“DON’T LET OUR YOUTH GO TO WASTE”
Stewart Lee, writer/clown, Stoke Newington, November 2009
When Today was first reissued in 1997, nine years after it was recorded, Byron Coley’s illuminating sleeve notes compared Galaxie 500’s astonishing and all but unprecedented land-grab of the margins of late 80s mainstream rock culture to the post-Nirvana landscape, where previously alternative combos were suddenly hobnobbing with Hollywood stars and hogging the headlines. And it must be difficult for the cultural consumers of today, hardwired into a worldwide web of culture from their bedroom laptops, to imagine how shocking Galaxie 500’s unexpected debut album sounded when the band first hovered over the horizon, and how comforting it was to have found them -- how we all felt just a little bit less alone. But there’s more to the magic of the short-lived Boston trio than the fact that their velvety pop-drones somehow snuck into the fringes of a world that appeared to have no need for them. There's that all but indefinable extra ingredient, that can somehow make yet another combination of bass, guitar, drums and vox timeless and precious.
Today, which I took a punt on when its blurred foliage sleeve loomed out from the racks of Avalanche records in Edinburgh’s West Nicholson Street in August 1989, was an amazing record. The opening track, ‘Flowers,’ deceptively defeats expectations and leaves the listener bewildered and susceptible. The jangly strummed guitar seems predictable enough, but the drums are playing jazzy off-beats, the bass is charting its own wayward path, and then, minutes in, there’s a guitar solo so audacious and unwarranted that it’s immediately clear all bets are off. Then a harmony vocal joins in, echoing with toilet cubicle mysticism, and the start of the second solo is fumbled, drums clattering through uncertain clusters of notes. ‘Pictures’ stumbles into being, audibly finding its feet for the first minute. ‘Parking Lot’ begins at a gallop it can barely sustain. And ‘Instrumental’ is the sound of a band racing excitedly ahead of itself towards an unknown future.
Dean Wareham, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang were New York high school friends, transplanted to Harvard, who decided to form a band after graduation and started recording the following year. Today had precedents, sure, hip signature sounds drawn from the canon of cool: the minimal melodies of the Velvet Underground’s relentlessly strummed riffs, expanded by way of the Dream Syndicate’s extended workouts. Damon’s fluttering and pounding percussion suggests Mo Tucker shuffling into Kind Of Blue’s narcoleptic haze; Dean’s heretically overlong guitar solos, like Television’s, combine visionary psychedelic stretches with sloppy punk mess; Naomi’s yearning, aching bass, carries the melodies high up the frets, like Kendra Smith’s collaborations with David Roback; and those reedy indie-boy vocals, already a default setting for floppy fringed C86 shamblers this side of the Atlantic, were dignified and made distant and holy by the band’s genius producer Kramer, as he shifted them to the extreme corners of the mix, and kept the mistakes in.
I was instantly smitten, in time to make Galaxie 500’s introductory Institute Of Contemporary Arts appearance in London in September 1989. I had a new life in a shared flat way out west, and a walkman primed with a tape of Today soundtracked a year of snowy winters, data input jobs in offices on industrial estates, and cigarettes smoked on night bus journeys back from unpaid open-mike stand-up gigs in far flung corners of the city. I saw Galaxie 500 three times in 1990, every gig a transcendental experience, and I clocked the back of my own head bobbing on live TV footage of a show in Ladbroke Grove. Soon, previously hardcore strummers the world over had taken note, slowed down and blissed out, but Codeine, Low, Bedhead, Bay, and the rest of the slowcore scene never packed the punch implicit in the fuzzy felt-wrapped fist of Galaxie 500. And maybe it’s only now, decades on, that it’s possible to hazard a guess as to why the whole of Today seemed so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Since their split not quite three years later, the two factions of Galaxie 500 have pursued subtly different paths. With Luna, Dean Wareham scrubbed and polished those Lou Reed-style licks until they shone, searching for a holy grail of indie-pop perfection, with chiming solos and gently chugging riffs. But on Today’s cover of Jonathan Richman’s ‘Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste’ you can hear the younger man playing at the edge of his wits, as the gap between his hopes and his abilities fills with imperfect synaptic cascades of notes, redolent of late period Coltrane or the Byrds’ attempts to ape free-jazz solos with fuzzed guitars on ‘Eight Miles High.’ And this flawed ambition is utterly irresistible. Meanwhile, Damon & Naomi’s post-Galaxie career has seen them foster their own, hushed and wondrous, global avant-folk sound as a low-key duo; explore the absolute limits of psychedelic hard rock jamming as the rhythm section of Magic Hour; and set up a Surrealist publishing company, Exact Change. In Galaxie 500, even as Dean Wareham pulled towards pure shimmering pop, Damon & Naomi couldn’t help but complicate the results.
And perhaps it’s this sheer incompatibility that makes Today a once-in-a- lifetime, never-to-be-repeated classic. Lucky for us, Kramer, an uncommonly sensitive producer, had the sense to capture Galaxie 500 for posterity, like insects in amber, as they really were, rather than how they might have imagined themselves to be. In the twenty years since the album’s release, various alternative rock trends have withered on the vine, shrivelled and become meaningless. Trip-hop makes me think of dinner parties hosted by young professionals, chilled to fuck on half an e. Nickleback’s wholesale robbery of grunge tropes, for example, means no one can ever listen to the sound of Seattle ever again without vomiting into a hat. And the Britpop era, it is now clear, was just 1967 with bigger amps, worse tunes and nastier drugs. But Today, …. well Today still sounds like it was recorded today. Those crazy kids! What were they thinking?
