affirmation. This is the real world, Hoffs closes it out—I really want to be a girl. Not “your girl,” mind. A Girl, capital G.

On “Mary Street,” the full Bangles. Written by Hoffs and Vicki as their update of The Seekers’ “Georgy Girl,” it’s a dig at a poseur who’s read the right magazines, has the right look, and is a solid fake. Its essential line, punctuated by crash cymbals: “Ohhh girl, you better review.” Contempt, but also generosity—The Bangles, in their implacable harmonies, offer a chance to improve. Vicki has a cycling guitar hook and dazzler solo (ah-Ah!-AH!-AHHHH! harmonies in response): Hoffs raises the stakes on the bridge as Debbi moves to her toms. See also the hall-of-mirrors harmonies on “what are you waiting for?” and the closing, inconclusive oh yeaah!s.

LA Weekly, 10 February 1983

Smart hippies knew how dumb a lot of that music was even then. It’s twice as dumb now.

Robert Christgau, 1984, giving the debut Rain Parade LP a C-plus in the Village Voice

The Bangles soon wrote off their EP. “Pretty primitive,” Vicki called it in 1984. “We wanted it to sound like we were sitting in your lap, but it came out like the voices were coming through several layers of gauze.” They were developing quickly, writing a batch of new songs by early 1983, getting tighter on stage.

They also got a manager: Miles Copeland, brother of Stewart (Police drummer), manager of The Go-Go’s. He’s seen in the Sting concert video Bring on the Night chastising a costume designer for having shown up with the wrong outfits. In photographs of the period, he looks like a soap actor playing a rock band manager. Despite The Bangles’ wariness of signing with someone attempting to corner the market in LA power pop bands (Vicki brought a tape recorder to their first meeting, for the band to review what he said afterward), Copeland generally respected them, got them higher-visibility gigs, if giving them no time to prepare. The Bangles learned they were opening for The Beat five days before the tour started—they finally quit their day jobs.

Interviewed by the LA Times in 1988, Copeland outlined his thoughts on developing an artist. “[They] can sell 5,000 records and make a profit by keeping the costs low [n.b., the Bangles EP sold 2,000 copies in its first six weeks of release]…I give the acts all the artistic freedom they want as long as they come through for me—which means balancing their art with financial responsibility.”

from Flipside No. 34

Columbia scouts were following the band by April 1983 (one, Peter Philbin, brought Bruce Springsteen to see The Bangles at the Music Machine; the Boss approved), when they had started their first headlining tour: appearances on American Bandstand and MTV’s Cutting Edge; touring from California to the East, playing Boston and New York for the first time. These were their last performances with Zilinskas.

The most New Wave-looking Bangle and a talented bassist, she’d never advanced from being a second-tier member (she’s only credited on vocals on one EP track, and Vicki said years later that Zilinskas’ voice didn’t harmonize well with the rest of the band’s). Her tastes were more cowpunk than Mod and ultimately there was no place for her. “Annette wanted to do something else, even though she liked this band,” Hoffs said at the time. “We wanted someone who’d be a Bangle family member.” Zilinskas’ last gig was in April 1983; she soon was part of Blood On the Saddle.

One of Zilinskas’ last appearances; Nashville Intelligence Report No. 13, May 1983

Her replacement was another local musician, whose friend Mark Buchholtz recalled that “she’d heard a couple of The Bangles were looking for a roommate to share a house. She also heard they were looking for a new bass player, so she told me ‘I did the first calculated thing ever in my life.'”

Vicki remembered being in high school, reading about The Runaways and freaking out, thinking “‘that’s it, they’ve stolen my dream. I’d always wanted to be in a female band that got real recognition.'” Now Michael “Micki” Steele, founding member of The Runaways, was Vicki Peterson’s roommate and, soon enough, The Bangles’ bassist.

Steele

Michael Steele, Sandy West, Joan Jett: first edition of The Runaways, 1975

She was once Susan Thomas (some say Susan Thomas Steele), daughter, reportedly, of a car-wash magnate in Pasadena. Born in 1955, she spent the Sixties reading and listening to records and got out of Pasadena as soon as she could.

In LA in the summer of 1975, she answered an ad for “girl singers” placed by Kim Fowley, notorious scenester, fabulist, abuser, would-be Svengali, and alleged rapist. “It was one of those things, a girl band made up by a guy. Which kind of sucks. Because it was coming through his twisted concept of what women were,” she recalled to Bill DeYoung years later. Calling herself Micki Steele, she sang and played bass, Joan Jett was on guitar, Sandy West drummed. They were the first Runaways, soon recording demos at Gold Star Studios (“yesterday’s kids are trying to hide! Yesterday’s kids better stay out of my sight!”) and whose rehearsals entailed Fowley throwing garbage at them, saying “you better get used to this!”

Before long, Steele got kicked out. To Brendan Mullen and the late Marc Spitz, she explained why: “Early on this thing started with Kim, this sordid personal angle. He was enamored of me in a way that I found very uncomfortable. I’d been raised in a sheltered manner…and wasn’t savvy enough to know I could say, c’mon Kim, fuck off…My performance started going down the tubes, I started going nuts from it.” When Fowley fired her, his parting words were, she recalled, “‘you have no megalo, you have no magic. This is the only chance you’ll ever have to be a rock star and you’ve blown it.’ Perhaps my musical thing didn’t lend itself to his slutty jailbait design, but the way Kim treated me made me depressed for a long time. Then I got angry and decided I was going to show him.”

Steele in Elton Duck, ca. 1980 (via Micki-Steele-Net)

She spent years watching The Runaways rise, crash, and burn, and played in fifteen bands, including Slow Children (1979), once described as a “two-man two-woman group fronted by a ragamuffin street poet.” She had a stint with Jules Shear and the Polar Bears. She was in Elton Duck (1979-1980), where her spotlight number was “Walk Away Renee”; Toni (Childs) and The Movers (1980-81); Snakefinger (1982); The Apaches of Paris (1983). “She was the tallest person,” Laura Molina said of Steele in the latter band. “We would joke about the band being three little guys and this giant girl.”

If among the tallest bassists on the LA club scene, she was also well-regarded. The bassist Joe Iaquinto, in an interview with a Steele fan site, described her style as not “overly complex on the surface but it made you take notice…it was the subtleties and textures that gave the music a lift…Michael was very good at accenting the notes and making melodic sense of otherwise angular and stiff parts.” (Listen to her on Snakefinger’s “Man in the Dark Sedan.”)

Bangles around the time of recording All Over the Place (via Macari)

Some bands only cement upon the arrival of a final member: they’re provisional until then. The Beatles, with Ringo. The Bangles, with Steele. She elevated them. Slightly older, with a decade of experience on stage, she had the neo-Sixties sound down cold, and added a robustness to the harmonies. She’d soon become as substantial a composer for the group as Hoffs and the Petersons.

She brought something else. She was the coolest Bangle. Her look, her playing, her attitude, her stage presence, even her name was cool.

Her first gig with The Bangles was at the Cathay de Grande, on 31 July 1983. They shared the bill with Redd Kross and Black Flag; Michael Quercio joined in on a song. The Bangles sound like a high-octane garage band (see their take on the Carrie Nations’ “Find It,” from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), if one armed with a set of killer new songs they’d soon record (“James,” “Restless,” “Tell Me,” “All About You”). “They were very undeveloped but at that point it was obvious it was a real band that simply needed more experience and more songs,” Columbia’s Philbin said. “They were a band. They looked like they belonged together.” In August 1983, Columbia signed them.

Around this time, David Roback started a project, meant to get him in shape in the studio before cutting the first Rain Parade album. The founders of the Paisley Underground played on Byrds, Big Star, Neil Young, Beach Boys, VU songs—Hoffs sang on “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”; she and Vicki sang harmonies on “Soon Be Home.” Rainy Day, the Paisley Underground’s self-commemoration, would be its capstone.

James Takes a Fall

This is a very pretty song, with some pretty nasty words if you listen to them.

Vicki Peterson, introducing “Where Were You When I Needed You” at the Ritz, NYC, 1984

A concept album about awful boyfriends, All Over the Place was cut in the hinge of 1983-1984 in LA, produced by David Kahne (the band liked his work on Rank and File’s Sundown).

Its first side opens with a faded-in psychic wave of Bangles: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

Where the women of Rubber Soul are “the coolest girls on any Beatle record” (Rob Sheffield)—the scenester of “Drive My Car,” the Chelsea hipster of “Norwegian Wood,” the unknowable Girl—the men of All Over the Place are a more pathetic lot. The guy who scopes out the waitress when he thinks you’re not looking; the one whose phone rings at the same time every night (a click whenever you answer). There’s James (“I must be a masochist to ever take up with you,” Hoffs sings; live, she changed one line to “I can only take this shit for so long”); the “you” of “All About You” (“all your pretty things are merely to create the myth,” Vicki sings); the creep photographer of “More Than Meets the Eye” (“he’s around, confusing you ’til the end,” all Bangles sing). The alleged hero of “Hero Takes a Fall,” who sits on his throne, needing endless doses of praise, attention, distractions, sex (Nellie McKay, twenty years on, skewered his next-generation successor in “It’s a Pose“).

All Over the Place, a record of women dealing with men whom they’ve figured out, have endured, are discarding, is as much about the conversations The Bangles have within their songs. Take the vocals, which Kahne pushed up in the mixes. “The combination of our vocals and the guitars—nobody’s really done that sort of folk singing thing with the high-powered rock thing behind it,” Steele said to Melody Maker in 1985. “It’s really tricky to do sound for us—we’ve confounded several engineers.”

There’s a dramatic precision to the lead phrasings: see Hoffs in the verses of “Hero Takes a Fall,” seizing on an early note (“ex-posed when,” “is a vir-tue“), building to a three-note agitation (“light-of-day,” “tell-you-more,” “fa-tal flaw”), ending on a troubled note that prepares you for the refrains (“judgement day,” “return your call“), where she finally cuts loose, savoring the harsh “ALLs.”

But the gold is in the harmonies. How the Bangles confirm Vicki’s suspicions in the refrains of “All About You”: something’s goin’ on [ON and ON!] something’s goin’ on [ON! AND ON!!!] Iiiiiii’m finding out [AH-AH-AH-ALLLLLLL AHBOUT YOUUUUU!] (the “u:” phoneme is a balm to the ear after so many harsh AHs). Hoffs’ daydreaming high counterpart to Debbi’s lead on “Going Down to Liverpool”; the last inflated “looooooooong” in the third verse of “James,” adding to the tension of the underlying V-of-V chord. In the chorus of “He’s Got a Secret,” where Hoffs says she’ll never tell, a grand jury of Bangles says otherwise. The echo-play of rebuttals, musings, stray emphases of “Hero Takes a Fall.”

The guitars! Hoffs’ rhythm part obstinately keeping to its corner in “Live.” The punctuating riffs after every other phrase in “James.” Vicki’s guitar as a scrabbling counter-lead to Hoffs’ in “Tell Me” (the Bo Diddley rhythms of the verses; the breaks where everyone solos in rapid cuts). Vicki in general—hero of the record, of the break, of the refrain tag.

How Steele’s bass keeps “Hero Takes a Fall” limber; how the rapid strum patterns of the acoustic guitars on “Liverpool” jolt against its draggy beat. The clicking undercurrent to the solo in “He’s Got a Secret.” The drum intro to “Restless” and its fuck!-off! guitar solo; the trading-fours guitars on “Silent Treatment,” a song that devolves into howls of Nuh-thing! Nuh-thing! She…said…NOTHING!!! (a nightmare parallel to Debbi’s contented stoner “nuh-thing”s on “Going Down to Liverpool”).

“We’re finding the value in the politics of personal relationships, because it is kind of political,” Vicki said in 1984. “The things that we’re writing about are problems that people have with each other, and politics are people.” All Over the Place is an exuberant set of breakup songs, its joy born from perseverance. It’s in how Hoffs delivers one line of “Hero Takes a Fall”:

Every story’s got an ending
Look out! Here it comes, here it comes

Or, as she sings in “Tell Me,” album credo:

Too bad, baby, this time you lose

Paul Natkin, Chicago, 1984

Closing the LP’s first side is its grand thematic rebuttal (see also the two covers, each sung by Debbi, each offering the prospect of a happily unadventurous life): “Dover Beach,” a gloriously undergraduate rock song, titled after Matthew Arnold’s poem, referencing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for good measure (“we could come and goooo…oh! and talk of Michel-an-gel-oohhhhhh…OHHHHH–whoaaah”). Despite the cheaters, do-nothings, and cads scattered across the album, “Dover Beach” is where the dream of a perfect love is still worth pursuing, as doomed as it may seem, as badly as it may end.

“This is the real world,” Hoffs had sung the year before. Now she’s looking for a bolt-hole somewhere in it. “If I had the time, I would run away with you,” she begins, over Debbi’s tense drum patterns. He calls out for her, she can’t help him; they’re already severed: “You and I, inseparable and walking.” Vicki’s guitar solo is sixteen bars’ worth of escape; Hoffs’ “if we had the time,” the answering harmonized “we had the tiiiiime!s,” are the voices of reality. The world is no one’s dream, she sings. The guitars rage and fall silent. The last thing you hear are Debbi and Steele tolling away, having become a clock.

Kissing Valentino

Hoffs aloft in the UK, Sounds, February 1985

All Over the Place was a great record that, as with many of its kind, didn’t sell in great numbers (though a respectable 100,000 copies had moved by 1986). In the “Going Down to Liverpool” video, the Paisley Underground Bangles are being chauffeured by a cranky Leonard Nimoy, singing along to their single on the radio, until they reach an entryway, where they leave the car to walk towards a stage. They’re dancing towards success. It proved symbolic enough.

The Bangles spent late 1984 and early 1985 on the road. As in the LA club days, they quickly moved up the rungs, opening for the Psychedelic Furs, A Flock of Seagulls (a tour that was mostly cancelled, letting the Bangles headline a few dates), and Cyndi Lauper, who took a shine to them and put them in a video she did for The Goonies.

The collapse of The Go-Go’s—Jane Wiedlin left in October 1984 and the band broke up the following May—cleared space. The two bands had never been rivals as much as legend has it, but many rock radio stations had strict, if tacit limits on how many female artists would get airplay. So if That Girl Rock Band was over, there was more room on playlists for That Other Girl Rock Band. “We need stuff like this,” WXKS program director Sonny Joe White told Billboard, in re “Manic Monday.” “We haven’t had a girl group since The Go-Go’s.” (Meanwhile The Pandoras were called “a pre-fashion-consultant Bangles” in the following issue).

Session log for Prince’s “Manic Monday,” 4 February 1984, from Duane Tudahl’s Prince & the Purple Rain Era Sessions

Most crucially, Prince. He saw The Bangles at the Palace, loved “Hero Takes a Fall” (“number one in my car,” he told Hoffs), and offered them a song. It wasn’t written for them. He’d composed “Manic Monday” well before he’d heard of the band, having cut a take in February 1984— rewriting the opening line of “1999,” building the track around a harpsichord patch on his Yamaha DX-7—and earmarking the song for Apollonia. Wendy Melvoin later said she thought the switchabout happened “because Prince thought Susanna was cute,” an industry sentiment that soon became a rumor that Prince had had a fling with Hoffs (“So, who’s the one who slept with Prince?” Joan Rivers asked the band; writing of “Manic Monday” in his 1989 Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul, Dave Marsh called it a song Prince wrote for “the Bangles heartthrob Susannah (sic)”).

“Manic Monday” has little to do with The Bangles of All Over the Place—it’s all Prince, imagining a mildly surreal nine-to-five life (details are Art Deco era: Rudolph Valentino dreams, “aeroplanes”), as if he’d thought to reverse the perspective of Sheena Easton’s “Morning Train,” writing in the voice of someone rushing off to work after having to satisfy their demanding lover at home (“doesn’t it matter that I have to feed the both of us? Employment’s down!“).

“I kept thinking, Sue and I could write a song like this,” Vicki said. “It seemed a little more contrived than most of our songs—ours were a little more obtuse.” Hoffs, after Prince’s death, said “I think he was able to write for women really well. [“Manic Monday”] shows a day in the life: in the morning, getting up and preparing yourself to keep your life moving forward, but the sense of, like, it’s just on the verge of falling apart. And you’re like—tape and glue: just trying to get through the moments.” That said, the “bedroom voice/ make some noise” line grew to irritate her and she would sometimes cut it from later live performances.

David Kahne didn’t alter Prince’s template: the “harpsichord” lines are nearly identical, with the keyboard on the Bangles’ track going at a faster tempo and having a few more flourishes. The arrangement is thicker, with nestled guitars, Steele’s fluid bass (she gets especially crafty in the second verse), the no-escaping-the-2s-&-4s drums. As always, it’s the harmonies where The Bangles were most transformative. They first appear to bolster “won’t get paid” (Prince sang that line alone, without emphasis); their “whoah-oah” responses in the refrains alter upon each repetition, expanding, rising in tone, until sinking to make a bed for Hoffs’ last “Mon-day”; on the bridge the other Bangles are a series of counter-melodies for Hoffs to work against (“last night, last night—doesn’t it maaa-ter…only hav-ing fun”).

You know you’ve really hit mainstream when you are the background music to One Life to Live—when they go to a disco and it’s ‘Manic Monday’ playing.

Vicki Peterson, 1986

“The first surprise of the year,” raved the tip sheet Gavin Report. “Lyrics with adult appeal, [a band] with teen appeal, equals mass appeal.” Columbia promo execs said the groundwork had been laid by All Over the Place‘s singles, “which built on college radio…[this] initial acceptance helped “Manic Monday” on AOR and Top 40, adult contemporary just followed.” It was also Prince in his pop imperial phase, writing a song so hook-filled that you forgive its exponentially dopey rhymes in the chorus. Hoffs sang it with charm—her voice sounded as shiny as a new penny.

Its video was the last piece. The Bangles, no longer the sharp-elbowed power poppers of the All Over the Place era, but stars: Hoffs’ smoldering camera takes, Steele’s none-more-1986 hat, the gauzy amber light that predicts The Double Life of Veronique. The “Working Girl” lyric scenario is barely conveyed. Steele looks perturbed in LA traffic in a few shots, that’s all.

“Manic Monday” peaked in April 1986 at #2 on Billboard, only held off from the top by its composer’s “Kiss.” A hit turns a private concern into a publicly-held one, at the mercy of market whims and dissident shareholders. “Columbia said, here we have a way into radio, and it’s because of Prince’s infatuation with the little one in the middle,” Vicki later told DeYoung. “And all of a sudden you have an article on the band, but there’s a photograph of Susanna.”

The album that “Manic Monday” supported was a fight to make. Kahne wasn’t going to have another “obtuse” guitar pop record—he was making a hit album, even if that meant erasing The Bangles from much of it. “Manic Monday” is Hoffs’ lead vocal, the Bangles’ harmonies, and Steele’s bass while the rest was greatly session players (Carlos Vega on drums, possibly Mitchell Froom on keyboards). The Bangles, Sixties rock devotees, were in the position of The Byrds in 1965—hearing a song on the radio with their name on it but on which they didn’t play.

“Four Formats Fall For The Bangles”

We weren’t smart enough to know we could fire our producer.

Vicki Peterson

Listen to the Bangles at the Marquee in London, February 1985—opening with a piledriving “Silent Treatment,” burning through their set at a Ramones-paced clip. “We sounded like this great raw rock band,” Debbi said. Yet on Different Light, The Bangles’ biggest-selling album, recorded from July through September of that year, Kahne deconstructed them from what they had been—a Sixties-inspired songwriting collective/garage band—to forge them on record into a more hierarchical, label-friendly structure. Hoffs, charismatic, linked erroneously with Prince, would be the lead singer; the rest of the band were good for harmonies and suspect in terms of songwriting and playing.

“He loved Sue’s voice and he loved the way we did harmonies but everything else was basically shit,” Steele told DeYoung. “He felt like he had to get rid of it, or try to work around it, or do something to make it palatable.” (Kahne, to Mix in 2009, called his relationship with The Bangles “a forced marriage.”)

It fell hardest on Debbi, whom Kahne already had made jump through hoops for her vocal on “Going Down to Liverpool,” having her sing the opening line over and over again. On Different Light, “he said I physically couldn’t sing one of the songs…I was actually at one point feeling kind of suicidal,” she told DeYoung. “This guy was screwing with my emotions so bad and made me feel so shitty that I just thought, well OK.” She was originally slated for “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which meant, like “Going Down to Liverpool,” she’d be the lead on a single. Instead, she’s the one Bangle not singing on “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Kahne made an album as an aircraft carrier, loaded with potential hits. This meant making each track as radio-ready as possible. “We would go in as a band, all four of us in a room, and lay down the song,” Vicki told Vintage Guitar. “Then, in classic ’80s style, with the guidance and decisions of Kahne, we would systematically replace everything we’d just done! Every guitar line was replaced with various schmutz. Even Susanna’s rhythm tracks.” To Craig Rosen, she said “we’d isolate the drums, and we’d sound like the Rolling Stones, and then we’d come back out and every single note on that record is replaced with a trigger—snares that Debbi hit are now triggered by another sound.”

“He made us more aware of what our flaws were then the things we were good at,” Hoffs recalled to DeYoung. Then Kahne started bringing in “ringer guitar players to do certain things,” Vicki said. “At one point, I’d had to leave the studio for an emergency, and I came back, and he’d had his guy show up and do a solo. It was the backwards thing on ‘September Gurls.’ I hate to burst your bubble, I didn’t play that.”

Tom Hibbert meets the gang; Smash Hits, 1986

There was also the question of songwriting. Miles Copeland, to DeYoung, recalled that Kahne would say he didn’t like a song’s bridge and ask the band to rewrite it. They’d return to the studio with a new middle eight, he’d say that was no good either, then suggest a bridge he’d written. “In their view, the reason his middle bit was ‘better’ is because he got a piece of the publishing. And they were incredibly pissed off about that.” (Kahne’s credited as co-writer on “Walking Down Your Street,” “Standing in the Hallway,” and “Not Like You.”)

The Bangle who most escaped intact was Steele, whose basslines are still on Different Light. She wondered if Kahne had run out of time to have a session musician redo those, too (more likely, there was no point in trying to surpass her playing—listen to her as the titanium bond of “Walk Like an Egyptian” or on “Not Like You,” where she’s often the lead instrument, this bubbling undercurrent to the harmonies). Her “Following,” an intriguing acoustic guitar/synth piece tucked away on the LP’s second side, was an afterthought for Kahne. “He’d totally forgotten about it. He was totally freaking out about which of the twenty-seven mixes of ‘Manic Monday’ was the right one,” Steele told DeYoung. “We were almost done with recording and I said, uhh, David, remember the song ‘Following’? So it was like two takes.”

There was also “Let It Go,” the only track on the album composed and sung by all Bangles, with its sequential harmonies (a lower set sings a first phrase, holding on the last note, which becomes the stage for a higher-pitched set harmonies to soar over; the higher harmonies do the same in turn) and Sixties guitars—it was a bridge to a fading past. Trying to remember….where you were the day before…

The producer knew that this was going to be his shot and so we were sacrificed on the altar of his career. It became our success but it also contributed to our undoing, so it was kind of like a weird deal-with-the-devil thing, y’know? I think Different Light is a really good record. It was just…we kind of got lost in it.

Steele, to The Guardian, 2003

To be fair, this sort of ruthless production ethos is nothing new. The Bangles wanted to be the new Grass Roots? Well, this is how Grass Roots records were made. Kahne delivered on his mandate from Columbia. He made a platinum album for 1986, its mix full of gated drums and guitar brickwork: the stereo-split riffs on “Angels Don’t Fall in Love,” or how on “In a Different Light,” the intro alone pits a clean-toned guitar against one with a Wah pedal against one with sustained fuzz. It’s a record on which the tambourine sounds like it took fifty takes to perfect.

And the band admitted that Kahne was inspired in recording their vocals, having them sing together, four singers positioned around a trio of microphones (he also wanted lead vocals cut on a single track, not creating a “master” take via comping but instead using punch-ins to fix a particular section). “There was no overdubbing individual people, which makes for a different kind of recording process,” Kahne told Mix. “We would double the vocals most of the time, but they would sing together as a group, and we would get a different kind of relationship that you don’t get recording each person…There are intonation things, phrasing things—like somebody might pull a little late, so it’ll make the second chorus seem a little different than the first.”

If She Knew What She Wants” is the Chartres Cathedral of Bangles harmonies (the guitar work is nearly as intricate: what sounds like a rotary speaker on the bridge; the quick shuffles between open and palm-muted strums in the rhythm guitar accompaniment; the harmonized guitar melodies that lead the choruses out). It’s also one of Hoffs’ finest lead performances, rich in sympathy for its characters, reticent as to her true feelings on them. She’s warm in tone, colorful in phrasing, especially in the bridges, and her moments of effort left in the mix—see the sharp breath Hoffs takes after the three descending “fine, fine, fines” to steady herself for the high notes of “ah-round” and the concluding “miiii-ii-ii-iiine”—give it a welcome grit.

No. 1, 3 May 1986

Walk Like an Egyptian.” Liam Sternberg wrote it. Part of the New Wave scene in Akron in the late Seventies, having produced Jane Aire’s first record, Sternberg made a demo of “Egyptian” in 1984 with guitars, drum machines, and Marti Jones. Quirky, catchy, semi-ironically colonial, it seemed destined to be a College Rock Novelty Hit, in the line of “88 Lines About 44 Women,” “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” “Bitchin Camaro” etc.: see here for dozens of other candidates. The Bangles found the demo in a pile of tapes Kahne gave them and performed an act of transubstantiation. (Its success inspired a College Rock Novelty answer song in 1987: “Walk With an Erection.”)

Its foundation was an Alesis drum machine, a garbage can lid, a Peruvian shaker, a gong, and an Emulator-generated bongo sample, the latter via Mitchell Froom, who was recording at the Sunset Sound Factory at the same time (the “Egyptian” rhythm tracks are a kooky ancestor of the Latin Playboys album that Froom and Different Light‘s engineer Tchad Blake did a decade later). Having decreed that Debbi wasn’t up for the song, Kahne had the other Bangles audition in the studio, with Kahne picking who would get each verse: the order wound up being Vicki (Nile set-up), Steele (LA club extension), and Hoffs (donut shop punchline).

They weren’t sure what they had with it. In the early months of the Different Light tour, the band sometimes didn’t include “Egyptian” in their sets. But after “If She Knew What She Wants” stalled out as the album’s second single (peaking at #29), Columbia went with “Egyptian” to regain momentum. By Christmas 1986, it was the number one single in the U.S.

It was The Bangles’ “The Name Game,” or “The Wah-Watusi.” You could dance badly to it; you and your friends could pick the Bangle you wanted to imitate; its video had random New Yorkers doing the Egyptian, badly-animated Quaddafi and Princess Di clips, The Bangles in sand dancer outfits, and the most epic of Hoffs eye flicks, to the point where doing “the eyes” is de rigueur for karaoke performers.

On 29 October 1986 at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, The Bangles are at their peak—confident, funny, nailing the harmonies, the guitars and bass locked in. It’s already a greatest hits tour. “We know everybody knows how to dance!” Hoffs commands the crowd, and they do. Not long afterward, The Bangles did a video with Little Richard—the band are TV contest winners who manage to upstage Richard himself. Why not? Getting a number one hit was like winning the World Series, Hoffs said.

Is This Burning?

I remember how big my hair was on the ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ thing and feeling like ‘Oh my God! What just happened to me?’ And you get caught up in going along with what’s happening. A wardrobe person comes and says ‘These are great clothes; put these on.’…You look over and the person sitting next to you has got that much makeup on, too. It’s just a vicious cycle.

Hoffs, 2000

The Bangles, hosting MTV for an hour in 1986, are rock ‘n’ roll archivists for a teenage audience. They play Ike and Tina Turner, The Easybeats, The Who igniting the stage on The Smothers Brothers.

The peak of Bangles fame coincided with what I once called the Boomer Counter-Reformation: the period in the late Eighties in which every Sixties act returned, cicada-like, from the depths of the earth. George Harrison and Roy Orbison got Top Ten hits; Neil Young and Dylan got critically-acclaimed albums; Tiffany covered The Beatles; The Beatles’ CD release campaign was treated with the reverence of a state visit by the Windsors; The Who and The Monkees and CSNY and “classic” Yes and Jefferson Airplane reformed.

You could put The Bangles on the margins of all this, but their sharp fan’s sensibility prevented them from being cheap nostalgists. See their #2 hit from late 1987, a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” that obliterates the original. It opens in suspense—harmonies, chimes, synth waves—until breaking open with Vicki’s amphetamine expansion on Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar figure and Debbi’s pounding drums, a hammer exorcism of the Kahne sessions. She sounds like she’s knocking apart a crate. (Plus, cowbell!)

The Bangles know which lines to savor (“simply pretend that you can build them again“), which to excise (reading manuscripts of unpublished rhyme, drinking vodka & lime). They sing most of it in close four-part harmony, so when Hoffs stands alone in the final chorus, a tension begins that builds and builds—Vicki’s riff ping-ponging in the mix; the drums somehow thrashing even harder; Steele as a convulsion—until it’s snuffed out.

Made for the soundtrack of the LA coke movie Less Than Zero, “Hazy Shade” was a Rick Rubin production, but he hated the intro the band had devised (Vicki: “that whole sort of atmospheric beginning just drove Rick up the wall”). They vetoed him and kept it in. After getting the drums and guitars down, Rubin “split for a pizza,” leaving them to finish the track, ultimately adding two further days of overdubs—keyboards, acoustic guitars, vocals—and having an engineer remix it. They were at home in the song, having done it on stage for years, and their instincts were dead-on: the “synth” prelude made the rock section vault out of the speakers. Theirs was a Sixties cover free of affectation, it was loud, fun, young.

The essentially self-produced single had cleared the air, restored their shaken confidence after Different Light. By summer 1987, The Bangles had ten new songs ready to go, Hoffs told a reporter. That said, Steele told another that fans should try to hear the new stuff on stage “before some producer gets ahold of them.”

Like it or don’t like it, you know? That’s where we were at the time. That’s what eight years of touring brought us to, the making of that album.

Hoffs, on Everything

Everything, the last Bangles album of their original run, sounds negotiated, brokered, full of strange turns and compromises, like a municipal infrastructure project. One of the band’s strengths was knowing who they were and what they were good at. On Everything, that communal confidence has gone, leaving behind a compilation of four women’s takes on where The Bangles should go next, responding to each other’s scenarios with wariness. Their more concise White Album.

Columbia gave them the rewards of hitting #1: a budget of $350,000 and artistic control. The band chose the producer (Davitt Sigerson), had the last call on songs. “Our ideas about arrangement, harmonies, about tempo, about musicianship,” as Hoffs described the album to the Chicago Tribune. After they made it, they fired Miles Copeland, who they believed had never considered them a top priority, and signed with the management team of Arnold Stiefel and Randy Phillips.

The fault lines visible since “Manic Monday” were deepening. Columbia, the press, seemingly everyone but the other three Bangles were intent on making Hoffs the star of the band. By summer 1987, she was on the cover of SPIN‘s swimsuit issue and the lead of The Allnighter, a dire college comedy directed by her mother. Vicki recalled reading the script and being bewildered that it was going to be an actual movie.

“The videos were going very pro-Sue,” Debbi recalled to DeYoung. “I could see it all happening.” Hoffs was in an indefensible position. Whenever she was called the band’s lead singer, she’d say no, that The Bangles were equals, but “then I’m sort of defending the fact that I’m not. It just caused this tension with all of us…the more tense everybody got about it, the more tense I felt about it.” Vicki recalled that “all the people who loved me wanted to blame everything on Sue. And it was not all Sue’s fault…she was neither a victim, nor was she a perpetrator of this crime. It was partially both.”

The old composition team of Hoffs and Vicki was fading (they wrote only one song on Everything, “Watching the Sky”); each Bangle now had different collaborators. “We needed space away from each other,” Hoffs said. “We all went off to write with other people, just to survive emotionally.” They wound up with about forty songs, had to pare them to thirteen. Debbi worked with keyboardist Walker Igleheart; Steele with keyboardist David White; Vicki with a batch of co-writers, some of whom weren’t keyboardists, including Rachel Sweet (“Crash and Burn”) and KISS’ Vinnie Vincent (“Make a Play For Her Now”).

Hoffs chose Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, who’d written “True Colors” and “Like a Virgin” and “So Emotional” and “Alone”: she went with the hitmakers. “In Your Room,” leadoff single of Everything, was a killer. Even its minor details were hooky: the tympanum sound in the intro, the “Mony Mony” guitars and beat (“Tommy James meets Prince,” Hoffs said), how Hoffs’ phrasing in the verse follows the lead of the intro guitar, the organ swells in the bridge to counter the bite in Hoffs’ voice (“feels good!”), the strings in the outro. And it was the first Bangles single to cater to guys. The Bangles always had been the women responding to the various Jaggers and Lennons who populated their songs. “In Your Room” was male fantasy—the sweet isolation of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” as rewritten for an Eighties sex comedy—leavened by mild kinkiness. She’s trying on all his clothes; she’ll be the one directing traffic.

Everything‘s women are often at a loss, wistfully romantic or wreaking havoc, regarded by an unsympathetic eye. See the Complicated Girl (Steele, on its inspiration: “My best friend was dating a girl at the time and he loved her. And I hated her!”) or the would-be Plath in Vicki’s “Bell Jar” (“she dresses in black, ‘cos sorrow is a magnet”).

Steele had come into her own as a writer, yet another stress-line in the group at this point. “Complicated Girl,” with its echo harmonies on the title phrase and the “You Won’t See Me”-inspired run of ooh-la-las on the bridge, and a harmonic blurriness in which the A major key is undermined like the hapless guy she sings about (“why bother making rules you know she will not follow?”). The quietly intricate “Something to Believe In,” which has no real refrain, just bridges and verses working against each other. And “Glitter Years,” in which Steele looks back at 1973 LA as a lost, broken world, with only Bowie’s “Hang Onto Yourself” as a souvenir. Vicki does her best Mick Ronson for the break.

Vicki’s songs are more expansive and heavier—see “Watching the Sky,” where her sister channels John Bonham (there seems to have been a consensus to keep the rockers to a minimum, so the snarling “Everything I Wanted” was an orphan, later slotted into the thankless role of “new track on the greatest hits compilation”). She got the album’s last word: “Crash and Burn,” with its goofball rhymes (“checking out the scene-o/ feeling so mean-o”) and its defiance of fate in the guise of a highway song. “If I can’t see what’s passing me, nothing can touch me,” Vicki sings.

Eternal Flame.” When I first heard it as an arrogant, purist seventeen-year-old, I thought it was the end. The band who’d made All Over the Place had been reduced to this embalmed prom theme, this ghastly cheese, this soul-death of a song you’d hear playing in Chess King.

I wasn’t wrong. It was the band’s knell. There was no coming back from a #1 hit like “Eternal Flame” in 1989. The follow-up, Debbi’s sweetly obsessive “Be With You,” stalled at #30 and the Bangles’ management team and label agreed that going forward, Hoffs would get the singles, presumably in the “Eternal Flame” line (if not for the breakup, her “I’ll Set You Free” would’ve been the next US single). A band who loved to storm through “7 and 7 Is” and “Pushing Too Hard” on stage was now apparently moving into Peter Cetera territory.

I have this habit of falling in love with the wrong people, but I’ve learned to release some of that energy into my own songs.

Hoffs on stage, April 1989

“Eternal Flame” is schlocky, yes, and proudly so–Hoffs’ inspiration was seeing an ever-burning candle at Graceland, after all. There’s a fundamental imbalance between its sentiments and Hoffs’ vocal. “Eternal Flame” seems meant for a belter, someone who’ll go to town in the bridges and last choruses. Hoffs can’t sing it like that. She’s no Celine Dion or Adele, hers is not a technically masterful performance. She strains with her chest voice at times, her push to falsetto sounds like it takes stomach-clenching effort, and she only sustains the last “flaaaaaaaaaame”s for a few seconds before the harmonies come to her aid.

She saves “Eternal Flame” from being mush by being so valiant within it, a stranger within her own song, feeling overwhelmed yet pushing on, convinced that after all her empty searches, she finally may have something good. “I had to keep protecting it and fighting for it. It just seemed like at any moment it would disappear, like something would strike it down,” Hoffs once said of her song. It’s her return to “Dover Beach,” another sally against the cruel real world. The trebly arrangement was meant to invoke a music box (see the triangle, struck on every bar and utterly maddening once you notice it, sorry), with Hoffs as its dancer.

LA Weekly, 20 April 1989

We work it out like business
It won’t work anymore

“I’ll Set You Free”

The Bangles’ last tour ran from July to early September 1989. No one was happy, no one said anything, everyone had stomach aches, the collective misery stacked up. They did a show commemorating the opening of a stretch of a Houston tollway that connected Highway 290 to the North Freeway and as they played, they saw the overpass buckling from the weight of the crowd and the summer heat. Reviews ranged from dismissive to condescending: “wearing the usual miniskirts and black tights…’Bangles’ is now synonymous with fluff and tummy-revealing costumes…rock in name only” (NY Daily News); “cheap razzle dazzle performance, nearly devoid of musical soul” (the Glens Falls Post Star); “they still posture unnecessarily…Hoffs’ preening and arching seemed contrived” (Akron Beacon-Journal).

