I’ve written literally hundreds of pieces for various web sites and newspapers, but nothing I have ever written has produced as much reader feedback as the piece I did in late 2005 about a Boston quintet whose fan base didn’t stretch much further than Providence.
During their late ’80s/early ’90s heyday, Tribe were arguably as big as the Pixies with the hometown crowd. They frequently sold out shows at the legendary club Avalon (recently converted into a House of Blues, ugh), and would outrank some of the biggest bands in the world in the year-end polls conducted by local modern rock station WFNX. When Tribe scored a record deal with Warner Bros. imprint Slash and convinced noted producer Gil Norton to shepherd their first album Abort (I always wondered if the Pixies had a hand in that), the general consensus was that the band, armed with killer lead single “Joyride (I Saw the Film),” was about to jump to the next level. It never happened. And I’m still not sure why.
Actually, I know exactly why it didn’t happen: Abort was released in September 1991, just when a group of bands from Seattle fired a shot heard ’round the world. If you look at the modern rock scene in the first nine months of that year, it was dominated by bands like Big Audio Dynamite (II, thank you very much), Jesus Jones, EMF, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Electronic, and the emerging “baggy” scene (Blur, the Farm, Happy Mondays). All of these bands were kindred spirits to Tribe’s unique blend of muscular but dance-friendly rock with a Gothic edge (singer Janet LaValley was like Siouxsie Sioux only sexier, and with better pitch). Once grunge hit, those bands were wiped off the dial, and Tribe was caught in the undertow.
Pity. The album holds up remarkably well today. The production is crisp and clean, with no egregious overdubs cluttering the proceedings. (The band took their live performances very seriously, and made sure their albums reflected that.) The songs show great versatility; the ballad (and fan favorite) “Rescue Me” sports a Rush-like time signature, “Jakpot” and “Easter Dinner” both have explosive endings, “Daddy’s Home” is a haunting song about an abusive father, “Outside” and “Joyride” (both, not coincidentally, written by bassist Greg LoPiccolo. More on him later) boast instantly memorable chain gang choruses, and the gorgeous album closer “Vigil” takes the guitar line from the Cure’s “Pictures of You” and makes it sing like an angel. The only person in the band that didn’t sing was drummer Dave Penzo, and having four capable singers – two boys and two girls, to boot – produced some dizzying harmonies and fierce sing-alongs. Most importantly, all of those singers could write as well, which served two purposes: it forced them all to step up their game if they wanted their songs to be included on the album, and it guaranteed that if one of those songwriters hit a dry spell, the others could pick up the slack. A bulletproof formula, no?
Well, no, as time will tell you, and it will use harsh, unforgiving language as it does so. Tribe would go on to make one more album – which will be the focus of the next Pop Goes the World piece in two weeks, so set your TiVos – and then call it quits in early 1994 after the option for their third album was not picked up. LoPiccolo, guitarist Eric Brosius and keyboardist Terri Barous (Eric and Terri married after Tribe disbanded) went to work for computer game company Looking Glass Studios, where they produced the “System Shock” and “Thief” series. (Terri provided the voice of SHODAN in “System Shock,” which many claim to be one of the most sinister villains in video game history.) Eric and Greg – forgive me for not going all New York Times and using their last names, but if you read their writing credits, you’d understand – went on to work for Harmonix Music Systems, and it was here that the members of Tribe would finally change the world; in 2005, they created a little ol’ game called “Guitar Hero.” When that sold out of the box, they created the sequel, at which time MTV bought Harmonix for a princely sum. Once they fulfilled the “Guitar Hero” contract (“Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the ’80s”), Harmonix went to work on “Rock Band” (where Tribe song “Outside” is included) and started yet another video game phenomenon, which will reach fever pitch when “The Beatles: Rock Band” is released this September.
Back to the reader feedback: The people who heard this band were touched deeply by them. One person even asked me, “You haven’t heard from a girl named ______, have you? We were really into Tribe when Abort came out, but I lost touch with her and wondered what she was up to.” Isn’t that cute? It may not have sold many records, but the people who bought Abort will listen to it for the rest of their lives. Beats the hell out of shipping gold and returning platinum, if you ask me.
And so, I present to you Tribe’s Abort in all its out-of-print glory. These files will stay up until the next installment of Pop Goes the World, where we will discuss the band’s troubled follow-up album Sleeper.