[The Past Presents] Guided By Voices – “Bee Thousand”

Editor’s Note: We’re proud to announce a new feature here on Knox Road, titled “The Past Presents”. Author Jesse Croom will be a regular contributor to KR with this column and a column about cassette culture (coming soon!). Essentially, The Past Presents explores the importance of context. It revisits revered albums from the past 20-25 years to ask the question, “Is this album still a classic, or has it lost its edge over the years?”. Was it a great record for that particular time and place, or is it something we’ll be passing on to our kids? It will also look at the “lost classics” – countless albums that should have earned more attention but for one reason or another fell through the cracks. Enjoy.

Halloween night, 1994 was an ugly scene. I was packed into a club called Tattoos in State College, PA waiting anxiously for Superchunk to take the stage. Butterglory and Guided By Voices opened the show and from the moment Guided By Voices hit the stage I hated them. I knew them only by name, not by reputation. I had yet to hear their new album, Bee Thousand, but the buzz surrounding it was deafening. When they stumbled to the stage all I could see were a bunch of wasted 30-somethings standing in the way of what was sure to be an amazing Superchunk set. As the band launched into their first song, Robert Pollard, dressed in his captains jacket and button-down oxford shirt, started cutting loose with some high kicks and inspired jumps. The set continued and I remember being stunned by the brevity of the songs and by Pollard’s energy on stage. It was about that point that Pollard fell backward over the drum riser, slid off the back of the stage, landing on his back with his legs reaching into the sky. Naturally, he never missed a beat. I was disgusted with their antics, but I was secretly smitten.

Released over 15 years ago, Bee Thousand is still wrapped in hype and surrounded by legend. In short, Bee Thousand is considered a classic. The question now, is Bee Thousand still an important record? Is it still a classic?

In 1994, the year of Bee Thousand’s release, there was a strong punk and indie-rock scene all over the country. People starting bands in the early 90’s grew up with punk rock and were taking the DIY philosophy of punk and applying it to their own music. Guided By Voices had been recording and releasing their own music for years leading up to Bee Thousand and had nearly given up on the band several times. Luckily, they held it together long enough to release their masterpiece. There are not many albums in the last 25 years that “changed things”, but Bee Thousand definitely did.

The album was recorded on the band’s various 4-track recorders so it’s not exactly a beautifully polished studio gem. This is a raw, flawed recording complete with tape hiss and abruptly halted songs. All of the 20 tracks on Bee Thousand are distilled to about two and a half minutes or less and not one is anything less than pop greatness. Some rock hard, others are acoustic and heartfelt. The whole album remains a classic and absolutely essential; however, if you’re looking for stand-out tracks please start with “Awful Bliss”, “I Am A Scientist”, “Hot Freaks”, Echos Myron”, and “Demons Are Real”. “Awful Bliss” showcases the magical elixir that is a true Robert Pollard / Tobin Sprout collaboration; this song is just beautiful. Lyrically, “Hot Freaks” demonstrates some of Pollard’s best word play. Dig in and enjoy. Sixteen years on, this album is just as good as when it was released; time has taken nothing away from these songs.

Once Bee Thousand became a bona fide indie-rock hit, the national scene started to change. The term lo-fi became attached to Guided By Voices homemade, under-produced, DIY sound. Very quickly other bands were tagged as lo-fi and many were quickly seen in a new light. Bands like Sebadoh, the Grifters, East River Pipe, the Mountain Goats and Archers of Loaf garnered a second look from indie-rock fans. This is not to say that lo-fi bands didn’t exist before Guided By Voices or Bee Thousand; Bee Thousand just put the whole genre on the map and helped define its identity. If not for the success of Bee Thousand, many of these bands may not have gained the level of success they saw in the 90’s. Because of Bee Thousand, the lo-fi sound was not only accepted, but popular. New bands popped up everywhere, recording their own music with little regard to how well it might sell or that it might not sound good enough for major label or commercial radio success. The emphasis shifted from the sound of the recording to the quality of the songs and, maybe more importantly, the passion driving the music.

Ultimately, Bee Thousand is a window on the soul of rock. It’s about the joy of getting together with friends, grabbing a guitar, and playing whatever moves you. This album isn’t trying to speak to anyone in particular, there’s no hidden message; it’s a testament to the transcendence of rock. When you listen to Bee Thousand it’s clear that rockin’ out in the basement, creating these songs, was the most important thing to the members of Guided By Voices. Bee Thousand is their passion for rock music exposed as purely as they knew how. Pollard and company didn’t just want to make an album; somewhere inside they needed to create this particular album, and in doing so, they changed indie-rock for decades to come.

1 comment to [The Past Presents] Guided By Voices – “Bee Thousand”

  • Alston David

    I was also at this concert in State College. I drove up from Altoona. Superchunk were dressed up in Halloween costumes (Mac as a baby) and one of them as the Misfits skull guy. Superchunk tore it up.