There was a band meeting at Stiefel’s beach house. As many musicians have noted, whenever a manager schedules a band meeting, it’s never a good sign. An exhausted Steele had said she wanted out, and Stiefel and Philips were courting her as a solo act. But their true target was Hoffs, convincing the latter that things would go far easier if all this band stuff went away. The meeting was held to tell the Petersons the news. “All the lawyers and business managers were there,” Debbi told Dorian Lynskey years later. “Me and Vicki were looking at each other thinking, ‘There’s definitely something going on here.’ And it was announced to us that it was over.”

The news broke in October 1989. It was as though everyone was ready for them to go. Everything had only hit #15, and the release of a Greatest Hits the following year, a career-cap move that normally would have meant a reliable gold record, barely charted in the US. The Eighties were over; so were The Bangles, swept out with the long tide.

Bangles Forever!

Bangles reunited, 2000 (Paul Harris)

They mostly spent the Nineties watching the wheels, as an influence of theirs once sang. Vicki worked with Susan Cowsill as the Psycho Sisters; they later joined the Continental Drifters. Debbi was briefly in an ill-fated supergroup with Gina Shock, Wendy & Lisa, and Gang of Four’s Sara Lee, which later became Kindred Spirit. Steele moved out to the country, living in a house with a lot of animals and no television, she said. She demoed songs for a solo album, as she’d been led to believe she’d get a record deal, then didn’t. She formed the band Crash Wisdom a few years later.

Hoffs started the decade being talked up as the next Belinda Carlisle. For her solo debut, When You’re a Boy, she worked again with David Kahne, the devil she knew (“when I didn’t have Vicki and Micki and Debbi there to fight the fight, Kahne went out of control pop, out of control production, out of control keyboards”). It was a dud, with a few solid tracks (the EIEIO and Bowie covers; “Something New“)—its fundamental flaw was being a brutally overworked 1988 album released in 1991.

On a proposed 1994 follow-up, some of whose songs were co-written by Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, you hear Hoffs pushing into a fresher, harder style—there’s the bones of a good record here. But Columbia soured on it, wanted her to re-record the album, she refused, they released her from her contract. She reworked much of it for a self-titled 1996 album on London.

Bangles, around the time of Doll Revolution

She considered trying to reform The Bangles at times during the decade, to tepid response by the other three, and later said she was glad they didn’t sign up for “all the repackaged tours, tour with the Go-Go’s and the B-52s…It felt nauseating to me, the very idea.” (Hoffs also needed time to recover from a vocal cord hemorrhage in 1997.) What finally brought them back together was the Austin Powers franchise, directed by Hoffs’ husband, Jay Roach. The four of them cut a marvelous “period” song (“Get the Girl”) for the second Powers film in 1999, and by the following year they were on stage again.

The reunion Bangles endured for another album, Doll Revolution (2003), whose songs were greatly survivors from ventures of the prior decade: Hoffs solo pieces, Steele’s Crash Wisdom songs, Kindred Spirit and Peterson-Cowsill compositions. Its making, self-funded, done over a few years (Hoffs and Debbi had young children by now) was a catharsis merely by being enjoyable—“We would look at each other and go, ‘but, we’re not suffering. This can’t be good’,'” Vicki said in 2003. “Is it art? Nobody’s suffering. We’re all laughing and having dinner.”

The Bangles as a trio, 2008 {Paul Kane)

Steele stopped touring with The Bangles in summer 2004 and in May 2005, officially left the group. There was no reason stated, but the consensus is that Steele had wanted to keep recording new material and was frustrated by the band’s hobbyist pace in this era. (Derrick Anderson was their touring bassist for a time; Annette Zilinskas returned in the 2010s.) The “trio” Bangles—the original Bangs—have made one more record to date, Sweetheart of the Sun (2011). On it, The Bangles reorient themselves in California, inspired by a then-recent biography of Carole King and Joni Mitchell. It’s a lovely, modest record: the sound of a band at ease with itself.

Until the pandemic, The Bangles had kept on as a live act, performing nearly every year, sometimes doing festivals, sometimes a club tour. Their last appearance on stage was in September 2019, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds—it’s a good set, with a smoking “Want You” and a closing “Eternal Flame” that sounds like it’s bringing down an era. A fixture of rock ‘n’ roll—we’re as far away now from their first single as it was from Pearl Harbor—The Bangles still seem regarded in some quarters as lightweights. They’ve rarely worn the mantle of cool in the way Big Star or The Records or your favorite obscure power pop band has; they’re been consigned to a cultural memory of big hair and Walking Eternally Like an Manic Egyptian.

Some of this may be due to a general ineptitude in establishing their legacy. Rachel Macari, the band’s most devoted researcher and archivist, argued this in a piece last year: that the early albums, now over thirty years old, have never been properly reissued or remastered; that there are scads of live recordings (it’s a true shame there’s no official Bangles live LP), demos, unreleased songs, alternate takes out there which no one seems interested in compiling, let alone releasing. And that portions of their fanbase are toxic, the type of dudes who clutter up Bangles YouTube comments by slavering over the band members.

Hoffs inducted The Zombies into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019 and I recall thinking at the time, well, when is this woman’s induction? When is her band’s? The Bangles had massive hits, they had style, they had some of the finest harmonic arrangements and one of the best debut albums of the Eighties, they were a blast, they broke up before they got lousy—what more do you want from a rock ‘n’ roll band, really?

In the late 2010s, the Paisley Underground sang each other’s songs again, for the 3×4 album. The Bangles did Three O’Clock’s “Jet Pilot,” Dream Syndicate’s “That’s What You Always Say,” and Rain Parade’s “Talking in My Sleep.” The latter is a stunning, a time-slip—Hoffs, sounding at sixty much as she had at twenty-two, reviving with grace one of David Roback’s finest songs (Roback died of cancer not long afterward). She soars through the melody, the Petersons and Zilinskas back her up, with Vicki delivering a properly lysergic solo. If we had the time, they sang so long ago on “Dover Beach.” As it turned out, they had all the time in the world. See what’s become of them.

5. The Benny Goodman Quartet

DISCOGRAPHY  (+)                       SOURCES                         (-)  PLAYLIST  (+)
goodman_quartet

Stomping at the Paramount, New York, 1937

In the 19 February 1938 Billboard, an industry news column notes a regional curiosity: the Memphis Board of Censors is “scissoring” a scene from a just-released Busby Berkeley musical, Hollywood Hotel. It stars Dick Powell and Lola Lane; Ronald Reagan has a bit part. The scene not fit for Memphis cinemas is a performance of “I’ve Got a Heart Full of Music” by the Benny Goodman Quartet.

Berkeley mostly keeps the camera on who’s soloing. Which means for the first minute, the viewer sees Lionel Hampton, playing exuberant vibraphone, and Teddy Wilson, doing magnificent runs on piano. There’s no visual hierarchy. The quartet are dressed identically, in what look like valet uniforms. Vibraphone, piano, and drums are on the same level of the stage, forming a loose triangle. They are a unit, a happy gang.

After Goodman solos, the quartet kicks up the tempo, with Gene Krupa and Hampton battling to do the swiftest percussive run—Krupa on his snare; Hampton on the upper part of his vibraphone, ending each phrase with a flourish as if dotting the “i” in his signature. Goodman laces through their barrages. Wilson puts floorboards under it.

The Card Shuffle

benny-goodman

Having an integrated group in 1937 or 1938, particularly when you’re touring the South, takes sleight of hand.

Benny Goodman opens with his all-white band. Kids get up and dance. There’s an intermission and Teddy Wilson comes on. But he’s not officially part of the band, so you can say he’s been hired to fill time while the Goodman Orchestra takes five. Goodman and Gene Krupa play with Wilson. Well, that’s a novelty, all right, this “trio” bit but again, it’s only the sideshow. Then Lionel Hampton joins in on vibes, and you have a racially integrated quartet playing to white teenagers in Dallas.

The strictures of Jim Crow were so fundamentally absurd, so much a vicious child’s capricious set of rules, that one could try to introduce a new rule, like throwing an unexpected queen of hearts onto the pile. So yes, there cannot be integrated musicians in a jazz band that’s playing for a white audience. Yet within the intermissions, this band, this audience, does not exist. Something else does, thus something else can appear in the space left open, in the empty hall called “special attractions.” After all, the audience doesn’t pay for intermissions. This is a free time, in various senses.

Wilson, many years later:

Contrary to popular belief, Benny Goodman was not the first to introduce small groups to jazz…it was original because it was interracial and played publicly as such…I think the instant success of the recordings was due to the refreshing quality they had.

The Kid

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Benny Goodman, ca. age 10 (ca. 1919) [Ken Whitten Collection]

Benny Goodman was born in 1909, in Chicago, to Jewish immigrants. His father, David, came from Warsaw; his mother, Dora, from Kovno, Lithuania. They lived in the Maxwell Street neighborhood. David worked in stockyards and as a tailor; Dora gave birth to twelve children and raised them. The Goodmans shifted from tenement to tenement, once spending a winter in an unheated basement room. “A couple of times there wasn’t anything to eat,” Goodman wrote in his memoir. “I don’t mean there wasn’t much to eat. I mean anything.” The Goodmans drank coffee once they were weaned “because milk for so many kids cost more than Pop could afford.”

Poverty was in his bones. Memories of waking up cold, wondering if there’s any left of that half-loaf of bread, of having to keep one step ahead of a landlord. By his twenties, Goodman was well-off and he died rich, but he acted as if it all could go south tomorrow, and then you’re back in the basement, drinking cold coffee.

In games of cops and robbers, the cops always got the worst of it…because in that kind of neighborhood, the cops represented something that never did much for the poor people…I grew up with pretty much a resentment against the way folks like my father and mother had to work…making a go of things with most of the breaks against them.

Goodman, on growing up in Chicago

“If it hadn’t been for the clarinet, I might just have been a gangster,” Benny once said. This was bluster, as his father wouldn’t have had it. David Goodman devoted his life to boosting his children up a rung of the ladder; he’d bought into the promise of America in the way only someone working fourteen hours a day in a stockyard could (just as Benny began to have success, David was run over on a Chicago street, dying soon afterward). He urged his kids to do well in school, to find jobs that weren’t in a sweatshop. Benny’s sister Ida became a stenographer. For the Goodman brothers, music looked feasible. They could play weddings and bar mitzvahs, instruments were affordable on the installment plan, and there were free lessons at synagogues and at Hull House on Halsted Street, which had an amateur band.

Benny, smallest of the Goodmans sent off to be musicians, got the smallest instrument at the synagogue, the clarinet (his bigger brothers got tuba and trumpet). He was a natural, quickly able to play intricate runs of notes at brisk tempos, enlivening his lines with rasps and growls. A music teacher named Franz Schoepp gave Benny “the foundation”—the correct embouchure and fingering, breath control—and stressed the need for daily scales, a regimen that Goodman kept for the rest of his life. He died while rehearsing.

He was of the first generation who heard jazz on disc: fourteen when King Oliver and Louis Armstrong started cutting records, seventeen when Jelly Roll Morton began releasing his Red Hot Peppers sides. He was like Paul McCartney and John Lennon thirty years later: teenagers obsessed with records, looking for a way into the new music, trying to make it theirs. Goodman sat in music stores, listening to sides for hours. If a trumpet or piano solo caught his ear, he’d play it until he’d memorized the notes. “I always liked to play free, from the very start,” Goodman wrote. “And when we got hold of a new chord or a good lick, that was a thrill like nothing else.”

How to describe his clarinet style? “Unfeigned and lusty,” Gary Giddins wrote. “Goodman’s rhythmic gait was unmistakable; his best solos combined cool legato, a fierce doubling up of notes, and the canny use of propulsive riffs.” Allen Lowe called Goodman “a brilliant technician who…polished his earliest enthusiasms into a method that was at once both urbane and earthy.” By his late teens, Goodman could play anything on clarinet, in any register, near-flawlessly—bandleaders relied on him for a “hot” solo whenever a piece needed a kick. Downplaying the jazz clarinet’s hooting circus-barker qualities, he worked on smoothing his tone, on having a grace in his phrasings.

Goodman’s quickly-maturing style is heard in his first major solo on record, Ben Pollack’s “Waitin’ For Katie” (1927). Goodman, eighteen years old, gets a full chorus (thirty-two bars) at the start of the piece. Mainly keeping to his clarinet’s middle register, in full control of his volume, with a bright tone, he soon moves away from the theme. It’s as if after having made introductions, he glides, happily distracted, into a livelier room.

pollack

Ben Pollack’s Park Central Orchestra, 1929 (BG fifth from right) [BG Archives, Yale]

Having dropped out of school at fourteen, Goodman worked at Colt’s Electric Park outside Chicago, and played cabarets and dance halls. “I was pretty restless and never stayed on a job very long if a new one came along where I might get a little more money and sit in with better players,” he said. A break came in 1925 with Ben Pollack’s jazz band, based in Los Angeles. Goodman took a train from Chicago, “a skinny kid in short pants, with a clarinet under my arm.”

By 1929, when Goodman hit New York with Pollack’s group, he’d become a showboat, hogging solo choruses, leaning back so far in his chair while he played that he was nearly horizontal. Meanwhile Pollack, with designs on becoming the next Rudy Vallee, got cheesy—he made band members wear tiger masks when they played “Tiger Rag” or undertaker suits for “St. James Infirmary.” The break was inevitable. When Pollack complained about Goodman wearing dirty shoes on stage (he’d been playing handball earlier), Goodman quit. If it hadn’t been for that reason, there would have been another one.

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Goodman as jazz pro, ca. 1929

To understand the situation in music around 1929, it is necessary to appreciate the fact that the public at large didn’t have much contact with the men who actually played the music…nobody put the names of the musicians on the labels of records. The leader was the top man, and that’s all there was to it.

Goodman

Goodman joined one of the few lucrative musician sets of the early Depression—a New York-based group of freelance players who cut records, played Broadway musicals, did radio performances, filled in if a dance band needed an extra for a night. They were the elite of the white jazz scene (members included Artie Shaw and the Dorsey brothers), having to sight-read anything put in front of them and nail it in a take. In 1930 alone, Goodman played in roughly three dozen sessions.

Some of his sideman performances were astonishing. See his solos on Ted Lewis and Fats Waller’s “Crazy ‘Bout My Baby” and “Royal Garden Blues,” where, as his biographer James Lincoln Collier described it, Goodman sounds like he’s walking on stilts, playing “truncated eighth notes.” He was part of an all-star gang for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” and “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” (with Bix Beiderbecke, Bubber Miley, Tommy Dorsey et al—-Goodman cooks in his solo on the latter, on which you can hear Joe Venuti sing “Barnacle Bill the shithead”); he played in the last-ever session of Bessie Smith, and the first-ever of Billie Holiday, within days of each other in 1933. His bass clarinet on Red Norvo’s “In a Mist” and “Dance of the Octopus” previewed his and Lionel Hampton’s exchanges in the Quartet.

But Goodman got on his bandleaders’ nerves and it was costing him jobs. A child prodigy now in his twenties, he chafed under orders and held lesser musicians in contempt, once mocking another woodwind player while on stage. His facility made him arrogant. “Conductors would tell me how to handle something…That rubbed me the wrong way,” Goodman wrote in his memoir. “I hadn’t grown up in the habit of following somebody else’s idea of what the music meant. I figured I had a way of playing the instrument that was my own, and I wanted to stick to that way. Then, too, some of these conductors just didn’t know their stuff.” Tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, who played with Goodman for a time, said that “Benny was not cruel, he just lived in a kind of egomaniacal shell…he thinks of himself as being apart from the world. Benny’s world is built around Benny.”

Hired to form a dance band for Russ Columbo in 1932, Goodman irked the musicians by being miserly on salary (“I drove a pretty hard bargain with some of the boys, which they resented.”) One resentful player was the drummer, Gene Krupa, who never wanted to work with Goodman again.

Basher

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Gene was as magnetic as a movie star.

Anita O’Day

I was grunting and sweating as if I was in a steel mill.

Gene Krupa, on playing drums

Gene Krupa was born in 1909, ninth child in a Polish-American family who lived on Chicago’s South Side. “My father died pretty early,” Krupa recalled. “Mama was a milliner, she had her own store. And she was determined to bring the kids up right.” By age ten, Krupa was doing minor jobs at a music store, where he memorized the titles and label numbers of the records in stock. He bought a “rag-tag Japanese set of drums for $16,” he told Burt Korall. “Drums were the cheapest item in the wholesale catalog.”

His mother wanted him to be a priest (large Catholic families often sent one of the boys to seminary; a form of tithing), so Krupa went to St. Joseph’s College, a seminary prep school in Rensselaer, Indiana. “I gave it a good try,” he said of the priesthood. Instead, his time at St. Joseph’s made a musician out of him, thanks to its magnificently-named music professor, Father Ildefonse Rapp.

Krupa left St. Joseph’s at sixteen to drum in Chicago dance bands: the Hoosier Bellhops, Ed Mulaney’s Red Jackets. He played in a gangster-run “black and tan” club in Indiana. Offstage, he was in the Austin High gang, a Chicago-based group of young white hipster jazz musicians who scoffed at their contemporaries, calling them hacks and sell-outs, and greatly favored Black jazz players.

He studied the great Black drummers of the era, including Chick Webb (“I learned practically everything from him”), Zutty Singleton, and Johnny Wells; he’d work out their rhythms on desks and chairs until his hands were swollen. Seeing the New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds at Kelly’s Stable “killed me,” Krupa said. Dodds used the full range of the drum kit, from the rims to the cymbal bells, and showed how to “develop ideas and build excitement through a tune,” Krupa said. “Right before going to the cymbal for the rideout, Baby would move into this press roll, dragging the sticks across the snare.”

Dodds was also a cocky, eye-catching presence behind the kit, chewing gum while he played, grimacing and beaming while he worked his snare and toms. Krupa saw that a drummer didn’t have to be anonymous. “I’m a child of vaudeville,” he told Korall. “The first thing you have to do is get their attention.”

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Krupa (third from left), ca. 1927

Krupa’s first recording session was in 1927, for McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans (an Austin High group). He brought his full kit into the studio. Drummers cutting tracks in the acoustic era would often just play snare, cymbal or woodblock—nothing else could be heard on the record, so what was the point? Krupa wanted greater dimension and dynamics in the studio, especially once electrical recording, and superior mikes, became standard. His set-up—snare, kick, mounted tom, larger floor tom, foot-wide hi-hats, and four large crash or splash cymbals (plus a gong, once he became a bandleader)—was a blueprint for the next generation of jazz drummers. He was also among the first to put his initials on the kick drum’s shield. “I made the drummer a high-priced guy,” Krupa later said.

He soon had a cult. Mel Tormé , as a kid in Chicago, would walk by the Krupa family’s grocery store “just to see the name on the green awning.” Alto saxophonist Hymie Schertzer, who played with Krupa in the Thirties, saw Krupa “really start to become a crowd puller. His solos had great visual appeal. The crowd saw someone knocking his brains out and they loved it.”

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Goodman needed this. In 1934, he founded his own jazz orchestra, as he finally accepted that he couldn’t work for anyone. Everything was in place: a group of ambitious players; a charismatic young singer, Helen Ward; a set of hot arrangements bought from Fletcher Henderson. But his drummer was Stan King, whom Ward described as “a strictly society-type of musician. Everything he played was boom-cha, boom-cha. There was no fire.”

So Goodman brought in Krupa, who had sex appeal, vigor, a sense of fun. Krupa was wary at first, given his history with Goodman, but the pay was good, the audiences better. The Goodman Orchestra, in a year’s time, went from being one of three bands vying for ears on the radio show Let’s Dance to the hottest jazz group in the United States.

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Goodman, orchestra, Helen Ward: Chicago, 1935

Not long before the West Coast tour that would make his name, Goodman, in early June 1935, went to a party at Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey’s place in Forest Hills, Queens. Bailey’s cousin, a drummer, was there, as was the producer John Hammond, Goodman’s friend, benefactor, and future brother-in-law. So was Teddy Wilson, a pianist whom Hammond was using as a bandleader and arranger on Billie Holiday’s records, and with whom Goodman had worked a few times before. Wilson jammed with Goodman and Bailey’s cousin deep into the summer night. The party arrangement—clarinet, piano, drums (that is, playing brushes on a suitcase)—had a real snap to it, everyone thought.

“What I got out of playing with Teddy,” Goodman wrote later, “was something, in a jazz way, like what I got from playing with [a] string quartet…It was something different from playing with the band, no matter how well it might be swinging.”

The Artisan

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In February 1972, the critic Whitney Balliett saw Teddy Wilson playing at the Cookery, a Greenwich Village restaurant. Wilson turned sixty that year. At the Cookery, he played standards in which he’d staked claims over the decades—“Tea for Two,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Love for Sale.” Balliett wrote that Wilson’s “famous style was in place—the feathery arpeggios, the easy, floating left hand…the intense clusters of notes that belie the cool mask he wears when he plays….[He] is a marvel, and we must not take him for granted.”

It was easy to take Teddy Wilson for granted. “A segment of the jazz press has always accused Wilson of too much gentility,” John Lissner wrote in 1974. There’s little of the legendary about him. Given how many “legendary” artists were monstrous off stage, this is a blessing, one of many that Wilson offered in his life.

Wilson was born in Austin, Texas, in 1912. His parents taught at Sam Houston College, then at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Growing up in the Tuskegee music scene, a cultural oasis for African Americans in the South, Wilson learned piano and fell into jazz upon hearing Tuskegee students’ records: Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong. As with Goodman, listening to 78s was Wilson’s conservatory. He’d slow speeds to a crawl and lift the needle back yet again to the outer groove until he knew a solo note-for-note. In 1927, on vacation in Detroit, he saw a jazz band at last and told his mother he wanted to be a professional jazz musician. She said to try college for a year and see how he felt then. If he still wanted to be a musician, “be a good one.”

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By 1929, he was playing in Midwestern jazz bands: Speed Webb’s, and later, Milt Senior’s. For a time he was at a club owned by Al Capone. It was like working at a bank, Wilson said, as you never worried about getting paid.

His finishing school was hearing and meeting Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and Earl “Fatha” Hines. Wilson’s bass figures elaborate on Waller’s stride basslines, with Wilson breaking up Hines’ patterns by alternating notes or playing thick tenth chords (“I can stretch the tenth in the left hand”) to create “almost fugal figures in the bass,” as Collier wrote. Drawing from Tatum and Hines, Wilson developed his technique of using right-hand octaves to span wide-leaping melodies along the piano’s higher keys. It was as if Wilson had created three-handed piano, the critic Gunther Schuller wrote—a tenor line and a bass pattern played near-simultaneously by his left hand that sustain the melodic adventures of his right.

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There’s a coruscating intelligence in Wilson’s piano playing—his love of developing melodies and rhythms, his eternal lightness, his crispness of articulation on the keyboard. He’d stint on dynamics and showy effects so as to have an elegant flow of notes in bright continuity (particularly in the Goodman Quartet, where he was the de facto bassist). “He doesn’t mind easing up—on himself, on his listeners, on his fellow players,” as Schuller wrote of Wilson. It was as if he was centered on the ground yet also high above it, absorbing and refracting light. Goodman, in his autobiography:

Teddy gets terrific swing out of his left hand, playing a steady figure on the beat while he gets off these patterns in the right hand, especially in a medium tempo—and that’s what really sent me…He had a fine harmonic sense so that he can get all kinds of color into his background harmonies without screwing things up with a lot of fancy chords…Teddy is nuts about accuracy, as I am. He’ll never let a bad note get away from him if he can possibly help it, which means he’s always thinking a little bit ahead of what’s he’s actually playing.

Wilson and Goodman would work together for half a century. For Goodman, who went through musicians like subway tokens, Wilson was always the pianist, no matter how much they weren’t getting along. Which, as the years went on, was often. Sublime collaborators, they were never friends. Helen Oakley, who knew them both, said “Benny was probably mystified by Teddy’s rather chilly reserve, especially since they played so well together…They never really hit it off temperamentally. I assume Teddy must have sized Benny up and found him lacking in many ways.”

Wilson’s perceived “chilliness” was the well-oiled defense mechanism of a brilliant musician, the child of intellectuals, who was regarded by much of his country as a second-class citizen. “He rose above everything with the same deadpan expression and ramrod-straight posture with which he sat at the piano,” Oakley said.

Talking to Nat Hentoff in 1974, Wilson said he’d been heartened by responses he got from his students, who, in some cases, were hearing jazz for the first time. He spoke like a man who knew his worth:

I do believe that any youngster who is genuinely interested in music eventually has to leave much of rock behind. I don’t want to sound immodest, but what musicians like myself play is like Ph.D. music compared to the nursery‐school sounds of a lot of rock and roll. They’ve got to grow out of it. And that goes for their parents, too. I mean the kind of parents who try to pretend they love rock so that their kids won’t think they’re old fogies.

One, Two, Three

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After the jam in Queens, Goodman and Hammond, within days, got a trio recording date booked in New York.

A jazz trio wasn’t novel. New Orleans jazz groups had arranged pieces for three or four players; Johnny Dodds had cut trio sides in the Twenties. Even Goodman did one in 1927: “Clarinetitis.” The latter is Goodman’s show. He solos throughout, half in his high register, half in his lower. The piano and drums, if lively, are there to back him up—he’s their employer.

The Benny Goodman Trio would be something else: a series of conversations between Goodman and Wilson as moderated by Gene Krupa, who gave some of his most subtle performances, inspired by Wilson’s light touch on the keyboard. “Gene worked into the idea fine, as we knew he would,” Goodman later said.

The lack of a bassist (instead, Krupa tuned his bass drum to Wilson’s low F on the piano) left space for everyone to fill. “The bass was absent and you got a good chance to hear the way I was using the left hand on the piano, coordinating it with Krupa’s bass drum,” Wilson said. “There was no sound like it in records then.”

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Saturday, 13 July 1935. Goodman, Wilson, and Krupa set up in Victor Records’ studio on East 24th Street. Goodman has chosen four songs: well-worn compositions, most from the Twenties. After You’ve Gone, Body and Soul, Who?, Someday Sweetheart. Titles that a record buyer would recognize, if not the name on the label. Everyone in the room knows these songs; they’re as comfortable in them as in an old pair of shoes.

They start with “After You’ve Gone,” doing two takes. In the second (the released take), Goodman plays the melody straight, with Wilson responding in a romping flow of, at times, single-note patterns. As Loren Schoenberg noted, under Goodman’s solo, Wilson does a tritone substitution (a favorite bebop tactic) that adds a knot of tension, one quickly untied. It closes with a Krupa drum break and Wilson and Goodman trading twos. “After You’ve Gone” is a heartbreak song, but here it soars like a lark.

On to “Body and Soul,” one of jazz’s deepest reservoirs. It’s Wilson’s show. He fills his bass figures with triplets and runs of 16th notes; they’re like the changing moods across a cloud’s face. “Who?” goes further out—Wilson plays the lead melody; Goodman becomes a New Orleans jazzman for two choruses; Krupa’s solo break is met by monosyllabic responses, as if he’s playing in court to a pair of stone-faced justices; Wilson, in his solo, alters the meter so that he’s two beats off throughout, with Krupa deftly responding. “Someday Sweetheart” is like being in a conversation at a party where, by some miracle, everyone is witty.

Goodman, Wilson, and Krupa took the jazz past and folded it into the future. The Trio’s singles sold, too: “Body and Soul” would be Victor’s top-selling disc in LA by late 1935.

Goodman’s Orchestra, having conquered Los Angeles during a residency at the Palomar Ballroom in 1935, became nationally-known, the face of the “swing” craze. On Easter Sunday 1936, at a Chicago concert that Helen Oakley organized, Wilson played on stage with Goodman and Krupa for the first time. “Benny was extremely dubious,” Oakley said. “He was afraid that if he and Teddy played together in public, it might not be found acceptable. ‘The hotel will never allow it,’ he told me.”

Goodman later said it was no grand thing. “When Teddy came on to play with Gene and me, it didn’t make much difference to us,” he wrote in his autobiography. Although the Trio hadn’t played together in nearly a year, it was as if they’d recorded the Victor sides the day before. “The three of us worked in together as if we had been born to play that way and one idea just came after another.” (They soon cut more Trio sides, including Wilson’s master class “China Boy,” the modulation-crazy “Oh Lady Be Good,” the piping hot “Nobody’s Sweetheart.”)

The crowd loved the Trio—it was an ideal debut audience, a mingle of urban hipsters and high society types in a select “jazz club.” When Goodman returned to LA in triumph in summer 1936, with Wilson now part of his act, John Hammond urged him to keep pushing forward. Wilson had established a beachhead; time for another advance. Hammond was a regular at a club called the Paradise and liked its bandleader, who sang and played vibraphone, drums, and piano. One night, Hammond brought Goodman, Wilson, and Krupa to see him.

“Benny sat at one of the front tables and I remember thinking he looked familiar,” Lionel Hampton wrote decades later. “With his granny glasses and his business suit, I thought maybe he was a politician.”

Hamp!

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When Lionel Hampton was thirty-one, he met his dead father.

Charles Edward Hampton, while his son was still a child, left Kentucky to fight in France in World War One. As far as everyone knew, he’d died there. His mother “wrote all kinds of letters trying to find out what happened,” to no response, Lionel wrote (Charles was assigned to a French unit, as Woodrow Wilson’s army was segregated). Then one day in 1939, Lionel was playing with the Goodman Orchestra in Dayton. Backstage he met a local boy who asked him if he visited his father whenever he was in town. “I don’t have a father,” he told the boy. “My father died in the war.”

But Charles Hampton, blinded by mustard gas, had instead spent two decades in a Veteran’s Administration hospital in Dayton. Lionel went to see him there. Charles asked him about his mother, said he hoped she was doing well, said he’d heard that his son had become a famous musician. Charles passed away, this time for good, not too long after that. “Today I am as old as he was when he died,” Lionel wrote, in his 1989 memoir. “When I look in the mirror I see my father.”

Lionel Hampton’s was a life of coincidences, stage shows, and wild reversals of fortunes: he was a grand character in a world packed with them. The Hamptons and Morgans (his mother’s family) were inveterate performers. His bootlegger uncle Richard, friend to Al Capone and Bessie Smith (and who was driving in the crash that caused the latter’s death). His grandmother and mother, who were both storefront preachers. His no-nonsense wife Gladys Riddle, who managed his money and career until she died in 1971. “Nothing has been the same since,” he wrote twenty years later.

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Lionel Hampton, ca. age 6 (marked with arrow) and extended family, ca. 1914

Born in 1908, Hampton grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. His grandfather was a locomotive fireman, his grandmother was in God’s employ. Sunday meant a full day in church, where at least there was music. “That red-brick building rocked on a Sunday!” Hampton wrote. “My favorite instrument was the big bass drum. The sister who played it was pretty big, too. She’d beat that drum for hours and then all of a sudden the spirit would grab her…Seemed to me that drumming was the best way to get close to God.” One Sunday, Hampton picked up a mallet and started pounding the bass drum. From then on, he was a drummer.

In the late 1910s, the Hamptons moved up to Chicago, where Uncle Richard was getting rich in the liquor business. Lionel, barely a teenager, walked around town wearing silk shirts, was forever drumming on tables and floors, and spent much of his time in the basement stirring sour mash for his uncle’s whiskey. His mother thought he needed salvation of some kind and sent him to the Holy Rosary Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he was taught by Dominican nuns.

And like Gene Krupa, Hampton got his core drumming lessons at Catholic school. Sister Pedra taught him “the flammercue and ‘Mama-Daddy’ and all that stuff on the drums” and she’d kick him in the rear if he was holding the sticks improperly (“she wore pointy-toed shoes, too”).

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Back in Chicago, Hampton took up xylophone (a gift from Uncle Richard). He’d translate trumpet and saxophone solos from Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins records into xylophone lines. He got another, informal musical education at his uncle’s parties, where the likes of Bessie Smith and Bix Beiderbecke would hang out together. “It’s kind of sad to think about all those black and white musicians going around admiring each other, playing off each other, jamming privately together and yet knowing they couldn’t be seen together in public,” Hampton wrote.

He joined Les Hite’s band as a drummer. “I was already playing with a heavy afterbeat, getting that rock ‘n’ roll beat…I wanted people to dance, to have a good time, clap their hands, and they would do it to my drumming.” Shifting operations to California, Hampton was known as a shameless showman. He’d throw his sticks in the air, run across the stage, scream as if being mauled by a tiger during “Tiger Rag.” Louis Armstrong was impressed enough to nickname Hampton “Gates” (“cause you swing so good”) and brought Hampton into a 1930 recording session.

unnamedHampton plays Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, sometime during the war (US Navy archives)

Here, at Okeh’s LA studio, Hampton first saw a vibraphone: the more distinguished, eccentric cousin of the xylophone (where the xylophone has wooden bars, the vibraphone’s are metal, thus able to sustain notes longer; the latter’s tone is also altered by electric-powered fans that rotate at the upper ends of resonator tubes.) Less than a decade old, the vibraphone was still considered a novelty, used for sound effects on records and radio broadcasts. “At that time they were only playing a few notes on it—bing, bong, bang—like the tones you hear for N-B-C,” Hampton wrote. “All that big beautiful instrument and nobody could do a thing with it.”

Hampton saw that its keyboard was the same as a xylophone’s, so he played one of Armstrong’s trumpet solos on it, note for note. Armstrong, delighted, put Hampton on vibraphone for “Memories of You,” which would be the first jazz recording (or so Hampton claimed) with vibes on it.

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A three-octave M75 Century vibraphone that Hampton donated to the Smithsonian.

Hampton, billed as “The World’s Fastest Drummer,” now shifted to vibraphone to vary a set. Gladys Riddle, his partner and manager, was convinced that playing vibes would be how he made his name. There were plenty of contenders for World’s Fastest Drummer out there, few master vibraphonists. After hours at nightclubs, he’d sit at a piano and play two-finger patterns on the treble end, working out solos destined for vibraphone.

By 1933, he was at the Red Car Club in LA (“a big beer garden…the chicks who worked there wore blue-jean overalls”) which, aiming for a choicer clientele, changed its name to the Paradise. It was here in summer 1936 that John Hammond brought the Benny Goodman Trio to see Hampton play. Soon enough, “I turn and there is Benny Goodman, playing right next to me,” Hampton said. “The four of us got on the bandstand together and man, we started wailing out. We played for two hours straight.”

Goodman invited him to a recording session the following day, out in Hollywood. Rousted from bed by Gladys, Hampton dashed to the Paradise to get his vibes and then booked it to RCA Victor’s studio.

Melancholy Dinah By Moonlight: 1936

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As with the first Benny Goodman Trio date, the earliest Benny Goodman Quartet recordings are a redaction of a more free-flowing encounter. Tight responses to hours-long jam sessions, both have to conform to the strictures of making records in the mid-Thirties. Three minutes a side; two or four sides cut in a few hours.

“Moonglow,” the first Quartet recording (21 August 1936), was cut at the end of a session primarily devoted to Goodman’s big band. Goodman and Wilson had recorded “Moonglow” two years earlier, a Will Hudson song that pillaged Duke Ellington (“Solitude” and “Lazy Rhapsody” lie within it). After a piano intro, a 16-bar “head” chorus, in which Hampton safecracks the sound of Trio, playing lapping waves of vibraphone notes under Goodman’s lead melody. As often on Quartet tracks, wherever Wilson goes, Hampton makes way—he voices his vibraphone chords so as to not to clash with Wilson’s piano, in a delicately precise harmony (and they’ve played together but once before this!). After a Wilson solo and a reprise of the head chorus, Hampton takes his debut: two full choruses, soft-shoe dances of mostly 16th notes, with stop-time sections. It’s what I imagine the inside of a snow globe sounds like.

Five days later, they cut “Dinah.” There will be far more Quartet recordings to come, and many brilliant ones, but this is the quintessence, already—everything’s here.

Hampton opens by playing so fast that it’s a blind guess as to where the downbeat is. Goodman unwraps the melody like a Christmas present; Wilson spends much of the time in accompanist mode, straight man in a comedy revue; Hampton and Krupa sound each other out, having a blast—Krupa underwrites Hampton’s first solo chorus with polyrhythms on his toms and gives “a disorienting snare drum accent just before the kick stroke” (Giddins) in the third chorus, as Hampton plays a crafty cross-rhythm on vibes. Goodman roams through the theme melody, finding new corners within it, with Wilson giving a four-bar interjection. It ends with everyone talking at once, a polyphonic close-out.

