Guadalcanal Diary :: Walking In The Shadow Of The Big Man

guadacanal diaryThink of them as REM’s quirky cousin. Or, don’t.   If you’re of a certain age and spent some time listening to college radio or watching late-night MTV in the ‘80s, you might remember Guadalcanal Diary’s brief incursions into the collective pop consciousness. First with 1984’s “Watusi Rodeo,” which made the cut for the music network’s “The Basement Tapes” (as selected by a panel that included members of INXS, Nick Lowe and…Ronnie James Dio) and later on “120 Minutes” with 1987’s “Litany (Life Goes On)” (notably sandwiched in its debut appearance between Love & Rockets’ “No New Tale To Tell” and The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”).

“Watusi Rodeo” serves as the backbone of the Marietta, GA-based quartet’s phenomenal full-length debut Walking In The Shadow Of The Big Man. It’s as good an introduction as any to this spectacularly underappreciated band. Part proto-cowpunk, part jangle-pop; part novelty song, part serious social commentary on the ills of imperialism and slavery, it’s a rare tune that might have found the Pi Delta Pis and Lambda Lambda Lambdas some common ground on the dance floor.

MP3: Guadalcanal Diary :: Watusi Rodeo

The balance of the album is no less schizophrenic, with front man Murray Attaway’s lyrics touching on everything from collateral war damage (“Trail of Tears”) to perverted evangelism (“Why Do The Heathen Rage”) to a paramour’s paranoia (“Pillow Talk”). Yet, thematically, it stays faithful to its title. Whatever the “Big Man” in question is–your own imperialist government, a vengeful god, or just the mysterious dude that moved in next door–you can’t ever quite shake the idea of him. Or how he might eventually screw you over.

MP3: Guadalcanal Diary :: Litany (Life Goes On)

Musically, WITSOTBM maps out the territories the band would explore throughout its stellar career: the aforementioned jangle and twangy punk, but also elements of prog (the album features two somewhat spacey, yet rad, instrumentals) and straight-up folk. The record’s closer, fireside-singalong standby “Kumbaya,” perfectly captures Guadalcanal’s steadfast refusal to bow to convention. What begins as meditative invocation segues into a startling, cacophonous freak-out. It’s cathartic, but have our campers have been touched by an angel or are they raging against an unavailable deity? Either way, it sounds like heaven and is fun as hell.

The band would produce three more LPs, two of which (1986’s Jamboree and 1987’s 2X4) easily challenge WITSOTBM for best-album status (their 1989 swansong Flip-Flop, while certainly not a flop, does come off as a bit flip). And yet, they’re largely out of print and rarely come up in conversation. So what happened?

Looking back, it’s hard not to see another “Big Man” in the mix: that band that starts with an ‘R’ and ends with an ‘M.’ It probably didn’t help that they shared a producer–Don Dixon was fresh off working on Murmur with Mitch Easter when he worked on WITSOTBM, and was likely in the midst of making Reckoning. There is also a considerable vocal similarity between Attaway and M. Stipe (at his most intelligible)–more than one person (okay, mostly girlfriends) has been fooled. And despite hailing from greater Atlanta, Guadalcanal was by-and-large lumped into the “Athens Scene.” As much as all that probably benefited them as an active band, it’s probably hurt their legacy. Who wants to listen to an REM ‘knockoff’ or ‘wannabe’ these days, after all, when REM has done a plenty fine job of that themselves?

But Guadalcanal Diary was more than that. The band’s live show was second to no one’s. Epic, sweaty and by turns comedic and poignant, they made fans the old-fashioned way–by playing their asses off. The records solidified that small-but-loyal base. Newer REM fans who skew pre-Green should embrace this band, even post-mortem.

