1987: Game Theory / Lolita Nation
by J A Gray
OK, so this is something I hadn’t thought would happen when I began this project. I’ve already written a chapter for 1987, all about an album by Meat Puppets called Mirage. And as much as I like that record, I can’t say that it would be right up there with my all-time classics. Nevertheless, I thought 1987 was all done and dusted, and that it just wasn’t one of rock’s classic years, hey ho, let’s move on. What I hadn’t counted on was hearing a record from that year, or indeed any year, that would blow me away to such a degree that I’d feel utterly disingenuous if I didn’t scrap what I’d already written, and begin again.
It’s become de rigueur to write off the 80s as a decade of vacuous pap and shallow preening narcissism, and for sure there was more than enough of that. But if you were prepared to hunt around, dig a little deeper, maybe skip a few days of your formal education, or even simply keep your ears open when your friends were playing their newest purchases, then you could discover people who still played music that had true quality, and that made a real connection. I’m so thankful that those American bands were ploughing their own furrows back then. So glad that after seeing R.E.M. on the T.V., I was now looking to the States rather than to London for my music fix. And throughout my college years I ate up just about everything I could find in the import record racks. If you’d asked me any time up until last week if I’d heard the best music to come out of the States during the 1980s, then I would quite confidently tell you that I most certainly had. That was my thing. I was an expert. But no, it seems I missed out on at least one great band from that era. I’ve been humbled and yet I can’t help but feel incredulous – how did they pass me by? How come I can’t recall seeing their name in print? Man, I did my homework back in those days as well, yet until two weeks ago, I’d never heard of Game Theory.
I stumbled upon them quite by happenstance. I was looking for a recording by Big Star on the internet – the demo version of O My Soul, to be exact. The track is from the soundtrack album to a film that’s been made about Big Star, called Nothing Can Hurt Me. It’s been out on vinyl since this year’s Record Store Day, but doesn’t get a CD release until later this month (June 2013, as I write this), but so much has been spoken and written about this legendary recording, lost now for forty years, that I couldn’t wait to hear it. I figured that somebody out there would have made a dub from the vinyl and uploaded it somewhere, so I went trawling. Eventually I found the complete track on a podcast. It’s a mighty recording and most deserving of its reputation. The fella who compiled this playlist is called Patrick Pierson, yet his podcast was called The Ballad Of Scott Miller. “Who the hell is Scott Miller?” thought I. Well at first it appeared that he was the singer of a solitary song on the playlist. So I googled his name and it turns out he was the leader of a band called Game Theory and then a band called Loud Family, and both of those bands feature heavily on the playlist. Ah, so that made sense.
I started reading more about Scott Miller and Game Theory. It turns out that he died in April of this year. I’m saddened now that I heard not one note of his music whilst he was still alive. And not only had I missed out on his entire career while it was unfolding, but I’d missed any obituaries that might have floated my way too. It also turns out that Game Theory made a series of albums in the 1980s produced by Mitch Easter (who used to front Let’s Active, and who also produced or co-produced the early REM records – yet another reason why I should have heard of this lot already). Scott was a big fan of Big Star, and they had a certain influence on his own band’s songs and style. This was all sounding like exactly the kind of music I needed to hear, so I thought I’d pick up a CD or two from Amazon. No such luck – their records are all out of print and going for insane prices. After asking around online, I was informed that I could download all the Game Theory albums for free from Scott’s official site, www.loudfamily.com (the site takes its name from the band Miller lead after the demise of Game Theory). I’m no fan of MP3s, and I’m nervous about the whole downloading thing, but needs must – I went ahead and grabbed the lot of them, and began reassembling each album, one by one. And by God, but they’re brilliant! I don’t just mean “this is good” brilliant, I mean “this is some of the best music I’ve ever heard, and I’m frothing-at-the-mouth excited about a band like I haven’t been in years and years” brilliant.
I began with The Big Shot Chronicles, Game Theory’s third full-length LP from 1986. It was the one that various writers and bloggers in Cyberland told me was the most Big Star-ish. And sure enough, I heard a power pop master class from a man who’d clearly patterned his singing style after the 1970s incarnation of Alex Chilton – high and reedy, effortlessly cool, and just a tiny bit camp. It was almost as if Chilton had kept going with Big Star-style music, updating the sound with a little bit of keyboards and a smattering of new wave tendencies. Lord knows if you look to Chilton himself for even the slightest vestige of the Big Star sound post 1975 then you’re on a hiding to nothing. You could do worse than look to Game Theory to soothe that ache. Not that Miller is a mere Chilton clone though. He’s too talented and too smart for that. He has his own bag of tricks: his own highly intelligent way with a complex yet heartfelt lyric; his own knack for writing great guitar riffs and hooks; his own reservoir of aching melodies that turn your insides to mush. Yes, the debt to Big Star remains, alongside other hip influences – at times, I also hear traces of XTC, The Only Ones, Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello, even The Stranglers (at least the Dave Greenfield elements) – but most of all I hear Scott Miller.