This session, which also produced “Exactly Like You” and “Vibraphone Blues” (with Hampton on vocal), convinced Goodman that Hampton had to be part of his band. He offered Hampton a $550 one-year contract (inflation-adjusted, about $10,000) and to pay for train tickets to New York. As Hampton recalled, Gladys said they should take a car instead so that if things went south, they could just get back in and go home. They packed up her white Chevrolet with Hampton’s drums and vibraphone and drove cross-country. Along the way, they got married.

The Hamptons moved into an apartment in Sugar Hill; Lionel went to the doctor (Goodman’s request—he wanted all his musicians insured) and cut more Quartet sessions. “Sweet Sue” is another intricate dialogue of Wilson and Hampton; “My Melancholy Baby” is a collection of masterful statements, from Goodman to Wilson to Hampton; “Stompin’ at the Savoy” finds Wilson, Goodman, and Krupa marching in formation against a Hampton solo; “Whispering” is Goodman soloing in an exquisite tone while Wilson, then Krupa, play obbligatos in response—Hampton swings in, spins around the room, slip-slides out.

Otis Ferguson, writing for the New Republic, saw the Quartet play during a Goodman set at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York, at the tail end of 1936.

They play every night — clarinet, piano, vibraphone, drums — and they make music you would not believe. No arrangements, not a false note, one finishing his solo and dropping into background support, then the other, all adding inspiration until, with some number like “Stomping at the Savoy,” they get going too strong to quit—four choruses, someone starts up another, six, eight, and still someone starts—no two notes the same and no one note off the chord, the more they relax in the excitement of it…This is really composition on the spot…it is a collective thing, the most beautiful example of men working together to be seen in public today.

Gene Krupa, a handsome madman over his drums, makes the rhythmic force and impetus of it visual, for his face and whole body are sensitive to each strong beat of the ensemble; and Hampton does somewhat the same for the line of melody, hanging solicitous over the vibraphone plates and exhorting them (Hmmm, Oh, Oh yah, Oh dear, hmmm). But the depth of tone and feeling is mainly invisible, for they might play their number “Exactly Like You” enough to make people cry and there would be nothing of it seen except perhaps in the lines of feeling on Benny Goodman’s face, the affable smile dropped as he follows the Wilson solo flight, eyes half-closed behind his glasses…The quartet is a beautiful thing all through, really a labor of creative love, but it cannot last forever.

He was right—it was over in little more than a year.

Ida in Avalon and Dumas: 1937

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It galled [Goodman] that something as petty as race prejudice would mess up the music he wanted to hear and play…He understood that a guy like Teddy couldn’t concentrate on his music when he had to deal with hate.

Hampton.

In March 1937, the Goodman Orchestra (and Trio and Quartet) did a two-week engagement at the Paramount Theater in Times Square. It was during Lent, and Goodman had modest expectations. Instead he got a blast of teenage swing fandom—girls in pleat skirts and white buck shoes jitterbugging in the aisles, their cheers so loud that it sounded like New Year’s Eve. Because for the first time in New York, high-school-age kids could see Goodman: the Paramount shows were during the day.

And the audiences were integrated; Black patronage increased sharply at the Paramount during the Goodman stint. John Hammond said he found it “amusing to note that commercial success had a magnificent way of eliminating color segregation.” The residency was hell on the musicians, who did five sets a day at the Paramount, starting mid-morning, while also playing a ballroom gig at night. Goodman only saw the sun when he took a car to the Paramount for his opening show. “When the public wants you, they want you all the time,” is how he described it. “And when they don’t want you, they don’t want you even a little bit.”

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People said to me, ‘Why you goin’ South? Those white folks will kill you.’ And I’d say, ‘they’ll have to kill Benny Goodman first.’

Hampton.

When the Orchestra toured, wending from New York to California in summer 1937, Goodman planned its more southern stops “like a military campaign,” Hampton recalled. He and Wilson endured the usual indignities on the road. “I don’t know how many times Teddy and I were mistaken for servants—Mr. Goodman’s valets.” When Goodman heard stagehands in Richmond calling Hampton a water boy, he dressed them down. “This man is a member of my band,” he told them. “He’s a gentleman and I want you to respect him as such.” (Hampton would sometimes embellish this story by saying that Goodman head-whacked one stagehand with his clarinet.)

In Dallas (a city to which Wilson had gone “with considerable misgivings,” as per Down Beat), Goodman had required by contract that Wilson and Hampton would stay in the same hotel as the rest of the band. Some of the police didn’t like the attention the two got. “Every time one of the kids came up and asked either of them for an autograph, naturally calling them Mr. Wilson or Mr. Hampton, [the cops] would act nasty,” Goodman wrote. When a fan sent a congratulatory bottle over to Hampton, one cop, yelling “no champagne for n—-s!,” knocked the tray to the ground.

One time Hampton and Wilson saw a water fountain marked “Whites Only” and, exchanging a grin, drank from it until a cop screamed at them: “Don’t you ever do that no more!” “Maybe we felt protected by the name of Benny Goodman and just wanted to test the limits,” Hampton wrote decades later.

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The Quartet was a band of four bandleaders. They made parallels, their relationships were an intricate traffic pattern. Goodman and Wilson were reserved on stage, Krupa and Hampton exuberant showmen. Hampton liked to map out his solos beforehand; Wilson and Goodman, drawing from their warehouses of memories, could pull melodies out of the air. And while Wilson and Hampton couldn’t get served in a restaurant in half of the country, they’d had more comfortable upbringings than Krupa and Goodman. Wilson, in particular, was more refined than Goodman, who’d pick his nose and plumb his ear in public without a care—it took his marriage to a former aristocrat to class him up a touch.

It was about as ideal a democracy as one could achieve in the United States in the Thirties. Compromise as an aesthetic; a band as a chessboard on which each piece holds the others in place, and within that suspension, infinite daring moves can be plotted.

A New York session on 3 February 1937 produced, in an hour or two, “Ida (Sweet as Apple Cider),” their lengthiest released track, with its upshifting and downshifting speeds (Wilson dominates on the bluesy downtempo sections) and Krupa’s propulsive work in the out-chorus; “Tea for Two,” in which Hampton and Krupa vie to be Goodman’s most loquacious accompanist, Hampton filling any space he can find, while Krupa plays swaggering press rolls. In the last chorus, they spiral around each other (see also how Krupa ends Wilson’s solo with rapid-fire tom hits, punctuated by a muted kick beat); “Runnin’ Wild” opens with a quick-step Krupa shuffle and builds up a head of steam—Hampton’s solo is the heat turned off for a chorus. It closes with Goodman driving the rest of the quartet ahead of him, its last thirty seconds a marvel.

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At the turn of July-August 1937 in Hollywood (while they were filming Hollywood Hotel), the Quartet cut some of their finest performances. A take on George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” cut weeks after his death, has Hampton as church accompanist (quoting “Rhapsody in Blue”), Goodman in a funereal tone, Wilson as eulogist, Krupa as sexton. There’s Krupa’s unusual, vivid hi-hat accents on “Handful of Keys,” in which Wilson seizes a classic Fats Waller piece for his own ends, and Krupa’s thundering toms on “Smiles,” where Goodman and Hampton keep a banter going throughout. Gershwin’s “Liza,” with Wilson’s Debussy-esque intro and his counterpoint during Goodman and Hampton’s solos.

And “Avalon,” an old Al Jolson hit (greatly written by Vincent Rose, who nicked from Puccini’s Tosca for the lead melody; Puccini’s publishers sued and won). The Quartet did two takes. The second was the release, while the first is a rare document of the Quartet in workshop mode. In the first take, you hear the Quartet taking risks in timing, phrasing, harmonies, with Wilson in particular out on the wire. The released take is tighter, more streamlined, with Goodman, in his solo, expanding on melodies and hooks he’d scattered through the first take.

There’s a slackening in the Quartet’s last 1937 sessions, as if they’ve gone as far as they can envisage, along with signs of growing commercial pressures—see their takes on hokey “Continental” pop hits, some inspired (“Vieni, Vieni, Vieni”), some wearying (“Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen”). Better was “Ding Dong Daddy (from Dumas),” another Quartet track that lays the ground for bebop—see Goodman’s chromatic passages in his solo, which, as Schoenberg noted, “creates a melodic/tonal ambiguity that Wilson exploits.”

The Break

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Gene had excitement. If he gained a little speed, so what? Better than sitting on your ass just getting by.

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Goodman was a martinet with his players. If you hit a bum note on stage, you got “The Ray”: a withering stare. His iciness had thickened with success (Down Beat headline from February 1937: “Is Benny Goodman’s Head Swollen?”). Where Krupa was “our spark plug, our showman,” as pianist Jess Stacy said, Goodman reminded kids, and some of his musicians, of their chemistry teacher. “Benny built a little cellophane barrier between himself and his audience,” the saxophonist Jerry Jerome said. “They had to take him as he was and like it.”

So Goodman solos got modest applause while Krupa’s cheers were such (especially given the white-hot popularity of “Sing Sing Sing,” his showcase number) that the band sometimes had to pause, with Goodman sitting cross-legged on the stage, until the crowd settled down. Tempos also were a slugfest. Helen Ward said that Goodman, wagging an index finger, could kick off songs too slowly or too fast, while Krupa could also rush if he got caught up in a song (John Hammond thought Krupa’s playing had deteriorated with fame, that he was getting too showy).

Benny didn’t like all the crazy antics and sensationalism that he felt were overshadowing the real music. Gene thought that the craziness was just basic showmanship. Although I tended to agree with Gene, I stayed out of it.

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By early 1938, Krupa and Goodman were arguing on stage (“you’re the ‘king of swing,’ let’s hear you swing!” Krupa once retorted) and in Philadelphia, an ugly bout ended with Krupa reportedly saying “eat some shit, Pops!” and quitting after the show. All at once, the Quartet was over. Hampton filled in on drums until March. By leaving, Krupa helped to fully integrate the Goodman Orchestra.

Opuses In Our Flats: 1938-1939

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Dave Tough at work in the basement [William Gottlieb]

Dave Tough was a slight man, weighing little over a hundred pounds. He’d gone to Ernest Hemingway’s high school and had accompanied Langston Hughes and Kenneth Rexroth during poetry readings. He moved to Paris, wrote limericks with F. Scott Fitzgerald, got married, split from his wife, returned to America a wreck. In the early Thirties he was on the street in Chicago. “He looked like a bum and he hung out with bums,” Jess Stacy said. “He’d go along Randolph Street and panhandle, then he’d buy canned heat and strain off the alcohol and drink it.” Marrying Casey Majors, a dancer, helped him to sober up and he drummed for Bunny Berigan and Tommy Dorsey.

Goodman hired him in March 1938 to replace Krupa, giving the band a drummer so devoted to support that he’d solo only under duress. “No drummer could match his intensity,” Ed Shaughnessy said. “He had the widest tempo, the broadest time sense…he was always at the center of the beat, even though he gave the impression he was laid back.”

Gifted at tuning, Tough ensured that his kick beats wouldn’t swallow bass notes. Instead, as recalled Sid Weiss, Goodman’s bassist at the time, when Weiss played a note, Tough’s kick “would go through the note and amplify it…the way the pedal struck the drum, it was just absolutely perfect.” To achieve this, Tough polished his kick pedal with a damp cloth and left the drum head “so loose it almost had wrinkles in it,” Shaughnessy said. “He tuned his snare and tom toms the same way, so that they were almost flabby.” (This was the polar opposite of a few years before, when Krupa had subsumed the bass playing of Goodman’s brother, Harry; likely with good intentions.) Tough was also a cymbals devotee, using a Chinese cymbal for gauzy backdrops, thirteen-inch hi-hats for accompaniment, and a mini-cymbal to dart into a bar or two.

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So: an ideal contrast for Krupa’s replacement in the Quartet. On “Sugar,” he accompanies Wilson’s solo mostly with kick drum beats; on “Sweet Lorraine,” the first Quartet recording that he made, his brushwork sounds like rustled tissue paper. Its centerpiece is Wilson’s solo: a ballad for two hands, one consoling, one yearning, which Tough embroiders with subtle, intricate cymbal patterns.

And “Dizzy Spells,” one of the high triumphs of the Quartet recordings. It moves like a bullet train, each player locked in, each sounding improbably cool and precise at a tempo at which one single bum note could derail everything. Goodman’s playing in his solo is flat-out incredible, and he needles Hampton in the latter’s solo; Tough and Wilson achieve a mind-meld in Wilson’s chorus (listen to how Tough shifts in the latter half from a pounding beat to a more ironic accenting).

Goodman soon grew frustrated with Tough, recipient of assorted Rays on stage. While he’d resented Krupa’s popularity, Goodman still wanted a big, loud, charismatic drummer. Whereas “Davey was subtle. Subtlety was not for Benny’s band,” Mel Powell recalled. A beleaguered Tough lost weight he didn’t have, started drinking again. In late October 1938, Goodman fired him, kicking off a long period of transitory, unhappy drummers, one of whom, Nick Fatool, “wanted to cut [Goodman’s] head off with a cymbal” by the end of his brief tenure, as per Jerry Jerome. “I think maybe he just didn’t like drummers,” said the trumpeter Chris Griffin of Goodman.

Not long before, the Quartet had cut a last session with Tough. With Krupa’s departure, it was as if a tacit compact had broken in the group and Hampton, freed of his extrovert rival on the drums, became more dominant a force. There was “Blues in Your Flat”/”Blues in My Flat,” one of the rare Quartet sides apparently fully improvised in the studio, with Hampton in control—he (barely) rewrote Lil Armstrong’s “Lonesome Blues” for the lead melody and recycled some lines from his own “Vibraphone Blues.” Another in this line was “Opus 1/2,” a Hampton/Goodman original on which Tough sounds like he’s playing castanets and typewriter.

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John Hammond, Goodman, Charlie Christian in 1940 [Whitten Collection]

In March 1939, Wilson left to form his own jazz orchestra (it disbanded in little more than a year—“it didn’t have mass appeal,” Wilson later said). His last Quartet recordings were cut at the end of 1938. In another sign that the old structure was crumbling, this edition of the Quartet had a bassist (John Kirby) and Hampton on drums (still a delight—see “I Cried for You” and “I Know That You Know”). A post-Wilson session in April 1939, with Jess Stacy on piano and Buddy Schutz on drums, resulted in one last side: “Opus 3/4.”

You can hear in the latter the Quartet about to fledge into Goodman’s last great innovation—his Sextet, a chamber supergroup whose members included, at times, Hampton, Cootie Williams, Jo Jones, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, and most of all, the young electric guitarist Charlie Christian. The Sextet lies beyond the realm of this already far-too-sprawling essay: listen to “Flying Home” and “Rose Room” and “Grand Slam” (the latter helping invent rock ‘n’ roll in April 1940) to get a taste of its brilliance.

The Sextet closed down in summer 1941, when Christian’s poor health forced to him to quit the band; he died not long afterward. Hampton had left the year before. Goodman gave him his blessing and some cash to start up his own band, if taking a percentage of their grosses (Hampton: “he was a businessman.”) By early 1941, no one who had played with Goodman at his Carnegie Hall show in January 1938 was still with him. A Benny Goodman Quartet persisted for years as a stage creation, and on an inspired 1942 disc, but it was an imposter, if one that still swung.

Into the Woods

I became famous with the Benny Goodman Quartet. But it was time to move on.

Hampton

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Goodman, Krupa, and Wilson, among others in the Goodman Orchestra, 1952 (Fred Palumbo)

Within weeks of leaving the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Gene Krupa got a record contract and set up a band, soon booked for a year’s worth of shows. “Why be a clerk when you can run your own store?” he told Burt Korall. If Goodman was acerbic about them (“I don’t think Gene ever had really a great band…he had to lead, the drummer was a leader. And that’s a difficult thing”), the Krupa Orchestra, especially once Roy Eldridge and Anita O’Day signed on (see their hepcat dialogue “Let Me Off Uptown”), was a prime jazz group of the early Forties, backing Barbara Stanwyck in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire. Then, disaster.

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NYT accounts of Krupa’s arrest (21 January 1943) and conviction (1 July), the latter printed above an ad for a Goodman residency

In a scenario which a few rock musicians would find familiar, Krupa had a hanger-on desperate to do a favor for him. This was his valet, who, according to one story, bought marijuana cigarettes for Krupa or, as per another account, decided to bring Krupa some pot from his dressing room without Krupa asking him to. At any rate, the authorities swept in, eager to bust Krupa, who was flashy, played jazz, and wasn’t in uniform during wartime: a patron saint of juvenile delinquents.

Krupa was arrested and tried, pled guilty to a lesser charge in the hopes of avoiding a felony count, got a ninety-day jail sentence, which was interrupted by a second trial for the felony charge (contributing to the delinquency of a minor). (“The ridiculous thing was that I was such a boozer I never thought about grass. I’d take grass, and it would put me to sleep,” Krupa later said.) He lost a Coca-Cola sponsorship; his band fell apart; he was evicted from his New York office, its furnishings dumped onto the street. Goodman, one of the few who’d visited him in prison, hired Krupa when the latter got out in late 1943, so as to get Krupa back in the spotlight.

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Krupa in New York, 1946 (William Gottlieb)

In the mid-Forties, Krupa put together a new band: a “modern” jazz orchestra whose players included Red Rodney and Charlie Kennedy and for which Gerry Mulligan wrote arrangements. Krupa struggled with bebop-style drumming, having trouble shifting his focus from kick and snare to ride cymbals—bop’s emphasis was on the pulse, disdaining the bowling-alley-crash fills that Krupa had made his name on. Eventually, as per Mel Lewis, “he caught on. His bass drumming became lighter—not a hell of a lot, but a little. He started playing time on ride cymbals and dropping bombs…on the right beats, on four and three, not on one so much. He’d listen.” (See, among others, “What’s This” (1945, with Dave Lambert on vocals), and “Up an Atom” (1947)).

Eventually, the group was spent, breaking up in 1951. Krupa joined Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe, was a regular on TV, did drum duels with Buddy Rich. He became a swing kid memory for a generation aging in suburbia.

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After Teddy Wilson’s big band split up (Al Hall, its bassist: “everybody kept saying we sounded too white”), he played at the Cafe Society in Sheridan Square in the Village, leading a house band, earning $100 a week. His was a life of steady, occasionally desperate work. Barney Josephson, who ran Cafe Society, recalled that “Teddy had been through a bunch of wives, and he’s had kids with each one of them. He has a lot of alimony to pay all around, so he needs money all the time.”

He’d back everyone from Lena Horne to Zero Mostel at Cafe Society; he worked for CBS in the Fifties, played Caribbean resorts, played New York, played Europe, taught private lessons and at Juilliard. He spent more time touring Japan during one stretch of the early Seventies than in Boston, where he lived. It all evened out, he said. “You’re never around anybody long enough to say, well, I want to get away from you. Everywhere you go, you’re glad to see the people, when you come home, when you go away.”

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Wilson, Arthur Godfrey, Billie Holiday, 1947 (CBS Photo Archive)

When Gary Giddins caught Wilson at the NYC club Fat Tuesday’s in 1980, he wrote that while Wilson’s “talent has not dwindled, the radical aspects of his style have not hardened into mannerisms, and he’s never compromised commercially,” his repertoire was the same as it had been forty years before. It was as if Wilson was on strike against the passage of time. At Fat Tuesday’s that night, a table of drunk tourists sang the opening lines of every well-worn song Wilson played; he sat there and took it, seemingly content to be a legendary cocktail pianist.

Yet each night, when he played “Tea for Two” or “Sweet Lorraine” yet again, with some sauced accounts manager mumblesinging the refrains, Wilson looked within the songs for something that he hadn’t found yet.

“You never play the same way,” he once told Josephson.

Some nights you can play [the piano] and on other nights it absolutely defies you…Some nights it plays itself, and that keeps you interested, too…The notes are coming out just like you want them. It’s like it’s talking. It’s saying something. It’s hard to figure. You’re just at the mercy of it.

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Lionel Hampton at the Aquarium, 1946 (Gottlieb)

Hampton was always going to do fine. All but born on stage, he loved being there; he’d resonate as if he was one of his vibraphone bars. Milt Jackson, in the Modern Jazz Quartet, would pick up where Hampton had left off, in terms of expanding the potential of vibraphone improvisation. Hampton was happy to be a bandleader, to bounce from drums to piano to vibes to microphone, to be his own hype man. Of the Goodman Quartet, he was the most fluent in jump blues and early R&B, which he helped create—see “Flying Home” and “Rag Mop.”

On tour, Hampton found that “a lot of time we got bookings because the managers thought I was white,” he wrote. “I’d played with Benny Goodman…but they clearly hadn’t seen any pictures of the Benny Goodman Quartet.” He was a sunny integrationist. When he found a ballroom where the floor was divided to keep the races apart, “I cut the ropes down more than once—they weren’t going to have segregated dancing where I was playing.”

“I’d like to think that I helped bring black music to white audiences,” he added. “I know I exposed thousands and thousands of white people to some of the most talented black musicians who ever lived.” Dexter Gordon was in his band for a time; Dinah Washington got her break with him (“that girl was so poor she was raggedy. And she was dark—the light-skinned girls got all the attention in those days,” he wrote about seeing Washington for the first time), as did teenage Quincy Jones, in the early Fifties.

Hampton said he recorded a rock ‘n’ roll album in 1946, Rock and Roll Rhythm. It was “too cacophonous” for Decca, who allegedly shelved the tapes. “I was ahead of my time on that. Rock and roll wouldn’t be big for another ten years.” There’s no other mention I’ve ever found of this never-released album, apart from a paragraph in Hampton’s autobiography. Maybe it’s the Rosetta Stone of rock ‘n’ roll; maybe it’s another great Hampton tall tale. It does feel like Lionel Hampton could have invented physics at some point, too.

He always stayed in the black groove, Hampton said. “You knew my band was black just from listening to it.” A soul-infused piece like “Greasy Greens,” from the mid-Sixties, showed that, as back when he started with Les Hite thirty years earlier, his core philosophy was to “get people to dance, to have a good time, clap their hands.”

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Between November 1940 and the recording ban that began in August 1942, Benny Goodman used sixty-five musicians in his sessions, including eleven drummers—it got to the point where he’d fly in a new player and fire him after the first gig. He was losing out, in personnel and record sales, to such rivals as Artie Shaw (“excellent clarinetist…the only trouble was his band was a copy of my band”), Glenn Miller, and Goodman’s former trumpeter Harry James.

Yet he was still developing musically, thanks to one of his new arrangers, Eddie Sauter, who  had a taste for dissonance, richly-textured instrumentation (see “The Man I Love,” from 1940, in which bass clarinet and baritone sax serve as contrary basslines), and unusual modulations. And to Peggy Lee, whose twenty-month stint with Goodman resulted in some of the most beautiful recordings he ever made. “My Old Flame,” which Lee sings abstractedly, drifting through the piece “like a slow-moving distant cloud in the sky” (Schuller). The hushed, cryptic reserve of her phrasings in “The Way You Look Tonight,” where she works against Mel Powell’s celeste as if she’s another keyboard line;  “Where Or When,” in which she seems to burnish each syllable in moonlight.

In poor health at times (in 1940, he’d had surgery for a ruptured disk, a procedure that he’d never fully recover from, needing painkillers and a horse collar to get through gigs), Goodman started taking flak from the music press (Jazz Session: “an uncreative riffster trying desperately to copy even the poorest of Negro musicians and failing miserably”; Metronome: “his arrangements smack of the mid-’30s”; Down Beat: “he seems to want the blandest possible changes behind him…it bothers him to hear an unfamiliar voicing”).

Even John Hammond, in Music and Rhythm in June 1942, blasted him for “no longer [being] an innovator or a musical radical. Instead of forming popular tastes he is bowing down to them and following the path laid down by his imitators.” (This was a few months after Goodman had married Hammond’s sister, Alice; make of that what you will.)

These were too harsh a critique. Goodman’s ambitions were now more centered on classical music. He’d played with the Coolidge String Quartet and commissioned, among other pieces, Bartok’s Contrasts, Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet, and Morton Gould’s Derivations for Solo Clarinet and Dance Band. (“It’s a sense of, well, growing up I guess,” Goodman said. “What are you going to do, go out and play ‘Lady Be Good’ again forever and ever?”) And Goodman’s bebop-influenced group at the end of the Forties made some inspired recordings—see “Undercurrent Blues” and “Stealin’ Apples,” the latter with Fats Navarro.

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Goodman’s increasing aesthetic conservatism was more owed to commercial realities. The “avant-garde” stuff didn’t sell, he griped, while the 1950 LP release of his twelve-year-old Carnegie Hall concert moved a million copies by decade’s end. In 1953, Goodman spouted to the New York Times that “bop…is a lot of noise, the wrong kind of noise. They can’t play their horns. No tone, no phrasing, no technique…the damn monotony of it got to me.” (Of his own foray into bop, he called it “an experiment…leave it with that.”) The pianist Marian McPartland, who toured with Goodman in 1963, recalled him being sour about how she voiced chords. “I guess I was slipping in flatted fifths and Benny didn’t care for those kind of extended modern harmonies.”

Yet nostalgia had its perils, too. A joint tour in 1953 with Louis Armstrong proved disastrous—the two quarreled and Armstrong would lengthen his sets to eat into Goodman’s time on stage. Goodman, visibly drunk at some shows, collapsed in Boston, having to be put into an oxygen tent. Krupa took over as co-bandleader for the tour: it became a success.

Together Again

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During the sessions for Together Again, 1963 [William Randolph]

The Benny Goodman Quartet first reunited in 1954 for an NAACP benefit, (Goodman had continued to work with Krupa and Wilson sporadically before then) and then to play themselves in The Benny Goodman Story, a clunky biopic starring Steve Allen (it did produce another great take on “Avalon”). Goodman had drifted into becoming the typical jazz elder of the time—small group sets that got respectful New Yorker “Talk of the Town” write-ups; Waldorf-Astoria residencies; State Department-sponsored tours of foreign countries.

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Quartet, 1955

In 1963, he thought to reunite the Quartet in the studio: after all, they’d never made a proper album. George Avakian, chosen to produce, was wary of doing a homage to past glories. So he was relieved to learn Goodman “had already decided to record fresh material they hadn’t played to death in the old days.” An initial session (13 February 1963) found the Quartet working through “Love Sends a Little Gift of Roses” (a World War One-era John McCormack ballad), Kurt Weill’s “September Song” and Gerry Mulligan’s “Bernie’s Tune.”

It was a lost session (“rather pedestrian,” Avakian recalled): everyone was nervous, uncomfortable with the songs, took ages between takes. As Avakian told George Firestone: “Once or twice there was a bit of roughness between Benny and Hampton when Benny wouldn’t accept Hampton’s suggestions about a background figure.” Goodman, assuming he’d be the boss as in the old days, found that instead he was sitting in a room with three other thick-egoed middle-aged men, each of whom had had run a band for years.

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William Randolph contact sheet: Quartet and Avakian recording Together Again (NYPL)

They tried again, some months later, on 26 August 1963. It was a miracle day, with seven of the album’s ten tracks cut during it. If the selections were less adventurous (most dated from the Thirties, including a revisit to “Runnin’ Wild” and the Sextet classic “Seven Come Eleven”), the group sounded tight, with a strong repartee. Together Again (released in early 1964), if far from a masterwork, is livelier and fresher than it could have been. It’s a happy opportunity to hear the Quartet recorded well, with stereo mixing—you can make out Krupa’s cymbal work in sparkling detail, or how Wilson’s left and right hands navigate though a song.

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In the fall of 1972, Goodman was asked by Timex to bring the Quartet back together for a TV special taped at Lincoln Center. This kicked off two years of Quartet reunions on stage, a period that Goodman looked back on with regret:

I don’t think [the reunions] recaptured anything. You can’t expect people to come together and pick up right where they left off. That’s impossible. In 1937, it was the Benny Goodman Quartet. In 1973, we were all leaders. Leaders don’t want to become sidemen again, do they? The concerts went well to the extent that we were all good musicians and played well together. But it wasn’t like it was before.

Goodbye

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The day before the Quartet played Carnegie Hall in July 1973, they rehearsed at CBS Studios on 52nd Street and let in the press to watch them at work. The New York Times‘ Tom Buckley described Hampton, wearing “a reckless suit of magenta plaid,” as appearing worried and distracted, which someone in the room said was because “Lionel’s a big businessman now. He’s opening a big housing project in Harlem this Saturday.”

They went through “After You’ve Gone” and “Handful of Keys,” “My Melancholy Baby” and “Avalon.” Krupa said the rehearsal was “to see if I can hack it.” He’d gotten out of the hospital not long before. He’d had a benign form of leukemia for years, requiring routine blood transfusions. Apart from some hesitations on tom fills, Krupa sounded well enough. At five o’clock, Wilson stood up to leave. “Come on, we’ve got time for a few more,” Goodman said. Wilson said no, he had to be “way the hell out in Jersey by seven, and you’re going to make me late.” Goodman thought about contesting the point, then acceded, taking apart his clarinet and drying each piece with a cloth.

“This would have been only starting for us twenty-five or thirty years ago,” he rued. “We used to play five or six shows a day at a place like the Paramount and maybe double somewhere else.” A TV reporter asked what he thought of rock music. Not much. “I hate all that amplification. I don’t know what it’s all about. I’m glad we don’t have to do anything but play the way we want to.”

They played Carnegie Hall and, not long afterward, Saratoga Springs, on 18 August 1973. The end at last: Krupa died two months later, at sixty-four.

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One of the last photographs of the Quartet (with Slam Stewart on bass), NYC, 28 July 1973 [Jack Manning]

Wilson and Goodman would work together for another decade, though the strains in their relationship had only grown. They weren’t speaking at times, with the saxophonist Loren Schoenberg once roped in to be their negotiator backstage (“Loren, ask if Teddy if he wants to play ‘China Boy’…”Tell Benny I don’t play ‘China Boy’ anymore”). Goodman thought Wilson had dried up; Wilson considered working with Goodman a necessary evil (“the man is the same today as he was in 1936. You just have to learn to ask for enough money to make it worth your while…these jobs allow me to play with a class of musician I can’t afford to hire myself,” he once told the bassist Bill Crow).

The last time the two played together was for a Goodman TV special taped on 7 October 1985, at the Marriott Marquis. Wilson, who’d been diagnosed with stomach cancer, came out for “The Man I Love” and “But Not For Me.”

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Goodman, in chronic pain, had long kept his appearances limited–a duet with George Benson on “Seven Come Eleven” on a 1978 TV special, for instance. While he admitted “I don’t have the stamina I used to,” he’d still practice daily and said he’d never retire: it was work or the grave.

In 1986, he gave an interview to Tower Records’ Pulse! where he bristled at the statement that his music was passe: “contemporary, shmentemporary—it doesn’t mean a goddam thing.” But his last shows were crumbling affairs. He had to be led off stage, near-delirious with the flu, at the University of Michigan. At Wolf Trap, in Arlington, Virginia, he found it so hard to breathe that he was reduced to pantomime by the final numbers, moving his fingers along his clarinet without playing a note. It was his last time before an audience.

Less than a week after that, on 13 June 1986, Carol Phillips, the companion of his last years, found Goodman holding his clarinet, sitting on a sofa in his Manhattan apartment, and about to die from a heart attack. He’d been rehearsing, with Brahms and Mozart pieces on the music stand. “Benny did not believe in an afterlife,” she told Firestone. “He felt you’re here and that’s it.”

Teddy Wilson died half a month later, in a New Britain, Connecticut, hospital.

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Hampton, eldest of the Quartet, would be the last of them. In the late Eighties, he wrote his memoir, with James Haskins. It opens as one of the great American autobiographies—a rich picture of the Jim Crow South and Jazz Age Chicago—and becomes a garrulous collection of awards acceptances and I-met-him-whens. Always a politician, he hardened into the role in his old age. Hampton had worked to elect Nixon, was a proud Reagan supporter, devoted a couple pages of his book to complain about sex in movies.

In 1997, a halogen lamp caused a fire in his apartment. It nearly killed him—the blaze consumed his belongings (as many of his master tapes would be claimed by the Universal Studios fire a decade later). Yet two days later, in a borrowed suit, he accepted an award from Bill Clinton. If he’d lost everything he’d carried with him, Hampton nearly lived forever. His death, in 2002, is provisional. Like his father, he may yet pop up somewhere, if only to surprise us.

Vibraphone Blues

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End of a session: Hollywood, 26 August 1936. The Goodman Quartet does a nondescript blues of Hampton’s. It sounds as if it was cut at some ebb hour, the air rich with smoke (it was probably around four in the afternoon).

Wilson’s solo is an exhausted man trying to fit his key into a lock.

Hampton leans towards the microphone, with a theatrical groan. If the blues was whiskey, babe, I would stay drunk all the time. An arch delivery. All…of the time.

Play it Mister Goodman! Play it a long, long time! Goodman, flattered, does a strut. Wilson takes a few bars; Hampton’s eye is on him, too. Oh play it Mister Wilson! Play that long, long time. Krupa shifts in. Now when Mister Krupa beats those riffs….he don’t let you down! Yeah.

Hampton closes it out like he’s notarizing a deed. Goodman looks at the engineer. All good? Click: a day, a world, disappears.

4. Queen

DISCOGRAPHY                   SOURCES                            PLAYLIST (+)

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Get drunk and sing along to Queen

R.E.M., “The Wake-Up Bomb”

Earls Court, 1977

Freddie Mercury, on stage in London, wielding his microphone half-stand like a bishop’s crosier, asks his audience what type of song the band should play next.

Something a bit softer, something quiet or something heavier?…Listen to me, luvvies: listen! He’s in a harlequin outfit that’s open at the chest and so tight that it’s apparent on which side he dresses. Should I just tell you what’s it’s called? he says, airily dispensing with the fiction of taking a request. It’s called: Death! On Two Leg-ZUH!

He hunches over his piano like a garment maker at work; he’s playing silent-movie-suspense arpeggios. During Mercury’s piano stints, the crowd tenses, waiting for the moment when he’ll jolt up! (it happens quickly, here; sometimes it never happens) and move downstage, leaving the piano behind as if it was a rocket booster.

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“Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…)” opens Queen’s 1975 album A Night at the Opera. It’s a piss-off/kiss-off to their former managers, Trident Productions, and, in particular, to Trident co-owners Norman and Barry Sheffield. It’s about a nasty old man I used to know, Mercury says at Earls Court. (Norman Sheffield would sue for defamation and later wrote a book called Life on Two Legs.)

In 1975, Queen had toured Japan and were treated like the Beatles, “Killer Queen” was a UK #2, and they were on Top of the Pops but they were still living in squalid apartments and being turned down for cash advances. By the standards of “rock stars ripped off by managers,” the situation wasn’t that egregious. Queen wasn’t getting advances because they owed Trident tens of thousands of pounds after making lavishly-produced albums that hadn’t, until 1975, sold well. They’d soon get out of the Trident contract and have enough money to buy country houses a year or so later.

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The offender’s identity, the nature of their offense, means little to “Death on Two Legs” (which, as its parenthetical suggests, is dedicated to anyone you hate). All that was required was an opening, a chance for Mercury to write a revenge song. It’s invective worthy of a pharaoh. He likens his targets to sharks and shabby barrow peddlers, to leeches and rabid dogs, to sewer rats and old mules. You should be made unemployed, he spits. Or better, ever thought of killing yourself? (“I think you should!”) It’s apparent who death on two legs truly is. In this pantheon of gods, Mercury is the Bringer of War.

“I had a tough time trying to get the lyrics across…I wanted to make them as coarse as possible,” Mercury said in 1976. “My throat was bleeding, the whole bit. I was changing lyrics every day trying to get it as vicious as possible…I was completely engrossed in it, swimming in it. Wow! I was a demon for a few days…Initially it was going to have the intro and then everything stop and the words—YOU, SUCK, MY—but that was going too far.”

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Death on Two Legs” has a three-part introduction (a typically Queen thing of the period—a song starts with a mini-song): a) faded-in frantic piano that’s muted when b) Brian May picks between two notes, ominously—it’s his Jaws theme—with overdubbed seagull cries, a maelstrom that’s ended by a hard cut to c) what we soon discover is the chorus riff, played on piano, soon answered by a May guitar figure high on his frets, which he develops into a brief solo. “Death” has been slowing in tempo since it began, a sense of temporal distortion that’s furthered in the verse, with its half-time shifts (“all…my…money,” “fooo-oo-ools of the first division”). Mercury is so consumed by spite that he’s warping the world around him.

In the chorus, everything tightens up, Mercury homing in on his prey, making long swoops down a fifth (“a-paahhhhrt,” “a haaahhhrrrrt“) and joined, at the kill, by what sounds like a chorus of robed justices from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, singing in colossal four-part harmony: KILL JOY!   BAD GUY!   BIG TALKIN’!   SMALL FRY!  This great tower block of vocals is the purest sound of Queen, their God voice, three men singing the same note together, tracking over that in harmony, then tracking over that, and so making layer after layer of themselves. The most M.C. Escher of bands.

