Back to Saturn X

One band I’ve liked for many years (introduced to by my old Spanish and music teacher Jon!) is Guided by Voices, which is basically some exceedingly prolific lo-fi indie rock nonsense mostly written by this one guy Robert Pollard and then played by whomever he’s thrown together that evening/month/year. Over the last few years I’ve kept going back to them, diving further and further into the catalogue, getting better acquainted with all the weird EPs and box sets of hundreds of unreleased songs and outtakes and whatnot, and I’ve been on another kick in the last two months since moving to Missoula. Why, I couldn’t say, but suffice to say I’ve become very familiar with much much more of the Suitcase box sets, and re-exploring the legendary scrapped records whose tracklists are publicly-known.

I’ve always been super interested by unreleased music—part of the reason I got so far into Weezer was because of their unreleased, unfinished Songs from the Black Hole project that morphed into Pinkerton—and Guided by Voices are no exception, with a good handful of records that were actually completely written and recorded before being scrapped. There were several in the early and mid ’90s, basically as earlier iterations or drafts of the albums they came before, sharing some tracks and concepts. The band’s breakout album Bee Thousand in particular is known to have as many as five (or six, depending on how you count) distinct tracklists in the running, some with different titles, and not even a single song appeared on all versions. (Some of the outtakes filtered out on EPs or the compilation King Shit & the Golden Boys or the Suitcase box sets. One of these early versions, the double-LP version of Instructions to the Rusty Time Machine, was later released in 2004 as Bee Thousand: The Director’s Cut.) And Under the Bushes Under the Stars also went through two distinct forms The Power of Suck and The Flying Party is Here!, with several variants between all three major versions. But to me the most legendary were the two from GBV’s pre-Bee Thousand days: 1989’s Learning to Hunt, and 1992’s Back to Saturn X. Selections from both were included on the King Shit & the Golden Boys compilation, excerpted from cassettes provided to the owner of Scat Records for the compilation and the tracklists for each were kindly provided to GBVDB, the Guided by Voices Database (which is where those links go!)

Learning to Hunt is definitely pretty interesting in its own right, though it doesn’t seem to have much history to it, at least that’s publicly known. In effect, it’s kind of a precursor to the album GBV actually ended up releasing 1989, Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, and fittingly the albums share five tracks. There does appear to have possibly been a second version of the album that also included the Suitcase track “I Can See It in Your Eyes”, but the full tracklist of another version isn’t known. There’s also a GBV song called “Learning to Hunt”, but there’s no evidence it was written prior to 1997, when it was released on the Mag Earwhig! album, so it’s more likely an instance of reusing titles (something Pollard does quite a bit, so this isn’t far-fetched).

But Back to Saturn X has more… mystery surrounding it, I suppose, even though we have quite a bit more information about it. It was worked on in 1991 and 1992, after the release of 1990’s Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, and five songs from the tape provided to Robert Griffin of Scat appeared on that King Shit compilation in 1995: “Squirmish Frontal Room”, “Tricyclic Looper”, “Crutch Came Slinking”, “Fantasy Creeps”, and “Sopor Joe”.

A few more appeared on the 1993 and 1994 EPs Static Airplane Jive and Get Out of My Stations, and then the rest were released on Suitcase (with the exception of, funnily enough, Alien Lanes album track “Chicken Blows”, which is the same 1991-92 recording as on this tape; and “Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up)”, which was released on a V/A 7″ in 1996). Here’s the full tracklist:

  1. Fantasy Creeps
  2. Perch Warble
  3. Dusty Bushworms
  4. Squirmish Frontal Room
  5. Scalding Creek
  6. Melted Pat
  7. Spring Tiger
  8. Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up)
  9. Crutch Came Slinking
  10. Mallard Smoke
  11. Sopor Joe
  12. Chicken Blows
  13. Tricyclic Looper
  14. Scissors and the Clay Ox (In)
  15. Damn Good Mr. Jam

So that’s that; it’s a fifteen-track album of songs that were scrapped, even more its own separate project than Learning to Hunt. Right?

