From the beginning, Game Theory has defied easy pigeonholing. That’s true both for their catalog as a whole and their 1982 debut, Blaze of Glory, in particular – indie or alternative rock, whatever those umbrella terms mean. Nothing helpful there. Power pop? Well, the many lineups of Game Theory led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Scott Miller did owe something to the tradition established by Alex Chilton’s Big Star. But there’s a strong presence of organ and bass in Game Theory that aren’t normally part of a genre usually associated with jangle rock chords. There are also huge slices of new wave, and it’s fair to say there were seeds of what would later be dubbed the Paisley Underground.
But one reason Game Theory earned considerable praise from the critics but lukewarm listener support is due to the fact the band was original, experimental, and as deceptively cerebral as rock can get. As one writer put it, Game Theory, whatever its merits, remained stuck in the “cultist-critic-college DJ loop.”
The story of Blaze of Glory is well known. It began in Davis, California when Miller decided to transition from his previous band, Alternate Learning, to create Game Theory. The first lineup included Miller, Alternate Learning vet Nancy Becker (keyboards, vocals), as well as Fred Juhos (bass, guitar, vocals), and Michael Irwin (drums). On Blaze of Glory, frequent Miller collaborator Jozef Becker provided drum overdubs on “Something to Show” and “Sleeping Through Heaven.” Donnette Thayer, who would later become a full-fledged member, shared lead vocal duties and percussion on the acoustic “It Gives Me Chills.”
Long before the days when home studios would become the norm, much of Blaze of Glory was recorded in Miller’s childhood bedroom at his parents’ house in Sacramento, CA. If you listen very, very closely, Blaze of Glory shows its rough edges like the occasional sounds of the nearby Highway 80, and the barely-heard background noise of Miller’s mother running the vacuum cleaner. Still, as the band was well-rehearsed and some of the recording techniques were often revolutionary, the flaws often seem intentional parts of a very untypical soundscape.
The marketing, too, was very much DIY. Due to a lack of funds to press the album and print a jacket, a thousand copies of the LP were packaged in white plastic trash bags with Xeroxed cover art glued to each bag. According to the booklet accompanying the new remastered edition from Omnivore Recordings, Game Theory might have scored points for originality, but record stores didn’t like having to mess with the package and didn’t stock the record.
After its first release by Rational Records, Blaze of Glory has had several lives. In 1989, two songs were re-recorded by a new lineup for the compilation disc, Tinker to Evers to Chance. The full album was included on the 1993 Distortion of Glory compilation CD by Alias Records.
Then, in July 2014 Omnivore announced it would begin reissuing a series of remastered versions of the entire Game Theory catalog, beginning with Blaze of Glory. Clearly, Omnivore is taking this project very seriously. Produced by Dan Vallor, Pat Thomas, and Cheryl Pawelski, the new edition not only includes the original 12 songs, but a whopping 15 bonus tracks including four from Alternate Learning and 11 previously unissued demos, studio noodlings, and one live track. With much reverence for the late Miller (who died in April 2013), a 20-paged booklet accompanies the disc with essays and remembrances from former band members and colleagues, including Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate.
Even after all these years, it’s easy to understand why new listeners to Blaze of Glory might have been disconcerted by what they heard. For example, the opening track, “Something to Show,” apparently about the singer not getting the girl, starts off with a flat female voice stating, “Game Theory: Blaze—,” before the title cuts off and then we hear a cascade of multi-tracked layers of chimes and oscillating synthesizers that give way to melodic guitar lines and organ swells that quickly shift to the thumping bass of “Tin Scarecrow.” Moving quickly from song to song at a pace akin to a Ramones concert, “White Blues” and “Bad Year at UCLA” are pure Talking Heads/Television new wave. The baroque “The Young Drug” is where prog rock meets late ’60s psychedelia. (“The Young Drug” is the one track where Miller shares co-writing credit, in this case with Carolyn O’Rourke.) Speaking of acid trips, “Stupid Heart” goes to the center of a confused mind wanting to be left alone while wanting his girl to be with him always.
All the short 12 Miller-penned songs have catchy pop hooks, true enough, but the musicianship and arrangements are nothing short of complex. They include tricky time signatures, inverted chordings, melodies and counter-melodies, and lyrics that might be all about young male angst, but a young male who’s read his share of surreal Beat poetry. For one example, the chorus to “Sleeping Through Heaven” cries “I want to go bang on every door and say, ‘Wake up, you’re sleeping through heaven.'”
Clocking in at 35:05, it’s no wonder Omnivore wanted to beef up the collection with the bonus tracks that outnumber those of the original album. The real nuggets are the samples from Miller’s previous band, Alternate Learning, including “Another Wasted Afternoon” which demonstrates Miller’s new wave roots showcasing a rousing organ and drum finale. On the other hand, “What’s the Matter” sounds like a completely different band that employs fuzz guitar in a very punk setting. The live “Aliens in Our Midst” is filled with Lou Reed-flavored vocals. The rest of the “sound tests” vary in quality and are more of historic than musical interest for Miller fans.
All in all, Blaze of Glory is an album to be heard on its own terms without too many preconceptions. It’s definitely a collection that warrants repeated listenings, as you can’t catch everything the first time around. Yes, power pop fans should check it out knowing Game Theory set a higher bar for itself than many other such bands. New wave lovers should consider this release an absolute must. Thank you Omnivore Recordings—I look forward to hearing the rest of this overdue series.
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