Sunday, November 7, 2010

GBV Classic Years #1: Propeller (1992)

As discussed earlier, I was (and maybe still am) on a big Guided By Voices kick a few weeks back. I've long been a fan, and still remember fondly their gig at Chicago's legendary Lounge Ax on my birthday in 1995, just two days after the release of their first "major league" LP Alien Lanes. Of course the phrase "Guided by Beer" was kicked around a few times, once by none other than Bob Pollard himself. Somewhere I used to have a tape of this show that I picked up years later; and the gig was as sloppily fun as I remembered it. I seem to recall that after 38 songs, they easily could have drunkenly stumbled through another 38.

My GBV journey began on a tip from none other than Bob Mould. Oh, I'd read about them, been intrigued, and in fact I may had even purchased a CD of theirs by the time I met Bob Mould at a Sugar gig in December 1994 (though I really think I didn't own anything until early '95, honestly). But what really got me into the band was Bob's enthusing about them to me and a couple other people while chatting with him for nearly an hour before the Sugar gig that night. At the time, Bob was still in the thick of the alternative scene, not yet having gone the dance route, so anything tipped by him was assumed to be golden. And of course they were.

So, on Bob Mould's tip and then being absorbed by the utter wonderfulness of GBV's (seventh full length LP!) Bee Thousand, I went back and picked up the then-available back catalog, which at the time consisted of probably 3 CDs: Vampire on Titus / Propeller (both albums on one CD), and maybe a couple 8-song, 12-minute-long EPs. I didn't really take to any of it bar the odd song or two on any of the pre-B1000 material, but I was head-over-heels in love with B1000. And I've always remained so, this record's songs are always ranked in the higher reaches of my most-played tracks in iTunes. Nevertheless, with me needing either smokes, beer, or both, and not being completely floored by the VoT / Propeller CD, it got sold back not long after purchase in 1995. And I never really heard it, or (m)any of its tracks, again.

So I can't come to explain why several weeks back I got my hands on both Vampire on Titus, and Propeller, again. It might have been the few tracks from it coming up on the Matador-era best-of CD that I have on my iPod, or it might have just been something I saw on a (shhhh) torrent site and said, well, why not?

I should never have sold the VoT / Propeller combo CD back. First of all, they now are two separate CDs, so you pay more. Second, the records are amazing. I don't know where my head was at, I don't know WHY I didn't like these albums, and while I can't regain those years lost, I can enjoy them now.

So we begin my GBV series of postings with my top 5 tracks from their 1992 LP Propeller, so named because after 4 LPs that barely sold out their 500 or 1000-run pressings in Dayton, OH, the band figured it would be the record that finally propelled them out of the middle of Ohio. Sadly, it didn't, but it's certainly not for the lack of quality songs. I think they needed a bigger label or distributor, with this same record, to make it out of the indie circuit minor league's minor league, which they didn't have for a couple more records.

Several of their all-time classic tracks come from this record, and it's absolutely essential any reasonable GBV fan must own this. It's really their first record featuring what became GBV trademarks, of a sort: massive singalong choruses, "anthems" even, walled guitars. An interesting factoid about this record is that its original vinyl-only release in 1992 was limited to 500 copies, each one hand-designed by a band member or friends. So each original copy is unique. Of course, I don't own one, but the folks behind GBVDB - Guided By Voices Database have done yeoman's work in cataloging a huge proportion of the 500 unique copies. For this blog post, I've chosen as cover art one of my favorites from the original LP run - an actual Natural Light 6-pack box shrinkwrapped into the record!

So without further ado, and with a LOT of playlist mucking-about, here's my Top Five selections from Propeller.

originally released in 1992 on their own Rockathon Records

1) Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox
Yes, this counts as one track, since it's tracked as one. It's a two-song suite that, in tandem with the following track "Weed King", sums up GBV pretty much in a nutshell. Neo-psychedelic, reaching beyond post-British Invasion (think the Who), garage rock, with 80s American college rock influences, it's all in these two (three?) songs. 

2) Weed King
See above. 

3) Quality Of Armor
The worst defense is intelligence, the best defense is belligerence. And oh yea, I'm to drive my car, go really far. 

4) Exit Flagger
One of their first garage 4-track Portastudio recordings that belies the recording methodology. It just sounds HUGE, and it's a song the band remained fond of (and well they should!) for years to come. Probably the first "classic" GBV track. It could have sat on any of their mid-90s records, easily, and had it been more widely available, it'd be even more well known. 

5) 14 Cheerleader Coldfront
The first classic Tobin Sprout (guitarist, and alternate songwriter/vocalist) track of many to come in later years. Gently acoustic, the recording sounds almost like it was recorded in a cardboard box - but don't let that fool you. It's a beautiful song that would sound even more amazing recorded in a proper studio.

Grab them all here.

Honorable mentions, or tracks that floated in and out of consideration for this post: "Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy" (though see a future post), "Metal Mothers" ("you find time to get laid, you find ways to get paid"), "Circus World".


  1. One of the tracks on this record, that I've not posted above, is called "Back To Saturn X Radio Report".

    Back story: The band had prepared, tracklisted, essentially had ready a record just prior to this one called Back To Saturn X. At the last minute Bob Pollard thought it sucked, and it was never released. Some songs made it out onto EPs, and others were collected on the various Suitcase box sets released years later.

    "Back To Saturn X Radio Report" is a song collage of snippets of some of the unreleased LP tracks.

    For my own listening, I've actually made the LP Back To Saturn X, based on an actual tracklisting on the GBVDB site mentioned in the main post above. Since all the tracks ultimately were released on other records, it wasn't hard to do - and you know what? It's not a bad record!

    Do the people want me to post Back To Saturn X?

  2. First time I heard '14 cheerleader coldfront' was when Dutch radio broadcast part of a GBV gig, and cut of the broadcast halfway through, you guessed it, '14 cheerleader coldfront'.
    I think that song was the main reason I later purchased the 'Vampire on Titus/Propeller' CD. Not as essential as Bee Thousand IMO, but still pretty great.