Scott Miller: Dreams as Big as you Please
The chief songwriter behind one of the greatest albums of all time died this week.
His name was Scott Miller and the album is Lolita Nation by Game Theory.
And you’ve probably never heard it.
Game Theory formed in the early 80s, and for the first half of the decade the group toiled away on indie labels, releasing two proper albums, Blaze of Glory and Dead Center, and an EP titled Pointed Accounts of People You Know.
By 1985 the band had worked up enough cred on the then new “college rock” circuit to get signed to the Enigma Records, a label known for acts like Agent Orange, Don Dixon and TSOL. That year, the group released Real Nighttime, but soon after that the band dissolved completely. Apparently unfettered, Miller soldiered on and recruited a new Game Theory. The following year they released The Big Shot Chronicles.
That album is great.
No one bought it.
Still seemingly undaunted by the band’s struggles, Miller and company returned to the recording studio the following year to record Lolita Nation, a record whose sound remains barely definable to this day. By and large it’s a power pop album, much like the rest of Game Theory’s discography, but it’s something else as well, with experiments and diversions into noise rock and avant-garde sound collages. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t work. In fact, it should be a mess. An unlistenable mistake.
It’s a goddamn masterpiece.
No joke. Lolita Nation is one of the greatest albums of all time. And easily in my list for the top five albums of the 1980s, ranked alongside Prince’s Purple Rain and Sonic Youth’s similarly titled Daydream Nation. It’s a perfect record. Tracks like “We Love You Carol And Allison,” “Dripping With Looks,” “The Real Shelia” all stand great on their own, but when surrounded by the shorter, more experimental tracks on the album, they somehow sound even better. Taken as a whole, the album is a beautiful tapestry of music, everything woven together perfectly.
So why the hell haven’t you heard of it? Or any other Game Theory albums for that matter?
Well, there are a few reasons. Firstly, it’s important to look at the album in the context of the year it came out; 1987. That year the number one song in the country was The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian ” Hair metal ruled rock radio, and the then “alternative” scene (which was still called college rock) was focused mostly on acts like The Smiths, New Order, and Love And Rockets. Jangle pop, which is what Game Theory’s specific style of music is typically classified under, never really broke through even to that marginalized market. The closest jangle ever go to going mainstream was with R.E.M.’s album from that year, Document. But even they took it to a more mainstream place than Game Theory were willing to go with Lolita Nation.
So there’s that, but why hasn’t it caught on since then? Plenty of great records that couldn’t find their audiences the first time around eventually went on to become classics. Look at artists like The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, and Young Marble Giants. Their best records were all cult hits at most when they first came out, and were only regarded with “classic” status some years later.
It probably helps that you still buy their records. The same can’t be said for Lolita Nation, or any other album in Game Theory’s back catalog. Their label, Enigma Records, was bought by EMI in 1989, and a couple years later they merged with Restless Records and vanished completely. Some artists and catalog titles came along for the ride. Others, like Game Theory’s albums, did not, and were probably sold off to the highest bidder, or given to devious suits who tricked the bands into signing over the rights to their music.
It’s hard for an album to be considered a lost classic if it really is lost.
I didn’t discover Lolita Nation until last year, when I bought a used vinyl copy of it on a lark, taking a chance on it because I noticed the Enigma name. While some records take time to sink in, the genius of Lolita Nation hit me full force on my first listen. Before I was even done with the first record of the 2LP set, I was online trying to dig up as much information on the group as I could.
I felt like I had joined a club, a fellowship of like-minded individuals who discovered the record and wanted to uncover the mysteries around it and it’s lost status. I found blog posts, forum messages and interviews all dedicated to the band and Lolita Nation, all discussing and wondering why the hell they couldn’t buy a new copy of the record. All shared vague tales of rights issues and greedy ex-managers and contractual fine print, but no one could really say for sure why the band’s records remained unavailable.
These tales have always fascinated me, and I actually started my first site, Lost Turntable, to shine a light on songs and bands whose music has been lost in the sands of time because of these very issues. For a short time I wanted to write an article about this problem, and I tried to get in contact with a few of my favorite artists whose music has fallen out of print. After tracking about half a dozen artists down, I sent emails to them asking if they’d like to be interviewed.
Scott was the only one who wrote me back, answering any question I sent his way.