“SUN BLINDNESS MUSIC”
Bliss through noise and the escape into a psychedelic headspace were both attractive propositions in 1989. On Fire arrived dressed in a beautiful typeface cast in the hues of a hallucinatory dawn. The sleeve, a wash of refracted filters, shows a band looking exactly like they are: three New England students so comfortable in their own skin they can allow themselves a smile. Behind them is the trail of passing clouds. Stare closely, let your eyes dilate and the clouds are now plumes of smoke. The elements aligning into a beguiling, almost menacing, drift.
On Fire inhabits an awesome, distorted reality. The band, ostensibly a trio of guitar, bass and drums, sound more like a sun carriage. Damon Krukowski’s cymbals and Dean Wareham’s falsetto become lead instruments. Naomi Yang doesn’t so much play as paint with her bass. These abstract tones and spots of primary colour are the sound of three people locked somewhere in a beautiful space, the midpoint between telepathy and propulsion. From the languorous opening bars of ‘Blue Thunder’ to the euphoric closing refrain of “What a pity, what a pity” the record moves back and forward allowing waves of electricity to swell and break across its ten tracks. Few songs have been more appropriately titled than ‘Snowstorm’ and few bands have been in such graceful control of a maelstrom. Has anyone played a wah-wah with such equine grace as Dean Wareham? Each note in the solo crystallizing the reverie of a snowflake hitting the ground.
Lyrically, On Fire is disorientating. If this is a psychedelic record it is un-pastoral. Its characters wander round the city trying to make sense of their surroundings. A ‘Plastic Bird’ has its legs broken, its nose smashed and gets discarded on First Avenue. In ‘Snowstorm’ the TV is going wild. Put your clothes on and ‘Leave the Planet.’ The record is full of unanswered and unanswerable questions: “Why does everybody look so funny? Why does everybody look so strange? When will you come home?” rhetorical and almost numb. The only response is the emotional pull of such beautiful music. The searing despair of ‘Strange,’ the distortion at the end of ‘When Will You Come Home’ and in the detached confirmation in Yang and Wareham’s voices, “That every day is not the same.”
On Fire moves at an almost erotic pace, aglow in its strange and visionary world. A perfect, liquid equilibrium. Listen, and lose yourself, in the heat of this alchemical masterpiece.
‘THIS IS OUR MUSIC’
As Oscar Wilde once said, among many lovably smart-ass things he said, “He who stands most remote from his age is he who mirrors it best.” Galaxie 500 purred at a time when others were shouting. Things were different then. “Indie” or “alternative” music really was a minority taste, and a different colour and texture to the music flooding the mainstream. This was their music. “Slowcore,” “dream pop,” call it what you will, it was sleepy yet somehow buzzing. Cool, yet somehow trembling with anticipation. Laid-back, yet brimming with the minute emotions and implosions of the everyday inner life.
So they stole the title, from a 1960 Ornette Coleman masterpiece. A successful heist is all about the attitude. Galaxie 500, named after a car, never raced. They let the world, or the more discerning components, come to them. They met in New York, improved at Harvard University, and became known as a Boston band. It was to be, as nobody had predicted, a golden age for Boston bands. With Kramer producing alchemically, they made Today and On Fire, drowned in rave reviews (at least in the UK), found themselves compared to the Velvet Underground and Jonathan Richman and New Order. This Is Our Music, the third album, came in 1991, after Dean Wareham had moved back to New York. After much touring, he left the trio, whose last European show was released as a swansong live album, Copenhagen. See if you can guess in which Danish city that took place.
The members of Galaxie 500 went on to do further stirring and lovely things in music afterwards, but their legacy had already begun. The influence of these sounds spans far and wide to this day. It’s about restraint, delay, poise. Galaxie 500 records are as rough as sandpaper yet as elegant as jewellery. There’s a happy, maybe lucky blend between Dean’s so-wrong-yet-so-right voice and his deceptively brilliant guitar, between Damon’s minimal yet mesmerising rhythms and Naomi’s loping, groping bass. They’re gentle yet diamond-hard, sweet yet capable of savagery.
From the opening intro drone of the exquisite ‘Fourth Of July,’ This Is Our Music asserts its sparkle and self-sufficiency. There are ebbs and flows within every Galaxie 500 track and the magic is that you can never quite pin down the moments when a surge begins, when a retreat occurs. We’re hearing shards and trills of Verlaine-esque guitars, a pace stately yet seductive. We’re writing “a poem on a dog biscuit,” evidently, and even if the dog refuses to look at it, we’re hooked on a mystery. We’re getting drunk and looking at the Empire State Building, which is “no bigger than a nickel.” It’s evocative, a fresh twist on classic Manhattan lore, and for we Brits that makes for a head-full of Warhol imagery, from Edie to Lou, from grids to rooftops. There’s a lazy, languid air of almost accidental romance. “Maybe I should just change my style/But I feel all right when you smile...” Their music is both relaxed and relentless.
There are echoes, psalms, clinches. On the centrepiece, ‘Summertime,’ they are “just delicious.” How this track builds and falls and builds again. It’s a sea, a shapeshifter. There’s a kind of brittle faith and hope in Naomi’s vocal on Yoko Ono’s ‘Listen, The Snow Is Falling.’ On ‘Melt Away’ we warm our hands on a glow. ‘King Of Spain, Part Two’ brings us around and tells us all good things are timeless.
This Is Our Music was out of time and in its zone and so now sounds as timeless as birth and death and beauty. It’s just three people with guitars and bass and drums, going “doo doo doo wah.” This is deferred gratification.