Graded on a Curve: Game Theory, The Big Shot Chronicles

On April 15th, the world lost one of its great pop-rockers in Scott Miller. Many folks know him as the leader of the Loud Family, but before that he was out there doing it with a group called Game Theory. They were exactly the sort of outfit to make Big Star fans swoon and give praise to the power pop heavens, but unfortunately wide success eluded them. It’s a familiar story, but in this case an exceptionally fine twist in the narrative would be checking out the band’s marvelous 1986 effort The Big Shot Chronicles.

The concept of “too many damn bands” can seem like a phenomenon that’s been gradually escalating right up to the ever-loving here and now, a time and place where it’s basically impossible for one person with diverse musical interests to actually get a substantive handle on everything that’s worthy of hearing. And this is just concerning new developments. Forget about the insurmountable mountain of older material; there’s just too much history and too little time to ever come to terms with it all.

But in reality the situation’s been this way for a very long time. It’s just played out in environments that are inappropriately shorthanded as being wasteland’s of artistic denial. Those weren’t eras actually saddled with the concept of “too few damn bands,” but rather environments holding problematic distribution channels for both professionally minded musicians and those that valued a more DIY sensibility.

Of course, “diverse musical interests” is a key part of the equation. It naturally depends on the genre, but if a listener only cares about one style, it’s far easier to become a certifiable fountain of expertise. And in the ‘80s, anybody found holding court and spewing knowledge over the beautiful notion of guitar-based pop-rock was conversant with the name Scott Miller.

For Miller’s band Game Theory was one of the decade’s greatest sources of power pop-descended erudition. And if his name’s been consistently championed by fellow musicians and fanatics of the form, it’s always been a flat-out noggin-scratcher why the guy’s work hasn’t been more celebrated by the folks that profess to hold those wide-ranging tastes.

For in Game Theory’s case, distribution wasn’t a problem. After a few small self-released and quickly scarce efforts, they ended up on Enigma, one of the period’s largest independent labels. That relationship produced the group’s most celebrated stuff, a string of album’s that were solidly pumped by college radio.

Or, so it’s been said. Having lived out of the reach of higher-learning sponsored broadcasting systems during the period I can’t really back-up the above statement with any sort of personally experienced authority. However, I surely can relate that Game Theory records were reliably enthused over in the music press of the time, and sheer curiosity lead me to impulsively purchase the album that’s widely considered to be the band’s masterpiece, 1987’s Lolita Nation.

Sadly, a whole lot of ‘80s music buyers succumbed to the idea that curiosity killed the cat, in the process forgetting or ignoring the just as frequently uttered maxim that inquisitive felines also have nine sweet lives. Well, in erring on the side of caution, a ton of folks seriously missed out, for Lolita Nation is an absolute jewel of a record. In its refreshingly intellectual approach to guitar pop sensibilities it endures as one of the ‘80s finest documents from any genre.

But Lolita Nation isn’t necessarily the place for a Game Theory newbie to begin, for it’s a release of sprawling, often thorny ambition. Originally issued as a 2LP, as its sides play out it can often seem like an artifact from a parallel reality where Alex Chilton grew up in New England and formed a band while attending one of the Ivy League schools on a full scholarship.

In this scenario Lolita Nation is comparable to 3rd/Sister Lovers, though it lacks the wheels-coming-off desperation of Big Star’s finest record. Instead, it’s the sound of Miller and his band biting off a huge hunk of raw greatness and then molding it into a multi-faceted work that combined the best elements of classicism with a restless and endearingly bookish experimental streak.

It’s a record so good you might want to save it for last. Those wanting to start at the beginning of Game Theory’s run should check out the Distortions of Glory CD, for it combines the entirety of their 1982 debut LP Blaze of Glory, all but one cut from the 1983 EP “Pointed Accounts of People You Know,” and everything from 1984 EP “Distortion,” with the extra cut “Dead Center” thrown in.

