By Eleni P. Austin
“The world is a question-the world is awake an obsession for confession, yeah the world is a snake, I’m on the corner searching for you..
The world is a prankster-a dirty weekend, out of hand on the quicksand, looking for a friend, I’m on the corner searching for you” That’s Steve Barton pursuing love in these morally bankrupt times on “The World Is A Gangster,” a song off his excellent new album, Love & Destruction.
Originally from Los Angeles, Steve was a musically precocious kid. By age 11 he had formed his first band, The Present Tense. A couple years later they actually recorded some tracks for Curb Records, but the songs were shelved when a bandmate’s father wouldn’t allow his son to sign a recording contract. That effectively broke up the band.
Undaunted, Steve threw in his lot with a Beatles tribute band. Assigned the John Lennon role, they played everywhere from high schools and amusement parks, and even toured Japan. He quickly bonded with bandmate, drummer Dave Scheff (Ringo), and the pair plotted to form their own band. First and foremost, they settled on a name, Translator. At first bassists came and went, before Dave enlisted his old Santa Cruz pal, Larry Dekker. As a Punky trio, they lasted about six months before pilfering singer/songwriter guitarist Robert Darlington, from another local band, The Lies. With Robert in the mix, the Translator sound quickly coalesced.
Although they paid their dues as part of the club scene that thrived in late ‘70s Los Angeles, Translator didn’t really make a name for themselves until they relocated to the Bay Area. Connecting with producer David Kahane, they recorded a demo that immediately garnered airplay on KUSF radio. That brought them to the attention of Howie Klein, who not only hosted a show at the station, but also ran his own label, 415 Records (pronounced “four-one-five,” the name referenced San Francisco’s area code, and alluded to local law enforcement’s code for disturbing the peace).
They signed with the label, which also included Bay Area sensations like Romeo Void, The Nuns, The Offs, Pearl Harbor And The Explosions and Wire Train. Hunkering down in the studio with Kahane, their full-length debut, Heartbeats and Triggers arrived in 1982. Fortuitously, 415 had recently inked a distribution deal with Columbia (Sony) Records, boosting 415’s exposure.
Their first single, “Everywhere That I’m Not” quickly became a playlist staple on alternative radio stations like KROQ in L.A. and 91.X in San Diego. They also garnered airplay on the burgeoning music television station, MTV. The insistent Rocker definitely made an impression. Their guitar-driven sound made an impression when sandwiched between the shiny, Synth-Pop like A Flock Of Seagulls, Human League and Soft Cell. Although it never topped the charts, the song still resonates today. Anytime it plays, I am instantly transported to 19 year-old me, fighting rush hour traffic in my hometown of Los Angeles, en route to an English Beat concert at the Hollywood Palladium. I’d never heard it before, and I turned the volume up! (I still turn it up).
Translator went on to make three more albums, partnering again with David Kahane for 1983’s No Time Like Now and switching to Ramones’ producer Ed Stasium for their self-titled 1985 effort and Evening Of The Harvest, which was released in 1986. Constant touring meant they had cultivated a passionate fan-base, but never really broke through commercially. They amicably called it quits in the late ‘80s.
After a brief period of hibernation, Steve jump-started his solo career at the turn of the 21st century. Between 1999 and 2017 he released several solo efforts, plus a couple as front-man for Oblivion Click He also made time for a few Translator reunions, most notably at SXSW in 2006 and a sold-out show at Slim’s in San Francisco. Three years later a fifth Translator album, Big Green Lawn was released and in 2015 the band assembled Sometimes People Forget, a collection of demos recorded between 1979 and 1985. Now Steve has returned with his latest solo effort. The album’s opening three cuts immediately display the breadth of Steve’s musical dexterity. “Freedom’s Not Free” starts off tentatively with searching bass lines, sidewinder guitar and a thwacking beat, before Steve’s somber vocals kick in. Bleak lyrics reflect a country in distress; “Freedom’s not free, it comes at a cost, when the treasure map leads to paradise lost.” Even as the song’s opening notes suggest a mid-tempo Folk song, the proceedings take a sharp left turn, incorporating honking baritone saxophone and a swelling horn section. The result is moodily elegant, each instrumental break exhales like a post-coital cigarette. Semaphore guitar riffs waft over skronky brass, wailing tenor sax and a tensile rhythm section. The song’s final line addresses our nationwide malaise; “The flag is upside down.”
