Gee, 1981 was a terrific year: Ronald Reagan had just taken office, the economy was starting an exciting slide into the toilet, and music was just about to become totally 80's. Thankfully it was also the year a little band from Milwaukee called The Wigs recorded and released their widely undiscovered classic, "File Under: Pop Vocal."
If you were there, you either got it or you didn't. If you got it, you appreciated a band that trimmed rock music of its Les Paul/Marshall fat. You dug that they took the punk rock ethic, discarded its trendy accessories and made it their own. And you understood how song lyrics could be brilliantly stupid.
If you didn't get it, you might have had a hard time dealing with three guys wielding enough ego to buck every popular trend and musical convention in an attempt to breathe some life into pop/rock music. Or you didn't understand how they could mock your idols and then turn around and mock their own. Yet, when they took the stage, you couldn't take your eyes off them.
Maybe it was Marty and Jim at the front line that caught your eye, each fiercely competing for the spotlight while still egging each other on with their twin vocal-guitar assault. Or maybe it was Bobby nervously twitching away at a drum kit too small to possibly be producing that kind of thunder.
The Wigs were cocky, but just shy of effusive - totally offensive, and yet utterly charming. They traded in melodies that could be extremely sweet, yet delivered with too much muscle to be simply lumped in with other more saccharine power pop outfits.
For a band that straddled so many fences, there was no in between with The Wigs. To see them on a good night was to witness giants. On a bad night, you most likely demanded your three dollars back.
"File Under: Pop Vocal" cast The Wigs as trailblazers on many levels:
* In its first week, it charted higher on college radio than The Police's "Ghost In The Machine," released on the same day. Of course, this was before charting on college radio meant you were a superstar.
* It sold enough copies to land it on the top of regional sales charts, fifteen years before Hootie and The Blowfish turned a similar indie feat into a major label career.
Despite the record's initial success, The Wigs felt they had hit a career wall. On a curiously foggy night in July 1982, the band bid farewell to more than 5,000 rabid fans, ending their Midwest career by setting an attendance record at Milwaukee's Summerfest music festival.
After regrouping on the west coast, The Wigs quickly endeared themselves to Los Angeles audiences and music industry executives, one of whom orchestrated a deal that sent the band to Denver for seven brutal months of recording what was to be their second album. The dry, raw production style so totally befuddled record label executives, they demanded the producer add echo and other devices to make it sound more marketable and "of the moment." In a bizarre twist of events, the production company was seized by the state for back taxes owed, and the master tapes were destroyed before the remix could commence. True to The Wigs' history, ten years after the fact, that dry production style became commonplace in the music industry.
The Wigs returned to Los Angeles only to find a music scene infested by hairspray and spandex. Ever committed, they pressed on and turned in a well-reviewed performance in the now classic 80's romantic comedy "My Chauffeur," both on camera and in the soundtrack. This piqued the interest of CBS Records, who put the band in the studio with an up and coming producer. Dissatisfied with the results, the record company upped the ante by teaming the band with some veteran recording pros fresh off successes with Prince and Rick Springfield. These sessions produced tracks that pleased all parties.
(In the midst of all this activity, the band signed on with a powerful manager, one Stanley Polley who, in an uncharacteristic lapse of pop culture history, The Wigs failed to note was the much-loathed party who allegedly swindled Badfinger out of royalties and, as some assert, the reason two members committed suicide.)
As the paperwork was being drawn up to commence recording of The Wigs' major label debut, CBS became embroiled in a hostile takeover attempt and suffered the worst round of firings in the company's history. Gone were the staff members who shepherded The Wigs' signing. Gone was The Wigs' major label deal.
Ultimately, it was compromise that killed The Wigs. The musicians who spent more time pissing people off than trying to endear them went to extremes to please those in power to further their career, in spite of the gut instincts that told them wrong decisions were being made on their behalf. From song selection and production techniques, to the restructure of the band itself, too many compromises sucked out too much life and personality for the band to survive.
Then what? Then Marty found fifteen minutes of fame on the short-lived, but infamous “New Monkees” television show, Jim retreated into a career in the film industry before re-emerging as a session vocalist and songwriter, and Bobby returned to Wisconsin to play drums in a relatively sane environment.
Now, more than two decades after “File Under: Pop Vocal’s” release, Marty and Jim have undertaken a remix of the original tapes, for a first-time ever release on CD. It’s been a five-year labor of love, but they promise the results will be well worth the wait. Amazingly, the tracks that didn’t make the initial record survived, allowing the band to restore the album to their original vision - and everyone else can fuck off.