If rock-critic clichés never existed, Galaxie 500 would have had to invent them. Named after a classic model Ford that none of the band members had ever actually driven, Galaxie 500 — vocalist/guitarist Dean Wareham, bassist/vocalist Naomi Yang, and drummer Damon Krukowski — began like many eighties bands reared on rock and roll radio and back issues of Trouser Press: as imitators, not innovators. Luckily, something got scrambled in the translation, serendipitously resulting in the organic compound that is Galaxie 500. Like contemporaneous visionaries Sonic Youth, the Jesus & Mary Chain, or Public Enemy, Galaxie 500’s music suggested innate greatness; because of this, there has always been something more than a little fluke-ish about their rise to glory.
The band’s visual aesthetic — postmodern, sleek, and sophisticated — was as precocious as its music, owing largely to bassist Yang’s talents as a visual artist and designer. This was no band of boneheads: Wareham, Krukowski, and Yang were erudite, Harvard-educated intellectuals who just happened to love rock and roll. In the band’s very first fanzine interview (reproduced in full in Mike McGonigal’s band biography, Temperature’s Rising: An Oral and Visual History of Galaxie 500), Krukowksi cites Greek philosopher Zeno’s theory of the infinite divisibility of time as an influence on his drumming. One imagines the walls of the Galaxie 500 rehearsal space lined not with bikini girls with machine guns, but with posters of Buckminster Fuller and Trotsky.
Though the Boston music scene in the late eighties was still dominated by the post-punk, pre-alt rock sound of local godfathers Mission of Burma, Galaxie 500 broke with tradition by soliciting a collaborator outside of their circle of contemporaries. Noting that Shimmy Disc impresario Kramer helmed Half Japanese’s Music To Strip By, the band contacted the notoriously eccentric producer, who was impressed enough by what he heard to accept an invitation to record the band. Kramer would go on to preside over the majority of the band’s work, and while it could be argued that his role in shaping the sound of Galaxie 500 has been slightly overemphasized (see entry #10), his contribution to the band’s recorded legacy cannot be overlooked or undervalued.
Over three albums, three years, and five chords, Galaxie 500’s sound remained more or less the same, with little variation on a very simple formula; listening chronologically to the band’s three albums in one sitting is like experiencing one long, two-hour medley. Of the nine songs on Today, only two do not use some variation on the G-D-C chord progression (and one of those is a cover). It’s been said that if you can’t play every Galaxie 500 song after two guitar lessons, you might want to get yourself checked for a concussion. But Galaxie 500 are perhaps the only band for whom the term ‘monochromatic’ can be applied positively; no band has ever so totally encompassed the entire perceptible spectrum of blue.
Though often credited with providing the schematics for “slowcore” and other lamentably named subgenres, such faint praise mistakes Galaxie 500’s single-minded determination for monotony; it also ignores the band’s collective and individual instrumental prowess. Krukowski, performing on an old-fashioned kit emblazoned with the band’s name in conspicuous bandstand script, is a sound-painter in the tradition of Rashied Ali or Milford Graves; definitely not your garden variety basher. Yang, influenced by Joy Division and Public Image Limited, favors higher octaves and inventively treats the bass as an expressive lead instrument while still providing necessary melodic anchors. Wareham’s lead guitar solos tend to soar without warning, as if the individual notes were tied to the stems of bottle rockets; his playing provides Galaxie 500 songs with their emotional center.
Galaxie 500’s acrimonious split (covered in typically dry and unglamorous detail in Wareham’s memoir Black Postcards) occurred in the midst of a major label offer that might have catapulted the band to wider renown, but might just as easily have assured Galaxie 500’s eternal ubiquity in the cut-out bins. It could be argued that by breaking up, Galaxie 500 avoided falling prey to the corporate gold-rushing that claimed the careers of many of their contemporaries still languishing in post-grunge obscurity. Since the band’s dissolution, all three members have remained busy (Wareham with Luna, Dean & Britta, and as a solo artist and author; Krukowski and Yang as Damon & Naomi and as 2/3rds of Magic Hour, among other projects and collaborations) and continue to release relevant, mostly excellent music. The band vehemently refuses to “reunite”; it is my hope that they stick to their guns. Like fellow holdouts the Smiths, Galaxie 500’s work feels complete. After all, it’s not many bands that can boast a discography as immaculately dud-free. Here are the best of the bunch.