“Last For Best” completely shifts gears, employing an aggressive Folk/Power Punk template that Translator (as well as guys like Elvis Costello and Peter Case) pioneered. Shivery acoustic guitars careen out of the speakers hotly pursued by stuttery electric riffs, angular bass and a jittery backbeat. Steve’s biting, caustic delivery nearly undercuts his obvious delight at the prospect of beginning a romance with someone he addresses as “You thrilling, tempestuous tempest.” As the melody hopscotches along, the arrangement navigates a series of aural switchbacks, slowing down on the break. Introducing chunky guitar chords and a conga-fied beat before revving back with marauding guitars and search-and-destroy bass he exults “I don’t need no royal wedding to prove my love is true, I’m already forgetting my life before you.” If Nilsson ever collaborated with Lou Reed, it might have sounded like the next track. “Coulda Been Me, Coulda Been You” executes yet another stylistic 180, as Bluesy acoustic riffs connect with boomeranging bass and a see-saw rhythm. Steve’s sardonic mien is tempered by lyrics that bemoan the frustration of lost connections; “It could have been you, how come we never knew, all the traces of the faces in and out of the blue.”
As the cool kids used to say, this album is “all killer, no filler.” The songs on “Love & Destruction” run the gamut from intimate and introspective to wide-ranging and expansive. Take “Burying Suit” which mines the same ragged-but-right rusticity that The Band trailblazed during the “Big Pink” era. Initially, jagged acoustic strumming accompanies Steve’s wistful vocals, but rather quickly a hi-hat roll is eclipsed by a kickdrum beat, spidery bass lines and woebegone keys. Dour lyrics seem to search out harbingers of death amongst the flora and fauna; “Dark-Eyed Junco only comes in with the cold, all you have to do is show me a sign, and I’ll put yours with mine/When the old world falls through my Dark-Eyed Junco we know that nothing’s really new.” But it’s funny, even as he prepares for the big nowhere, the arrangement and instrumentation refuses to wallow, positively levitating on the break. Shimmery guitars wash over roiling organ and clunky percussion that becomes something of a junkyard symphony.
“Tonight You’re Buying Me A Rainbow” is as sonically shambolic as the title suggests. Squally guitars partner with wily bass lines and a walloping rhythm, Steve’s double-tracked harmonies lattice on top, creating a symbiotic dissonance. The lyrics, the product of a misinterpreted chorus heard at a Minus 5 gig, offer a vivid pentimento; “There are answers that will always be concealed, sometimes the darkest hour is not before the dawn. another painting under this one is revealed, but you only see it when the x-ray light is turned on.”
Two tracks, “From Never And Nowhere” and “Fallen Hearts” find Steve acting as a one-man-band. The action slows on the former, plangent acoustic fretwork wraps around his shivery croon. As guitars intertwine the ache of the chorus is palpable; “Then I see you, random as destiny/I stagger to your ragged view with my lock and broken key, from never and nowhere.”
The latter is a sinewy Rocker powered by slashing power chords, prowling bass lines, a jangly acoustic fanfare and a stompy backbeat. Cryptic lyrics speak to what Jimi Hendrix labelled “Love Or Confusion,” asking “are you wonderful, or full of wonder,” and insisting “the secrets of love are written in smoke.”
The record’s tour de force is the aforementioned “The World Is Gangster.” Built around a loop that blends splayed guitars, heavy bass and a kinetic pulse, it’s sinuous and seductive, and utterly irresistible. Despite his deadpan delivery, apocalyptic lyrics still detonate like smart bombs; “The world is quiet-the world’s a disaster, the world is a gangster-the world is desire, I’m on the corner searching for you.” A bit of a rave-up, it lands somewhere between Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World,” but in the immortal words of Mystikal, it makes you want to “Shake Ya Ass.”
