“One of the most forceful and innovative young bands in America,” according to John Leland in Vogue, is 10, 000 Maniacs. Composed of lead singer and lyricist Natalie Merchant, bass player Steve Gustafson, drummer Jerry Augustyniak, keyboard player Dennis Drew, and lead guitarist Robert Buck, the Maniacs have been recording since the early 1980s but only began enjoying substantial success with the release of their 1987 album, In My Tribe.That disc, and the subsequent Blind Man’s Zoo, have made popular 10, 000 Maniacs’ particularly tuneful manner of social protest— their songs take on issues such as child abuse, environmental problems, and unwanted pregnancy. As Ira Robbins of Rolling Stone summed, the band’s “plain-spoken music is an elegant rock descendant of American and British folk traditions.”
The core of the group that became 10, 000 Maniacs formed around Gustafson, Drew, and Buck in Jamestown, New York, in 1981. Soon afterwards, the band, which had played under monikers such as Still Life, and the Burn Victims, decided to change its name. The new name evolved from a mistake about the title of a B-grade horror film, 2,000 Maniacs. Merchant, though younger than the other group members, knew Gustafson and Drew because they ran the student radio station at Jamestown Community College, where she attended classes. She began showing up where the Maniacs performed, at small clubs and parties, and one night they invited her up to the microphone to sing. They liked her looks, her dancing, and her ability to improvise songs, and she quickly became an official Maniac. But there were problems because of Merchant’s age. “Her mother hated us,” Gustafson recounted for Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone. “She thought we were having all these orgies and selling drugs…so [Merchant] used to have to sneak out of the house to come down to the bar at the Hotel Franklin to play. And her mother used to come down and drag her out… and yell at her and make her go home.”
Despite such obstacles, Merchant and the other Maniacs gained a local following in western New York. They also put out two recordings on their own label—one extended-play disc in 1982 entitled “Human Conflict Number Five,” and an album in 1983, Secrets of the I Ching. Both came about partially as projects of the sound-engineering program at the State University of New York at Fredonia, and the latter included protest songs like “My Mother the War” and “Grey Victory”— about the World War II atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. The records received airplay on alternative and college radio stations, and drew praise and comparisons with the British folk group Fairport Convention from critics, but were commercial failures.
The band’s luck began to change in 1983, when it came under the management of Peter Leak, an Englishman who got them their first British tour, and, in 1985, a contract with Elektra Records. Elektra tried to give the band a more New Wave look—“wanted to make us look like the Human League,” guitarist Buck told DeCurtis. The image consultant that was called in wore leather and had “a samurai haircut,” but gave up when he took his first look at 10, 000 Maniacs. “He was really nice about it,” recalled Buck. “He’s going, ‘I’m sorry. There’s obviously nothing I can do for you. You people are hicks. The best thing you can do is accentuate the fact that you’re hicks.’”
The Maniacs’ first album for Elektra, The Wishing Chair, enjoyed little more commercial success than their previous efforts. Like the earlier recordings, however, it received some highly favorable reviews—for instance, Ira Robbins in Rolling Stone hailed it as “a thought-provoking, toe-tapping joy.” Hoping to make the band’s next album more salable, Elektra suggested Peter Ash-er as producer. Asher had produced records for many popular performers, most notably Linda Ronstadt, and during the 1960s had been half of the popular British duo, Peter and Gordon. The combination proved to be
Band formed in 1981, in Jamestown, N.Y.; original members include Natalie Merchant (born c 1964; daughter of Tony and Ann [a secretary]; home: Jamestown, N.Y.), vocals; Steve Gustaf son (born c. 1957; married), bass; Jerry Augustyniak (born c. 1959; home: Buffalo, N. Y.), drummer; Dennis Drew (born c 1958), keyboardist; Robert Buck (born c 1958; home: Albany, N.Y.), guitarist.
Became 10, 000 Maniacs in 1981, after having such names as Still Life, and the Burn Victims; played in small clubs and recorded on their own label during the early 1980s; signed with Elektra in 1985.
Awards: A gold album for In My Tube.
Addresses: Manager —Peter Leak. Record company — Elektra, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10019.
winning. The resulting disc, In My Tribe, spawned the group’s first popular hit, “Like the Weather.” But as Rolling Stone critic J. D. Considine pointed out in his review of the album, “this [was] no slick sellout.” He added that “Asher should be applauded for the fact that he has allowed 10, 000 Maniacs to remain themselves.” Other songs, like the controversial cut about child abuse “What’s the Matter Here,” and a remake of Cat Stevens’s “Peace Train,” received airplay also. However, the group now refuses to play the latter song in concert, due to Stevens’s support of the death threats to author Salman Rushdie. The band gained even more exposure when they opened a series of concerts for rock group R.E.M. Merchant explained 10, 000 Maniacs’ formula for success to People’s Steve Dougherty: “A lot of the songs are about really frightening subjects. But we hide them in nice little pop melodies, and it kind of lures people in.”
That formula succeeded again with 1989’s Blind Man’s Zoo. Again using Asher as producer, the Maniacs released an album labeled both “vitriolic” and “charming” by Leland. He and David Browne of Rolling Stone agree, however, that it is probably 10, 000 Maniacs’ best work. Blind Man’s Zoo has brought the group two more hit singles—“Trouble Me,” which Merchant wrote for her father while he was hospitalized, and “Eat for Two,” which, in the words of People reviewer Andrew Abrahams, concerns “the darker side of deciding to bear a child.” Other noteworthy songs from the disc include “Jubilee,” a strike at religious fanatics, “The Big Parade,” about a veteran of the Vietnam War, and “Hateful Hate,” about the colonization of Africa.
Secrets of the I Ching (includes “My Mother the War” and “Grey Victory”), Christian Burial Music, 1983.
The Wishing Chair (includes “Among the Americans,” “Maddox Table,” “Can’t Ignore the Train,” and “Back o’ the Moon”), Elektra, 1986.
In My Tribe (includes “Like the Weather,” “What’s the Matter Here?” “Peace Train,” “Don’t Talk,” “Verdi Cries,” and “Cherry Tree”), Elektra, 1987.
Blind Man’s Zoo (includes “Trouble Me,” “Eat for Two,” “Jubilee,” “The Big Parade,” “Hateful Hate,” “Please Forgive Us,” “Dust Bowl,” and “Poison in the Well”), Elektra, 1989.
Also released extended-play disc, “Human Conflict Number Five,” Christian Burial Music, 1982.
People, May 23, 1988; July 3, 1989.
Rolling Stone, March 27, 1986; October 22, 1987; June 16, 1988; June 15, 1989; August 10, 1989.
Vogue, July 1989.
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