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Music / 10,000 Maniacs

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An Alternative Rock band from the Hudson Valley in New York State, 10,000 Maniacs (a reference to the '60s horror film Two Thousand Maniacs!) began life as the cover band "Still Life", whose line-up included guitarist Rob Buck, keyboardist Dennis Drew and bassist Steve Gustafson, all of whom would go on to become life-long 'Maniacs' (Buck died in 1999). After a series of line-up changes, the newly-christened "10,000 Maniacs" played their debut gig on Labor Day, 1981, fronted by a 17-year-old Natalie Merchant. After a year of exhaustive gigging, a debut EP Human Conflict Number Five, and various changes of drummer, 1983 saw the arrival of now-longstanding member Jerry Augustyniak, followed by the group's debut album The Secrets of the I Ching, released on the Maniacs' own label, Christian Burial Music.

As with any burgeoning Alt. Rock group in the Eighties, touring became a way of life for the group until Elektra Records signed them in late '84, with their sophomore release The Wishing Chair following in the fall of '85. Shortly thereafter, John Lombardo, the band's rhythm guitarist and co-prinipical songwriter (alongside Merchant), quit the band, which in some ways proved a blessing in disguise when the group's third LP, In My Tribe, charted at #37 in the US and went double platinum, vastly outselling their previous releases. Their next three albums met with similar success, peaking in 1993 with an MTV Unplugged live release (which featured their biggest hit single, a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night"), whereupon Merchant publicly announced her decision to go solo. Merchant's solo albums would (briefly) achieve the mainstream success that had largely eluded her with the band.

Lombardo and his new musical partner, singer/violaist Mary Ramsey, were drafted in by the remaining the Maniacs, with whom they put out a further two albums until the sudden death of lead guitarist Robert Buck in late 2000. After a year out, the Maniacs reconvened with Jeff Erickson, an ex-roadie, as new lead guitarist and Oskar Saville (formerly of Rubygrass) as lead vocalist. These decisions prompted Lombardo to quit a second time, and Ramsey also left, but rejoined the band as lead singer upon Saville's departure in 2007. In 2011, the year of the group's 30th anniversary, the Maniacs put out the EP "Triangles", their first release in 10 years.

Once aptly described by rock critic Robert Christgau as R.E.M.'s (musical) "kissing cousins", the Maniacs were also proponents of the Jangle Pop style that dominated both bands' musical output in the mid-to-late-'80s.

The band:

  • Natalie Merchant: Vocals (1981-1993)
  • Rob Buck: Lead guitar (1981-2000)
  • John Lombardo: Rhythm guitar (1981-1986, 1994-2002)
  • Steve Gustafson: Bass (1981-present)
  • Dennis Drew: Keyboards (1981-present)
  • Jerry Augustyniak: Drums (1983-present)
  • Mary Ramsey: Vocals, viola (1994-2002, 2007-present)
  • Jeff Erickson: Lead guitar (2002-present)
  • Oskar Saville: Vocals (2002-2007)

Studio discography:

  • Human Conflict Number Five EP (1982)
  • Secrets of the I Ching (1983)
  • The Wishing Chair (1985)
  • In My Tribe (1987)
  • Blind Man's Zoo (1989)
  • Our Time in Eden (1992)
  • Love Among the Ruins (1997)
  • The Earth Pressed Flat (1999)
  • Triangles EP (2011)
  • Music from the Motion Picture (2013)
  • Twice Told Tales (2015)

Tropes everybody wants:

