TEMPERATURE’S RISING: GALAXIE 500
by Mike McGonigal Paperback. Verse Chorus Press.
Review by Francis DiMenno
Full disclosure: This book is based upon an online article for which I answered questions sent to me via email. Another factor which might also cloud my already fallible critical judgment: the book reproduces in full an interview I conducted with the band which was first published in The Noise #74 (June 1988).
The extended subtitle of this book is indicative: “An oral history by Mike McGonigal with a visual archive and commentary by Naomi Yang.” The ardent fan of Galaxie 500 and its many offshoots, including Luna, Dean & Britta, Damon & Naomi, et al., will find the oral history portion both entertaining and instructive and will also greatly appreciate the profuse illustrations, including posters, concert tickets, photographer’s proof sheets and other ephemera. McGonigal cites the recollections of over a dozen people, including friends, writers, industry insiders, and, of course the band members themselves. But we are not being flooded with information here. This beautifully produced monograph is essentially a book of illustrations supplemented by texts.
As documented by Naomi Yang, Galaxie 500 existed from October 1987 to April of 1991. During that time period, there were over two thousand bands listed in the Boston Phoenix Band Guide, and maybe about a dozen Boston-area venues to serve them. More than one thousand of these bands probably gigged fairly regularly. Nevertheless, fewer than a dozen would make the cut and go on to greater heights. Galaxie 500 was one of those outstanding bands.
Their decision to record with Kramer was one key factor in their success; as Damon Krukowski concedes, he “invented the sound of the band.” Galaxie 500 also succeeded, I suspect, because their sound was very different from bands like Dinosaur Jr. or the Pixies. Even though they faced fierce competition from other bands which were vying for stage time, they were lucky enough to have their own niche practically all to themselves.
Even so they were lucky to get as far as they did. Long story short: they were smart. Before advancing to shows at the Rat, T.T.’s, and the Middle East, they made a name for themselves by playing at the less prestigious venues of the day (Chet’s Last Call in the Causeway; Green Street Station in Jamaica Plain). They also made the time and took the effort and incurred the expense to contact promoters, booking agents, recording engineers, and A&R people. Many bands simply didn’t know how to do this, or didn’t care to. That’s how they got stuck in a rut, playing the same three or four clubs, and as a result, they would continue spinning their wheels, and they would never progress. They would think that out of the blue, someone was going to recognize their genius and “discover” them. But it takes more than one person to put a band over. Luck has a great deal to do with it, but God helps those who help themselves. Promotion is key, and Galaxie 500 knew how to network and promote themselves without antagonizing too many of the wrong people.
It didn’t take them very long for them to build a fan base of like-minded people. I suspect the college crowd, as distinct from the headbangers and the townies, found their restraint somewhat refreshing. They always went over very well in Cambridge.
Galaxie 500 was musically anomalous. People who did not instinctively understand them had to train themselves to appreciate their minimalist approach, and many were not inclined—or even equipped—to do so. If you grew up on heavy metal you were probably allergic to their hip flaunting of the low-key and the understated.
Eventually, there was something of a backlash against Galaxie 500. Local people more accustomed to hard rock, in particular, found them “boring” or “droning,” and Dean’s voice “tuneless.” The scene in Boston can be a fairly parochial place, one not immune to petty rivalries and jealousies. One critic, writing in The Noise #85 (June 1989) was particularly scathing about the band: “Whiny vocals, bad guitar playing, foundationless bass, plodding drudging songs.”
But the backlash did very little to stall their career. By then, they had outgrown their Boston-area base and were touring the United States, England, and eventually Europe, where they were very well-received, though they didn’t make very much money. (That’s actually an understatement.)
I wasn’t surprised when the band broke up. Dean, as you may know if you read his memoir Black Postcards, sometimes has a tendency to be very frank in a way which strikes some people as arrogant. He regarded Damon and Naomi as a unit which more often than not was united against him, and so he decided to walk. Dean, Damon, and Naomi did produce three good albums out of their time together, and released perhaps a dozen unforgettable songs. A good deal of what they did back then still stands up today. And that’s a pretty fine legacy for any band.