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Radio Cure: The Wilco Story

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They don’t often make ’em like Wilco anymore.

Wilco is a band that has undergone a complete transformation of its musical mission since it was formed. Radiohead is the only other band that comes readily to mind as having had as extreme a transmogrification; while there are some parallels between the bands, Wilco’s reinvention was perhaps even more dramatic, with more on the line. In addition to this considerable achievement, Wilco deserves notice as well for taking on its record company in a dire all-or-nothing gamble and ultimately winning. Even file sharers deserve some credit for helping Wilco re-establish itself as one of the most innovative bands in the United States.

Our story begins with the seminal alternative country rockers Uncle Tupelo, who appeared with their debut in 1990 and caused a buzz in the alternative community with their fusion of punk and straight-faced country convention. Wilco was formed by singer/songwriters and lifelong friends Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, drummer Mike Heidorn, and Farrar’s brother Wade, who departed shortly after for the military.

The remaining trio cut four albums from 1990-1993, their final being a major label debut for Sire, Anodyne. Their music bore the influences of Hank Williams and Leadbelly, but was informed by postpunk indie bands like Husker Du. Peter Buck of R.E.M. produced their third LP, March 16-20, 1992. The title of their debut, No Depression, became a catchphrase for the new wave of alternative country-rockers who made inroads in the early 1990’s.

Uncle Tupelo: No Depression (1990)   Uncle Tupelo: Still Feel Gone (1991)   Uncle Tupelo:  March 16-20, 1992 (1992) &nbsp Uncle Tupelo: Anodyne (1993)

Uncle Tupelo could’ve continued on; Anodyne was their first charting album ever, reaching #18, praise was lavished on them from many corners, they were spearheads of a movement.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the lifelong partnership of Farrar and Tweedy deteriorated into open hostility over the band’s direction at this critical juncture, and the group split into two. Farrar recruited Heidorn and formed the country-rock band Son Volt, who released three well-regarded albums for Warners in the mid-late 90’s. Their debut, Trace, reached #7 on the Billboard chart, although sales were weaker for the other two.

Jeff Tweedy took Ken Coomer (who had replaced Heidorn on drums for Anodyne) and part-time bassist John Stirratt and mandolinist Max Johnston from Uncle Tupelo, plus guitarist Jay Bennett, and formed his new band, Wilco. This lineup recorded Wilco’s debut in 1995, A.M.

This album, recorded in a similar country-rock vein as Uncle Tupelo, sold respectably (making #27 on the charts), but by the time of their second LP, Tweedy’s vision was changing. Being There, which made many critic’s best lists in 1996, showed signs of departure. While the country-rock base was still there, the band incorporated elements of psychedelica, soul, power pop, orchestral music, and even R&B. This confounded their fans, and irritated the record label. Despite the critical praise, the album got no higher than #73 on the charts.

In 1998, the band backed Billy Bragg on Mermaid Avenue, a collection of unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs, and then returned in 1999 with the dense, lush Summerteeth. Summerteeth was an even stranger album than Being There; a cross between The Band and Brian WIlson, with fussy production and dark, haunting melodies and lyrics. Uncle Tupelo was often described as “Americana”; Wilco took Americana and turned it into a contemporary concern. It sold even more poorly than the previous release, despite even more critical acclaim.

Which brought Wilco to a real crossroads. By all accounts, the sessions for their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, were tense ones. Bennett quit the group. The record company rejected the tapes, which were unapologetically progressive and experimental. Unwilling to make the recording more “commercially viable” Tweedy and the band bought the masters from Warner/Reprise for a reported $50,000, and went home without a contract.

Enter the file sharers, the leeches who steal music for free off the internet. When tapes of the unreleased album leaked onto the internet, they were quickly downloaded and shared on peer-to-peer networks like Napster. While the band didn’t reap any financial reward from this, the ensuing clamor for the music, which was the best and most challenging of the band’s career, led to a tour in support of the album Warner’s wouldn’t release. The tour was a success; and Nonesuch picked up the distribution deal. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot peaked at #13 on the Billboard charts, Wilco’s best showing ever, despite the leakage of the tapes. “Heavy Metal Drummer” received considerable airplay. A happy story for all concerned, except Warner Brothers.

