Guadalcanal Diary - Walking In The Shadow Of The Big Man
The city of Athens in Georgia may seem an unlikely place for a musical revolution, but in the early eighties, that is just what took place there. Of those bands which emerged from that city, R.E.M. are, without doubt, the most successful and well-known. Often overlooked, however, are Guadalcanal Diary who produced a number of albums during the eighties before splitting up, only to reform periodically for the occasional one-off gig in their hometown.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the overall sound of Guadalcanal Diary at times possesses a more than passing resemblance to their more famous peers. But before a charge of plagiarism is laid at their feet it is worth remembering that the band's debut album, Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man, was produced by the same Don Dixon who was responsible for much of the production for R.E.M.'s earlier work. As he did with R.E.M., Dixon's production is sparse and stripped down, enabling the band's talents as musicians and lyricists to take centre stage.
Guadalcanal Diary's songs cover a wide range of themes. Originally drawing inspiration from punk and prog rock, the band's two founders, Murray Attaway and Jeff Walls, started out playing Civil War ballads to which they added their own numbers about the supernatural and, most tellingly, religion. Once they took on additional members, drummer John Poe and bassist Rhett Crowe, they were able to add still more strands to their work - Poe's inspired and sometimes left-field drumming and Crowe's pop derived bass lines. The result is a mixture of sounds which in some ways marked them out. They became a big hit on U.S. college radio stations and critics alike.
Coming to this album years after the fact, it is not hard to see the appeal. Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man has the flavour of southern rock right from the start with the anti-war ballad "Trail of Tears" opening the album. But the album does not slip easily thence into a facsimile of the opening track, and to that we can credit the musical diversity of the band members. The stand out track is probably the cowpunk masterpiece, "Watusi Rodeo" about some Texan rednecks at an African cattle fair doing, well, what rednecks do, I suppose, much to the bewilderment of the locals. The song was first recorded on a self-produced EP in 1983 and later covered by Reverend Horton for the second Ace Ventura film. A similar musical style, without the same sense of fun, can be found on "Ghost on the Road" while "Pillow Talk" elicits memories of British pop bands of the sixties.
Other highlights on the album include two instrumentals. "Gilbert Takes the Wheel" is somewhat reminiscent of Simple Minds, or even U2, while the title track has one of the finest melodies on the entire album, driven by some excellent jangly guitars. Yet, it is not all glory. Attaway's religious fervor sees a number of tracks with religious themes, including the dull and plodding "Fire from Heaven" to the enthusiastic take on the folk-hymn, "Kumbayah", complete with audience participation.
Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man is a musical statement which is well-worth digging out. But sadly it is not comparable to its many influences. Only rarely does it rise above the sort of sound which I have heard emanate from dozens of other bands with more force. The Connells and the Gin Blossoms immediately spring to mind in that regard. Indeed, when the band step outside the sort of southern jangle pop format, heavily influenced by R.E.M., that they are at their best. And to hear Guadalcanal Diary at their best, you can do no worse than listen to "Watusi Rodeo" which not only has that originality, but shows that the band were also having a damn good time as well.
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