Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Music Man: Smash Palace (1985)

In a previous post, I made mention of The Music Man, a record store in Norfolk, VA, at which I spent a lot of time and too much money during my college days of 1985 to 1990. Heck, I even worked there for several months. For whatever reason, several of the employees took me under their wings and set out to expand and improve my music collection and taste. In thinking about the store over the last few days, I decided it might be interesting to revisit some of the somewhat obscure and/or unusual music I was encouraged to try.

Obscure is an imprecise term when it's applied to pop culture: while relatively few people are familiar with someone like Danny Gatton, most everybody who enjoyed the punk/alternative period of the 80s knows the Replacements. Still, I'd argue that both Gatton and the Mats are obscure when considered from the viewpoint of "popular music" or even the less general "rock music" vantage. So while I appreciate that the term does not apply equally or even fairly to every band or artist I might write about here, it at least makes obvious that these groups or individuals are not in the realm of the Beatles or whatever manufactured teen group is being hoisted upon the public this particular week.


During one of my early visits to The Music Man in the fall of 1985, one the employees highly recommended two albums: the eponymous, full-length debuts of both Smash Palace and The Waterboys, the latter of which I'll write about in a separate post.

Stephen and Brian Butler formed Smash Palace in New Jersey back in 1985 after working in two earlier bands with recording contracts: Quincy (disbanded after being sued for trademark infringement by Quincy Jones, incredibly) and Lulu Temple (a band they left while recording an EP because of disagreements over how the band's direction: musicians' version of politicians' "to spend more time with my family" excuse). Their new band was quickly signed by Epic records and they released their debut album in the same year.

I remember being bowled over by this album; in fact, despite not having heard it since probably 1986 (or perhaps because of that), I came very close to bidding on a vinyl copy last weekend but finally reasoned that the album might not be as good as is my memory of it (see: Kierkegaard, Repetition; see also: needlessly geeky references). Based upon my recollection of their guitar-heavy sound, I want to describe the group as power pop. But when searching for old videos, the only one I could find was for their "Living on the Borderline" single, and it makes me wonder just how faulty my memory may be: either this song is a poor representation of the album as a whole or I enjoyed more bad music 25 years ago than I'd realized. This video suggests that Smash Palace sounded like so many dime-a-dozen mid-80s bands who seemed to share the same singer (you know, the guy who sang like a constipated American trying to sound like a Brit after listening to The Smiths too much) and the same synthesizer schmo (yeah, that guy who idolized Flock of Seagulls and loved wringing out cheesy, unnatural sounds from the equipment). This is not power pop. If this is what the rest of the album sounded like, then I can only say in my own defense that I was 18 and a freshman in college at the time, so please cut me some slack.

In researching the group, I found that their post-debut bio is just as interesting (especially when compared to this single) as their pre-SP story. This initial album proved to be their last for 14 years: despite having some success with this release on Epic, they left to follow their A&R man to Polygram. But the promise of a contract on the new label never came to pass, so they were left hanging, marking the first and most likely final time that a band was ever screwed over by someone in the normally altruistic music business. The brothers stayed with the music business, however, hiring on as staff song writers for several labels through the years before deciding to reform Smash Palace in 1999. They recorded an album on their own in Stephen's house, signed with an independent label, and have since put out five albums.

Recent live performance videos, songs from their new album, Everybody Comes and Goes, and tracks from the 1999-2006 period indicate that the suckage factor may have significantly decreased in the last 25 years. The new singer, Stephen (who took that role over from Brian when the band reformed... Brian is now no longer with the band at all), doesn't feel the need to try to mimic Morrissey or anybody else. Even better, the sound is guitar-driven power pop with decent (i.e., non-embarrassing) keyboard support. In fact, there is some stuff here that I've been enjoying this morning.

While looking over the personnel changes throughout the years, I'm struck by something that didn't jump out at me initially: their first lineup did not include mention of anybody on keyboard or synth. So perhaps my memory of the Epic release isn't far from reality after all: maybe "Living on the Borderline" was the ready-made single forced on them by the label and the producer who were intent on drawing in fans of the more popular but less talented bands of the era. I know, I know: a major label would almost certainly never do such a thing, instead trusting a band's sense of direction. Still, I'm going to stick with my theory, because I just can't abide the thought that I might have considered an entire album of "Living on the Borderline" was decent music; plus, it makes very little sense that such an album would have been pushed by the crew at The Music Man. I deny living in denial.

So, finally, the "Living on the Borderline" video and a recent live performance of newer material:

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