10,000 Maniacs

TrackAlbum / EP
TensionHuman Conflict Number Five EP
Scorpio RisingThe Wishing Chair
What's The Matter Here?In My Tribe
Hey Jack KerouacIn My Tribe
Verdi CriesIn My Tribe
Eat For TwoBlind Man's Zoo
Dust BowlBlind Man's Zoo
Stockton Gala DaysOur Time In Eden
I'm Not The ManOur Time In Eden
Gold Rush BridesMTV Unplugged

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Contributor: Merric Davidson

10,000 Maniacs photo 1

10,000 Maniacs photo 2

Robert Buck, Jerry Augustyniak, Steven Gustafson
John Lombardo, Dennis Drew, Natalie Merchant

10,000 Maniacs came together in 1981 from various NY bands. The classic line-up eventually materialised as already-veteran musician John Lombardo (guitar), Robert Buck (guitar), Steven Gustafson (bass), Dennis Drew (keyboards), Jerome Augustyniak (drums) and, a pensive 17-year-old when she joined the band, Natalie Merchant (vocals). Their early recordings were eclectic to say the least; a diverse marriage of styles, anything really from reggae to rock. Although they would eventually be categorised as jangly folk rock, that stops well short of describing the Maniacs sound. Good. I’ve never been one for labels in music. Let’s just say they were (are) very fine musicians and in their young singer they were fortunate to have, for a while at least, one of America’s foremost lyricists (and a whirling dervish on stage!).

My first pick in this toppermost goes back to the beginning when the Maniacs were recording for the indie label, Christian Burial, prior to signing to Elektra with their second full-length album, The Wishing Chair. Tension, their first recorded track, and the one that sounds most like Maniacs-to-come, is written by Merchant/Lombardo, and appears on their first release, Human Conflict Number Five EP. It was also included on the Secrets Of The I-Ching LP a year later in 1983, and re-recorded as Tension Makes A Tangle for The Wishing Chair. Confused? You will be.

It’s this version with a much more mature vocal from Natalie that I’m putting on the playlist but only because of its availabilty; for the toppermost 10 it has to be the original with its inexperienced wobbly vocal from a very young singer. Have a listen to it (see clip at the foot of this post); it was hard to come by until the release of the Campfire Songs compilation CD in 2004.

Tension makes a tangle
Of each thought
Becomes an inconvenience
Sound never penetrates
As servile edges
Break and feint

Ah, the poetry of the young! 10,000 Maniacs were one of the best bands of the 80s and I played the first two Elektra LPs on repeat; The Wishing Chair was produced by Joe Boyd in London in 1985, In My Tribe by Peter Asher in Los Angeles two years later. Both quality productions. Naturally.

 

The second choice (but the first on the playlist) is the irresistible driving rhythm of Scorpio Rising – the Maniacs were fond of Kenneth Anger movies – track two on The Wishing Chair.

If I could calm or restrain you
For the sake of pity
Save the pistol
Save the cynic’s tongue
Save the cool white stare
And treat me to an honest face sometime

Amaze me now.

 

Amaze me now! Scorpio Rising (and the album) still amazes me all these years later. The near misses are another early song re-recorded here, My Mother The War (see video clip above from The Tube from 1984) and Arbor Day in waltz time (“The guile and the treason / The faith and allegiance / Now lie in my hand”).

 

10,000 Maniacs Melody Maker cover

“Produced by Peter Asher, In My Tribe is a classic American pop LP, a record to rank alongside Parallel Lines or More Songs About Buildings And Food. It thrills and excites yet also chills and stimulates, one moment dark and melancholy, the next bright and exuberant.”
Adrian Thrills, NME (1987)

I know I must have driven the family mad by playing In My Tribe to death. Still love every track on it (even the Cat Stevens cover) and you can’t say that about too many albums. For topper-purposes though I’m limiting myself to just three. The opener, What’s The Matter Here? (Buck/Merchant), tackles the sensitive subject of child abuse in much the same way as Suzanne Vega’s Luka which was released just a little earlier. The interesting angle here is that the narrator, the child’s neighbour, desperately wants to intervene but doesn’t dare speak up, thereby doubling the horror of the situation.

