Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime

Credit is given where credit is due regarding the overlooked gems of my lifetime.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Big Dipper, Heavens

NOTE: Since this was posted, almost the entire Big Dipper catalog has been reissued in one box set by Merge. It's highly recommended!

Frequently, the hardest thing to do when detailing the Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime is trying to articulate why I love or appreciate something small so deeply. I can tear apart things big and small that I don't like in my sleep, but the challenge of maintaining this blog is trying to share positive feelings about things that may never have made a blip on your radar. Let's see how this one goes.

Big Dipper's first full-length album, Heavens, hit the spot for me from the first time I spun it. I liked their debut ep just fine, but it didn't resonate in my soul the way my favorite records do. There's a chance you've never heard of this band, and it's probable that if you know anything about Big Dipper you know more about their musical bloodlines: Volcano Suns, Dumptruck, The Embarrassment... The less said about Volcano Suns the better. As I've stated, it's really important that I keep things on the up and up here, but I will give their sound, at its relative best, some credit for the lurching, throbbing quality of many of Big Dipper's finest song. Dumptruck was a fine, if sometimes stiff (on record), brainy pop band. The Embarrassment, who are well-documented in the hipster underground, was a blast, and the fact that their guitarist Bill Goffrier ended up as one of the frontment of Big Dipper is the genesis of this entry.

I stumbled into seeing The Embarrassment open for PiL in Chicago in 1981 or so, and although they were completely inappropriate for the bill, they were tremendous and transcended what could have been a turned off, snot-nosed crowd that had come to see John Lydon and Keith Levine wave their middle fingers at Rock 'n Roll. The Embarrassment were full of enery, smarts, and good humor. These were important qualities that Big Dipper would exploit.

Heavens came out of the gates strong, with an eerie painting on the cover (courtesy of present-day professional artist Goffrier), the easy-to-swallow "She's Fetching", and the skiffle-pop of "Man o' War". As is so often the case with the best songs of Big Dipper, I read reviews and follow recommendations of other bands, check out their music, and come away thinking "No, based on what I was told, Big Dipper's [insert title] is what this band was supposed to sound like!" For instance, I saw Yo La Tengo after hearing great raves about their first album, back in the days when they had a second guitarist/banjo player. They were fine, but this Big Dipper song is what early Yo La Tengo was supposed to have sounded like. My apologies if I've completely lost you on this concept, but my thanks if you stick with me.

The fun, the energy, and the charmingly eery feeling from the album cover do not stop thereafter. Their sound contains elements of jangle-pop, Boston underground post-punk, and more. Goffrier and second singer-guitarist Gary Waleik, the crucial Steve Diggle to Goffrier's Pete Shelly, supplied expressive, melodic voices that few (if any?) of their Boston underground brethern could match. Side 1 (ah, the power of actual album sides - there's a future Overlooked Gem) ends with a relatively long, pulsating song called "Lunar Module". Crank it up when you finish reading this entry, track down a copy of this album, and find it waiting in your mailbox. Imagine if XTC's Andy Partridge, following the release of Black Sea, had the 4 x 4 surgically removed from his butt and took his mates back to the studio for a loose, rocking set of brainy, repressed pop.

Side 2 opens with the band's most-accessible song, "All Going Out Together". Children of the '80s will hum the decent and similarly-themed "I'll Stop the World and Melt with You" for eternity, but I'll take this ditty to the grave. Again, I'm completely satisfied as this album side plays out. And yes, I'm still spinning my old vinyl copy. Seemingly, this album has yet to be reissued on CD. I hope I'm wrong (I often am). Come on, already! If you're reading this and you own the rights to this album, please contact me. I know a label that would be interested in bringing this album to light.

I saw the band as often as I could in their heyday. This was during a period in my life when, like Mikey, I didn't like much of anything. After shows, I'd make sure to go up to as many of the band members as possible and tell them how great I thought they were, etc. Waleik, in particular, was aces! A few years ago, when I realized he was the producer credited at the end of the extremely tasty public radio sports show It's Only a Game, I wrote him a fanboy e-mail in that same appreciative tone, and he at least pretended to remember me. Aces, I tell you.

They shoulda been contenders. I know, they didn't have a pretty boy with pouty lips and a vacant drug-induced gaze up front, but Big Dipper, circa Heavens, had the goods. The band would actually move up to bigger labels, but the nooks and crannies of Heavens were increasingly smoothed over by the production of their final albums.

Last year, Tom Scharpling, host of my favorite radio show, The Best Show on WFMU, spent a number of episodes trying to organize a Big Dipper reunion show. I followed this news religiously, or so I thought (perhaps I wasn't as strong in my faith as I thought I was, which shouldn't surprise me), but then the story seemed to fizzle out. I don't know if the show happened or not, but it was fun thinking about it.


  • At 11:46 AM, Blogger japanesegodjesusrobot said…

    I just checked Amazon and while it's not available (even used for a high price), they do list a CD version that was released in 1987 by Homestead that has both "Heavens" as well as the ep "Boo-Boo" (17 tracks in all). If I come across this album, I'll let you know. I hope that helps.

  • At 12:30 PM, Blogger frankenslade said…

    Yeah, I saw that too. I'm also going to keep my eyes open for that one. Thanks.

  • At 10:09 AM, Blogger eric+martha said…

    huge Big Dipper fan here. they played Providence RI all the time at the Rocket. truely great live shows. This is a great album and they were overlooked.

  • At 12:23 PM, Blogger Jack Mehoff said…

    Hey. The big dipper CD is on iTunes. Just search them up there and you should get them. I searched up All Going Out Together by Big Dipper and the CD came up if you can't find them.

  • At 12:23 PM, Blogger Jack Mehoff said…

    Oh and I don't like Richard Nixon

  • At 12:34 PM, Blogger frankenslade said…

    Thanks for pointing out that important update, Jack. (You're friends with Phillip McCracken, right?) When this was posted, the album was completely out of print. Since then, Merge reissued almost all the Big Dipper stuff in one box set. I highly recommend it!


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