Well, hang on a moment, though; just like Learning to Hunt, there are a few songs listed in Suitcase as being from Back to Saturn X that don’t appear on the tape given to Scat Records: “Our Value of Luxury”, “Spring Tigers” (a full-band electric version of “Spring Tiger”), and the third version of “My Big Day”.

Somewhat mysterious… but the Suitcase liners are known to contain errors so it’s not really that big a deal, and Robert Griffin speculated those songs were outtakes. Plus, a song called “Back to Saturn X” purporting to be from 1990 or so was released on the Hardcore UFOs box set in 2003. As it turns out, these were not simply errors; there’s more to the story of Back to Saturn X.

Earlier this year, the terrific blog Shitcanned made a post about an alternate, earlier iteration of the Back to Saturn X album, and one that makes all of this make a little more sense. (Side note: the blog also has a post about the more well-known version of the album, which is also great.) Former GBV guitarist Tobin Sprout provided the info for this tracklist to GBVDB, and here it is:

  1. My Big Day
  2. Gurgling Spring Tiger [Spring Tigers]
  3. Damn Good Mr. Jam
  4. 14 Cheerleader Coldfront
  5. Melted Pat
  6. Perch Warble
  7. The Garden
  8. Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up)
  9. Fantasy Creeps
  10. Lower Lords [Our Value of Luxury]
  11. Heartbeat
  12. Directions to the New Appliance
  13. Dusty Bushworms
  14. Sopor Joe
  15. Back to Saturn X

So, immediately, this tracklist solves the question of all four of the tracks whose position with the record was unclear; this version opens with that third version of “My Big Day”, launching into the full-band “Spring Tigers” (listed here as “Gurgling Spring Tiger”), and it also includes “Our Value of Luxury” (under the name “Lower Lords”) and the title track, to close it off. Whew! There is some interesting strangeness on this tracklist to note, though; two of the tracks, “The Garden” and “Heartbeat”, are songs that were written for Tobin Sprout’s earlier band fig. 4, and these GBV versions (released in 2015 on Suitcase 4) feature Pollard vocals (and I’m not even sure if Sprout plays on them at all).

In addition, there’s one song that ended up on Propeller (“14 Cheerleader Coldfront”), and an unknown song “Directions to the New Appliance” which hasn’t been released. So while we can’t quite recreate the entire thing, we almost can, and it’s definitely an interesting listen (and “My Big Day”, especially in this version, really makes sense as an opener). And to this date, that’s everything we know about the—

Oh, what? It’s not? What else could there possibly be? Well… there’s Propeller, GBV’s 1992 album and intended swan song. For a long time, I saw this as a fairly unrelated project to Back to Saturn X, starting over with a fresh slate of songs. But, the more I’ve dug into this, the more I think they’re related. And I’m going to start with only some loose threads, but I promise I’ll tie it together.

The thing with Propeller is that it didn’t have a single front cover. Five hundred vinyl copies were made, and they were hand-decorated by members of the band and their friends, some intricately and some sloppily, but with all sorts of stuff. Some featured screenprinted airplanes. One featured a lyrics sheet for an unreleased 1984 tape called Pissing in the Canal. Another was shrinkwrapped with a crushed beer carton. And copy number 33 looked like this:

GBVDB lists this as a “tracklist for a possible album”; to me, especially in light of this new earlier tracklist, this is pretty clearly another iteration of Back to Saturn X. It features an interesting mix of the two, along with a few new faces, and I’ll list it here for easier copying’s sake:

  1. Crutch Came Slinking
  2. Melted Pat
  3. Lethargy
  4. 14 Cheerleader Coldfront
  5. Damn Good Mr. Jam
  6. Scalding Creek
  7. Tractor Rape Chain [Clean It Up]
  8. Zoom ’85 (Mesh Gear Fox)
  9. Fantasy Creeps (Glow Boy Butlers)
  10. Chicken Blows
  11. Sopor Joe
  12. Gurgling Spring Tiger
  13. Dusty Bushworms
  14. Perch Warble
  15. My Big Day

Based on the songs included, this version could possibly have come between the two other versions, dropping the fig. 4 songs and the unknown track in favour of songs like “Chicken Blows”, new opener “Crutch Came Slinking”, “Scalding Creek”, etc. but it keeps “My Big Day” and “14 Cheerleader Coldfront” which don’t appear on the “final” version given to Robert Griffin. Also included, interestingly enough, is Propeller album track “Lethargy”—more on that later—and what looks to be a version of “Mesh Gear Fox”, of which no version has ever been released separately.

