What is it about Massachusetts? In the late 1980sthis tiny New England state was at the vanguard of the resurgence of American guitar bands who were reinventing the conventions of rock (the so-called ‘Class of ’88’) and pulling many of the era’s torpid British youth away from the pumping beats and garish, day-glo smileys of the dancefoor, coaxing them back into their bedrooms.
Here, they would bite their nails, cultivate long fringes and holes in their cardigans, and nest among books of existential angst, crushed cigarette packets and record sleeves. The two most visible and noisy (literally) members of this barely-existent ‘scene’ were Dinosaur Jr and Pixies, who each howled and shuddered in their own respective fashions with scorched-earth intensity and punishing volume. But the third corner of this loose geographical affiliation howled and shuddered in a less obvious, altogether more cordial and dream-like (if no less intense) way.
Next to their contemporaries who were twisting guitars into sonic weapons, New York-born, Harvard-educated Galaxie 500 seemed impossibly quaint and old-fashioned. A passing glance might even leave one with the impression that they were dull. But they were in fact masters of the stoic faade which masked an ocean of hurt and confusion. Instead of rocking out and blasting holes in the walls, Galaxie 500 carefully internalised and channelled their emotions into something resembling a true portrait of themselves and their listeners.
Dean Wareham’s clipped, spare ballads of polite heartache were pure ether. Atmosphere and virtuosity was all, Wareham’s guitar rolling out in silver waves over Naomi Yang’s sinuous bass-playing, and Damon Krakowski’s loose but disciplined drumming. Wareham’s high, reedy, carefully-enunciated vocals complemented his guitar perfectly somehow. They’d been listening to their Velvet Underground, their Modern Lovers and Big Star closely of course, but this was no mere tribute act. They were distinctive from the word go, full of quiet, halting self-belief.
Their debut, 1988’s Today, sets a blueprint that they barely deviated from during the rest of their short career: shuffly, even-tempo drumming propelling a slight, pleading narrative of misunderstanding and self-doubt, building to a sweetly melancholic guitar solo or majestic crescendo: repeat this several times and book-end it with a leftfield cover version (or two) that manages to outstrip the original.
Today is anchored by their epic, churning-and-tumbling take on Jonathan Richman‘s Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste, and it may still be their finest six minutes, Krakowski really pounding his way through the song’s climax, Wareham letting his spidery guitar chords vocalise most of the emotion. The rest of Today suffers from having this show-stopper appear a mere three tracks in, but ticks along breezily thanks to charmers like the upbeat, harmonica-laden Oblivious and the yearning Tugboat (“There’s a place I’d like to be/ There’s a place I’d be happy”).
1989’s On Fire is the album that pushed them onto centre stage however, and it’s still easy to see why. Beefier (slightly: remember who we’re talking about here) than its predecessor, it soars in on the gracefully surging Blue Thunder and the comically annoyed Tell Me (“Jesus can’t you see/ I’m goin’ round the bend’). Snowstorm is all eerie slow-build and vivid imagery, while the almost-jaunty Strange sounds like Paul Simon duetting with Tom Verlaine. Naomi Yang takes over vocal duties on Another Day, calling to mind a snowbound Phil Spector girl group. For despite its title, On Fire is a seriously wintry album, faint sleigh bells and hints of out-of-tune harmonica sounding like something heard across a frozen lake. It ends with a measured, slow-burn version of Joy Division‘s Ceremony, which, like the Richman cover on Today, melts through the rest of the album and imprints itself on the mind with greater intensity than anything which has come before.
1990’s This Is Our Music (the title borrowed from Ornette Coleman) opens with the dazzling 4th Of July, which would have been a smash-hit in a sane world, being as it is sardonically witty and heartbreaking by turns. Hearing Voices and Spook veer into altogether darker, more otherwordly territory, the sighing ‘aaaahs’ of the former and the cryptic surrealism of the latter hinting at inner restlessness. Perhaps only Galaxie 500 would be ambitious enough to follow a lengthy, lush mood-piece called Summertime with another even lusher, lengthier mood piece called Listen The Snow Is Falling (the latter a Yoko Ono cover sung by Naomi) in quick succession: the promise of warmth and prosperity swallowed whole by blizzards of feedback and thudding percussion.
It could be said that their break-up in 1991 (almost immediately after extensively touring This Is Our Music) left a perfect legacy. Three spare, uncluttered albums, a few Peel Sessions, a small mountain of eccentric B-sides (their version of The Rutles‘ Cheese And Onions is, predictably, better than the Pre-Fab Four’s original). They continue to search for the perfect heartbreak, but separately now, Wareham, first in Luna and now in Dean And Britta edging ever closer toward the warm centre of pure pop, Damon And Naomistill circling the cold outer perimeter. There are of course, strong echoes of Galaxie 500 in their work, but the alchemy they created on these three discs remains untouched. It is perhaps a good thing they have never re-formed like the Pavements and the Pixies of yore. Songs as delicate as these are best left as ghosts.
The Deluxe Editions of Galaxie 500’s three albums Today, On Fire and This Is Our Music are out through Domino on 22 March 2010.