Game Theory

TrackAlbum / EP
Bad Year At UCLABlaze Of Glory
Shark PrettyDistortion EP
Nine Lives To Rigel FiveDistortion EP
24Real Nighttime
Waltz The Halls AlwaysReal Nighttime
Here It Is TomorrowThe Big Shot Chronicles
Erica's WordThe Big Shot Chronicles
The Real SheilaLolita Nation
Room For One More, Honey 2 Steps From The Middle Ages
Take Me Down (To Halloo)Across The Barrier Of Sound

Game Theory photo 1

 

 

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm
Game Theory playlist

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

Though based in Northern California, ‘80s indie pop band Game Theory had some ties to the Southern California Paisley Underground scene, and shared a post-60s melodic pop sensibility. They steered clear of the genre’s more psychedelic influences, sticking instead with a jangly power pop sound that drew on Big Star and particularly the more skewed pop of the dB’s, supplemented with some new wave-tinged keyboards. But the late Scott Miller, who helmed the band through myriad personnel changes, also nursed a more highbrow streak, with lyrical cleverness that could at times invoke Elvis Costello. Miller frequently avoided the easy hook, infusing the band’s records with jagged edges and experimental touches that kept them interesting but could also go off the rails into distracting self-indulgence. If Miller’s deliberate avoidance of straightforward pop could make for some inconsistent full-length releases, when he landed on a killer hook – as on the songs I’ve stuck with for this list – he elevated Game Theory to the very top of the 80s college radio scene.

The band’s 1982 debut, Blaze Of Glory, immediately established the band’s strengths (and weaknesses). There are a handful of ridiculously catchy pop tracks, most notably Bad Year At UCLA, The Girls Are Ready To Go, Something To Show, and Sleeping Through Heaven – joyous hooks all around. But a few tracks meander into proggy weirdness, interrupting the flow. (The record isn’t helped by some cheesy keyboards and brittle production, though a couple songs were re-recorded to better effect for a later hits collection.) A more recent CD reissue (Omnivore Recordings has done an outstanding job repackaging the band’s work) appends various odds & ends, most notably a terrific little pop track called Beach State Rocking, recorded by Miller’s prior band, Alternate Learning.

Blaze was followed by a pair of EPs. 1983’s Pointed Accounts Of People You Know largely rehashed the weaker aspects of the debut, with more brittle-sounding and off-kilter tunes that managed occasional flashes of pop glory (as on Metal And Glass Exact). But 1984’s Distortion EP took a big step forward; both Shark Pretty and Nine Lives To Rigel Five are among Game Theory’s finest moments, both resting on more immediate earworm pop hooks without losing Miller’s musical and lyrical weirdness. The EP was produced by Michael Quercio of the lite-psych Paisley Underground band The Three O’Clock, and Quercio (who’d stick around as an on-again off-again band member) gave the music a more solid footing. (The two EPs were later combined on the Dead Center CD.)

Distortion served as prelude to 1985’s full-length Real Nighttime, a jangle-pop triumph that holds up as the band’s most consistent work. For Nighttime (and the band’s subsequent recordings), Game Theory enlisted production wunderkind Mitch Easter, best known for co-producing R.E.M.’s early albums and for his work with his own band, Let’s Active, and his touch is evident throughout, the music coming through with far more sparkle than prior releases. Opening single 24 stands as Game Theory’s pinnacle, a perfect Big Star-adjacent power pop song where Miller’s typically opaque lyrics manage real poignancy. (Keeping the Big Star parallel going, the album tosses in a cover of You Can’t Have Me, adeptly replicating Alex Chilton’s in-studio emotional breakdown.) A few other songs rise to 24’s level of addictive catchiness: the synth-driven, new-wave-tinged Waltz The Halls Always is a personal favorite, but I Mean It This Time and She’ll Be A Verb are pretty tough to omit from a top 10 list. And the epic Friend Of The Family successfully merges Miller’s experimental prog rock inclinations with his power pop wizardry.

The band’s 1986 follow-up, The Big Shot Chronicles, mostly maintains Nighttime’s high quality, elevated by the percolating rocker Here It Is Tomorrow and especially Erica’s Word, an almost unbearably infectious hook that you’ll be singing in your head for days paired with some of Miller’s most Costello-esque wordplay.

