Tastemaker: Frank Black

90s Month Tastemaker

Tastemaker is a recurring feature in which Strange Currencies contributors share stories of the events, experiences, and cultural artifacts that helped in shaping their musical tastes.

Among the endless number of topics related to the consumption of pop culture, I’ve always found the concept of hyper-fandom fascinating. I’ve often wondered why it is that people gravitate toward certain artists, and remain intensely loyal to them, even when the returns become diminishing? Surely this devotion comes from a variety of factors, most of which are likely personal, rather than solely a reflection on the art itself.

For whatever reason, I recently thought of the post-grunge group Marcy Playground, who had a hit with their 1997 single, “Sex and Candy.” Out of curiosity, I looked to see if the band – the definition of a 90’s “one-hit wonder” – still existed. Sure enough, they do, and have multiple east coast shows scheduled for early next year, despite not having released a record of new material in well over a decade (incidentally, the most rewarding part of this exercise was seeing that the third item on the “people also ask…” tab of my search was, “Is Marcy Playground Nirvana?”). The thing is, I’m reasonably certain that there are multiple people who already have tickets to these shows, excited to see a band that they may very well count among their absolute favorites.

Critiquing fandom of a hard-working, unassuming band is not my intention; for those who would cite my previous snarky or snobbish takes as evidence to the contrary, I think Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles will be just fine, despite my well-documented disliking of their music. What I am curious about are the stories that have led people to stay loyal to a band who – at least from an outsider’s perspective – peaked with a relatively nondescript song nearly twenty-five years ago, and quickly faded from the view of music critics and the record-buying public.

As I alluded to before, it’s likely that the answers I seek are of a highly personal nature. Studies show that, for the vast majority of the population, taste in regard to things like music are well established by the end of our teenage years, and difficult to change after that. Naturally – perfectly coinciding with the nostalgia-based themes of “90s Month(s)” – this has led me to reflect on some of the most intense fandoms of my own teenage years.

Last month, I wrote a lengthy review centered on my “fan divorce” from the band Līve, whose 1997 album Secret Samadhi represented the beginning of the end of a once-intense fandom. As that loyalty faded over the course of the next two years, it found itself largely refocused in a direction that may have seemed odd from an outsider perspective: former Pixies frontman Frank Black.

For context, Pixies had been broken up for over four years when I purchased their 1989 masterpiece, Doolittle. However, by that time, I already owned the three albums that then completed Frank Black’s discography: his 1993 self-titled debut, 1994’s Teenager of the Year, and 1996’s The Cult of Ray. To me – at least as late as the spring of 1997 – Pixies were just the band that Frank had played in prior to going solo. In fact, I had seen Pixies live as a twelve-year-old in 1992 – opening for U2 on the first leg of the Zoo TV tour – and still started with Frank Black’s solo work.

By 1997, Frank Black was something of a star in decline (if he had even been a star to begin with). Despite the positive critical reception of his first two records, Black ran into label trouble with his long-time imprint 4AD. Cult of Ray was released on Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, and when it sold poorly, Black would again be forced to shop for a label. None of this mattered to me, or to my two closest friends, who were also finding themselves drawn further into a Frank Black fandom that lasts to this day.

In the summer of 1998, our loyalty was rewarded with the release of a new Frank Black single, “All My Ghosts,” with his new backing band, The Catholics. Over the course of the next five years, the group would release six new albums, and leak the unreleased Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day. Though these records arrived amid game-changing albums from the likes of Radiohead, The Flaming Lips, and Modest Mouse – and though critics hardly even acknowledged his new work, let alone endorsed it – Frank Black stayed at the center of my musical world. During these years, I saw him perform several times in small clubs, bought every import single and EP that I could find, and used my new dial-up internet connection to become a regular lurker on FrankBlack.net.

I love the Catholics-era records, even though they are admittedly spotty (outside of 2001’s consistently-excellent Dog in the Sand). Why was I so drawn to them, even when so much objectively more important music was coming out at the time? The answer is complicated, I suppose. For our In the Wilderness feature on this era of Frank Black’s career, my friends and I speculated about the role that “shared discovery” played in our burgeoning super-fandom. Accessibility had to have been another part of the appeal. Seeing Frank in small clubs – even meeting him and his bandmates – helped to breed a loyalty that, no doubt, felt personal.

