10,000 Maniacs: Time Capsule Review

There was a time when 10,000 Maniacs (from Jamestown, New York State) were second only to R.E.M. among the "alternative" rock bands that flourished in the 1980s. In fact there were quite a few similarities between the two bands, which went further than both having a guitarist with the surname Buck. 10,000 Maniacs might have a name which appropriate to a hardcore death-metal band (the name comes from the Herschell Gordon Lewis movie Two Thousand Maniacs) but they, like their colleagues from Georgia, based their sound on layers of jangly guitar, and both bands espoused political beliefs to the left of centre. The links between the two bands went further. The Maniacs’ singer and lyricist Natalie Merchant and her counterpart in R.E.M., Michael Stipe, became friends, and according to rumours more than that. Stipe sang backing vocals on "A Campfire Song" on the Maniacs’ In My Tribe album. Merchant became one of the few "outsiders" to cowrite a REM song, with "Photograph".

However, there the similarities end. R.E.M. went on to become very big indeed. 10,000 Maniacs hit their peak with 1987’s In My Tribe, which is a fine album by any standards. (Okay, you have to overlook the cover of Cat Stevens’s "Peace Train". In fact, the band tried to remove the song after Stevens spoke out in favour of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.) Blind Man’s Zoo, released in 1989 (in which year I saw the band live at what was then the Hammersmith Odeon), contains several good songs but it shows the beginning of a slide into issue-led material that at its worst is turgid, didactic and overly PC. Natalie Merchant is now a solo artist and the rest of the band still continue under the 10,000 Maniacs name, neither of them a shadow of their former selves. You could be forgiven that 10,000 Maniacs was Natalie Merchant: she was the lead singer, wrote or co-wrote all the songs, and was very much the frontwoman, the rest of the band being content to stay in the background. You could say that she was the spark that lifted the band out of mediocrity; but on the other hand their input may be what she has been lacking since she struck out on her own.

Time Capsule was originally released on VHS in 1990. It’s a Merchant-compiled scrapbook of material put together from four albums: In My Tribe and Blind Man Zoo plus 1985’s The Wishing Chair and Hope Chest, a 1990 collection of earlier odds and ends. This DVD release features three additional later tracks.

National Education Week
A keyboard-driven song from Hope Chest, backed by home-movie footage from 1971 taken by Merchant’s father Anthony. We see young Natalie at her first communion, at a swimming pool, and playing along with other young musicians. The picture quality is, as you might expect, pretty bad, with muddy colours, lots of grain and some prominent scratches. This segues into…

Also from Hope Chest. This is backed with some grainy and blurry footage of the band in performance in various venues in 1982-83.

Pit Viper
Another song from Hope Chest, this is backed with a grainy black and white student film made by the band’s keyboardist Dennis Drew and featuring Natalie Merchant in a leading role.

Scorpio Rising
A strong rocker, by far the best track on The Wishing Chair, a record let down by muddy production. This is an official promo, directed by Abigail Simon and Tal Yarden, of the band in performance in Jamestown in 1985. And there’s a sharp jump in picture quality too, though it’s a little soft by present-day DVD standards.

Maddox Table
This song begins with “Jamestown, My Home Town” and we see colour archival footage from the 1940s. Much of this is in remarkably good condition for its age, though some shots are heavily scratched.

My Mother The War
This number from The Wishing Chair marked the Maniacs’ first UK television appearance, on Channel 4’s legendary 80s music show The Tube. The video quality is a little soft and causes trails in some shots. This may be due to the conversion from the original PAL to this DVD’s NTSC.

Don’t Talk
To my mind the best track on In My Tribe and one of the best things this band ever did. The promo is another video of the band in performance, shot in Paris in 1985 by Sebastian Harris, with quite a lot of slow motion and documentary-style catch-as-catch-can camerawork, often using the zoom lens.

Wildwood Flower
Not actually an album track, this is an uptempo number backed by footage of the band on tour in Jacksonville, Florida in 1987. We see them in the tour van, on the beach and on stage, in candid footage shot by Abigail Simon.

Like the Weather
One of the band’s poppier numbers, this was an unsuccessful single from In My Tribe. A promo video shot very much eighties-style, with lots of solarisation effects and Merchant’s dress and lipstick so red that it bleeds. Some of the imagery from this promo is used for the menu. Directed by none other than Adrian Edmondson of The Young Ones fame.

I Have Dreams
Not a song at all, but a Direct Effect Public Service Announcement about homeless children in New York City, made by Merchant and Abigail Simon in 1990.

What’s the Matter Here?
Another strong track off In My Tribe, this tackles the subject of the physical abuse of children. This is an early example of the issues-led songwriting that would dominate the band’s output. The promo, directed by Matt Mahurin, intercuts Merchant singing with shots of children playing, dancing and fighting.

Hateful Hate
A track from Blind Man’s Zoo. The promo intercuts band footage by Abigail Simon with black and white archival footage shot in Africa in the mid-thirties. It features shots of the spearing of an elephant which may upset some viewers.

Trouble Me
A much gentler song from the same album, about wanting to be a shoulder for others to cry on. This promo (directed by Yurek Bogayevicz) features Merchant in a blue floral-print dress and straw hat brightening up the lives of elderly relatives and is much more sentimental than the song it accompanies.

Eat for Two
Another issues song, wherein Merchant sings from the point of view of a young woman who has discovered she is pregnant and is not happy about it. The promo is directed by Adam Bernstein.

Dust Bowl
The issue this time is homelessness, in a largely acoustic song from Blind Man’s Zoo. This is a live recording from MTV’s Unplugged.

Hello In There
More live footage, shot in Glasgow in 1990 at their Big Day Festival. Merchant is joined by Michael Stipe and Billy Bragg for a version of a John Prine song.

You Happy Puppet
Another song from Blind Man’s Zoo, given a largely performance-based video directed by Martyn Atkins.

Finally, the end credits are backed by "Verdi Cries", the final track on In My Tribe, where Merchant is backed by piano and strings.

The additional tracks are "Candy Everybody Wants" and "These Are Days", promos from 1992’s disappointing Our Time in Eden, the band’s last album with Merchant, and one live recording. This is a cover of the Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen song "Because the Night", and features Merchant and the band backed by a strings section.

Warner Music Vision’s DVD is in NTSC format and encoded for Regions 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. The transfer is 4:3 throughout except for "These Are Days", which is non-anamorphic 16:9. Given the variety of originating material that it has to cope with – archive footage, 8mm home movies, video recordings both amateur and professional – I’d say that it’s an excellent transfer. Needless to say, some of the more lo-fi recording methods don’t show up so well, but I’ve indicated particular problems in the track-by-track listing above. There are eighteen chapter stops for the main programme and three for the extras, one per track.

The DVD has two soundtracks, one in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and a remix in Dolby Digital 5.1. The latter more or less duplicates the left and right and plays them over the surrounds in a way that sounds rather unnatural to me. Apart from the fact that the .1 channel gives more definition to the bass end, I preferred the 2.0 version, which is closer to the original CD recordings.

Apart from the three bonus tracks, there are no extras. There are no subtitles either, presumably due to copyright restrictions in reprinting song lyrics.

Time Capsule is a record of a band that had its day in the late 80s and is no longer what it was. This DVD with its extra tracks is a worthwhile upgrade from the video version. Fans from the time or anyone who has discovered the band latterly, perhaps through Natalie Merchant’s solo career, will certainly want this. Anyone interested in guitar-based "alternative" rock could do worse than to take a look.

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