By Eleni P. Austin
The accepted definition of a “one-hit wonder” is a band or artist that achieved chart success only once, or had a signature song that overshadowed the rest of their oeuvre. The Pop Music landscape is littered with one-hit wonders.
One-hit-wonders ranged from the ridiculous (“Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto), to the sublime (“Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners). Several years ago the Riverside Press-Enterprise conducted an exhaustive survey and concluded that the highest concentration of one-hit wonders occurred between 1974 and 1975.
Technically, Translator falls into the one-hit wonder category because of their jangly and insistent 1982 hit, “Everywhere That I’m Not.” The song quickly became a playlist staple on alternative radio stations like KROQ in Los Angeles, 91.X in San Diego and KUSF in San Francisco. It was also put into heavy rotation on the burgeoning music television station, MTV. But that song was just the tip of the iceberg for this talented band.
Translator formed in Los Angeles in 1979. Singer-songwriter/guitarist Steve Barton was a precocious kid. He played in his first band, Present Tense, at age 11. By the time he was 14 they had recorded two songs for Curb Records, remained in the vault because a bandmate’s dad wouldn’t sign a recording contract.
That effectively broke up Present Tense. Barton’s next big gig was portraying John Lennon in a Beatles tribute band. They played in high schools and amusement parks, they even toured Japan. On the way home from a tour, Barton and drummer Dave Scheff (Ringo) decided to form their own band, Translator.
They cycled through a few bassists before recruiting Scheff’s Santa Cruz pal, Larry Dekker. As a Punky trio, they persevered for about six months before poaching singer-songwriter/guitarist, Robert Darlington from another local band, The Lies. Suddenly the true Translator sound coalesced.
Feeling marginalized by the increasingly aggro L.A. Punk scene, the band relocated to the Bay Area. They recorded a demo of “Everywhere That I’m Not” with producer David Kahne at his Automatt recording studio. The demo was played on KUSF and received tons of requests. This impressed Howie Klein, who hosted his own show on the station, along with running his own fledgling record label, 415. After checking out the band live, he offered them a recording deal.
415 (pronounced four-one-five, not four-fifteen) not only referenced San Francisco’s area code, but also alluded to the local law enforcement code for disturbing the peace. Howie Klein founded the label with Chris Knab and Butch Bridges in 1978. Concentrating on local bands, the label promoted mostly New Wave and Punk music. Early signings included The Nuns, The Offs and Pearl Harbor And The Explosions. But the label’s signature sound was best exemplified by Romeo Void, Translator and Wire Train.
David Kahne was behind the boards for Translator’s debut, Heartbeats And Triggers. 415 had recently inked a distribution deal with Columbia Records affording their bands national exposure. But none of that would have mattered if Translator didn’t have the goods. Their guitar-driven sound stood out in a sea of shiny synth-pop like A Flock Of Seagulls, Talk,Talk and Human League.
The band and Kahne quickly followed up in 1983 with their sophomore effort, No Time Like Now. Some complained the sound was “too New Wave,” which seems ridiculous in retrospect. Switching to Ramones producer, Ed Stasium, their next two albums, 1985’s Translator, and 1986’s Evening Of The Harvest were pretty close to perfect. Unfortunately MTV and a capricious public had moved on to crap-tastic fluff like Kajagoogoo, A-Ha and Mr. Mister.
Following Evening Of The Harvest, Translator quietly broke up. Each band member seemed to hibernate for a few years. Steve Barton re-emerged first, carefully cultivating a solo career and fronting the band Oblivion Click. Dave Scheff continued working as a drummer, most recently touring with the Dead Kennedys. He re-teamed with Larry Dekker playing in the Bang Bang Men. Robert Darlington published a book of poetry and released a solo album.
The band reunited occasionally, most notably at SXSW in 2006 and a sold out show at Slims in San Francisco in 2009. Three years later they released a fifth album entitled Big Green Lawn. Now the band has assembled Sometimes People Forget, a collection of demos recorded between 1979 and 1985.