When Guadalcanal got back together to play a series of shows in the late 90s it was clear that, for the initiated, the fervor never waned. Sure, it was no Pixies reunion, but the venues were packed with adoring crowds that spanned three generations, in some cases. If there is any justice in this world (I know, indulge me here), one day Guadalcanal Diary will join bands like Stipe & Co, The B-52s, Widespread Panic and (ahem) Collective Soul in the Georgia Music Hall Fame, standing shoulder to shoulder with giants, out of the shadows at last. | j kress

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13 thoughts on “Guadalcanal Diary :: Walking In The Shadow Of The Big Man

  1. Let me go ahead and lodge a serious defense of some of Flip-Flop‘s finer moments, especially the joyous “Always Saturday,” as close as a song can come to being tongue in cheek while being completely serious and sweet. Awesome write-up and wholeheartedly agreed.

  2. Great post. God….memories. Been meaning to look these guys up again. I remember listening to this in the back of my sister’s boyfriend’s car. All of their “college” music filtered down to my middle school ears. Ever notice how college music only applies to the ’80s? Why is that? No one talks about ’70s college or ’60s college? Probably because Top 40 started to suck in the mid-’80s? (Notice how there’s not a single real rock band in the Billboard Top 100 these days? How weird.) But I digress.

    I don’t hear any REM in these guys–never did–but not a bad thesis.

    You left one very very important band out of your Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and that is Athens’ own Five Eight. Still the best live show I’ve ever been to out of the hundreds. If you guys can get your hands on their first two albums–I Learned Shut Up and Weirdo–you’re in for a treat. Their later stuff is also quality, but those two set the bar.

    Viva Marietta!


  3. Nice column, sir! Was blown away by G. Diary when I saw them open for that aforementioned R-M group on the Pagentry tour and was a fan from that point on. Always sad that they never made it to a higher level per se (esp. with “Litany”) but also happy with the memories of ’em anyway. Found a lot of “closet” G. Dairy fans here and there….

  4. j. neas–Flip Flop does have it’s fine moments, no doubt–namely “Always Saturday,” “Whiskey Talk” and “…Vista.” The rest sort of sounds like filler. I just don’t think it stands up to the rest of the albums on the whole. (Thanks for the kind words–you helped set the standard.)

    Dan–Five Eight is my favorite band of all time. Best live show I’ve ever seen (many times over).

  5. Wish I could just edit my last comment, but alas…

    I meant “its” rather than “it’s”–and “Always Saturday” is certainly in the same league as “Litany.” It just lacks context–maybe it’s the burbs coming out.

    And as for Five Eight, I think The Good Nurse is the best thing they’ve done yet–though I dearly love the early albums (my I Learned Shut Up tape just gave up the ghost this year).

  6. I went to school in a town that had a wonderful radio station that played rock and roll you couldn’t hear anywhere else, including “Watusi Rodeo”…I was immediately a fan of that song, and quickly became a fan of the band as well…I had the pleasure of interviewing Murray Attaway for a daily newspaper in 1989 when Guadalcanal Diary was promoting Flip Flop…he could not have been more accommodating or more entertaining in the hour or so that we spent on the telephone…I was a fan prior to that, but a true fanatic afterwards…and live the band absolutely smoked…I have always been dismayed that Guadalcanal Diary wasn’t more widely known or appreciated…Rhino Handmade did deluxe reissues of “Walking…” and “2X4” several years ago, and every effort should be made to track those down and hear what a fantastic band this was…fun fact, last I heard, Jeff Walls, the lead guitarist for Guadalcanal Diary, was playing lead guitar and producing the Woggles, a blistering garage band from Alabama (I hear them a lot on Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel on Sirius)…now I must go listen to “Ghost On The Highway”, one of my favorite Guadalcanal Diary songs…

  7. As a G-Diary devotee I appreciate any press that this criminally underrated band receives. I remember hearing WITSOTBM for the first time and being blown away; however as fun a tune as “Watusi Rodeo” is, I think the backbone of the album has to be the more somber “Trail of Tears.” It leads directly into the transcendent “Fire From Heaven” which is, IMHO their best track other than “Litany (Life Goes On).” One of the drawbacks to G-Diary was the dichotomy on their own albums; some songs were amazing while others were mere filler. If you were to take their best 10-12 tracks, you’d have one of the best albums ever made. Things like “Michael Rockefeller,””Lips of Steel” and “3AM” can alternately rock and grab you with their quietness. In any case, thanks for reawakening the memories…

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