For me at least, there is another reason. It was at the same time that I dove into Frank Black fandom that I also started listening to what I, for lack of a better term, called “old music.” The Catholics years were essentially aligned with my college years, and even though I have long claimed that I gave myself an education in music while Northern Arizona University gave me an education in history, my recent reflection on these times has revealed that I had significant help from Mr. Frank Black.

Oddly enough, my entire history with Frank Black began with musical education. The first time that I ever heard a Pixies song – before seeing them open for U2 – was from a VHS recording of an early-1992 episode of 120 Minutes. On it was the Pixies’ video for Trompe le Monde‘s “Head On,” which Black introduces at the beginning of the clip as “a Jesus and Mary Chain song.” It would be a few more years before I heard the original, but the hook had been set long before.

The aforementioned “All My Ghosts” single featured three B-sides, each of which are excellent. Capping the single off is The Catholics’ raw, two-track version of Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guards.” At the time, I only had Blood on the Tracks, and Dylan’s recent Time Out of Mind. Black’s cover led me to borrow my older brother’s copy of Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 3, which led me to hear “Hurricane,” which led me to Desire, which led me to a long domino chain that ended fifty-or-so purchases later. At least until the next installment of the Bootleg Series arrives.

Also released in the summer of 1998 was the Pixies’ At the BBC collection, which opens with an absolutely unhinged version of The Beatles toss-off “Wild Honey Pie.” It would be another year-and-a-half before I got over my long, ignorant avoidance of all things Beatle-related, but when I did, I went toward the “White Album” early on, partly because Pixies had, for me, added fuel to the argument that it was their “weird” record.

I’ve written elsewhere about how reviews of R.E.M.’s 1998 album, Up, led me to purchase Pet Sounds. What I haven’t mentioned is that when the CD arrived from Columbia House – four to six weeks after ordering – I skipped over every album track to hear the bonus original version of “I Know There’s An Answer” (“Hang On to Your Ego”) first – which Frank Black had covered on his solo debut, and which was the first song of his that I had ever heard. I eventually got around to hearing the rest of what is now my all-time favorite album.

By 1999, thanks to the Rushmore soundtrack, I had already gotten into The Kinks, purchasing a compilation that covered the group’s early years. However, in search of the original version of “This Is Where I Belong,” which Frank Black had covered on the “Headache” single, I eventually convinced myself to take a flier on the 1972 set, The Kink Kronikles. This led me to “Waterloo Sunset,” “Dead End Street,” “Lola,” “Victoria,” and the notion that The Kinks just might be worth checking out on a deeper level.

In the spring of 2001, I used my dial-up internet to painstakingly download Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day from Napster (the only time I ever used the service). That summer, when seemingly every mainstream critic had fallen in love with the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I could play the part of “Old Weird Americana Snob” – already familiar with its most prominently-featured song, thanks to Frank Black.

In 2002, both Frank Black and Tom Waits released two albums in one day (Waits’ Alice and Blood Money appeared in May, and Black’s Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop in August). I wasn’t a Waits fan yet, but Black’s “double cover” of Waits’ “The Black Rider” helped convince me to check him out not too long afterward.

Eventually, I’d use Frank Black covers as an excuse to listen to music that I had previously avoided: Bruce Springsteen (“I’m Going Down”), Dylan’s Self Portrait (“Belle Isle”). In time, I’d learn the origins of songs that I had already known for years through cover versions: “Remake/Remodel” (Roxy Music), “Handyman” (Jimmy Jones), “Sleep” (Donovan), “The Big Hurt” (Miss Toni Fisher), “Just a Little” (Beau Brummels). Through Frank’s Nashville work, I’d take my first deeper dive into classic country and soul music in the mid-2000s (I heard his version of “Dark End of the Street” before those of The Flying Burrito Brothers or James Carr). I’d even check out artists because of their references in Black’s original songs, (“Everything is New” alone made me curious about Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, and Chet Baker).

However, it was during those late-teen/early-20s years that Frank Black’s influence loomed largest over my musical tastes. The resources that I would discover toward the end of that era – better music journalism, a wider network of music fan friends, and more disposable income – would help to expand my horizons even further. Incidentally, it was around this time that Black reunited with Pixies, and rather than him continuing to provide a tangible link to pop music’s rich past, my hope was that the reunion might lead him to craft a few new classics of his own. That hasn’t quite materialized just yet, but I remain hopeful, just as someone out there might be hoping for Marcy Playground to return to the top of the charts. After all, that’s what hyper-fans do.

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