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Time Tripping With Galaxie 500

The camerawork may be shaky, and the sound decidedly lo-fi, but short of the invention of a time machine, some of the footage on Galaxie 500's newly released DVD, Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste, is as close as we're going to get to experiencing what it was like to witness the group at the beginning of their career.

Take a look. It's 1988, and Galaxie 500 are onstage at the then-fledgling Middle East club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Guitarist Dean Wareham looks pale and uncomfortable. Drummer Damon Krukowski nervously fiddles with his drum kit. Bassist Naomi Yang tries hard to project the impeccably cool stage presence she'll later perfect, but mostly comes across as bored. Krukowski counts off the beat and the band fumbles through "Oblivious," a tune that will appear on their debut album, Today. All three look relieved when they reach the end of the song. But even in these early days, there is something unique, something special about this band. Wareham's Velvety guitar tone, Yang's melodic bass lines, and Krukowski's imaginative drumming all make up a bewitching, cohesive sound. As "warts and all" as the Middle East footage may be, it's a priceless artifact.

There are countless more moments like this on Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste, a double disc set compiling live footage, television appearances, and promotional videos, out now on Plexifilm. "This is a refined version of recycling," Krukowski said from the Cambridge office he shares with his longtime partner Yang. "You know, you go through your closets and find things you never even knew you had. And we thought, ‘Can we do anything with this stuff?'"

"It turned out that we just had these boxes full of stuff," Wareham said during a separate interview, on the phone from New York City, where he currently fronts the band Luna. "I had some and Damon and Naomi had some. I had totally forgotten about the tape of the Middle East show, for example. That was quite a shock to see. We had no idea what we were doing."

Inspired by the Velvets

Galaxie 500 formed in Cambridge after Krukowski, Wareham, and Yang graduated from Harvard University in the mid-'80s. All three were big fans of proto-punk groups like the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers (itself a Velvets-influenced combo), as well as more recent British exports like Spaceman 3 and New Order.

The footage of the band at the Middle East captures one of their earliest gigs. "That was very exciting to us," Krukowski recalled. "We didn't think we were going around the world or anything like that. That was not in the cards for bands of our type at the time. So playing a local show and making a record that we thought was worthy of being on vinyl was what we wanted to do. And it was exciting — people were there and they listened and they applauded, and that was a thrill."

Watching such early footage now, the former band mates are both amused and horrified. "There are a lot of 'least favorite moments,'" laughed Yang.

"Some of the early stuff is vaguely embarrassing," agreed Wareham. "[Early in your career], it takes a while to get used to being onstage and using a microphone. It's kind of scary. And everyone goes through that, I think. But not everyone has videotapes of it."

"You're not so used to watching yourself play," Yang said. "You see a lot of still photos of yourself over the years, so you're used to that. But the film/video footage is so different. So it was a lot more surprising. It made you remember exactly what it was like that much more. It lifted the veil of nostalgia that a photograph could have. It was like YOU ARE THERE."

"That's what I think is good about it," Krukowski added. "It's funny to watch how we change. We set up that first disc chronologically so people can watch us gain experience and change. So it ends up being a little parable of a band's life."

Making Records With Kramer

The band recorded its debut with underground producer Kramer, who ran the Shimmy Disc label and produced and played on records by Bongwater and Jad Fair, among others. "Part of that process where you see us changing [on the DVD], is when we met Kramer and we'd been in the studio with him," Krukowski said. "He really instructed us musically. He taught us to arrange our songs differently."

"Just watching him work taught us a lot," Yang added. "He's a great musician, and he has an amazing ear."

"He took us seriously," said Krukowski. "He thought we were bringing in material that we could make great records out of. So you see us change our musical attitude."

"The first record we made in about 18 hours, maybe three six-hour days," revealed Wareham. "Kramer probably didn't do very much except put a whole lot of reverb on it. But we were really stunned how good we thought it sounded when we took it home and listened to it. After a year of playing in our rehearsal room, and after making some demos that we thought didn't sound that good, we were really pleased."

"Kramer's an amazing engineer," Krukowski continued. "The thing about Noise New York [Kramer's studio] is that it was a big room, with high ceilings and all that. Kramer had no interest in separation; he mixed things as he went along. He put a lot of reverb on everything; he allowed bleed-thru on all the mics. There was none of the kind of stuff that at the time passed for pro studio sound. But the thing was that he was really making a great sound with the materials he had at hand."