The first four tracks that open the album, “Translator,” “Lost,” “Everywhere That I’m Not” and “Fiendish Thingy” go back to the very beginning. Which as the “Sound Of Music” reminds us; is a very good place to start. These songs represent Translator as an upstart trio from Los Angeles. The song “Translator” is a blast of Rockabilly brio powered by yowly vocals, a ramshackle rhythm and thrash/twang guitar. The lyrics are an urgent request for clear communication.
“Lost” is Punky in all the right places, but also includes chiming, 12-string guitar riffs that hint at a sophistication to come. The demo for “Everywhere…” is pretty close to the finished product. But it’s endearingly ragged and splayed, slightly behind the beat. Steve Barton’s snarly delivery belies the haunted and tortured quality of the lyrics. “I thought I felt your touch, in my car and on my clutch/But I guess it was just someone that felt a lot like I remember you do.”
“Fiendish Thingy” is the real surprise. Rumbling bass lines, tumbling drums and angular guitar riffs connect, fully in line with the Minimalist-Funk of British bands like Gang Of Four and Wire, (who were exploring this style at the exact same time). The lyrics are simultaneously anguished and amusing; “Hacking my way through the jungles of jealousy, cracks in my mind-can’t sleep…I go crazy when jealousy sits on my face.”
Both “Optimism” and “Necessary Spinning” were recorded in L.A. after Robert Darlington joined the fold. “Optimism” is 102 seconds of furious guitar clangor wed to a pummeling backbeat. Barton mixes surprisingly labyrinthine alliteration on the verse to get across the chorus’ philosophical point;
”This can be such a god damn rough life, sometimes people forget what optimism is and that’s a drag.”
“Necessary Spinning” is equally frenetic, powered by prickly, circuitous guitar chords. The lyrics evoke childhood memories of oscillating wildly on the lawn, underscored by the wistful refrain, “sometimes I wish that I was nine years old again.”
Robert Darlington came into his own pretty quickly as a songwriter for the band. His first two contributions, “Eraser” and “Everything Is Falling” add a brittle edge to the proceedings. The instrumentation on the former is skittering and fractious, a series of aural switchbacks. Darlington’s vocals are comically overwrought, recalling a torturous relationship; “I knew somebody just like you, she treated me like a goddamn fool/Every night was in inquisition, an auto-da-fe and a conflagration.”
The latter is a jaunty, mid-tempo romp, the winsome melody and sweet guitar break cushion an overly-cautious worry for the days ahead. “I live in constant memory, the future is so uncertain/I walk into a palace and hide behind the curtain.”
It’s kind of fascinating to listen to these demos, (which, by the way, are so masterful and accomplished, they could be the finished product), and marvel at how Translator’s own music foreshadowed myriad styles to come.
Take “Get Out,” an anxious plea for the U.S. to ditch their covert operations in El Salvador. The Jazz/Punk chords and stop-start rhythm totally presage the Minutemen’s entire oeuvre. Both “Gravity” and “We Fell Away” hint at the jangle and chime R.E.M. seemed to trademark in the late ‘80s. Meanwhile, “Breathless Agony” shreds like a Pixies song and “Friends Of The Future” offers a 21st century Garage Rock intensity that could easily sandwich between the Strokes and the White Stripes.
As forward-looking as Translator was, they still found ways to obliquely honor their antecedents. “Winter Crying” matches Velvet Underground foreboding to Neil Young & Crazy Horse style dissonance. “Brouhaha” feels like Blue Oyster Cult-meets-the-Sonics. “Inside My Mind” blends California dreamy harmonies to Byrdsy guitars. Finally, “Fall Forever,” anchors strummy guitar chords to a sincere vocal delivery. It kinda-sorta echoes the Beatles’ “Do You Want To Know A Secret.”
Other standout tracks include the shambolic “These Old Days” and the modal melancholia of “Is There A Heaven Singing.” The album closes with the Psychedelic Cow-Punk hoedown of “I’ll Be Your Summer.”
Sometimes People Forget accomplishes two goals. It’s a treasure trove of “new” music that should satisfy Translator fanatics and completists everywhere. But more importantly, it provides an introduction, a gateway drug, to the rich musical legacy from this wholly underrated and under-appreciated band.