Wilco: A.M. (1995)   Wilco: Being There (1996)   Wilco: Summerteeth (1997)   Wilco: Yankee Hotel

In 2004, Wilco released their fifth album A Ghost Is Born. At this point, the band was stretching into space-rock territory, with long tracks (two over 10 minutes), emphasis on instrumentation, impressionistic lyrics. There are few bands in America right now that have provided as many surprises consistently as Wilco, and you’ve got to admire their moxie.

Be sure to visit Freeway Jam.

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About uao

  • sydney

    “Enter the file sharers, the leeches who steal music for free off the internet”
    — shut up you idiot. If it weren’t for file sharers, Wilco wouldn’t have had a carreer. If your gonna look to blame somone for the shape of the music industry, look to the media conglomerates and record companies who are raping you up the ass.

  • While I’d hardly state it as forcefully as sydney, it is interesting to note that Wilco went from having no contract and no sales to having lots of interest, a contract, and their “best showing yet”. Because of the tour? Because of the file-sharing? Both?

    Certainly the “despite” seems like a non sequitir.

  • sydney

    Well.. didn’t mean to be an asshole, but I am really sick of people blaming file sharers, when media giants are making outrageous profits. Does anyone blame them for the high prices, or for the amount of power and control they have over the industry?

    no.. instead they blame the kid who downloads music rather than pay 24 dollars for an album. how outrageous is that?

    And besides, despite what the record industry says is declining sales, they have increased profits exponentially in the years since profit sharing. These companies are amongst the most powerful in the world. And I mean real POWER. money power, power to influence, power to control culture and the arts scene. It’s outrageous that the American government and people haven’t demanded that these companies be declared monopolies and striped of their power.

    …all this, and people like to single out a guy who makes 25 grand a year and downloads a few albums. Give me a break.

    Who says music is supposed to be sold anyway? I go to shows on a monthly basis. That’s where bands make their money anyway.

  • uao

    Just to clarify–

    I was taking the file sharers’ side here.

    I used the ‘leeches’ comment as a record company would; intentional sarcasm.

    I see the file sharers as integral to WIlco’s comeback.

    The tour helped too.

  • Man, it has been a while since we got into a conversation about file sharing around here, but maybe we need it again.

    Profits profits profits, big companies make some profits and they really stick it to the music fans. Very true. They also have been behind the times on their technology and getting the music into people’s hands.

    That doesn’t justify the way some file sharers leech and just take what they can for free. I know I am not a saint, but I download everything and then when I like it (as was the case with The Mars Volta, and Mae most recently) I buy the album.

    Just because the prices are generally too high doesn’t mean you get to take all your music for free off of the internet. Two wrongs don’t make a right and all that jazz.

    In the case of Wilco file sharers were downloading something that wasn’t commercially available. The key to this scenario is that many of the file sharers (presumably) bought the album when it got its proper release on Nonesuch.

  • highway6

    Nice piece on one of my favorite bands. Just a few things. Wilco streamed YHF on their own website as soon as they got the rights back. They were pioneers in recognizing the good that can come from file sharing. Jeff Tweedy was recently quoted as saying that file sharing is to Wilco what radio airplay is to commercial acts. Also, I have read that the record company began to take heat for their treatment of Wilco and ended up giving them their release and the rights to YHF. (for free) Not a bad deal huh? One last thing, Jay Benentt got the boot, he didn’t quit. Check out the dvd “I am trying to break your heart” He was a weird dude.

  • sydney

    Too badd that bennet got the boot, because in my opinion he was as essential to the band as tweedy (as essential to the old sounding wilco). He was really really gifted multi-instrumentalist, and producer. HArd to find anyone who beat him on those grounds, anywhere in rock.

    I think him and tweedy just butted heads too many times.

  • Bennett was a jerk, though. Essential to the band: I don’t know. He is a very talented musician, but cannot do anything by himself (check out the aforementioned doc for proof.) His problem was that he assumed – because he is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and producer – that he could also hold the creative reins. Not true – the man cannot create. Leroy Bach, on the other hand – there’s a man they’ll miss. The essencee of Wilco is Tweedy (for proof of this, check out the live footage of him alone on said documentary.) Good producers, good session musicians are abundant. Creative genius is not.