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Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Playlist Plus: Jangle Pop
Jangle Pop was a mostly American post-punk movement of the mid-'80s that marked a return to the chiming guitars and pop melodies of the '60s.
Jangle Pop was a short-lived but very welcome genre of mid-80's rock; a roots-rock subgenre, it was a reinvention of the 60's folk rock sound crossed with 80's pop sensibilities, often with a punky, brisk tempo. R.E.M., early in their career, could be considered the standard-bearer of jangle-pop, which emphasized ringing guitars and vocal harmonies, although the genre did not begin with them. Some bands added a Beatles/British invasion style harmonic element to the music, others took cues from country/rock. R.E.M. had the widest mix of these influences giving them an extra dimension and depth many of the other bands lacked, which gave them a longetivity and ultimately the sales nearly every jangle-pop band lacked.
The only other jangle-pop band to enjoy large sales were the Bangles, from Los Angeles. While better known for their glossy hits like "Manic Monday", their first album and EP were organic, real jangle-pop efforts in a Byrds/Big Star vein, spiced with a dash of psychedelia on their debut.
Jangle Pop was not the most popular music of its day; R.E.M.'s albums of the time never charted better than the lower reaches of the top-30, the Bangles only hit big after they sanded off most of the edges, and many of the other groups of the time are already largely forgotten, their albums and (especially) EP's hard to find, the dB's, Pylon, Let's Active, The Plimsouls, and Guadalcanal Diary among them.
Most of these bands often sounded very do-it-yourself in their approach, and their records had an appealing rawness to them that recalled some 60's garage bands. This was mostly due to the quality of the studios they worked in; many recorded for barely surviving indie labels, and had very limited budgets for recording. However, there was also an aesthetic at work. All of these bands could be considered "roots-rock"; they favored organic instrumentation as a conscious or coincidental reaction against the synth-based music that dominated the radio and MTV at the time. In the southeast, bands like R.E.M. and Let's Active had a southern, slightly country flavor to them, while the West Coast bands were more psychedelic; a sub-genre of jangle pop, known as paisley underground centered in Los Angeles. Heartland bands tended to lean towards cowpunk. The earliest ones had some wisps of punky residue; by the mid-80's a gentler, less angular sound was in favor.
In England, there were also a number of light, jangly, Byrdsy bands active at the time, among them The Soft Boys, who certainly merit inclusion into the genre.
Most of the jangle pop bands' lyrics were enigmatic and impressionistic; some were specialists in a kind of double-irony. R.E.M.'s early albums mixed vocalist Stipe low in the mix, making his lyrics all but indecipherable; their album covers looked like riddles. This inscrutability was one of the appeals to the music; it allowed listeners to develop very contrasting views on the subject matter.
A common touchstone from the 70's is the music of Memphis group Big Star and its member, Alex Chilton, who toiled in obscurity in the early 70's, producing three albums, the second of which in particular revived the Byrds' guitar approach while also playing an unfashinable-for-the-time roots rock blended with British Invasion. Game Theory resembled a punchier Big Star, and the Replacements even named a song for Chilton.
Jangle Pop's heyday was the Feelies'/dB's emergence around 1981 through the late 80's, although the genre includes proto-jangle-pop bands as far back as the end of the 70's; the style had been developing since Big Star's day in 1974. It has become virtually extinct now, except for a handful of niche artists, the Mayflies USA being a notable late 90's/early 00's one. R.E.M.'s greatest successes came after they moved to Warner Brothers, and moved away from the genre they had a huge hand in creating. Most of the other bands didn't survive into the 90's.
Jangle Pop's demise was due to limitations in its very structure; a lot of the bands, particularly the lesser known ones, suffered from material that often sounded too similar. It passed for alternative rock in the middle of the decade, cool music that wasn't favored by radio or MTV but brightened every college station in the nation. However by the late 80's, tastes had turned towards heavier music again, both in the mainstream and in the colleges, and jangle-pop was marginalized.
Some important/influential jangle-pop artists/songs:
1. R.E.M.: 1,000,000
This is the tune that introduced R.E.M. to the world in 1982, even if it was only a handful of college-aged kids who heard it when it was new. Unlike anything else available in its raw roots sound and psychedelic overtones to the guitar, it struck a real nerve. 1,000,000 in particular has a punky, angular, aggressive punch to it, but it also has Peter Buck’s ringing, chiming, and crunching guitar playing. The 5-song EP Chronic Town was recorded at Mitch Easter's Drive In Studios, and does a fine job of establishing their sound. The EP is now available as part of the Dead Letter Office compilation. The EP is no longer available as a stand-alone (unfortunately), but can be had in its entirety as part of the Dead Letter Office compilation.
2. Guadalcanal Diary: Watusi Rodeo
Marietta, GA was home to Guadalcanal Diary, not too far from Athens, when R.E.M. and other bands were just beginning to gain notice beyond the region. The band, while bearing many of the same hallmarks of the Athens bands, pursued a dark, moody, aggressive sound with clanging guitars and forceful drumming. "Watusi Rodeo" falls somewhere between jangle-pop and cowpunk. Originally released as the keystone of a 1983 EP for Athens-based DB Records, it was also included on their 1984 major-label debut for Elektra, Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man.