The band went on to make three records with Kramer, 1988's Today, 1989's On Fire, and 1990's This Is Our Music, all released on Rough Trade. The albums sounded unlike any others that were being made at the time, whether in the underground or mainstream musical scenes. "I think they hold up pretty well because they don't sound like the '80s," Wareham said. "What we were doing was pretty different from what everyone else was doing in Boston, or anywhere else."

"We didn't know at the time what our records should sound like, but we knew they had to be records," Krukowski said. "We didn't want to document the band, we wanted to make records. And Kramer wanted to do that too."

Almost on the Cover of Sounds

The band quickly gained a following in the UK. "It was really different over in England," Krukowski said. "When we went over there, [the music press] took us very seriously as representatives of some new movement, which is the way they received every band. So we were portrayed as spearheading the 'wimpy' movement. So it was a weird situation. We were only in a scene in this most strange scattered sense [in the U.S.]. And they were trying to make it into some kind of more cohesive, next-big-thing type deal. And they need like 10 of those every week! And that's both why we did well over there and why we never broke out completely there. Because we weren't the next big thing."

"That's the thing — a lot more happened than we thought would ever happen, but it's funny because in retrospect people think it was much bigger than it really was," Yang continues. "I remember that the record company kept being disappointed. There were three magazines over there, Melody Maker, Sounds and NME, and Sounds was going to put us on the cover. Sounds was like the lowest selling of the three. But the publicist in Rough Trade's English office was so excited! And then in the end they didn't put us on the cover, and she was so devastated. I remember us trying to comfort her. So it wasn't like we went over there and were on the cover of every magazine."

"We almost made it on the cover of the third best selling English music weekly!" Krukowski said with a chuckle.

"We were the first band on the first day at 11 a.m. at Glastonbury!" laughed Yang. "You know, we were having fun and it was all great. But in retrospect it was not very large-scale. We were not the Pixies."

Nevertheless, Galaxie 500's audience grew steadily on both sides of the Atlantic, and the band became a potent live act. On the DVD, a November 1990 performance at the University of London shows the trio stunning a sold-out crowd with a powerful set of psychedelia-tinged guitar rock. In just a few months, however, it would all be over.

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

Wareham left the band shortly after a tour in support of This Is Our Music ."Why did we call it quits?" he mused. "Let me see if I can remember. I guess we were getting on each other's nerves!"

"It was really confusing at the time," recalled Krukowski. "Many, many bands go through this — you leave your little circle and enter this wider world with all of these commercial aspects. And it puts all kinds of pressures, and everybody responds differently. And Dean and we responded quite differently. There were a lot of disagreements rising up in the band. And that was the moment when the major labels woke up to everything that was going on. They all kind of swept down."

"They had just signed Nirvana, so they were like, 'What else is out there?‚'" said Yang. "Everyone we knew was being courted. It was some kind of frenzy."

"Suddenly everybody had the chance of making money, and making it big and having fame and fortune," continued Krukowski. "And people went nuts. There was a lot of awful behavior, a lot of awful people on the scene. We were at the time negotiating with major labels. We were very much enmeshed in all of that. And that's when the band split up. And in retrospect, it's like bands either get through those times or they don't. And we didn't. We just couldn't. We hadn't developed a way to deal with those things as a group or to mutually agree on them."

"In some ways, a band is an unnatural thing," Wareham said. "They all have the seeds of their own destruction in there from the beginning. It's fun to collaborate with people, but it's difficult to collaborate with the same people for a period of years and travel together all the time and make decisions together all the time. You don't really see that in any other art form. People put on a play or a movie, and the collaboration is great, but then it's over. I don't think bands are supposed to last forever. Damon and Naomi were very angry at me when I quit. When you break up with someone, they get angry at you. But bands are weird democracies. And we were a three-piece democracy where the other two were a couple. I think it was bound to put a strain on me."

Wareham went on to form Luna with members of the Feelies and the Chills, and continues playing with them (in a somewhat altered lineup) to this day. Krukowski and Yang record under the name Damon and Naomi and run a publishing company, Exact Change, together.

Despite the band's acrimonious end, all three are proud of their early work in Galaxie 500. "Truthfully, the dream is that you can make music that can communicate for longer than just this week," said Krukowski. "If it does, that's a miracle to us."

Does Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste signal the end of Galaxie 500's archival releases? Wareham isn't so sure. "There are a few Peel Sessions left over," he said. "There is some good stuff on there. The highlight for me is a performance of the Sex Pistols song 'Submission.' We're talking about trying to put some of that out at some point."

Krukowski just laughed. "There are still other closets we haven't gone through!" — Tyler Wilcox [Monday, August 23, 2004]

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