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10,000 Maniacs

+ {John And Mary}

Part post-new wave, part jangly folk-rock and at times part cod-reggae!, yes it seems an unlikely combination, but 10,000 MANIACS (named in honour of a 60s cult horror flick Two Thousand Maniacs) were all that and more besides. Formed 1981 in Jamestown, New York and led by singer/lyricist Natalie Merchant (and guitarist/songsmith J.C. Lombardo), the group was completed by lead guitarist Robert Buck, bassist Steven Gustafson, keyboard player Dennis Drew and drummer Jerry Augustyniak.
After a series of gigs the sextet debuted in 1982 with 12” EP `Human Conflict Number Five’, although trying to find a copy at the time was a bit of a chore until a UK re-pressing found its way out a few years later. Much could be said for band’s SECRETS OF THE I-CHING (1983) {*5}, a full-set which scaled the UK indie chart in the summer of ’84 and won praise from Radio One DJ/guru John Peel; in hindsight it was down to just one song, an already available classic 45 `My Mother The War’.
On the strength of their promise and at least one maniacal beauty, the swirling dervish Natalie and her unique elasticated vocal chords, the group secured an international deal with Elektra Records. Produced by veteran folk legend Joe Boyd (responsible for NICK DRAKE, The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND, etc.), THE WISHING CHAIR (1985) {*7} saw the band develop their incisive, rootsy sound; but just why was there another take of `My Mother The War’, which had been premiered on Channel 4’s The Tube music show.
From the traditional `Just As The Tide Was A-Flowing’ to the excellent one-that-got-away `Can’t Ignore The Train’ and another flop 45 `Scorpio Rising’, the remainder of the set had a few ups and downs, the ups being `Lily Dale’, `Grey Victory’ and `Back O’ The Moon’, the downs were the calypso/reggae `Daktari’ and the carousel-dirge `Arbor Day’. When things calmed a little, Lombardo would take his leave to form JOHN AND MARY with vocalist Mary Ramsey – not entirely the last we’d heard of JC, or indeed Mary.
By 1987 things had opened up for 10,000 MANIACS as they were now touring alongside R.E.M.; Michael Stipe was Natalie’s beau for a while. Produced by Peter Asher (a pop legend of PETER & GORDON fame), album number three IN MY TRIBE (1987) {*8} let them reap some commercial rewards to match their growing critical acclaim. The result was a graceful sound and sharpened songwriting which emphasised Merchant’s hypnotically plangent vocals; the group unleashed a few minor US hits with `Like The Weather’ and `What’s The Matter Here?’. An earlier cover of CAT STEVENS’ `Peace Train’ failed to chart (it was later omitted from future re-pressed copies following hardline Islamic comments made by the former singer/songwriter), but there was consolation in mini-gems such as `Hey Jack Kerouac’, `Don’t Talk’ and `Verdi Cries’.
The group’s follow-up set BLIND MAN’S ZOO (1989) {*6} took a more political stance, though the enigmatic Merchant stopped short of preaching. Reaching Top 20 status in both America and Britain, it was a let-down in regards to its predecessor, although there were highlights in `Eat For Two’, `Trouble Me’ (a Top 50 hit) and `Poison In The Well’.
Following the accompanying tour, the band took a brief sabbatical, eventually returning in September ‘92 with another adventurous transatlantic Top 40 set OUR TIME IN EDEN {*7}. Three minor hits `These Are Days’ and `Candy Everybody Wants’ and `Few & Far Between’ complemented such poignantly thought-provoking delights as `I’m Not The Man’ (about the injustice of a innocent man waiting for his execution) – yes, it was that sort of record.
