Happy Birthday, Robert Pollard, Ohio’s (America’s) Greatest Rock Songwriter
Robert Ellsworth Pollard Jr. turns 66 years old today. It’s fitting that the prolific songwriter was born on Halloween since he, like the holiday, is full of fun and mischief.
It’s also a fitting time to take a moment and recognize Pollard’s accomplishments, since 2023 is also the year his band, Guided by Voices, turned 40 years old.
If you haven’t heard of Guided by Voices or Robert Pollard, then you’re probably asking, “Why all the fuss?”
Simply this: Robert Pollard is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songwriter to ever come out of Ohio.
Robert Pollard is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songwriter the United States has ever produced, and Guided by Voices is the greatest American rock band of all time.
No other songwriter or band has rocked as hard and long, or produced the sheer number of songs, and certainly not with the consistently excellent quality of Pollard and Guided by Voices.
If you want to hear the case, continue reading. If you don’t, then A. You’re wrong and B. The rest of his fans and I don’t care. Pollard fandom is the kind of club that’s made all the richer because of who’s not in it.
There are no casual fans here, but if you want to earn your spot, as always, the club is open.
“The fun is just about to get started, so throw the Switch. It’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Time.” – Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox
The preceding quote is from the first track on Guided by Voices’ fifth album, “Propeller.” The song, titled “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox,” is perhaps the quintessential track by Guided by Voices, even though it’s somewhat atypical of their usual work, being a multi-part song that runs over five minutes.
More than any other song, “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” likely paved the way for the band’s success as it opens their breakthrough album.
It also distills the Guided by Voices formula to its purest form. It’s transcendent rock ‘n’ roll bliss, with Pollard inviting you to join him in throwing “the great party today for the rest of our lives.”
The crowd’s chanting at the beginning is studio trickery, with Pollard and his friends pretending to perform in front of a large, enthralled audience. In an ironic twist, the “GBV” chant would later become a regular feature at Guided by Voices shows.
The song and the album changed Pollard’s life, making his next 30-plus years of music possible.
Born in the Dayton suburb of Northridge, Pollard always wanted to be a rock star.
As a child, he would spend time creating albums for imaginary bands, coming up with the band name, the tracklist for the album, and also creating the album artwork.
Most Guided by Voices records feature his artwork to this day.
In 1983, Pollard formed Guided by Voices, a rock band that was more of a way for him and his pals to blow off steam than an actual effort to become stars.
The group played shows in and around Dayton and received little attention, so they decided to forgo playing live and focus on recording, which meant they got together on the weekends to drink, play and record music in whatever basement was available to them.
From 1986 to 1990, they self-released four albums and one EP, again receiving little to no attention. In fact, Pollard’s wife and family were actively trying to get him to quit music and focus on his career as an elementary school teacher.
By this time, he was in his early thirties and had two children. Most rock ‘n’ roll origin stories don’t begin with a middle-aged family-man who spends his days teaching fourth grade. The circumstances around Pollard at this time further illustrate just how improbable his story is.
Anyway, he agreed to his family’s wishes, but first, he would release one last album.
“Long Live Rockathon” – Weedking
Guided by Voices released “Propeller” in 1992. Pollard meant the title to be sarcastic, saying it would “propel” the band to stardom. Ironically, it did.
The album began to circulate among industry executives and other big names in music, and the band was soon signed to Scat Records.
Guided by Voices began producing albums and rose to critical acclaim in the mid-1990s, particularly after the 1994 release of the universally acclaimed “Bee Thousand.” The album is considered a lo-fi masterpiece and primarily features primitive recordings made by the band in various members’ basements.
Pollard eventually left his teaching job to focus full-time on music. Although media attention and public interest in the band waned over the years as tastes changed, Pollard and Guided by Voices just kept going.
“This song does not rock.” – Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox
I have a test I use to determine whether a band or a song is good or bad.
Instead of simply listening to the song in all its high-fidelity glory, I try to imagine that I don’t know who the band is and that I’ve unexpectedly found myself at one of their performances in a small, local venue.
Think Journey isn’t good? Imagine walking into your local bar and encountering them, not as famous rock stars, but as a group of average guys, playing “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
I guarantee that after a song or two, you’ll turn to your friend and say, “I don’t know who this is, but these guys are actually really good.”
The point is, even if a song isn’t your preferred genre of music, seeing regular people perform it well can usually overcome any differences in musical taste. It’s akin to watching an average guy step up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning and hit the game-winning home run.
That’s part of the magic of Pollard and Guided by Voices, except you don’t have to imagine it because they were and are just regular guys. They’re rock stars, even though they’re not.
Actually that’s not quite right. They aren’t rock stars but they are.
