Bee Thousand

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.

Comments (32)
  1. Seems a lot of great albums are turning twenty as of late. So, does this make me officially “old” now? Hmm, maybe when they turn thirty I’ll start freaking out. Still, great album. Always on my playlist.

  2. “Demons are Real” might be the finest 49 seconds of music ever put to tape.

  3. “I am a Scientist” is one of my favorite songs of all time.

  4. “Queen of Cans and Jars” is a Pollard song, right?

    But indeed, this is one of the best albums made by anyone ever. Far too many great songs on here, but perhaps inexplicably, I’ve always been a big fan of *cough* “A Big Fan of the Pigpen.”

  5. What an album.

    The way Tobin’s voice cracks on the final “bring out” of “Awful Bliss” – not to mention the “flyyyyyyiiiiiing car” in “Ester’s Day” – gets me every time.

  6. As an ex-Mormon, I greatly enjoyed your first paragraph.

    • As a practicing member, I dig the parallels, parenthetical notwithstanding ;).

      I remember checking out GBV in high school after reading about them in Spin or some other magazine, but I didn’t really have any reference points and downloaded some Mag Earwhig tracks and couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about. Years later during my freshman year, somebody tipped me that Bee Thousand was a better starting point, and I’ve loved GBV and (most of) their output ever since. I know everybody has their favorites, but for my money the stretch from “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” to “Awful Blizz” is pretty impeachable.

      I know GBV fans (including some below) sometimes wonder why Bee Thousand is THE GVB album for the casual fan; in my opinion, what makes GBV special is that they manage to be so many conflicting things at once. They’re often sloppy, but their hooks run deep; a lot of their songs seem like throwaway gags, but some of them resonate in ways 90-second vignettes often don’t. Bee Thousand feels like a perfect “middle calibration” to me – it’s mannered, but still untamed; and while it doesn’t seem to be too concerned with accessibility, its songwriting lineage feels directly traceable to bands and musicians that practically everybody likes. I usually recommend Bee Thousand and, if you liked it, follow it up with Alien Lanes.

  7. what poor stereogum intern has to track down all these anniversary dates

  8. this write up made me smile, GBV fans are awesome. I recently read Perfect From Now On by John Sellers where he spends half the book describing his obsession with GBV through message boards and following Pollard through some shows its a pretty funny read if your a fan. Some of my favorite songs off this album are “Tractor Rape Chain”, “Smothered In Hugs”, “Awful Bliss”, and of course “I Am A Scientist”. I’ll be honest and say I didn’t really get what the album was about until about third listen because at first it just seemed like half songs and really bad recordings. But eventually I figured it out and now its definitely one of my favorite albums from the 90′s. Pollard capabilites to just write hundreds of songs at this point is both fascinating and kind of admirable even if most these days arent anywhere near this album (and like the article said I feel you have to be a hardcore fan to like anything other than Alien Lanes). But I’ll be revisiting this album today cause it just kicks major ass

    fun fact: Bee Thousand is what you say when you try to say Pete Townshend while holding your tongue out

  9. I love this album, but I don’t understand why it’s considered the cream of the crop in GBV’s catalog. I think it was the first album of theirs that I listened to, but it didn’t sell me on the band. I don’t think it’s as fun as Alien Lanes and Propeller, or as accessible as Under the Bushes Under the Stars.

    I don’t know what I’m saying, really. I’m not trying to knock Bee Thousand – it’s obviously great. I guess I’m just confused at how some people really enjoy this one, but can’t get into other GBV albums. To me, the band has at least 4 or 5 unimpeachable classics.

    • hey bro, i get ya with this.

      isolation drills was my intro, and it still hits me pretty solidly in the chest and gut. several years ago i read the 33 1/3 of Bee Thousand and listened to the album probably 50 times that winter. and then it stuck, for sure, but I still wouldn’t call it my favorite nor their best.

  10. My wife’s ringtone on my phone is “I am a Scientist”, because she is a scientist.

  11. an album so good that its outtakes include “postal blowfish,” “don’t stop now,” “it’s like soul man” and “crocker’s favorite song” (aka “class clown spots a UFO”)!

  12. I’m something of a GBV stan, but I do have a measure of discernment with which I can say confidently that February’s Motivational Jumpsuit could easily slide into the band’s stream of straight-up opuses from 92-97, which is pretty amazing considering how much they’ve put out in just the last two and a half years. But, I mean, I also think Under the Bushes edges out this record for their best work, so I could be wrong.

  13. bob for president, and for anyone reading this, here are some of my favorite lesser known pollard classics

    earthquake glue – 2003
    from a compound eye – 2006
    moses on a snail – 2010
    kid marine – 1999
    keene brothers – 2006

    also – for fun, anyone else for alien lanes as the top gbv record ?

  14. I was introduced to GBV by the Fast Japanese Spin Cycle ep then Bee Thousand. Eye openers. My favorite is Alien Lanes but the reason people point to Bee is b/c it was their Nevermind, so to speak. The album that got them huge attention. So it IS appropriate to celebrate it not only for that reason but b/c it is flawless, just like Alien Lanes and Fast Japanese Spin Cycle.

  15. I distinctly remember back when I was just a wee lad that had no interest in music my friend’s cool older brother would play this and Pleased To Meet Me by the Replacements in his car all the time. I never had any interest at the time but when I started getting in to indie music years later I actually called him just to ask what this album was because I could remember Tractor Rape Chain vividly. So yeah, some older guy used to always play a song called Tractor Rape Chain while giving me a ride and that’s why I love GBV.

  16. goddamnit I love this album.

  17. Love, love this album. I don’t think “Tractor Rape Chain” has ever left my head, for better or worse. Also, not sure the legitimacy of this source, but I heard from a friend of a friend that prior to becoming a school teacher, and well before guided by voices was founded, bob pollard actually did a brief stint at a nature conservatory in Fulton County, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta) where he befriended and served as mentor to a young Ty Pennington (that dude from eXtremem Makerover: Home edition!)

  18. I love GbV, and I really love albums like Propellor, Alien Lanes, Under the Bushes…, and Universal Truths and Cyles to name my absolute faves. BUT I do agree that this is #1.

    Even in the original classic line-up years, no two of the albums ever really sounded the same, but this one’s sound is special and especially unique. It has this haunted, ethereal mystery throughout, but there’s also tons of swagger. And of course the songs represent those two aspects wonderfully and are just non-stop with classics.

    This was also the one that brought me into the fold – my high school journalist teacher made me a copy back in 01/02 and it was one of those mind-blowers for me. I think within a month or two I was catching my first show with the Isolation Drills-era band.

  19. Also, this is my all-time #4 favorite album.

    • Mine too! And I also got into them during the Isolation Drills tour. While 8 years late, it was still a great time to be a fan. They were at a high point as a live band, and also still releasing gems like speak kindly of your volunteer fire department, most of Isolation Drills and the songs from Universal Truths and Cyles were great live. Pollard was so stoked on playing those songs live before the album came out.

  20. I graduated from Miami University in 2012, and in my four years there, I never once heard anyone utter a single word about GBV.

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