Back in the lo-fi bliss of mid-1980s, the Columbus, Ohio band Great Plains wrote a song called "Letter to a Fanzine." It was a brilliantly Janus-faced take on indie rock's navel gazing, neatly encompassing satire and self-satisfaction. ("Isn't my haircut really intense / Isn't Nick Cave a genius in a sense?") Rock critics of that era rejoiced in Ron House's nasal sneer and the garage-band swirl of organ and guitar laid down by brothers Mark and Matt Wyatt. The question at the center of "Fanzine" -- "Why do punk rock guys go out with new wave girls?" -- remains the band's most-cited bon mot.
But like any novelty tune, "Fanzine" was a dead end. The ultimate joke-as-epitaph. Great Plains' three records on Homestead went out of print, seemingly buried along with the other trendy labels (4AD, SST) the song name-checks. House's next band, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, found greater success than the Plains ever glimpsed. They copped a major label record with 1995's Bait and Switch (American).
Thus were Great Plains pegged as court jesters to a long-entombed scene. In some ways, this tag was strangely self-perpetuating. A two-disc compilation released in 2000 on Old 3C Records, Length of Growth, kicks off with an intro from novelty rock king Dr. Demento. A subsequent odds'n'sods collection, 2003's Cornflakes (also Old 3C), includes House and the band bulldozing through borderline psychotic cover versions of "This Magic Moment" and "Call On Me."
But despite their attempts to hide it (past and present), Great Plains were no joke. A newly-exhumed concert performance, Live at the Electric Banana, Pittsburgh 5.22.85 (Old 3C) is a reminder of a vigor and intelligence often buried in the grooves of Great Plains' records. Electric Banana compels listeners to dig past the Demento and the demented, and rediscover Great Plains' powerful takes on America and its history.
"The end of history records its clowns…"
-- Great Plains, "End of the Seventies"
Along with the Mekons, Great Plains have written some of the best songs we have about the nexus of rock and money. The Mekons took their Marx from Karl on songs like 1988's "Club Mekon" on The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll ("When I was just 17 / Sex no longer held a mystery / I saw it as a commodity / To be bought and sold like rock 'n' roll."); House and Great Plains found it in Groucho and Harpo.
On songs like "Dick Clark" (from the 1986 record Naked at the Buy, Sell and Trade), the band sniffed out the filthy lucre at the heart of the rock enterprise -- embodied in the ubiquity and schmaltz of the American Bandstand producer -- and called bullshit:
I freed your hand from the dollar
I freed your fans from what they couldn't understand
With both your hands ‘round my neck
I still tell you what to do next
Let Dick Clark work out all the details
The Mekons and Great Plains also share a defiant literacy and obsession with history. Beginning with the song "Pretty Dictionary" on the band's first EP in 1983, House's stance on reading was clear: "Without a book in my hand, I'm a desperate man." And the books that he was reading? Everything from post-structuralism to Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore.
Great Plains had their boozy and horny moments. ("Origin of My Silly Grin" and "Real Bad" are good examples), but the band's bookish side gave depth to their best songs, many of which were contained on 1984's Born in a Barn. These songs are timeless: They recollect history and -- in the best Nietzschean sense -- anticipate its eternal recurrence.
Great Plains' forthright disavowal of the Ken Burns folksy sepiatone effect is particularly striking. On the twinkling ballad "Rutherford B. Hayes" (which takes its name from our 19th president), House simply elides the narrative of Hayes' disputed election and lackluster term in office. Instead, he dynamites the raw material of Ohio's 19th-century political history -- kingmaker (and Karl Rove icon) Mark Hanna, assassinated president William McKinley and his assassin Leon Czogolz -- into a pile of shards that is razor-sharp to the touch:
The bearded anarchist pulled his gun
Pointed it at our favorite son.