 

Merchant has been, still is, one of the great American lyricists of modern popular song since the 80s and her genius for storytelling – seen in What’s The Matter Here? – is one of the main attractions of In My Tribe and none more so than on track two, Hey Jack Kerouac:

Hey Jack, now for the tricky part, when you were the brightest star who were the shadows? Of the San Francisco beat boys you were the favorite. Now they sit and rattle their bones and think of their blood stoned days.

Allen baby, why so jaded? Have the boys all grown up and their beauty faded? Billy, what a saint they made you, just like Mary down in Mexico on All Souls’ Day.

 

However, the best is left till last on In My Tribe. I’m sure there are many who hold Verdi Cries dear to their heart. It’s a novella in 150 words, a poem in four verses, a song for the ages, and it’s somehow one of the saddest things you will ever hear (see above) or read (see below):

The man in 119 takes his tea all alone. Mornings we all rise to wireless Verdi cries. I’m hearing opera through the door. The souls of men and women, impassioned all. Their voices climb and fall, battle trumpets call. I fill the bath and climb inside, singing.

He will not touch their pastry but every day they bring him more. Gold from the breakfast tray, I steal them all away and then go, eat them on the shore.

I draw a jackal-headed woman in the sand, sing of a lover’s fate sealed by jealous hate and wash my hand in the sea. With just three days more I’d have just about learned the entire score to Aida.

Holidays must end as you know. All is memory taken home with me: the opera, the stolen tea, the sand drawing, the verging sea, all years ago.

If fans were unsure whether Merchant would embark on a solo career at some stage, one listen to Verdi Cries (no co-writer) and you wouldn’t need a crystal ball.

 

Toppermost is, of course, an impossible beast. I loved the next album, Blind Man’s Zoo, a little less than Tribe – it’s very much a companion album, though perhaps a little rockier and with even more of a social conscience – but, nevertheless, it’s a superb set of songs and I could easily pick several from it. But there you go. Instead, I’ve gone for the opener, Eat For Two, probably mainly because this matter-of-fact sad story of an unexpected pregnancy had a real effect on first listen and still resonates; “you know where this will lead”, “my folly grows inside of me”, “a nightmare born in a borrowed bed”.

 

You Happy Puppet and the mounting anger in Hateful Hate are the Blind Man’s Zoo near misses but I had to include the misery of the mother trying to cope with bringing up children in poverty in Dust Bowl. “I try and try but I can’t save. Pennies, nickels, dollars slip away…

And there’s a song from Blind Man’s Zoo I’ve really had to struggle to exclude! Again, like Verdi Cries, it’s the last track on the album. Jubilee is a fantastically well-written song, a novella once again, with biblical references, an interracial romantic drama with a villain who is “God’s mad disciple”. Think Janis Ian’s Society’s Child but much much darker. It’s a tour de force, Natalie plus strings, so it’s not really a 10,000 Maniacs song, and that’s how I’ve justified its exclusion to myself. Hear it on the playlist though! Mind you, is Verdi Cries a Maniacs song? Enough already …

Now, as Natalie Merchant sang in Hey Jack Kerouac, we come to the tricky part. The next album, Our Time In Eden, released in 1992 three years after Blind Man’s Zoo, is a firm fan favourite and I can see why. It’s probably the closest to a concept album the Maniacs ever made and is referred to as their masterpiece in some quarters, and it is strongly composed and very well made, recorded at Bearsville Studios, NY. Masterpiece it may be and there’s a good chance it is and if I’d have played it as many times as, say, In My Tribe, I might be inclined to agree. I can see its strengths and its appeal – heck it appeals to me! It’s a bigger, fuller sound than the previous LPs, a lush, polished, melodic production including the illustrious JB Horns on a couple of songs and a string quartet, and I could easily choose several tracks including both the singles, These Are Days (which was a Billboard ‘Alternative’ No.1) and Candy Everybody Wants, also the break up of a relationship and the guilt of Jezebel is persuasive but the two I’m going for are the uplifting glorious nostalgia of Stockton Gala Days and, yet again, the last track, the shattering account of an innocent man on death row in I’m Not The Man:

But I’m not the man. He goes free as the candle vigil glows, as they burn my clothes. As the crowd cries, “Hang him slow!” and I feel my blood go cold, he goes free.

Call out the KKK, they’re wild after me. And with that frenzied look of half-demented zeal, they’d love to serve me up my final meal.

Who’ll read my final rite and hear my last appeal? Who struck this devil’s deal?

