A long delayed reissue of Wipers’ classic fourth album preserves the continuing legacy of an underground institution
As a Wipers/Greg Sage fan during the 21 years he made records, 1978-1999, I greatly enjoyed reviewing Sage’s Portland, Oregon / Phoenix, Arizona band’s nine studio albums, live LP, and his two solo records for the magazine The Big Takeover (I’ve been editor and publisher since 1980), as well as conducting four interview features with him.
I prefaced each with frustration / bewilderment that he/they remained so utterly overlooked, at least here. In Europe, Sage was hailed as a guitar wizard and creative rock force, a punk Hendrix of sorts—after a while, Wipers (no “the,” same as Buzzcocks, Talking Heads, etc.) restricted their limited touring to that continent, especially in Greece, Holland, and Germany, where they sometimes drew over 1000 people and were better treated by industry professionals. No less authority than the late, great BBC DJ John Peel called the group “perhaps the most unappreciated band of all time.” (As he was so many, many times in his valuable life, the ever-keen Peel was dead right.)
In fact, the dozen Wipers shows I caught during their existence were usually in quarter-to-half-filled small clubs like Hoboken, New Jersey’s tiny Maxwell’s. The only gigs that drew reasonably well were a memorable 1989 blowout at Providence, RI’s Rocket, a 1987 sojourn to CBGB, a big Manhattan 1981 Irving Plaza gig from an era when Wipers briefly relocated to our area, and a return New Music Seminar showcase there with Bush Tetras, Pere Ubu, and Dandy Warhols, July 19, 1996. (At the last of these—which, alas, I believe proved his/their final concert—a livid Sage stormed off after a handful of songs, having been furnished a totally-wrong-for-his sound Marshall amp, against his careful specifications/requirements for flying out! Perhaps it was a last straw for the proud musician.) After each such show, and with each new release, it seemed inconceivable that a trio this consistently great and prolific, and sometimes mind-blowing, could garner so little attention/respect/support. In fact, the best Wipers concert I witnessed, a stunning tour-de-force at New Haven, Connecticut’s little Grotto, was in front of 10 listless people; at another Connecticut show, at Norwalk’s beloved Anthrax, the band declined to play, as only four of us had turned up. (Thought I, “50 miles of train travel/fare for nothing!”)
A big part of the reason for such unyielding, unremitting under-appreciation was undoubtedly what made Sage’s small-cult fans revere him so: his staunchly individualistic, steadfast substance-over-style approach meant that he patently, reflexively refused to fit with any trend, label, tag, or movement that might’ve aided his/their visibility, down to the nondescript clothes Wipers wore in the flamboyant punk era—donning flannels when others looked like the more vivid Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, or Weirdos. Concurrently, having conceived of Wipers as a recording project in 1977 —they’d never even done a gig when they released 1978’s hard-hitting debut 7” single, “Better Off Dead”—the band toured grudgingly/sparingly and did interviews only at the behest of labels as required promotional devices, considering both to be compromises made to secure distribution, while drawing the line at not making videos during the MTV era. (Big fan Gus Van Zant offered to direct a video, which Sage did consent to, but the director proved too busy.) Funny, their gigs were amazing, and my interviews with Sage thoughtfully fascinating; a perfectionist to his core, he put all he had into whatever he did, as grumpy as he sometimes seemed doing—to his mind—unrelated tasks.
VIDEO: Kurt Cobain jamming on “Alien Boy” by The Wipers at a 1992 Nirvana soundcheck in Seattle
Ergo, to the extent that Sage was famous at all, then, it was for such stark refusal to play the game—any game—while being so great. It was music first, anything else a distant last, and it must be said he walked that walk, too. Every Wipers history must repeat the true story that on their own volition, superfans Nirvana tried to boost Sage’s profile, hailing him as their spiritual godfather in 1991—as a kid, Kurt Cobain had traveled to Portland for Wipers shows. Indeed, after that year’s blockbuster, industry-changing Nevermind, Cobain’s Seattle trio recorded and released multiple Wipers covers—his wife’s band, Hole, added another, on a Sage tribute LP that Cobain organized and financed—and Nirvana’s original label Sub Pop reissued Wipers’ classic 1980 first LP, Is This Real?.