By the release of the ubiquitous and languorous MTV UNPLUGGED (1993) {*6} set however (from which the near Top 10 hit of SPRINGSTEEN’s `Because The Night’ came), MERCHANT was disillusioned with the group’s retro workings and left soon afterwards for a lucrative solo career, bringing back her folk roots with each progressive release. While 10,000 MANIACS replaced Natalie with ex-member Lombardo and new front-woman Mary Ramsey (i.e. JOHN AND MARY), the group’s former focal point was missing. Minus MERCHANT, 10,000 MANIACS carried on regardless, releasing the sorry folk-rock set LOVE AMONG THE RUINS {*4} in 1997. Although it would be unfair to dismiss the record entirely of merit (Jules Shear co-wrote a few cues), the fire was all but distinguished when their version of ROXY MUSIC’s `More Than This’ reached the US Top 30. It was to be their penultimate outing as the independently-released EARTH PRESSED FLAT (1999) {*5} also failed to generate much interest; the nail in the coffin so to speak was with the sad death (on December 19, 2000) of Robert Buck through liver failure; he was only 42.
JOHN & MARY (who’d issued a couple of sets in the early 90s: the Mitch Easter-produced VICTORY GARDENS (1991) {*5} and THE WEEDKILLER’S DAUGHTER (1993) {*6} – featuring a cover of MARIANNE SEGAL’s `Fly Me To The North’) continued as a duo, releasing PINWHEEL GALAXY (2003) {*5} and PEACE BRIDGE (2007) {*5} with The Valkyries on the latter.
Over the years, 10,000 MANIACS B-side covers included: `Goodbye’ (The BEATLES), `Hello In There’ (JOHN PRINE), `Wildwood Flower’ (A.P. CARTER), `Don’t Call Us’ (Thomas-Blanch), `From The Time You Say Goodbye; (Leslie Sturdy) / `I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You’ (TOM WAITS), `These Days’ (JACKSON BROWNE), `Starman – Moonage Daydream’ (DAVID BOWIE), `Everyday Is Like Sunday’ (MORRISSEY), `Sally Ann’ (Dick Powell…), `Don’t Go Back To Rockville’ (R.E.M.), `To Sir With Love’ (LULU; hit) and `Let The Mystery Be’ (IRIS DeMENT).
Without Ramsey’s long-time partner, Lombardo (or his temp replacement, Oscar Saville), 10,000 MANIACS returned to the fore early in 2013 with MUSIC FROM THE MOTION PICTURE {*6}; guitarist Jeff Erickson joined in 2002. Exactly why the group decided on the soundtrack-esque title was anybody’s guess, but that was one for the boffins as loyal fans lapped up the niceties of Dennis Drew’s `I Don’t Love You Too’, Ramsey’s `Whippoorwill’ and the cod-reggae of trad cue, `It’s A Beautiful Life’.
Since losing the charismatic wonderment of NATALIE MERCHANT, the long-standing 10,000 MANIACS have tried in vain to produce a set as finely-crafted as “In My Tribe”. Nowadays, Mary Ramsey spearheads the traditional folk band, a band who still combine ye olde tunes ready-made for the campfire; incidentally, Lombardo was now involved again as an additional musician. 2015’s TWICE TOLD TALES {*5} – released for twilight label Cleopatra – appeared to be aimed at older folks, or young ‘uns from another world not yet affiliated with `She Moved Through The Fair’, `Misty Moisty Morning’, `Carrickfergus’, `Bonny May’, `Wild Mountain Thyme’, and others of that ilk – no matter how well presented by Mary.
Trying her best to sound like former frontgirl NATALIE MERCHANT, Mary Ramsey was at least adequate, at best riveting, on 10,000 MANIACS’ homecoming set, PLAYING FAVORITES (2016) {*6}; all ‘n’ all an alluring acoustic career-spanning set cut back in September 2014. Fast-forward to August 2017, the group’s download-only album, LIVE AT THE BELLY UP {*6}, continued the in-concert fixation; albeit from a Californian perspective, having been taped at the famous tavern in Solana Beach.
© MC Strong 1994-2011/GRD-GFD2 // rev-up MCS Jul2012-Jun2019

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