The 1990s Project: Guided By Voices’ “Bee Thousand”

The 1990s Project: Guided By Voices’ “Bee Thousand”

“Sitting out on your house, watching hardcore UFOs” begins Bee Thousand—the “most classic” in the slew of classic albums Guided By Voices released in the 90s—and with that this album ambles off into wordy, disjointed, psychedelic confines of Bob Pollard’s mind. A mind that is much cooler than yours and anyone else’s you know.

I didn’t hear this album until 1997, right after I bought Mag Earwhig!, my entree in the world of GBV—a world I didn’t fully understand until I bought this album a couple of weeks later. For years I have said that Bee Thousand sounds like a Who record if had been recorded on a $9 budget, and I will stand by that assessment. To be clear: that statement is meant to be taken as high praise and not as a criticism. When you talk about the lo-fi movement that came to prominence around the time of this album (and, really, very much because of this album), Bee Thousand is the gold standard against which every other lo-fi album is measured. Even Sebadoh’s Bakesale pales in comparison.

Looking back on it using the larger frame of what people discuss when they discuss 90s music (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, etc.) and how poorly much of the grunge rock songs have aged, this is what the 90s could have sounded like. On one hand I wish they had, but on the other, I know that everyone would have gotten sick of the tin-can hiss and weirdo, 60-seconds-or-less songlets that dotted this and many other GBV releases on every single album they bought, just like the buying public eventually tired of the sludge-filled grunge albums they were buying and moved on to albums with actual melodies and lyrics that didn’t make you want to kill yourself. Bee Thousand was in essence an anti-grunge album, and I often kick myself for not buying it sooner than I did. It’s not the easiest listen but it’s also one of my all-time favorite albums not because of, but rather in spite of that fact. Its 20 songs (and a staggering 55 on 2004’s Director’s Cut reissue) may suggest it’s too much to take in, but it clocks in at just over 36 minutes and the ideas and imagery are jam-packed into those minutes. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it, thinking the whole time, “They’re kind of aping the Who and a ton of 60s bands, but it’s not a straight-up ripoff…this must be what an homage really sounds like.” To further the homage: hold your tongue and say “bee thousand” once—sounds like “Pete Townshend” doesn’t it?

Guided By Voices possibly had better songs on other albums (“Motor Away” and “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” both from 1995’s Alien Lanes, come to mind), but the jagged, shambolic cohesiveness present here—like a broken mirror that was reassembled with masking tape—is absolutely stunning. I will go on record as saying Bee Thousand was the most important album from the 1990s, but that wasn’t apparent until much later, when new bands began citing GBV as an influence. New bands still do, and specifically mention this album while doing so. Nobody ever will (or should) say that about Silverchair or Stone Temple Pilots, and the world is a better place for it.

Pat O’Brien

This is a guest post in the 1990s Project, Jay Gabler’s attempt to give the decade’s music a fair shot at disproving his offhand assessment that the 90s were the armpit of modern musical history. The goal is to visit, or revisit, 100 of the decade’s most acclaimed, popular, and/or interesting albums. Here’s the road map.