Game Theory – Lolita Nation: 1987’s Lost Masterpiece

Lost masterpiece may sound like hyperbole, but I can back it up. While some have also called it the 80’s Forever Changes, I might not quite go that far. While Love’s baroque psych pop classic from 1967 was certainly under-appreciated at the time, pretty much anyone who loves that kind of music knew the album 20 years later. 29 years after the release of Lolita Nation, I don’t think the same can be said of Game Theory’s ambitious double album. Perhaps The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow is a more apt comparison.

Game Theory - Lolita Nation (Enigma/Omnivore, 1987)

So why was it lost? There’s all kinds of theories. In shopping for labels, the band were often told that Scott Miller’s fragile, wispy vocals, reminiscent of Alex Chilton from Sister Lovers-era Big Star, were unmarketable, as were their insistence in using keyboards and synths, which had recently fallen out of fashion. Yet they were not hugely out of step with popular jangle pop of the time by The Smiths and R.E.M. (with whom they shared producer Mitch Easter, starting with Real Nighttime (1985) and Big Shot Chronicles (1986).  While their albums were distributed by Enigma, which put a sticker on Lolita National that read, “Likely the strangest pop record of the ’80s…a double-album dreamscape through the world of Game Theory, a world of modern music at its most bonecrushingly psychotic and most achingly beautiful,” they were actually signed to Scott Vanderbilt’s Rational label. Enigma were simply unmotivated to put resources behind promoting the albums, focusing instead on the likes of The Smithereens, who had a minor hit with “Blood And Roses.”

In contrast, R.E.M.’s Document, released on August 21, made its debut on the U.S. Billboard charts #46 on September 26 on the strength of “The One I Love” getting radio airplay. It peaked at #10 in November 7 and stayed in the top 20 for another two months. The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come may have benefited from following up one of the most highly regarded albums of recent years, The Queen Is Dead (1986), but suffered from a lack of comparable singles and being released on September 22, after the break-up of the band. It would enter the chart at 131 on October 10, peak at #55 On October 31 through November 7, and linger in the top 100 for most of the rest of the year.

Not everyone would agree, but I believe Lolita Nation is superior to the R.E.M. and Smiths albums, which were very good, but easy to grow tired of. While Game Theory were often compared to Big Star and The dB’s, there’s so much more in their musical DNA, including The Monkees, Yes, Sparks, Bowie, Brian Eno, Modern Lovers, Elvis Costello, XTC and The Soft Boys among many others. In Scott Miller’s book Music: What Happened? (2010), he lovingly writes tributes to his favorite songs starting in 1957, which gives a fuller picture of his influences. The music was melodic and catchy, including the band’s earlier albums, but with many unexpected twists. A James Joyce obsessive, Miller’s lyrics parsed like inscrutable puzzles, which later seemed to influence Guided By Voices among others. The result was a sprawling album that was inviting, but also took a bit of time and effort to dig into. I’d heard some Game Theory songs on college radio the previous couple years, and bought cassettes of their previous couple albums at Cheapo’s during my first few weeks of college in St. Paul that fall. I bought the new one as soon as it came out in December with some anticipation. Needless to say no one else was lined up to buy it. At nearly 75 minutes, it was a bit daunting the first few times, but once it was under my skin, it stayed there.

Also produced by Mitch Easter, the sound it actually a bit harder with rougher edges than previous albums, due in part to the fact that it’s a different lineup that gelled while touring the previous album, and were perfectly in synch in time for the recording sessions. Miller experimented with some effects and tape collages for interstitial tracks, which were overall quite successful in creating the appropriate atmosphere to frame the songs.  If the album came out a few years earlier, perhaps it would have gotten the kind of attention that Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime attracted. By 1987, it wasn’t quite as big of deal when the former released another double in Warehouse: Songs And Stories, The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, Swans’ Children Of God, Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times, and singles collections from The Smiths and New Order. I prefer Lolita Nation over all of them, though Prince’s album is much different and difficult to compare to. It may not have had singles, but there were some amazing stand-out tracks. On a more conventional album, “The Real Sheila” would have been the opener, which begins in dark minor keys, but soon erupts into some power chords in the bridge leading to the chorus, and is as catchy as anything on the radio. The actual opener is a bit of collage called “Kenneth – What’s The Frequency?” which references what a mugger said to newsman Dan Rather. This would become more familiar in a similarly named song by R.E.M. eight years later.  “Not Because You Can” leads with a 90 second instrumental intro before Miller comes in with vocals, at a deeper register than he’s done before.

My favorite is “The Waist And The Knees,” a longish track at 6:08 that features a drum breakdown inspired by Bill Bruford from Yes/King Crimson, and also references the Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin. “Chardonnay” was originally a sprawling 7:49 power pop song that was unfortunately cut short in order for the label to fit the album on one compact disc. Fortunately, the reissues restores the song in all it’s glory on the bonus disc. Also included are a bunch of live and demo recordings and radio sessions, including covers of songs by Bowie, PiL, Joy Division, the Modern Lovers, Elvis Costello, the Stooges and the Sex Pistols. “One More For Saint Michael” complains about taxes, which would sound whiney from rich rock stars, but Miller was certainly not that. It unites references to Bob Dylan’s rapid-fire focal style (its influence also heard in contemporaries Felt) and Star Trek.  The atmospheric washes of fuzz guitar on “Dripping With Looks” anticipates the shoegaze sound that will emerge in the next couple years.

It’s hard to know what would have happened if Lolita Nation was properly promoted. It wasn’t completely a secret. While the band’s tours were hit and miss in getting decent audiences, they had some hardcore fans that gave them a rapturous reception. Chances are the album would have grown more quickly in stature if the band did not fizzle out fairly soon after, releasing a good final album in Two Steps From The Middle Ages in 1988, but still a level below the heights reached with this one. Other highly regarded classics of the time also failed to get near the Billboard top 200 chart, like Sonic Youth’s Sister and Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me. However, those bands continued to reach wider audiences and signed to major labels, while Miller kind of missed the sweet spot of that signing frenzy between 1989 and 1992, and released his next album under a new band name, The Loud Family in 1993, with Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things, also considered a classic by many.

game-theory

Brett Milano - Don't All Thank Me At Once: The Lost Pop Genius of Scott Miller (2015)The Loud Family had a good run of albums through 2000, but with diminishing return in sales and live audiences. Since then, Miller focused on his successful career as a computer programmer. He briefly came out of retirement to record an album with old friend Anton Barbeau in 2006. Whether you’re just now getting to know Scott Miller’s work, or you’re a longtime fan, a highly recommended companion book is Brett Milano’s Don’t All Thank Me At Once: The Lost Pop Genius of Scott Miller (2015), which covers Miller’s life from childhood through his early bands, including Alternative Learning, until his tragic suicide on April 19, 2013. If you’re any kind of music obsessive, it’ll inspire you to get all five Game Theory albums plus EPs, and explore The Loud Family. And you won’t regret it.

This entry was posted in New Album(s) of the Week, Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.