Sunday, November 06, 2005

Great Plains: Naked at the Buy, Sell & Trade



Homestead Records, 1985

On its surface this record seems to be a collection of daydream songs of record store clerks and guys who girls just want to be friends with told in the language of garage punk rock. But listen to it more than one time and one gets a sense that there's a lot more going on underneath the surface.

The record has a live-in-the-studio feel and you can almost imagine singer Ron House balanced on one leg clutching the microphone, eyes squeezed shut and singing his nasal ass off. His bratty snotty voice is perhaps a cross between Sky Saxon and Jad Fair and may be a turn-off to some. While Great Plains was garage punk at its core, it sometimes mutates into jam-bandish trance rock, rootsy stomp-rochhh or just plain picking and grinnin' folk. Ron House said the band (forming in 1982) was heavily influenced by the Gun Club and The Embarrassment and cited opening for The Replacements as one of the highlights. Drunk and sloppy seems to be the common denominator among all the bands.

If you need to call it anything, just don't call it 'jangly punk' as others (whom we won't name) have. It doesn't jangle and it ain't from the South. It's pure Ohio kook-rock in the trad. of Ubu and the Eels (and several dozen others) but mostly lacking that lost Cle-punk feel or the Akron hippy irony. Instead of factories and pollution, they have cows and manure, I guess. The first-time rock-clued listener may also be leery of the keyboards (mostly organ) but let it sink in a couple times and you'll see that GP's twin guitars and solid bass/drums underscore never let the organ take them away into Farfisa land (again, comparisons to Sky Saxon and Seeds are appropriate).

What set Great Plains apart from other garage-college rock bands (with organs) were Ron House's simple but often enigmatic songs. F'rinstance, "Time to Name the Dog" - with its oddly upbeat soul hand-jive - is about the last act in a failed relationship. The boy sings to the girl that they used to get drunk and speak in "secret tongues" but every word appears to be "a traitor now" and now they can't even agree on the name for the dog.

Naked at the Buy Sell and Trade was their second of three records on Homestead and was where they discovered their sound and hit their stride. The odd title refers to a line in the opening cut - "Dick Clark" - which also sets down a major theme of the record. Sung from the view of a cynical rock manager who is trying to ensnare a band, it draws a parallel between the music business and the history of enslavement:
First brush with business you were blushing
second brush you saw the burning bush
like a slave that wants to be saved
naked at the buy sell and trade
let Dick Clark work out all the details
(and later):
I freed your hand from the dollar
freed your fans from what they couldn't understand
with both your hands around my neck
I still tell you what to do next
let Dick Clark work out all the details
Dick Clark as Imhotep, the Mummy? Maybe that explains his eternal youth. It's no coincidence that the next song is their moon-howler "Last Chance to Be Free." And that's not the first reference to ancient history and contemporary music. "Fertile Crescent," near the end of the album recasts the beginnings of civilization as a conflict between religion and tap-dancing. A lone sheepherder in the "Fertile Crescent" tries to stay pious but:
He tap-danced in his spare time
He had twenty pairs of shoes

He respected his religion
but his shoe collection grew
Yeah, it's a jam-band song but think Meat Puppets with an organ mimicking a reverby flute, of all things. If it was to sound "mideastern", they didn't pull it off but it makes the song all the more endearing and goofy. "Set it Off," a song about lighting firecrackers, also reminds me of the Puppets, so it isn't really a fluke.

The highlight of the record is Ron House's signature song "Chuck Berry's Orphan" which debuted in House's earlier band The Twisted Shouts (and Moses Carryout). And if you thought he was going wild in his other songs, in this cut House ratchets up the paranoia and casts his tiny little inner orphan demon onto the stage where he and the band kick it around for seven minutes. There's a dreamlike incoherence to the lyrics, where House jumps about describing a friend getting shot, panic in public places and dealing with the uncaring, brutal world who only want him to write songs with a "pretty chorus". As in "Fertile Crescent", there's a jam-band feel to it, harmonica imitating steam whistles, guitars battling like pistons and gears and the rhythm section and organ (tastefully set in the background) making like a phantom train. Think of it as their "30 Seconds over Tokyo" but instead of dealing death from above and flying away, it's set on a doomed train rolling uncontrollably into a bad, bad future with Ron House dancing like the devil on top of the steam engine.

And we can't talk about this album without one obligatory reference to their "big hit" - "Letter to a Fanzine", a song in which House imagines silly lines from fanzines ("Isn't my hair cut really intense? / Isn't Nick Cave a genius in a sense?") and appropriate of nothing features a nice bass solo from Paul Nini. It may have actually been a mistake to put this on the record because although it got them a lot of airplay, it detracted from some of the better songs here and made them out to be a one-hit wonder like The Dead Milkman and their "Punk Rock Girl." On the other hand, this song and the song about former bassist (and future Gibson Bro) Don Howland's bladder ("Real Bad") gives the record a not so serious feel balancing out hi-falutin' brain riddles of some of the other songs. [I don't want to give the impression that I think this "Fanzine" is on par with Dead Milkman's song - its got a happy keyboard riff and you can't help singing along with it.]

Great Plains never really made it big and broke up after their third full-length. Although a European tour was planned, after a grueling American tour, it never happened - who knows, they might have been a big hit out there and changed everything. But in America, they didn't really have any gimmick, weren't tailor-made for the 'zines or the kids, and they were, as Ron House said, 'the ugliest band in rock and roll." Plus there's that paradoxical name - while it describes the expansiveness of the band's tastes and places them squarely in their geography, it's also a name that's probably shared with 50 local C&W cover bands playing this weekend down at the Sheraton or Holiday Inn.

Personal note: I met the shy and introverted Ron House and the Wyatts in the mid-80's. Nice guys all. Alas, I never got to see them live. I don't even think they played in DC or Baltimore or I was out of town when they did. I once spent several weeks trying to convince the management of Baltimore's 8X10 bar to book them but to no avail. According to one account, the band broke up because they got tired of playing to small crowds. It's too bad because most of these songs sound fresh as a red hamburger meat -- well, the references to SST and Homestead records in "Fanzine" might have to be rewritten.

All of the three GP Homestead records are out of print. But bassist Paul Nini's record label, Old 3C, has almost all these songs from Naked on a 50 song CD-R called Length of Growth - released 2000 - the band reunited for the occasion and played several shows. "Chuck Berry's Orphan" is the only song from Naked that's not included on Length of Growth. Fear not, an alternative and even longer version is available on a Great Plains compilation of outtakes, live and unreleased songs called Cornflakes, also via Old 3C. House is even more crazed here and goes into an extended madman digression near the end about "things getting simple and nice." Note that all 3C releases can be found on iTunes or emusic.com and the label decries "free downloads" (even though it offers MP3 streams that can be easily hacked).

According to the Old 3C website, the band reunited for a barbeque in August and there are rumors of a Great Plains reunion and tour with Big Dipper. Well, if that's too hard, how about a Plains/Log tour?

Band:
  • Keyboards - Mark Wyatt
  • Vocals-Guitar - Ron House
  • Guitar - Matt Wyatt
  • Drums (?) - Either Dave Green or Jim Castoe
  • Bass - Paul Nini

Songs:

Links:

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

How do we love the Wyatt family? Let me count the ways....

Anonymous said...

Jim,

I've got that new compilation without 'chuck berry's orphan' track. Could you please upload it (128 kbs) again because the previous link is gone. Thank you.

D.

Gary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary said...

Thanks for the link to my "It's vs Its" page!

I've had to move it to http://garyes.googlepages.com/its
because stormloader dot com has become a nightmare of advertisements.