10. “When Will You Come Home (Peel Session Version)” (from Peel Sessions, 2005)
The habit of music fans and journalists arbitrarily assigning sole credit to a producer for the way an album sounds is a distinctly troubling one. Often the result of a combination of technical misunderstanding and auteur theory run amok, this practice often confuses speculation with facts, and promotes the ludicrous myth that a band is only as good as the producer they hire. Though Krukowski admitted to biographer Mike McGonigal that “Kramer invented the sound of the band,” retrospective releases of Kramer-less Galaxie 500 material somewhat dispute this claim. The fact is, liberated from Kramer’s occasionally conspicuous reverb-glaze, Galaxie 500 still sounds very much like Galaxie 500. The Peel Sessions version of “When Will You Come Home,” recorded in the fall of 1989 for John Peel’s legendary BBC program, is a great example: not so much unrefined as unadorned, the song sounds livelier and more urgent than its studio version counterpart. The clean, no-frills recording emphasizes the beautiful Sonic Youth-y dissonance between Yang’s bass and Wareham’s guitar, and foregrounds Krukowski’s percussion, which extracts bebop elegance from the iconic ‘Be My Baby’ beat. “When Will You Come Home” is Galaxie 500’s essence in five minutes, a perfect blend of high-wire instrumental interplay and coy melodicism suggesting a meeting of Television and the Television Personalities.
9. “Strange” (from On Fire, 1989)
There is a scene early in the 1998 Tamra Davis-directed Dave Chappelle vehicle (and perennial pothead fave) Half Baked that introduces the principal characters as a group of pre-teen friends getting high for the first time. The boys toke up and enter a convenience store, where the effects of the cannabis take hold in the form of candy bar hallucinations, fuzzy auras, and a general disassociation from reality. If “Strange” isn’t about a similar stoned encounter with the straight world, it may as well be. Like Half Baked‘s opening scene, the setting of “Strange” is a non-descript drug store in Anytown, USA, where Wareham, like the protagonists of the film, finds himself feeling suddenly alien in his mundane surroundings. The lyrics of Galaxie 500 songs often find Wareham observing from safe, solitary distances: he watches the people in the parking lot, he watches trees decompose, he watches Kojak all alone. On “Strange,” he’s closer to the action than usual, and the result is barely-concealed pathos. Over a stridently strummed acoustic guitar recalling early R.E.M, Wareham, singing at the very top of his range and barely able to keep his voice from cracking, wonders “Why’s everybody acting funny? Why’s everybody look so strange?” as he waits his turn in line and eats a Twinkie. Is “Strange” about Kafka-esque alienation or just a bad case of the munchies? Hard to say, but the song’s ambiguity suggests that Wareham knows that such things are not mutually exclusive.
8. “Ceremony” (from On Fire reissue, 1997)
The term “cover,” as applied to the practice of an artist recording a song already recorded by someone else, was initially used as a synonym for “obscure,” suggesting that an artist or group would attempt to eclipse in popularity the original version of a song with their own interpretation. But if Galaxie 500’s covers almost invariably improved upon the original versions, it is because the band viewed cover songs as collaborations, not competitions. (Spoiler alert: three of the songs on this list are covers). Whether tackling the Red Krayola, the Rutles, or Yoko Ono, Galaxie 500 retained the spirit, if not the sound, of the original tunes. It’s little wonder that “Ceremony,” perhaps the darkest of New Order songs, so appealed to the preppy existentialists of Galaxie 500: The opiated, wallowing atmosphere of the original tune is a clinic in studied miserablism, and certainly on Galaxie 500’s wavelength. Highlighted by an exhilarating, J Mascis-channeling Wareham solo, the song’s final minutes provide a dramatic mood shift in the form of out-of-nowhere tambourines and a low, unexpected root note by Yang that could only accurately be described as a “bass bomb.”
