Oh dear, here we go again. Writing Over/Under columns about a short-lived band with a long influential reach (see our Velvet Underground and Big Star entries) is a losing proposition, guaranteed to irk the faithful and draw charges of journalistic snobbery. And the story behind Galaxie 500’s quick rise and fall is fraught with high emotion already. Guitarist Dean Wareham, bassist Naomi Yang and drummer Damon Krukowski were high-school chums from NYC who ended up at Harvard together. Following their move to Massachusetts, Wareham and Krukowski played in a three-piece band; when their original bassist left, Yang, who’d never played bass before, stepped in. The result was Galaxie 500, a band so important to the late-’80s shoegazer/slowcore scene that the group’s first single, 1988’s “Tugboat,” is frequently identified as the launching point of the genre. Three albums and five years later, the band not only broke up but broke apart, with Krukowski and Yang hurling charges of rock-star ego at Wareham, and Wareham informing his bandmates by phone that he was leaving the group. If there was bad blood within Galaxie 500, that was nothing compared to the resultant “Dean vs. Damon & Naomi” choose-up that split the fan base. But time heals all wounds; today everyone’s friends again, and … whoops. We fact-checked. Seems this is one party that’s only gotten more awkward, what with Damon & Naomi re-posting their extensive 1997 Ptolemaic Terrascope interview about the breakup on their website, and Wareham striking back with his own version of the story in his 2008 memoir, Black Postcards. Ouch. Anyway, hop in, and let’s take Galaxie 500 for one more spin around the block.
:: The Five Most Overrated Galaxie 500 Songs
1. “Tugboat” (1988)
People, people; let’s have a little decorum here. Yes, this is the kickoff. Yes, it’s a hugely important single. Yes, there wasn’t much that sounded like it in 1988. Galaxie 500’s first association with Shimmy-Disc label head and producer Kramer is a remarkable thing, swamped in delay and reverb and shimmering like a coin in a clear fountain; Dean & Britta still perform it in their live shows. But to lock a band, or indeed any artist, into being represented by a freshman effort is to pigeonhole them at best and deny them the joy of developing at worst, and that’s precisely what’s happened with the enshrinement of “Tugboat” over the years. It’s not a matter of popularity. It’s that the high esteem in which “Tugboat” is held, and the widespread belief that the song represents the best of what Galaxie 500 could accomplish—a belief loudly espoused by fans and critics alike, mind you—closes many listeners’ ears to songs of equal or greater worth. Consider: “Love Me Do” is a great cut, but the Beatles stomped all over it later. To suggest that “Tugboat,” excellent though it is, represents the zenith of Galaxie 500’s work … well, that’s just wrong.
2. “Blue Thunder” (1989)
Mark Twain once said of Richard Wagner’s music, “It’s better than it sounds.” Oddly, the opposite is true of the leadoff track on Galaxie 500’s sophomore album, On Fire. “Blue Thunder” is about nothing much in particular, as a great many Galaxie 500 songs are. Distracted musings along a highway provide the track’s conceit and underpin its strange, disassociated imagery. The song begins with a soft two-chord rumble, then swells to a loud workout—again, a pattern repeated in much of the band’s work. But here, the parts don’t add up to much beyond their individual merits, which is not true of Galaxie 500’s most interesting work. The lyrics get swallowed up into themselves as Wareham repeats the words “I’ll drive so far away” over the swelling, recurring musical line. “Blue Thunder” is frequently mentioned as a reference point not only for the band itself but for other slowcore groups that followed. Maybe so, but not in the way you’d hope. It’s actually an index of the weaker tendencies of the genre: monotonous noodling, lyrical self-absorption and repetition standing in place of profundity.
3. “Parking Lot” (1988)
Instrumentally, “Parking Lot” is one of the hardest-charging songs on debut album Today, with Krukowski and Yang providing thunderous rhythmic support for Wareham’s wobbly guitar and voice. But again, nothing much comes of it. Galaxie 500’s conceptual genius was for understanding how a minimal concept, stretched to the breaking point, can turn the mundane into the epic. But “Parking Lot” follows a basic pop structure, running a radio-friendly three minutes, and the verse and (sort of) chorus is repeated exactly twice. As a result, it comes off thin and half-formed. It’s a great sketch for the kind of song Wareham would find greater success with in Luna. Among the stars in Galaxie 500’s songbook, however, this one fizzles out early.
4. “Snowstorm” (1989)
When I spoke to Wareham just before Black Postcards hit the bookstores, I suggested that some people might be upset by the content of the book, specifically the section on Galaxie 500’s final days. He initially thought I was talking about Krukowski and Yang, and he replied, in essence, “Yeah, but whaddya gonna do?” I was actually thinking of the fan base, though, and when I clarified that, he laughed, saying, “Sure, there’ll be some fans who’ll be shocked by my bad behavior. ‘What? How could he? That’s the guy who sang about the snooooowstoooorm!’” That tells us as much as we need to know about this song, a moody, high-drama poem about getting caught in the middle of a blizzard and cut off from the rest of the city. Again, a lovely conceit and a decent song on the merits. Among the sourer and dourer fans in the rank and file, however, “Snowstorm” is too often praised as an ode to being beautiful but isolated, a unique, forever misunderstood snowflake. Heard that way, it’s tiresome and grating, a reinforcement of every narcissistic impulse in both the human and music-geek communities. In the final verse, Wareham sings, “And I’m looking at the snowflakes/And they all look the same.” Those of you who got worked into a lather when you saw this week’s O/U was about Galaxie 500, before you even read the piece? Wareham was singing about you.