This was the last studio album to include Natalie Merchant and in hindsight the writing was on the wall with Our Time In Eden in which you could almost sense a parting of the ways, particularly in the album’s cover photos which show Merchant standing at a distance from the boys in the band.

 

But just before the final break-up the band did an MTV Unplugged – Stockton Gala Days and I’m Not The Man are both on it. Mary Ramsey, who would go on to take Natalie’s place in the band, joins her on stage (ironically, they harmonise beautifully – see above clip) but without former member John Lombardo who had left the band after The Wishing Chair and who was to rejoin the new-look 10,000 Maniacs. Lombardo and Ramsey also recorded as a duo, John & Mary.

I’m taking one track to represent the fine Unplugged album, and that’s the way out west narrative of Gold Rush Brides. There’s also a neat version of Don’t Talk, and a stand-out performance of Because The Night, and you can find them on the spotify playlist along with Trouble Me.

Love Among The Ruins (1997) misses the essence of Natalie. It never sounded like a 10,000 Maniacs record to me, how could it? But hey, they’re still making music, The Earth Pressed Flat (1999), and are still touring and recording: “10,000 Maniacs are attempting something we’ve never done before. This spring we will record an entire album of traditional folk songs from the British Isles, titled Twice Told Tales. And we’re doing it with our old friend and original Maniac, John Lombardo.”

And as for Natalie Merchant. Well that’s a whole other story. A fantastic body of work which we’ll take a look at soon (clue here… ed.)

 

Songs that I didn’t have room for in my Topper-10 (as well as Jubilee and the others checked above) – otherwise it would have been at least a Topper-15 – are My Mother The War (see earlier video clip). It was on their first album, Secrets Of The I-Ching and then reissued on the compilation album Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983. From Campfire Songs: The Popular, Obscure & Unknown Recordings, the covers of Everyday Is Like Sunday (with guest vocalist, one time boyfriend Michael Stipe) and To Sir With Love, are two old favourites of mine, and others are scattered throughout this post on video!

 

 

 

Robert Buck (1958-2000)
“I met him when I was only 16 years old. He was a thoughtful and polite introvert who had been raised by his visionary grandmother. It was she who offered him lessons at the piano and guitar. He was obsessed by technique and practiced hours and hours in his room from the time he was a child until his death. He was the best musician in our band. I can’t help wondering what music he would be writing now.” Natalie Merchant

10,000 Maniacs Official Website

Official Natalie Merchant Website

Mary Ramsey’s website

Tension from Human Conflict Number Five on YouTube

10,000 Maniacs biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #432

4 Comments

  1. Annie Oehler
    Apr 10, 2015

    Well done! Almost exactly mirrors what my list would be. I especially love Dust Bowl and Stockton Gala Days. Gun Shy is an underrated gem and also really love City of Angels. I think In My Tribe is my favorite album.

  2. David Lewis
    Apr 11, 2015

    Wot! No Carnival? Oh, except that was Natalie Merchant solo – but it led me back to 10000 maniacs – who are a great act, and who had slipped somewhat from my consciousness. Great list!

  3. Peter Viney
    Apr 11, 2015

    Well thought through! It’s a task laden with Sophie’s Choices. My personal “Wot no’s?’ are both mentioned, so near misses, and are These Are Days (I’d say their best-known song) , and Jezebel, partly because the strings are a strong pointer for Natalie Merchant’s solo work, and Jezebel is one where I’d go for the MTV Unplugged version ahead of the original, partly because the voice is clearer, but also because it sounds more like her solo material. Then playing the two Jezebels back to back, I just reminded myself of how much I loved Noah’s Dove. 10,000 Maniacs are surely due for a touch of remastering and deluxe editions. Until I read this, I thought they’d stopped. I just checked amazon and the tracklist for “Twice Told Tales” due out in a couple of weeks, is mouth watering. Incidentally, Van Morrison has recorded four of the traditional songs.

  4. Ian Ashleigh
    Apr 12, 2015

    What a great list, my introduction to 10,000 Maniacs was through the post-Natalie Merchant album ‘Love Among the Ruins’. Then my daughter introduced me to Ms Merchant’s solo work and we both looked back into 10,000 Maniacs catalogue. I’ve listened to June Tabor’s version of Verdi Cries, she takes it into minor chords and to a different level. Listen here.

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