I was/am so impressed with The Big Shot Chronicles that I seriously deliberated rewriting the 1986 chapter and deposing the mighty Lifes Rich Pageant as that year’s king of the hill. It was touch and go. I think that the Game Theory album is the more consistently excellent of the two, yet ultimately R.E.M. retain their title due to the power and brilliance of the standout tracks on that LP. The workshy part of me was glad not to have to revisit old ground, but the music fan in me that loves nothing better than the rush of a new music crush was sad not to be able proselytise about this wonderful ‘new’ universe I’d just discovered.
When I finally moved on to hearing Lolita Nation, I confess to initially having lower expectations. I already knew from reading articles on the internet that this was a more “experimental” record. And you know what that means all too often – that the art appreciator in you will salute what you hear as bold self-expression, but that you’ll find it hard to actually enjoy.
Lolita Nation doesn’t bend over backwards to make you feel at home. It starts with a short sound collage called Kenneth – What’s The Frequency? (this is 7 years before R.E.M. asked more or less the same question, though not necessarily in the same order)*. The next track has a 2-minute long instrumental introduction and is quite angular (though ultimately very rewarding). The third song is a very short song fragment with only a keyboard backing. The next track is pretty but similarly slight, and with only a bass guitar backing. Fifth track, Dripping With Looks, is back to sounding angular, with a weird, alienating soundscape of just fuzzed-up electric guitar, keyboard noises, and off-kilter harmonies, until the drums and bass make a very brief and belated appearance just before the song ends (though, again, it’s ultimately very rewarding). Then we get another song fragment, this time with acoustic guitar. And then, finally, with track number 7, We Love You Carol And Alison, we get a full blown lush, melodic, catchy, hook-filled, song of wonder that would have sounded right at home on The Big Shot Chronicles.
And so it continues, although the recognisably great songs become more prominent on what were sides 2 and 4 in vinyl-speak. Sides 1 and 3 contain the more ‘difficult’ material – which, in terms of winning over new converts, you have to say, is either admirably perverse, or just plain stupid. Side 3 of the vinyl version includes a series of 25 soundbites, snippets of other tracks from the record (and a couple from The Big Shot Chronicles), lasting a few seconds each. These snippets are given an increasingly bizarre set of nominal song titles that begin with a series of references to film, literature, and song, before descending into a series of faux-computer programming codes which occasionally join up to make little phrases. It’s a very nerdy bit of pretentious fun, especially as, thankfully, the whole sequence takes only about a minute and a half to play out.**
Yet along this uncertain road you encounter some amazing tunes that really get under your skin and won’t let up. You’ll hear Nothing New with its repeated stinging guitar refrain (it’s so naggingly good I keep finding myself singing it in a mouth-guitar stylee); there’s The Real Sheila, which sounds so much like a proper pop single that it was released as such; there’s the soft-shoe shuffle of Andy In Ten Years; and Little Ivory, which manages to be catchy and avant-garde at the same time, yet succeeds on its own terms so well that you can’t wait to hear it again. And then there’s side 4 of the album, just three songs, but all three are blindingly brilliant: the mighty, almost anthemic Chardonnay (cruelly butchered to fit the original maximum playing time of a first generation compact disc – I’ve read some reviews in which commentators suggest that the edit improves the song, but you can take my word for it that they’re dead wrong***); the skinny-tie new wave pop of Last Day That We’re Young; and the wistful downbeat finale that is Together Now, Very Minor with its wash of Leslie-treated guitar.
You’ll also hear, along the way, a couple of songs by Donnette Thayer, who was both Game Theory’s other guitarist and Scott Miller’s girlfriend at the time. Thayer’s songs are very good, and fit well alongside Miller’s. You also get an instrumental composition apiece from drummer Gil Ray and keyboard player Shelley LaFreniere, but don’t be fooled into thinking that Game Theory was anything like approaching a democracy. The band’s line-up changed with just about every album, and Miller alone was the constant. It’s his show. He’s the director/auteur/brains/puppet master (fairly benevolent though, I think), though special mention must go to Mitch Easter, who so ably produced all their finest records.
