erasing clouds

Great Plains, Length of Growth 1981-1989 (Old 3C/TMIV)

by Dave heaton

Until now, I mostly knew Great Plains from their reputation and from bands that cite them as an influence. I knew them as a legend more than anything; I'd only heard their music in handed-down fashion, through Nothing Painted Blue's cover of "Love to the Third Power" and Swearing at Motorists' version of "Letter to a Fanzine." On the other hand, I'm quite familiar with Plains singer/songwriter Ron House's subsequent group Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments. The recently disbanded Slave Apartments were a rough, ragged powerhouse. Their call to burn down the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame might have garnered them a bit of notice from MTV News, Rolling Stone and the like, but that same confrontational attitude and love for honest-to-goodness rock n roll ran threw everything they did.

Great Plains rocked just as hard and as well as the Slave Apartments, but with more heart and more musical variety, at least as far as I can tell from the two-disc retrospective Length of Growth 1981-1989. These songs musically meld dirty punk rock (in the Ohio sense of the word "punk," not your traditional UK, NYC or California sense) with new wave melody, and lyrically are all over the living map, dealing with topics from Rutherford B. Hayes to when is the right time to say hello when an attractive person walks past you on the street.

Length of Growth consists of 50 songs, taken from the band's debut EP, three LPs and a handful of 7"s and appearances on compilations. Absorbing all of this music for the first time is like finding a missing block of history, a really cool one. From Great Plains, it's easy to follow a path (genuine or imagined) to the wide-eyed innocence of Built to Spill, Beat Happening's sloppy enthusiasm, Nothing Painted Blue's witty historical/cultural observations and a host of other current musical strains and forms.

Great Plains wrote great songs of all sorts, from heartfelt love songs to commentaries on historical situations and societal developments. It's pretty hard to write about this compilation in terms of the songs that appear on it, because in picking certain songs to write about I'm inevitably ignoring scores of others that are just as good. Disc One, which begins with a quick intro from Dr. Demento and relies heavily on the Mark, Don & Mel EP and the Born in a Barn LP, has a ton of gems. One of my favorites is "Confetti", a jaunty look at politics as usual which will suit this upcoming election season as well as any: "Let me tell you why I cry/people choose the wrong leaders all the time/Let me tell you why I laugh/a year goes by and they want those choices back."

Another great one is "I Must Have Made It All Up," a real heartbreaker of a song about confusion, regret, anticipation and all of the other feelings wrapped up with love. House gets so much across with every tear-soaked word, right from the start: "Out of the corner of my eye, I see you and then I start to cry/Oh I must have made it all up, there's no such thing as love/What am I thinking of?" It's a far stretch from there to the explosive "Black Sox Scandal/What Are You Living On" (which blows me away every time), but this sort of change of gears seems to come naturally to Great Plains. This quick medley starts with a lament about, as the title indicates, Shoeless Joe Jackson, which uses the scandal to discuss disenchantment and the American dream. Then the band slams into a quick rocker asking listeners to examine what's wrong with the world and what they can do about it.

Disc Two, much of it featuring songs from the Naked At the Buy, Sell and Trade and Sum Things Up LPs, ups the energy and the synth presence. On one song House imagines meeting "Martin Luther King and Martin Luther Drinking," the two "brothers" celebrating with "libations for the liberation theory." That the same band made "Animated Innocence" is the fantastic thing about Great Plains; this is a killer pop song with a hint of Sesame Street about it, dealing with the power the look on someone's face and the way they walk can have on you. Another favorite of mine is "Physical Fact," a jerky little number that takes a scientific look at lust. House lectures/ponders, "Irresistible forces explode upon impact, that's a physical fact/The body's ideas are not always clear to me, as far as I can see."

From start to end, this collection rocks, yet their music is about a lot more than just rock n' roll. Their lyrics touch on topics weighty and silly in way that is smart, fun and, most importantly, extremely relevant to life. Length of Growth is a hell of a testament to a hell of a band, and, as someone unfamiliar with their music, I appreciate it greatly. Count me in as a fan, albeit a decade or so after the fact.

Issue 3, October 2000 | next article

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Photos above courtesy of Old 3C. Top photo taken by Marie Gibbons, showing (from left to right) Mark Wyatt, Dave Green, Don Howland, Ron House, Matt Wyatt. Middle photo taken by Renee Velkoff, showing (from left to right) Dave Green, Mark Wyatt, Ron House, Paul Nini, Matt Wyatt. Bottom photo taken by Lisa Haun, showing (left to right) Jim Castoe, Ron House, Mark Wyatt, Bill Bruner, Matt Wyatt.