In addition, “Fantasy Creeps” has picked up the subtitle “Glow Boy Butlers”, later used as the title for a song on the 1993 Static Airplane Jive EP that likely was recorded later and isn’t directly related.

We’ll also digress for a moment to check out what’s pasted on the cover to Propeller copy #16:


Yes, that’s right, at some point there was intended to be a four-song Back to Saturn X 7″ EP, and we even have front cover art! And beside it, a small image listing credits—including the tidbit that these four songs were supposedly recorded on July 14, 1992 (in the Snakepit, Pollard’s basement). The tracklist for the EP listed on the cover is:

  1. Sopor Joe
  2. Crutch Came Slinking
  3. Melted Pat
  4. Chicken Blows

All four of these songs appear on the Scat and Propeller #33 tracklists; the “early” tracklist features only “Sopor Joe” and “Melted Pat”. If these songs were indeed all recorded on the same day in mid-1992, that would place all of these tracklists after that point, and Propeller even later in the year. This is certainly possible; though the recording of the title track dates back to 1990 (and it was in written as “You’re Never Too Old for Ethel” even earlier in 1976 by Pollard’s first band Anacrusis), most of the other songs are known to have been recorded in 1992. It’s possible that the band worked on material on and off between 1990 and 1992, and didn’t start compiling tracklists until that point. Or, the date on the credits could possibly be wrong, but it’s hard to tell based on the other information we have (that is to say, not much). In any case, it’s also not clear when this proposed EP came in the process; was this where the Back to Saturn X concept started? I find that somewhat unlikely, since I’d expect it would include the song of the same name, even if it was later dropped from the project. So my guess is that this was devised at the end, as a last-ditch effort to get even an abridged version of the album out there, with only four songs in particular (all from the same session, purportedly). I don’t know if this version was conceived before work on Propeller was already underway, but it would have been an interesting companion to that record for certain.

All that considered, Back to Saturn X was an idea for a record that didn’t work out, something shelved while the band then went to work on writing, recording, and releasing Propeller instead. Well, not quite. Because then there’s The Corpse-Like Sleep of Stupidity—and that’s the missing link. Here, I’ll show you the tracklist:

  1. #2 in the Model Home Series [instrumental]
  2. Mr. Japan
  3. Some Drilling Implied [solo]
  4. Buzzards and Dreadful Crows [1990 version]
  5. Red Gas Circle
  6. Damn Good Mr. Jam [full-band]
  7. Trashed Canned Goods
  8. Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy
  9. Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up)
  10. 14 Cheerleader Coldfront
  11. My Big Day [second version]
  12. Kisses to the Crying Cooks
  13. Dusty Bushworms
  14. Bottoms Up! (You Fantastic Bastard)
  15. Melted Pat
  16. Separation of Church and State
  17. [untitled]
  18. Particular Damaged
  19. Good Old Mr. Expendable
  20. Spring Tigers
  21. Scalding Creek
  22. Lethargy
  23. The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory [early version]

Whew! Now that’s a lot of tracks, and it’s quite different than any of the Back to Saturn X tracklists that we know about. And indeed, many of the original songs from that album are gone—but more importantly, some remain. “Melted Pat”, which appeared on every Back to Saturn X tracklist, features prominently, along with “Damn Good Mr. Jam”, “Spring Tigers”, “Dusty Bushworms”, “Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up)”, and later addition “Scalding Creek”.

