The 1980s were supposed to be the decade that killed off guitar rock for good. The humble six-string had been the people’s choice for decades mainly because it was a relatively inexpensive and easy instrument for novice musicians. But with the elaborate prog and metal noodling of the 70s and the resultant two-chord punk backlash, the guitar seemed like a spent force; we wondered if there anything left to say with the instrument. And with electronic keyboards and samplers becoming cheaper and more intuitive to use, synthpop was looking more and more like (in the words of Men Without Hats) the folk of the 80s.
But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance. A clutch of innovative postpunk guitarists — Andy Summers, the Edge, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant and the Cult’s Billy Duffy, to name a few — set about redefining the instrument; using effects to bring out potentialities of tone and color, finding new approaches to rhythm, and backing away from the traditional lead guitar/rhythm guitar dynamic with sparse chording, drones, and ostinato. It was a big, sweeping sound, and for me, at least, it peaked in 1990, with Swagger, the major-label debut of the Blue Aeroplanes, and the Church’s Gold Afternoon Fix.
I always think of these two records together; not just because they came out within a week of each other (GAF twenty years ago today, Swagger the previous week), nor even because the two bands toured together later in the year — but because, when I saw the Aeroplanes and the Church sharing the stage, I was struck by a certain commonality of approach: Lots of bands use guitars, but these two bands are, in a very real way, about guitars. (As if to drive home the point, the Church tour T-shirt sported only the name of the band, and a wiring diagram for a Fender Stratocaster. I literally wore mine to pieces.)
Of the two bands, the Blue Aeroplanes were the more self-consciously arty. Lead vocalist Gerard Langley wasn’t really a singer in any sense, but a performance poet, spinning tales of boozy dreams and disappointed love. The band featured dancer Wojtek Dmochowski as a full-time member, and had deep ties to the visual arts scene in their native Bristol. But it also featured no less than three guitarists, locking and comping in explosive combinations. There’s a bit of 60s pop, a bit of R.E.M. jangle, and the occasional burst of all-out guitarmageddon.
Producer Gil Norton strikes the right balance between power and finesse, with a keen ear for finding the arrangement to suit the song. The opening ”Jacket Hangs” sets the tone; a vortex of guitars, individual lines emerging and receding from the mix, swirling around the vocal…
The guitar arrangement is more distinct on the thunderous ”…And Stones” (download the full version), the chattering funk of two interlocked clean guitars — one with heavy echo, one playing shimmering high chords — set against a titanic lead guitar, creating a palpable excitement.
It would be easy for a vocalist to get lost in the din, but Langley more than holds his own here. From that marvelously snotty intro (”Pick a card, any card… WRONG!”) to the primal rhythmic chanting of the album’s closer ”Cat Scan Hist’ry,” he’s a dab hand with a one-liner — ”Violence is like drink,” he says, ”One’s too many and a hundred’s not enough.” On some tracks, he half-sings something like pop hooks; in other spots, it’s all about the mood, and his murmured asides, false starts, and recantations give tracks like ”What It Is” (download) a marvelous spontaneous feel. If only my stream of consciousness had backing tracks like this.
While Swagger found the Blue Aeroplanes still young and hungry, Gold Afternoon Fix captures The Church on the edge of burnout. Already a decade into their career, the psychedelic Aussies had scored a fluke hit with 1988’s Starfish and its hit single ”Under the Milky Way.” Now the pressure was on for the follow-up; relocated to L.A., paired against their will with Starfish producers Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel, watching their drummer Richard Ploog fall to the combination of the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the studio and a worsening drug habit, the band created a brooding, paranoid masterpiece. Singer-songwriter Steve Kilbey’s attitude towards the record industry is summed up in the opening lines of ”Pharaoh,” the throbber that kicks off the record:
Hi to all the people that are selling me,
Here’s one straight from the factory.
They sew my eyes up in their sockets,
I dip my hands into their pockets.
And thirteen songs later, the album closes on a chorus of the epic ”Grind” (download) — with Kilbey snarling, ”Lift me up into those whirling blades / We’ve got to grind, grind it out.” That’s not just biting the hand that feeds you; that’s chewing the whole arm off.
In between there are some moments of uplift. Guitarist Marty Willson-Piper takes the vocals on the frantic ”Russian Autumn Heart,” and its imagery of spaceships is matched by its blastoff guitar runs. At a Boston show in June, Kilbey was openly dismissive of the leadoff single ”Metropolis,” introducing it by saying, ”Might as well get this out of the way now,” but ”Metropolis” works a widescreen pop sensibility, and its big, inviting hook gave the Church their last radio hit in America:
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Overall, the mood on Gold Afternoon Fix is melancholy if not outright bitter, as indicated by song titles like ”Disappointment” and ”Transient” (with its ”Here… for now” vocal hook). Lyrically, Kilbey is mostly painting with words, throwing around images from sci-fi and mythology, of sad and broken gods, of ghost cafÁ©s and ruined cities and temporally displaced astronauts, to underscore the sense of dislocation and loss the band was feeling. Even when the sentiments are dark, though, the music is luminous. Wachtel insisted on precise and rigorously separated recording for this record, as contrasted with the live-in-the-studio approach of Starfish; the band despised the process, and disowned the record — but Wachtel’s technique made possible the intricate guitar overdubs that characterize songs like ”Laughing” (download), with five or six distinct guitar parts intermeshed and perfectly balanced.
When I saw Blue Aeroplanes and the Church on a hot June night in 1990, he two bands seemed like one. The evening passed in a long and glorious ocean-sized roar, with voices as just another musical element in the complex web of guitars. I was stone sober for the show, but I swear I felt my soul leave my body. I’d already been living with Gold Afternoon Fix for a few months, and was pleased to hear how the band’s live attack, feeding off new drummer Jay Dee Daugherty’s jazzy intensity, broke the songs wide open; I was less familiar with the Blue Aeroplanes, but by the time Dmochowski and Langley dropped to the floor, both doing an ecstatic version of the Worm across the stage while the tone of three huge guitars ricocheted around the theatre like laser beams, I was sold. And if the Aeroplanes could never quite capitalize on that promise, if the Church were fatally wounded by the pressures of the record and the tour and began a long, slow decline, then I am all the more thankful to have seen them when I did.
The Blue Aeroplanes have been through many line-ups in the years since, but they’re still playing. I hear that at one gig last year they had five guitarists on stage. ”People ask me why we use so many instruments,” Langley once said in an interview. ”And to me that’s like asking a painter why they use so many colors. They’re there to be used.” And in an industry that is all too often content to color by numbers, these two records show groups who are unafraid to mix it up a little — even if, as on Gold Afternoon Fix, the picture is not a pretty one.