Yet Sage famously, politely turned down Cobain’s offer to open the entire Nevermind tour. Expressing respect for his younger fan, he consented to support just one L.A. concert. Then Wipers’ following album, 1993’s Silver Sail, was Sage’s quietest, moodiest, and most reflective outside of his two solo LPs, an intentional antitheses of the grunge-punk hysteria he’d helped unleash. (He’d even scrapped a different album in progress more like his past!)
Thus, he methodically tamped down any secondhand, significant uptick in mass-scale interest that Cobain’s heartfelt homages offered; Sage wouldn’t do anything artistically on other’s terms. (It’s conjecture to wonder if Cobain, too, would have lived more than two more years had he done likewise. Before his suicide, he’d contacted Sage about producing a blues covers album, doing old Lead Belly songs etc. in Sage’s Phoenix studio. And Cobain seemed to truly loathe the fame that came with his unexpected success. Whereas 24 years on, Sage is still involved recording musicians there and tending/remastering his back catalog, while condemning the way the star-making machinery chewed up its accidental, unhappy cash-cow.)
A weird and regrettable quirk of human nature, though, is that we often don’t appreciate something until we lose it. And having refused to release anything for an astounding 16 years, despite owning that studio and not lacking for material—Sage despises the digital recording era, having built his own analog recording gear and instruments—the man’s status has finally grown into something approaching living legend; albeit a still cloistered, mysterious one, as that’s the sort of tag he bristles at. The list of known entities, young and old, citing him as inspiration never ceases.
Lately, he’s been all but beatified by Cloud Nothings’ young Dylan Baldi and Vivian Girls, while Rocket From the Crypt, Mission of Burma, Vivian Girls, J. Mascis, Ryan Adams, Meat Wave, Melvins, Poison Idea, and Thurston Moore have happily covered his songs. One good Brooklyn band even named their LP after an obscure Wipers’ b-side: Heaven’s “Telepathic Love” (the same barely known tune Vivian Girls covered).
AUDIO: Vivian Girls covering “Telepathic Love” by The Wipers
Which brings us to the band’s latest reissue in a methodical low-key series of them, of the band’s typically incredible fourth LP, 1986’s Land of the Lost. Ever the analog stickler, it’s not only vinyl only, but it’s limited edition colored vinyl via the Record Store label Sage trusts, Jackpot Records, in his former base of Portland.
The album itself, however obtained, is sure worth total immersion. Coming on the heels of a raucous 1984 live album released to raise funds, and Sage’s 1985 solo LP, Straight Ahead (also reissued four years ago, with liner notes composed by this writer), the singer / songwriter / producer / engineer / guitarist / iconoclast emerged from the debacle of Brain Eater’s bankruptcy, the label that had folded without paying after releasing Wipers’ 1983 third LP, Over the Edge. (Likewise, the first two albums were in legal limbo with their previous label, Park Avenue.) But Sage’s new deal with Restless would prove stable for six years and five albums. And LotL also introduced a new drummer, Steve Plouf, who remained by Sage’s side the final 13 years, the last 10 as the only other member, while Sage manned the bass himself.
And what a corker it is! While hardly diverging from the guitar-centric, catchy, roaring style from the straightforward Is This Real?, 1981’s immortal, more esoteric (even background piano-inflected), all-time classic, Youth of America, or the similarly monumental Over the Edge, Sage’s guitar sound is more directly crisp, more charging and sharp-edged like Is the Real?—even while retaining the doomsday chords of the other two LPs, like on LotL’s opening “Just a Dream Away.” And Plouf and returning bassist Brad Davidson keep the supple rhythms steady, in groove with Sage’s pyrotechnics.