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On stage at Earls Court, Roger Taylor, in his small fortress of toms and cymbals and gong, is the back center; John Deacon stands on the riser a step beneath the drums, poised like a goalie. Mercury prowls around the lip of the stage while May shuttles back and forth, depending on where he is in the song, as if being summoned by a bell.

Stage Queen was a band apart from Album Queen, they always said. The former was a regional touring company for the latter. “Death” on record is cram-packed with little details—Mercury’s hissed “shark!,” a guitar kiss. Bringing “Death” to an audience as a mere quartet, Queen has to chip down the song, make it light enough to travel. At Earls Court, “Death on Two Legs” is acted out as a royal triumph. They are the champions: here’s one of their conquests.

Bohemian Rhapsody, 2019

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The Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody took a decade to make. It went through a string of prospective directors (of the two who shot the picture, the first was fired during filming) and actors, with enough script revisions to fill a small manor.

The released film was, charitably, something of a mess. Scenes feel spliced together from a tangle of reshoots, some look done via CGI. It has the vigor of a made-for-television movie from 1994. I recall one about Madonna from around then—it opens with Madonna sitting in an awards show dressing room, sadly regarding herself in the mirror, and a janitor walking by says something like, That’s how it is, Madonna: when you reach the top, you’re always alone. The spirit of this janitor haunts this film.

As per Sacha Baron Cohen, originally cast to play Mercury, an earlier script had dispatched Freddie with a good chunk of the film left to go—this draft concluded by noting, apparently in great detail, that Queen continues. If at least allowed to be the main character of Bohemian Rhapsody, Mercury is also shown as silly, decadent, estranged from his true friends in the band, who are put-upon types who shake their heads at poor Freddie’s lifestyle, ruled by a cabal of Manipulative Gays. He’s finally allowed a measure of happiness as a (discreetly) gay monogamist and then dies. This is tragic but equally so, the film implies, is the fact that this could have meant the end of the band.

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Bohemian Rhapsody grossed over $900 million, as of last April (it’s likely hit over $1 billion by now), and won four Oscars, including Best Actor and Best Editor (!). It’s a very Queen ending. Something tied to them appears ill-advised, tacky, bound for failure. Then it makes a billion dollars. Nothing really matters.

The strangest of the platinum rock bands, Queen lived in the space between their contradictions: a self-conscious yet oblivious group; exquisite craftsmen who were wildly tasteless; science fiction/fantasy aficionados who made records loved by jocks. They released an album called Jazz that not only had no jazz on it, but was a pole apart from jazz—it was jazz antimatter, Zzaj. They were the straightest of bands, defined by a man whose magnificently queer persona shone through them.

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And only the Beatles stand above them today, in terms of “classic rock” bands still enjoyed by the young. Of Spotify’s 100 most-streamed songs, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is currently ranked 35th, with over 1.1 billion streams. It’s the only song on the list from the 20th Century. Hell, it’s the only song on the list released before 2011.

Or see Billboard‘s Top 10 Rock Songs of the 2010s, dominated by Imagine Dragons, Panic! at the Disco and Twenty-One Pilots. These bands owe nothing to the Rolling Stones, the Clash, Nirvana; they are the children of Queen. (See My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way: “I think Queen is the greatest rock band of all time”; see Lady Gaga, stage name taken from a Queen song.) Mainstream rock today lives in the cathedral that Queen built decades ago. Adam Lambert fits perfectly with Queen, as they are his contemporaries.

A Short History of Queen

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A Longer History of Queen

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The Good Product

“If there was ever an equally divided quartet, this is it. We need that kind of blend where each one’s got to contribute just about evenly. Just because I’m out front doesn’t necessarily mean I’m any kind of leader. We all have strong characters and we row constantly. It’s healthy, because then you get the cream, the good product.”

Freddie Mercury, to Phonograph Record, 1976

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Freddie Bulsara, London, 1969 (Mark and Colleen Hayward)

I’ve created a monster. The monster is me. I can’t blame anyone for this. It’s what I’ve worked for since I was a child. I would have killed for this. Whatever happens to me is all my fault. It’s what I wanted.

Freddie Mercury, ca. mid-Eighties, to Lesley-Ann Jones.

Courtney Love is reading from Kurt Cobain’s suicide note at a vigil in Seattle, April 1994. “‘When the manic roar of the crowd begins, it doesn’t affect me in the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury,'” holding in a tear-soaked laugh on the last words. “‘Who seemed to love and relish in the love and adoration of the crowd…'” She breaks off. “Well, Kurt, so fucking what? Then don’t be a rock star, you asshole.”

Freddie Mercury was a designer brand of rock stardom: a striking-looking man in a skin-tight t-shirt and jeans or tights, his face that of a sea pirate from a Douglas Fairbanks picture, leading football stadiums of people in cod-operatic chants, singing “We Are the Champions” as if he’d won the Superbowl earlier that day.

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In interviews, he spoke of himself as a character, calling “Freddie” a stage-summoned demon, one who could never be second-best. He likened his stage hours to having out-of-body experiences: “It’s like I’m looking down on myself and thinking, ‘fuck me, that’s hot.’ Then I realize it’s me.”

He had no back story. He was Freddie Mercury, he sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Flash.” Maybe you recalled he used to be clean-shaven. That was it. No Liverpool docks to Hollywood Bowl struggle to stardom, no Graceland, no going-electric-at-Newport, no legends about him (but some rumors). Who knew he was born in Zanzibar? That his real name was Bulsara? These facts weren’t hidden—they were disclosed nearly from the start in Queen profiles—but they weren’t necessary. Freddie Mercury was born anew each night, sparked into life by his crowds. Otherwise he was kept in a luxury box: caviar, cigarettes, Moët et Chandon in a pretty cabinet, some cats.

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Fred on Fred, 1979 (Peter Hince)

Farrokh Bulsara was born in Zanzibar, in 1946, to Zoroastrian Parsi immigrants from India. He couldn’t get out of his original life quickly enough (“you won’t get much from Zanzibar,” he told Circus in 1974).

At nine, he was shipped off to St. Peter’s Boys School in Panchgani, a small hill town in Maharashtra, India (“I was a precocious child and my parents thought boarding school would do me good,” he told Caroline Coon. “It was an upheaval of an upbringing, which seems to have worked, I guess”). There he lived between 1955 and 1963, visiting home rarely. In Panchgani, he started being known as “Freddie,” began performing music, started calling everyone he met “darling.”

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Farrokh Bulsara (right, kneeling) and his classmates at St Peter’s School, ca. late Fifties (Ajay Goyal)

The Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, if catastrophic for the Bulsaras (who fled to Britain, where they had family), would be the great fortune of Freddie Bulsara’s life. Imagine an alternate Freddie, a frustrated provincial out of a Rushdie novel, working in trade or design or government, based in Dar es Salaam or Mumbai, poring through NMEs that arrive months-late in the post, his ambitions penned to his diaries.

Instead fate placed him, in 1965, at age nineteen, in Feltham, within striking distance of Swinging London.

He moved to Kensington, went to Ealing Art College, spent his nights in clubs. His idol was Jimi Hendrix, whom he followed around on one tour. He could play piano and had an ear for vocal harmony. In 1968, an Ealing friend, Tim Staffell, formed a rock group, Smile, with other London college kids: Brian May (with whom Staffell had played in an earlier band, 1984) and Roger Taylor.

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Freddie became Smile’s fan, roadie, plus-one. They were the semi-professionals, students working up a rep on the regional circuit; he was their irreverent font of ideas. He watched Smile from the wings, analyzing them—most of all, imagining being one of them. Queen is the theater-dream of Freddie Bulsara, a play taken over by its sharpest critic.

As David Hepworth wrote of Mercury on stage, “he was utterly exposed. But Freddie didn’t mind. That was his strength, to be able to do something that no other member of the band could imagine themselves doing.”

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He, May, and Taylor formed Queen in 1970 (once Staffell left, Freddie at last seized the position he’d craved). As with Bowie, Elton John and Marc Bolan, Queen’s Sixties had been apprentice years. Now there were openings and they meant to take one. They picked a striking name (as did Freddie, who anointed himself “Mercury”), designed a logo, settled on their look—a lived-in, comfortable glam.

Convinced of their worth, they didn’t want to waste years paying dues on the road—they would rarely be an opening act. (Taylor, 1976: “We didn’t really want to get into that small club circuit. We all wanted to play big, big concerts.”) They would instead rehearse, write and record, and record well (even their demo was cut via 16-track console, on two-inch tape); they would get the notice they deserved, and become famous. This took roughly five years.

In 1978, Mercury wrote a valentine to Queen, his homage to the Seventies’ biggest cabaret act, a misfit rock gang commanded by a man with the soul of Sally Bowles. “It’s a sellout!” as he kicks things off:

Just take a look at the menu
We give you rock à la carte!
We’ll breakfast at Tiffany’s!
We’ll sing to you in Japanese!
We’re only here to entertain you

The Faerie Bicycle Race (Gunpowder, Gelatine)

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Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke (1855-1864, detail).

My lyrics and songs are mainly fantasies. I make them up. They are not down-to-earth, they’re kind of airy-fairy, really.

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To be queer is to treat art like the mirror it often isn’t. To be queer is to realize that the mirror can’t return your love.

Alfred Soto, “What It Means To Be Queer”

In life, Mercury was a grand house: his bandmates saw one set of rooms, his family another, his lovers another. “I play on the bisexual thing because it’s something else, it’s fun,” he told Melody Maker in 1974. “But I don’t put on the show because I feel I have to, and the last thing I want to do is give people an idea of exactly who I am. I want people to work out their own interpretation of me and my image.”

Mercury was, to paint a broad coat, a bisexual whose sexual relationships were mostly with men. He’d refuse to define himself, instead happy to cheekily affirm whatever an interviewer thought they knew. “I’m as gay as a daffodil, dear,” when asked if he was “queer”; pushed to commit to being straight, gay, or bisexual in 1976, he said “I sleep with men, women, cats, you name it.” At one point in the early Eighties, he was in essentially a polycule with a male Tyrolean restaurateur, a male Irish hairdresser, and a German actress. For Mercury, locking oneself into a definition committed the mortal sin of being boring. So he’d dress as a “butch” gay man and front a band called Queen. He’d stand before tens of thousands, enacting the apparent obvious, which some of his fans couldn’t see. This was his magic trick.

That said, he fenced off his private life—his platonic relationship with Mary Austin was played up as his true romance while various male lovers were never to be mentioned. (People, 1977: “Austin, 26, a former shop girl turned Mercury’s quiet live-in lovely for seven years..admits to being “a bit puzzled” by her relationship with a simulated bisexual, but apologizes for him: “He’s mentally all over the place.”) There was a deep measure of fear, distrust, guilt. He was the first-born son in a religiously observant family, and one who would never have children, a wife, or a “respectable” job; his peers were mostly white British boys who’d tell biographers decades later that Freddie “didn’t seem gay to me.”

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Queen’s co-producer John Anthony: In 1972, “Freddie showed me copies of Harpers & Queen magazine and said ‘This is what we are about..it’s not just the name, it’s the pictures, the articles, the whole thing..This is how we want our record to sound, like different topics and different photos’.”

He roamed free in his songs. “He was this absolute nerd. A toothy nerd, who grew into his own fantasy,” his song publisher David Stark said.  For Queen and Queen II, Mercury wrote songs full of Jesus and holy madmen; he chronicled the fall of fairy kingdoms, including Rhye, a secret world that he and his sister had invented as children.

Composition was hard at first. He envied how May could write proper songs—verse, chorus, solo, all of it!—while he labored at his piano, only able to make fragments (he had some of the first part of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the late Sixties—when a friend, Chris Smith, heard it on the radio in 1975, his first thought was “oh, Freddie’s finished the song.”)

But writing songs via a glue-these-bits-together method helped maintain the interest, he found. He’d dance his fingers over the black keys and would, if his bands would allow it, modulate a half-dozen times in a song. Why stay in the same place? How ordinary. Don’t repeat the verse again. Go somewhere else. The peak of his early style is “March of the Black Queen,” with five different sections (each part with multiple subsections) linked by loose connecting tissue (roller-coaster vocal harmonies, ping-ponged guitar), all with manic shifts in meter and key. As Queen Songs notes, “Black Queen” is a procession through every major and minor chord (plus lots of augmented and flatted ones), with all 12 notes of the chromatic scale used as roots at some point. In its most radical sections there’s no discernible tonality—each subsequent chord overturns the attempt of the previous one to impose order.

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It was his titanic period of songwriting, his songs ruled by grand characters. Great King Rat (“every second word he swore/ yes he was the son of a whore!” and who dies at age 44 of disease, a year before Mercury would); the Fairy King; variations on Christ: the original, celebrity healer of lepers, and Mad the Swine, who has doubts about humanity’s value. Pleas to Fathers and Mothers (the latter also the confessor figure of “Bohemian Rhapsody”), ragefully begging forgiveness. “Liar” is a courtroom drama in which Mercury defends and prosecutes himself.

The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” came from a Richard Dadd painting (made while Dadd was confined in an insane asylum after having murdered his father), which Mercury had taken his band to see at the Tate. His phrasing was inspired enough to make a line like “tatterdemalion and a junketer/ there’s a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter” singable. Of more obscure origins is “Ogre Battle,” whose key detail is that the ogres fight within a two-way mirror mountain where “you can’t see in but they can see out.” (In these songs, sequenced on Queen II‘s “black side,” a motif is Roger Taylor’s harmonies, shrieking a series of AHHHH-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHs like a rattled ghost).

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The finale of Queen II is “Seven Seas of Rhye” in which Mercury casts himself as the Cortez of his childhood escape world, the usurper bringing it to heel, sacking the cities. It was Queen’s first hit.

Fear me you lords and lady preachers!
I descend upon your earth from the skies!

The follow-up hit was the Killer Queen, Mercury’s idealized sexual vampire figure, his jumble of Modesty Blaise, Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman, Holly Golightly, and Mata Hari. A response to the straight and gay worlds’ suspicions of the bisexual, as someone not to be fully trusted, someone who’s not serious, “insatiable in appetite,” dynamite with a laser beam. Brian May’s solo is her dance of triumph, the vocal harmonies a set of wry marginal commenters (“perfume came naturally from Paris (nat’rally!)”)

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The epilogue was “Lily of the Valley,” regarded by some in Mercury’s orbit as being for Austin (May, to Mojo, 1999: “It’s about looking at his girlfriend and realizing that his body needed to be somewhere else.”) Rhye is conquered, its ruler dethroned, the last messenger from the fallen frontiers brings the news. Off the sad king goes into a life of exile.

As “Seven Seas of Rhye” fades, Queen rumbles through the music hall song “I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside” (also whistled at the start of “Brighton Rock,” which led off the next album). In the mid-Seventies, Mercury shifted into pastiche, exquisite fabrications: spins on Broadway vamp songs (“Bring Back That Leroy Brown“, “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy“) and pseudo-Edwardian novelties (“Seaside Rendezvous,” “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”).

These were well-crafted, catchy, fun (it was the spirit of Paul McCartney, who also liked to scurry off into his neverlands) but their collective unreality bothered some critics of the time. What were these songs doing on an ostensibly hard rock record? What was the point of this stuff?

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Mercury wrote “Bicycle Race” in the summer of 1978 while in Montreux, after a stage of the Tour de France had raced through town. He caught his wry perspective in a song, like a sunbeam trapped on a photograph—a yen to keep removed, to avoid the contagion of the Seventies (he hates Star Wars and Jaws, is bored by Watergate); a delight in devising some new spectacle to occupy him.

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“Bicycle Race” was another pianist’s folly: each section is in a different key, chock full of mixed meters (6/8 and 9/8 alone in the “bicycle races are coming your way” section), irregular bars, broken phrasings—-it’s shot through with weirdness. “Freddie wrote in strange keys,” May said in 1999. “Oddball keys that his fingers naturally used to go to…E-flat, F, A-flat. They’re the last things you want to be playing on guitar, so as a guitarist you’re forced to find new chords. Fred’s songs were so rich in chord structures you always found yourself making strange shapes with your fingers.”

Queen whisks together the bicycle race itself: a few bars of nearly an octave’s worth of bicycle bells, then May as a dueling pair of lead racers (runs up the D major scale), one pulling ahead, the other roaring past in a vip-dash of speed, the first pedaling furiously in response. It’s the Ogre Battle resumed, if a bit sleeker.

Bicycle! bicycle! bicycle!” (note the emphasis on the first syllable: it is Freddie, after all). It’s Queen as Mercury’s train set, the greatest one he ever could have imagined: this group of miraculous, devoted fantasists.

I Am a Scientist

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Brian May and coelostat in Tenerife, 1971 (May Archive)

I’m the only one in the band from the artistic field. The others are all scientists.

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Not long after Queen formed, Brian May lived in a hut on the island of Tenerife, photographing zodiacal light. “I was looking at dust in the solar system,” he told Sounds in 1975. “There’s a lot of it around. I was…using a spectrometer to look for Doppler shifts in the light that came from them, and from that you can find out where they’re going, and possibly where they came from. It has a lot to do with how the solar system was formed.”

Some who work in laboratories daydream about being rock guitarists. May is a rock guitarist who perhaps daydreams about working in a laboratory. His life has been that of a Walter Mitty in reverse.

On stage, May would linger by the drum riser, suddenly dart downstage, execute a Hendrix/Townshend move and retreat. He was a guitar hero in bursts. “May was light years ahead of me but he did not have any fire in his bollocks,” Chris Dummett, an earlier bandmate of Mercury’s, told Queen biographer Mark Hodkinson. “Freddie thought Brian was suburban and droopy.” May was Queen’s absent-minded professor; his producers found that a question about microphones or what type of tea he wanted could begin a half-hour-long conversation.

Yet he wrote some of the crassest, bawdiest songs Queen ever recorded. “Fat Bottomed Girls” is his, as is “Tie Your Mother Down” and “Brighton Rock” (one earlier title: “Happy Little Fuck”). Queen’s headbanging dominance songs are mostly his as well, from “We Will Rock You” to the Highlander villain’s cage-match howl “Gimme the Prize” to “I Want It All.” He liked to say he wrote character pieces for Mercury to voice, but after a while, it looked like the professor was getting his kicks out as well.

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May with Red Special, ca. 1963-1964; cat, Squeaky, is mourned in “All Dead, All Dead

He’s of the line of guitarist-mechanics, his key predecessors Les Paul (pioneer of multi-tracking guitar lines via multiple tape recorders) and the Shadows’ Hank Marvin. “That guitar came…in response to the Shadows. I loved their metallic sound,” May said of his homemade “Red Special.” (He also learned to play “single note style,” rather than strumming, via Shadows records.)

May and his father, an electronic draftsman for the Ministry of Aviation, built the Red Special in the early Sixties. It was the make-do ethos of the Blitz—the Mays could have built the guitar from the remnants of a bombed-out-house. Its neck came from a fireplace, its tremolo arm was a knitting needle, its fretboard had mother-of-pearl buttons from a sewing kit; motorcycle valve springs balanced the tension of its strings. The finishing touch was three Tri-Sonic single-coil pickups, each with on/off and phase switches. (“The only problem comes in breaking a string,” he told Guitar Player. “The whole thing goes out, a total war.”)

The Red Special, along with a Vox AC30 amp and his use of sixpence coins as picks, gave May a unique tone. Guitar World called it “nasal, hollow, midrange,” as good a description as any. You know it when you hear it. With it as his trademark, May could play in different voices while maintaining his identity on record, from the debutante solo of “Killer Queen” to the rockabilly blast (on Fender Telecaster) in “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” For party tricks, he’d do the occasional Spanish guitar bit (“Who Needs You”) or ukulele-banjo fill (“Bring Back That Leroy Brown”).

He almost always multi-tracked—the “no synthesizers!” claim on Queen’s Seventies albums was meant for those who’d assumed the band used a Moog or ARP to get the guitar sounds. Starting out using delay machines, May became fascinated by canonical structures as a way to arrange his guitars and songs. The furthest extension of this was “The Prophet’s Song,” in which Mercury’s voice becomes another variation on his canons. It’s possible the entire band might have been consumed by this—imagine John Deacon lost in a mirror-cave of canonical basslines—if May hadn’t shifted towards more straight-ahead rockers in the late Seventies.

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In 1965, May went to Imperial College to study physics and infrared astronomy and played in rock bands in his spare hours. The guitar finally won, so he played it like a scientist.

There’s a needle-precision to every line he plays: it’s as if he’ll fine himself if he hits a bum note. Few rock guitarists listened as intently as he did on stage—you can see him crane his neck towards Mercury or Deacon in the midst of a song and snap out a response. He tried to vary his playing each night, swap in a new note or two and see where it led. If this was nowhere, he’d pull out some old tricks to get through the song.

In his Pick Up the Pieces, John Corbett pegs as May a throwback, akin to a lead trumpeter in a swing band: “Solos secreted into ongoing events.” Working in support of the song, striding from the bandstand for a solo, offering an aside or counterpoint figure during another player’s spotlight moment, occasionally introducing the lead singer with an understated gesture.

When May was indulgent, it was in the service of an abstraction. Take the massive guitar solo in “Brighton Rock,” which bloated to twenty minutes on stage (Mercury took the opportunity to change outfits, and once got so restless he was heard saying “for God’s sake, let’s go shopping! Get me out of here!”). May ported the solo from song to song (it began in a Smile song called “Blag,” then became the solo in live versions of “Son and Daughter” before he settled it in “Brighton Rock”), like moving a grand piano from house to house. “Now we don’t do ‘Brighton Rock’ anymore,” he said in 1983. “So it’s gone full circle. In the beginning the solo was there and the song was around it. Now the song’s gone and the solo’s there.”

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May makes peace with the Linn, ca. early 1980s

He was Mercury’s ideal counterpart. If Freddie was practiced spontaneity, May was cool diligence; if Freddie was camp, May was earnest (he did write “White Man”), though he had a sly sense of humor; if Freddie was Queen’s sartorial variable, May, who’s had the same Restoration Parliament haircut for half a century, was its constant.

And May was also Queen’s skeptic, looking askance at the promises of rock music: the dream of a carnival life, of professional excess, of living out the desires of the mob. He wrote of the toxic side of touring (“Dead on Time,” “Leaving Home Ain’t Easy”) and its erosion of marriages and families. After all, he’d let down his parents. May was their brilliant only child who had thrown away an esteemed professional life to play guitar on “Ogre Battle.” “The two worst things I ever did in [my father’s] eyes were: one, give up my academic career to become a pop star,” May told OK in 1998. “And two, living with a woman.”

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“Dance band” overdubs in “Good Company”

Two of May’s finest songs, each on A Night at the Opera, work in this theme. “Good Company” is a performing life laid upon a slab. A man marries, flourishes “in my humble trade,” his reputation grows, his work consumes his waking hours. Eventually his friends are all gone, his wife leaves him and he realizes, sitting by the fire in old age, that he’s always been alone. “Reward of all my efforts: my own limited company.”

But the limited company is a marvel. With a ukulele, a Wah-Wah and swell pedal, a cloth-covered Deacy amp and the usual multi-tracking on the Red Special, May becomes a Twenties jazz band: “brass” and “winds” harmonies in the bridge; chromatic scale runs to impersonate slide trombone and clarinet lines; a Dixieland solo section for three guitars, moving in tight harmony or answering each other. It’s an astonishing group performance by one man sitting alone in a studio.

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Some of Taylor’s “space travel” high harmonies for “’39” (May: “There was one note Roger refused to sing. Eventually I accepted the note he sang and varisped it up to make it the one I wanted.”)

A folk song from the future, May once called “’39”. “Volunteers” go into space to find a new world to settle, leaving their families behind. Thanks to a time-warp, when the astronauts return home, they’re only a year older while a century has passed on earth. Everyone they loved is ancient or long dead. It’s an SF variation on Tom T. Hall’s “Homecoming”: a traveling performer comes home to find it’s no longer there.

May had read Herman Hesse’s “The Poet,” whose title character leaves to apprentice to an older poet and grows so absorbed in his craft “that by the time he came back to his people, they were all dead and gone,” May said. “The last thing in the book was him staring across the river to his town, which was no longer his because none of his friends were alive…maybe that was subconsciously what [“39″] was about, going out in search of an artistic career and being afraid of leaving everything behind…This business destroys your family life quicker than anything else I think.”

In “’39,” the singer greets his now-elderly daughter, sees in her eyes those of the wife whom he never saw grow old. He’s stranded in the future. “For my life, still ahead: pity me.”

Bismillah! Mustapha! Flash! AAAAH-AAAH!

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I don’t really know anything about opera myself. Just certain pieces. I wanted to create what I thought Queen could do. It’s not authentic…certainly not.

Freddie Mercury, 1976.

Tom Ewing wrote, years ago, of a North London pub that once had a CD jukebox, one of whose selections was Queen’s Greatest Hits. Next to “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a handwritten note: DO NOT PLAY. NOT FUNNY.

A karaoke room in midtown Manhattan, the early 2000s. I’m settling up with the manager when a door opens, exposing us to a shattered rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The singer is foundering, as many have before and since, somewhere in the ‘operatic’ section. The manager shakes her head: “That one—never good.”

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is Queen’s biggest hit, most famous song, the one that broke them in the Seventies, revived them in the Nineties. In a century’s time, it will be around in some form, like gingivitis and Scientology. And yet, as Ewing wrote, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has “a very weird place in rock music. It is known by millions, loved by millions, but somehow still not quite…respectable.” More “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” than “Like a Rolling Stone,” it’s an overloaded cheeseburger of a track. You might be embarrassed to play it in mixed company. Or alone. Even its name is a bit ridiculous. Philip Glass will never turn it, as he did Bowie’s “Berlin” albums, into a legitimate symphony. It is not legitimate.

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It began as “The Cowboy Song,” a pianist’s piece, with Mercury using a cross-handed technique: his right hand mostly plays chordal and bass figures, allowing his left, at the end of every bar, to strike out further along the keyboard and hit high notes. (Mercury being double-jointed helped.) This part of the song’s set in B-flat (the key of the “ballad” intro section) and E-flat (upon the second verse, “too late…”), and fairly traditional: its harmonic movements are pop song staples, its phrasing square.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” was a classic rock “builder” of the Seventies, in the line of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Free Bird.” Start out solemn and acoustic, inflate into a stadium rocker. But Queen bridged its ballad and rock sections with something Ronnie Van Zant never would have countenanced. After running through the opening verses for producer Roy Thomas Baker, Mercury stopped and said, “this is where the opera section comes in.”

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He’d sketched pages of ideas in accountant notebooks from his father’s office. “It wasn’t standard musical notation,” May said. “But As and Bs and Cs in blocks, like buses zooming all over bits of paper.” These were Mercury’s thoughts for vocal harmonies, which were generally four-part (if multi-tracked to near-infinity), and lyrics.

The opera section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the garbled shorthand that comes to mind when many people hear the word “opera,” which is one reason why so many love it. Dramatically sung “Italian” words! Mamma Mia! Silhouetto! Magnifico! Figaro! Galileo! Dramatically sung words from other European languages! Fandango! Fragments of some inexplicable struggle on stage! Wagnerian “thunderbolt and lightning,” a Don Giovanni or Faust death scene: Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me! For meeee! For meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! There’s even the Arabic blessing bismillah, recited before reading each surah of the Koran; here, Mercury hisses it like a curse. It’s “exotic,” silly (Thomas Baker’s apprentice work with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Co. came in handy) and absolutely, painstakingly crafted, with a head-swimming rhythmic structure. The section of tape that held the “opera” parts eventually looked like a street crossing, thanks to the vocal overdubs—about 180, all told. Three weeks to get it all done, including dozens of “Galileos.”

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When the rock section kicks in, it’s euphoric but short—one verse, a brief solo, and then it sinks into the “nothing really matters” coda.

There’s the biographical reading, of course. A young man, confessing his guilt and self-loathing to his mother, is transfigured via his band of fellow theater weirdos into becoming, in the rock section, an all-conquering libertine figure. It’s a parallel to Bowie’s “Station to Station,” recorded around the same time—a man trapped in a circle digs a way out. After “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Mercury is reborn, devoted to lust and pleasure (“Get Down, Make Love,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Body Language”) and writing discreetly-open songs about being in love with men (“You Take My Breath Away”).

It’s also the transformation, and culmination, of Queen. “We were all late developers, really,” May said in 1977. “Late starters…it’s interesting that we’ve arrived where we are so late.” Queen only could have existed in a post-Beatles world—they’re in the mold of the fragmenting White Album Beatles (four distinct personalities, each working in their own worlds) and Abbey Road (the “long medley” is, in a way, the first Queen song).

A massive UK #1 (it would take Mike Myers and a trio of metalheads in the back of a Pacer to make it an American chart hit, decades later), it made Queen, and they would never be this fearless again. Knowing they could never top “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the band was content with doing sub-variations: on A Day at the Races they broke it into “The Millionaire Waltz” (multi-part song structure) and “Somebody to Love” (honeycomb vocal harmonies). “Bohemian Rhapsody” would be their pyramid of Giza, its construction (and budget) inexplicable to future generations, built to awe and endure.

Its cracked spirit is in corners of Queen’s later work. See the gonzo opening track of Jazz, “Mustapha,” a hothouse mingle of Greek and Arabic music in the spirit of the operatic section. Or the theme song for Flash Gordon, where Queen’s invocation of Flash sounds as if they’re calling him down from Olympus.

Their most devoted attempt at a proper sequel was “Innuendo,” one of their last songs. Roughly the same length as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” again with intricate, multiple sections, again a UK #1, it’s had none of the longevity of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I imagine that few non-Queen fans recall it today, whereas everyone knows some piece of “Boho Rhap”—Mamma Mia, just killed a man, spit in my eye, Scaramouche! As long as there are (virtual) jukeboxes and karaoke rooms, whether it’s in a Grimes-Musk space station or a barroom in the wheat fields of the Arctic, “Bohemian Rhapsody” will still be heard, despite the note attached to it that reads: DO NOT PLAY, NOT FUNNY.

Funster

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Well, he’s a rock and roll person, completely dedicated to rock and roll. He’s a pleasure seeker, which he wouldn’t deny to anybody. He loves the life that surrounds rock and he gives himself completely up to that.

May, on Roger Taylor, to Melody Maker, December 1975

Roger Taylor is from Truro, Cornwall, and has played in rock groups since he was fourteen. Starting as a guitarist, he became a Mod drummer. Electric blue suits and ties; a target painted on his kick drum à la Keith Moon. He did other Moon-esque tricks, like coating his cymbals in oil and setting them ablaze. At university, he studied to be a dentist. Checking an Imperial College bulletin board, he saw that a student band was looking for a “Ginger Baker/ Mitch Mitchell-type drummer” and his life took a swerve.

In any other band, Taylor could have been the frontman. He could compose and sing (with a heavy-metal range, from hitting sky-high notes to a growling low end) and he was gorgeous. In Queen, he was the drummer.

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As a drummer, Taylor is in the Ringo Starr league. Not splashy, not one to sneak in fills or “perform” on his kit, he stays close to the ground and handles whatever his bandmates throw at him. His timekeeping was solid—on stage, he could quickly settle a tempo that Mercury started at an overheated pace (see “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” at Wembley in 1986)—and his style was distinct. He like to have an open hi-hat with his snare hits; he kept his kick work heavy and simple (he never liked the sound of that drum) and sprinted across his high and medium toms for fills. He’ll never be regarded as a drum ace, which is fine by him. “Every time I see Carmine Appice he’s going on about all sorts of amazing things,” Taylor told Modern Drummer in 1984. “He might as well be talking about cupcakes.”

His philosophy was: “You either have time or you don’t. If you don’t have it, there’s no chance that you’ll ever be any good, really. You can’t teach a person time.”

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Taylor’s Queen songs are a narrative. Call it the Life of Funster, from “Tenement Funster” on Sheer Heart Attack. A young, callow man believes in little else but rock and roll and its accessories (new purple shoes, fast cars, sharp haircut, 45s that you blast all night to drive the neighbors crazy)—as a way of life, as a sect with rules, as an escape from middle class expectations. “Never wanted to be the boy next door. Always thought I’d be something more,” as he sings in his waltz “Drowse.”

He’s petulant and arrogant—-see “Loser in the End,” a boy’s break-up song with his mother, or “I’m in Love With My Car,” in which Funster chooses car over girl, because cars don’t talk back and anyway, his car is hotter. But he also can be sweet and melancholy (again, see “Loser in the End” where he stands up for beleaguered mothers everywhere, howling to his fellow boys that if you “misuse her! you’ll lose her! as a friend!”) He already sees middle-age staring back at him from the mirror.

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He started one of his best songs in 1974 and finished it three years later, when it was seen as Queen’s response to punk. “Sheer Heart Attack” was, apart from Mercury’s vocals, mostly Taylor—guitars, bass, drums. It opens by turning the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” on its head. That was the heat of the teenage dancehall: she was just seventeen/ you know what I mean. “Sheer Heart Attack” is the kid back in her room, hiding away from the world. You’re just seventeen/ all you wanna do is disappear! Know what I mean?

The kid’s pacing around their room and trying to kick through the wall. Doyouknow doyouknow doyouknow just how I feel? ,already knowing the answer, and ends the verses stuck in a scratch groove:

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Devoting yourself to rock ‘n’ roll is to pledge to a failing religion. People at shows, whether groupies or fans, “line up like it’s some kinda ritual,” he groans in exhaustion. Right from the start, with “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll” off Queen’s debut, rock needs a blood infusion. The first line Taylor sings on record, in a bluesy phrasing with peaks on high Gs, is “have to make do with a worn-out rock and roll scene… “’58 that was great but it’s over now and that’s ALL!

In “Fight From the Inside” he makes the case for working within the system—the pinup on the teenage wall can still try to inflict some damage from within EMI Records. By Jazz, an album Taylor has little affection for (“my songs were very patchy…it was an ambitious album that didn’t live up to its ambition”), there’s a disgust with pop music, this crass job. “Only football gives us thrills,” Taylor sings in the sort-of title song. “Rock and roll…just pays the bills.”

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“Rock It (Prime Jive)” opens in 6/8, with Mercury singing when he hears that rock and roll it gets down to his soul. Blah blah blah: more of that jazz. It cuts to Taylor, firming into 4/4:  What do you know? he says. He’s heard a lot of claims for rock, too many. What do you hear? On the Ray-dee-o?

Along with John Deacon, Taylor was Queen’s A&R department (whereas Mercury, as per Mark Blake, told an EMI executive “he didn’t understand the whole punk thing. It wasn’t music to him”). He was looking to see who might get a jump on his band, and steal enough to keep Queen current. “Loser in the End” nicks the riff from T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution”; “Coming Soon” is a bit late Seventies ELO; “Rock It (Prime Jive)” could have been called “I’m In Love With (The Cars).” Later on, his reflexes were slower: “Machines” and “Radio Ga Ga” is the apparent result of Taylor hearing Kraftwerk; “The Invisible Man” sounds like a mix of “Ghostbusters” and “White Lines.”

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As with everyone in Queen, he had his contradictions. The band’s purist (“it’s not rock ‘n’ roll, what is this?” he said while cutting “Another One Bites the Dust”), Taylor was first to break the “no synthesizers” rule, using electronic drums on Jazz‘s “Fun It” and getting the Oberheim OB-X that became Queen’s gateway into the synth world on The Game. Soon enough he moved from writing on guitar to keyboards, using a Simmons sequencer. “The guitar is quite a difficult instrument, actually, when you’re trying to compose melodically,” he said. “You have to have all your chords together, and then you need to put something on top.”

He even became a convert to the LinnDrum. “You can make it sound human…You can even program in the slight timing discrepancies that come with non-electronic drums. You can even push the beat or lay it back. It’s all there…Because all this technology exists, you simply can’t ignore it. One can’t be retrogressive in this business.”

“Radio Ga Ga,” Taylor’s song on the rise of MTV at the expense of corporate radio (the title came from his child saying “radio poo poo”—the band is singing “radio caca” at times), has a sweetness in its heart. Radio! Some..one…still…loves you!, Mercury sings, even promising radio that its best days are yet to come. A nice lie, which is what you need to get through sometimes. Funster’s still out there, though the kids blasting their music downstairs are driving him nuts. He’s spinning the dial deep into the night, listening for something.

“The First Truly Fascist Rock Band”

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Tea with General Viola; Argentina, 1981 (Neal Preston)

Very powerful. You feel like the devil. You feel you could run riot with all these people. Somebody else with a different mentality could really use it to their political advantage. Or disadvantage.

Freddie Mercury on performing, to Melody Maker, 1984

Early Queen got its share of pans, but there was a wary respect in the press: here’s a mix of Yes and Zeppelin, they’re fun and camp. Then they became inescapable and hated. Nick Kent’s initial dislike shuddered, by the release of A Day at the Races, into contempt. “All these songs with their precious pseudo-classical piano obbligato bearings, their precious impotent Valentino kitsch mouthings on romance, their spotlight on a vocalist so giddily enamoured with his own precious image—they literally make my flesh creep…grotesquery of the first order.”