  • Abusive Parents: "What's The Matter Here?", although since all the singer ever sees is a parent threatening to hit a kid, and she never bothers to find out what's actually going on, the song is also a Broken Aesop.
  • The Alcoholic: The addressee of "Don't Talk", but the singer seems to be torn between fascination and disgust, making the drinker also a bit of a Manipulative Bastard.
  • Alternate Album Cover:
    • The LP release of The Wishing Chair includes three copies of a photograph depicting a 19th century woman seated at a chair. The CD and cassette releases, meanwhile, only use a single copy of the picture.
    • In My Tribe used different shots of an archery class on the LP, cassette, and CD covers.
  • Alternative Rock: Along with R.E.M., The Cure, U2 and New Order, they were one of the first alternative bands during the pre-Nirvana era of the movement to achieve significant commercial success.
  • The Band Minus the Face: Played straight, with the band being generally best remembered for launching Natalie Merchant's (briefly successful) solo career.
  • Boyish Short Hair: Natalie Merchant sported this hairstyle in the early '90s, seen in the video for "Candy Everybody Wants" and the band's Unplugged appearance. Also doubles as an Important Haircut as she'd decided to leave the band by then.
  • Compilation Rerelease: Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982–1983, a 1990 compilation collecting remixed and re-sequenced versions of both the Human Conflict Number Five EP and Secrets of the I Ching on one disc; the only track dropped is the original version of "Tension", since the re-recording from Secrets of the I Ching is included instead. To compensate, the compilation includes "National Education Week", which was dropped from later pressings of Secrets of the I Ching.
  • Cover Version:
    • The Wishing Chair features the band's rendition of the British folk song "Just As the Tide Was a Flowing".
    • Cat Stevens' "Peace Train", removed from later U.S. CD and cassette pressings of In My Tribe in protest of Stevens making comments that the general public interpreted as supporting the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
    • A live rendition of Patti Smith & Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night" (the band's biggest mainstream pop hit) is featured on MTV Unplugged.
    • Roxy Music's "More Than This" (their biggest post-Merchant hit) is featured on Love Among the Ruins.
    • Morrissey's "Every Day Is Like Sunday"
    • R.E.M.'s "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" appears as a B-Side to "Candy Everybody Wants".
    • John Prine's "Hello in There".
  • Dead Artists Are Better: "Hey Jack Kerouac" criticizes the tendency for people to deify artists who died young without thinking of the people they left behind.
  • Downer Ending:
    • Blind Man's Zoo ends with "Jubilee", an eerie orchestral dirge about the psychology of a white supremacist terrorist. The song itself ends by implying that said terrorist is successful in his mission of burning down a racially integrated festival.
    • Our Time in Eden ends with "I'm Not the Man", a melancholy Soft Rock tune about a Black man being framed for murder, found guilty by an all-white Kangaroo Court, and hanged by a jeering white crowd.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Compared to their later material, Human Conflict Number Five and Secrets of the I Ching stand out considerably with their reggae-infused Post-Punk direction and Natalie Merchant's more ethereal singing style. Not that surprising knowing that the members first met playing Joy Division and Gang of Four covers.
  • Granola Girl: Natalie Merchant, with her vegetarianism and political lyrics, came across as one. She even spent time in a health food bakery as a literal "granola girl", making "a thousand pounds of granola a week".
  • Green Aesop: "Campfire Song", "Poison in the Well".
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Secrets of the I Ching is split between "This Side" and "That Side".
  • Kangaroo Court: In "I'm Not the Man", the main character, a Black man framed for murder, is rushed to a death penalty by a court that refuses to entertain the possibility of his innocence, with the narrator noting that "his own confession was a prosecutor's prize, made up of fear, of rage, and of outright lies."
  • Lighter and Softer: At least musically; the band had a softer, more melodic style that was basically folk rock updated for The '80s, compared to the edgier alternative bands of the time. They crossed over into the adult contemporary charts and the songs from the Merchant era remain staples of adult alternative radio. They still had a lot of artistic credibility.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Very common on the band's songs, especially during the Merchant Era. Prominent examples include "What's The Matter Here?", a bouncy pop tune about child abuse, "Like the Weather", a pleasant and mellow-sounding song about depression, and "Candy Everybody Wants", a jubilant, horn-driven number about how ignorant audiences really are.