House's best writing rips anecdotes from musty pages and reposts them as broadsides. From its title alone, the listener knows that a song such as "Black Like Me" will find its white singer channeling the black experience. (House does it here with spooky scatting and chants of "Alabama" and "Mississippi.") But in a recent interview, House informs me that the song swipes a story about the unlikely affinity that the Black Panthers had for Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" (from Highway 61 Revisited). It's an unexpected move that brilliantly reverses the song's highly charged racial polarity:
They played the "Thin Man" again
They listed their wants and demands
They'd lose if they used the guns in their hands.
History as broadside and history as recurrence reach their peak on "Lincoln Logs," a song in which Abraham Lincoln -- whose head replaces those of all of the characters in a Nativity scene on the cover of Born in a Barn -- walks again to speechify anew. Read backwards against America's future wars, the song is as spooky as any ghost that may haunt the White House bedroom today:
He's quick and to the point
They died for our freedom not Detroit
And if he made a mistake
It's a mistake that someone had to make.
"I think half of Born in a Barn was inspired by Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson," House says. "I was definitely going for an evangelical democracy thing."
The music behind "Lincoln Logs" heightens that evangelism. The chants of "Abraham! Abraham!" that punctuate the chorus also anchor the rising notes of a bass guitar straining upwards through the very roof of the song. The song is capped off with a shouted repetition of the Gettysburg Address' definition of democratic governance: "Of the People / By the People / For the People." There's not a better American political song that's been written in the twenty years since "Lincoln Logs."
Matt Wyatt: Don't buy the record now, ‘cause it won't sound better than that.
Mark Wyatt: No, no, no, no. The record sounds worse than that.
Ron House: Fuck the record, in fact.
This exchange occurs at the end of a scalding version of "Black Sox Scandal" -- yes, it's about Shoeless Joe Jackson -- on the Live at the Electric Banana record. It sums up one of the central conundrums of Great Plains' work: The band's live performances were often much better than their recorded output. The songs are occasionally tricked out with odd effects, or muted in execution.
"We made some bad choices in production back in the day," House says. The versions of "Lincoln Logs" on both Cornflakes and Electric Banana, for instance, are much better than the studio track.
In an e-mail, Matt Wyatt concurs -- at least in part. "Our early recordings were done in a studio where commercial jingles were the norm," he recalls. "So we were shuttled off into our little booths to listen to a weak version of ourselves through big headphones that sometimes slipped off our heads in the middle of a song."
The Electric Banana is a useful corrective to the record. The set that's captured here includes many of the band's best songs in all their vigorous and ragged glory, including a savage version of "Black Like Me" and a revved-up "Dick Clark."
Mark Wyatt recalls that "Great Plains live was always a high-wire act. Not that any of us were choirboys, but the trajectory of a set really depended on Ron's blood-alcohol level. After a few beers, you get the unstoppable frontman you hear for most of the Electric Banana set ... Ron's fun, loose, and witty. After about 10 beers, the obnoxious Ron who once famously said on stage -- 'I bet I fucked half the women in this room' -- came out. (He was probably right about that, by the way.) Set lists were hastily written down and then often discarded at a whim."
Going without a net requires a high degree of stupidity -- or innocence. Listening to Electric Banana, it's clear that it's (mostly) the latter at work. The recording captures a band that's not worried about fame or money, but which keeps its eyes fixed firmly on history.
It's an attitude best summed up by the band's version of House's most edenic take on history, a song called "Serpent Mound." The song leaps wildly and brilliantly from revolutionary Paris ("Where the books and barricades meet") to a baseball field to the oddly-shaped tourist attraction in Ohio from which the song takes its name -- and which aligns with the sunset at the summer solstice. House's mission is to summon up a personal but fleeting vision of history:
To see times before
You need to leave the barn where you were born
Twenty years on, Great Plains still create the urge in listeners to make that journey. What they'll find is a brilliant excavation of history in song.
Great Plains' Length of Growth (which includes all of their Homestead work) and Live at the Electric Banana are available on Old 3C Records, which is run by former Great Plains bassist Paul Nini. Those records -- and the Cornflakes LP -- also are available in their entirety at Apple's iTunes and eMusic.
Richard Byrne is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Time.com, and Biblioteka Alexandria.