GREAT LOST ALBUMS: 10,000 Maniacs (#4 in a hypothetical series)
I’ll admit that describing 10,000 Maniacs’ The Wishing Chair as “lost” is pushing my luck. In the US alone there will be tens of thousands of clueless Ivy League alumni with copies that have languished undisturbed in their jewel boxes for twenty years or more. But that’s the beauty of having your very own hypothetical series, and in any case I’m willing to bet that, next time your friendly neighbourhood pinko rag exhumes that trusty “100 College Rock Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” wallchart in an embarrassing and unnecessary attempt to boost circulation, The Wishing Chair will be gracelessly shoved aside in favour of its massively inferior successor In My Tribe.
The album is in every way a sibling of the similarly understated and underrated Fables Of The Reconstruction, which every saltworthy REM fan recognises as the group’s finest 45 minutes but is the one that, upon the regular and tedious re-issuing of their back catalogue, always comes away with three uncomprehending stars from the dadmags while dogs like Monster and Reveal get four. Both were recorded in the outer circles of the hell that is North London in the bitterly cold winter of 1985 by Joe Boyd, the man whose production of early Fairport Convention a decade and a half previously still defines the approach – I’d hesitate to call it a genre – that has unfortunately come to be known as “folk-rock”: unfortunately firstly because Fairport’s music can only loosely be described as folk or rock (it’s better than either) and secondly because this kind of hybrid classification, if not the notion of genre itself, is inherently wack. I mean, “jazz-funk”? OK, it could be Miles casually tossing one off with Parliament in his lunch break, but you just know it’s going to sound like something off a cruise liner.
Anyway, The Wishing Chair. Overlooked by the indie snob who thinks that nothing can be truly great unless it’s at least a little bit shit (and who will favour their lovely but patchy debut Secrets Of The I-Ching) and by the nice people who briefly loved In My Tribe but still have a soft spot for that Rembrandts track that was the title music for Friends (the nineties are the greatest repudiation of the old “you had to be there” saw – you really had to not be there) there are two important reasons why this album is 10,000 Maniacs’ greatest contribution to the sum total of human happiness.
One is the music. There are few things in this world more beautiful than two guitarists who both refuse to play dumb working in tandem and sympathy and harmony and ebony and stuff. And that’s what you get here, in spades as un-rock’n’roll as spades habitually are. Long term Maniacs inmate Robert Buck is a virtuoso of his contemporary and namesake Peter’s patent punk-Byrds jangle, but he has Frippy aces up his sleeve (and the look to match) that in 1985 Peter can only dream of (the aces, not the look). Then there’s this other, quite extraordinary, guitar thing: sudden flurries of notes scampering joyfully skyward like gas bubbles from the bottom of the sea, briefly effervescent then gone. It’s gone from subsequent Maniacs albums also, this thing, to the extent that I had long assumed it to be the work of John Lombardo, who co-writes most of the best songs here and is similarly gone thereafter. Turns out it’s Buck, too. So let’s consider forgiving him his combover-cum-ponytail.
The second reason is the words. Brilliant as much of the music is, if you can’t cope with Natalie Merchant you’ll never enjoy 10kM (sorry) because she’s all over everything like Emily Dickinson in a centrifuge. Merchant’s stage persona is like nothing in the history of pop (if you doubt this, which wouldn’t be unreasonable, see the first of our footlinks. But finish your reading first.) She is a temperamental foal unwillingly – but willingly – caught in the spotlight and gently reminded that it had, after all, agreed to perform. She stamps and wheels and twists and tosses her hair and shies away and petulantly bunches up her dress and she is so, so sulky beautiful, neither because of nor despite her sartorial resemblance to the heroine of a Victorian costume drama but rather because she simply doesn’t care. Simon Cowell this is not.