    Natalie Merchant: There was something very subversive about singing about... Agent Orange, in a way that people thought I was singing about what a pleasant day it was.
  • Male Band, Female Singer: The core lineup of the band has always been this, though they have brought in multiple female musicians as touring members (including violinist and backup singer Mary Ramsey, who became lead vocalist after Natalie Merchant's departure).
  • Never Learned to Read: The narrator of "Cherry Tree":
    All those lines and circles, to me, a mystery
    Eve pull down the apple and give a taste to me
    If she could it would be wonderful, but my pride is in the way
    I cannot read to save my life, I'm so ashamed to say
  • New Sound Album: Secrets of the I Ching shifted the band's sound away from Post-Punk to a rough, but folksy brand of Jangle Pop. In My Tribe smoothed out the band's sound to a more mainstream-accessible sound while still having a distinct edge to it. Our Time in Eden smoothed out their sound even more into melancholic Soft Rock, paralleling R.E.M.'s similarly soft and downbeat Automatic for the People (released just six days later) and foreshadowing the quiet, folksy brand of art pop that would define Natalie Merchant's forthcoming solo career.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The main character of "Jubilee" commits mass murder via arson in part because of his disgust at the racially integrated society around him.
  • Protest Song: Lots of them, courtesy of Natalie Merchant: "What's the Matter Here?", "Gun Shy", etc.
  • Rearrange the Song: The Human Conflict Number Five track "Tension" was re-recorded for Secrets of the I Ching; this version would be featured on the 1990 compilation Hope Chest. It was later re-recorded again for The Wishing Chair, where it was renamed "Tension Makes a Tangle", alongside "Grey Victory", "Daktari" (included on the CD release as a bonus track), and "My Mother the War".
  • Re-Cut: CD releases of The Wishing Chair add "The Colonial Wing" and a re-recording of "Daktari" and considerably rearrange the rest of the tracklist.
  • Scary Musician, Harmless Music: With a name like 10,000 Maniacs, you'd probably expect them to be a Death Metal or a Hardcore Punk band. Instead, they play socially-conscious jangle pop.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: "Like the Weather":
    "Do I need someone here to scold me?
    Or do I need someone who'll come and grab me out of this
    Four poster, dull torpor pulling downward?"
  • Spear Counterpart: R.E.M., who music critic Robert Christgau regarded as 10,000 Maniacs' "musical kissing cousins." Appropriately, Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe were close acquaintances, and at one point romantic partners; Stipe provided backing vocals on "A Campfire Song", and Merchant on R.E.M.'s "Photograph". Stipe also credited Merchant for influencing R.E.M.'s more socially conscious direction on Lifes Rich Pageant, Document, and Green.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: John Lombardo sings lead vocals on "Anthem for Doomed Youth".
  • Struggling Single Mother: "Dust Bowl" is about a poor single mother worried about being able to care for her children:
    My youngest girl has bad fever, sure
    All night with alcohol
    To cool and rub her down
    Ruby, I'm tired
    Try and get some sleep
    I'm adding doctor's fees to remedies
    With the cost of
    Three day's work lost
  • Sweets of Temptation: "Candy Everybody Wants" uses candy as a metaphor for schlocky media driven by sex, violence, and not much else, with the song's narrator peddling it to viewers "so their minds are soft and lazy."
  • Teen Pregnancy: "Eat For Two", sung from the perspective of a young mother facing an unplanned pregnancy. The song was later answered by R.E.M.'s song "Me In Honey", which is told from the father's perspective.
  • Transatlantic Equivalent: To The Smiths. Both bands had a melodic jangle-pop sound and lead singers who were outspoken animal rights activists.
  • Viewers Are Morons: Discussed in "Candy Everybody Wants":
    So their eyes are growing hazy
    Cause they wanna turn it on
    So their minds are soft and lazy
    Well who do, who do, who do you wanna blame?
  • War Is Hell: "Anthem for Doomed Youth", adapted from a poem by slain World War I soldier Wilfred Owen, depicts war as nothing more than sending people to die horrible deaths for no legitimate reason. The song particularly criticizes conscription, wondering if people's attitudes towards war would be different if jingoistic countrymen who support, but don't participate in it were forced to fight instead.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Evident in the band's early material, before Natalie Merchant started writing protest songs.