Since the piece never materialized, what I got from Scott is far from a full interview, just some of his thoughts about the situation with Game Theory’s albums and his own personal views on fans turning to file-sharing to get the songs they want. Below is our entire email conversation, unedited save for a few typo fixes.
Read it if you want, but be sure to head over to Scott’s official website. There you can read up and listen to the music he put out with his second band, The Loud Family, who were also excellent (and sadly under-heard). You can also read some excerpts from his book Music: What Happened?, a great collection of reviews that shows that the man wasn’t just a fantastic music writer, he was an amazing writer about music.
Most importantly though, you can also download a near-complete discography of Game Theory by following the links on the site’s main page, provided by the site’s webmaster and hosted by me. Because rights issues shouldn’t get in the way of people discovering a musical genius.
Scott, you’ll be missed. You never got the recognition you deserved, I still hope someday it will come. Your stubbornness and unwillingness to never give up on your dream meant more to me than you’ll know.
I’ve read a bit about it online, but can you explain to me why, to the best of your knowledge, Game Theory’s catalog remains out of print? I read somewhere that an ex-manager is sitting on the rights, is that accurate?
Something like that. There’s been much more interest in the catalog than I would have predicted, and he’s seemed really engaged with a couple of the deal proposals, but then as far as I can tell, he’ll stop communicating, or just say things I find confusing. Clearly there are factors I don’t know about, and the not knowing is frustrating.
Is there anything you or anyone else can do to alleviate the situation? Is there anything new artists should keep in mind so they don’t find themselves in this situation later on?
For new artists signing a contract, I’d ask yourself how the contract treats the situation where it’s a few years down the road, and you could be enjoying catalog sales, but the person with the rights simply won’t license them, maybe simply out of neglect. Make it clear that in certain circumstances that no one claims to think are hot issues, the rights revert to you.
This may be kind of a stupid question, but how does it feel to know that there are people who would gladly pay money for your albums, but they can’t?
I feel grateful to those people for the fact that my music fits into their world. That was the sort of record buying world I came from, where you have a greater than average attraction to releases that not many people like. I started out as a kid knowing zero people who would buy something like an Iggy and the Stooges or Roxy Music record, and I steadily built that up over years to maybe about three people. In other words, completely irrelevant to those artists’ ability to make a living. I’ve almost always felt doomed popularity wise; having a little steady interest is at some level a big deal for my moral, but it’s painful to ever get my hopes up for monetary reward.
It’s odd, but in some ways do you think that an album being out of print can enhance its legacy? I think the Neu! albums benefited from this.
Certainly a lot of people tell me they heard something about that Game Theory album “Lolita Nation” just because it sold somewhere for a high collector price, or was mentioned in an article as being a rarity. Probably more than I hear about any of my albums for any other reason.
Since people can’t legally buy your albums, how do you feel about bootlegging and file-sharing alternatives?
I feel like it’s a very minor intellectual property offense. The worst thing was when these few poor college students were getting slapped with immense fines, but excessive punishment aside, there’s not really any logic on the side of file sharing that’s any different from suggesting you should be able to walk into a movie theater without paying. People should feel good about paying into the system. If you feel guilty about downloading something of mine, maybe you could go to iTunes and buy something of mine that you aren’t actually interested in. That is, just taking me as an example of any producer of music.
Labels probably don’t re-issue lesser-known albums because of production costs, but don’t you think this is less of a problem today, thanks to digital music distribution?
The biggest shock to me was that at least something like four labels have proposed elaborate vinyl and physical media re-releases of the whole catalog. I haven’t seen any evidence of anyone saying something like, “We see a new window of profitability if we do this all-download, whereas before the brick and mortar cost was prohibitive.”
Assuming one could get the rights to re-release your band’s music, would they technically need the master tapes? Could someone get the rights (if possible) and then just rip the CD and make those files available on Amazon or iTunes?
In conversations I’ve had, ripping the CD is considered a low-rent last resort for corner-case material, and that all the main releases would be from master tape source. They sound different, there’s just no question. The Game Theory stuff is all too old to be digitally sourced, but to my ears 24-bit digital sounds like you’re getting the whole sound, but CD source has some audible differences if you know the material.
Are you still fronting The Loud Family?
That group actually stopped doing anything in 2000, although 125 Records used the name for a release in 2005 for a collaboration with Anton Barbeau, simply because there’s another solo artist named Scott Miller and the music business would be thrown into chaos if there were a second.
Thank you James!
Thanks Scott. For everything.