Following two relatively grounded records, Game Theory gave in to Miller’s most eccentric tendencies with the sprawling and divisive Lolita Nation. For the 1987 double-LP, Miller opted to share songwriting duties with his bandmates, giving the record more of an eclectic White Album vibe; but the interspersal of odd song snippets, and the absence of a jaw-dropping 24 or Erica’s Word, made the album a bit of a slog. There are a few choice pop nuggets, like the catchy The Real Sheila and the sweet, jangly We Love You Carol And Alison, and other moments of twisted genius, but the album is just a little too self-indulgent for its own good.

For the band’s final proper album, 1988’s 2 Steps From The Middle Ages, they returned to earth with a batch of solid (if not exactly overwhelming) tunes and only occasional side-trips. A number of tunes stick with relatively straightforward pop, most notably opener Room For One More, Honey, as well as Rolling With The Moody Girls and Throwing The Election.

At that point, Miller formed a new band, the Loud Family – though given the number of personnel changes over Game Theory’s tenure, and the continued role of some Game Theory musicians in various iterations of the Loud Family, it seems like a distinction without a difference. The Loud Family released a half-dozen albums throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s; the sound tended to be a bit beefier, more 90s alternative rock than 80s college radio jangle, but there was a continuing pattern of flashes of pure pop brilliance scattered among the hit-or-miss musical experimentation. I’ll leave the Loud Family’s body of work for another day; for present purposes, suffice it to say that Game Theory fans will find plenty to love, hidden treasures that never got quite the same underground attention as Game Theory’s work. Their 1993 debut, Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things, is particularly fascinating, a return to Lolita Nation’s scattershot approach but arguably a more consistent record.

After a final Loud Family album in 2006 (a collaboration between Miller and long-running indie psych-pop artist Anton Barbeau), Miller remained relatively quiet. He surfaced in 2010 with a highly-respected book of music criticism and rock history titled “Music: What Happened”, and was apparently planning to reunite Game Theory for a new album. Sadly, Miller passed away in 2013, unexpectedly taking his own life.

However, two posthumous Game Theory records later emerged. 2017’s Supercalifragile was constructed from songs Miller had been recording at the time of his death, completed with the assistance not just of various members of Game Theory and the Loud Family, but a who’s who of musical luminaries including Aimee Mann and members of R.E.M., the Posies, and Guided by Voices. Surprisingly, given its hodge-podge nature, the record is actually pretty great – it’s arguably as consistent (if not more so) than the band’s original run of albums, with songs like Valerie Tomorrow and Say Goodbye worthy parts of the band’s canon. (I ended up limiting my Top 10 to songs from the band’s initial run, but it was a tough call.)

And in 2020, as part of their ongoing reissue project, Omnivore Recordings released a collection of music that Game Theory had been working on after 2 Steps, before Miller disbanded the line-up in favor of the Loud Family. It’s more of a collection for completists, with a number of demos and cover songs, though early versions of a few tunes that would later wind up on the Loud Family’s debut (Idiot Son and especially Take Me Down (To Halloo) stand as admirable closing chapters from the original Game Theory run.

Those new to the band interested in an overview should try to track down the excellent compilation Tinker To Evers To Chance, a pretty spot-on collection of standouts from Game Theory’s original 1982-1988 albums.

 

 

Game Theory photo 2

Scott Miller (1960–2013)

 

The Loud Family / Game Theory official website

Game Theory (Wikipedia)

Omnivore Recordings / Game Theory page

Trouser Press Game Theory page

Blurt online article – Jason Cohen (2016)

The Smart Set article – John L. Micek (2017)

Glorious Noise – Thomas Durkin interviews Scott Miller (2003)

Game Theory biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a semi-retired securities lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

Marc’s previous posts include The Reivers, The Shazam, Guided by Voices, The Connells, Big Audio Dynamite, Sleater-Kinney, Liz Phair, Elephant 6, Apples in Stereo, Sweet, The Bats, Matthew Sweet, Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson, Brian Eno

TopperPost #1,013

1 Comment

  1. Gary Gahan
    Mar 28, 2022

    Despite being a contemporary ’80s fan of both R.E.M. and Mitch Easter, here in Canada, I only caught onto Game Theory in the late ’90s when power pop band The Killjoys covered “Like a Girl Jesus” (and IMO did a fine job). I’ve never looked beyond the quite decent BIG SHOT CHRONICLES — but will now.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