By Eleni P. Austin
One of life’s great mysteries is how does mediocre music attain popularity, fame riches and success, and brilliant artists are relegated to cult status. In a perfect world, Game Theory would have ruled the air waves, sold millions of records and become as ubiquitous as the Beatles, while Bon Jovi would have been consigned to the cut-out bins, vaguely remembered for their bouncin’ and behavin’ Breck Girl hair and Yeti-like chest fur.
Game Theory was formed by Scott Miller in 1982. Born in 1960, Scott was raised in Sacramento and came of age just in time to become besotted with both the Beatles and the Monkees. He began learning guitar at age nine, two years later he formed his first band, which he named The Monkees. He spent his teen years cycling through a series of groups. By the time he was attending college at UC Davis, he was fronting a three-piece called Alternate Learning (sometimes known as ALRN). Together from 1977 until 1981, they recorded a 7” EP as well as a full-length album for Rational Records.
A couple of ALRN members joined Scott when he formed Game Theory, but there were myriad line-up changes throughout its nine year run. Their debut, Blaze Of Glory arrived in late 1982. Without enough funds to create a proper album cover, the first 1,000 records were packaged in garbage bags with the liner notes and photo-copied cover art glued to the bag.
Even from its earliest incarnation, Game Theory’s sound was paired melodies that were equal parts pithy Power Pop and opulent Psychedelia, with literate and labyrinthine lyrics. Although they were based in the Bay Area, they formed a simpatico relationship with Los Angeles’ Paisley Underground bands which included The Bangles, The Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade and The Three O’ Clock. In fact, Three O’ Clock front-man Michael Quercio produced one of the two EPs the band released in 1983.
Game Theory signed with esteemed indie label Enigma in 1984 and were subsequently matched with producer Mitch Easter. Mitch has made his bones in ‘70s Power Pop bands like Rittenhouse Square and Sneakers. By the early ‘80s he began making a name for himself as a producer on R.E.M.’s earliest albums. Mitch’s jangle aesthetic provided a perfect foundation for Scott and the band. Their second long-player, Real Nighttime was released in 1985 and received unanimous critical acclaim. Extensive touring and exposure on college radio stations meant the band was beginning to build a loyal following.
Mitch remained producer on consecutive albums. Over the next four years they collaborated on 1986’s Big Shot Chronicles, as well as 1987’s magnum opus, the double-LP, Lolita Nation and their final studio effort, Two Steps From The Middle Ages. But commercial success eluded the band and by the ‘90s Scott had pulled the plug, starting a new band, The Loud Family.
The new moniker came from television’s first reality series, “American Family.” The docu-series aired on PBS in the early ‘70s. It was supposed to be a chronicle of everyday life for an upper middle-class family, the Louds. But it ended up documenting the break-up of a marriage as well as oldest son Lance coming out as gay on national television. Between 1991 and 2006, The Loud Family recorded seven LPs and an EP, ironically, their sound didn’t stray too far from the Game Theory’s Power Pop/Psych paradigm, and featured a few fellow Game players.
Although, neither Game Theory nor The Loud Family ever achieved massive popularity, it turns out the right people were listening. Their music resonated for contemporaries like Pop songstress Aimee Mann, as well as the more idiosyncratic Stephen Merritt, sonic architect for myriad projects like Magnetic Fields, The 6ths, The Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes.
Both bands also influenced a new generation of musicians including Ted Leo, The Posies and Spoon front-man Britt Daniel, as well as members of Wilco, Guided By Voices, Okkervil River, the Orange Peels and Camper Van Beethoven. At the dawn of the 21st century, Scott and Aimee recorded a bunch of tracks together, that unfortunately, remain unreleased.
In 2010, Scott wrote a book, “Music: What Happened?” A well-received critical history of Rock N’ Roll, it displayed his encyclopedic music knowledge, as well as his wry sense of humor. He had also decided to reactivate Game Theory, and began writing music for a new album. Sadly, inexplicably, in 2013, he took his own life, leaving behind his wife and two daughters.
