Bee Thousand Turns 20
Like Mormonism, Guided By Voices worship is practiced worldwide, but the literal and spiritual homeland is especially dense with the faithful. Whereas all things LDS originate from Utah, the heart of GBV nation is Ohio. We Ohio indie-rock fans are extremely proud of our favorite sons, so much so that our state produces an innumerable number of imitators, and its dive bars host nearly as many GBV tribute nights. Our record stores would be littered with extra copies of countless obscure GBV releases if our music-geek population wasn’t so saturated with hot freaks bent on collecting them. It’s not like everybody obsesses over Robert Pollard’s music at the exclusion of everything else — there are, in fact, many Ohio music zealots who’d rather heap praise on Scrawl, or the Bassholes, or GBV comrade and lo-fi pioneer Mike “Rep” Hummel — but even those of us who don’t strictly adhere to the tenets of the faith mostly consider ourselves members by default. We understand the essential traditions related to GBV: the cooler full of beer on stage, the high kicks, the overabundance of songs and albums with quizzical titles and lyrics. (Another parallel with Mormonism: The founder is a surreal visionary who’s quite possibly full of shit.) We can sing along with “Glad Girls” and “Game Of Pricks,” we have knowingly chuckled at but never seriously considered purchasing a T-shirt commemorating the no-hitter Pollard pitched in college, and we try to work up a modicum of enthusiasm every time Guided By Voices announces yet another new LP that only the group’s tiny core of true devotees will listen to more than once. Just like every religion has certain high holidays observed by even the severely lapsed, there are at least one or two LPs we half-assed GBV fans return to regularly. The one everybody agrees on — the Christmas/Passover/Ramadan of Guided By Voices albums — is 1994’s Bee Thousand. It’s GBV For Dummies, in part because it was the band’s big breakthrough, in part because it’s arguably their finest achievement (though 1995’s Alien Lanes is a masterpiece as well, and plenty of hardcore fans swear by earlier works like 1992’s Propeller). If you were only going to listen to one, this is the one, and it turns 20 years old tomorrow.
Guided By Voices had been releasing nearly unlistenable recordings of genius pop songs for almost a decade by the time Scat Records put out Bee Thousand with national distribution through Matador in 1994. Early on, they stumbled into some bizarre amalgam of Pollard’s classic rock heroes as filtered through his booze-addled consciousness and shit recording equipment. The band had already developed a small but fervent underground following through zines like Byron Coley’s Forced Exposure and was even beginning to grab Spin‘s attention. The fan base was especially enthusiastic in their home state, where they would regularly roll into local rock clubs and barrel through riotous marathon sets, Mitch Mitchell cribbing windmill strums from Pete Townshend, Pollard whipping around his microphone, strutting and preening and chugging, playing the part of an everyman Roger Daltry. GBV had begun as a Dayton bar band in the early ’80s and quickly evolved into the basement recording project of Pollard, a schoolteacher and former star pitcher, and his Northridge good ol’ boys. That’s essentially what it continued to be after GBV came to Matador’s attention and was thrust into the national spotlight. In music critic and former GBV member James Greer’s book Guided By Voices: A Brief History, Matador co-founder Gerard Cosloy explained it like this: “There was this sense of, how the fuck did we not know about something this good, how could something this good exist and we didn’t know anything about it for a decade?” Matador was coming into its own as an indie powerhouse, having scored underground hits with Liz Phair, Yo La Tengo, and especially Pavement, who were making a bid for the radio with sophomore LP Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain at the time. But the label didn’t force Guided By Voices to clean up the rampant skuzz that clouded their fist-pump anthems and gnarled acoustic curios. Bee Thousand was as slapdash and static-encrusted as any GBV release, sounding like an artifact as much as an album.
