The ABC’s of GBV
A is for alcohol, of which Guided By Voice’s consumption is heroic: “How’s my drinking? I don’t care about being sober;” “the new drunk drivers have hoisted the flag;” “I do my job each day, empties crushed and fired away.” They drink–a lot–with pride and vigor.
B is for Bee Thousand (1994), thought by many to be GBV’s best album. It’s certainly the one that put them on the map. It contains many live staples and beloved tunes: “I Am A Scientist,” “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Hot Freaks,” “Smothered in Hugs.” Bee Thousand epitomizes their aesthetic: short, raw songs with bursts of pop melody, bittersweet melancholia, Pollard’s surreal, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. It’s their Revolver… whatever the hell that means.
C is for the “classic lineup.” It’s Pollard (vox) (of course), the once dreadlocked, chain-smoking Mitch Mitchell (guitar), the visual artist and songwriter Tobin Sprout (guitar), the striped pants-clad Greg Demos (bass), and the eBay savvy Kevin Fennel (drums). This incarnation existed 1993-’96 and they reunited 2010-’14.
D is for Dayton, Ohio, their hometown and source of inspiration for innumerable songs.
E is for “Echos Myron,” described by Pollard as a victory song about finding recognition after having persevered as artists for so long. That’s a big part of GBV’s story, and it must have felt great at the time (1994), singing: “we’re finally here, and shit yeah it’s cool.”
F is for fourth grade, which Pollard taught for fourteen years in a Dayton public school, spanning the time of the first seven GBV albums. Upon the moderately successful reception of Bee Thousand, he quit his job (at age 36) to pursue the band full time. Pollard claims “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” “Teenage FBI,” and others were inspired by teaching. It’s hard to imagine, listening to those early records, isn’t it? Mister Pollard.
G is for “Game of Pricks,” off Alien Lanes (1995). According to the Guided By Voices Database, “Game of Pricks” has been played live more than any other song. “I’ve never asked for the truth, but you owe that to me.” Now that’s a refrain. Make of this what you will: Jimmy Eat World covered this one.
H is for “Hold on Hope,” off the Ric Ocasek-produced Do the Collapse (1999). If ever the band tried to cross over to the mainstream with a would-be top 40 single, “Hold on Hope” was it. “Kicker of Elves” certainly wouldn’t be on an episode of Scrubs, but this is!
I is for “I Am a Scientist,” because that’s a mind-blowing song.
J is for Jay Carney, the 29th White House Press Secretary and notable GBV fan. He called them the “greatest rock and roll band of the modern era,” and, upon his resignation from office, came onstage to introduce the band at the Black Cat in Washington D.C. (5/24/14).
K is for karate kicks, which punctuate Pollard’s more rocking onstage moments.
L is for “Learning to Hunt,” off Mag Earwhig! (1997), the only album in which GBV’s lineup was Pollard, some Sprout, and members of Cobra Verde. “Learning to Hunt” is one of their most quiet, contemplative, and haunting songs. Lyrically, its meaning is up for grabs (like most), but it’s part of the story–the opera–that is Mag Earwhig!, about an insect’s rock and roll journey. Concept rock, dude.
M is for the Monument Club, referring to Pollard’s friends–especially his high school friends–who get together Sundays in his garage to party all day long. M is also for “Motor Away,” a blissful, amazing, rock and roll ode to existential freedom.
N is for the new albums, the albums since the 2010 reunion: Let’s Go Eat the Factory, Class Clown Spots a UFO, The Bears for Lunch, English Little League, Motivational Jumpsuit, and Cool Planet. I’ll get around to giving them closer listens one of these days.
O is for the old albums, the ones before Propeller, when GBV, for the most part, had no audience. They include: Devil Between My Toes, Sandbox, Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, and Same Place the Fly Got Smashed. These albums were financed personally by the band, and, for the most part, made in small studios around Dayton. None of these records had more than 1000 copies pressed, and, at the time, went unnoticed. These old LP’s are collectible now, and have some classic tunes on them, like “The Drinking Jim Crow,” “Hank’s Little Fingers,” “The Great Blake Street Canoe Race,” and “When She Turns 50.”
P is for Propeller (1992). Pollard was about to “grow up,” give up the band to focus on his family and his career . . . after GBV made one more album. Propeller. With only 500 vinyl copies pressed, each with a unique, handmade cover, it somehow caught on outside of Dayton. Instead of being a last hurrah, it was, really, their introduction to the public consciousness. Try not to headbang/air-guitar to “Mesh Gear Fox,” “Weedking,” “Some Drilling Implied,” and–well–every song on there. Propeller is this writer’s favorite (although that’s subject to change any given moment).
Q is for “Quality of Armor,” off Propeller. I’m not sure what this song means, or if it has any meaning. But, often, the best psychedelic pop lyrics amount to simple, lackadaisical bliss. That’s “Quality of Armor” for you. “Oh yeah I’m going to drive my car. Oh yeah I’m going to go real far, beyond the shadow of a doubt, beyond the power of your clout…” It sounds like it could have been a track on the Flaming Lips’ Hit to Death in the Futurehead.
