November 16, 2010

Back Tracking, Volume 4: Game Theory - "Erica's Word"

1985 was the greatest year in music history. For, in this year - on September 4th - your humble correspondent was born to change the sonic landscape forever.

In truth, 1985 was the year Pop Ate Itself. At least in the 1980's, '85 was the dissipation of the collective, underground energies born in the late 70's that had once stood a chance of wholesale mainstream acceptance. New Wave as a genre-tag ceased virtually overnight to exist; though long-subsumed into the New Romantic movement under the aegis of groups like Orchestral Manouevers in the Dark and ABC, the intellect and attention to songcraft practiced with various ironic detachment by such groups as The Cars, Blondie, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Wall of Voodoo, and beyond was washed from the public eye.

The pioneering spirit, sneering self-sufficiency, and political aims of the punk boomlet also died a sudden and gory death in 1985. The Clash, fractured by conflicts of personality, "cut the crap" and called it a day midway through the year [though Joe Strummer produced a final - awful - album under the band's name with Paul Simonon and saved the official breakup for calendar year 1986]. X, the torch-bearers of West Coast punk, hired metal producer Michael Wegener to helm their 1985 Album Ain't Love Grand, with mixed results; some tracks skew country, some skew metal, none breathe the fire that characterized the group's first four releases. The Ramones enjoyed one final burst of energy and put out Too Tough to Die, but would tip toward self-parody in its promotion and never regained the edge of their halcyon days.

Meanwhile, the hardcore movement grew ever more fractured; Black Flag's candle burned sharply toward its middle from both ends under the weight of Loose Nut / In My Head, their dual releases for the year - the band would be finished by 1986 - and under the weight of just a thousand lineup changes, while Minor Threat had been finished over a year and Bad Brains were in the first throes of writing i Against i, their masterpiece, but as such were yet an immature group. Oh, and D. Boon died in the fatal traffic accident that would finish The Minutemen.

To cap it all off, David Lee Roth quit Van Halen. The most adventurous of rock's established mainstream acts became Sammy Haggar's vehicle, and decidedly less adventurous for every subsequent release.

Now, what about pop? Well, "We Are the World" was recorded January 28, 1985. Phil Collins broke with Genesis and released No Jacket Required on January 25. The aforementioned OMD put out their slickest piece of electro-pop with Crush on June 17. Yeah, there was no getting into the charts if you were a left-of-center pop-rock group in 1985. Huey Lewis and The News had poisoned the well the year earlier with the monster success of Sports, which was a very janus-faced thing for an ex-nervy New Wave group to do; never mind that Newsman Sean Hopper was ELVIS COSTELLO'S ORIGINAL KEYBOARD PLAYER. Oh, and Elvis himself was captive of the production team of Langer and Winstanley, who had helmed what he retrospectively terms "the worst" album he and The Attractions ever made, 1984's Goodbye Cruel World.

So, what to do if you're a genius singer-songwriter with a thing for Sixties pop and you're still coming down from the giddy high of New Wave's peak? Well, if you're Game Theory's Scott Miller, you record your band's first two albums - Real Nighttime and Big Shot Chronicles - in the same year, and release "Erica's Word", your group's best single and probably the top power-pop song outside of "September Gurls", ever, in 1985. You man up. Pop is a fickle thing, and your timing couldn't be worse -- two years earlier and you're The Waitresses with better songs, two years later and The Replacements open for you on a big Twin/Tone tour and/or you're The Stone Roses. But you do it because, damn it, songs this good can't stay inside of you. And then you release easily the best visual description of L.A.'s Paisley Underground scene captured on film (though your band was, at best, a fringe part of it), and you bask for the four months between Winter Break and the end of Spring Semester 1986, because you have made college radio immeasurably better. And that was what you came here for.

Here it is, and here I bask.