Queen made for great villains in the punk years—jet-setting “operatic” rock stars drinking champagne on stage and throwing promo parties whose budgets could have covered the first Ramones albums. The fever spike was Dave Marsh’s review of Jazz for Rolling Stone:

The only thing Queen does better than anyone else is express contempt…Whatever its claims, Queen isn’t here just to entertain. This group has come to make it clear exactly who is superior and who is inferior. Its anthem, “We Will Rock You,” is a marching order: you will not rock us, we will rock you. Indeed, Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band. The whole thing makes me wonder why anyone would indulge these creeps and their polluting ideas.

This idea of Queen as a Triumph of the Will rock act persisted. Eleanor Levy, reviewing a 1984 Birmingham gig for Record Mirror: “When ‘Radio Ga Ga’ is played, a whole sea of clone hands clap and point to the stage in a manner more reminiscent of the Nuremberg Rallies than a ‘rock’ concert. It’s faintly disturbing.” David Quantick, profiling Queen for the NME in 1986, on the “I Want to Break Free” video: “We explode into a Queen concert and, yes, it’s another bloody Nuremberg rally. Queen as Gods of Valhalla again.”

Queen was used by now to bad press, and Mercury in particular enjoyed baiting journalists, but they considered this a criticism that bordered on the insane. “I mean, we are a fairly arrogant band. We have had our moments when we were overtly tasteless,” Taylor said in 1984. “We were also accused of being fascists. That was during the time of “We Will Rock You.” Some people said it was a cry of manipulation. It was no more fascist than Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”

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Mercury in Paris, 1979; Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter (1974)

For Marsh, Queen was simply everything he hated— university-educated pretentious “prog” Brits— twined into one quartet and he reacted the way that my dog does when she smells a skunk. But the fascist slam didn’t come out of nowhere: it was one way to grapple with what Queen represented at the end of the Seventies.

Queen’s relationship to their crowds could be mystifying. To those mystified, there seemed to be some element of dominance, of shock and awe being inflicted at a grand scale. Chet Flippo, after a 1977 concert: “Based on audience appeal, [Queen] got the job done. I’m just not sure what the job is.” Or Sounds, on a Birmingham audience in 1984. “It’s like they actually believe in this band, like their lives are fully dependent on them…as if they honestly look upon Queen as (sincere respectful tones) IMPORTANT.”

What would a rock band for the masses really look like? You might like to think it was something like The Clash but it was much more Queen: selling by the millions, packing stadiums, performing songs that were extravagant, relentless fun—rock music as two hours of roller-coaster rides and tunnels-of-love and bumper cars.

The working stiff was the ideal rock ‘n’ roll audience. Rock ‘n’ roll was going to liberate them, maybe radicalize them. And it turned out that many of them just wanted to go home after eight hours on the floor and blast “Fat Bottomed Girls” and, once a year, stand in a hockey rink and sing “she was such a naughty! nanny!” along with ten thousand others while Freddie Mercury conducts from the stage.

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One of Queen’s Rock In Rio shows in 1985: 250,000 to 350,000 in attendance

“We Will Rock You” was far from Marsh’s concept of Queen pissing on its crowds. May wrote it after hearing an audience sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the encore and realizing “we can no longer fight this. This has to be something which is part of our show and we have to embrace it…everything becomes a two-way process now.” Hence the bleacher-stomp beat and a melody even someone with a sandpapered voice could sing.

Mercury had cultivated an ironic relationship with his audience, calling them “luvvies,” breaking the fourth wall, letting them in on the jokes. “I could cause a riot if I wanted to but I still think that’s a minor matter,” he said in 1981. “Because it’s all very tongue-in-cheek, you must realize that, for me, anyway. I like to ridicule myself…If we were a different kind of band, with messages and political themes, then it would be totally different. That’s why I can wear sort of ridiculous shorts and things like that, ham it up with semi-Gestapo salutes. It’s all kitsch.”

When Queen moved to the arena level, Mercury had to work on larger scales, move his performance even more outward, sing to an abstract “we” (and it was down to him—Tom Jones had livelier support on stage than Mercury did). Songs became less complex, less strange, more of a brand: Mercury now did lead vocals on most of Taylor and May’s pieces. It was a communal voice, a stadium plural, that of the “people on streets” of their and Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Play the game: everyone play the game. Put out the fire! He’ll save every one of us! Save me!

“We Will Rock You”/”We Are the Champions” is a dialogue. Queen sings it to the masses, who chant it back at them. There’s no time for losers because everyone’s a winner—at least everyone who’s singing along. Queen are four men set against enough people to fill an army corps; they hold the balance of power because they pretend to be big as their crowds want them to be. In their vastness was a mirror. “Queen were never selfish,” Rick Sky once said. “They were always anxious that everyone else was having just as great a time as they were.”

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Each Queen tour had to be greater than the previous one—more seats filled, more sophisticated lights, bigger props. This culminated in their 1986 Wembley show, where the stage set was so enormous that it barely fit into the stadium. Taylor was effusive: “We are going to have the biggest stage ever built at Wembley with the greatest light show ever seen….bigger than bigness itself.”

They grew apart as they got bigger, as often happens. Divided on the road into “gay” (Mercury and entourage) and “hetero” camps (Taylor and May—Deacon liked to hang out with the tech crew), the four of them were surrounded by minders, who’d run off to get them a drink or, in Mercury’s case, accompany him to the bathroom. They cut their albums with each member recording many of their parts alone in the studio. So the dream of perpetual bigness, of breaking some attendance record, opening some new market, of trumping the Bowies and Jaggers, was one of the things holding them together. An eccentric startup was now a global corporation whose main pleasure lay in outrageous new acquisitions.

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And in this pursuit of bigness, you may find yourself breaking bread with the Argentine junta in 1981, with money that your promoters have used to grease the wheels in government perhaps going towards new helicopters that people will be thrown out of. Or you may play to all-white crowds in Sun City in 1984, with Nelson Mandela still in prison.

“A Queen audience is a football crowd which doesn’t take sides,” May once said. They played for whoever bought a ticket—that was the essential transaction. Queen’s argument was that their fans weren’t their governments. And true, for the Argentines, for the Brazilians, having a big rock band play their country was a validation, a brief escape; the shows were community for a night.

I come back to the photos of Queen goofing around with Argentine soldiers. Or maybe they’re cops. It’s understandable, it’s not damning or anything—they were a rock band, they were doing silly shots not meant to be published, it’s no big deal. And I think about the Argentine-American writer Sonia Nazario, who recalled how her family burned Alice In Wonderland in their backyard out of fear, whose sister was raped and tortured in prison, whose friend had every bone in his face broken and then was disappeared. I looked it up: there are fourteen bones in the facial skeleton.

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The flip side is Live Aid. Bohemian Rhapsody cemented it as Queen’s greatest live performance but the legend started early.

Queen were one of the few acts that day who knew how to handle so massive a crowd. They made sure their soundman set the limiters to make them louder than everyone else, and they’d honed their set in rehearsals to a tight twenty minutes, paced expertly. Start with Mercury on piano on classic, move to big recent hit, have “ey-yo” break & not-so-big recent hit, and close with three standards.

Mercury aims his performance at a flyspeck in the middle distance in the late Wembley afternoon—he’s moving across the stage as if he’d charted it out step-by-step beforehand; he’s charging at May and the cameramen like a matador. The half-mike stand is his guitar, his barbell, his dick. He’s singing to the crowd, which could populate a city; he’s singing to the millions watching on television, even though US MTV cuts away midway through to interview Marilyn McCoo (Queen were on the outs in the US, see below). He knows in his bones that nothing like this festival of pomposity and earnestness may ever happen again. So Mercury, so Queen, sings to the future. They are singing to a twelve-year-old girl watching on YouTube while home in quarantine. She marvels at how wide open the past looks.

Deacon Blues

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John Deacon was the first one in Queen to cut his hair, earning him the nickname “Birdman” because everyone thought he resembled Burt Lancaster’s convict in Birdman on Alcatraz. Deacon’s wasn’t the test-the-waters haircut many rock musicians did in the late Seventies. No, he looked like he could be in The Jam.

In a Seventies band, the one who cut their hair the earliest was usually the one who cared least about maintaining the look of the act (Charlie Watts) or most keen-eyed towards the future (Lindsey Buckingham). Deacon was something of both.

He was the enigma of Queen, partly because he was an introvert in a band led by the biggest extrovert on the planet. The last to join, Deacon never sang on record and was rarely interviewed. He kept tabs on the money—EMI promotion head Brian Southall recalled to Queen biographer Mark Blake that Deacon would use his then-newfangled Seiko digital watch calculator to “add up Queen royalties in four different countries.” Deacon greatly enjoyed being in Queen but didn’t take it too seriously: one story has him drinking after a show when someone put on the Flash Gordon soundtrack. After a time, he turned to a roadie and asked “what is this?”

Born in 1951 (he was Queen’s youngster), he grew up in Oadby, Leicestershire, where he was known for being quiet and excelling at school. He played (guitar, then bass) in a suburban Mod band called The Opposition. “We weren’t extreme at all,” Opposition drummer Clive Castledine recalled to Hodkinson. “The background we all had was quite sheltered, we were brought up in a decent way with a good lifestyle.”

In London studying electronics at Chelsea College, Deacon saw Queen play in October 1970 (“they didn’t make a lasting impression on me at the time”). Within a year, he’d joined them. He was ideal for Queen, who’d already burned through three bassists. He didn’t want the spotlight and, being an engineer, could double as a sound tech if needed.

He started writing songs for Queen, and soon saw the potential when one of your pieces was a B-side. Taylor’s “I’m Love With My Car” being the flip of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which gave Taylor half the composer royalties from the 45 sales, was a windfall for the drummer. Deacon went one better: his second-ever released composition, “You’re My Best Friend,” was the A-side of the follow-up single.

Deacon mostly wrote love songs, spanning from clever miniatures (“Misfire,” “Who Needs You“) to the sentimental (“You and I”) to the shamelessly gooey (“One Year of Love,” complete with “Careless Whisper”-esque sax solo, by the same saxophonist!). There’s little specificity in his lyrics, which usually address “you”—they’re open spaces for a listener to settle into.

He was an economical composer, rarely changing key more than once and keeping his structures tight. “You’re My Best Friend” and “Spread Your Wings” have nearly the same chassis: keyboard intro, verse-refrain-bridge, verse-refrain-solo/bridge, outro (that said, Deacon had quirkier pieces, like “You and I,” which has bridges in place of refrains, and “In Only Seven Days” with its compound (3/8 + 3/8 + 2/8) meter).

Though credited as sole composer (a Queen agreement that lasted until the mid-Eighties: whoever wrote the lyric and “had the original idea” got full credit), Deacon was essentially in a partnership with Mercury, who would help to arrange and flesh out his songs. Deacon gave Mercury lush melodies to sing, and Mercury responded with beautifully intricate phrasings (listen to how much variation he puts into “You’re My Best Friend,” or the high drama in the showbiz weepie “Spread Your Wings”). They elevated and checked each other. It’s Deacon on the Wurlitzer that wraps “You’re My Best Friend” like a comfortable winter coat, as Mercury cracked that he found it too vulgar an instrument to play.

Queen (mostly) readies for the Eighties, 1979

I’m the only one in the group, really, who likes American black music.

Deacon, to Rolling Stone, 1981

And it was modest John Deacon who, after a night of partying with Nile Rodgers, hung out with Chic at the Power Station in New York while they recorded “Good Times” in 1979, with Deacon obviously keen on Bernard Edwards’ bass playing.

At The Game sessions the following year, Deacon had the pieces of a song: a title and an Edwards-inspired bassline. Where Edwards is tight and effusive, Deacon is terse, stoic—-staying on his E string, he moves from fifth to third fret and plays an open note; he sounds the open string five more times, varying note length; then does a spin on his opening move, slipping the open note between the two fretted notes. Variations come in the latter half of the verses (“are you happy? are you satisfied?”), where Deacon moves to his higher strings.

This terseness suited Deacon’s modern gunslinger theme (the cowboy or gangster here is “Steve,” under fire from unknown parties). Where “Good Times” is clams on the half shell and roller skates, “Another One Bites the Dust” is a shootout: it’s a move from Xanadu to The Wild Bunch.

Deacon seized control of the session. “The rest of us had no idea what Deakey was doing when he started this,” May recalled, while producer Reinhold Mack called Deacon a “bird who stays quiet until it lays the perfect egg.” Deacon wanted the drums dry and mechanical-sounding (snare on two and four, kick on every beat, constant hi-hat eighths), so Taylor stuffed his kick with blankets and cut a drum loop. “Another One Bites the Dust” was built from homemade samples: a backwards piano chord, backwards cymbal crashes, massive handclaps, drum loops that sound like handclaps, a slowed-down shaker, Harmonized guitar, “lion roar” guitar. Working against these systems are the two agitators: Mercury’s catty, exuberant lead vocal and May playing his “dirty little guitar” riffs.

Contact sheet, late 1981 (Lord Snowdon)

Queen first thought “Another One Bites the Dust” would be a weird album cut, another “Mustapha.” The singles from The Game were “Save Me” and “Play the Game,” both of which charted modestly. But by summer 1980, when Queen was touring the U.S., “Another One Bites the Dust” was getting heavy play in clubs and on black radio (in particular on New York’s WBLS). Backstage at one of Queen’s LA Forum concerts, Michael Jackson said they had to put it out as a single. It would be huge. And it was. One of their biggest-selling 45s, another US #1, “Another One Bites the Dust” was everywhere on the radio in the autumn of 1980. It even helped make the career of Weird Al Yankovic.

While it didn’t last long, its success would shape Queen for a time. “Under Pressure” has another minimalist bassline and sparse arrangement, while the Deacon/Mercury axis became the ruling party of the next Queen album, Hot Space, to the point where Deacon played guitar on tracks like “Back Chat” and “Staying Power” (May, to Mojo: “I remember John saying I didn’t play the type of guitar he wanted on his songs.”)

Hot Space has grown on me: a shameless, synth-crazy, odd post-disco (1982!) “disco sellout” record in which Queen, who admittedly were hanging out too much in Munich bars and sometimes cutting backing tracks drunk, manages to sound loose and desperate: dance tracks like “Back Chat” and “Staying Power” (horn section!); Taylor’s New Wave “Action This Day” and “Calling All Girls”; May’s wallflower dissent “Dancer,” which winds up swinging pretty hard. Even “Life Is Real (Song For Lennon),” among the more bizarre John Lennon tributes, is grotesque and fascinating (“breast-feeding myself/ what more can I say?…loving like a whore/ Lennon was a gene-ee-us”).

“I Want to Break Free,” the last of the great Deacon pop hits, was another veto of May, as Deacon pushed to use Fred Mandel’s synthesizer solo instead of the usual Red Special treatment (Roland later had a preset called “May Sound,” which Mandel said came from Roland techs hearing the solo on “Break Free,” assuming it was May on guitar, and mimicking it, “not realizing it was actually done on one of their own products,” he told Blake.)

Its video had Queen in drag, doing Coronation Street: Deacon as gran, May as mum, Taylor as schoolgirl, Mercury as frustrated housewife. In Britain, it was a laugh; in the US, not so much. A nation of stupid teenage boys freaked out that a band called Queen, led by Freddie Mercury, was…possibly gay?? Queen already had been cratering in popularity in America. Hot Space, disco at the height of anti-disco, hadn’t sold that well, and the band was a casualty in a battle between their label and radio stations. But the “Break Free” video was catastrophic (Peter Hince: “it killed them in the US”)—the single peaked at #45 in Billboard, and Queen wouldn’t have another US Top 40 hit until Mercury died.

One reason they never toured the US after 1982 was pride—they knew they couldn’t put up the numbers that Springsteen or even Dire Straits could, and so instead grew their audiences in Europe and Asia.

The Last Party

‘What am going to do in 20 years’ time?’ I’ll be dead, darling! Are you mad?

Freddie Mercury, Italian press conference, 1984

By the mid-Eighties, Mercury knew something was wrong. He got sick too often, developed lumps in his throat. Dozens of his friends were dying from AIDS-related symptoms. It’s unclear when he tested positive for HIV—biographies generally agree somewhere between 1985 and 1987 (Bohemian Rhapsody‘s depiction of Mercury revealing the news to his bandmates before Live Aid was dramatic license: they learned years later).

He knew Queen’s 1986 tour would be his last. He’d often had voice trouble on the road (one theory is that Mercury was a natural baritone who sang at the top of his range) and feared he’d be too weak to hold up through months of shows. The wild days were over. Spike Edney, keyboardist on the 1986 tour, recalled nights of sitting in Mercury’s suite and playing games of Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit (while drinking champagne, naturally).

What was left in the time remaining? Mercury sang with Montserrat Caballé and in 1988 began a last push with Queen in the studio, in Britain and Montreux, recording three albums, smoking and drinking vodka while propped up against the mixing desk, singing his head off.

These records—The Miracle, Innuendo, the posthumous Made in Heaven—are an odd bunch. Despite being performed by a dying man and a group who knew their days were ending, they’re not especially tragic albums. They sound perfunctory in places, an aging band grinding through passable late Eighties “rock” songs.

That said, there are sunset pieces. “Party” and “Khashoggi’s Ship,” lead-off tracks of The Miracle, in which fun times are over, but weren’t they grand while they lasted? The cheerful acceptance of bad luck in “Rain Must Fall” (“you lead a fairy tale existence,” Mercury tells the mirror—well, fairy tales end; the kingdom of Rhye fell), the appreciation of everyday life in “It’s a Beautiful Day,” Mercury’s love song to his cat “Delilah,” the arch “I’m Going Slightly Mad,” which, as Marcello Carlin noted, shows that Mercury was enjoying what Pet Shop Boys were up to at the time. The massive end statement “Was It All Worth It” (you can hear Freddie’s laugh at the title question. “Of course it was, darling…“)

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And “These Are the Days of Our Lives.” Taylor wrote it: the last Funster song. Sitting back and watching the kids go at it now, it’s grateful for life despite being in a hard stretch of it, knowing memories of warmer hours are sustenance in winter, that springtime will come again—in the second refrain, Mercury goes from singing “those were the days” to “these are the days.” It’s one of his subtlest, loveliest vocals, complete with asides to his beloved audience.

“I think it sort of came out of that slightly melancholic mood one gets occasionally,” Taylor recalled in 2011. “I guess I was just trying to put a more optimistic slant on it in a way. ‘Those were the days then, but also these are the days of our lives.’ Today is more important than yesterday, really.”

Queen filmed its video on 30 May 1991, in what would be their last documented time together (and it wasn’t the full quartet—May was in Los Angeles at the time, so his shots had to be edited in later). In the video, they look modest, casual, reduced, in line with how its arrangement is far from the ten-tracked guitars and hall-of-mirrors vocals of the old days—it’s mostly conga, string pads, bass, some tasteful guitar. In a closing shot, Mercury looks at the camera, smiles, says he still loves us. A few months later, he was gone.

I began this essay in late January, when the world looked much the same as it had during the last ten years. I finish it during a time of pandemic and likely economic depression. What do I hear in Queen today? I hear in them prosperity, the joy of being frivolous; I hear in them the happy noise of office parties, karaoke nights, slumber parties, pub singalongs, football chants, of community—photos of their stadium crowds are suddenly poignant images. Mamma Mia, Let Me Go! Fat Bottomed Girls! God Knows, God Knows I’ve Fallen in Love! I Want to Ride My…Bicycle! Queen remains contemporary, in terms of their influence on rock music. But dear God, how far away they seem right now.

3. The Jamies

DISCOGRAPHY                  SOURCES                                PLAYLIST
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When I was eleven or so, I would fall asleep with the radio on. This was a gunmetal-colored boom box from JC Penney, with a dual cassette deck and tiny treble and bass knobs that only worked as secondary volume dials.

We could pick up few radio stations in our valley. A couple of gospel and country ones, a pop station, a hard rock one molting into “classic rock” and an AM oldies station, WROV, the one I usually had on at night. Beginning, chronologically, with “Sh-Boom” and “Earth Angel,” its playlists cut off around “Good Vibrations.”

This wasn’t the music of my parents. Born in 1953, they regarded much of it, when they heard it, as the creaky sound of their childhood. I suppose I found the oldies station comforting in its distance but as often I found the old songs strange: trebly and desperate. Songs from a dead world, like Ray Bradbury’s empty Mars once its settlers went home to earth. (But the music wasn’t that old then. Only twenty or twenty-five years separated it from me in 1983: it’s the same as a kid tonight who’s listening to “Feed the Tree” or “Cannonball” or “Here Comes Your Man.”)

Sometimes a song broke my slide into sleep. One starts with a bass voice. He has a honking Boston accent, sounds like a lifeguard:

It’s summatime summatime sum sum summatime

Overlaid upon this, a warm-sounding tenor (he wrote the song, it turned out). An older brother:

summertime summertime sum sum summertime
summatime summatime sum sum summatime

His sister. A bright, sparkling alto:

summertime! summertime! sum sum summertime!
summertime summertime sum sum summertime
summatime summatime sum sum summatime

Another girl, a soprano. I imagined her looking like Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap. She turns the quartet into an ecstatic collective:

SUMMERTIME SUMMERTIME SUM SUM SUMMERTIME
summertime! summertime! sum sum summertime!
summertime summertime sum sum summertime
summatime summatime sum sum summatime

The four close with a shivering unison “summer-ti-IY-IY-IY-iiime.” I’d never heard anything like it before. The next morning, I had only a rumpled memory of it.

Circles

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In James Toback’s Fingers (1978), Harvey Keitel is Jimmy “Fingers” Angelelli, debt collector and aspiring pianist. In one scene, he meets his mobster father for lunch. Fingers sets a radio on the restaurant table, pops in a tape, hits play. “Summertime, Summertime” pipes out.

The businessman sitting across from him is flustered, soon angry. He wants the radio shut off. Fingers is appalled. “You believe this? This is the Jamies, man, “Summertime, Summertime!” The most musically inventive song of 1958!” A fight nearly breaks out; the Jamies keep singing.

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The Jamies’ “Summertime, Summertime” stands apart from other songs on the pop charts in 1958. Too stiff for doo-wop, not quite rock ‘n’ roll, too “teenage” for mainstream pop of the time, it’s perhaps best aligned with other ’58 novelty hits—“Purple People Eater” and “Witch Doctor” and the “Colonel Bogey March” from Bridge On the River Kwai.

Yet as Fingers noted, there’s a sophistication in it. The intro and outro, where each voice of the quartet appears in sequence to sing the same melody (it’s canonical singing, or “round” singing). And the bulk of the song resembles a ragtime piano piece, having alternating melodic strains more than verses-choruses-bridges.

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“Summertime, Summertime” is in three sections, each eight or nine bars. The first has fairly rapid harmonic movement (chords change every other beat, and there’s a modestly sophisticated I-V-ii-V7 progression). The Jamies end phrases by dragging the last word down a fourth (“throw ’em ah-way-ay-ay-ay“) and conclude with a refrain tag (“sum-mer-ti-iy-iy-iy-iime”) in which the upward push within “summertime” is like a smiling face briefly surfacing from a pool.

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The next part, where chord changes are fewer and the melody less roaming, is the song’s combative piece. The Jamies, stressing the second beat on every other bar, are ready to scrap with the enemies of summertime: teachers who need to zip their lips and all that dull hiss-to-ry, gee-AH-graph-y, gee-AH-me-try.

A final section, whose lyric never changes. A rallying cry, a call for kids to flee the city and head to the hills. (This line was a great mystery to me for a long while—I thought they were singing “it’s time to head straight for the mills,” which called up an image of sunny-faced Victorian child laborers. It turned out to be “them hills”).

And that’s it. No solos, breaks, variations. “Summertime, Summertime” is a conveyor belt that moves the Jamies among three stations. After the third repeat, it rumbles to a stop.

It’s also church music.

Choir Kids

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The First Baptist Church of Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston, has stood for over a century on the corner of Ashmont and Adams. Singing in the First Baptist choir in 1958 were two friends, Serena Jameson and Jeannie Roy.

The Jamesons had moved to Dorchester in 1949. They were a musical family, and at the age of ten Serena joined the choir, which is where she met Roy. Theirs would have been typical teenage lives in the late Fifties—graduating high school, thinking about marriage—but for Serena’s older brother getting the urge to write a song.

Tom Jameson also sang in a choir, at the larger (and Episcopal) Trinity Church in the Back Bay. He was twenty-one in 1958, when he wrote a song about the open promise of the teenage summer. To Todd Baptista, Serena described her brother’s composing methods as perfectionist, bordering on the obsessive—Tom at the family piano in the living room, playing through a melody again and again, while their grandmother tried to nap on the couch. Once the song was in his hands, he asked his sister and Roy to help him sing it. A bass singer recruited from First Baptist’s choir, Arthur Blair, completed the set.

(It’s unclear when Tom wrote the song—it was demoed in mid-May 1958—but I wonder if hearing the Chordettes’ “Lollipop,” which had charted nationally earlier that year, was an influence, as “Lollipop” is also a four-part harmony piece with a choral round for an intro.)

Tom drilled his singers like a martinet, rehearsing them up to three times a week. With the Jameson house’s windows open to the lengthening spring evenings, the neighbors could hear the building, step by step, of what Tom called “It’s Summertime” (there were, not surprisingly, some complaints). At last satisfied with the vocal arrangement, Tom paid for a session at a studio on Boylston Street and took the demo to a few Boston deejays.

Sherm

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Sherman “Sherm” Feller had been on the air since the early Forties. He’d worked at WEEI, WEZE, WVDA and, in the mid-Sixties, he became the voice of Fenway Park.

Tom Jameson chose Feller because the latter said he had good connections in the record business. Which wasn’t bluster: Feller quickly got the demo to Archie Bleyer, a bandleader, arranger, and founder of Cadence Records. Bleyer liked what he heard (allegedly relying on his teenage daughter’s opinion) and wanted the group to come to New York to record.

The Jamesons, Blair, and Roy were summoned to Feller’s apartment. He told them they didn’t need a lawyer, and they signed all the papers he put in front of them, as per Baptista. Although Tom had written every note and word of the song (the demo vocal arrangement is reportedly near-identical to the released single), Feller wound up with the publishing, a manager’s percentage of earnings, and half the writer’s compensation, getting billed as a co-composer.

It was how the game worked then and, to a degree, it’s how it still does. Some kid has a catchy song, some showbiz type convinces him or her to sign it away, some corporation ultimately owns it.

On the drive to New York, Feller said the group needed a name. They thought up “The Double Daters” (a touch weird, given that half were siblings) but Feller went with The Jamies, a play on the last name of said siblings. On 2 July 1958, the Jamies cut the renamed “Summertime, Summertime” at Capitol Studios on West 46th Street, doing their drilled-to-perfection vocal arrangement over a sparse backing by house musicians. Most prominently, a harpsichord player. It sounded as if the Jamies’ dotty aunt was accompanying them.

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Bleyer passed on the single—his daughter, in classic hipster style, thought it wasn’t as good as the demo. So Feller got the Jamies signed to Epic, Columbia’s (slightly) more adventurous pop division, and pocketed the advance. Tom Jameson quickly had to come up with a B-side: the forlorn “Searching for You,” in which the Jamies wander the earth looking for their lost loves—the bridge sounds like a hymn; the song doubles as a pledge to recover a lost faith.

The Jamies wore their Sunday clothes to their professional portrait for Epic promo materials. The photographer was bewildered. You’re a pop group, he said. The boys and girls should have matching outfits, at least! “We didn’t know, and the bottom line is who has the money to buy outfits like that? We were the epitome of naïve,” Serena Jameson told Baptista.

The Off Season

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Epic, when reissuing “Summertime, Summertime” in 1962, told the trade press that the single had bad timing in its initial release (that said, “Summertime” sold about 250,000 copies between late July and Labor Day 1958). Feller said he believed that had the Jamies broken nationally in July, they would’ve had a major, possibly Top 10 hit with it.

But the single, released on 18 July 1958, didn’t catch fire until late August. Contemporary issues of Cash Box and Billboard show “Summertime, Summertime” getting strong airplay in Boston (Feller shamelessly flogged it on his own show), Maine, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Montreal but mainly keeping east of the Mississippi. Only in early September (when it charted nationally in both publications, peaking at #26) does “Summertime, Summertime” start hitting in Nogales, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Amarillo.

Now it’s too late. School’s back in. Who wants to hear about summer dances and ditching schoolbooks when you’re cramming for your first exam and the sun’s going down at six? In deep winter, the single would have been a happy fantasy; in spring, a burgeoning promise. In late September, it just sounded cruel. The Jamies were off the charts a few weeks later.

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The Jamies as a flame in Epic’s fifth birthday cake; Cash Box, 25 October 1958

The Jamies promoted the single for a few months, appearing on American Bandstand and a couple of other TV shows, performing at dances, an Epic sales convention, the Boston Policeman’s Ball and a few nightclubs, padding out their meager repertoire with songs from South Pacific and other Broadway shows. They soon realized they weren’t cut out for pop life, as Serena wonderfully recalled to Baptista a decade ago:

In a club situation, though, we quickly bombed, because once we did ‘Summertime Summertime’ and tried to do something else, they could see we were what we were—four church kids—and in a bar they were not interested in listening to that. We went to a dance studio and they tried to teach us these movements and it was hilarious. None of us danced. We were Baptists!

Still, the Jamies had sold enough to merit a follow-up single, one better pegged to the season. It was a Christmas piece, “Snow Train.” This time Feller actually wrote the song, which wasn’t a plus—“Snow Train” has a lyric that scans as if it had been scratched out on a cocktail napkin, a car-honk of a lead melody, and a mix bleary to the point of distortion. Along with a desperate cameo (Feller-requested) by the opening hook of “Summertime, Summertime,” you can hear Tom experimenting with vocal arrangement ideas—for one chorus, he and Blair sing lead while Serena and Roy harmonize. “Snow Train” went nowhere on the charts; Epic dropped the Jamies in spring 1959.

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The B-side “When the Sun Goes Down” was a Tom Jameson co-write (likely a complete write). Serena recalled the song being difficult to perform, needing a few takes to get right. A sprightly-paced track with ringing lead guitar breaks, it revives the communal joy of “Summertime, Summertime.” A group of teenagers is hungry to hit the town, all but yelling at the sun to sink. The night ahead is a world roped off for the young. “Early to bed and early to rise is what some people say,” the Jamies smile. “But the gals I know and all the guys they just don’t live that way!”

Summertime’s End

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By early autumn 1959, when Feller signed the Jamies to United Artists, the group had been reduced to Tom Jameson and Roy. Serena had never wanted to be a pop singer in the first place, she later said. Blair also left, in part because the Jamies hadn’t made a dime despite “Summertime, Summertime” being all over the radio. They were told to sign over their performance checks to the TV shows they appeared on (a standard practice of the period) while their royalties were wiped out by recording session costs. Anything else went to Feller and stayed with him.

The Jamies added Rosalind Dever, from Medford (she was a co-worker of Roy’s) and Robert Paolucci from Quincy, who responded to a newspaper ad. The new quartet differed little from the original, with Dever replacing Serena as the alto voice. Dever and Paolucci both being in their early twenties was a plus, as Epic had voided the Jamies’ contract by noting the majority of them had been minors when they signed it.

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The last Jamies single countered a cheery break-up track, “Don’t Darken My Door,” written by one of Feller’s songwriter connections, with a solo Tom Jameson composition, “The Evening Star.” Marked by a wailing slide guitar (? it could be a singing saw), it’s the end of a world that “Summertime, Summertime” had called into being. As with “Searching for You,” the Jamies sing it like a hymn. Hand in hand, they walk off into the dark.

The single, released in November 1959, failed to chart and the Jamies were over at the dawn of the new decade, slipping off into life, work, marriage; some of them left Massachusetts, others still live there. Tom Jameson, who became a computer programmer and business analyst, died of cancer in 2009. Paolucci, who died in 2004, lived in New York, working as an actor, interpreter, and translator.

There’s a marvelous picture on Baptista’s site of Serena Jameson and Jeannie Roy in 2008, sitting at a piano and holding their first press photo. They look as if they’ve just shared a laugh together. Having remained friends, they recalled the Jamies as the great adventure of their youth.

Eternal Summer

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Minimalists ahead of their time, the Jamies now sound like some bizarrely perfect combination of the Chipmunks and the Young Marble Gi­ants…They never placed another record on the charts—but for 22 years straight they’ve caught the feeling of the fog burning off.

Greil Marcus, “Real Life Rock,” 28 July 1980.

My family moved a few times in the late Eighties and Nineties, and during one house-shift I found a box of old records. We’d ported this from house to house for years without anyone bothering to see what was in it. Along with a bunch of scratched-up LPs, there was a paper bag of 45 RPM singles. Leftovers from teenage parties or middle-school swaps, some with Caldor stickers on their labels or inscribed with a name (usually, neither of my parents’). “Touch Me” and “Wichita Lineman” and the Capitol “Help!” single with its different Lennon vocal. And “Summertime, Summertime,” in a Sixties reissue. That’s a photo of it above: it’s been on my desk as I wrote this.

I’d never thought to ask my parents about the song: it had intrigued me as a kid but I’d figured they’d have no clue about it. Yet a copy of “Summertime, Summertime” had been in the basement of every house I’d lived in.

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“I love the words,” Suzzy Roche once said of “Summertime, Summertime.” “It reminds me of how great it was to get let out of school as a kid…staying up late…swimming…lying in the grass looking at the stars… Come along and have a ball a regular free for all. It’s just plain old fun. I could use a little more of that sometimes.”

It’s what caught me up in the song, too—the feeling of summer about to break upon you. Most Americans don’t have carnival days: the closest they get is in childhood, that short span of weeks from late June to August, with each day left wide open, unwritten, free from work, from school, from parents (well, in theory). A world of children, ruled by children; the Jamies, in their close harmonies, sound like exalted kids carrying the news. Look alive and change your ways: it’s summertime. Hip ones, too—these are postwar kids, with no respect for their elders (the Jamies were good actors). Man, this jive has me in a trance! they sing. It’s constant motion, running to the hills, to the pool, the dance, the campfire. Are you coming or are you ain’t? 

Four Dorchester church kids in 1958 make a demo, record a song, and within a few months, a man driving on Rt. 66 in Texas hears it ringing out of his car radio, starts humming along despite himself. His granddaughter hears it sixty years later, selling Quarter Pounders on television. Harvey Keitel hits play on his tape deck; I hear it on a Virginia night in 1983; someone listening to an algorithm-assembled “Summertime Fun” mix on Spotify hears it today.

I thought about Tom Jameson, an artist who wrote this sunburst of a song and spent the rest of his life in quiet obscurity. It must have been strange to hear “Summertime, Summertime” for so long, reissued by Epic every few summers, covered by Jan and Dean and the Fortunes, used to sell Buicks and ice cream and dog food. His voice and his sister’s, her friend and her choir partner’s, always young, forever standing at the gate of summer. It’s a paradise, and like most paradises, it was never quite there and you can never go back.

2(c). Belly

DISCOGRAPHY                 SOURCES                              PLAYLIST   (+)
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“You have to leave the nest sometime,” 1995 (Ebet Roberts)

For the video of “Now They’ll Sleep,” lead-off single of Belly’s 1995 album King, the band are cast as their own roadies. They fix dangling mikes, tune snare heads and guitars, tape down cords. Tanya Donelly crouches alongside the stage, fixated on the lead singer.

She knows every word, sings along; she’s translating the song, while it’s being given to a crowd, into a private show playing in her head. It’s Donelly watching her performing self, a “Tanya” seen here in shadow, in quick cuts, from behind, from jostled perspectives of the audience.

“Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s not,” she said in 1993, when asked who she was on stage. “Sometimes it’s somebody else entirely. But a lot of my stuff is like third-person—me watching something. Voyeuristic. Voyeur to other people’s pain.”

If Donelly’s charm threatens to sink the video concept—it’s a wonder she never popped up in some Nineties film or TV show (even Juliana Hatfield got a speaking part in My So-Called Life)it ultimately works because Belly had a central anonymous quality. The sort of band whose roadies could have been more charismatic figures, their existence seemed improvised, mysterious, even fragile. And it wasn’t for long: Belly was done and dusted before Bill Clinton’s first term as president was over.

Bogie Gwang, Alone

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Donelly’s top 12, Melody Maker (14 November 1992). The misspelling of her name is a constant of her press coverage.

Tanya wanted to be a pop star and I had no ambitions at all. So I was keeping her down and she was dragging me up.

Kristin Hersh, 2001.

The most lucrative project ever associated with Donelly’s former band, Throwing Muses [see Quartet 2], Belly’s debut Star sold over a million copies worldwide and nearly topped the UK album charts. “Feed the Tree” was an MTV constant and a Billboard Modern Rock #1; band and album even got Grammy nominations.

It was the triumph of a second-placer. Confined to two songs per album in the Muses, only a guitarist and harmony vocalist on the Breeders’ Pod [see Quartet 2(b)], Donelly had a boxload of songs by 1991. Star was a double-remove of an album, with some songs written for the Muses’ The Real Ramona and most demoed for a second Breeders record.

