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Off the Beaten Tracks: Maniacs on the loose

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I OFTEN wonder how many listeners were put off the music of the band 10,000 Maniacs by their name. Borrowed from a low-budget 1964 horror movie, Two Thousand Maniacs!, it conjures up images of bloodthirsty hordes rampaging through the streets and expectations of a bunch of punks churning out an aggressive and cacophonous wall of noise.

In fact, the Maniacs were a most thoughtful, tuneful and literate combo and I liked them a lot.

Their story begins in Jamestown, New York, in 1980, when bassist Steven Gustafson and keyboards player Dennis Drew were acting as college radio DJs and a 17-year-old health-store worker named Natalie Merchant wandered in with a pile of LPs she wanted them to play. They invited her to sing with their band Still Life, also including guitarists Robert Buck and John Lombardo, with a repertoire comprising mainly Joy Division and Gang of Four covers. A number of drummers came and went.

For a brief period the group changed their name to Burn Victims but had adopted the Maniacs moniker by the time of their first public performance in September 1981. Little further work was forthcoming so they moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where a friend had assured them there would be plenty of gigs. This proved not to be the case and members were forced to sell their blood and do odd jobs such as raking leaves to keep the wolf from the door. Nevertheless they managed to form a friendship with the local band REM and record a reggae-infested EP, Human Conflict Number Five, whose five original tracks included an adaptation of the Wilfred Owen poem Anthem for Doomed Youth. Released on the Christian Burial label, sales went six feet under.

Returning to Jamestown, they found a permanent drummer in Jerry Augustyniak and recorded their first full-length album, Secrets of the I-Ching, for the same label between March and July 1983. This went down well with the rock press and the Maniacs’ cause was picked up in England by John Peel. One track, My Mother The War, enjoyed modest success in the British indie charts and the band played a number of dates in the UK where Natalie’s flamboyant and precocious stagecraft divided opinion. Here they are performing on the Channel 4 programme The Tube

In late 1984 they were signed by the Elektra label and the following spring recorded an album in London with Nick Drake’s former mentor Joe Boyd as producer. The Wishing Chair was inspired by four Enid Blyton books about a boy named Peter and his sister Mollie who find that a chair, which they bought for their mother as a birthday present, can fly and grant wishes. During their adventures they rescue an endangered pixie named Binky and help Santa Claus deliver Christmas presents. I hoped this was the beginning of a Blyton-linked series of album titles such as The Magic Faraway Tree, Five on a Treasure Island, The Naughtiest Girl in the School, Mr Galliano’s Circus and Noddy Gets Into Trouble. No such luck, sadly.

The Wishing Chair begins with Can’t Ignore The Train and establishes the Maniacs’ basic appeal of Merchant’s lilting vocals set against Buck’s jangly guitar. He sounds quite like Johnny Marr on the second track, Scorpio Rising. (This is the running order on the CD release, not the vinyl original).

Next comes a real beauty, the traditional English folk song Just As The Tide Was Flowing

I first became aware of this on the classic 1971 album No Roses, by Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band. There are several other versions, including this by Eliza Carthy, but I think the Maniacs’ wins by a nose.

Further highlights include Back O’ The Moon and Everyone a Puzzle Lover. 

Grey Victory and My Mother The War are among four songs recycled from earlier releases.

So, a highly promising major-label debut. It did not sell well but was a hit with the critics and was the first in a series of four consecutive excellent studio albums. Up to this point the band’s songwriting hub had been Merchant and Lombardo but in 1986 the latter left in a huff citing ‘creative and political differences’. He formed a duo, John and Mary, with the classically trained singer and violinist Mary Ramsey.

Under major pressure to come up with a hit album, Merchant started writing songs with Buck and the result was the triumphant 1987 LP In My Tribe, produced by Peter Asher, formerly of the British pop duo Peter and Gordon. Side one is solid gold from start to finish. The openerWhat’s The Matter Here?, deals with a subject seldom addressed in the rock canon, namely child abuse. Hey Jack Kerouac is another Buck/Merchant winner while the lovely Like The Weather was written by Natalie alone.

Cherry Tree manages to make a thing of beauty out of another unpromising topic – dyslexia. ‘All those lines and circles, to me a mystery. Eve pull down the apple and give a taste to me.’

