Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Land of the Lost and Over the Edge

Greg Sage's outfit Wipers - formed in Portland, Oregon, in the late 70's - have been, and continue to be, the most important band in my life. They were an epiphany, the likes of which I have not experienced ever since. That is a big call, especially considering the amount of music I have listened to and enjoyed over the last twenty years. Wipers mean a lot to a significant number of people. A lot of my friends feel passionate about them. (Carl and my brother Tim are, perhaps, the greatest champions of Wipers I know.) This enthusiasm is similarly shared by others around the world, as evidenced by the amount of webspace devoted to this band on the internet. I can't assume to add anything significant to the literature on Wipers; others are far better placed to do that. Rather, allow me to offer a series of impressions on what Wipers mean to me, by reflecting on two of their great albums: 'Land of the Lost' and 'Over the Edge'.

I first came to know of Wipers in 1987 through their track 'Let Me Know', which was included on the soundtrack to the film 'River's Edge'. It is a tight rocker, filtering the basics of rock'n'roll through the urgency and energy of punk. Drums, bass and guitar drive together as a relentless unit. There is even a hint of psycho-billy in Sage's heavily reverbed vocals. When you watch the film, you realise that such sounds are a perfect accompaniment to the emotional wasteland that the characters populate. On the soundtrack album, though, Wipers share the same soundscape as bands such as Slayer and Hallow's Eve. In the company of such bedfellows, Wipers look, sound and feel different from the rest of the pack. I really liked 'Let Me Know' and keen to know more about Wipers. However, I was more into my Dennis Hopper phase and took guilty pleasure in the thrash metal that made up the core of the 'River's Edge' soundtrack. (I think Slaughterhouse Joe at one stage attempted to cover 'Lethal Tendencies' by Hallow's Eve off that record.) There were also other factors at play. Hotel Breslin was coming to an end. Academically, I was about to immerse in an honours degree in philosophy. Musically, I was diving headlong into the sounds of the SST label that Carl had pioneered and championed. Sonic Youth were also happening, with the 'Sister' and 'Daydream Nation' albums. I had plenty on my musical plate at this stage. That was 1988. By year's end I had passed my honours degree and was looking to move to Melbourne to undertake postgraduate studies.

I did not have a specific agenda to procure the music of Wipers in Melbourne. It was something that, by accident or design, occurred to me while I was perusing the shelves of Au Go Go Records one day. The memory of 'Let Me Know' came to me, and I decided to see where that would lead me. Sure enough I found not only the album that this track came from, 'Land of the Lost', but also other Wipers albums. I was beside myself with joy and excitement. My enthusiasm was also shared by the bloke who served me at the counter. No 'High Fidelity' attitude here: he was genuinely excited by my interest in and eventual purchase of 'Land of the Lost'. The feeling was mutual. Within a fortnight I was back to obtain every Wipers record they had in store. I would discuss each purchase with the store clerk, and we developed an unofficial admiration society for the virtues of Wipers. Thus began my love affair with this important band. It also represented my coming to feel affection for my newfound home.

I am obliged to sing the praises of 'Land of the Lost' not just because it was the first Wipers album I bought, but also because it is a great rock record. I know it is an album that Carl swears by. The experience and appreciation of it is also enhanced by listening to it on vinyl. That is its natural home. It is also central to the concept of the album as a work split over two sides. Side 1 is a driving rock'n'roll experience that never takes its foot off the pedal. 'Driving' here is the operative word, not just with regards to the sound itself but also to the appropriate geography of listening to these tracks. You easily imagine yourself being in a car cranking out these tunes. I can only attest to the power of assuming the passenger's perspective. (This is an observation made by many others besides myself. Tim, in particular, constantly invokes the metapor. It also features in a number of reviews of this album I have read.) From the muscular opening track 'Just A Dream Away' through to the side closer 'Land of the Lost', you are transported on an unrelenting rock journey. The five tracks that make for Side 1 move along at a breathtaking pace. 'Just A Dream Away' kicks into 'Way of Love', cranks into 'Let Me Know', goes flat out with 'Fair Weather Friends' and hits the final destination with the title track. This one slows the pace a bit, but does not relent on the rock intensity: 'We're going to get there at any cost/Just take a trip to the Land of the Lost'. (This pace and intensity would subsequently be purloined by the commercial face of Seattle grunge, slowing the pace to a dirge with Black Sabbath riffs.) The end point is reached with a wall of persistent feedback that refuses to die until the stylus is released from its duties.

