Wednesday, May 05, 2004

A while ago I had mentioned a New York record store that was selling a ton of obscure 80's albums very cheaply (now the truth can be told: it was Bleeker Street Records which isn't one of my usual haunts). Probably the best thing I found there was an album called World's Fare by a group called the Wayfarers. It came out in 1986 on a french label, vinyl only, and pretty much vanished. There's little to no info about it on the internet, though I did note that it's one of critic Richie Unterberger's picks for top overlooked albums of the 80's.

It was only by chance that I actually bought it. The cover, while colorful, didn't look like the sort of thing I usually buy:

I don't me it looked like it could be a 90's pop-punk record or the soundtrack to an animated French thriller. Then I flipped the jacket over, and the back looks like the work of one of the Paisley Underground groups, and includes one small photo that depicts a bunch of clean-cut students apparently performing protest songs in the quad.

Atypical jacket design always piques my interest, and I decided to buy the record because it was on the Lolita label (which once released an early Game Theory compilation); because I'd never heard of the band; and (to be honest) because it was priced at $1.99 and that's a level of risk I'm very comfortable with.

Turns out it's probably going to go down as my favorite find of this year. I was so intrigued by the record that I tracked down and contacted the only member I could locate on the internet, Cary Berger who currently does film soundtracks. He was extremely nice and answered all of my questions, and I'm going to post his response here pretty much verbatim (so people who go googling this band will be able to find something.) I had started by mentioning how odd I found it that there was almost no online info about the group. He wrote:

Yes the Wayfarers were sort of in the wrong place (USA, not Europe) at the wrong time (early 80s instead of early 90s).

Where are we now? Ken Kaufman is a pretty successful screen writer (Space Cowboys, The Missing). I am a lawyer for a big tech company, but I also do soundtracks (Cleopatra's Second Husband, Suture, Full tilt Boogie, The New Women) -- of all of these, The New Women (available on Amazon) is probably the most Wayfarer-esque. The rest of the band is not especially involved in music or film, although I am threatening to pull Ray (our trumpet player) out of retirement this summer.

Where to start. Ken Kaufman, Nick Noyes
[who left the band prior to their album] and I were freshmen at Columbia in 1981 interested in all things musical--post post punk at that time, I recall bands like Haircut 100, ABC, Bow Wow Wow etc. being the rage. We were interested in things from the 60s, but also the new sort of anti-rock sound being pursued by the likes of Young Marble Giants (and then Weekend), Aztec Camera (and the rest of the Postcard bands Orange Juice and Josef K), Crepuscule label generally [this is Belgium's Disques du Crepuscule label. Read about it here], Monochrome Set and the other Cherry Red [quirky English label. Read about it here] bands, and closer to home the Raybeats, the Feelies, and of course the pantheon from the 60s--Sergio Mendes, Claudine Longet, Ennio Morricone, Piero Piccione, Mina, Wanda de Sah, Ventures and other surf music, etc.

At the time, the 2 big schools of US independent music were Husker Du and the Replacements, although the limelight did seem to shift around a bit from Minnesota to Athens to North Carolina to Louisville, etc. We didn't mind that stuff (and now I actually like a lot of it more), but our interest was more in the anti-Rock that was going on in Europe. So I targeted the labels like Crepuscule, Cherry Red, Compact Organization and Factory to put out something by us. Lolita was sort of a second best solution, but they were interested in us and so we did a single with them and then the album.

Crepuscule did release one track on a compilation--it is our cover of the theme song "Arabesque" by Henry Mancini (we wrote new lyrics for it).

We played a lot in the East Village and the other hip clubs of the day
8BC, the Kitchen, Tramps etc.

When the record came out, WFMU and some other college stations were into it, but it didn't really fit into the prevailing tastes of the times. At the same time, in retrospect, I think we could have done a lot more to promote our vision -- i.e. we should have toured -- we didn't play out of NYC too much.

When the "lounge revival" subsequently hit
[basically the mid-90's], a lot of folks at least remembered that we were doing it way back when . . . timing is a funny thing that way.

These days, I am working on 2 albums--one with a female vocalist (band name TBD) and the other more of a guy post punk thing. What do I listen to? Everything--I love all the old stuff that keeps coming out of the woodwork (it's as if there is a secret alternative universe where new old records keep getting produced, and who would have thought that Margo Guryan and the Free Design would have their entire catalogues reissued, let alone that Brian Wilson would be playing Pet Sounds and Smile live!)--or for that matter all the great 80's reissues which are coming out now. But I also like a lot of non retro music -- e.g. The Notwist, High Llamas, The Wrens, Lali Puna, Tied and Tickled Trio, Stereolab, Sufjan Stevens, Divine Comedy, (well I guess some of this stuff is retro) Mum, Ms John Soda, Pheonix. I guess the focus is still pretty european.

I don't want to gush excessively, but what struck me most about this record is that when I first listened to it, I initially assumed that it was all cover versions. In fact, the band wrote all but four of the songs. The quality of the songwriting is every bit as good a what professional writers (like the above mentioned Margo Guryan) were putting out in the 60's. Even better, the Wayfarers had the chops (how I hate that word) to put the material over. The album is actually produced somewhat "dry" so it doesn't exactly sound retro, but they've got live strings and horns, a singer who can really sing, and all kinds of neat instrumental touches like ukelin and dijeridoo to spice things up. To me it sounds not like an homage to the 60's, but like they listened to the same source material that people knew back then, and then produced a classic 60's album about 20 years too late (or ten years too early for the revival).

I'm interested to hear what you think, but I find it almost impossible to believe that Have We Time (which sounds like something the Bangles would have covered) wasn't already several decades old in 1986. On the other hand, they do a version of the Buzzcocks' Harmony In My Head that's an amazing act of assimilation. There's a cover of Love's Maybe The People Would Be The Times or Between Clark and Hilldale, which is very nice, though slightly more predictable. Possibly the most amazing track is the final one The Pillow Game. Sounding at times like the title song for a lost Bond movie and at times like the theme to a 70's cop show, it doesn't quite seem possible that it was written and recorded by a bunch of kids right out of college. I listen to it, I go on the internet trying to find a movie called The Pillow Game that featured this, and I fail. Then a few days later I check again. My brain doesn't want to accept the idea that this wasn't a semi-major hit about ten years before it was recorded!

WFMU has a very brief, very positive write-up on their site (in the "old bin" section), and I think that there's still a reasonable market for something like this. Anyone out there want to twist some arms and try to get it reissued? It's really just way too good to languish in obscurity.

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