The Painted Desert and Don’t Talk maintain the top-notch quality and then comes a cover of the Cat Stevens song Peace Train

This would be removed from American editions of the album after Stevens, by now a Muslim convert known as Yusuf Islam, was reported to have endorsed the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

Next comes Gun Shy   and then the only mediocre song on the record, the rather twee My Sister RoseA Campfire Song and City of Angels roll along nicely before everything slows down for the last track, Verdi Cries.   Written by Merchant, it describes how she stayed in her younger days at a seaside hotel where the man in Room 119 constantly played opera recordings. ‘With just three days more I’d have just about learned the entire score. To Aida’. This song was covered by the British folk diva June Tabor on her classic 1988 album Aqaba.

In My Tribe sold fairly healthily in the UK but across the pond it was a major success, staying in the charts for 77 weeks and eventually going double platinum.

Peter Asher remained at the production helm for 1989’s Blind Man’s Zoo, a pessimistic collection which the ever-more-opinionated Merchant would later say was about various forms of betrayal. The opening song, Eat For Two, is about the mental struggles of a teenage girl who is five months pregnant. Please Forgive Us is apparently about US interventions in Central America, in particular the Iran-Contra affair.   

The Big Parade concerns a Vietnam War veteran while Trouble Me is a tribute to Natalie’s father, who was in hospital at the time. She describes this as the most uplifting song on the album. Which isn’t saying a lot.

You Happy Puppet is a fairly comprehensive putdown of a conformist while Headstrong is a rockier variant of the classic jangly Maniacs repertoire. On to side two, and the anti-pollution anthem Poison in the Well followed by Dust Bowl, about the plight of the working class, The Lion’s Share, concerning financial inequality, Hateful Hate, about, er, hatred and imperialism, and Jubilee, about a racist fanatic’s attack on a church. Reviewers described the two final tracks as a ‘major downer’ and I’m forced to agree.

While there is a strong note of naïve political lecturing about the lyrics on Blind Man’s Zoo, it is musically almost on a par with its predecessors and well worth repeated listening. Try to ignore the words and let the sound waft over you. And stop after track nine.

In 1990 came Hope Chest, a compilation of early recordings, then in 1992 Our Time in Eden, which opens with a beautiful piano motif on Noah’s Dove. Of course Merchant retains her bulging social conscience on this record but it is somehow mellower and less strident than Blind Man’s Zoo. And the lass is singing better than ever. These Are Days is gentle and wistful, as is Eden, with Dennis Drew’s keyboard work again greatly in evidence.

Few and Far Betweenalas, features an R & B horn section which for me is a ghastly mistake with its echoes of the worst of manufactured sixties pop. Normal service is resumed, however, with Stockton Gala Days, an elegiac celebration of summer and, as far as I can tell, no relation to the grim Teesside town. Interestingly, it features on violin and viola the aforementioned Mary Ramsey, as does How You’ve Grown

Candy Everybody Wants is a catchy number blighted by the return of the dreaded brass section. I can’t imagine Peter Asher allowing this sort of incursion – he is replaced here as producer by one Paul Fox, whose CV included records by the Pointer Sisters and the Commodores, among others. Tolerance is another song suffering from too much going on but Circle Dream brings us back to the simple, wistful Maniacs sound we know and love. If I’m not mistaken there’s a bassoon in the mix on the final track, I’m Not the Man, and very nice it is too.

In 1993 the band joined a long list of acts performing acoustically for the series MTV Unplugged. The resulting album includes tasteful versions of fans’ favourites plus a cover version of the Bruce Springsteen/Patti Smith song Because the Night which was released as a single and went to No 11 in the US – two places higher than Smith’s original – and the Maniacs’ biggest-ever hit. The Unplugged album was similarly their most successful, going triple platinum.

By this time, however, the feisty Ms Merchant had handed in her notice, announcing that she ‘didn’t want art by committee any more’. She went on to launch a solo career but I stopped listening after her first two albums, Tigerlily and Ophelia, which I found lacked the spark provided by her former bandmates.

As for the remaining Maniacs, they invited John to return and Mary to join as Natalie’s replacement on vocals. The band are together even now, but in my view can never come near the peaks scaled by the brilliant In My Tribe, which would win my vote as the best album of the 1980s. According to Dennis Drew, it was the record that saved the group from going under. ‘If it hadn’t been successful there would never have been another album,’ he told Rolling Stone magazine. ‘It gave us a great chance to really coalesce as a band. At that point we had to save our career and make a good record. We buckled up, tightened our belt, and did it.’

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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