And yet there are also Propeller tracks here, and not just “Lethargy” and “14 Cheerleader Coldfront” either; we’ve also got “Unleashed!”, “Red Gas Circle”, “Particular Damaged”, and solo versions of “Some Drilling Implied” and “Over the Neptune” (“Kisses to the Crying Cooks”, later considered for Bee Thousand and released in 1994 on the Fast Japanese Spin Cycle EP). (And there’s also some other stuff that would appear on later albums as well as a few tracks that would remain unreleased until Suitcase or other releases, but those aren’t incredibly relevant to our purposes. You can find a more comprehensive writeup of the entirety of the tape on the Shitcanned blog here.)

But—basically—my point here is that these albums are not disparate projects, even though the “final” version of Back to Saturn X contains no songs that would appear on Propeller. All of these were songs that were being tossed around from 1990 to 1992, while the idea for a “final” album for the band was formulating, and while it’s true that Back to Saturn X and Propeller in concept and in final form are distinct records, their process of getting there is more deeply intertwined (and indeed, with the way the scrapped songs were either reworked or released on different records in the coming years, this ties them together with the larger Guided by Voices musical narrative).

So that’s how Back to Saturn X got to its final tracklist, and that gives us a bevy of songs that were involved with the project. My question, once I took a big look at all of that information is: why? Why did Robert Pollard decided this album was fatally flawed and pull it before production, instead buckling down to finish the record he intended to be GBV’s last? Well, there are certainly the situational reasons; Pollard and the band were running low on money and stamina, and Back to Saturn X may just not have been the record he wanted to go out on. And it certainly wasn’t a bad decision to put out Propeller instead, because that record indeed did, as jokingly intended, propel the band to success. But say in theory they had more money, and they could have put out this record before Propeller as the finished version has no overlap. Why not? Well, after some listening and trying to compose my own coherent tracklist out of the material… I think I’m willing to come out and say that musically, it’s just not a very good record.

Now, I know some GBV purists will grab me by the shoulders and shake me and demand to know what I mean by that, so I’ll explain further: while there’s quite a bit of good material from these sessions, it’s incredibly difficult to make it hang together as an album and a lot of it really occupies the same roles on the record. Personally, I’m glad all the material exists, but I think it really works better in the individual contexts of the records in which it did end up being released, whether it’s on King Shit or a ’90s EP or Suitcase or, in a few cases, weird compilation releases.

Let’s dive in with my biggest complaint: there are so many slow, balladesque tracks, several of which ended up on the Get Out of My Stations EP: “Scalding Creek”, “Dusty Bushworms”, and the solo versions of “Spring Tiger” and “Damn Good Mr. Jam” (the latter from Static Airplane Jive) are all good songs, for sure, but it’s really hard to figure out where to place them on an album together. And the centrepiece on all full versions of the tracklist, “Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up)”, plods along even further, transforming the later-iconic hook from the Bee Thousand version into an unrecognisable slog. “Chicken Blows” is another quite pretty song, for sure, and it sounds absolutely magnificent on Alien Lanes—but here in the midst of Back to Saturn X it feels like a retread, especially on the final version which features all of these songs listed.

Then, there are the rockers, and there’s two main types. One is loud and abrasive, usually with barely-distinguishable lyrics if at all, these large muddy recordings like “Perch Warble” (the 1990 version from the first Suitcase), “Tricyclic Looper”, “Mallard Smoke”, and “Squirmish Frontal Room”.

The other type is a sort of mid-tempo more pop rock song, though many of these don’t have an incredibly clear hook; these include “Crutch Came Slinking”, “Spring Tigers” (full-band, AKA “Gurgling Spring Tiger”), “Damn Good Mr. Jam” (full-band), “Fantasy Creeps”, “Scissors and the Clay Ox (In)”, “Sopor Joe”, “Our Value of Luxury”, “Melted Pat”, and even “My Big Day”.

These make up a significant portion of the album and while many are quite good in isolation (“Melted Pat” was briefly a live favourite), they just… don’t really work when there are a whole bunch of them, for me. On their own, some of them are quite repetitive; together, they make the whole album seem over-long and under-baked.