“Lo-fi” as an aesthetic had been going strong since the late ’70s, when four-track recorders first became widely available, but it remained an underground subculture for obvious reasons; most people aren’t interested in sifting through that much noise. If you were attuned to the music press in the early ’90s, you probably got a taste of lo-fi when Pavement released Slanted And Enchanted in 1992. Still, the sonics on Bee Thousand are an entirely different degree of fucked up. Opening track “Hardcore UFO’s” is almost antagonistic in its frazzled, wobbly demeanor (though according to Anyway Records founder Bela Koe-Krompecher, who released one of GBV’s early singles, the mangled quality of “Hardcore UFO’s” might not be completely intentional). The songs are uniformly thin and brittle, and some of the song transitions seem to be the product of less-than-sober cut-and-paste jobs. This music sounded less professional than many bands’ demos, yet its inspired qualities shined through the amateurish fuzz and were sometimes even amplified by it. Scenes upon scenes have been built upon this foundation. Even the Strokes, the platonic ideal of glamorous big-city rock stars, cribbed inspiration from GBV. Bringing that lo-fi sound to the mainstream’s attention was one of the album’s great legacies.
But Bee Thousand wouldn’t have motivated so many listeners to soldier through the static if not for the insanely charismatic, catchy, weird, wonderful songs buried underneath. Pollard was immensely gifted at crossbreeding the world-conquering classic rock of the Who and the Beatles with idiosyncratic world-building of Sparks and… also the Beatles. (I mean, go listen to the White Album and tell me it’s not a template for all this madness.) At an almost unbelievable clip, he churned out would-be arena-crushers overflowing with hooks and momentum. The fact that most of them clocked in under two minutes contributed to the feeling that this music was only half-finished, but the brevity was actually a function of expert construction. Pollard’s songs were brilliantly designed to get in, rock your world, and get out. (Same goes for fellow songwriter Tobin Sprout — shout out to “Ester’s Day.”) Pollard knew how to strip rock music to its core elements — unforgettable riffs, melodies, and turns of phrase — and he and the boys didn’t bother to lacquer those crude materials back to pristine quality. The rawness added to the sense of immediacy, the feeling that he was spilling his guts even when his lyrics made absolutely no sense.
Speaking of which: What is a Hardcore UFO, anyway? A “Tractor Rape Chain”? “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”? I still don’t know, but you better believe I howl along every time I see a GBV concert and those tremendous climaxes build. Even “Gold Star For Robot Boy,” ostensibly inspired by Pollard’s experiences in the classroom, is almost impossibly vague. But what a killer lyric, right? You can spend days analyzing Pollard’s poetry, and it might yield some insight into his soul. But more advisably, you can lose yourself to this music and just revel in the giddy oddity of it all. “I Am A Scientist,” one of the rare moments when Pollard makes it easy to understand what he’s getting at, lends some insight into this otherwise impenetrable enterprise: “I am a scientist, I seek to understand me/ I am an incurable and nothing else behaves like me.” Not long after that: “I am a pharmacist, prescriptions I will fill you/ Potions, pills and medicines to ease your painful lives.” The songs that probed Pollard’s own consciousness and kept him kicking (in the living-life sense and in the rock ‘n’ roll karate sense) also functioned as an ecstatic outlet for barflies and dweebs in the middle of nowhere. Here was a guy who was already well into his thirties when he found fame — a paunchy, gruff, not particularly handsome Midwestern sports fan. Yet he was writing these wild songs and presiding over this boisterous rock ‘n’ roll keg party where everyone was welcome. Unlike the larger-than-life figures of classic rock, Pollard was clearly of this earth, but he contained universes.
Guided By Voices made many albums before Bee Thousand, and they would go on to make many, many more. They passed through several lineups and even took a crack at professional recording at one point, and eventually their prolific output became more overwhelming than anything else, much more than any casual fan could juggle. And although every GBV record contains a few absolute knockouts, they’ve rarely been so consistently awesome as they were on Bee Thousand. From the swaggering groove of “Hot Freaks” to the chiming pogo-pop of “Echos Myron” to the barren-hearted balladry of “Peep-Hole,” this album is a master class in glorious absurdity. Whether it’s your gateway into a new obsession or the only Guided By Voices record on your shelf, it deserves a place in your life.