Galaxie 500 | REWIG69 | Released: 22/03/10

Image: today packshot



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?