Side 2, in comparison, is a more tender affair. Without sounding too wanky - if that is possible for me - it feels like an exploration of what we find in the Land of the Lost, where the lost are the lonely of heart, and the trepid explorers are those aching to explore the ways of the heart. Hence titles such as side opener 'Nothing Left to Lose', 'The Search' and 'Different Ways'. The closing track, 'Just Say', is gently begging, if not plaintive. You can just feel the ache and hurt of longing in Sage's guitar work. And then it fades out. What an experience. What a concept.

As good as 'Land of the Lost' is as an introduction to the sound of Wipers, it could not prepare me for the raw power of its predecessor 'Over the Edge'. This was destined to become my favourite Wipers album. It is pure punk rock, like nothing I have heard in my life before or ever since.

If the sound on 'Land of the Lost' is driving, then that on 'Over the Edge' is totally relentless, both in execution and concept. 'Land of the Lost' drives the listener to a specific destination, to explore new horizons. 'Over the Edge', on the other hand, is committed to exploring a different emotional terrain, of life in a 'Doom Town' (second track), where loneliness and alienation constantly threaten to extinguish your existence. We are being moved headlong to God knows where. Such themes compel and propel Sage's guitar playing. It is searing and restless, but always disciplined. The essence of these qualities is displayed in Side 1's closer (and the closest thing Wipers have to a 'hit' song) 'Romeo', a portrait of desire and its frustration. Sage's bloodcurdling reverb laden scream of 'Juliet!!!!!!', like Brando's 'Stella!!!!' in 'A Streetcar Called Desire', cuts to the bone and the quick of the soul. The imagery of the song is so potent.

You would think that this would be a recipe for nihilism. However, in Sage's hands, there is a genuine sense of compassion and moral urgency. He affects a delicate balancing act between telling it as it is and, at the same time, striving for a way out of this desolate spiritual wasteland for his song's subjects. This is particularly so on tracks such as 'So Young' ('Only the good die young/Oh so young'), 'The Lonely One' and 'No One Wants An Alien'. The final destination of 'Over the Edge' is closer 'This Time', where the subject is driven on to somewhere else ('Don't want to be a part of this'). The move offers a sense of redemptive possibility, and yet still no guarantee of success. It just has to be done.

Wipers as a band move as a cohesive unit on this recording. The production, while raw and straightforward, still betrays careful thought and construction. (The brass sections on 'Romeo', for example, are so subtle and unintrusive that they are mixed almost to the point of imperceptibility.) I fail to find a musical antecedent for this kind of music. It just IS Wipers, and it is a distinctive sound. What followed in the wake of it has done its best to exploit and purloin, but it has done so without understanding the fundamental principles that underpin the Wipers' sound. These are non-negotiable principles for life and making music. You can study how to play like Greg Sage, affect the way his guitar sounded, but that still will not deliver THE sound. To approximate that you need the commitment to being an artist and what that task entails. That, to me, is a small part of what accounts for the originality of Wipers to me. Greg Sage is a true original, because he is an artist, who has the imagination and conviction to follow through the way he envisions things to be, or how music should sound. He is clearly referencing classic rock'n'roll riffs and motifs, but he does so in his own distinctive voice.

Not long after purchasing all Wipers recordings I could lay my hands on, I came across an interview with Greg Sage in the fanzine Bucketful of Brains. In it he declared - this was 1989 - 'Wipers are dead, man'. In 1992, I saw Nirvana at the Palace. The venue was packed to the rafters with kids. After a blistering set from Cosmic Psychos, there was to be nothing but disappointment. The mix was horrible, the show listless. Cobain was clearly ill. It was the most uncomfortable night of my life. At that moment, the world was changed forever.


  1. add another vote for the wipers as a soundtrack to a drive. believe me, it works in the desert, it works in the mountains, the city, country lanes, new york or wales. carlos brought a wipers homemade tape along for ride in our world tour journey. "land of the lost" on one side, "is this real?" on the other. at the end of my trip, i was flying into bangkok, alone, feverish, broke, exhausted, bent, a little broken and staring out the plane window at the lights listening to greg sage scream "it's such a long way down". magic.

  2. Exile on Main St, Abbey Rd, Land of the Lost. Camembert, Tryol Spec, Stoli, Yeaahp.