I needed something to write about, so I thought I’d write about my favourite band, which, as anybody who has looked at my Last.fm profile will know, is Guided by Voices. The band was formed in Dayton, Ohio in 1983, and disbanded in 2004. It featured a nearly constantly changing line-up, all revolving around the sole continuous member, singer/songwriter (and sometime guitarist) Robert Pollard. Their early records were recorded on basic equipment in basements and garages, giving them a harsh “lo-fi” sound, and self-released in small numbers. But they progressed to proper recording studios, and recording contracts, after they found success during the mid-90’s. I first heard about Guided by Voices while watching an episode of the Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd, where they were mentioned by one of the characters. I was watching it on my laptop via 4od, and I was intrigued by the name enough to open up Wikipedia in another tab and look them up. Soon after I was downloading their most critically praised album, “Bee Thousand”, and after a listen or two I was hooked. As a side note, the reason they were mentioned on The IT Crowd is because the writer of the show, Graham Linehan, is a fan, and, as well as being mentioned by name, there are sometimes Guided by Voices and Robert Pollard posters in the background, characters wearing Guided by Voices T-Shirts, and their song “Game of Pricks” was played over the end credits of one episode (“The Dinner Party”, I don’t know why I know that.).
I don’t know quite what it is about Guided by Voices that I like so much. I like the short, punchy nature of the majority of their songs; a lot are less than two minutes long, and a few don’t even reach a whole minute in length. I like the “lo-fi”, do-it-yourself style their earlier stuff has, complete with the odd mistake, but I also like the later professionally recorded stuff too, though perhaps to a slightly lesser extent. I like the wide range of musical styles that are often found on an album; while it can all be classed as Rock, different songs often fluctuate between the many different styles that come under that umbrella, from British invasion to psychedelia and perhaps a little bit of punk too. But I suppose what appeals to me most is Pollard’s lyrics, which range from the heartbreaking (“Liar’s Tale”, “Is She Ever?” [I couldn’t find that on its own, so it has “Dayton, Ohio – 19 Something and 5” before it, but that’s OK because that’s an awesome song too!]) to the surreal and the absurd (“#2 in the Model Home Series”, “Hot Freaks”, “Dragons Awake!”), and are always clever and/or interesting. His delivery is often just as distinctive as the lyrics themselves, and often adds to their power, such as on one of my absolute favourite tracks, “Pendulum”. The other members changed many times over the life of the band, but the distinctive lyrical and vocal style of Pollard was constant throughout, and it’s what makes them so unique.
Another thing that appeals to me about the band is the sheer number of different songs they have. Robert Pollard is a prolific songwriter and there are almost 1400 songs registered as being written, at least in part, by him. Guided by Voices released 16 albums, 16 EPs, and 15 singles, they were also featured on several split EPs and singles too. In addition to all those, they also released 3 box sets of other unreleased material, called Suitcase, Suitcase 2 and Suitcase 3, each of which contained 4 discs of 25 songs each! And even more songs were released as part of the Hardcore UFOs box set. Admittedly there is a bit of overlap between the songs on these box sets and on the albums and EPs, some are alternate versions or demos, for example, but still, there are a huge number of Guided by Voices songs. If you get into Robert Pollard’s solo stuff too, there’s a similarly vast amount of tracks, and on top of those are his various side-project bands, some containing ex-Guided by Voices members, some not, of which there are too many to list. If I tried to purchase all this stuff I’d probably run out of money very quickly (well, to be fair, I don’t have much to begin with), as a lot of it is out of print and was released in small numbers to begin with, especially the early Guided by Voices stuff. It’s also hard to find this stuff in the UK, search on eBay and most of the results will be US sellers you can import from. I have the start of a collection though, several albums and EPs, the Hardcore UFOs box set and I picked up Suitcase 3 cheap on eBay. Digitally, I’ve also acquired quite a lot through other sources *cough*. But I still don’t have anywhere near all of it, and I’m just talking about the Guided by Voices stuff here, I’ve barely started on the other stuff.
Because of the huge number of songs, it’s hard to pick favourites. Sometimes I’ll listen to something I haven’t heard before and I’ll instantly love it, other times I may listen to an album which I haven’t listened to for a while and be struck by the brilliance of a song I’ve heard numerous times but forgotten about. In a way it’s possible to get lost in the Guided by Voices discography. If I had to pick just one favourite song above all others, I’d probably pick “Watch Me Jumpstart”, as that always remains high in my estimation, while others come and go. For example, at the moment I’m really liking “Do the Earth”, while a few months ago I really liked “Window of My World”, and before that “How Loft I Am?” (I couldn’t find it on YouTube, so that’s on Grooveshark instead). I still think they’re great, but not quite as much as I did. My admiration of “Watch Me Jumpstart” stays constant though. I usually listen to whole albums rather than individual songs though, whatever music I’m listening to. Why make playlists when any decent band, or solo artist, will have spent a lot of time getting the right sequence of songs for their albums? Picking a favourite Guided by Voices album is incredibly difficult. At various times I’d have said a different one of each of their “classic line-up” albums: “Propeller”, “Bee Thousand”, “Alien Lanes” and “Under the Bushes Under the Stars”, and for a time I really liked the slightly earlier “Same Place the Fly Got Smashed”, and the slightly later “Mag Earwhig!”. If I tried to pick between them it would probably be based more on my current mood than any underlying favouritism.
If I’ve inspired you to listen to the band, you could do a lot worse than to listen to “Human Amusements at Hourly Rates”, their “Best of” compilation. Though I feel that collection is a bit biased towards the latter half their output, only having a handful of pre-Bee Thousand tracks (where’s “Pendulum”!), and it also has nothing off the excellent “Tonics and Twisted Chasers”, from which the aforementioned “Ohio – 19 Something and 5” and “Is She Ever?” are from (and also the great “Optional Bases Opposed”). Though that was clearly a decision they took to avoid having too many “lo-fi” songs, which I could understand may turn some people off. But if I had the choice between something like “Everyday”, off their second album, recorded in 1987, or “Glad Girls” (oh dear, I forgot that song had a proper video) off their twelfth album, recorded in 2001, then I’d pick “Everyday” every time (Disclaimer: “Glad Girls” is one of my least favourite Guided by Voices tracks, there’s something about the chorus I dislike.). Anyway, once you’ve listened to the “Best of”, move on to the “classic line-up” albums I listed above, and from there the world is your oyster! Next up in this series of articles, Pavement. Note: There probably won’t be a series of articles.