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The Fort Apache “Breeders II” tapes (Donelly, via WGBH)

Joe Harvard, who recorded the “Breeders II” demos at Fort Apache in Cambridge, MA, died earlier this year. In tribute, Donelly put the demos on Bandcamp for free. A friend since the early Muses days, he called her “Bogie Gwang” (“after the quirky guitar intro of a song I wrote, ‘The River’“). Her comfort with Harvard and Fort Apache allowed her to tack down much of Star at its demo stage. Songs feel set in place in their sketch forms. There are few lyrical variants from the album versions; Donelly’s phrasings, rhythm guitar lines and song structures are greatly there, although she’d change “Mariah” to “Maria” in “Slow Dog” after Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich wondered if she was singing about Mariah Carey.

“I had the songs and I didn’t know what to do with them,” she said in 1993 (among the oldest was a unreleased song from the Muses’ “Doghouse” demo tape, “Raise the Roses,” which she split into “Angel” and “Sexy S.“) Her debut was a transition piece, “representing the time when I was completely revamping my life. New band, new relationship, new everything…I think that as long as I’m in somebody else’s band, I’ll never become a good songwriter.”

Although Kim Deal played guitar on a few demos, Deal sticking with the Pixies [see Quartet 2(a)] through mid-1992 led Donelly to abandon the idea of using the Breeders as her solo vehicle. It came down to her “needing the music” before the Pixies inevitably broke up.

White Bellied Up In the Sun

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Volume Six, 1993 (Louise Rhodes)

Whatever people get out of the songs, they’re as right about it as I am. Unless they’re way off the mark. Everybody is free to take what they want from my songs. Not from me. Nobody gets near me.

Donelly, 1993

What sort of songs were they? Some prospective singles, full of hooks; contrasting darker pieces in 3/4 or 6/8. She wove motifs through her lyrics: beds, sleeping, dreaming; backs (lying on; having burns on; having a dead dog or a bird’s nest strapped to); houses and dresses; the moon; waters, divers, and shores (Newport’s Sachuest Beach, in the title track).

“Eventually I want to write children’s books,” she told Evelyn McDonnell around the time of Star‘s release. Favorites were the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, who captured “the way children are. Kids are so psycho. They haven’t learned to be afraid of death; they haven’t fit it into their world yet. Everything is so strange to them.” There was “Witch,” where Donelly flashed on the image of walking into a house to see “this woman lying on a bed with her eyes and her mouth and her breasts and her crotch and her toes all lit up, like a Christmas tree, with lights.” Or her take on “Trust in Me,” the killer python’s seduction song in The Jungle Book (it would be a B-side).

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Most of all, “Gepetto.” “About the way children relate to each other, and how there’s a lot of dark weird stuff in a child’s world,” she told the NME in 1993. “There’s a lot of sexuality in childhood, a lot of it. That’s where a lot of sexual weirdness starts. When I was six or seven, my friends and I were like, ‘You be the boy now.'” The song began with a memory from kindergarten. She liked a boy, he ripped the head off her doll, she bonked him on the head with a toy fire engine. “That was the first time I felt I’d hurt the person I flirted with. You know that moment when you’ve said something or done something and you’ve gone one step too fucking far? That was our moment, and we were five.”

It’s a slapstick childhood flirtation mirrored with a grotesque adult one—a hapless lover as the puppeteer Gepetto, lying atop a woman that he thinks he’s brought to life, a woman with a sunny contempt for his performance (“Gepetto, where’d you put it? Poor, Gepetto: poor, poor“) and who could easily knock him on the head with a fire engine again. When Donelly performed it, she stomped around the stage as if she was crushing bugs.

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She leans into the tape machine. “Most of the characters I think of are female. I don’t really understand your sex, Jim.”

Donelly to Jim Arundel, Melody Maker, 4 July 1992

A psycho-sexual history mapped across fifteen tracks, Star’s lyrical perspective shifts—sometimes first-person, sometimes a voyeuristic third-party—but its anchoring image is of a young woman alone somewhere, in an empty house or beach. Some horror has occurred, or is about to. A junkie’s down in the cellar, her captor having bagged off after he thinks she’s kicked (“she’s just dusted, leave her”). An adulteress is forced to carry a decomposing dog on her back; a faerie steals a child from its room, flying out the window backwards, conducting the mother’s grief like a puppeteer (“fall to the bed! Put your hand in your hair!”). The singer talks to ghosts and crap ex-boyfriends, to serial killers and God. She wants the red moon; God answers by sending angels to bring a river to her. As with Gepetto, she’s not impressed.

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Web-chat on MSN, 18 November 1996

“That album was really me killing my childhood,” Donelly said in 2013. Star is, among many things, the work of someone who’d never felt at ease in school, who’d been so riddled with anxiety that she threw up every day; someone who had felt wretched as a teenager and still, in her late twenties, could feel like an imposter adult. And she’d been through hard patches at the start of the Nineties—breakups with a boyfriend and with Hersh, her best friend and step-sister.

It spilled out in “Untogether”: Donelly once said that each verse was aimed at a particular person. If the last verse isn’t about the demise of the original Muses, it’s a good feinting maneuver: “the bird keeps her distance/and I keep my space/ sometimes there’s no poison like a dream.”

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“The Day the Muses Died,” NME breakup notice, 23 November 1991

“We called ourselves step-twins and we were letting ourselves be two sides of a personality, so we like to think that we became whole when we stopped relying on each other that way,” Hersh told Uncut in 2013. To Martin Aston, Donelly said “I was in danger of losing my sense of self to something that had run out of control and that nobody involved had any control over…Kristin and I were too tired and numb, which was dangerous, but we got over it the second I quit.”

Yet there’s joy in the break. Star is a V.C. Andrews haunted house that’s torched to the ground by the girl who once lived there. In “Every Word,” she’s not bothered when a guy says he’s leaving. “More room for meeeeeee!,” as she fills an empty room with chairs she won’t let him sit on. In “White Belly,” she floats off, letting the tides take her to another shore. In the B-side “Sweet Ride,” she’s a blissed-out Persephone, junkie queen of the underworld. The woman carrying the slow (decomposing) dog on her back takes heart by knowing that once the corpse has rotted away, she’ll be free. Take your hat off, boy, as she says, when you’re talking to me.

Growing a Belly

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Donelly had considered going out as a solo act but realized she needed to have another band as her armor. So: Belly (Donelly: “a womanly word, a lovely and an ugly word…a gross word, a cozy word, a centered word all at the same time “). It began as two once-Muses, Donelly and bassist Fred Abong. She needed another guitarist and a drummer, originally just to make an album (she’d decided to cut it in Nashville) and promote it.

As the Muses always went back to their hometown of Newport, that’s where Donelly found two brothers she’d known from high school, with whom she made an informal agreement over drinks one night.

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Tom Gorman, shot by Chris Gorman for the cover of Verbal Assault’s Trial, 1987

Chris Gorman and Tom Gorman were born within a year of each other (Tom was the same age as Donelly, Chris a year younger). Their family moved regularly: by the time they were in high school in Newport, the Gormans had been through eight school systems. “The first time I felt grounded, like I fit in and belonged, was when I found punk rock,” Chris told Billboard in 2018.

The brothers were in the hardcore band Verbal Assault, most of whose members (like Hersh, Donelly, and the Muses’ David Narcizo) were alumni of Newport’s Rogers High. “The kids that didn’t kinda fit in—whether you were the punk kids, art rock, or whatever—because we all got beat up after high school together, we kind of formed a bond,” Verbal Assault’s singer Chris Jones told New Noise. “Because the city wasn’t that big, everybody kind of ended up hanging out together.”

In Chris, Donelly got a genial surfer/artist for a drummer. His looser style was a turn from her earlier, more manic drummers—marching-band-trained Narcizo and the Breeders’ Britt Walford. But he shared with them the ability to handle Donelly’s odd time signatures and song structures. (“I just come up with stuff to match the weird guitar parts,” he told Modern Drummer in 1995.)

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Photo shoot for Melody Maker, with a worse-for-wear Brett Anderson, ca. late 1992-early 1993

For the weird guitar parts, she had Tom Gorman. “If there’s a song where there’s a “lead” break needed, then I usually play that,” he said in 1995. “But a lot of our songs don’t, and even if there is, it’s like, ‘two bars! There it is! Get in, get out!’ And if in doubt, abuse the instrument.”

Donelly, being a Throwing Muse, had grown up fashioning homemade chords on the guitar rather than having any sort of formal training. So while Belly songs on paper are often simple progressions of mostly major chords (the refrain of “Every Word” shifts between E-flat and E; “Feed the Tree” is mostly an I-IV song in G major ([G]”talkin’ to me/ [C9]”be there when I”), Donelly’s idea of, say, a G major chord wasn’t that of some guy at Guitar Center. She’d bring in different tones or undermine the root, giving her chords a “rakish timbre,” in an inspired phrase by DJ Kim, one of her dedicated tabbers. (One example is her playing on “The Bees,” where she’s often keeping two open strings ringing through her chords, and so turning a B major at times into something like a Badd9/F#.)

“Usually I have an idea for a melody line, and then I have to make the guitar do what’s in my head,” she said in 1995. “So actually the sound of the song comes first, and then I have to make the guitar do that thing. I know [the chords I play] are really simple ones, but there are a lot of chords that I invent, and I don’t know what they’re called. Usually some engineer has to tell me!” When she wrote on acoustic guitar, her songs were simpler, folkier; when she wrote on electric, “it’s less structured and more tonal.”

Tom had to find entry points. “We all fill in the holes of the others. Tanya’s guitar playing is really vocal, particularly her lead stuff,” he said. “She tends to come up with a line in her head, hums it, and then figures out where it is on the guitar. I’m more likely to start with the chords.” Take “Slow Dog,” where he hangs just behind the beat in the intro while Donelly plays the opening riff, until the two harmonize in the bars right before the verse starts.

Goodbye Squirrel

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In Tanya, what a transformation!
How well she’d studied her new role!

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Much of Star was produced by Tracy Chisholm, an engineer who’d been recommended by 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell. But for the singles, Donelly went with the Pixies’ producer Gil Norton. “I liked Tracy’s southern, swampy, cool sound, but he was too mellow for us,” she told Aston. “I wanted someone I knew and trusted, and the Belly songs that Gil produced were the ones I knew he’d treat in a poppy way, and I wanted to make a pop album.”

One of Norton’s tracks was “Feed the Tree,” Belly’s one-hit-wonder (even if it wasn’t, quite). Lumped in with other mayfly Nineties alternate-rock hits, it’s become part of the parade with “Sex and Candy” and “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand,” “Closing Time” and “Tubthumping.”

Listening to “Feed the Tree” today, much of it sounds like a British indie rock song ca. 1989, with its clean lead guitar breaks and precisely-placed fills, its busker rhythm playing, modest drums, and a melodic hook close to one in the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On” (compare “get my head offthe–ground” to Donelly’s later refrain phrasings of “feedthetree“). (She’d always been the most “4AD” of the Muses, to the point of dating Lush’s manager.) It was a last flowering in the waning era of the Sundays and the Lilac Time—part of a vestibule period that the critic Alfred Soto has called “the Poppy Bush Interzone,” in which the modern rock charts were a strange traffic where Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello mingled with Consolidated and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin.

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Donelly triumphant, Sting still Modern Rock: Billboard, 6 March 1993

“Feed the Tree” is also a meticulously-constructed pop song, sounding as if Donelly had shone it up until it caught the sun from every angle. How the intro riff tightens whenever it moves to the home chord, or the time-shift (a bar of 2/4) to shuttle you to the next verse a breath faster. How she first sings the refrain quietly, giving it an airing but holding back on it until, after the second verse, she moves up in her range and lets her hooks ring out. “Take your HAT! OFF! when you’re talkin’ to me and be there when I feed the tree,” savoring the fifth-spanning leap of the last three words. Then she builds it out even more, singing her “I know all this and” pre-refrain hook three times before completing it, then getting caught up in her refrain until the fade.

On Star, where “Feed the Tree” was the second side’s opening track (for cassette buyers) or halfway-point peak (CDs), it bound the album together. Its first verse begins like a nursery rhyme. Again, it’s bad dreams and fairy-tale gore—an old man squeezes his broken heart upon the ground; a great tree grows from his blood. Its once-frightened-squirrel of a narrator has taken some tumbles but smiles to show her false teeth. And in the last verse (which Donelly didn’t have at the demo stage), the skinny, silver-toothed girl becomes the old man she once was, dancing around a monument to her former disasters, asking her new lover to stay with her until they put her in the ground. The woman is father to the man.

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A year earlier, a year later, “Feed the Tree” might have gone nowhere or gotten the standard indie-rock modest airplay. But it came out in early 1993, the year of Liz Phair and PJ Harvey and L7, and it jumped on the radio (it helped that 4AD had hired a proper song plugger for once). Played six times a day on MTV, it was in tune with its springtime, an American counterpart to the Cranberries’ “Dreams” and “Linger.”

“Feed the Tree” made a band before it had settled into being one. Although its video was Belly in a stage-shift (a redheaded Donelly backed only by the Gormans), it would be their defining image.

Last Leg of the Chair

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Abong left Belly before Star was released (another ex-Muse, Leslie Langston, subbed for him on a brief UK promo tour). “Fred and I were very close at that point, and we’d co-written a song [‘White Belly’] and I wanted us to write more,” Donelly told Aston. “I was amazed he’d walk away when it was obvious things were going upward. But he felt it wasn’t the lifestyle for him.”

So she found someone more comfortable with the lifestyle: another Rhode Islander, Barrington’s Gail Greenwood. It created gender parity in the band and gave their stage presence a jolt. Greenwood first made a stir in the British press by greeting a crowd at Manchester Academy with “you bunch of wankers!,” having mistakenly thought it a term of endearment.

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Greenwood and Donelly had a rivalry, if a one-sided one, in the Eighties. Greenwood’s first band, The Dames, “were mortal enemies” of the Muses, she told The Face in 1995. “The Muses didn’t know that we existed because they were big stars. But oh The Dames knew that the Muses existed. We couldn’t understand the hype, we couldn’t understand their art…We accused them of babysitting for the music critic of the Providence Journal [as to] how they got their first show. We just could not give them the credit.”

Greenwood, fitness devotee and straight-edger, gave Belly an exuberant physicality in performance, holding her bass low and wielding it like a chainsaw, moving around the stage as if she was dunking basketballs. “A more benevolent Tank Girl,” as one YouTube fan said of her. Belly had finally cohered into a visual. The hub: Donelly, and Chris as the coolly smiling engine; Greenwood, the bouncing ball stage left; Tom, playing his leads in taciturn solitude stage right.

Newport Kids on the Town

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Prom night with Belly (Daily Free Press, 25 March 1993)

In March 1993, Belly held a press conference at the M-80 in Boston to kick off their American tour and introduce Greenwood. The club, normally a “euro chic” sort of place favored by Saudi millionaires’ sons who in theory attended BU, was done up as a wedding reception in a banquet hall, with pink balloons, flower arrangements, and white tablecloths. The band wore identical white tuxedos with corsages pinned to their lapels. “It’s a contest to make us feel as uncomfortable as possible,” Donelly told the assembled journalists.

By then, “Feed the Tree” was deep in MTV’s Buzz Bin and the #1 Billboard Modern Rock song. As Belly started touring across the US, its crowds were shifting—not as many longtime Muses fans, more and more people who stood around waiting for them to do “Feed the Tree.”

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Santa Monica, 16 April 1993

“Starting out, the audience felt very similar to us,” Chris recalled. “And then, as it gets bigger and it goes more mainstream, it seemed like our audience looked less and less like us.” There were more promoters, press agents, and label execs at Belly shows, more expense-account (that is, from Belly’s royalties) dinners.

They played Letterman, Glastonbury, Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart (the MTV edition) and by the end of the tour were exhausted and barely talking to each other. A collection of Rhode Island acquaintances had been drilled into a unit who spent nearly every day together, but their roots weren’t proving deep enough to sustain them.

What You Get Is No Tomorrow

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Belly’s success, along with the Breeders catching fire with “Cannonball,” marked the beginning of the end of Watts-Russell’s time with 4AD—in 1994, he’d have what Martin Aston described as a nervous breakdown and would sell his share of the label at the end of the decade. “Everything ballooned out for him,” Donelly said. One night in LA, she and Watts-Russell, who’d first known the Muses through hours-long phone conversations with a teenage Hersh in 1985, had a mutual freak-out about what was happening.

Having to be the face of a platinum-selling rock band, “I didn’t even know how to represent myself,” she said. “I didn’t understand why I had to do so many interviews either…schlepping from American radio station to station got to me. It felt like I had no ownership of myself, my art and my body.”

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In the Muses, Hersh had been the main public voice. Sharp and frank, she was always ready to talk about her kids, her problems, who wasn’t paying her. Her step-sister wrote the catchier songs but was a far more private and guarded person. Belly’s manager Gary Smith, who’d known Donelly for a decade and whom she called one of her best friends, said in 1995 that he’d never seen her apartment.

Belly also hit at the peak of the post-Nirvana indie rock purism wars. “This is the number one college band in the country, is that right? Bigger even than the Ohio State band?” as  David Letterman introduced them in their first network TV appearance. Detractors like Henry Rollins reportedly said Belly hadn’t paid their dues (despite them having been in bands since their teens). They were knocked as sellouts, only popular because Donelly was pretty; they were called Throwing Muses watered down for mass consumption, like Cracker in relation to Camper Van Beethoven.

Then the music press began pitting Donelly and Juliana Hatfield against the riot grrrl bands (e.g., Volume Six, 1993: “The confidence [Donelly] displays with her guitar and her voice gives her an authority that bands like Huggy Bear will never know”). “I tried really hard not to engage in the attack posture [the riot grrrl scene] was taking against me, against Kristin, against at one point PJ Harvey. I mean, why??,” Donelly told Stacey Pavlick in 2013. “Those “gender traitor” accusations were getting leveled at us…Melody Maker was constantly quoting these women who were SO angry at other women.”

Belly felt under siege, forever debating where the no-go point was. This magazine photo shoot? This TV show? Is it okay for Tanya to do a Gap ad? Does “Slow Dog” need a single remix? Such angst might well be incomprehensible to a young person today, when the borders between indie and pop barely exist and song licensing is one of the few ways musicians can make any money. “That stuff fell by the wayside years ago, but back then people still obsessed over doing the right thing—no ads, no corporate sponsorship,” Donelly said to Aston. “We constantly and agonizingly soul-searched every decision.”

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Semi-smiling faces on the cover of the Rolling Stone, April 1995 (Greenwood: “We all ended up in tears. The pictures were awful—they didn’t even airbrush them. I mean, I look at them and all I see is razor stubble.”)

Each photo and video shoot was a battle. The director of the “Feed the Tree” video wanted nude models in it. Rolling Stone would only put Belly on the cover if it was just Donelly or, later in negotiations, if the band dressed up as characters from The Wizard of Oz (they finally did appear as themselves).

Even the name of the band became a burden, as the inevitable photographer suggestion was for Donelly to wear a midriff-baring outfit. Seemingly every profile noted her as being “elfin” and she was leered at in print (last sentence of a 1993 Select feature: “There are lights on her eyes, on her mouth and on her breasts”). She unloaded a year later, when interviewed by Amy Raphael:

The way male journalists flirt every time I do an interview makes me never want to talk to anybody ever. That is a stumbling block; the only time in my life that I ever turn into a hermit, the only time in my life that I ever run into a strange feeling about myself, as a woman, is in the male journalist situation. That’s the time when I most feel like a girl. A little girl. This is the angle they use: ‘She’s small and looks like a child.’ I don’t even know what the fuck they get out of it. All I ever feel is minimized. As a person, because of my femaleness….The weird thing is, that if I think something went well, I’ll then read the piece and it’ll talk about how small my hands were, or how small and quiet my voice was.

The Stranger In Your Movie

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Amidst this, Belly had to make a follow-up album. They chose the classic-rock-pedigreed Glyn Johns, who recommended Nassau’s Compass Point Studios, mostly because he had to work outside the US for visa reasons.

Johns and engineer Jack Joseph Puig wanted a “live in the studio” approach, with as few overdubs as possible (Chris Gorman later estimated only about ten percent of the album is overdubs). It was unnerving at first for a band who’d cut their debut in multiple studios, layering bed after bed of overdubs: tracks having a guitar part flown in from a session in Nashville, while the vocal was from one in England.

“I don’t know whether we’d quite reached the level of ability as a band or individually to be able to nail it that perfect,” Chris told Aquarium Drunkard. “I had really expected a guy that would certainly record the drum parts in a much more cut-and-paste way. I didn’t see myself as that mechanical drummer that can ‘Dave Grohl’ pull it off in a single take and walk away.”

To get the drums, Puig put two overhead mikes over the kit, a few mikes in metal cans and bottles near the kick drum, and some ambient mikes set around the studio. That was it, and it worked—the drums on King had more of a punch than those on Star: see “Puberty,” or the cycling kick-snare-toms patterns on “Seal My Fate.”

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This Dogme 95-lite approach meant Belly had to nail down their songs during album rehearsals (in the less tropical environs of Middletown, Rhode Island, almost immediately after their tour ended). There were more collaborations—both Tom and Greenwood co-wrote music with Donelly. “Super-Connected” was originally titled “Surrender” because the band heard Greenwood channeling Cheap Trick; Tom had been listening to Italian film soundtracks, hence “Lil’ Ennio [Morricone]” (an outtake called “Big Ennio” was described as being “less an instrumental than a mentalinstro”).

Where Star was one writer honing songs over years, King songs were worked out on the floor. In structure, they’re rowdy negotiations and odd diversions; they tail off into unresolved arguments. Hooks land in unexpected places, bridges conquer the latter half of a song, riffs that could anchor a song only make cameo appearances. Take “Now They’ll Sleep,” with its rumbling, down-tempo intro, a verse that’s more hooky than the refrain, which in turn acts more like a bridge. How “King” changes its coat every thirty seconds. Or the wonderful “Red,” with its swooning 6/8 verses, broken by jump-cuts to pounding six-bar breaks (RED-RED-RED aaaahhh!). It diverts into a loopy extended bridge in standard time: it’s as if another, peppier song has come to visit. Then a jolt back for more verse/break standoffs, ending with one last RED RED RED.

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Tom later said that he’s regretted at times how sparse King was (his piano on “Judas My Heart” is the only thing on the record that’s not guitar, bass, or drums)—that slower tracks like “Silverfish” might have been helped by strings. But having to scratch out tracks with just a grumbly bunch of old pedals and amps proved inspired. On “The Bees” he ran his guitar through a Rat pedal into “this sad little plywood Alamo amp which had been sitting there throughout the sessions. I plugged into it more out of sympathy than anything.” The lead lines in “Now They’ll Sleep” and “Seal My Fate” are a Boss tremolo pedal jacked into a distorted amp; the opening arpeggiated riff of “Silverfish” came via an ancient stomp box that plugged into the wall. It said “chorus” on it, he recalled, “but it doesn’t sound like a chorus.”

His and Donelly’s guitar interplay grew more intensely conversational—take the two lines that open “Super-Connected,” one distorted modestly, the other transmogrified. How the lead guitar doubles the rhythm, quietly and hazily, in the verses of “Lil’ Ennio,” or the jabbing dance of Gorman’s fills with Donelly’s chunky rhythm figures in “Now They’ll Sleep” and especially “Untitled and Unsung,” where the band even swings.

These were their only conversations by this point. Band politics were the guitarists not talking, the rhythm section at loggerheads and, to cap it off, two brothers with usual sibling issues. At times only half of Belly could be in the studio together. But despite this, maybe because of this, King is a document of a band, of four people in a room facing off, willing these songs into life. “Belly’s sound is created completely by all of our impulses,” Tom told Pulse in 1995. “Because we’re not smart enough or good enough to think about it too much. We just have to do whatever we can get away with.”

In the heyday of “alternative” waxworks like Bush’s Sixteen Stone, Belly made a record with blood in it, having the sort of mix the label usually calls “lively” and then looks around for someone to clean it up. “Donelly’s voice cracks. Chris Gorman’s drums threaten to fall apart on “Seal My Fate” and “Silverfish.” Gail Greenwood hardly gets on a one in 45 minutes. Real-time fader and pan-pot moves are plainly audible,” wrote Ross Palmer, in an appreciation of King in 2016. “It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it mixed any other way.”

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Coronation for Vox, 1995 (Barry Marsden)

In her lyrics, Donelly picked up on how the tracks had diverged from the sound of Star: that she was, in essence, writing for a new band. Her Star motifs are still there—sleeping, backs, moons, dogs, dresses, hearts, waters—but her narrative voice is pricklier and funnier (“now I make you pray like there’s a god!” or “there’s a lady who walks everywhere on her hands/ doesn’t trust where her feet want to take her”). She knocks a precious indie rock diva and backs kids against their tedious parents (“Red,” in which a kid dreams of being abducted by aliens, was in part about how kids “feel more like visitors than participants in their households, because they’re not treated as humans, you know, not allowed to speak,” she said.)

Her singing was more ambitious—she’s pushing to the top of her range, even doing some Kate Bush-style phrasing (there’s a touch of “Wuthering Heights” in “Lil’ Ennio”), and her slightest alterations in emphases can make her words sting (how she changes, on its second go-round, “keep what’s mine for me” in “Seal My Fate“). Where Star was a map of a hermetic, almost Gothic imagination (“a projection of my self-protection, I was laying things in analogue so I could protect myself from the truth,” she said years later), King opens up a sealed house to the world. Childhood’s end: a suspicious mind allowing for the promise of connecting at last. He knows the shape her breath will take before she lets it out (“John Dark,” a snarling B-side, is a disastrous alternate end to the story.)

So, “King,” her greatest lust song. A strange and furious pair, a faith healer taming a little bird (“I won’t prey on you…this time”), it’s the voice of “Feed the Tree” again, a woman who’s crowned a man finally worthy of her; she’s plucked him from the soil like a healthy-looking shoot. How Donelly sings “there is a light under the OH-shun” in anticipation (even the guitar solo sounds coital), and then she shakes it down: Baby I can’t fake it, I’d like to see you naked, at last just chanting NAY-KED NAY-KED. What else is there to say, really?

Now, I’ve Lost the Plot

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Playing “Super Connected” on MTV’s Most Wanted, 1995

King, released on Valentine’s Day 1995, was supposed to be their consolidation hit. In a Christmas 1994 Billboard preview, Warner/Reprise product manager Geoffrey Weiss said he expected the record to go platinum “at least” and, expecting heavy radio/MTV support for “Now We’ll Sleep,” that King was set to move 50,000 copies in its first week of release, or ten times what Star had done in the same period.

Instead King stayed on the shelves. Maybe “Now We’ll Sleep” was a poor choice for first single (the more pointed “Super-Connected” or the title track might have hit harder). Maybe the album was too spiky for 1995 alternative rock radio; Watts-Russell would later blame Johns and Puig, saying Donelly’s voice was mixed too high. Or maybe “Feed the Tree” had been a fluke in a season of flukes.

Nor can you discount the caps many rock stations had on female artists: if, say, Paula Cole was already in heavy rotation, Belly could be out of luck. “You can’t play two women back-to-back on the radio,” as Jewel recalled being a standard explanation (“We’re already playing Sheryl Crow, so we can’t play you,” as per Lisa Loeb.)

Whatever the reasons, “Now We’ll Sleep” stalled out at #17 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart, “Super-Connected” at #35, and King itself at #57 on the Billboard 200 (though it did crack the UK Top 10).

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The band toured King through most of 1995, opening for REM in a summer tour, and wound up selling 350,000 copies in the US. What would have been a bravado performance for Throwing Muses’ House Tornado was a flop in the age of platinum alternative.

It felt as if windows opened in the early Nineties were closing—it was back to boys with guitars, and increasingly dull boys. As Okkervil River’s Will Sheff said to Aquarium Drunkard, Belly was a path not taken by alternative rock in the late Nineties: “melodic, curious, feminine, imbued with magic. Really, it’s the place the genre should have gone, instead of being hijacked by a bunch of macho knuckleheads who ended up steering the entire genre into a ditch and making us all feel like we’d been had.”

The Sea Does What It Oughtta and Soon There’s Salty Water

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On 11 November 1995, Belly headlined at the Dragonfly in LA. It was the end of the tour, and of them: the band wouldn’t work together again for two decades. Sitting by a pool at the after-party, Donelly said hi to a passing raccoon and wound up covered in blood and spit, requiring her to get multiple rabies shots. As this was like a lost verse from Star, it seems symbolically appropriate, if utterly awful.

She’s emphasized over the years that King‘s relative commercial failure wasn’t the problem—that even had the album sold like gangbusters, the band still would have fallen apart. Inter-band tensions, the long silences and sudden arguments, had become toxic (she wrote “Swoon” in Belly’s last months: “there’s always a green door/ and green gets you out”). And as her manager and 4AD had considered Belly to be essentially Tanya-plus-three, they were fine with rebooting her as a solo performer.

“Every band has a lifespan. Ours was oddly short. It just kind of imploded,” she said in 1996. “It wasn’t my decision alone, but I can’t say that I did anything to stop the end coming…I don’t know that band democracies necessarily work. I’d rather it be more clear-cut. Have contracts, have it be, ‘This is the amount of time you’re expected to do this.’ Not leave it open-ended, or pretending we’re all going to form this beautiful musical community and everybody’s going to have a fair share.”

At age 31, she broke down her professional life for the NME:

Phase one: Throwing Muses—hair in the face, guitar playing. Everything back then made me vomit. Phase two: The Breeders—more of a side-project. A very, very tipsy pyjama party. Phase three: Belly—my stab at collaboration, ’nuff said. Phase four: solo—more of a decision borne of defeat than a desire to have my name everywhere. But now I’ve done it, it’s been really liberating and calming. I’m not a good team player. I like to think I am, but I’m not. And I’m not a good boss.

One of the last tracks that Belly released (on the “Seal My Fate” single) was a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles.” Nilsson wrote it for The Point, a 1971 cartoon treasured by hippie kid Donelly. It’s a waking up to the knowledge, realizing the world has far bigger problems than yours, and that you’re part of it, one tiny teardrop in a sea of pain and renewal. Sit down, pour a cup of tea, watch the bubbles form, wonder where they go when they break.

Donelly sings with less assurance than Nilsson. She starts out as if she’s been disturbed, takes the verses faster, gives the lines harsher phrasings. It’s a raw-sounding recording—electric guitar plucks in lieu of pizzicato strings, surly drums, the harmonies (always so lushly intricate in Nilsson recordings) at times nearly discordant, with one Donelly grumbling beneath the other or breaking in as if blasting from a radio speaker. There’s no acceptance here: the world’s a mess, drop your cup in the sink.

“It’s a strange thing,” she once said. “My hands want to play pop songs and my head is attracted to despair.”

Resumption

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What happened to all the bands? Is it just that bands are corny now?

Rostam Batmanglij, 2016

“I’ve given up trying to figure out what the music industry is about,” Donelly said in 1997, when her first solo album, Lovesongs For Underdogs, was selling less than King had. “There were high hopes around 4AD and Sire, which I’m trying to stay away from! People need to have high hopes to get through the process, but in my own heart, I have to keep an even keel. I don’t want to make records to try and maintain a momentum; whichever way the wind blows this time, I’ll be OK.”

She kept on through the 2000s—Whiskey Tango Ghosts (2004), a loud wartime record, was among her strongest. A gorgeous rumination on George Harrison’s “Long Long Long,” cut live at a Vermont hotel for her last solo release, This Hungry Life, for a time hinted at the close of an artistic life, as did a series of digital-only collaborations called, collectively, Swan Song. After having a second child, she mostly stopped performing and recording for a few years, became a post-partum doula.

Greenwood joined L7 in the late Nineties, played in Bif Naked and with Benny Sizzler (she co-founded the latter), and became an anti-sprawl activist. And the Gormans founded a photography studio in 1999 (Chris already had worked with Vaughan Oliver on Belly’s album art).

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Taking five at Greenwood’s house in Rhode Island, 2018 (Tony Luong, NYT)

Asked about a Belly reunion in 2010, Donelly said “there would have to be a lot of therapy before it…there’s still too much unresolved stuff.” But it turned out to be easy—a group email became a conversation, led to a meeting, led to a tour in 2016. Four new songs were written for the tour, which were slated for an EP, which became a full album, Dove.

“This sounds insane, but we didn’t have one conversation about what we wanted this album to sound like, we just started writing,” she told the New York Times last year. It was a Northeast Corridor collaboration, done mostly via broadband—Greenwood and Chris in Rhode Island, Tom in upstate New York, Donelly in the Boston suburbs.

Dove reminds me of the reunion Breeders’ All Nerve—it sounds like a band who’s picked up right where they left off twenty-some years ago, after everyone’s aired some bad blood over coffee in the break room. Much of it’s respectable “classic” rock but some of it sounds restless, unsettled—it’s a band looking to stake a claim again. See “Human Child,” Donelly going back to Yeats twenty-five years after “Full Moon, Empty Heart,” or her eerie take on a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang song, “Hushabye Mountain” (who knows why it was left off the album). And “Shiny One,” a true quartet piece (Donelly: “Gail set the chorus. Chris came up with an amazing drum loop, which informed the rest of the song. Tom wrote the chords and sent them to me”) that they make into a modest epic.

“We’re managing ourselves, and we’re doing everything in house—the graphics, the design of the merch, all the administrative stuff,” she told Brett Milano in 2016. “The other day I told Tom that we need to start rehearsing for these shows, and he said, ‘wait, you mean we’re musicians, too?'”

In the 2010s, as the rock band fell out of favor among the young, seemingly all the old indie bands reformed. The four quartets of this cycle—the Muses, the Pixies, the Breeders, Belly—are now touring, recording, self-producing, self-managing, self-issuing. After the squabbles, thwarted ambitions and now-obscure grudges, having all gone through the wringer, having each broken up with the old century, they’ve become a cottage industry in the new one. It’s a rare bright note for capitalism. Who knows, they may be the last of their line: Hersh, Thompson, Deal, Donelly, and everyone whom they traveled with. And here we leave them.

2(b). The Breeders

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Dudes to the back: The Breeders play for Snub TV while making Pod in Edinburgh, January 1990

As origin stories go, it’s a good one. Tanya Donelly and Kim Deal are drunk at a Boston club one night, dancing to music playing before the Sugarcubes come on, and decide to make a disco record.

On the Throwing Muses/Pixies tour in spring 1988, Deal and Donelly “were the girls,” Kristin Hersh recalled in the Pixies’ Fool the World oral history. “Leslie [Langston] and I were the vegetarians, they were the girls, the other ones were the boys.” For Donelly, whose social life had greatly consisted of playing rock clubs with her step-sister [see Quartet No. 2], Deal’s friendship was a new adolescence. “I never had girlfriends like her in high school,” she said (Deal had been a cheerleader and on the gymnastics team). “She was my first ‘I’m gonna braid your hair!’ kind of friend.”

Each second place in their respective bands, Deal and Donelly mulled ideas for a solo project, possibly using the two Dave drummers (Narcizo and Lovering). Their “disco queens” concept went as far as working in a rehearsal space, trying to cover the likes of “Tell Me Something Good.”

“We sucked at it,” Donelly told Spin in 2004. “We didn’t have the funk. We were thinking, we’ll have this organic dance band—no machines, no loops, just guitar and drums. It was dumb. So we decided to have a regular old band.”

Not Quite a Regular Old Band: Classes of Breeders

Here are the Breeders, a band whose sole constant is Kim Deal:

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The First Breeders: ca. 1978-1982. In Dayton, Ohio, teenage Kim and Kelley Deal play around town and record songs in their home studio.

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Arty Breeders (aka “the Tanya Breeders”): ca. late 1988-spring 1992. From the first Tanya Donelly/Kim Deal rehearsals through Pod (1990) and the Safari EP (1992). Donelly and Deal are joined by Josephine Wiggs (bass, late of the Perfect Disaster) and Britt Walford (drums, Slint). A mayfly-lived quintet expansion with Kelley Deal is documented on the “Safari” video and a few photo shoots.

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(Kevin Westenberg, 1993)

Pop Breeders (aka “the ‘Cannonball’ Breeders”): summer 1992-late 1994. Kelley replaces Donelly; the band gets a new drummer, Jim Macpherson (his name about as often spelled with a capital P). The Breeders as remembered by most, with their platinum-certified Last Splash, their MTV hit single, and their 1994 Lollapalooza stint. It ends messily.

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Chaotic Breeders (aka “the Amps Breeders”): 1995-1999. Period of strife, with various members quitting or in rehab. Many fruitless recording sessions. The only album of this era is the Amps’ Pacer (1995), cut by the Dayton-based quartet of Kim Deal, Macpherson, Luis Lerma and Nate Farley: a Breeders record under an assumed name.

