Looking back on the first final album of a band that will never give up
Hollywood couldn’t have created a better origin story.
In 1991, after half a decade of recording and self-releasing albums nobody heard, a struggling musician comes to accept that his musical career will never materialize. He realizes his hobby is losing him money and causing friction within his family, and so he decides to give it up. After all, he had a wife, two kids, a mortgage and a steady career as a middle school teacher to consider.
So he caved in to the pressure of adulthood. The schoolteacher decided that instead of simply giving up, he would record and release one final album, a grand farewell statement to show the world at large just what they would be losing.
As a grand gesture of defiance, the album would ironically be titled Propeller, based on the sadly cynical belief that this final album—one that realistically the band never expected anyone to hear—would be the album that would propel them to the top.
The rock and roll fates that had kept this brilliant musician in obscurity for the past decade must have loved the schoolteacher’s display of hubris, because to everyone’s surprise, that’s exactly what happened.
Propeller was to be the last stand of Robert Pollard’s disappointing musical career, one last blowout by him and his band, Guided By Voices. Over the course of a few months, Pollard would put together the best of the best songs and recordings he had. These were recorded in various ways; some were studio tracks, some were four-track recordings, and some were written and recorded on the spot. A hodgepodge of settings, yes—but Pollard had become expert at compiling records of various sonic quality and making them sound cohesive.
The album’s artwork also adds to the mystique of the original release. Pollard and friend Pete Jamison (aka “Manager For Life”) had invested thousands of dollars on the band’s previous releases courtesy of an ongoing bank loan that they kept extending over the years. Knowing this was to be the final release, they wanted to keep costs down, so they decided to not print up album art. The 500 copies they received came in blank covers, so Pollard and friends decided to create unique artwork for each one. Each album had its own vibe, the most notorious of which being an album that simply has an empty six pack case of Natural Light glued to the front of it. These handmade creations can now easily fetch five figures.
You can view a gallery of all known copies here: Propeller Cover Database.
Considering Guided By Voices’ vast and seemingly endless albums discography, Propeller might possibly be the band’s best sequenced album. Hell, if you don’t agree with that assessment, would you deny that side one is one of the band’s best? Because it is absolutely killer.
The album starts off with “Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox,” a powerful and epic five and half minute call to action. The immediate yell of “ANYBODY READY TO ROCK” and Pollard’s “This song does not rock” comeback is classic, while the chant of “G-B-V!!!” would quickly become de rigor at the band’s live shows. It’s to Pollard’s credit that he faked the live show feel of the introduction, as this setting gives the immortal line “the band is about to get started, so throw the switch, it’s rock and roll time” a truly ironic feel. The upbeat rocker quickly dissolves into a slow tempo that simply begs for the audience to hold up a light Zippo. The overture would lead you to think this is a band that’s been playing live for 20 years and knew how to stir up an audience; in actuality, GBV had only played a handful of shows in its existence.
“Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” melts into “Weedking,” a brooding number that feels more ominous than it is, and it too has become a live staple. We get the first taste of the lo-fi noise Pollard would become known for with “Particular Damage,” which is inaudible noise that somehow sounds absolutely perfect in its setting. Try not to sing along to it; we know you can’t resist.
Then comes a one-two-three punch of songs that are generally considered three of Pollard’s best. First up is “Quality of Armor,” an out-and-out singalong rocker that was once used in a car commercial. It’s followed by “Metal Mothers,” a song about a wannabe rock star. Is it autobiographical? Does Pollard want to be the guy who finds time to get laid and finds ways to get paid? Such speculation is best left to the reader’s discretion and interpretation. Side One concludes with “Lethargy,” a dense post-punk number that recalls Wire and has the immortal line, “I wish I could give a shit, just a little bit.”
Side Two might not be quite as tight as the first half, but it’s no slouch, either. It also contains a handful of classic GBV numbers. It kicks off with the Cure-like guitar lick of “Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy.” Other highlights consist of rocker “Exit Flagger,” the introspective “On The Tundra,” and the melancholic “Red Gas Cycle.” But the second side’s true highlight has to be “14 Cheerleader Coldfront,” the only true collaboration between Pollard and Tobin Sprout. This ballad recalls early Velvet Underground and offers one of Pollard’s most tender performances.
Propeller would be the catalyst for greater interest. Soon after its release, it wound up in the hands of Robert Griffin, owner of Scat Records. He fell in love with the album and contacted Pollard about possibly releasing a seven-inch single. Pollard informed him that no, the band was over, and Propeller was their last release. But he soon realized that for the first time in his secret music career, an outside party was interested in him and his band.
And so Pollard changed his mind, and that phone call begat the excellent Grand Hour EP, which soon begat the utterly confusing and challenging Vampire On Titus, which soon begat the band’s first major masterpiece, Bee Thousand, which soon led the world to come to know and love the wonderfully brilliant and insanely prolific band known as Guided By Voices….
AUDIO: Guided By Voices Propeller (full album)