For the purposes of this piece, it’s interesting to go back and read what I wrote three decades ago, before adding some quotes I got from him back then in our interviews to give his perspective as well. Covering LotL in issue 20 of The Big Takeover and Rockpool in real time, I reveled in Wipers’ return, doling out unsparing praise that if anything still doesn’t cover Sage’s immortal guitar-centric brilliance: “Holy smokes, it’s great to have this Portland, OR trio back, with this big-hitting new fourth LP, their first to win strong distribution. This is the most patient of the endlessly patient Wipers’ LPs—maybe that’s the biggest change three years has wrought. It’s interesting that they didn’t do studio versions of the three new songs on last year’s live LP, Wipers, or any cuts from last year’s Sage solo LP; this is nine new songs. Some of them are the most beautiful Wipers ever, especially ‘Just Say,’ the closing number, which is unusually heart tugging for a bopping guitar band. ‘Nothing Left To Lose’ and ‘Just a Dream Away’ are the immediate killers, jarring songs that take that Wipers’ hypnotism to its full head of steam in the same way that the title tracks ‘Youth of America’ and ‘Over the Edge’ had in such mouth-opening fashion. They’re still a mind-bending Sage guitar band; the drums and bass remain simple as Sage layers rows of ingenious feedback and leads on top, before adding his unique alienation lyrics. Sage has always sounded like a far away voice in your head, faintly reminding you of the importance of your own individualism. Listening to Wipers reminds that all people are intensely alone; all life is fraught with this pain of endless separation, and that subsequent lack of lasting, eternal meaning. Land of the Lost is another Wipers LP that makes that struggle just a little less weighty. And it’s a kick ass, incredible album besides, even just for the rock ‘n’ roll!”
Today I would add that the band and this rocketing LP still sound unlike any other group. And I’ve since become especially mesmerized by “Nothing Left to Lose,” which my late band Last Burning Embers covered on our only album, 2002’s Lessons in Redemption, having closed all our shows with it. Whether playing it on drums, or digging Sage’s masterful recording, its combination of pulsing, rip-roaring riffs, more ethereal, chilling undercurrents—a constant, stealthy Sage element that I find in few other bands/songs, a la Joy Division, The Sound, 1980-1981 The Cure, The Chills’ “Pink Frost,” or House of Love’s “Shine On”—or building, desperate dynamics, and back-against-the-wall defiance remain staggering. And as with Youth of America and Over the Edge, the variety of moods encapsulated by “Nothing Left to Lose” alone, or the creepy-dreamy beauty of “Different Ways” (this album’s “No One Loves An Alien”) show the dexterity, again, of an artist eliciting waves of complexity and nuance in direct formats. In fact, having been “post-punk” in 1977 before that classification existed, for two decades-plus Sage explored atmospheres in otherwise aggressive rock ’n’ roll, while capturing the moods of his times.
And to not bother the ever-reticent Sage yet still wanting him to speak for himself, it is perhaps best to repeat what he said in my interviews with him 35 years ago in response to my queries about this album. In particular, Sage typically deflected my “punk Hendrix” notions. “You can draw comparisons to anything you want I suppose,’” he demurred. “But if I’m like Hendrix at all, it’s because I play with a lot of force and compassion. A lot of vision. We all know Hendrix did—he was the master.”
And his fervent devotion to recording was evident, too. “My goal was to make 15 albums in 10 years,” he reminded. “I do get some enjoyment [out of live performance] at certain times, but it’s not the motivation of why I got into music. A lot of people I respect got into music because they wanted to be out there doing it. I never did. I totally got inspired by the grooves in a record; and the sound that came out of it; and the depth of it; and the science of it—the magic of it. That was 100% of my inspiration. So I feel like a fish out of water elsewhere.”
Finally, among the unusual fans knocked out by LotL, was actor Dennis Hopper, as its “Let Me Know” was included on the soundtrack (alongside Agent Orange, Hank Ballard, Burning Spear, and a bunch of Slayer tunes!) for the popular 1986 Tim Hunter movie, River’s Edge, starring Hopper, Crispin Glover, and Keanu Reeves. Even the hard-to-excite, candid Sage came away convinced. “The movie is fantastic, one of the best movies to come out in a long time,” he insisted. “Not because of us. I was really impressed.” And by way of confirmation, he confirmed, “Dennis Hopper [himself] decided to use ‘Let Me Know.’”
At least some people got it! And with reissues like this, there’s no reason why all can’t get it now. Land of the Lost was more Wipers artistry for the love of pure musical expression, from that thumping “Just a Dream Away” start to that unusually elegiac, yearning “Just Say” finish. It stands, still, as another great work of a visionary virtuoso and his inspired, stubborn group, another product of music made as a treasured art form that burns hot at the same time. It’s the diametrical opposite of disposable pop—an album that still yields pathos and delight in equal measure for hundreds of plays, while you dance to it, too. It’s another knockout treasure from an actual genius when that word is otherwise overused. And it’s past time that more were let in on the secret. Better late than never.
VIDEO: Wipers perform “When It’s Over” from Is This Real? in Munich, Germany on the Land of the Lost Tour 1986