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Recovery Breeders (aka “The West Coast Breeders”): 2000-2010. Years of sporadic sessions with the Deals, drummer José Medeles, bassist Mando Lopez and guitarist Richard Presley result in Title TK (2002) and an appearance on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (starts 18:00 in). Presley leaves, restoring the Breeders to their proper quartet state. More sporadic sessions yield Mountain Battles (2008) and Fate to Fatal (2009). This incarnation’s last bow is ATP New York in September 2010.

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(Marisa Gesualdi, 2018)

Reunion Breeders: 2013-present. Pop Breeders, together again (All Nerve, 2018).

Treehouse Plans: The Deal Sisters

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Who knows who originally scanned these (via here)

Kim and Kelley Deal are identical twins, born in Dayton in 1961. Their parents were from West Virginia, where their father had mined coal in his youth (“my brother’s the only male Deal that never worked in a mine,” Kim said in 2004. “My father doesn’t have his front teeth from a hammer ricocheting off the side of a mountain.”) Like many white working-class families in mid-century America, the Deals prospered via suburbia, the GI Bill, and the Cold War: Robert “Ed” Deal became director of mission avionics at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s aeronautical laboratory.

Growing up in Huber Heights, a newly-made Dayton suburb (“America’s Largest Community of Brick Homes”), the Deal sisters were popular, athletic, accomplished at school, and bored. “Just poring over the record collection,” Kim said of her teenage years. “Smoking pot. Snowing, constantly snowing, and doing drugs.” The sisters loved music—Kim was an adept guitarist by her early teens—but learned “no guy would play with us in a band,” Kim said in Fool the World. “It was uncool to have a chick in the band.” All that female musicians were good for in Dayton at the time, she said, was to sing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” then gaze at the lead guitarist for the rest of the gig. “We didn’t know there was indie rock. It was just spandex here.”

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Reeling in the year: the Deals’ senior (1979) yearbook at Wayne High (Huber Heights, OH)

So they built their own scene. By 1978, they had a home studio with a mixing board and an eight-track recorder. Kim even spliced the electrical cords. They played open mikes, biker bars, the Ground Round, truck stops: Kim on acoustic guitar; she and Kelley harmonizing on Hank Williams (“I Can’t Help It”), Neil Young, and Little Feat songs. Among their originals was one called “Do You Love Me Now?

“These tough big macho biker guys…you could make them cry. You really could,” Kim recalled in 1993. “It’s a lot different to college-age-type kids who just think ‘there’s no fuckin’ way we’re going to sit around listening to this shit.'” They played under the name “The Breeders.” Kim had heard it was gay male slang for heterosexuals. “It’s like ‘yeucch! they’re breeders!,’ like a ripe, stinky thing,” she told Melody Maker. “It could also be men’s attitude towards women, and women about themselves.”

She thought of going to Nashville to be a songwriter; Kelley became a systems analyst for a defense contractor. Kim met John Murphy, a Massachusetts native working at Wright-Patterson. They married, she moved back to Boston with him, got a job in a doctor’s office, answered a “bassist wanted” ad in the Boston Phoenix [see Quartet 2(a)].

Once she’d joined the Pixies (originally billed as “Mrs. John Murphy”), she and Charles Thompson split the air fare for Kelley to come to Boston to audition as the band’s drummer. Kelley turned the Pixies down, later saying that she’d only ever wanted to be in Kim’s group.

Gestation

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Donelly in Hollywood, April 1989 (KH Archives)

During late 1988, Donelly and Deal hung out at the latter’s house in Boston and worked on songs. Carrie Bradley, a violinist and singer in the Boston alt-folk band Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, got involved. As did the latter band’s manager and Deal/Murphy friend, Ray Halliday, who played bass and co-wrote a few pieces (“Doe,” “Glorious.”) “Kim is a perfectionist, so she redid some of his parts,” her now-ex-husband Murphy said.

Using various drummers, Deal and Donelly demoed most of what became Pod, including “Only in 3’s“, “Doe” and “Lime House,” along with “Silver” (soon recorded by the Pixies on Doolittle), “You Always Hang Around” (later turned into “Divine Hammer”) and a song that would appear on Last Splash: a cover of Ed’s Redeeming Qualities‘ “Drivin’ on 9.” 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell, entranced by the demos, gave Deal and Donelly $11,000 to make a record.

Label politics meant a compromise. The first Breeders album would be Deal’s songs; the second would be Donelly’s. The American debut of the Arty Breeders was a single show at the Rat in Kenmore Square, on a date that no one seems able to recall (winter 1989? spring 1990?). “It was billed in the Phoenix as a Boston girl supergroup,” Murphy said in Fool the World. As there’s no footage of the performance, it’s as legendary an evening as the one Donelly and Deal dreamed up a group together.

When Iris Sleeps Over

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Rehearsed near London and recorded in Edinburgh, Pod was made in three weeks in January 1990. It was a sleepover of a session—Donelly, Deal, and Josephine Wiggs often wore their Marks & Spencer pajamas while tracking and mixing. Deal compared it to summer camp, or rather “winter camp in Edinburgh, winter camp for a collection of losers.”

She’d met Wiggs not long before. Wiggs’ father was a British environmental activist who founded the Anti-Concorde Project; the Wiggses lived in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, in the then-dilapidated Fairfield House, which had fourteen bedrooms and reportedly a library that contained every edition of the Guardian and Times issued since the mid-Sixties. “Whenever you go there, it’s really hard to leave,” Wiggs told Rolling Stone in 1994. “It’s got this Twilight Zone feeling about it.”

As a child, she learned cello. As a teenager, she went to her local in Baldock wearing a red-lined Dracula cape (a period (much) later honored in “MetaGoth”). Upon getting a masters in continental philosophy, she joined the Perfect Disaster, who opened for the Pixies in London in 1988. After a Pixies gig in Frankfurt the following summer, Deal asked Wiggs for a lift, only to realize she didn’t know where she was staying. Deal had to return to the bar and reassemble shreds of a napkin upon which she’d written her hotel’s name. Helping to achieve this feat, Wiggs was in.

In the Breeders, she was an ambassador of eccentric order; her basslines are an elegant, firm subscript. In band photographs and videos, she has the expression of Tenniel’s Alice when encountering a talking chess piece. “She lives by strict codes,” Rolling Stone‘s Karen Schoemer wrote of her in 1994. “It is said about her that if she is driving a car and she winds up in the right-hand turn lane, she will turn right, no matter which direction she would rather be going.” Wiggs photographs wild mushrooms wherever she travels, reportedly has never eaten meat in her life, and came out as a lesbian in the mid-Nineties. When visiting Dayton, she often stayed with the Deals’ parents, to whom she related more than their daughters. She is, and always has been, the coolest member of the band.

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Wiggs, in a quartet that won’t be part of this series: cycle’s gotta end at some point

To produce, Deal picked Steve Albini (she only had phone numbers of producers she’d worked with in the Pixies). Wiggs thought he got the nod “because Kim needed someone to fight with.” She was impressed with the American efficiency of these fights. Albini and Deal would yell at each other for five minutes, then quietly work on a take together. Albini would tell Donelly she didn’t need to do another overdub, she’d stomp upstairs hollering that she couldn’t live with such a lousy guitar part, and by the next morning she’d usually agree with him.

Deal saw in Albini someone who, despite the occasional abrasive moment (like telling Donelly “if he drank my bathwater, he’d probably piss rosewater,” the latter recalled), hadn’t condescended to her while making Surfer Rosa and could get the sounds that she had in her head, which she thought the demos had failed to do.

The drummer was his suggestion: Britt Walford, from Louisville, Kentucky, who was in college at the time. Only nineteen, Walford already had played in Squirrel Bait and cut an album with his friends in Slint. His time in the Breeders was akin to a witness protection program, with Walford billing himself as “Shannon Doughton” (and later, “Mike Hunt”) and appearing in few band photographs.

“The songs weren’t finished when I joined the band,” Walford told Modern Drummer. “We all kind of worked by consensus, so it made things pared down a lot. If one person didn’t like one thing, it was gone.” Wiggs later recalled Walford having a “self-assuredness that comes only with youth. He was an authoritative, hard-hitting drummer and so behind the beat you almost felt like it belonged in the last bar.”

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A rare Walford sighting in the Breeders, 1992

Albini’s Pod mixes are vast, darkened rooms in which a handful of instruments work against each other. Foremost, Walford’s gargantuan-sounding kick and snare (on the debut Slint album, he’d asked Albini to “make the bass drum sound like a ham being slapped by a catcher’s mitt.”) The secret, Deal said, was that “there’s so much empty space for the drums to ring out. Poor Dave [Grohl, on In Utero] had all these guitars and bass playing all the way through.” The rest of the cast is Deal’s distorted acoustic guitar, Wiggs’ sloping basslines that could at times pass for guitar figures, the occasional violin, and Donelly’s leads, which she often ended on a note or chord that, to Wiggs, sounded as if she was asking a question. Some ideas came from Joe Harvard’s demo remixes, such as putting Deal’s vocals in “Lime House” through a Scholz Rockman “for a compressed, chorused fuzzbox effect, then running it through a noise gate to be triggered during certain sections,” as Harvard wrote.

The First Breeders had been a two-part harmony act, and Deal had a strong co-vocalist in Donelly, but Pod wasn’t a harmonies album. Albini hated intricate vocals and thought the album worked better with Deal’s single- or double-tracked voice. Comparing the demo “Only in 3’s” to its Pod version finds Donelly diminished in a song she co-wrote. (Instead Pod is Donelly’s development as a lead guitarist: the high-pitched repeating figure in “Glorious,” the power chording in “When I Was a Painter.”)

Many Pod tracks are more languid than their demo versions. They’re cleaner, more raw-sounding (when Deal’s voice breaks in “Oh!,” it’s like a saxophonist bruising a high note), and usually go at slower tempos. It’s as if the Breeders are working towards a proper take that never appears, so the songs remain these great unincorporated territories.

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The only record of the Breeders’ debut in London, with Albini lurking around like John Wilkes Booth (NME, 27 January 1990)

Pod was cut so efficiently (Wiggs: “if we made it through the song from beginning to end, that was the take which made it onto the record”) that there was time in Edinburgh for promotional bits: a John Peel session; a performance for Snub TV that’s the only video footage of them. After a brief coda in London, where they played live (reportedly twice, documented once), and despite a vague plan for a surprise set at Glastonbury that summer, that would be it. By the time Deal and Donelly promoted Pod in May 1990, they were in California working on the Pixies’ and Muses’ next albums.

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Westenberg, 1990 (as with other Pod shots)

Deal narrates Pod (“a bunch of ugly, stinking gross songs”) in the smiling voice of someone telling a campfire ghost story: it’s her Night Gallery. In “Doe,” two schizophrenics on Thorazine run around setting fields ablaze, saying everything tastes salty and chanting the title word (“like Bambi,” Deal said in 1990). “Hellbound” is an aborted fetus that “lives despite the knives internal” (“it’s like a heavy metal hymnal—we’re all hellbound”); “Oh!” is from the perspective of insects being squashed; “Fortunately Gone” (a First Breeders “truck stop” song) has a girl in heaven yearning for her lover to die. “Iris” is a ripening ghost who comes to visit, perhaps forever (a play on a book from Deal’s childhood). In “Glorious,” a woman gets stoned on mushroom tea, leaving the windows of her house open to the rain and wind. “Lime House” is Deal as Sherlock Holmes, strung out in an opium den (“it’s about being in the warm dark place with pillows, daydreaming 24 hours a day.”) Lots of sex, too: the astral projection/wet dream of “Opened”; the ménage à trois in “Only in 3’s”; the sticky fluids of “Metal Man” (“that’s hot,” Wiggs deadpans).

Pod has the gauziness of quickly-fading dreams, a few sleep-crumbs left behind: it’s so salty Tammy!, robin flies again, on my own on Saturdays. It’s what Deal conveys in a harsh phoneme (hellbownd hellbownd, ow!er by ow!er!, I’m in a lime howse) or a wordless hook: ah-HAH-huh-huh, down-de-down-de-down, go!go!go!, the sighing “Oh!s” heard across the record. And the wonderful opening of “Doe”:

Trumpets:  DA DA   DA DA   DA DA DA

Not Girls Who Miss Much

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Covering “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” was Watts-Russell’s idea. Deal was skeptical until she listened to the Beatles track and thought it was as dirty as the other songs she was cutting.

John Lennon once said of “Warm Gun” that it was “a sort of history of rock ‘n roll” he’d pieced together from bits. It’s a set of fetish objects: velvet hands; mirror-tipped boots for a creep’s upskirt viewing; a soap impression of his wife that a man swallows and shits out. The warm gun itself, worshiped like a girl in a Fifties song, a Peggy Sue or Donna with blood on their hands. Variations on hunger, abasement and death that rumble between, in one section, 9/8 and 10/8 time.

The Breeders don’t attempt the Beatles’ studio perfectionism (“Warm Gun” took the latter nearly a hundred takes to complete). They hold the song to its ugly promises, darkening its spots. Wiggs and Walford, a thrown-together rhythm section of general opposites, fuse into a colossus. And they scrap the ending. The Beatles had closed “Warm Gun” as a grotesque joke, Lennon reviving a mock doo-wop voice that went back to his art school days (see “You’ll Be Mine”). Instead Deal quietly sings “happiness is a warm gun” a few times, as if holding it to her chest. She’s gotten her fix; she’s still going down.

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Donelly said of the Pod-era Breeders that “it was like this little capsule band, it had a beginning, a middle, and an end, at least this record…this perfect little episode.”

Pod was released five months into a decade that it would quietly influence. Kurt Cobain was in awe of it, calling Pod one of his all-time favorite albums (“it’s an epic that will never let you forget your ex-girlfriend.”) Courtney Love listened to Pod “24/7” while making Live Though This. It’s a key reason why Polly Harvey sought out Albini for Rid of Me. You hear it echo down through the years—in some of Lucy Dacus’ work, for instance.

Wiggs once said that when first hearing a band’s songs, she usually could guess what they’d been listening to and what they were trying to do with it. But the Pod songs surprised her. She could find no point of origin—she had no frame of reference for them. Deal’s songs on Pod seemed to have arrived, fully-formed, out of nowhere.

Off on Safari

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Breeders honor the Sabbath on “Safari,” 1992.

As their Snub TV performance of “When I Was a Painter” winds down, Donelly moves towards the Marshall stack. She starts to boogie, enough for Deal to crack up. It’s their organic dance band at last.

“It made me feel like an individual musician,” Donelly told the Los Angeles Times of her work on Pod. “That I wasn’t just part of the Muses microcosm…I don’t get nervous anymore.” She left Throwing Muses after their spring 1991 tour. But although she and Deal demoed in Boston what was supposed to be the second Breeders album, Deal would stick with the Pixies for another year, touring most of the time. It was too long for Donelly to wait, so she moved on [see Quartet 2(c)].

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The end of the Tanya Breeders is the Safari EP. Spacemen 3’s Jon Mattock was recruited to drum on the fantastic title track, which sounds in places like an early draft of “Cannonball” (Kim: “it’s about ookie boys…cry babies”; Donelly: “it’s mean and has a sexual element”). Safari was a transition piece, the mixes pushing up vocal harmonies and downplaying basslines. A cover of the Who’s “So Sad About Us” was a breakup song; a revival of the First Breeders’ “Do You Love Me Now?” a sign the band was, again, becoming a family affair.

Not that Kim, once she decided the Breeders would go full-time, gave up easily on Donelly. “She tried to coerce me and subtle and not-so-subtle ways to come back,” Donelly recalled in Fool the World. “One night, we were in Dayton and she locked us in the bathroom of this bar we were in.”

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One of the Pop Breeders’ first gigs: Glastonbury, 26 June 1992

With Donelly and Walford gone, the Breeders were no longer a supergroup but a (mostly) Dayton-centered gang of misfits. Kim wanted her sister in the band. It took some convincing, as Kelley Deal is one of few who struggled with leaving their corporate job (“I had top secret clearance. I was a little bit sad to give it up”) to play in a rock group signed to a major label.

Once she was in, she went fully in. Kelley wanted to be on lead guitar, despite having never played before. The months before the first Breeders shows in summer 1992 found the band publicly wondering if she could achieve competence in time. “I asked her to play the drums, but she said no, she wants to be the fucking lead guitarist,” Kim said. “Josephine is like ‘isn’t it wonderful?…is she or is she not going to be able to do it?’ But it’s getting old, man. I just want her just to learn it and play.” (Wiggs in 2013: “I would say it took about twenty years, actually.”)

A decade later, Kim said she’d been lucky to have an anti-ace lead guitarist. “I would rather listen to a bad player than someone who plays stock blues riffs with flair,” she told the Guardian. “And Kelley is so musical. She creates new parts; most guitarists just repeat everything they’ve ever heard.” Kelley, recalling cutting the lap steel part for “No Aloha,” told Amanda Petrusich “do you know how patient they had to be? Any one of them could’ve done it so much faster than I was able to do it…[But] there’s something about somebody who doesn’t know. They don’t add any finesse, there’s no affectation to their playing.”

For a new drummer, Kim found Jim Macpherson, of Dayton’s Raging Mantras (he’d put flyers for their upcoming gigs in Kim’s mailbox). Macpherson was a wildly physical player, looking as if he was jogging in place while at the kit. “I can paradiddle [so] fast until my hands fall off!” he once said (like the Muses’ Narcizo, he was in drum corps in high school). He was so new to touring that Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic had to tell him what drum stage monitors were and that he was allowed to eat the food backstage. Having stripped his kit down to a five-piece, he locked in well with Wiggs, who found his timekeeping “impeccable”—see any Breeders performance of Aerosmith’s “Lord of the Thighs,” which Wiggs sings like a Martian empress.

In the Shade…In the Shade

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It started out with me, I was borrowing my brother’s harmonica microphone and screaming at a Marshall amplifier. [Adopts grandma voice] Back in those days you just didn’t do that to get on the radio, son!

Kim Deal, to the AV Club, 2009

In January 1993, Kim was in a San Francisco studio when her sister came in to say she’d heard the Pixies had broken up. Kim shrugged and went back to working on a song she was calling “Grunggae,” a cocktail of grunge and reggae (the latter, she thought, was heard in the guitar accenting).

It became “Cannonball.” Three chords: two rotating in the verse, the third (an A-flat VII chord) to kick up the refrain (“can-non-ball“). A guitar riff to honor Black Sabbath (“I’m a metal girl from Ohio,” Kim once said). An intro of Kim singing through a bullet microphone that she’d plugged into her Marshall, making a shroud of feedback that sounded like a fax machine waking up. It was her attempt to sound like Gibby Haynes on Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod.”

And the bassline, in part inspired by Mick Allen’s work on Wolfgang Press tracks like “Louis XIV” (“warm and oozing, up and down the fretboard,” Deal said.) Wiggs has said she’s bemused by various “here’s how you play the ‘Cannonball’ bassline” videos on YouTube, because these instructors are usually wrong. Her opening slide is a mistake that she “corrects” the second time.

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The error had happened during rehearsals in Dayton. “It had been a while since we had played together. And then when we came to play “Cannonball,” it’s a pretty big slide on the low E…and playing high on the neck of the bass is not something that one often does,” Wiggs told Consequence of Sound. “I had made a mistake about which note I was supposed to be sliding to. Because I’m playing on my own there, you can’t tell that it’s the wrong note.” Would-be “Cannonball” bassists also often miss that Wiggs used a pick, and did quick lift-offs and mutes to give her lines more snap.

“Cannonball” is an anticipation of a song, packed with noises: stray yells, Macpherson’s stick work, swirled harmonies, Kim’s Seagull S6 acoustic guitar routed through a Marshall JCM 900 (also done for “I Just Wanna Get Along” and other Last Splash tracks). “I don’t mind acoustic guitar when it’s fuzzed up—the low end can be really terrifying,” she said. “I kind of have a problem with clean acoustic sounds, like the Dan Fogelberg thing.” A pure single, “Cannonball” is a set of hooks offered wholesale, like the muted guitar fill answered by Macpherson’s drum fill (and, critically, these swap positions in a later refrain).

Kim’s lyric, mocking some would-be Marquis de Sade, is an excuse for a run of glorious phrasings: wissh-ing well; the pileup of hard gees in bong…reggae song; her and Kelley’s emphatic distinction between “in the shade” and “in the shade.” How Kim sings “last splash”—first, insouciant; later, with a blissed-out “lassssst splaaaassssh.” All building to her refrain hook, screamed through the bullet mike, this great locomotive of sound: WANT YOO KOO-KOO CAN NON BALL!

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Breeders, ecstatic to attend the MTV Movie Awards, 1993

“Cannonball” peaked at 44 on the Billboard Hot 100, a ranking that diminishes how omnipresent it was by early 1994, thanks to a Spike Jonze/Kim Deal-directed video that aired every third hour on MTV (rolling cannon-bowling-ball, Kim underwater, funhouse shots of the Deal twins in multiple mirrors). Wiggs’ dentist, during a cleaning, said he recognized her from television.

And it fueled sales of Last Splash, which went platinum in June 1994. Cut over three months in two San Francisco studios, near-simultaneously (one for vocals and guitars, one for drums), Last Splash “was very anal, and I was very anal in how I produced it,” Kim told J. Eric Smith in 1997. “I wanted the production to sound like the hand of God just came down and flicked a bunch of the buttons. It was very headphone-oriented. I mean, all of the sudden in the middle of a song, the vocals would go like [makes a sound akin to a light saber cutting through a bleating sheep]. I wanted it to sound very manipulated like that, chimes, tapes, loops, whatever.”

One of the great stoner albums (commemorative reissues should come with rolling papers and loose seeds in the sleeves), Last Splash was the emergence of Kim Deal as stubborn studio perfectionist, one fixed to a limited spectrum. No string sections, few synths, no sound du jour. It’s more wanting a track like “Flipside” to sound like a thrice-overdubbed cassette. To make sure the drums walloped, that the guitars have teeth in them, that each track has something new in it or, rather, something old that’s been warped into novelty. The opening of “S.O.S.” is Kelley’s sewing machine miked through a Marshall. She wanted the lead guitar on “Mad Lucas” to sound as small as possible, so engineer Mark Freegard ran it through a tiny nine-volt battery-operated Tandy speaker, routed it through the board out to an Auratone speaker miked in the studio bathroom “and filtered that over again.”

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Wiggs recalled the Deals spending a day battering a new cymbal to make it sound like an old cymbal (one idea was to throw it out of a window). They sang into open grand pianos (e.g., the intro of “Do You Love Me Now?”), in stairwells, hallways, bathrooms. Carrie Bradley said the master take of “Drivin’ on 9” only happened once the band got packed into a single room “all kind of sweating…pinned to our live stations like marionettes, like our own bittersweet concert.”

Last Splash was also the harmonies album Pod wasn’t. Kim and Kelley’s voices, though Kelley tended to take the higher harmonies, are similar enough in tone that their multi-tracked vocals sound at times like a single voice that’s been broken up and pieced together again.

Tipp City Limits

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Pinkpop Festival, May 1994

You didn’t leave Dayton all winter?

Well, when I did leave it was just to go to Guided by Voices shows and that was frustrating too, seeing them. They’re in a band, they’re playing together, they’re having shows…We’re like, the bass player lives in England, Kelley may go to jail…

Kim Deal to Spin, 1995

The Breeders were now one of Elektra’s great “alternative” hopes. In Martin Aston’s 4AD history, Kim claimed Elektra and her manager pushed her to sign a contract that meant bigger advances (“like a couple of hundred thousand dollars for the next album”) but tied her to Elektra for longer. Watts-Russell compared the post-Nirvana years to the post-Easy Rider years in American film. Again corporations, startled by an unanticipated success and fearing they were missing some generational shift, threw sacks of dollars at anything remotely hip-seeming.

She stressed that the success of “Cannonball” was likely a one-shot. “I told them, ‘I might make a tuba record next, I’m from the Midwest, I’m just a normal person,'” she told Aston. “I didn’t want to present myself as a fraud, to take the money and then not make the record they wanted…I’ve tried, but I don’t have the killer spirit in me to generate chart sales for the sake of it.”

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One sign to not expect “Cannonball II” was the sole Breeders release of 1994: a vinyl-only EP single (at a time when vinyl was near-extinct in record stores), Head to Toe. Its title track was co-written by Wiggs (as per Kim, it began “really slow and maudlin, in fuckin’ 7/17 time or something” [Wiggs: “6/8 time”] until Wiggs’ girlfriend Kate Schellenbach “put a hardcore beat to it and that suited us better.”). Other new tracks were Sebadoh and Guided By Voices covers.

It’s the one angle people have on the band. There’s no sex and violence in the Breeders, so I guess it’s got to be drugs. If it wasn’t that, you would be asking me how it feels to be a woman in rock.

Kim Deal, to the Guardian, 2002.

Some musicians use drugs and keep quiet about it. Others once did, are now sober, and now go on about it. And then there are those who say they use drugs and that, hey, it’s pretty fun.

The Deal sisters were of the latter bunch, admitting in a number of interviews that they’d been drinking, smoking pot, doing ecstasy, coke, opiates and God knows whatever else since they were teenagers. “Drugs have always been just an integral part of my life,” Kim told the NME in 1994. At her desk job, Kelley would show up to work still rocked on the ecstasy she’d taken the night before.

Once Kelley joined the band, she got a reputation as the Breeders’ Keith Richards (“Kelley is a rock ‘n roll animal,” Wiggs said. “She’s far more rock ‘n’ roll than all the rest of us”). In Dayton in November 1994, upon signing for a package that held more than three grams of heroin, Kelley was arrested. She pleaded guilty, underwent treatment in Minnesota in exchange for charges being dropped. After rehab, she stayed on in St. Paul (“I didn’t know anyone in Dayton who wasn’t always shit-faced”) and formed a new band, the Kelley Deal 6000.

Kim wouldn’t continue the Breeders without her sister, so she fashioned a new identity: Tammy Ampersand and the Amps, a band with Macpherson and other local musicians, guitarist Nate Farley and bassist Luis Lerma. The Amps’ album Pacer was “mostly a love song to Kelley,” Kim said. “I was feeling love, anger, worry, resentment, and grateful that nothing worse had happened.” (See “Dedicated” and “She’s a Girl,” among other tracks.)

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Amps to Breeders: on Conan O’Brien, 1996

“Frankly, I was really struggling to deal with Kim’s lo-fi,” Watts-Russell said of Pacer. “I couldn’t tell if it was truly a demo or if it was the sound she was trying to pursue. It was alike to Syd Barrett: she’s got this unique language to making music, but I didn’t understand the story and I couldn’t give any input, except to be encouraging when she’d call.” Kim would send Watts-Russell one demo at a time, each cassette wrapped in a Polaroid. “I really did feel that I’d dropped the ball and the project lacked direction.”

Reeves Gabrels once said of Tin Machine that they took Michael Jackson money to make a Pixies album, which is a good way to piss off a record label. Now Kim took “Cannonball” money to make a strange, short, distortion-fogged album, recorded in six studios across the country and a seventh in Dublin, and which was marketed well beyond its ambitions: full-page ads, scads of in-store promo. I recall seeing stacks of Pacer cassettes and CDs during fall 1995, relatively few of which sold—reportedly around 25,000 copies.

Touring Pacer into early 1997, wanting some Breeders songs in the sets, and oddly concerned that Amps fans might be confused by this, Kim christened the band the new Breeders. Soon she hired Freegard to record the next Breeders album, to be made by the Amps and, when ready, Kelley. Wiggs, correctly sensing things were still unsettled on the Deal front, declined to take part.

Relocating to Battery Park City, the Amps Breeders started out at the Magic Shop, where Kim hated the drum sound. She went around Manhattan auditioning studios. Reportedly while at Avatar, she spent a full day working on a click track. An anonymous engineer told the New York Times in 2002 that Deal was consumed by ”all these technical hoodoo things that no one would ever hear or know—but that she heard in her head.”

As per engineer John Agnello, Deal and the now-revolving-door Breeders (one prospective drummer left after a half-hour) spent roughly $340,000 in recording costs in 1997. “Even after seven weeks, and a studio cost of two thousand dollars a day, we had nothing to hear,” Freegard told Aston. At one point Kim vanished for a week to Nantucket while the band was sitting around in the studio. “Kim got totally lost. She was taking substances and not wanting to go to bed, but she wouldn’t let the other musicians play. I had to give up on her.”

The band dropped off, one by one: Deal came downstairs in Dayton one day to find Macpherson’s drum kit gone. He said he thought Kim had changed, that the band no longer felt like the Amps, let alone the Breeders, and there was no place for him. He soon hooked up with Guided By Voices; he and Kim wouldn’t speak again until 2012.

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Back to two: The Deals at Lounge Ax, Chicago, 11 July 1999.

1998 “was a lost year, and a lot of fun,” Kim recalled (it helped that, along with her advances, she’d gotten a boatload of cash from the Prodigy sampling “S.O.S.” on “Firestarter”). “I’d been touring consistently since 1987. So what was the worst that could happen?”

All that emerged from this era is a 7″ single issued by a Breeders zine and a James Gang cover used in a 1999 Mod Squad remake. For much of their audience, the Breeders had essentially disappeared after the summer of 1994. As with Elastica being stuck in limbo (for similar reasons), it added to a sense of dissipated potential in the last years of the last century. It was as though the late Nineties we got was a second-tier one, the one in which the understudies and opportunists took over.

Choppered Out Of Sea Life

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“This doesn’t work because it’s a democracy. It works because we share enough of Kim’s vision.”

Wiggs, 1994

The revival of the Breeders starts with drums. Kim went home to Dayton and taught herself to play them.

She’s drumming on “The She,” “Forced to Drive” and “Too Alive,” the sisters-only tracks the Deals cut in 1999 (Kelley sang harmonies, played a little guitar and bass). It’s a performance that you can’t imagine her tolerating from another player. Her drumming is scrappy, clunky, ambitious; it has character. It reminds me of Paul McCartney’s drumming on his first solo album. A studio obsessive looks up to see no one left in the room except family, and has to start from square one. “I got used to/ nobody riding in the back,” she sings on “The She,” over a Farfisa drone.

She recorded the tracks at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio in Chicago. “The sessions were slow, she wasn’t sober yet and she was basically rebuilding a lot of parts of her life simultaneously,” he told Uncut. She’d finally done something she felt worthy of releasing, but didn’t push on to make an album. The Breeders were a band, so she had to create them again.

One night in New York in March 2000, at the dive Motor City Bar on Ludlow Street, Kim met two members of the storied punk band Fear, guitarist Richard Presley (allegedly related to Elvis, and Hope Sandoval) and bassist Mando Lopez. She asked them at closing if they wanted to jam in a nearby rental space—they played until morning. Within months, Kim moved to Presley and Lopez’s home, East Los Angeles, where they recruited drummer José Medeles. Kelley was in East LA soon enough. Kim called Albini, said she had the new band.

Much of Title TK was recorded at a clip compared to the wilderness sessions of the late 1990s. It was a three-stage album: the 1999 “solo” tracks, the core set of pieces done at Albini’s studio (“London Song,” “Put on A Side,” “T and T,” “Off You” etc.) and tracks that emerged from full-band jams, one of which was cut in Hollywood (“Sinister Foxx”).

I Land to Sail

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CMJ, 20 May 2002

Title TK was what she’d first wanted to call Last Splash; it was a sharper joke now. Here, at last, was the album that was always just about to appear, a scratched-out entry in various 4AD upcoming release lists.

Where Pod got instant cult-classic status and Last Splash sold enough to buy everyone in the band a house, Title TK appeared to modest, indifferent reviews and was soon forgotten (it didn’t crack the top 40 albums in the Pazz and Jop of 2002, didn’t make the Pitchfork Top 200 Albums of the 2000s nor Rolling Stone‘s, etc.). But it’s as strong a record as its predecessors, as aurally distinctive, as sharp and strange. The sound of a band being willed back to life, in a disjointed way.

Its move back towards the sparseness of Pod was part of Kim’s growing analog purism. “Digital production had burned through recording studios like crack,” she said to Aston. “Everyone was densely layering everything, making keyboards sound like guitars, and I’m so reactive…it’s more about drums and clean guitar. I worked really hard to keep it that hard and basic and people said it sounded unfinished!”

Albini dubbed it the “All Wave” philosophy, his parallel to the Dogme 95 movement in film. Everything done analog, from vocals to drums, with no digital manipulation, “through the entire production and mastering process, including mixing, editing, sequencing, post-production and…an all-analog direct-metal master for the vinyl LP version of the album.” (While I’m far from an audiophile, I think you miss something substantial if you hear Title TK via streaming instead of in its LP form.)

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Title TK is a ferocious band being penned back, breaking through at times, getting erased. Guitar and bass blink in and out during “London Song,” and it takes nearly a minute for “Little Fury” to introduce them—until then, it’s Kim and Kelley’s stereo-split voices over Medeles’ drums. The guitar wedges its way in, winds up sulking by itself, gets cut off at a seemingly arbitrary moment. In “Put on A Side,” queasy verses are sung over Lopez’s upright bass figure, which slides up and down like the marker in a carnival game of strength. Guitar is heard in bursts and rumors. One drum roll, then nothing else.

It sounds as if little mistakes have been left in (see the synthesizer blurt in “Off You”) but as Title TK goes on, it’s more that the songs have clustered to life around these quirks. An album of absences, of potential, of empty squares and squiggled lines. It closes with the full band swinging from grunge instrumental straight into the single “Huffer.” The Breeders are finally here, now they’re gone again.

Then there’s “Off You,” among the most beautiful tracks Kim ever made. Built on acoustic guitar and upright bass, it’s a song of retreat and exile (possibly inspired by her going to ground in Nantucket during the chaotic 1997 sessions) but also a yearning for friendship and love, a determination to keep moving. She reaches her island only to sail away from it, tacking back to the mainland.

Come Home, Come Home

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The late 2000s Breeders, at the annual Breeders convention

The Pixies reformed in 2004. For the rest of the decade, Kim alternated between her old band on the road and her other band in the studio, often in Dayton (she and Kelley had moved back once their mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s).

Mountain Battles, pieced together between Pixies tours, has some of the odder moments in the Breeders catalog: a reverent cover of Roberto Cantoral’s Mexican standard “Regalame Esta Noche“: a song about Istanbul done as a cheerleader chant; a track that the Deals sing in German. Its heart is the Kim/Kelley-centered songs: the mountain waltz “Here No More,” “We’re Gonna Rise,” and “Night of Joy,” a shadow piece with one of Kim’s eeriest vocals.

The 2009 EP Fate To Fatal was the Breeders’ first truly indie venture. One track was cut and mixed in two days; the Deals even pressed the records. “I don’t even know if music sells anymore, or that bands exist as they used to,” she told Aston. “People no longer look at a band, their life, their reality, the sub-culture they’ve created, as 40 minutes’ worth of their time. I don’t even know the value of music anymore.” She handed over one track for Mark Lanegan to sing.

A Happier Ending

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Yes, it is true that I am not a Daytonian, Ohioan, nor even American, but I like to think of myself as an honorary denizen of Montgomery County. Oh the time I have spent there, often at Woodland Cemetery or in Patterson Park looking for mushrooms, awaiting the universal signal that rehearsals are about to start—a text that Kim is “at Starbucks.”

Wiggs’ “Dayton Diary,” 30 April 2015.

Ohio was flattened by the last recession. “All these little Main Street towns you’d go down, 35 miles per hour and a couple of stop lights? The towns are still there, but everything’s shut down,” Kim told Uncut in 2018, while Wiggs noted “all these awful decrepit strip malls, seventy percent empty but with a couple of incredibly sad businesses, a grim-looking sushi restaurant and maybe a taekwondo studio.”

Dayton went for Trump in 2016, by a sliver of a percentage. Since the early 2000s, its population has grown older and poorer. The Deals and Macpherson are still there, in houses near to each other’s, living in relative anonymity.

“If you heard that the Breeders were coming into town you [normally] would go, ‘Oh that’s that chick from the Pixies.’ But here they don’t do that,” Kim said of Dayton in 2009. “They’ve never heard of the Pixies, and they’ve never heard of the Breeders. So where I live, the fact that there’s a Pixies rejuvenation, how it affects the Breeders—none of that even exists.”

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Ben Rayner, 2018

The Pop Breeders reunited due to an anniversary—Last Splash hitting twenty in 2013. The Deals and Wiggs had never fallen out. While she found it weird to hear the “West Coast Breeders,” she played with the Deals at a 4AD anniversary show in 2005 and, marvelously, wrote the press release for Mountain Battles. As for Macpherson and Kim, each had thought the other hated them until “the minute I saw Jim, I said ‘Jim, I’m so sorry,’ and he said, ‘No, Kim, I’m so sorry.’ And to this day we still don’t know what happened,” she said last year.

One day in Wales in spring 2013, Kim recorded with the Pixies, paid for dinner, and told them she was done. She’s never gone into why she quit. Perhaps it was her deciding that if she was making a reunion album, it would be her band’s. As Kelley once said, “when people were talking about the Breeders being a one-off, I was like, no, actually, that is her. The Pixies are a side project.”

