Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
The cultural heroes of the 1960s continued to dominate well into the decade that followed, until finally in the early- to mid-’80s, the American pop and rock charts opened up to new acts. Most of the rookie sensations broke out thanks to MTV, but a few—like U2 and R.E.M.—built a fanbase in the U.S. via college radio. For a time, low-powered stations at big state universities became a 24-hour showcase for all kinds of music that couldn’t get onto mainstream radio just yet: the overseas imports, the experimental post-hardcore acts who toured 11 months a year, the unclassifiable cross-genre bands, and the local rockers angling for the big time. “Left of the dial” was a wild frontier of lo-fi noise, snappy indie pop, and everything in between.
Game Theory was one of the in-betweens. Frontman Scott Miller was a fellow traveler with a small wave of California bands sometimes called “the paisley underground,” who tried to revive the fuzzy sound and frilly style of ’60s psychedelic garage-rock. But Miller had broader tastes, and bigger ambitions. He liked David Bowie, Big Star, The Kinks, Roxy Music, The Beach Boys, Prince, and other musicians who sported hooks, muscle, brains, and eccentricity. Game Theory found a sympathetic producer in Mitch Easter, who a few years earlier had helped nurture R.E.M. (and had scored a few college radio hits of his own, with the band Let’s Active). Easter was savvy enough to know though that there was only so much he could do to move Game Theory beyond “cult favorite” status. Miller’s puckishness—and his voice, self-described as a “miserable whine”—made him hard to package to a major label, no matter how traditionally catchy many of his songs were.
In 1987, Game Theory released the bold double LP Lolita Nation: an overt attempt to make the college-rock equivalent of a visionary, tuneful classic like Love’s Forever Changes or The Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle. Unsurprisingly, given the times, the achievement went largely unheralded. Outside of some rave reviews in the few publications that paid attention to what was bubbling up underground, both the record and the band remained marginal. Miller only released one more album under the Game Theory moniker, then had some minor success during the 1990s alt-rock boom with The Loud Family. In the decades since the release of Lolita Nation, the album’s reputation grew, but only a little, because by the mid-’90s it had fallen out of circulation (along with most of the rest of the Game Theory discography). Then Miller killed himself in 2013—something that stunned friends and fans, because while he was introverted, he was never a gloomy/doomy sort. At the time he died, original CD copies of Lolita Nation were hard to find, selling in some markets for upwards of $200.
Last month, Omnivore Recordings reissued Lolita Nation on CD and vinyl, as part of a comprehensive Game Theory archival project. The set’s a must for the band’s longtime fans, who should appreciate the 21 bonus tracks—mostly covers and alternate versions of Lolita Nation songs, cobbled together from demos and live performances. But the record also remains a must for anyone who wants to understand the rough beast that was 1980s college-rock: a non-genre with few common traits, save idiosyncrasy.
The original Lolita Nation CD has 27 tracks, of which only 13 are fully formed Scott Miller compositions. Three of the other circa 1987 Game Theory members contribute songs, and though some were written in collaboration with Miller, he didn’t sing lead. These tend to be slightly out-of-character with the rest of Lolita Nation. Some are instrumentals, while others (in particular Donnette Thayer’s “Look Away” and “Mammoth Gardens”) are slicker and more radio-ready than the Game Theory norm.
But they’re all stitched together with the record’s big gimmick: the song fragments and sound collages that spontaneously erupt throughout. It’s tempting to compare what Miller did on Lolita Nation with side two of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, or Guided By Voices’ Alien Lanes. (“The Beatles meets Guided By Voices” is an inadequate description overall, but not too crazy of a way to narrow down the Game Theory sound.) If Miller and Mitch Easter were borrowing anything from John Lennon and George Martin though, they were imitating “Revolution #9,” not “Mean Mr. Mustard.”
Opening track, “Kenneth—What’s The Frequency?” (a reference to a bizarre 1986 incident involving Dan Rather, which later inspired an R.E.M. song) sets the tone. Disconnected pieces of conversation and micro-snippets of old Game Theory songs create mounting anticipation and mass confusion, which breaks when the intro gives way to the hammering rocker “Not Because You Can.” Throughout the rest of side one and two, in between the main songs—and sometimes even in the middle of them—the fractured sound-sculptures recur, sometimes joined by 30-second or minute-long semi-songs like “Exactly What We Don’t Want To Hear” and “The World’s Easiest Job.”