5. “Sorry” (1990)
To be fair, he was singing about me, too. In my teens, I was one of those tiresome mooks who heard “Snowstorm” as a tribute to my own unrecognized wonderfulness. You know how it is; you get older, and you realize what a self-pitying pain in the ass you’re being, and you shape up. But from any standpoint, it’s hard to hear “Sorry,” from swan song This Is Our Music, as anything but a long mope, suitable mostly for those moments when you’ve hunkered down in your fear cave. “What is home?/All alone”; “And we’re sorry all the time”; “Are you sorry that you loved me?” Whew. Can we have a window up in the panic room, please? The best of Galaxie 500’s songs tremble in the ether. “Sorry,” by contrast, wallows in the mire.
:: The Five Most Underrated Galaxie 500 Songs
1. “Cheese And Onions” (1990)
I predict I’ll catch moderate flak for including two covers in the “underrated” portion of this entry, but bear with me. Galaxie 500 displayed impeccable taste in covers on each of its three albums and turned in versions of other people’s songs—Jonathan Richman’s “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” and Yoko Ono’s “Listen, The Snow Is Falling,” in particular—that smartly reworked and revitalized the originals. “Cheese And Onions,” though, is a cosmic joke and an excellent one. Written by the Bonzo Dog Band frontman Neil Innes, for his and Eric Idle’s multimedia Beatles parody The Rutles, “Cheese And Onions” is a devastating send-up of the Beatles’ penchant for trippy, self-indulgent meanderings circa the Sgt. Pepper/Magical Mystery Tour period. When Kramer assembled the bogus “tribute” album Rutles Highway Revisited in 1990, Wareham, Krukowski and Yang were a natural choice to assay this foozle-headed slice of faux-psychedelic ephemera. Galaxie 500 was itself perfectly capable of letting a conceit run on a tad too long, which might account for the band being totally in on the joke here: namely, at just over three minutes, the song still sounds damn near interminable. Check the “A Day In The Life” noise-squall ripoff at the end and try not to crack up. Coming from a trio that stayed fairly serious during its day gig, “Cheese And Onions” offers a welcome giggle.
2. “Open Road” (1987)
The demo tape Galaxie 500 shopped around in 1987, which eventually brought them to producer Kramer, contained a handful of excellent songs that made it onto the band’s eponymous 1996 boxed set in remastered versions. “Open Road,” however, didn’t make that cut, and it’s a criminal omission. A long, dizzy combination of spoken-word performance and stately, starry-eyed jam, “Open Road” is, simply put, a magnificent piece of music. Wareham mumbles over the reserved music through the first section; the band holds back until the 2:30 mark, then brings it in with snapping drums from Krukowski. Yang nails the whole piece to the floor with a deep, droning bass line. The result is like a ghost story told underwater, half-heard and dimly glimpsed, but no less arresting for all of that. Everyone I’ve played this song for comes away impressed, which is saying something for a demo tape recorded more than two decades ago. Maybe it’s a glaring oversight in the band’s officially released catalog, but it sort of makes sense that you have to hunt for “Open Road.” It sounds like the fading aftermath of an early morning dream, when the blue pre-dawn glow makes even the strangest shapes seem somehow soft and comforting.
3. “King Of Spain, Part Two” (1990)
“King Of Spain, Part Two” isn’t, as the title might suggest, a revisiting of the b-side of “Tugboat,” but a different song entirely, and it’s among the most riveting of Galaxie 500’s recordings. As it’s the final song on This Is Our Music, it’s tempting to hear this as the band’s last gasp. But “King Of Spain, Part Two” is a completely self-assured performance, understated but insistent in its languid rhythm, with Wareham’s voice pushing a hole through the slow, fade/rise/fade wash of the music. Krukowski was never more masterful, working intuitive cymbal crescendos and metronomic beats at the same time. As the slow swell in volume begins to push the song toward its majestic close, “King Of Spain, Part Two” rides to a glorious finale, ending with a sustained, ringing held chord. Galaxie 500 often balanced sound and fury in equal measure, but it rarely did so with this much confidence.
4. “Isn’t It A Pity” (1989)
“Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” and “Listen, The Snow Is Falling” became Galaxie 500’s best-known covers, even down to meriting inclusion on the live Copenhagen disc, released after the band’s breakup. But its joyful take on George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” deserves wider notice. It’s a loving tribute, but not a fawning one, and it sums up what a drum-tight trio Galaxie 500 could be when the music demanded it. Wareham, Yang and Krukowski are joined by Kramer on “cheap organ” on this sweet, un-ironic plea for peace and understanding, which is especially poignant when you consider the post-breakup sniping the band went through. Wareham also turns in a two-part solo—the first pass reticent, the second growling—that rates with his best instrumental work for the band.
5. “The Other Side” (1987)
Like “Open Road,” “The Other Side” dates from Galaxie 500’s first demo recordings, and aside from being the best reason to own 1996 compilation Uncollected, the song offers one of Yang’s most remarkable vocals. This might sound odd, but it always seemed to me that Yang was the true “rock star” in Galaxie 500, if by “rock star” we mean the most commanding stage presence. When you saw the band play live, you always got the sense that Yang didn’t even register the crowd. She just stood there and played with consummate cool, seeming totally above everything that was happening, often not moving from a single spot on the stage floor for the entire song. As every lovesick 15-year-old knows, no one’s sexier than a person who seems not to notice you’re around. On “The Other Side,” Yang sings in a fragile, icy voice that seems to emanate from the room described in the song, the one you’re never going to be invited into. That’s what Galaxie 500 did better than all of its contemporaries and most of its descendants: articulating the sadness and the fear that comes from feeling locked out. Even in its earliest recordings, as “The Other Side” illustrates, Galaxie 500 always knew what it was about. A decade and a half later, it’s hard to find meditative pop as compelling as this.