Sunk by Success | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Sunk by Success 

Boston's Big Dipper, who dallied with the majors too early, are back with an anthology on Merge.

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BIG DIPPER SUPERCLUSTER: THE BIG DIPPER ANTHOLOGY (MERGE)

About 12 years ago I wrote a piece for the Reader about a great postpunk band from Kansas called the Embarrassment. Back then the era when underground rock acts didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of reaching the mainstream was still the not-so-distant past. It was easy to believe that punk-inspired musicians started bands just because they wanted to make music—a major-label deal was such an incredible long shot that an offer would've felt like a cosmic joke.

Today the underground and the mainstream have a different relationship, to put it mildly. "Indie" imprints like Vice and Downtown can give their artists all kinds of perks thanks to major-label partnerships, and to a bitter old fuck like me it seems like green, untested bands are lucking into big-time exposure at an unprecedented rate, whether through record deals, corporate-sponsored tours, or music placement on TV shows and commercials. The old template for "selling out"—gig your ass off to cultivate loyal fans, then alienate them by yielding to the temptations of fame—doesn't really apply anymore. Rock-star ambition is often part of a band's game plan from day one—and not unreasonably so, as signings like the Redwalls and MGMT prove. And because the mainstream music biz has figured out indie cred, there's no longer much pressure for artists to make themselves more accessible for their big push.

I bring this up because earlier this month Merge Records released Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology. Big Dipper was the punky indie-pop band that guitarist Bill Goffrier of the Embarrassment joined after he moved to Boston. The three-CD set compiles the EP and two albums the band made for Homestead in the late 80s, nine rarely heard songs from that period, and 15 tunes, most never released, that were recorded in the early 90s, after the group's disastrous dalliance with Epic Records. By the end of the 80s it wasn't so strange for a punky band to get signed by a major—but it was strange if one managed to survive the ordeal with its sound (and its audience) intact. For every Lemonheads there were a dozen Big Dippers, who managed to piss off their old fans without attracting any new ones.

In 1990 Big Dipper released Slam on Epic, a record so horribly glossy and cheesy that even the good songs sound awful—I'm frankly relieved that not one of its tracks appears on Supercluster. (If you really want to hear it, copies are going for one cent on Amazon.) Within a year or so, bassist Steve Michener had quit and they'd been dropped. Big Dipper soldiered on till 1992 with a series of replacement bassists (and then replacement drummers), but their moment had passed. Though some of the post-Epic material on Supercluster proves that the main songwriters, Goffrier and second guitarist Gary Waleik, could still turn out a great pop tune, in the fall of 1991 Nirvana released Nevermind and the goalposts moved.

I'm not foolish enough to imagine that Big Dipper would've cleaned up if they'd hit the majors during the post-Nirvana boom instead of before it. They were too bookish, too dorky, and too old, and their songs, despite their garagey punch, were too whimsical to compete in a marketplace dominated by tormented-sounding bands cultivating confrontational, alienated personas. But this new set makes clear that they deserved better than they got—I probably hadn't listened to one of their records in 15 years when I picked up Supercluster, but most of the songs still sound great.

Big Dipper formed in 1985 with an excellent pedigree. Goffrier, of course, had been in the Embarrassment back in Kansas. (Embarrassment drummer Woody Giessmann would end up in a post-Epic version of the band after playing in the Del Fuegos.) Waleik and Michener were in the original lineup of Volcano Suns, the great post-Mission of Burma group led by drummer Peter Prescott, and Michener was also briefly a member of college-rock faves Dumptruck. Joined by drummer Jeff Oliphant, they created a winning mix of noisy, angular riffing, pounding postpunk rhythms, and the sort of surprisingly elegant, unpredictable melodies that had been a key part of the Embarrassment's twitchier, more hyperactive tunes.

Though the group's 1987 debut, the six-track EP Boo-Boo, favors punk over pop, the ebullient "Faith Healer" includes a soaring hook amid its slashing guitars, and Big Dipper's first full-length, Heavens, released later that year, reconciles the two impulses even more skillfully—the killer melodies of "She's Fetching" and "All Going Out Together" sound like the work of the same band that wrote ferocious rave-ups like "Younger Bums" and "Mr. Woods." This motion toward accessibility continued on 1988's Craps: tuneful nuggets like "Meet the Witch" and "Bells of Love" had their sharp edges sanded away, and the band split the difference between pop and punk on songs like "Ron Klaus Wrecked His House," about a house-demolition party thrown by the Embarrassment's bassist ("He threw the doors out of the windows / And the windows out the doors"). The term alternative wouldn't catch on in a big way for another few years, but in their own milieu—what people still called "college rock"—Big Dipper was pushing the envelope, albeit in a rather polite and modest way.

With their Homestead contract fulfilled, Big Dipper accepted the fateful offer from Epic. According to a 1990 New York Times story that ran shortly before the release of Slam, they chose Epic because they wanted a big studio budget, the leisure to try new approaches, and "maximum creative control." But already they seemed to be self-consciously justifying a decision they were worried was a terrible mistake: "You can only go so far turning up the guitars real loud and distorting them as much as possible," Goffrier said. Big Dipper was embarking on the dreaded process of "maturing" as a band. Maybe they were afraid they were running out of ideas, but plenty of groups with similar fears had already resorted to a radical change in sound, experimentation for its own sake, or both, and the results had almost always been a boring, unfocused disaster.

Two cuts from Supercluster's disc of post-Epic material, "Approach of a Human Being" and "The Beast," were released as a single by the Chicago label Feel Good All Over. They turned out to be the band's death rattle. But spurred to action by Supercluster, the original Big Dipper lineup is reuniting to play three east-coast shows in late April (there may be midwest shows later in the year, per Merge). According to a recent story in the Boston Phoenix, when news of the reunion hit the grapevine, Waleik got an e-mail from Mission of Burma guitarist Roger Miller, whose own band is in the middle of a surprisingly fruitful second act. "He said that you've got to rock hard," Waleik recalled. "You can't go out and be a mature older band."v

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

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