So, after one listen through, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Lolita Nation is a bit of a mixed bag, that if only Miller hadn’t included all those song fragments, or those arty-farty bits of collage and musique concrete, that Game Theory could have made another dynamite single album to rival The Big Shot Chronicles. Shades of “The White Album”, or Sandinista!, all over again. Now I could possibly go with the argument for making “The White Album” a single disc record (as long as it’s me who gets to pick the tracks – I’m not trusting any of you lot to get it right); and, yeah, Sandinista! could easily be made into a mighty double (although anyone suggesting it needs to be edited still further gets a clip around the ear for their troubles), but the only thing that needs to be changed as regards to Lolita Nation is to make it a bit longer (see ***). Alright, you could just cherry pick the strongest tunes and throw the rest away, but in doing so I’d argue that you’d lose much of the magic. If I can beat to death that Big Star comparison one final time – if The Big Shot Chronicles was Game Theory’s Radio City, then this was their 3rd/Sister Lovers. After repeated listens to the record, you start to enjoy the way the different elements work together – they set one another up, and they create a unique environment. The album as a whole works as an experience. It may not be a ‘concept album’ in terms of having a linear plot or any clear uniting philosophy (well not that was evident to me, anyhow, but then again Miller’s lyrics aren’t the kind you can fully digest in a couple of weeks), but as a work of art or an example of what you can do with four sides of vinyl other than just fill them with as many songs as you’ve got ready, Lolita Nation feels like more than just the sum of its very unequal parts. And more than this, it really comes into its own as a CD. Changing over the records to hear four vinyl sides would disrupt the flow too much – it begs to be heard straight through in a single sitting (I know that’s a big ask – who gets time to sit and listen to over an hour of music uninterrupted these days, right?).
And then it was all very clear to me. This was no passing fancy of infatuation. Lolita Nation was the greatest album of 1987 by more than a long chalk. Apologies to Meat Puppets, who I dearly love, for having your chapter taken away like this (so much for avoiding doing rewrites!). And, also, apologies to Scott Miller for not hearing your music sooner. I can only hope that your legend grows. I can almost hear the Miller Nation increase exponentially by the seconds and minutes.
* Both pieces refer to the story of American new anchor-man Dan Rather being physically attacked by a stranger who repeatedly posed the question “Kenneth, what’s the frequency?” whilst punching Rather. Nobody seems to know why the man did what he did, or said what he said.
** The sequence in full runs as follows: “All Clockwork and No Bodily Fluid Makes Hal a Dull Metal Humbert / In Heaven Every Elephant Baby Wants to Be So Full of Sting / Paul Simon in the Park with Canticle / But You Can’t Pick Your Friends / Vacuum Genesis / DEFMACROS / HOWSOMETH / INGDOTIME / SALENGTHS / OMETHINGL / ETBFOLLOW / AAFTERNOO / NGETPRESE / NTMOMENTI / FTHINGSWO / NTALWAYSB / ETHISWAYT / BCACAUSEA / BWASTEAFT / ERNOONWHE / NEQBMERET / URNFROMSH / OWLITTLEG / REENPLACE / 27”
*** The released version of Chardonnay clocks in at 4’28”. The unedited version runs close to being a full 8 minutes in length. The record company refused to allow Miller the luxury of a double CD release, so rather than excise any of the more experimental elements of the album, he chose to prune the biggest and best song on the album. The complete take was once available as an official MP3 download from the Loud Family website, and can still be found easily enough elsewhere if you search for it on the web. Now that CDs can handle those crucial extra few minutes, I highly recommend substituting it for the far less satisfying album edit on a homemade CDR.
N.B: Lolita Nation is the only album I have yet to write about which is out of print, as are all of the other Game Theory albums. You’d hope that in the wake of his death, somebody would be doing something to do something about that. Second-hand vinyl copies can be found, as can second-hand CD copies, but only if you have lots of patience and very deep pockets – they go for insane sums of money on eBay and Amazon Marketplace. Your best bet is to do like I did and download the MP3 files of the album from www.loudfamily.com. And don’t forget to find the complete version of Chardonnay – well worth the trouble.
Oh and you want to know something else about Scott Miller? He did a blog called Music: What Happened? wherein he talked about various records made during his lifetime with each chapter focussing on an individual year. How could I not relate to a man like that? The blog is now available in book form, by the way, and it’s a cracking good read, and leads you to discover plenty of wonderful records you’ve never heard before.
My other nominations for 1987 albums of merit:
Meat Puppets / Mirage
The Replacements / Pleased To Meet Me
R.E.M. / Document
10,000 Maniacs / In My Tribe
fIREHOSE / If’n
Prince / Sign “☮” The Times
Neil Young & Crazy Horse / Life
Green On Red / The Killer Inside Me
Warren Zevon / Sentimental Hygiene