Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Wipers – Youth of America

on June 18, 2011, 8:00am

If you were to look up the biographies of the Vaselines and the Raincoats, you would likely find within the first paragraph a mention of how Kurt Cobain’s adoration sparked renewed interest in those bands. The same could be said for Portland, Oregon’s Wipers.

Formed in 1978, “The Wipers were more of an idea than a band,” explained founder Greg Sage. “I wanted to do something different with music.” As such, Sage’s original intent was “to do fifteen albums in ten years, never do interviews, never release photographs, have absolutely no information about [the band] at all, and never tour.” Sage reasoned that the lack of information would force fans to listen deeper to the music, which according to him was “the heart and soul of what music is all about.” Unfortunately for him, his dream was never allowed to happen.

Wipers recorded their first album, Is This Real?, on a four-track in their rehearsal space with no overdubs. Laying the foundations for Sage’s songwriting style, the album was propelled by his blazing guitar and exuded raw vitality. However, in order for the band to get distribution, Park Avenue Records made the band re-record the album in a professional studio. Sage and his band learned very early “even on the independent basis… you have to make nothing but compromises.”

Sage’s approach to making music was never commercially driven.  When he was barely a teen, his father’s job in broadcasting gave him access to a professional record-cutting lathe. As such, he learned how to press records before he learned how to play an instrument. “I would spend countless hours studying the grooves I would cut under the microscope [attached] to the lathe… it gave me a completely different outlook on what music is,” he said, providing an insight into his personal musical philosophy. For the band’s second album, Sage took complete control. The record has been noted as a departure in sound and style from the first. However, it also shows the band’s personality developing free of label interference.

Released in 1981, the Wipers’ second full-length album, Youth of America, saw the band leaving behind the short, raw, more traditional songs in favor of a creative process involving longer, more complex material.  Faring better in Europe than the US at the time of its release, the six-song, 30-minute-long album included a 10-plus-minute title track. This Wipers’ album was a deliberate reaction against the vogue.

Opener  “No Fair” begins with a dark, heavy mid-tempo intro, accompanied by Sage’s lyrics, muffled under a wave of sound. The first truly audible thing heard is his multi-measured wail of “It’s not fair!” A brief moment of silence ensues, and then the bass begins walking. After this point, the song blazes forward with fury. The angst, aggression, and disenfranchisement in Sage’s lyrical outrage can be heard in his anthemic, repeated titular cry.

The second and final song on side one is the epic title track. Clocking in at almost 10 and a half minutes, the song is a long form representation of Sage’s typical song structure: layers upon layers of noise, distortion, and feedback building before veering slightly off-theme with guitar solos and vocal cries. The whole thing is bridged with short melodic breaks and then returns to theme. A psychedelic frenzy of guitar work accompanies Sage’s screams of alienation and isolation, as the song’s lyrical pendulum swings between hope and despair, ending with a positive “I believe in you” as the song fades out. Sage explained the song’s epic length by saying that “it was the trend that most songs by bands were very fast and short, to the point… I had to do the opposite.”

Flipping the album over, the brooding atmosphere is still present on side two opener “Taking Too Long”, the chaotic, driving aggression of  the first side replaced with a steady, grooving bass line and playful guitar reminiscent of Pere Ubu’s “The Modern Dance” coupled with early XTC. If any aggression was lacking there, it is made up for with “Can This Be” and “Pushing the Extreme”. The fuzzed-down, brutal angularity of Sage’s guitar in the former is rooted in the same early rock and roll as the Ramones, but shaped with a driving power pop structure. The brutality of the latter has an intensity surrounding it found in later bands like Mission of Burma (who, appropriately enough, have covered the Wipers).

On an album filled with epic moments, the closer, “When It’s Over”, is by far one of the biggest. Primarily an instrumental piece, Sage fills this song with a chorus of swirling guitars as if rising up a spiral staircase only to blast through the top of the tower. The song builds to crescendos only to pass them, extending the breaking point. The threat of deconstruction looms over the rhythm section but is never realized. At the song’s midpoint, the guitars drop out, and a steady, distorted piano steps in. As Sage’s vocals, spoken, yet hidden under the rhythm section, add  mystery to the song, the tempo begins to pick up as Sage’s guitar comes in, returning the song to the original theme and finding a climax accompanied by Sage screaming lyrics like “Will you be laughing when it’s over?”

Sage never considered his band to be punk, seeing the Wipers as “even farther out in left field than the punk movement.” When talking about his band’s first album, Sage claims that “it definitely did not fit it… then [10] years later people are saying, ‘It’s the punk classic of the 80s.’” The same can be said for Youth of America. From its style of production and songwriting to its driving, angular guitar work coupled with anthemic hooks, Youth of America is as strong and fresh-sounding today as it was 30 years ago.

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