3. Beat Farmers: There She Goes Again
This is a fine remake of the Lou Reed song (perhaps best known for Sixpence None The Richer’s version); emblematic of the band's tastes, which also ran to Neil Young and Tim Hardin, also covered on Tales Of The New West, their debut.. Formed in Los Angeles in 1983 by Dick Montana, a former record store owner, the band played an aggressive roots rock and was particularly renowned for their live shows. Rhino records released the band’s debut; they later recorded for Curb and Sector 2. Tales Of The New West didn’t break any sales records, but sold briskly to the band’s loyal cult, pushing it onto the charts briefly at #186. Montana died of a heart attack in 1995.
4. The Bangles: Hero Takes A Fall
The Bangles are arguably the prototypical jangle-pop band in sound. The all-woman Los Angeles quartet specialized in a light, 60's inflected rock that recalled the Grass Roots (whom they covered), and their albums included covers by such jangle-pop forefathers as Alex Chilton (Big Star) and Emmett Rhodes (The Merry Go Round) as well as garage bands like the Seeds. Their commercial zenith was the album Different Light, released in 1985; however their best album is their debut All Over The Place, from 1984, of which this is the tough played and worded leadoff cut. Even better is their rare EP debut, The Bangles, from 1982, on which they still sounded psychedelic, revealing their paisley underground origins.
5. The Feelies: Fa Ce La
The Feelies' debut precedes the broader emergence of jangle pop by a good 4 years or so, but it cast a long shadow over the jangle pop scene. Crazy Rhythms, released in 1980, has often been cited by R.E.M. as a major influence on their sound, as have other bands of the era. Certainly, "Fa Ce La", the Feelies' first single, sounds a lot like classic jangle pop, with its close harmonies and fuzzy guitar and jumpy, edgy rhythm. The Feelies lasted right through to 1991, but never quite managed to gain sales to match their reputation. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck co-produced their 1986 disk The Good Earth, a belated follow-up to their debut.
6. The Soft Boys: The Queen Of Eyes
While jangle pop was essentially an American roots-rock phenomenon, there are a number of English artists who would qualify under the designation, among them The Soft Boys, led by Robyn Hitchcock. Formed in 1976, their classic masterpiece is Underwater Moonlight, a neo-psychedelic treasure from 1980. A mix of the Byrds, Syd Barrett, John Lennon, and psychedelic pop, with lyrics that get downright creepy in places, and bright ringing guitars, this is an essential listen. In 1982, members of the Soft Boys appeared on ex-Big Star member Alex Chilton's Live In London album. Hitchcock remains very active to this day, with a devoted fan base, producing work in a variety of styles, but retaining the influences heard here.
7. Let's Active: Every Word Means No
Led by Mitch Easter, better known as R.E.M.'s producer, Let's Active specialized in a punky jangle pop with southern overtones. From their 1981 debut EP, Afoot, "Every Word Means No" has a strong garage rock vibe, ringing, chiming guitars, and breezy harmonies between Easter and bandmate Faye Hunter. This has an almost British Invasion feel to it, and a jittery rhythm. The band's lineup would change frequently, and essentially became a vehicle for Easter, but the material released under their name is worth investigating.
8. Camper Van Beethoven: Take The Skinheads Bowling
In their own words, Camper Van Beethoven, from Santa Cruz, created 'surrealist absurdist folk'. They definately specialized in alienation anthems; their stoner folk leanings, slacker outlook, and overall roots rock melodicism puts them at the dusty fringe of jangle pop. "Take The Skinheads Bowling" is a melodic, close harmony, guitar song with gonzo lyrics plus violin from 1986; it was later used in the Michael Moore film, Bowling for Columbine. A restless band, Camper Van Beethoven played more than just jangle-pop; they also specialized in what they called "border ska" (which really isn't ska). Camper Van Beethoven's last album proper was released in 1989, but they reunited in 2004 and released a new album, New Roman Times.
9. The Replacements: Alex Chilton
From Pleased To Meet Me, the first Replacements album after the firing of guitarist Bob Stinson, this is an ode to Paul Westerberg's hero Alex Chilton, founder of the doomed proto-jangle pop 70's band Big Star: I never travel far/Without a little Big Star The Replacements are another band that don't wear the jangle pop label well, although they did share much in common (including influences) with the other bands. Their music was harder, more muscular, better played than many of the lighter bands of the era; while the previous two albums (with Stinson) were more satisfying and influential, Pleased To Meet Me was pretty good too, benefiting from ambitious arrangements.
10. The dB's: Black and White
Formed in Winston-Salem, NC in 1978 and led by Chris Stamey, who had been in the power-pop group Sneakers with Mitch Easter, the dB's were critics' darlings in the early 80’s. Stamey and Peter Holsapple shared songwriting duties in the band, with Stamey’s songs displaying a more psychedelic influence and Hollsopple a more rootsy approach. "Black and White" is the leadoff from their 1981 debut, Stands For Decibels, written by Holsapple, and it displays the dB's sound as good as anything; they, along with the Feelies, represent the missing link between power pop and jangle pop. They never rose beyond cult status; Stamey left in 1983 for a solo career, the band continued for a few albums without him.