30 Years Ago: Timbuk3’s Future Looks Bright with ‘Greetings From Timbuk3′
The '80s are remembered as a time of big hair, big budgets, and big production in the music industry. But there's an exception to every rule — and Timbuk3 made one with their stripped-down, lo-fi debut, Greetings From Timbuk3, in 1986.
Released in October of 1986, the record offered an acerbic, smartly crafted rejoinder to the dance tracks and power ballads on the Top 40 of the era, balancing stomping beats and singalong choruses against literate lyrics that surveyed the state of the mainstream with a cocked eyebrow and a bemused smirk. Made up of Austin husband/wife, singer/songwriter duo Pat MacDonald and Barbara K, Timbuk3 weren't likely candidates for a mainstream breakthrough; they were left of center and signed to an indie label in an era when neither were a safe investment. But by the time the record ran its course at retail, they were the proud owners of a brand new Top 20 hit.
Timbuk3 had its roots in MacDonald's band the Essentials, a Wisconsin combo that dissolved when, as MacDonald later recalled, he noticed Barbara "was way more committed than the other band members so we decided to break off and do our own thing." Unenthusiastic about the prospect of trying to build a music career in their wintry environs, they decided to pull up stakes for warmer climes. "We also decided we wanted to play on the street," explained MacDonald. "And winter in Wisconsin was too cold for that, so we looked at New Orleans and Austin."
On their journey to becoming Austin buskers, Timbuk3 discovered they could play as a "band" by employing what they dubbed their "jam box" — a boombox tape player with programmed rhythm tracks to flesh out their live sound. While certainly a lo-fi approach, it helped set the fledgling band apart, allowing them to stay portable and rooted in an acoustic sound while still allowing them a certain flexibility in terms of arrangements.
"We had thought up a whole bunch of different ways to make a living playing music," Barbara told the Los Angeles Times. "Of course Timbuk3, playing on the streets and in the clubs, but also solo acoustic, maybe there'd be a folk club to play in, or we could rent out our PA and do sound for other bands, or even play somebody's little party in a house — we could set up in such a small place."
The band eventually won an audience with I.R.S. Records via the label's monthly MTV series The Cutting Edge, earning an invite to the show on the strength of a demo they'd submitted (and, Macdonald later wisecracked, because they were a duo and would therefore be cheaper to fly out for the taping). That led to an I.R.S. contract, and before long, Timbuk3 were in the studio with producer Dennis Herring and (indie) label money.
Although the bulk of Greetings From Timbuk3's 10-song track list lay decidedly outside the mainstream, the record's opener was a deceptively sarcastic burst of pop-fueled '80s sociopolitical commentary, and upon even a cursory playback, the most casual listener could tell it stood a pretty good shot of earning a little heavy rotation. "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" was a snarky anthem for trying times — a chugging, harmonica-laced pop tune that dismissed Reaganomics and nuclear paranoia with the sarcastic bravado of the chorus. It didn't sound like anything else on the radio — which was a substantial part of its appeal.
"The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" took off at pop radio, climbing the charts and rising all the way to No. 19 — a fine showing for an imprint whose biggest hits to that point had all come courtesy of Go-Go's alumni. But as Greetings From Timbuk3 almost immediately revealed, this wasn't a band that wrote hit singles by nature — nor were they temperamentally cut out for the spotlight.
"We enjoyed the validation more than the attention," MacDonald later observed. "It was exciting, but wasn't all fun — suddenly we had to work harder than ever, and we were pretty hard-working before that."
Greetings From Timbuk3 ultimately failed to spin off further hit singles; in fact, "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" would stand as their first and last charting hit. But if indie distribution put one strike against an artist in the '80s, it also afforded a wider degree of label leniency and creative latitude, and Timbuk3 persisted well after receding from the mainstream — the duo released six albums in all, continuing to record and tour through 1995's A Hundred Lovers. The end of the band coincided with the end of MacDonald and K's marriage, and although they've both steadfastly dismissed any suggestion of a reunion, the music retains its cockeyed charm — even if they regard those recordings with the same sense of muted embarrassment most people reserve for old school photos.
"In retrospect, I'm more proud of the songs than the performances - I wasn't much of a singer back then and a lot of the production is pretty dated. I feel like I've only recently figured out how to get a sound I'm happy with," MacDonald said in 2011. "People are still playing real instruments, and the guitar still seems to hold dominion over rock. I'm amazed that people still pay for music at all, and that people still come to shows. I thought robots would have taken over completely by now. The future looks fascinating, if not exactly 'bright.'"
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