The Reunion Breeders tours have been “a chance to replace the memory of how the Breeders ended so oddly. It’s a much happier ending this time,” Wiggs told Aston. It was her and Kim singing “Metal Man” for the first time in twenty years. It’s “Cannonball,” more disheveled than ever. Even Donelly showed up, joining in on “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” one night in Boston.

All Nerve, the album they recorded in the mid-2010s in a few of the surviving analog studios in the US, is on the same second tier as Mountain Battles. That’s not to knock these records, more a testament to how imposing the peaks of the Breeders catalog are. A tight thirty-four minutes, complete with an Amon Düül cover, All Nerve is best savored in moments—Macpherson’s snare figures on “Walking With a Killer” and “Archangel Thunderbird,” Wiggs on “SuperGoth,” Kelley’s lead playing, Kim’s voice, hardened by time, still infused with a private delight. It’s the Breeders sounding like themselves and that’s a fine thing, as the Breeders are fun and lovely and strange.

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Gesualdi, 2018

“The one thing that remains constant is [Kim’s] absolute persistence in trying to achieve the sound in her head,” Albini once said. “She is always aiming for something, and it’s often something nobody but her would recognize.”

In 1994, she was talking about “Divine Hammer” to Rolling Stone.

It’s mainly about looking for something so hard through your life that people said was there. When I grew up and went to Sunday school, they said that it was going to be really great, and God is love, and God is good. I believed everything everybody told me. And that’s why I’m so pissed off now…I believed all that stupid shit about marriage and everything. And then to find out, oh my God, marriage is just a lineage tracing system. It’s like ‘Goddamn it! You mean I saved my virginity for that shit?’ Or tried to? It was important to me, you know? The racking guilt of not saving yourself for marriage. And then you find out that it’s a crock of shit…I just thought it was gonna be better. Just…life. I thought it was gonna be better.

She’d later cringe about this, say she’d felt pressed to divulge “some deep stuff.” But her work with the Breeders reckons with this disillusion. If the world as you were taught it is a con, the way to something of actual value is to make it. Don’t look for it in some guy on stage, she said. Not the dudes in spandex or the snobby hardcore boys or the drips with their acoustics (“watch out for anybody who has an Ovation guitar,” Kim warned in 2008. “That’s your clue that something bad is about to happen“).

“I think rock is more within and you have to bring it out of yourself,” she told Charles Aaron in 1995. “The music is within and the love for it is from within, not without.”

The Breeders are desperately bored teenagers in Dayton. The Breeders are second fiddles in Boston who need something of their own. They’re in every corner of MTV, they blow a small fortune in New York, they hide out in East LA. They are mostly four, sometimes five, eternally two. They’re the neighbors. “Music is all we do, when we’re in Ohio,” Kim said. “Jim works and comes over almost every night of the week. We do this all the time.”

In the past quarter century, she could have released albums under her name (in the mid-2010s, she put out 7″ indie singles as such). She’s Kim Deal, after all! Songs are named after her. But her music has “The Breeders” on the spine and the label.

“I like bands, I don’t know why,” she said last year. “I romanticize them. I’ve always just wanted to be in a band.”

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“The Breeders AMA” on Reddit, 2018

 

2(a). The Pixies

DISCOGRAPHY                   SOURCES                         PLAYLIST   (+)

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Four Muses + four Pixies take Europe, Melody Maker, 7 May 1988

Throwing Muses and the Pixies: both New England quartets, both American 4AD acts. They shared a manager, opened for each other. But where the world needs reminding of the Muses, the Pixies are fixed in the firmament.

Idling through YouTube, I was struck by how many videos there are of teenagers doing Pixies covers. Of the late Eighties/early Nineties US “alternative” bands, barring Nirvana, the Pixies could go the furthest distance. Their appeal to kids isn’t a mystery: their songs are (seemingly) easy to play, fun to sing, geeky, filthy. They may well be heard more today, if you compare their streams to ca. 1989 US radio and MTV.

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They had no childhood or regional ties. Their booking agent Jeff Craft described them in the Fool the World Pixies oral history as “four completely and totally different people. They appeared to have nothing in common at all offstage.” In 1983, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Charles Thompson, a South California ex-Pentecostal and UFO believer, met Joey Santiago, whose family had fled the Philippines after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Thompson was an anthropology major; Santiago studied economics. They dropped out, moved to Boston, worked in warehouses, formed a band.

They found Kim Deal, an Ohio transplant working in a Brookline doctor’s office, via an ad in the Boston Phoenix (“no chops”) and David Lovering via Deal’s then-husband, John Murphy, who’d worked with him at a Radio Shack in Burlington. Deal, a guitarist, was the bassist by default while Lovering “was always a drummer,” Murphy later said.

Rehearsing in Lovering’s parents’ garage in Burlington and in a grotty room near Fenway, the band became, in under a year, the Pixies as we know them (see this T.T. the Bear’s performance from October 1986, about a month after their first gig, & a January 1987 WERS broadcast). It was as if they’d crystallized upon forming. They’d hone a piece until it was sharp, and that was it. Live performances differed little from recordings, apart from songs sometimes going louder or faster. No jams, no improvs, no fuss. They’d do setlists in alphabetical order, slot them by length or tempo. Deal was their charismatic because she talked between songs.

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Some of their influences were open—the “1-2-3-4! here’s a chorus, and another, and another” pace of the Ramones; Iggy Pop’s Tarzan yells (cf. the end of “Funtime” with “Tame”); the Cars’ “muted and clicky” rhythm guitar lines and, especially on early tracks like “The Holiday Song,” Gordon Gano’s phrasings in the Violent Femmes. Santiago and Thompson grew up listening to Sixties pop (Deal was more of a Seventies rocker; Lovering mostly liked Rush) and shared a taste for surf music, first heard in Santiago’s lead lines, later becoming a strong color in the band’s sound in Bossanova.

“If you can get it down to one chord, a beat and no melody…that’s the best song,” Thompson told Sounds in 1989. “If you can keep stripping stuff away and still have it be fascinating…like rock music that anyone can play. EAEA [thumping a table] go like this, even the drums.”

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That wasn’t how his band worked, though. The Pixies were askew formalists, with Thompson comparing his songwriting to doing crossword puzzles or math equations. “I want rules, I want standards,” he said in 1990. But only to break them, such as by throwing “wrong” chords into a sequence. “There’s a lot of half-steps, a lot of chords that don’t theoretically go with the key, but it seems to work,” Santiago said in 2008.

More often, it meant monkeying with structure. Shifting time signatures, for instance: see the long outro of “No. 13 Baby,” which moves to 2/4 every fourth bar (same as in the verse of “River Euphrates”); the shift to 6/4 in the first three bars of the refrains of “Wave of Mutilation”; the 6/8 “CB break” in “Trompe le Monde.”

They’d screw a five-chord progression into a four-beat measure or stretch a three-chord progression over four bars: see “I’ve Been Tired,” where “a four-chord sequence would sound natural, we’ll turn it into a three-chord sequence, make it trip over itself…it’s kind of religious sounding,” Thompson said. There’s “Velouria,” whose verse chord progression is at odds with its vocal line (five bars for chords, four for vocals—they soon go out of sync; also the case in “Gouge Away”); the seven-bar 3/4 verses of “Silver”; “Tame” and “Hey,” with their three-bar refrains whose repeats sound as if they’re showing up too soon. “We knock off two beats here on some lines and not necessarily go four, so we have all these twists and turns,” Santiago said.

It’s where Lovering was most valuable—he’s always right on the beat, whatever the song gets up to, and slips in fills when things need a boost, as if he’s working a bellows (he used mallets on floor tom and snare for a fatter sound on the likes of “Wave of Mutilation”). His only reported struggle was on “Havalina,” where Thompson wanted him to do fills in 4/4 while everyone else was in 6/4 (“we ended up playing a bunch of chords in 4, had David do the fills, and then we recorded our real parts in 6,” Thompson told Melody Maker in 1991).

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The poster that roiled Boston, 1987: the band wrote the setlist for the “Purple Tape” session on the back of one

Thompson—a modest-looking man who’d won a “teenager of the year” award from the Kiwanis Club of Westport, Massachusetts—had a burrowing, scrabbling verse voice, sometimes vaulting up and down an octave (from “air” to “ground” in “Where Is My Mind”). He sang refrains as if someone gored him in the navel with a corkscrew. “This mass of screaming flesh,” as his fan David Bowie once described him.

The producer Gary Smith recalled that, when introducing a new song, Thompson “would get excited and stand inches away from my face with an acoustic guitar and say ‘and now it’s going to go BLAH-HA’ and he would do this chorus to the point where you could see his uvula.” He decided to call himself Black Francis when the band was designing their demo’s cassette cover; he took his stage name from a never-born sibling (his father had told him it was what he’d have called another son).

I was trying on clothes in an Old Navy and in the hallway between fitting rooms a boy walked back and forth, repeating door numbers. Five. Six. Seven…FIVE. SIX. SEVEN! [whine] Fiiiiive! [shriek] SIX!!! [bigger shriek] SEH-VEN!!!! That’s the heart of Thompson’s phrasings—this scraping against boredom, this rosy delight in being an irritant. “The pure satisfaction of screaming,” as he told Simon Reynolds in 1988. He’s picking at scabs: Elevator lady elevator lady elevator lady elevator lady ladylevitateme. Riririri riririri ri-ri-riri riri-riri. Choruses are when they bleed: Uh huh huh uh huh huh uh huh huh uh huh huh: TAHYYYYYYYYYYYME. If the devil is SIX, then GOD IS SEH-VEN! IF GODDD IS SEH-VEN

It culminates in “Debaser” which, as Santiago told Ben Sisario in the latter’s book on Doolittle, is “the whole formula of the Pixies, that one song…All the sound qualities are there.” A box is built: two bars of bass, two bars + lead guitar, four + drums, four + rhythm guitar and percussion. In it, Thompson’s flipping through television channels, flicking from Un Chien Andalou (“slicin’ up eyeballs! Hah-hah-hah-ho!”) to Purple Rain (“shed, Apollonia!” was a mooted opening line for the refrain). He wants to grow up, not to be some respectable member of society, but a canker sore in it, a worm, a rotter, a befouler. He longs for his diseased future. “De-base-er!” he screams in a cracked joy, while Deal quietly repeats the word after him, as if soothing a disturbed child.

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Mainstream guitar had a lot of typewriting skills. They were typing as fast as they can, and I couldn’t hear it. The only thing that was impressive about it for me was the speed – how can they play so fast? But in the back of my mind I was like, ‘I don’t care’. It just wasn’t my thing. I’m more like a classic rock guy. You gotta hear some riffs or something you’re going to remember, and that requires less notes.

Joey Santiago, 2018

Santiago, self-professed non-ace guitarist (“there are enough real guitarists already”), is the hero of the Pixies. He was a scrapper, checking out records from the library and fastening on chords that sounded good: “it’s all derived from guitar moments that perk my ears up.” Hearing the VU’s “White Light/White Heat” he felt, for the first time, “this is doable. I can get my hands around this.” He grabbed “octave thingies” from Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix records; the latter also gave him the dominant 7#9 chord (used on “Here Comes Your Man” and “Tame,” among many Pixies tracks).

It’s lead guitar with the boring bits cut out: all jump-cut riffs, the quick-change of a few chords, speedshots along the high E string, torturing a few notes for a fill, making songs uneasy by, as on “River Euphrates,” picking between root notes and leading tones.

The bass in Pixies is just glue; that’s all it is. It’s not supposed to be something else.

Kim Deal, 2004

Where did Deal fit in? Her bass style (initially she played an odd-sounding Aria Pro II Cardinal Series borrowed from her twin sister; she had a 1962 Fender Precision on Doolittle, a Music Man StingRay on Bossanova, and even a Steinberger on Trompe le Monde) was to play steady eighth notes. “I am good at that, aren’t I? It’s not easy to do. A lot of players lag behind. It’s so irritating. And they’re playing with their fingers, so they never really get a good attack at the top, and one hit is louder than the other,” she told Bass Player in 2004. She’s the deep current that propels songs (and holds it together in the middle of the Surfer RosaVamos“), locking in on Lovering’s kick drum wherever he might be.

Because she’d only taken up bass for the Pixies gig, she didn’t have reverence for it. “I can step back and look at the instrument.” She saw no point in trying to be a virtuoso, but was happy to play a “static, groovy thing…We’re not a dance band. It would be awful to try to play some sort of interesting, intricate rhythm over a 4/4 drumbeat with the hi-hat constantly on the eighth-note.”

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Pixies as normcore pioneers, ca. 1989

Everything we did was with the Pixies and they had three boys and one girl, and we had three girls and one boy, so we just kind of made one gender!

Kristin Hersh, 1994

Throwing Muses were their benefactors. After seeing the Pixies at the Rat (“when they walked onstage I thought they were all lesbians”), Hersh told her band’s manager Ken Goes that he should take on the Pixies; Gary Smith, who’d cut the Muses’ “Doghouse” demo, cut the Pixies’ “Purple Tape” demo in the same Roxbury studio, Fort Apache; said demo led the Muses’ label head, 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell, to sign the Pixies.

“The Muses had cut the trail….It was far easier for [the Pixies] to get to the same point in their careers than it had been for Kristin and Tanya and company,” said the late Joe Harvard, who co-founded Fort Apache. “There was no question…that they would have gotten there eventually, but [Smith’s] efforts on their behalf probably saved the Pixies a year or more in an industry where timing is everything.”

Watts-Russell also had learned from working with the Muses (“they were kind of the trial run for the Pixies in a lot of ways”). Rather than having the Pixies remake their demo, he picked what he thought were the tape’s eight strongest tracks and issued them in September 1987 as a 12″ EP, Come On Pilgrim (a reference to Christian rock musician Larry Norman’s “Watch What You’re Doing” and, given Thompson’s lyrics, an unavoidable double entendre).

It was the Pixies in twenty minutes: incest, screaming, disease, Spanish phrases, sexual frustration, loathing, guitar runs, whores, death, Deal harmonies. “When you don’t use physical imagery, you just end up talking about, you know, emotions and everything,” Thompson said in 1988. “But ‘Broken Face’…people understand what a broken face is.”

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Meet the Pixies: their first Melody Maker cover, 19 March 1988

Within six months came Surfer Rosa, their debut LP, recorded in the South End of Boston by Steve Albini (4AD went with him because their warehouse manager was a Big Black fan). “He’s like this brainiac, about six foot tall but only 80 pounds, always reading, always figuring out manuals to see how things work,” Thompson said. The band had been using tiny amps (“that was how they got their reputation: underutilized equipment,” Murphy said) until Albini pushed for them to get Marshalls for the record, on which he made them gargantuan: guitars shearing through the mix, Lovering’s kick drum sounding like a giant knocking at a basement door.

Albini, in a 1991 Forced Exposure interview, bashed the Pixies as being sellouts “anxious to be led around by their nose rings” (he later apologized, and Deal would work with him several more times). The tension of Surfer Rosa is that of a producer who seems as interested in recording the sound of the room as he is the band playing in it, whose performances he graded either “pussy” or “non-pussy.” The album was a documentary short of a rapidly-developing band, shot in black and white, with hard cuts. Snippets of studio dialogue (Deal: “all...Iknow is that there were rumors he was into field hockey players…it was so hush-hush“; Thompson: “I said you fucking die!”) were as memorable as its lesser tracks. “Because they had developed as bedroom players, they had distinct styles,” Albini told Spin in 2004. “People who taught themselves to play had an advantage because they wouldn’t be mimicking.”

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Pixies around the time of Surfer Rosa‘s release, spring 1988 (Millicent Harvey)

Triumphs were “Cactus,” blueprint of the “whispered verse/ exploding refrain” style the Pixies bestowed upon the Nineties; a remade “Vamos,” on which Santiago and Albini literally pieced together a solo (Santiago played fragments, which Albini distorted or played backwards, then edited together on quarter-inch tape); Albini turning “Something Against You” into a noise-pop blast worthy of Husker Du; the cheery filth of “Bone Machine” (as per Thompson, “the hips of a woman…it’s an obscene song”), and the grand “illicit lust” piece “Gigantic,” recorded mostly in an industrial bathroom. Deal, given a title by Thompson, first thought of writing about a gigantic mall until she recalled the Sissy Spacek film Crimes of the Heart, where a married woman sleeps with a teenager. She’s only narrating the song, but sounds so delighted for the lovers in it, cheering them on, singing with this wild, goofy elation.

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Phil Nicholls’ contact sheet for a Melody Maker feature, May 1988 (via KH Archives)

There’s the legend that the upstart Pixies, opening for Throwing Muses in a spring 1988 UK/European tour, blew the latter off the stage, soon demoting the Muses to their opening act. Watts-Russell said this wasn’t quite the case: that in the UK, the Muses held their own, and that the swap in headliners was owed to dismal European promotion of the Muses by their label there, Warner.

But the Pixies were connecting with audiences harder, with moshing crowds singing along to “Where Is My Mind” and “Gigantic.” Thompson said it felt like being in the Pogues; Deal said she found it weird when crowds cheered them as they walked on stage (“why are they applauding? We haven’t even played yet.”) Where Kristin Hersh filled her songs with dense lyrics to honor the Muses’ “make each bar complicated” credo, Thompson kept his words simple—the fewer you sang, the better. It let Pixies songs translate easily. Even if you had no idea what he was singing about, you could soon latch onto something—break my body, hold my bones!—and hurl it back at him.

“I honestly didn’t have a problem with the Pixies headlining but it was awkward at times, not between bands but within our band,” the Muses’ David Narcizo told Martin Aston. “The Muses was Kristin’s baby and she struggled with it.” For her part, Hersh told Aston that “to follow Pixies, it’s hard for audiences to get down and listen to subtleties when they want to crash some more. But it was such a great high to see a band that you love play before you play yourself.”

The bands ended their tour in May 1988 at different stations: the Muses would continue to struggle in the US; the Pixies were ready to jump to another tier. “After that tour, it was over, it was really over,” Hersh said in Fool the World. “They were always rock stars, they were rock stars from day one, and they expected people to like them, they expected to be valuable. We just felt like we were on our own planet.”

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When they cut Doolittle at the end of 1988, again mostly in Boston, Thompson was at a boil—he’d written a batch of new songs, often so brutally short that the producer Gil Norton begged for some solos and second verses just to hit the two-minute mark. The lyrics were more elaborately surreal. “Dead” is the story of David and Bathsheba as told by a lunatic; “There Goes My Gun” is a murder in a sentence (Yoo hoo! Looka me! Frienda foe? BANG); “No. 13 Baby” is a memory of falling in love with a Samoan-American girl next door in Los Angeles (“six foot girl gonna/ sweat when she dig/ Stand close to the fire/ when they light the pig”).

Of course, this was mostly discernible via Thompson’s interviews—I’d long thought the last verse of “Dead,” which concerns the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah (“Uriah hit the crapper”), was Thompson singing “you are a hippo-crapper.”

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As Pixies songs were formalist games, so were Thompson’s lyrics—structural restrictions meant as much as his words: “I Bleed,” with its AABCBDD rhyme scheme; “Ana” whose acrostic lines spell “surfer”; “Hang Wire,” whose first verses are haiku; the B-side “The Thing,” written as a sonnet.

In Doolittle, the body horror and self-revulsion of the first Pixies songs—-incestual lusts, masochistic urges, Thompson’s hunger to peel off his skin—broadens into a decaying world, aided by Norton’s overdub-heavy production. A businessman drives into the ocean, which is so polluted with sludge that it’s killed Neptune and his daughter. Even “Here Comes Your Man,” the would-be pop hit (“the Tom Petty song,” as they called it, though it’s more a sharp R.E.M. parody, from boxcars to Peter Buck guitar lines to Michael Stipe ah-hooos), ends with an earthquake.

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The Pixies’ fun fourth, 1988

By the mixing of Doolittle, a foundation crack was visible: Thompson and Deal were growing estranged.

It started when 4AD chose “Gigantic” as the single off Surfer Rosa. The only song that Deal co-wrote and sang lead on became the Pixies’ most popular track. When Thompson met his idol Iggy Pop, Pop raved about the song Thompson didn’t sing. Deal’s stage presence was also, apparently, bugging him—he once griped that fans would cheer when Deal smoked a cigarette. She was the band’s open face, having a whale of a time, cracking up, grinning, yelling “hi!” between songs (Hersh recalled Deal constantly saying “we’re the Pixies!” at their first Rat gig), yet still enigmatic. To little surprise, she was the main visual interest in a band that looked rooted to the stage.

The core problem was that Thompson and Deal were temperamentally bandleaders, and it was Thompson’s band. For Deal, something she’d joined as a lark had become an all-consuming job, with no outlet for her songwriting. Soon after she started a side project [see Quartet 2(b)], she was nearly fired from the Pixies, who’d relocated to Los Angeles in early 1990 without telling her. A meeting in LA brokered by a lawyer managed to keep the band together, but whatever camaraderie had existed was dead. (Thompson reportedly wanted to fire her again just before recording Trompe le Monde.)

So she got pushed into the background, having no more lead vocals on albums after “Silver.” The sibling-like interplay of her and Thompson’s harmonies grew formal on Bossanova and she’s all but a ghost on Trompe le Monde, where Thompson sang most of what would have been her parts and scotched Norton’s bid to have her sing “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons,” which Norton thought better suited her voice.

To Option in January 1991, Thompson described a band who seemed on the verge of being renamed Black Francis and (Some Of) the Pixies:

It kind of pisses me off when people ask me, ‘why aren’t there more Kim songs on the record?’ It’s like, I write the songs—it’s always been that way, and why shouldn’t it be?…Why should that change?…People have this notion that a band has to be this democratic unit, like’s it’s some kind of rule or something…This band was never a democracy…Joey and I were friends, and then the other two joined up. And if anybody has a problem with that, they can leave, y’know? I’m the president, Joey’s the vice-president. That’s the way it is.

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Bob Stanley parses Bossanova for Melody Maker, 11 August 1990

The records were taking longer to make and costing far more, with the band using multiple studios on different continents (as per Sisario, Doolittle‘s production cost was roughly $40,000 while Bossanova‘s was $200,000 and Trompe le Monde‘s was over $250,000.) Doolittle was the last album the Pixies thoroughly demoed before recording. Thompson drew from a pile of old compositions (“Subbacultcha,” “Dig For Fire,” “U-Mass,” “Down to the Well,” among others) and wrote some new pieces in the brief rehearsals for Bossanova.

Bossanova, cut in Los Angeles in spring 1990 (the Muses were making The Real Ramona there at the time; the bands lived in the same apartment complex), was a retrenchment. Thompson felt pressured to top “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” whose spirit instead diffused into their quietest, prettiest record—sequence the songs seemingly named after women (though “Allison” is about Mose and “Havalina” a wild pig), and you have their most charming miniature. The album also had “The Happening,” their first true dud, a song in which weirdness curdles into banality.

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Pixies gone Hollywood (Kevin Westenberg for Melody Maker, 11 August 1990)

By the time he cut Trompe le Monde a year later, Thompson had gone from writing during rehearsals to full-on studio improvisations. Norton would record drum tracks for songs that didn’t have melodies, the band tracked their parts at different times, and Thompson brought in Eric Drew Feldman for keyboards and synths. He’d whisk together lyrics at the mike. It could be inspired; it’s also why he’s riffing on the tabla player’s name (Jefrey, with one F) in “Space.”

It would be a double-LP to rival Zen Arcade, or an “eight-track punk album,” Thompson said during its making; Trompe le Monde wound up as another 14-track Pixies album that sagged on its second side. It’s their most guitar-crazy record, with Santiago having a go at heavy metal, doing hammer-ons, pull-offs and fretboard taps (“Trompe le Monde is hilarious,” he said in 2004. “There’s so much shredding on it!”). It didn’t sound like a last record as much as a transition piece, one which led nowhere (though it previewed Thompson’s solo years).

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An “our car broke down in the desert” press photo as a sign of band spirits, 1991

Opening for U2 in their spring 1992 tour was supposed to break the Pixies at last (Elektra head Bob Krasnow, looking for a Nirvana on his label, put chips on them). And it did, just not commercially. Taking an arena-level opening gig was often dispiriting for Eighties “indie” bands—see the Replacements opening for Tom Petty in 1989. Nothing brought home your relative insignificance like playing your 120 Minutes hit to a two-thirds-empty stadium in daylight.

Even Saint Patrick’s Day at the Boston Garden—the hometown Pixies, opening for U2 on Boston’s carnival night—was the same empty rows of seats and tepid applause, Lovering said. A snarky U2 cover article in Spin by Deal’s then-boyfriend Jim Greer (cover tag: “The Story They Didn’t Want You to Read”), which recounted such gripes as the Pixies being called “Support Act” in tour materials, didn’t help.

At the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, on 25 April 1992, the band closed with “Vamos” and “U-Mass.” Thompson said he wanted a sabbatical, changed his stage name to Frank Black, spent the rest of the year making a solo album, and in January 1993, on a BBC radio show, claimed he’d killed the Pixies via fax. After this interview, Deal called Santiago to ask if he’d heard the Pixies had broken up.

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Reunited: well, for a while. Washington DC, 1 December 2009 (Angie Garrett)

They got back together in 2004. Some of it was for the money, some of it was getting over, or papering over, old quarrels, some of it was validation. Doolittle had sold over a thousand copies a week, on average, in the late Nineties (it was certified platinum last year, while Surfer Rosa went gold in 2005). A generation who had been in embryo or kindergarten during the Pixies years had discovered the band second-hand, whether via older siblings’ CDs or hearing “Where Is My Mind” in Fight Club. “For some reason, over the decade we got popular,” Deal said in a Spin profile pegged to the reunion.

They played Coachella and were treated like the Rolling Stones, though a documentary of the 2004 tour showed a band who still acted like strangers off-stage (the New York Times: “Boring people who made extraordinary music, the Pixies are inexplicable.”) For years they sporadically considered making an album, while the only new music they issued in the 2000s was Deal’s fun “Bam Thwok,” rejected by the Shrek 2 soundtrack.

They finally decided to cut some new songs. Recording in Wales one day in spring 2013, the Pixies broke for dinner. Deal paid, and the next day she quit and flew home. “All we could do was ask her and plead with her, “Please, come on, Kim.” Like that. That was a decision she made and she left,” Lovering told Billboard in 2016. “Whether she didn’t like the music, or felt she didn’t want to go on—there’s nothing we can do about it and we just wish her well.” (Thompson described “All I Think About Now,” a song on their 2016 album Head Carrier that recycles the “Where Is My Mind” riff, as a “sort-of thank you letter to Kim.”)

It was ironic: after everything, Deal would fire herself from the band. She had her own to reunite, and apparently was skeptical about the worth of doing a new Pixies album. One new song, “Indie Cindy,” was a plea to a younger audience, its sentiment that of Iggy Pop in Lust for Life: fall in love with me (again).

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New four (Q, November 2016).

Instead, the three Pixies EPs issued in 2013 and 2014 got some of the last great Pitchfork pans to date (the first EP was rated 1.0!). It was a band sounding vaguely like themselves, as if working based on others’ recollections—a Pixies with less vocal range, less dynamics, moving slower, having fewer hooks; like a harbinger of FaceApp. Things brightened when Paz Lenchantin joined, first as a touring bassist and then full-time member (she replaced Kim Shattuck, sacked after three months (“Personality-wise, [Shattuck’s] very west coast, she’s very extrovert. We’re very east coast, very introvert,” Thompson told the Guardian in 2014. Lenchantin, an Argentine-born west coaster, appears to have worked out, though).

The Pixies have been back for fifteen years now, far longer than they were originally together. I saw them not long ago, at Smith College. The crowd was about two-thirds middle-aged, the rest teenagers and college kids. The band was solid, were shrouded in dry ice much of the time, mostly did the old stuff. The likes of “Where Is My Mind,” “Bone Machine,” “Wave of Mutilation,” ringing one after the other through a college auditorium, felt as storied as a “Fortunate Son” or “Jack and Diane.” It was as if they’d become classic rock standards by sublimation.

They didn’t engage the crowd until the close of the encore, when they said thanks and took a bow. In a way, they have become their own tribute band, and there are worse fates.

2. Throwing Muses

DISCOGRAPHY                              SOURCES                       PLAY (1) LIST (2)

Johnny Angel Wendell played in Boston rock bands (City Thrills, The Blackjacks) in the Eighties. Speaking to the writer Brett Milano decades later, he recalled another local group.

As soon as I saw Throwing Muses at the Rat, I thought, that’s it, it’s all over for me. I don’t know how to do this, it’s everything I can’t adjust to. The drummer doesn’t play a beat, he just accents everything the singer does. The chords are weird. The melodies don’t make any sense, and yet they’re really good. If this is what’s coming next, then I’m finished.

A night at the Living Room, on Promenade Street in Providence, Rhode Island, in spring 1985. The headlining band sets up. Their gear includes a pair of mannequin legs in a gold lamé miniskirt, a decrepit Moog, a television tuned to a grey channel, and an ironing board that serves as a shelf for a Casio keyboard and hubcaps.

They are three women and one man (the drummer). When they start playing, drunks at the bar hoot “whoo! girls! The Go-Gos!!” and rush the stage to leer at them. Three songs into the set, the drunks have backed off, leaving an empty half-circle before the stage. Most of the crowd are regulars: punks, art students at RISD, junkies who sleep in a park in Wayland Square. In one corner of the club is the Hollywood eminence Betty Hutton and her priest.

The lead singer/guitarist stares into the middle distance, unblinking, craning her neck and twitching a foot. At stress points in songs she channels an eldtrich power from the pits of her lungs. My PILLOW SCREAMS TOO but SO DOES MY KITCHEN and water and my shoesI have a gun in my head…I’m invisible…I can’t! FIND! THE! ICE! The other guitarist sings harmony: how do they kill children? Songs fray, splinter, hang together far longer than seems possible. Some seem to be only bridges and long outros. Chords are open strings and warring notes truced by a pressed finger. The drummer, on a kit without cymbals, snaps sixteenth-note marching band patterns across his snare. The bassist plays melodies the singer won’t sing, riffs the guitarists don’t play, beats the drummer doesn’t hit.

“We didn’t mean to ever be strange. I guess we were because everybody says we were,” Kristin Hersh said in 2004. “It’s almost like speaking your own language. I find we kept people out of our world by doing that.”

We All Do Throwing Muses

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The [Boston] Noise, October 1985 (via Michael Aguilar). Hersh recounts this photo shoot in Rat Girl.

In the autumn of 1985, music writers, radio stations, and labels in New England, New York City, and beyond (even the UK, it turned out) got a demo cassette and typewritten press release in the mail.

“Kristin Hersh is a singer and guitar player and biggest writer and sometimes has blue hair and sometimes glasses. Tanya Donelly is the other singer who plays keys and guitars and noise toys. She writes some songs and shirts. Leslie Langston does very good bass and backing voice. She did punk, funk, Portuguese polkas, jazz, hardcore, acid rock, classical and even more reggae…David Narcizo does drums and hubcaps. He lives in a room with walls like a subway’s and used to be in a marching band.

We all do THROWING MUSES and average our ages at 19.”

In half a year, Throwing Muses had a contract with the British label 4AD; in a year, they had released an album and were opening for Cocteau Twins.

They were lucky, in part. They lived within a drive of Providence, Boston, and New York, and so could play a club every other week. They had a score of colleges (Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design especially took them to heart) and a healthy ecology of local newspapers, magazines, and radio stations to promote them. They had the bravado and sleep-resistance of teenagers. They became a band as a positive charge in a negative adolescence, but treated it as the only job they would ever hold. 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell said Throwing Muses were always working: demoing, rehearsing, improving. “So many of the bands I’d worked with had pretty much made things up in the studio and only rehearsed when they were about to tour,” he told Martin Aston.

You can hear influences in their music—X, The Raincoats, Volcano Suns, Violent Femmes, The B-52’s, early R.E.M. (see the intro of “Vicky’s Box”)—but they appeared more to have come up with a version of rock music by reading about it. Their look countered their volatile sound—they were a well-scrubbed pack of “art hardcore” college kids. Gary Smith, who recorded their essential 1985 demo, made sure their photograph was on the cassette cover because, as he told Hersh, “you’re adorable.”

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The band joked that while they had to be at a Throwing Muses show, they didn’t know why anyone else was. “Sometimes I have a lot of respect for people sitting through our shows,” Hersh said to CMJ. The bands who “put on a show,” who catered to the crowds, all the would-be rock and roll stars, made no sense to them.

“People said the main problem with our music is that you couldn’t ignore it,” she added.

Rat Girl

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Heather Kellogg (as Kristin Hersh) & Christina Augello (Betty Hutton), Rat Girl, 2014 (Claire Rice)

Do you get misunderstood much?

Oh, all the time, but that’s the best way.

KH, interviewed by Melody Maker, March 1988

Kristin Hersh was born in 1966 in Georgia; her family’s roots lie in the Tennessee mountains. An early memory is of her father “playing me these Depression-era Southern mountain songs. They were Celtic in origin so they’re in a minor key, and they’re whiny and dreamlike,” she told Liz Evans. “I could never figure out if they were dreamlike because the people wrote them when they were drunk or starving, or because they lived up in the mountains by themselves.”

Her parents (immortalized as “Dude” and “Crane” in her memoir, Rat Girl) moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where she spent her school years being mocked for her accent. Taking up guitar, she grew frustrated by Dude knowing just basic major and minor chords—he could only play Neil Young’s Harvest, pretty much. So he handed her the guitar and she started making up chords. Later, she had to find sort-of root notes in her chords so that she could teach them to her bassist.

Put on the gifted-student track, Hersh was taking college classes in her mid-teens (“I was like Lisa Simpson when I was a kid”). At Salve Regina University, where Dude taught philosophy, she met Betty Hutton, a sixtysomething retired actress who was getting a college degree. Hersh’s memoir is a loving picture of their strange friendship—Hutton giving Hersh stage presence lessons (“sparkle!”) or bucking her up when she freaked out while making the Muses’ debut album.

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Hersh at the Tractor Tavern, 27 February 2004 (Mike Baehr)

When she was fourteen, while riding her bicycle, Hersh was struck by a car (driven by an “old witch” who died soon afterward, as if she was a honey bee). It gave her a double concussion, a post-traumatic stress disorder that wasn’t properly diagnosed for decades, and the songs. She’d call it the “Rat Girl” accident.

She heard the first song in her head soon afterward: “a metallic whining, like industrial noise and a wash of ocean waves, laced with humming tones and wind chimes,” she wrote. “Soon the song began organizing itself into discernible parts.” Clang noises formed into percussive lines; she fished melodies, riffs, and basslines from “the bed of ocean waves”; she got lyrics from the hum-syllables in her thought currents. “A song lives across time as an overarching impression of sensory input, seeing it all happening at once.”

In her memoir and in many interviews over the years, Hersh has described these post-crash songs as being a possession of the self—that she felt at their mercy, getting woken up by songs trapped in her head, burning through her body, until she found the chords on her guitar neck, scribbled words on notebook paper. Only when she pinned the song to the world was she free of it.

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Another piece of her creation myth was the Doghouse, a nondescript apartment where she lived in autumn 1984. It reminds me of the poet Fernando Pessoa’s recollection of how he’d found the voice of an alternate “heteronym” self, spending a day braced against a dresser, writing while standing up, poem after poem flowing out of him. For Hersh, the Doghouse was where the trauma songs fully took hold. “My thinking is liquid and quick,” she wrote of the period. “I can function at all hours. My songs are different…when I play them, I become them. Evil, charged.” She left the Doghouse with her guitar case stuffed full of song manuscripts.

She’d break her work into thirds—the imitative songs before the Doghouse (“those songs deserve no more than to disappear forever”), the Doghouse songs themselves (“songs on fire”—she held back on recording some for years, like “The Letter”), and the post-Doghouse songs—music seared by her time there. What made a Doghouse song? It tore and grabbed and screamed at you, it wrote itself on your skin—she called them “ugly tattoos.” It was her artistic birth: by nineteen, she’d written “Hate My Way,” “Call Me,” “Vicky’s Box,” “Stand Up,” “Delicate Cutters,” “Soul Soldier,” “Sinkhole,” “And a She-Wolf After the War,” “Fear,” “Fish.”

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Hersh at the Living Room, Providence, 1987 (Jeff Notte, via KH Archives)

In the autumn of 1985, she was diagnosed as being bipolar, was prescribed lithium. She described her therapy as a disenchantment—doctors telling her that the accident hadn’t been a witch casting a curse on her, that the possessive songs weren’t real. But the Doghouse songs were still there—they had taken shape and form. After all, she’d taught them to her step-sister, who was in her band.

Tea

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From “Fish” (dir. Charles Jevremovich and Lisa Munrose, 1986)

I showed this girl my stitches
She said she had some too
She said she thinks she’ll start a rock band too

Tanya Donelly, born less than a month before Hersh, spent her first years moving around the country with h