R is for “Redmen and Their Wives” off Under the Bushes Under the Stars (UTBUTS) (1996). Pollard says this is a Dayton song, and a sad one. He wrote it thinking about the blue collar lifestyle prevalent in his hometown: marry at twenty, have kids, work all the time, drink beer, watch TV, repeat. “Fall out of bed, they’re issuing lives for redmen and their wives, offering hands and twiddling thumbs for dreams that never come.” It’s arguably one of the finest tracks off UTBUTS, their first “professional” album made with the likes of Kim Deal, Steve Albini, and others. While we’re at it, R is also for “Rhine Jive Click,” off the same album. It deserves inclusion insofar as it has inherent novelty, being the only GBV song about Garth Brooks.
S is for “A Salty Salute,” one of the band’s most anthemic and memorable tracks off Alien Lanes. Its refrain, “The club is open,” has become a catch-phrase, and a neon sign with those words has been onstage with the band. It’s a simple, raucous tribute to partying, togetherness, and friendship–I think.
T is for Tobin Sprout’s songs. Pollard is definitely the main lyrical force in GBV, but Sprout, in addition to several solo albums, has written and sung some classic tunes. His most well known is arguably “Awful Bliss” off Bee Thousand.
U is for Universal Truths and Cycles (2002), one of their most underrated albums. It didn’t receive good reviews. It was dismissed by many fans. It’s slick, for sure. It’s a production. “Eureka Signs” sounds like something off Quadrophenia. Is that a bad thing, though? Pollard’s performance is spot-on, and he’s never sounded so British, his lyrics more fantastical than ever. This is their proggiest record, and, I think, the best of the pre-2004 break-up ones. “Cheyenne,” “Everywhere with Helicopter,” “Back to the Lake,” and the eponymous track were all released as singles.
V is for Vampire on Titus, perhaps their weirdest and most “inaccessible” album. It was their follow-up to Propeller, and took a much different direction. With Pollard on drums, guitar, and vox, his brother Jim on guitar and “noise,” and Sprout on bass, guitar, and vox, its lineup was way more stripped down than the one on Propeller–or any GBV album for that matter. Vampire is what unadulterated lo-fi sounds like. “Wished I was a Giant,” “Unstable Journey,” “What About it?,” and “Perhaps Now the Vultures” are highlights. It kind of reminds me of Ween’s The Pod.
W is for the Whiskey A Go-Go, Los Angeles, 5-10-96, captured in its entirety on the Live at the Whiskey A Go-Go VHS (1996). This is a set they played right after UTBUTS’ release, and right after “Postal Blowfish” had been on the soundtrack to the Kids in the Hall’s Brain Candy (The Kids in the Hall allegedly were in the audience). You have to hand it to GBV for deciding to release–as a visual, live document–a set where all sorts of things go wrong. There is virtually no soundman (which angers Pollard more and more with each beer), and someone steals the setlist after the third or fourth song. They nonetheless played great versions of songs from Propeller, UTBUTS, Bee Thousand, and Alien Lanes.
X is for Xeno Pariah, because I can’t imagine much else starts with the letter ‘x’ other than this 2013 single. Great song, by the way.
Y is for … honestly, I got nothing. Sorry.
Z is for “Ziggy Stardust.” GBV never played many covers. In fact, at this particular moment, writing this, it is about the only one I can think of. On their 2000 tour, though, it was a live staple and performed as one of many encores a few times. One of their live renditions of Bowie’s classic appears on the bootleg, King’s Ransom: Happy Motherfuckers and Sad Clowns.
 Robert Pollard, “How’s My Drinking?”, from Isolation Drills. Guided By Voices. © 2001 by TVT Records. TVT 2160-2. Compact Disc.
 Tobin Sprout and Robert Pollard, “A Salty Salute,” from Alien Lanes. Guided By Voices. © 1995 by Matador Records. OLE 123-2. Compact Disc.
 Robert Pollard, “Subspace Biographies,” from Waved Out. Robert Pollard. © 1998 by Matador Records. OLE 316-2. Compact Disc.
 James Greer, Guided By Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll (New York: Black Cat, 2005), 120.
 Robert Pollard, “Echos Myron,” from Bee Thousand [Re-issue]. Guided By Voices. © 1994 by Matador Records. OLE 084-2. Compact Disc.
 Greer, Guided By Voices: A Brief History, 113-133.
 “Live Song Stats,” Guided By Voices Database, accessed July 29, 2014, http://www.gbvdb.com/gig_report.asp?AlbumIDs=&all=true&sortcount=true.
 Pollard, “Game of Pricks,” from Alien Lanes.
 “Jay Carney: Guided By Voices is the Greatest Rock and Roll Band of the Modern Era (VIDEO), Huffington Post, accessed July 29, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/14/jay-carney-guided-by-voices-press-conference_n_1345403.html.
 Greer, Guided By Voices: A Brief History, 77.
 Robert Pollard, “Quality of Armor, from Propeller. Guided By Voices. © 2005 by Scat Records, 49. Compact Disc.
 Greer, Guided By Voices: A Brief History, 125.
 Robert Pollard, “Redmen and Their Wives,” from Under the Bushes Under the Stars. Guided By Voices. © 1996 by Matador Records. OLE 161-2. Compact Disc.
 Guided By Voices, Guided By Voices: Live at the Whiskey A Go Go. VHS. Rockathon Records, 1996.
 “Songs,” Guided By Voices Database, accessed September 22, 2014, http://www.gbvdb.com/track.asp?track=Ziggy+Stardust&version=&live=True.