Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Musical Retrospective: 10,000 Maniacs

When I think of 10,000 Maniacs I think of two people, Natalie Merchant and Robert Buck. I'm not sure why I think of them that way. They were after all a five piece band when I was introduced to them, but I think like so many bands at the time; The Smiths, REM, U2, etc. it was easy to think of them as a two brain band with Merchant writing the lyrics and Buck creating the sound. Of course this was helped by performances like this one on Letterman where it's just Merchant and Buck representing 10,000 Maniacs.

It also lives that way in my mind because the band really blossomed after guitarist John Lombardo left the band just before In My Tribe was recorded. This was the album that cemented the 10,000 Maniacs sound that would make them hugely popular on college campuses and push them to be one of the top alternative acts. They would only put out three studio albums over a five year period and then 10,000 Maniacs, as they were then at the top of alternative radio, would be no more. Merchant left the band in 1993, Buck would die in 2000, and though they are still around today 10,000 Maniacs has always been stuck in that five year time slot in my mind.

In My Tribe

This album hit the market in 1987 when I was 19. It was smart and fresh and different. It was a big hit with me and most of my friends. With Natalie Merchant you had this serious, seemingly over the top, front person, and in the rest of the band you had a quiet subdued backdrop. There was no doubt it was her band, she was the face of the band and they would live and die by her. As I said this was no different than a lot of bands at the time and so it felt quite natural. The difference here was that Merchant was a woman and that she was talking about politics and society in a very engaging way. I knew some people who thought Merchant seemed pretentious but I never had a problem with her.

My favorite song on the album was "Don't Talk" and it was this performance on Letterman which really put me over the top for Merchant. Note again it is just her and Buck.

Blind Man's Zoo

Two year's later 10,000 Maniacs were back and showed tremendous growth. They had a much richer sound, Merchant had improved greatly as a singer and lyrically she had grown much more mature. They also found commercial success with the single "Trouble Me" which made its way onto standard radio.

Happily I got to see them on this tour at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center and it was wonderful. In many ways not much had changed. Merchant was still the power of the band and still came across a bit pretentious, but no matter the Maniacs were as they should be and fit perfectly into their place in alternative music.

Our Time in Eden

I think what makes 10,000 Maniacs so unique over these three albums is that they got much better with each album. As a writer and singer Merchant showed tremendous growth from one album to the next and as a band their sound developed to be a perfect complement to Merchant. Again I got to see them live in Nashville and again they were wonderful. Little did I know that soon after that performance Merchant would announce she was leaving the band and they would split in a way that left it clear they would never again be together.

I've always thought in looking back that this is the perfect album title as this album really was the final part in a five year act.

Of course the fall of 10,000 Maniacs was something that we all should have expected. Merchant really was a bit pretentious and got very angry when the band sold the rights to "These Are Days" to be used on a television show. And of course the rest of the band felt a bit angry at always being the quiet guys behind her. The usual fallout occurred and we were all left with no more 10,000 Maniacs. At least not the 10,000 Maniacs that we had all fallen in love with. Without Merchant I had no interest in the band, just as I had no interest in Merchant as a solo artist.

Next month we can celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Our Time in Eden. It's hard to believe it's been 20 years and I felt it to be an appropriate time to write up this little piece about a band that seems to have been long forgotten.


  1. Great piece. It's a shame that groups like these can't stick together. But they're not ordinary people.

  2. You want to talk about a shame ... just caught "In a Big Country" on VH1 Classic ... man ... rest in peace, Stuart Adamson.

  3. These are really great clips of 10,000 Maniacs. I've seen a bunch of their stuff on YouTube, and I hadn't seen any of these clips.

  4. Still expect to hear the skip in "Dust Bowl Days" where I had one in my LP copy of Blind Man's Zoo ... yeah, these clips are great.

  5. That Nashville show on the Our Time in Eden tour was outstanding--just a totally professional band at the top of their powers. They closed the main part of the show with "Stockton Gala Days," and it was just such a totally satisfying piece of collective art--lyrics, beautiful vocals, all the layered sounds, lots of people in coordination, delivering me as a listener to a specific place and time that I had never been but then could imagine. So then they come back out for an encore, and Michael Stipe joins them on stage for several duets--the one that he sang in the studio on In My Tribe, I think, and a fantastic cover of "Band of Gold" that I remember especially. Anyway, I'm still thankful to have been there that evening.

  6. It was crushing to learn, however, that Natalie Merchant would be leaving the band. Apparently, she had decided to leave and told the band as much even when they were recording the Our Time in Eden record.

    I saw them one more time, at Washington's 930 club in 1997, during one of Mary Ramsey's stints as lead vocalist. Of course, it was different. But I'll have to say that it was just fantastic to see this great, experienced band with big, hit songs playing in such an intimate setting.

  7. Every Merchant solo album is a mssterpiece, the musicians are at least the equal of the Maniacs and her singing continues to blossom.