The Time We Recorded “Game of Pricks”

I JOINED Guided By Voices in the summer of 1994, just after their brief stint on the second stage of Lollapalooza, midway through the recording of what would eventually be called Alien Lanes. My memory may be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure the first time I showed up to drummer Kevin Fennell’s North Dayton house, in whose garage we both practiced and recorded, as a member of the band, it was a recording session and not a practice. Empty or half-full beer cans were scattered around the basement; it was considered bad form not to show up without a twelve-pack of something watery and domestic, except for Kevin, who did not at that time (nor does he at this time, in fact) drink. When he was free, lead singer/songwriter Robert Pollard’s brother Jimmy would be there, in a usually casual observer/cheerleader role, and Manager-For-Life Pete Jamison, and often one or two other of Bob’s long-time friends, who were of course fans but mainly loved hanging out in an atmosphere of boozy fraternity. I don’t remember exactly who of the extracurriculars was present on this occasion. Guitarist Tobin Sprout was fiddling with the dials on his Tascam 4-track PortaStudio, which recorded to regular cassette tape, essentially turning the high end all the way up and the low end all the way down. I forget what he did with the mid-frequencies. We may have had two microphones, but rarely used more than one at a time, and neither was any good in the professional sense of the term; I think one or both might have been from Radio Shack. The microphone choice and recording setup were a function of economics rather than aesthetics, but the way we recorded was very much a function of aesthetics, i.e. Bob liked the sound Toby was able to produce more than anything he had ever been able to achieve in a proper recording studio. (Toby has typically downplayed his role as an engineer to placing the mics wherever he could find space amid the clutter of beer cans, but he was much more talented than that. He understood that Bob’s vocals were the songs’ primary content, and always figured out a way to make sure they cut through whatever racket the rest of us made). Most of the guitars and all of the bass were recorded direct, and the mics were almost only ever used for drums and vocals.

By the time I got there Bob was playing guitar, as usual, running through a new song with Kevin two or three times until Kevin understood the structure, which was not overly-complicated. I didn’t at first fully understand what was going on, which is to say that we were in fact already recording the song, and that this was the way we often recorded songs. When Bob was satisfied that Kevin had grasped the structure, he turned to Toby and said, “Okay, let’s do the vocals.” Toby had in fact been recording each of the two or three run-throughs, and I should emphasize that his was a song no one besides Bob had ever heard before. Bob put on a pair of headphones, picked up the mic, and sang in one take the entire song. He may have listened back once, and then, satisfied with the performance, handed them to me, and told me to record a bass line.

I’ll admit to a slight panicky feeling, especially when I listened to the song through the headphones and could barely make out the chord progression under Bob’s vocal, which was hypnotizing not just for the beauty of the melody but for the weirdly plangent lyrics. Everyone was watching me (I thought). Everyone was judging me (I thought). In fact no one was watching, and no one cared, but on my first run-through I flubbed badly a couple of the transitions. Bob picked up the guitar and ran through the structure standing in front of me, in double time. I got most of it, and had another go at recording. Somehow, I got through a mostly mistake-free take, and by the end had finally figured out what I wanted to do; but we were done. I don’t mean just that I was done. The song was done. And when I heard the mix that Toby played back a few minutes later, I realized: the song was perfect.

The name of that particular song was “Game of Pricks,” and it remains one of my favorite Guided By Voices songs. Several months later, after Alien Lanes was released, we were asked by the record company to re-record it as a possible single for radio play (those were strange days — anything seemed possible). The re-recorded version, done in a local studio, reflects the fact that we’d been playing the song live for quite a while already. In addition to the added intro section, which Bob came up with in the studio, we played it faster, tighter, and with a few more embellishments (harmonies at the end, additional layers of guitar). In my opinion, this version is worse than the original album cut. It’s still really good: I mean, how badly can you butcher such a great song? But it’s missing something unquantifiable. And it’s that “something,” that great unknown, that unsolvable mystery, whether born from spontaneity, authenticity, laziness, beer, or whatever socio-economic weather patterns were circling the sky that song-struck August night, which lies at the heart of anything worthwhile. It is my great hope that its source never be located.

James Greer

About James Greer

James Greer is the author of the novels Artificial Light(LHotB/Akashic 2006) and The Failure (Akashic 2010), and the non-fiction book Guided By Voices: A Brief History, a biography of a band for which he played bass guitar. He’s written or co-written movies for Lindsay Lohan, Jackie Chan, and Steven Soderbergh, among others. He is a Contributing Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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One Response to The Time We Recorded “Game of Pricks”

  1. Justin says:

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