During their heyday in the mid-1990s, most, if not all, band members held 9-to-5 jobs. When they perform, it’s clear they’re not just another road-weary band looking to get through the gig. They’re having the time of their lives, and Pollard exudes the energy of someone whose dream is becoming a reality in real time. The novelty of people showing up to listen to him perform never seems to wear off.
“The Soft Rock Renegades.” – A Big Fan of the Pigpen
While this article focuses on Robert Pollard, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the significant contributions of his many bandmates over the years.
And they are many. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 50, with Pollard being the only permanent member of Guided by Voices.
Pollard has always been the primary songwriter but the band wouldn’t be what it is without some notable contributions from current and former members, such as Doug Gillard, Tobin Sprout and Robert’s brother Jim, though, again, they are just a few of the many.
“I am a lost soul. I shoot myself with rock ‘n’ roll.” – I am a Scientist
While Pollard and the band have a great story, they would only be a footnote if they didn’t create great songs. And if there’s one thing Pollard has it’s songs. Lots and lots of songs. And most of them under two minutes in duration.
While the latter may not necessarily sound like a selling point, it helped make their live shows legendary.
During a time when everyone was accustomed to seeing rock stars brooding on stage, Guided by Voices would pummel the audience with song after song of loud, powerful, melodic, hook-filled rock, two minutes at a time.
When one song would end Pollard would quickly announce the name of the next song before counting it off. “1, 2, 3, 4!”
And so it would go. Before you knew it 3 hours and 60 songs had gone by.
I got to see them live in September when they performed two sold-out shows in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio, to celebrate their 40th anniversary. The band sounded excellent, as did Pollard.
Over nearly three hours, they performed almost 40 songs, spanning their entire discography. Pollard showcased his signature karate kicks, bassist Mark Shue leapt around the stage and the audience ate up every second. Remarkably, the band managed to stay locked into their grooves despite the deafening noise from the crowd.
By the way, the opening acts for the show were Heartless Bastards, Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill. Any one of these bands would ordinarily headline their own shows but were happy to serve as warm-up acts for the legendary Pollard and his band.
“Watch me bulldoze every bulldozer away.” – Watch Me Jumpstart
Guided by Voices has released 38 albums, with another due out in a few weeks. They typically release two or three albums a year, and most albums contain 20 songs or more.
But that’s just Guided by Voices. While it is Pollard’s most enduring vehicle for his music it is only one of many.
Counting solo albums and side projects, Pollard has released more than 100 albums and written thousands of songs. It’s probably impossible to nail down the exact number.
A bit of Guided by Voices legend is that Pollard has a trove of unreleased material he recorded during his early years, contained on four-track tapes in a large suitcase-looking rack.
And indeed, every five years or so, he releases a new “Suitcase” box set. So far, he’s released four, each containing 100 songs.
“Good fortune and luck. You won’t catch the rally boys.” – Rally Boys
But longevity and prolificacy aren’t enough to make Pollard America’s greatest rock songwriter. Rock ‘n’ roll has plenty of bands with deep discographies, and just about any band that can physically get on stage and make money doing so will continue touring, even if most of the original members are gone and they haven’t released a new album in decades.
What pushes Pollard over the top is that he consistently writes “good songs”. His hit-to-miss ratio is extremely high, most notably with his Guided by Voices releases, which tend to be the most consistent, as some of his solo work and side projects are more experimental.
Take a second and think of your favorite, American classic rock band. How many embarrassing songs/albums are popping into your head?
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Guided by Voices album any reasonable person would consider bad.
Every one of their albums is good to great. Every one. All 40 of them.
Their most recent album, “Welshpool Frillies,” scored an 83 out of 100 on Metacritic and received four out of five stars on All Music.
Unlike other rock bands, if you see Guided by Voices live, the new songs are as good as the old ones. There hasn’t been a decline in quality. They don’t just get up there and play the hits, like, say, The Who or The Rolling Stones.
Also, unlike many bands that have been around for years, there are no embarrassing detours in their career. They never released an album where they played with the New York Philharmonic.
They’ve never produced a beat-heavy hip hop crossover album or released a collection of acoustic ballads.
They simply rock, indifferent to the current trends around them.
I haven’t scratched the surface of Pollard’s vast discography, (keeping up with it would be a full-time job) but what consistently amazes me is knowing I can buy a new album whenever I wish, and it will inevitably feature at least a handful my of new favorite tracks. It never fails.
Just when you think you’ve reached the end they release 20 new songs and most of them are awesome. And they do it over and over again with no signs of slowing down.
It’s like unwrapping Christmas gifts for 40 years and every single one is exactly what you wanted even though you didn’t know you wanted it yet.
It shouldn’t be this easy, and yet for Pollard it is.
So, apologies to Bob, Bruce, Billy, Tom, and Richard. You might have had the spotlight, but Pollard has the tunes.
And if you’re wondering about Lou Reed? “Lulu.” That says it all.
Happy Birthday, Robert.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.