7. “Temperature’s Rising” (from Today, 1988)
“Temperature’s Rising” is an example of Galaxie 500’s deceptive simplicity: few songs do so much with so little. A single chord progression — G-C-D-D — remains constant throughout the song’s verse, chorus and solo sections. And yet “Temperature’s Rising” is arranged so that each transition sounds — feels — like an entirely new section, evoking the old axiom “it isn’t what you play, but how you play it.” Such is the legerdemain of Galaxie 500, and one of the band’s greatest attributes. Krukowski told Mike McGonigal “The bass was the physical center of the band … I used to keep the bass so loud in my monitor, it was almost all I heard when we played live,” and indeed it is difficult to imagine “Temperature’s Rising” without Yang’s bass, whose melodic counterpoint, playing a sort of melancholy rhythm and blues, carries the song. The final chorus, coming out of a mesmerizing Wareham solo, builds in choral intensity by adding more emphatic, not-exactly-on-key voices to the mix, conjuring images of Spartacist Leaguers in Siouxie t-shirts howling Christmas carols into the fog.
6. “Isn’t it a Pity” (from On Fire, 1989)
“Isn’t It A Pity” anchors George Harrison’s debut solo set All Things Must Pass; sanguine and somewhat patronizing, it’s sorta his “Imagine.” Galaxie 500’s cover eschews the original’s optimism and performs the song as a lament; if Harrison is the Maharishi trying to get us to see the error of our self-absorbed ways, Galaxie 500 is The Underground Man noting from a St Petersburg cellar that mankind was probably already doomed to begin with. Harrison’s reflective, melancholy lyrics sound as if Wareham himself could have authored them, while the original song’s endless coda sounds equally predictive of the Galaxie 500 sound: With its infinite guitar echoes, choral voices, tambourines, and mellotrons, Harrison’s tune eventually becomes the kind of soup the band had been stirring since their first rehearsal. Predicting both the slow-dazzle of Mazzy Star and the baroque emo of Low (no strangers to classic rock cover songs themselves), “Isn’t It A Pity” is an exquisite mope.
5. “Summertime” (from This Is Our Music, 1990)
Named after an Ornette Coleman album that none of the members of Galaxie 500 had actually heard, This Is Our Music was less like the transcendent third album of their heroes the Velvet Underground than the troubled third album of their heroes Big Star. Even the album cover spelled trouble: Previously, Galaxie 500 band photos, often shot by Yang, would frame all three members posed together in various settings; to anyone paying attention, the individual band member portraits on the cover of This Is Our Music might have seemed disturbingly portentous. Still, This Is Our Music is only the weakest of Galaxie 500’s three albums relative to the pair of near-perfect albums that preceded it; it also contains some great material, including the Velvets-y “Summertime.” Trying to write about Galaxie 500 without mentioning the Velvet Underground has always been like playing the board game Taboo, in which players must try to define an object without using many of the other words commonly associated with that object; for example, a player may be asked to describe “snow” without using the words “white” or “cold.” “Summertime” may be the band’s most blatant homage to the Velvets (you can sing the whole of “Heroin” over top), but it still only sounds like Galaxie 500, and the performances here — Wareham’s slowly immolating guitar solo, Yang’s whale-song bass, Krukowski’s Moe-Tucker-Joins-The-Military percussion — are transcendent. Not the most haunting song ever titled ‘Summertime,’ but a close second.
4. “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” (from Today, 1988)
Jonathan Richman’s original version of his song “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” appeared on a then-obscure LP called The Original Modern Lovers, released on Kim Fowley’s doomed Mohawk imprint; it was sung a capella, and lasted less than two minutes. Galaxie 500’s version nearly quadruples the song’s length and recasts it as a primal Spacemen 3 chug. The drone-strum of the guitar and metronomic bass, mostly hanging on a single A chord, simulate a sixties propaganda film’s idea of a drug rush or acid flashback, previewing Luna’s masterpiece “23 Minutes In Brussels.” The cyclone is only occasionally interrupted by Wareham’s vocals, delivered with a conviction rarely heard on the band’s original songs. Indeed, in Galaxie 500’s hands, Richman’s simple, unaccompanied tune sounds meant for some higher, possibly metaphysical purpose. “Don’t let our youth go to waste“: without altering a single word, Galaxie 500 turns a plea into a prayer.