I guess the biggest issue for me here is just that there are a lot of songs and yet so little that grabs me. And while songs without strong hooks aren’t inherently bad—indeed, they can help to bring an album together—the fact that there are very few songs on here with strong hooks and that I can just toss them into three or so categories of songs that are nearly interchangeable just makes it a very hard sell. “Back to Saturn X” the song itself is incredible and has a fantastic hook—but it also sounds sonically out of place, and it doesn’t even appear on the “final” version of the album (possibly for that reason). The two songs in consideration that would appear on Propeller fit there better. And the fig. 4 songs just sound out of place (more like early ’80s Pollard material), even on that early tracklist. I will definitely go to bat for so many of the songs here, for certain… I just, after a lot of thought, have come to the conclusion that this simply doesn’t work as an album, and Robert Pollard was right to scrap the thing.

That said, I’ve come up with my own personal tracklist of the album, because of course I have. Even if the batch of songs here is flawed—not as individual songs, but as a group of them—there’s still a lot here to love, and I think you can definitely make a decent album from the material, something worth listening to. So that’s what I’ve done, taking tracks from all three iterations into consideration:

  1. My Big Day [third version]
  2. Perch Warble [Suitcase 2]
  3. Melted Pat
  4. Gurgling Spring Tiger
  5. Fantasy Creeps
  6. Scalding Creek
  7. Scissors and the Clay Ox (In)
  8. Crutch Came Slinking
  9. Squirmish Frontal Room
  10. Dusty Bushworms [Get Out of My Stations]
  11. Chicken Blows
  12. Damn Good Mr. Jam [full-band]
  13. Sopor Joe
  14. Back to Saturn X

Fourteen songs, 36 minutes—8 on side A, 6 on side B. Personally I consider this about as well-balanced an album you can get from the Back to Saturn X material, alternating loosely between the more upbeat rockers and the low-key ballads. I do still consider this a mildly boring record, but I think that’s unavoidable for, uh, reasons I’ve outlined above. Included are all the key players of the album’s sessions in one form or another, besides “Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up)”, which I’ve banished for being too insufferable and dragging down the album way, way more (plus it’s done way better in its better-known form on Bee Thousand). “Chicken Blows” I guess can no longer be on Alien Lanes in this alternate universe, but you can replace it on that album with, like, “Lariat Man” and not lose too much.

An important thing for me when it comes to sequencing is the openings and closings—and it’s with that in mind that I opened the album with “My Big Day”, used as the opener on the “early” version and, in my personal opinion, a much superior opening to any of the others because it actually sounds like it’s kicking things off, and with a bit of an eerie air to things to boot. Side A ends with “Crutch Came Slinking”, which even opens one iteration of the album but I personally think it sounds much more like a closer.

Flip the record and you get the one “heavy” rocker I kept for the record, “Squirmish Frontal Room”. It’s abrasive, but not so much that you don’t get some sort of vocal hook and it doesn’t stick out too much like a sore thumb, especially to kick off the second half. And I believe it incredibly important to end with “Back to Saturn X” as the “early” version does, both because it sounds like a closer, but also to hammer in that album title at the very end and go out with that strong hook.

Though this album did receive a “final” tracklist, I think it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t and shouldn’t end at that—as Pollard seemingly agreed when he scrapped it. I highly encourage anyone who’s a fan of this band and particularly this material to try out the three Pollard-made tracklists above, as well as my own, to see what sort of configuration you think works. And I also encourage you to play around, because you might stumble on something that works even better! Sequencing is highly underrated when it comes to how good an album is, and the tenor of a record can change completely with a new ordering.

Of course, even master albumist Robert Pollard evidently couldn’t find an ordering to his liking, and the record was scrapped completely in favour of Propeller. I happen to agree with that decision, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily should, and I’m happy to hear any arguments for why this record actually is the lost masterpiece that would have catapulted GBV upward to even greater heights. To their big day!

About April

It's me. I'm pretty sure you know the drill. If you don't, well, here you go.
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