Then side three goes bananas. In addition to holding the bulk of the non-Miller material, the side loads up on experiments, peaking with a two-minute long collage, called… “All Clockwork And No Bodily Fluid Makes Hal A Dull Metal Humbert / In Heaven Every Elephant Baby Wants To Be So Full Of Sting / Paul Simon In The Park With Canticle / But You Can’t Pick Your Friends / Vacuum Genesis / DEFMACROS / HOWSOMETH / INGDOTIME / SALENGTH0S / OMETHINGL / ETBFOLLOW / AAFTERNOO / NGETPRESE / NTMOMENTI / FTHINGSWO / NTALWAYSB / ETHISWAYT / BCACAUSEA / BWASTEAFT / ERNOONWHE / NEQBMERET / URNFROMSH / OWLITTLEG / REENPLACE / 27,”
Is there a point to all this playing around? If the snippets had been programmed as individual tracks—like what They Might Be Giants did a few years later with Apollo 18’s “Fingertips”—then Miller could’ve argued that he was exploiting the rise of the CD, and the ability to hit “shuffle” to create a new album every time. But Lolita Nation’s fragments don’t work that way. They flow into and out of the other songs, which themselves have been sequenced purposefully into distinct LP sides. This record’s meant to be played from start to finish—experimental art-pieces and all. Like the oversized “G” on its cover (a nod to the opening page of James Joyce’s Ulysses) Lolita Nation’s fringier elements put Miller and Game Theory into the context of past literary and aesthetic movements that pursued stream-of-consciousness, and that called attention to the component pieces of art.
That wasn’t just the case with the collages. Lolita Nation includes some of Miller’s most boundary-testing rock ’n’ roll. “Dripping With Looks”—the fifth track on the album but only the second that could actually be called a “song”—stacks heavily distorted guitars on top of a barely audible Miller vocal, anticipating the kind of ugly/beautiful dynamic that My Bloody Valentine and other shoegazer acts would codify in the early 1990s.
The album’s most ambitious number, the six-minute “The Waist And The Knees,” packs in everything Game Theory was capable of. It starts at the pace of a runaway train, before slowing down at the halfway point for an overlapping spoken-word piece that combines the reading of a legal contract with someone repeating the phrase “no one twisting his arm” over and over. At once melodious, abrasive, and freaky, “The Waist And The Knees” has no real analogue in anything Game Theory’s similarly jangly/poppy peers were doing at the time. It’s a one-of-a-kind musical happening, closing out Lolita Nation’s electrifying side one with a declaration that anything’s possible on the three sides still to come.
Yet the more outré parts of Lolita Nation wouldn’t be so effective if the album didn’t also feature some of Miller’s most straightforward-but-sublime guitar pop of his career: big, accessible, powerhouse numbers that belong on any compilation of the best that American music had to offer in the ’80s. Even as “The Waist And The Knees” ends, it introduces the central guitar riff for “Nothing New,” which is both the opening song on side two and a soaring mid-tempo ballad that would’ve fit well on any John Hughes movie soundtrack. On that same side, the shoulda-been-a-hit “The Real Sheila” set a high standard for what post-R.E.M. college-rock could be, with its winding melody that comes to a point at the end of the chorus—like a rambling sentence that unexpectedly becomes lucid. Multifaceted, moody, mysterious, and incredibly hummable, “The Real Sheila” is almost the best song Game Theory ever recorded.
Almost… but not quite. Miller had approached the ideal form of a Game Theory song twice before, with the mid-’80s college radio staples “Shark Pretty” and “Erica’s Word.” But he once correctly identified the band’s pinnacle as Lolita Nation’s side-one standout “We Love You Carol And Allison.” Beyond dropping the title of the album (“And he’s got nerve / Asking this Lolita nation to bow and serve”), the lyrics carry a lot of the record’s themes. Miller tended to be allusive and inscrutable as a lyricist, valuing wordplay over clarity, similar to another lanky, brainy Californian, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. But the imagery in “We Love You”—of people clinging stubbornly and dangerously to their youth—are at once wistful and angry. And the music’s clean-chiming guitars and easy-rolling rhythms are a stellar realization of the Alex Chilton/Brian Eno/Tom Petty/Smokey Robinson fusion Miller was often trying to achieve.
The purity of “We Love You Carol And Allison” echoes across Lolita Nation’s fourth side, which contains just three simple, agreeable pop songs and no lily-gilding. Though it’s not the album’s last track, side four’s yearning “Last Day That We’re Young” feels conclusive, as the singer looks back on the childhood he was eager to escape and wonders why he was in such a hurry. The experimental madness of Lolita Nation set it apart in 1987, but the sophistication and depth of the songs are why the album developed such a small-but-fanatical following.
At the same time that Game Theory was winding down, college radio was playing a lot of Flaming Lips, Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and Pixies: all acts that seemed like even bigger long-shots for rock stardom than Miller’s bunch. But just as in the early ’80s, in the early ’90s the mainstream cracked open again, giving the unconventional a try. If Game Theory had stuck it out, and moved to a better label than its scattered, under-connected Enigma, the band might’ve broken through. Or if Lolita Nation had come out in the early ’00s, when simpatico groups like The New Pornographers, The Shins, and Spoon were all selling into six figures, the record might’ve become as canonical as it should be.
Instead, Lolita Nation has been under-appreciated—or, more accurately, it’s been passionately appreciated, but only by the too-few people who own it. Miller went into the project trying to do something big: rendering his free-associative thoughts on rock, culture, and the end of his 20s into a loud confetti-blast of words, sounds, and tunes. In the process he defined a personal and interpretative side of college-rock that still endures—even if its practitioners have never known the source.