3. “Fourth Of July” (from This Is Our Music, 1990)
Whether it’s Wareham’s spoken verses or Krukowski’s fast-decaying cymbals, there is a distinct directness to “Fourth Of July” previously unheard on Galaxie 500 recordings. The lyrics are Galaxie 500 in microcosm: quirky (“I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit/ and the dog refused to look at it”), while acknowledging rock and roll’s preeminence via droll references (Wareham stages a Bed-In, but forgets to invite anybody). Surely Wareham’s drowsy overture of “I feel alright when you smile” is one of the rock’s least convincing attempts at woo this side of “I wish I was special/ you’re so fuckin’ special,” but the sense of longing remains palpable nonetheless. Yang’s bass provides an iced-over brook for Wareham’s frenzied guitar joyriding, while the keening falsetto interjections of “la la la la/ la la la” and “doo/ doo-doo-waaa” invent a genre: “shoegaze doo-wop.” Late in the song, Krukowski shifts to double-time, accenting eighth notes on his cymbals with propulsive, almost heavy-metal-y machine-gun patter on the toms, instigating one of indie rock’s all-time great finales. Outstanding.
2. “Flowers” (from Today, 1988)
By the early nineties, smart American indie rock bands from Yo La Tengo to Pavement had already been looking to New Zealand for inspiration for years. The roster of the Flying Nun label was of particular interest, and included bands like the Chills, the Clean, and the Bats, all of whom invented their own variations on a woozy, wobbling jangle pop that would become synonymous with the region. Dean Wareham was born in New Zealand but grew up in New York, and it is this conflation of influences that informs “Flowers,” the nocturne which kicks off Galaxie 500’s debut album, Today. Wareham’s two guitar solos on “Flowers” — lonesome-sounding spectral wanderings of arpeggio ink blots — are perfect; no wonder Thurston Moore named Today his favorite guitar album of 1988. Elsewhere, judicious background vocals, at once childlike and baroque, lend a quasi-devotional, clandestine feel to the song, even before Wareham sings “I can be inside your dreams.” Indeed, “Flowers” evokes a sort of fleeting clarity: the nanosecond preceding the nod, or the momentary sharp focus on a scene from a dream.
1. “Tugboat” (from Today, 1988)
“I don’t wanna stay at your party/ I don’t wanna talk with your friends/ I don’t wanna vote for your president…” So begins “Tugboat,” the A-side of Galaxie 500’s debut single, released in 1988 on the tiny local label Aurora. Though the lyrics read like the petulant nihilism of a crust punk band, the accompanying music couldn’t have possibly sounded less agro. Instead, “Tugboat” establishes the blueprint that Galaxie 500 would follow for three albums of moody, introverted pop, and remains the most convincing showcase for their unusual magic. About ten seconds into the song, first position chords are augmented by a simple descending lead guitar line, chiming bass octaves, and a wash of cymbals that sound like they’re anticipating the arrival of Coltrane: even at this nascent stage, it is already the unmistakable sound of Galaxie 500. The vocals — adenoidal, maudlin — echo with gratuitous delay, the end of each line blurring and overlapping into dissonant overtones. Two and a half minutes in, the instruments become a whirlpool; it’s hard to tell where the guitar solo ends and Krukowski’s blur of cymbals begin. “Tugboat” only proves that Galaxie 500, whom Byron Coley once called “the least Bostonian of (Boston) bands,” emerged fully-formed; indie rock sui generis. If Galaxie 500 ever experienced growing pains, they certainly weren’t recorded. “Tugboat” is the first — and best — of several masterpieces to come.
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