Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Douglas Martin.
Dum Dum Girls covered them. At the height of their popularity, The Shins titled a noisy 56-second song after Pam Berry. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart should have to have their Slumberland paychecks garnished and paid back to the band they bit their whole style from. For a certain stripe of noise-pop fan, Black Tambourine is a band that doesn’t need any introduction, which is why it’s so important for everyone else to have one.
I. For Ex-Lovers Only: A Brief History
In the time Black Tambourine was an active band, they only recorded about ten songs. In the twenty years between when the quartet first broke up and their highly feted recent reunion show, they recorded eight more — six of them were covers. Which means, for as long as a good number of us have been alive, they’ve offered us exactly five minutes of original music. Yet, over the past four or five years, they’ve become more influential than ever. For the decade-and-a-half before it, however, they were the cult heroes of kids who unironically wore cat sweaters and thought Ecstasy and Wine was better than Loveless, and not much more to anybody else.
Like most bands, this could have been attributed to a number of things: Location. Timing. The fact that most people don’t know what’s good for them. Black Tambourine formed in Silver Spring, MD, smack dab in the shadow of the White House and the D.C. hardcore scene that grew underneath. (Which, as you could imagine, was far too insular to include a sugary, fizzy indie-pop band, regardless of how loud they were.)
By the time they pressed their debut seven-inch, they all had pretty much focused on the bands they were with before Black Tambourine (Velocity Girl and The Lilys went on to experience the modest success that eluded them prior) and, eventually, other locales (guitarist and Slumberland Records owner Mike Schulman moved to California, singer Pam Berry to London). They released singles throughout 1991 and ‘92, and a collection of all their recorded material in 1999. Still, that wasn’t enough to generate influence outside of the “popkids” who (quite reasonably) feel that Calvin Johnson’s face should be printed on all American currency.
If you’re tired about hearing how the Internet changed everything, you might want to skip this paragraph. [Douglas Martin drinks a glass of water and waits for disinterested parties to scroll down.] But then, the Internet changed everything. A few years ago, a new crop of bands started materializing across the country, and with their invigorating blend of noise and melody (and reverb), started to pique the interests of a music population growing tired of what I like to refer to as “The Sufjanification of Indie-Rock.”
With their distortion pedals came a bevy of influences both well-known (the Jesus and Mary Chain) and relatively obscure. Crystal Stilts cited Black Tambourine as a direct influence, Frankie Rose name-dropped them frequently before her acrimonious departure from noise-pop queens Vivian Girls. More bands gushed about them, more bands flocked to the label at least partially responsible for them. Suddenly, Black Tambourine entered the noise-pop pantheon, and their post-mortem stasis turned into a rapturous reception. The good (and sometimes bad) thing about living in the Internet Age is the bevy of information at your fingertips. If the internet existed in Black Tambourine’s heyday, it wouldn’t have taken them nearly as long to get the attention they deserve.
II. Pam’s Tan: A Bluffer’s Guide
It’s hard to resist the urge to write about every song Black Tambourine has ever released, because 1) there are so goddamn few of them, and 2) they’re all worthy of discussion. As with most things involving art, it’s probably best to start with the most popular piece. For anybody under the misguided notion that indie-pop is too cutesy and friendly-sounding, “Throw Aggi Off the Bridge” throws a wrench into that theory. In equal measure a love letter, revenge fantasy, and indie-pop in-joke, the song finds Berry pining for twee heartthrob Stephen Pastel and imploring him to push then-girlfriend/bandmate Aggi Wright from a steep altitude so she and Pastel could be together. The best indie-pop/twee/whatever you want to call it has a sense of youthful irreverence to form that most people overlook in favor of the pleasant, amateurish demeanor. “Throw Aggi Off the Bridge” is darkly hilarious above all things, and you don’t have to own Up For a Bit With the Pastels in order to realize it’s an incredibly well-written song.
Though the other songs Black Tambourine recorded lacked the same conceptual brilliance, their songs– mostly about what 98% of all pop songs are about: love– still approached the concept of saccharine guitar pop with a punk-like sense of destruction. Every song is overtaken by a wall of squalling, violent, oscillating noise while still retaining its sugary core. Woozy feedback cuts into the sock hop songwriting of “Drown,” while “Black Car” deconstructs singer/songwriter fare of the 70’s and rebuilds it into something gloriously blown-out, but no less emotionally pure. “Pack You Up” is darker and more muscular, and the buildup of tension on “By Tomorrow” is only outmatched by its cathartic release during the end quota. As art-damaged as it is cavity-inviting, you’d be hard-pressed to find a band– from their era or any– that melds the two together in a more satisfying way.
When they released a second anthology in 2010 (their first, Complete Recordings had been long out-of-print), they celebrated the occasion by including two songs written but heretofore never released by the band and two stellar covers. There’s not much to say about “Lazy Heart” and “Tears of Joy” other than they’re expectedly great. The covers are different story.
Both are given the classic Black Tambourine treatment, as recording covers aren’t really worth a damn unless the artist reinvents them to fit their aesthetic. Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat” works because the original (minus all the noise, of course) possesses the kind of songwriting and style Black Tambourine took cues from in the first place. And while Springsteen is the most famous artist who has covered Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” Black Tambourine turned in the best version of the song. And trust me, you have to have a shitload of chutzpah to outmatch Springsteen in anything.
Upon the announcement that Black Tambourine were finally reuniting to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of Berry’s wildly influential Chickfactor zine, they also publicized their plans of making a Ramones covers EP. (Which should be right up everyone’s alley, as we already know there’s nothing wrong with the Ramones.) Featuring a bevy of guests– including but not limited to Dum Dum Girls principal Dee Dee (because why wouldn’t someone named Dee Dee sing on a Ramones cover?) and twee icon Rose Melberg– this collection has a lushness to it, unlike the comparatively straightforward tunes that bookended the self-titled anthology. It’s refreshing to hear four-part harmonies on “What’s Your Game” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” as the Ramones themselves were essentially a girl-group consisting of scraggly dudes wearing shitty-looking clothes.
For a band whose gestation period is about twentyfold the time they spent playing music together, Black Tambourine are rightfully anointed as legends by a pretty small and very specific group of people. Everything points to why they should have been another great band time forgot: They don’t have the avant-garde bona fides of Sonic Youth, nor the punk pathos of Fugazi. They never received a Kurt Cobain Stamp of Approval, which is easily the most valuable form of currency any underground band from the late-80’s and early-90’s could have had. They were just four nice kids who made nice music underscored by confrontational noise. It’s proof that sometimes, the cream really does rise to the top eventually. Even if it takes two decades.
MP3: Black Tambourine – “Black Car”