USians, at least those of a WASPish disposition, seem to love Blighty because of all the old buildings and stuff. But in truth the culture of the US is possessed of a far more immediate sense of history than our own, precisely because they have so much less of it and what they do have is so much closer in time. And this historicity, alongside her insufferable political correctness, is what fires Merchant’s unique and sometimes dazzling approach to lyric writing. But where, by the time of the album after next (Blind Man’s Zoo, give it a miss) both traits have congealed into smug, self-righteous and alienating academic hectoring, on The Wishing Chair the polemic is just the right side of oblique and the historicity is… well, it’s just about perfect. We could be here all night taking examples, so let’s restrict ourselves to Cotton Alley and Among The Americans. In the former, our Nat’s remonstrating with a boy who used to torment her when she was little. “You pinched my fingers in a door / Tossed my colouring book in a rusty barrel” doesn’t look great on paper, maybe. But (unless you’ve recently been dumped or bereaved or something, in which case I apologise) your heartstrings are in need of exercise. So listen to Cotton Alley and try to fathom how its recollection of the little girl’s anger and frustration manages to be so sepia-tinged despite the fact that nothing in the lyric actually dates it. And why it’s so damn affecting. Among the Americans, on the other hand, is more or less a straightforward history lesson, the pertinent question being “which Americans?” Unlike much of Merchant’s later work it’s entirely even-handed, portraying the colonists as much as victims of their situation as the indigenous people. But its moment of transcendence comes at the very end. The natives have admitted defeat in the face of the inrushing hordes: “Gone the way of flesh / Turned pale and died / By your god’s decree / For he hated me.” The mutual incomprehension of the two parties is perfectly caught by the last line. How could the benevolent New Testament God of the white man possibly be thought to hate anybody? As ever, those smallpox blankets are for your own good.
I’ve barely ruffled the surface of the lyrical riches on display here. In a world that can sustain the spectacle of Bono declaring unchallenged in a respectable broadsheet that his “Every generation has a chance to change the world / Pity the nation that won’t listen to you, boys and girls / The sweetest melody is the one we haven’t heard” is “meant to be playful, by the way, not earnest in any way” there’s probably not much point. But, if the language of good poetry is economy and suggestion, association and dislocation – and it’s all of those things and much besides – then Merchant’s lyrics on The Wishing Chair can give pretty much any pop writer bar Mark E. Smith and Joni Mitchell a run for his or her money, although she’s nowhere near as funny as either, and Mitchell's hardly what you'd call laugh-a-minute. Of course, unlike those two and many others more highly rated these days than Merchant, she couldn’t keep it up, although the following album’s Verdi Cries is worthy of a piece of its own. But The Wishing Chair doesn’t care about that. And no more should you.
1. My Mother The War (from The Tube, 1985)
Tube footage is always worth a punt because, in contrast to the only other show on UK television at the time that featured live bands, the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, producer Malcolm Gerrie went for a sound that tried to capture the experience of being in a loud room with a band alongside the close-miked, TV-friendly approach. Here, it’s also worth a punt because of the discomfiture of the 1980s fashion victim audience, faced with something that does not compute in a world acclimatised to the likes of The Style Council and Blue Rondo A La Turk (see also REM’s Radio Free Europe from 1983, where the mutual incomprehension is practically a physical presence in the room).
2. Maddox Table (promo video, 1985)
This kind of Technicolor footage (this is a 1950s promo vid for their upstate NY home of Jamestown) is worth the price of admission just for the way it looks, but here you get to listen to a typically dense piece sung from the point of view of an immigrant furniture worker while you’re watching it. I know, I know. John Cougar Mellencamp (or something: I don’t really know what this means). But trust me.
3. Hello In There (Glasgow, 1990)
Nothing to do with The Wishing Chair at all. Nothing to do with 10,000 Maniacs either, really. But it’ll bring a warm glow to your heart. Billy Bragg… he’s not a cunt, I think. His political activity doesn’t come across like an attempt to draw attention to himself. Maybe if he’d sold Coldplay levels of records it would. I don’t know much about him. Maybe if I could bear the sound of his voice I would. But give him two of the most distinctive singers of the last quarter century and he’s shown to be capable of playing a half-decent rhythm guitar.