At the time of his death, Game Theory albums had been out of print for decades. In 2014, the fine folks at Omnivore Recordings began to rectify that wrong. That year, they released the debut, Blaze Of Glory and included a surfeit of unreleased tracks. Working chronologically, they released the EPs, Pointed Accounts Of People You Know and Distortion on vinyl. They continued with Real Nighttime, skipped ahead to Lolita Nation, doubled back for The Big Shot Chronicles and wrapped up with Two Steps From The Middle Ages. Each release was lovingly curated on vinyl as well as CD, the latter format featured anywhere from 11 to 21 bonus tracks, most were previously unreleased.
But there was a blip of time at the end of Game Theory’s run that had never been properly documented. In 1989 Scott assembled a new line-up. Game drummer Gil Ray was shifted to keys and guitar, ex-ALRN drummer Jozef Becker stepped behind the kit and charismatic ex-Three O’ Clock front-man Michael Quercio provided bass and backing vocals.
This latest incarnation undertook a mini-tour and recorded a slew of songs. Unfortunately this iteration of the band split over geographical differences. Scott preferred to stay in the Bay Area, while Michael was still very much a denizen of Los Angeles, Jozef’s residence was somewhere in-between. Scott continued on with the Louds and Michael started fresh, forming his second most excellent band, Permanent Green Light.
Thanks to the fine folks at Omnivore, as well as Dan Vallor, Game Theory’s tour manager and sound engineer, these last, lost songs are finally seen the light of day as “Across The Barrier Of Sound: Postscript.” Spread across 24 tracks are a treasure trove of home demos, home recordings, completed versions, scattered live tracks and cover songs. Accordingly, the album opens with just Scott and his guitar, offering a nakedly vulnerable take on the Beatles’ “All My Loving.” Slower and more contemplative than the original, his fragile vocals are buttressed by amplified acoustic notes.
Even at their most embryotic, the demos display Scott’s knack for sophisticated songcraft. From the breathless jingle-jangle of “Go Back To Sleep Little Susie (Aerodeleria),” which blends sing-song vocals and an acoustic approximation of Who-ish power chords, to the downstroke electric riff-age that seems to presage Grunge, on the schoolyard angst of “The Second Grade Applauds.” The fractious guitar nearly overshadows efficacious lyrics like “Casual virtue, actions neatly chained, rule-driven heartbreak unexplained/Slips in mid-step, glass across the floor, fine china no more.” Then there’s the achingly pure chime of “Laurel Canyon (Reprise)” and the pastoral grace of “Even You.” Shimmery acoustic guitar tangles with chunky electric notes, and Scott’s vocals slither through on this mournful relationship post-mortem.
The whoosh-y keys that open “Jimmy Still Comes Around” weirdly echo the original theme from Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade, before they are supplanted by stripped-down electric guitar and pulsating synths. Time signatures shift as Scott unspools the decadent saga of Jimmy who continues to live like it’s 1969 when “Every vice of the age is indulged and engaged.”
Even as the meandering melancholy of “Some Grand Vision” seems to parallel the bespoke brilliance of antecedents like Beach Boy Brian Wilson and the late Nick Drake, the spiral-scratch solitude of “The Come On” anticipates the whispery charms of Elliott Smith and Sufjan Stevens.
While the home demos are inviting, intimate and somewhat monochromatic, the finished songs, featuring the whole band, feel like a thrilling explosion of technicolor. “My Free Ride” crackles with a candy-coated crunch. Fizzy keys and fuzzy guitars collide with throbbing bass lines and walloping backbeat. Scott and Michael’s stacked harmonies ooh and ahh irresistibly. The lyrics search for some emotional rescue; “I’m looking for someone that I can call my own who I can call my own in time.” The energy and enthusiasm is palpable.
“Take Me Down (To Halloo)” is sun-dappled and summery Chiming acoustic guitars envelope rippling electric riffs, airy keys, rubbery bass lines and sturdy rhythm. The lyrics paint reality with brutal brush-strokes; “It was a chilly day in the big time, so we took our act to the five-and-dime (take me down, take me down) and I don’t want to cry as our days waltz by/with our worlds in backyards, down in splinters and shards on the ground.” The only antidote is a trip to “Halloo,” short for Halloo-cination town.”