Other interesting tracks include “Mind Song,” an acoustic thrash-rocker that weds strummy, spiraling guitars droning organ and a tambourine shake to a modal melody. It’s a welcome collaboration between Steve and Translator-brother Robert Darlington. While Steve supplies the inspiration; the true story of a comatose patient who heard everything his grieving relatives utter even as he flatlined. Robert contributes wickedly droll lyrics from the patient’s P.O.V.; “Look at them cry-look at them run, my body is gone-but it’s only begun, a light in the tunnel-a fish in the sea, a kiss from your lips and you’re looking at me/I know it happened-I really was there, out on the edge, the very last ledge, trying to wedge myself between forever and never, as I sever whatever’s trying to keep it all together.”
“Velvet Curtains” manages to feel cynical and hopeful at the same time, blending smoldering guitars and a pounding big beat. On the chorus, Steve confesses “Nothing I think I believe is true, it’s a heartless world these days, heartless through and through and nothing I think I believe is true.” But in the next breath he offers a glimmer of optimism; “When it rains it shines and shines, and when it shines it rains/Tear away the walls and lines until only a kiss remains.” Some playful wah-wah guitar underscores the uplift.
Meanwhile, the sprightly melody of “Never Gonna Last,” is propelled by stacked guitars that ring and chime, whooshy keys, rippling piano and a driving backbeat. If it was 1972 this song would rule the AM radio dial, sandwiching nicely between Gallery’s “Nice To Be With You,” Spiral Staircase’s “I Love You More Today Than Yesterday” and Badfinger’s “No Matter What.”
The album’s last three songs simultaneously pay homage to the past while looking forward. Up first is a ringing take of Bob Dylan’s scabrous “To Ramona.” A potent, combo-platter of Byrdsy jangle, waspish bass lines yoked to an analeptic rhythm. Even as the velocity accelerates he manage to explicate that elusive wild, thin mercury and manages to attenuate the lyrical vitriol. Stately and elegiac, “To Get To You” starts out a plaintive, piano-driven ballad before the full band roars in at the bridge. Written during the pandemic, the lyrics truly trace the thematic heft of the album, searching for meaningful contact in the midst of love and destruction. The arrangement builds to a stunning crescendo before powering down to just voice, piano and a hi-hat kick. Steve issues a last entreaty, an emotional S.O.S.; “Heard the whistle of a train, like the howl of a lonesome ghost/Sometimes the place you gotta aim for is down a road you fear the most, I’m calling out from here to get to you…”
A poignant end to an amazing… but wait, there’s more! The last cut belongs to 11-year old Steve, bashing his drums with anarchic abandon as he wrangles the Stones’ “Last Time.” As he maniacally bangs his kit, adding an extemporaneous “oh LORD no” to Jagger and Richards’ bitter kiss off, the whole enterprise collapses in on itself as his cymbal stand falls apart. A chaotic and endearing end to an amazing record.
Steve produced the album with longtime compadre-and former Translator drummer Dave Scheff. Horns were arranged and played by Doug Wieselman. Dave maintained the momentum on drums and percussion. Bassist Hilary Hanes (formerly of Pearl Harbor And The Explosions) holds down the bottom on every track except “Burying Suit” and “To Get To You,” which features former Translator bassist Larry Dekker. Steve played all guitars and keys, plus some drums here and bass there. A couple tracks were mixed by the legendary Ed Stasium.
Love & Destruction is one of those essential recordings that refer to all that came before: Dylan, the Fab Four, Leonard Cohen, the Stones, the Band, Power Pop and Punk. All the sounds that shaped Steve Barton’s musical world view. But it manages the neat trick of sounding fresh, yet familiar and wholly original. What more could you ask for?