“Treat It Like My Own” opens with a great fake-out, a snippet of phased and Funkified wah-wah bass lines that recall the insistent opening notes of The O’Jays’ classic, “For The Love Of Money.” But it’s quickly usurped by braided acoustic and electric notes, kaleidoscopic keys, angular bass and a tambourine shake. The melody settles into something of an Elizabethan roundelay, while the lyrics can almost be characterized as wildly optimistic (at least for Scott); “I was sad, but I guess life is okay, now I can see that it’s all for me/Now I can see that the world is not a statue in stone, I can treat it like my own.”
The iridescent Sunshine Pop of “Inverness” wouldn’t seem out of place on a Cowsills album. Powered by fluttery flute, strummy guitars, bee-stung bass lines, tumbling player piano and a see-saw beat. The Feelin’ Groovy feeling is slightly undercut as Scott confides “At night I know, there’s someplace I can go, when there’s no placing waking light/And I’ll dream clichés that I’ve dreamed a thousand ways, I’m not above clichés tonight, the playground viewed from blessed height.”
Finally, there’s the crushed velvet groove of “Idiot Son.” Cascading guitars, wiry bass lines and coltish keys are tethered to a galloping gait. Scott and Michael’s honeyed harmonies coalesce on the chorus, but Scott goes it alone on verses that admonish a degenerate dad who gambles away his son’s future; “Father, you know that I don’t mean disrespect, but the house is winning, I don’t want to be here when they collect/Father, the gratis-riding days couldn’t last, smoking courtesy cigarettes and and rolling up the tinted glass.” The arrangement shapeshifts on the break, kicking the breakneck beat into overdrive. The song closes with staccato, backwards guitar notes.
The covers featured here offer a sideways homage to early influences. Scott and Michael offer a note perfect home demo of The Nazz’s “Forget All About It.” Boyish harmonies lattice over snarly electric guitar and sugary acoustic riffs. Even though the attack is bare-bones and primitive it can’t lessen the song’s power.
Armed with just a flange-y guitar, Scott approximates the Glitter-Glam grit of Brian Eno’s “Needles In The Camel’s Eye.” Live, Michael (tongue firmly in cheek) introduces “a song made famous by Naked Eyes” and the band launch into a sweetly shaggy rendition of the Monkees’ “Door Into Summer.” Solo, with only an acoustic guitar, Scott tenders an incandescent version of Big Star’s “Back Of My Car,” for a radio broadcast.
Other stand out tracks include a tough-minded take on The Three O’ Clock’s “A Day In Erotica” and the slippery “Rose Of Sharon.” Ringing guitars and a sunny melody nearly camouflage the suicidal gesture of “Slit My Wrists.” There’s a shambolic live take of “Sword Swallower” and winning demos of “Idiot Son” and “Inverness” that feel as fully realized as the completed versions. The former opens with a cluster of acoustic arpeggios that share some musical DNA with Love’s classic “Alone Again Or.” The latter closes the album and features harpsichord-y keys and sparkly acoustic riffs. (There’s also a hidden track, a free-wheeling and ramshackle version of ALRN’s “When She’s Alone.”)
“Across The Barrier Of Sound” is not your typical “odds and sods” compilation. Free of the usual ephemera that dots these kinds of collections, it serves as an essential musical map that charts a course from the late days of Game Theory to the early days of The Loud Family. Several of these songs turned up in more polished forms on the Louds’ debut, Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things in 1993.
Game Theory music can feel elusive and cryptic, powered by complex chord structures along with dense and intricate lyrics. But once you unlock the mystery, the rewards are rich and resonant. Much like Big Star, Game Theory will continue to influence tuned-in musicians and discriminating fans for decades to come.
On April 4th, Scott Miller would have celebrated his 60th birthday. Born in 1960, he certainly would have appreciated the symmetry. Although he’s gone forever, he’s left us a sadly beautiful and bittersweet parting gift.