Formed in Sacramento CA in ’82, singer/guitarist Miller, bassist Fred Juhos, keyboardist Nancy Becker, and drummer Michael Irwin quickly got down to business, releasing those discs on their own Rational Records imprint, with the band possessing more than a touch of a slightly spastic keyboardy new wave-ish sound. That’s not really a fault though, with the music already holding flashes of Miller’s brilliant songwriting and his penchant for integrating fragments of audio experimentation into the whole stew.

In ’85 they hooked up with Mitch Easter and recorded the excellent Real Nighttime LP, their first record for Enigma, though the band broke up before it hit stores. Previously Game Theory were a very interesting but minor band that held intimations of greatness, but Real Nighttime was a borderline excellent album from top to bottom, the LP distinguishing them as one of the top exponents of the era’s Paisley Underground scene.

While Juhos had made substantial songwriting contributions to the early Game Theory records, the group was now basically Miller’s show. He recruited a new batch of band members; Suzie Ziegler on bass, Gil Ray on drums, and Shelley LaFrenier on keys, and quickly produced the follow up The Big Shot Chronicles with Easter again at the helm.

While Real Nighttime would serve as a perfectly fine introduction to the band, The Big Shot Chronicles is an even better record, and it very effectively sets up the new listener for the tweaked majesty of Lolita Nation to come. Big Shot’s opener “Here It is Tomorrow” matches gemlike songwriting, both structurally and especially lyrically, with palpable urgency, and it’s really at this point that the pure sound of Miller’s vocals become a true joy to absorb.

It’s a sound that’s rather close in proximity to the vocals of Ted Leo. So it comes as no surprise that Leo is a big fan of Miller’s work. And something these artists share is a very impressive range, both in voice and in the emotional and textural nature of their writing. For instance, “Where You Going Northern” combines an unforced prettiness and moments of deftly rising energy, with the leader’s singing matching the shifts to exquisite effect.

“I’ve Tried Subtlety” will certainly gas any fan of Radio City, but most impressive is that what initially connects as being in direct lineage to Big Star gradually begins to take on an impressive personality of its own. One of Miller’s true gifts lied in how he was a student/ unabashed fan of the genre while simultaneously serving as a crucial extender of that tradition through his own great songs, and “I’ve Tried Subtlety” illustrates both aspects in the same track.

Here comes the old saw: in a just universe, “Erica’s Word” would’ve been a smash hit. It combines the savvy of early Costello with the stalwart musicianship of the best power pop, marrying complexity with gusto and moving from start to finish without a flaw. And “Make Any Vows” is a lean piece of no-nonsense pop-rock, a little less than two-and-a-half minutes in length, and quite distinct sounding. Then “Regenisraen” closes the side, providing a very nice passage of floaty psych-folk strum and surge.

Game Theory’s relationship with Mitch Easter was an extended and fruitful one, and he served as producer for the rest of their run. So unsurprisingly, one of the group’s best qualities lies in album sequencing, though the diversity of their material indubitably made this a much easier task that it would’ve been with other, lesser artists.

Side two opens with “Crash into June” a solid slice of uptempo keyboard-powered pop-rock that finds those early wavoid tendencies pretty much shaken off, and it’s followed by “Book of Millionaires”, a slower ‘60s-ish pop number (the keyboard is remindful of that ‘60s warhorse, the harpsichord), and it should easily please fans of prime XTC.

And songs like “The Only Lesson Learned” are deceptive, initially seeming likeably ordinary, but intensifying on repeated listens through Miller’s terrific lyrical ability and the whole band’s crisp, engaging playing. From there “Too Closely” begins as an expert piece of guitar-pop fragility that gracefully builds in intensity; even at 3:19 it feels over too quickly, and it would’ve worked great as a b-side to a single release of “Erica’s Word.”

“Never Mind” is a killer late-album rocker, communicating that every song on The Big Shot Chronicles is as fully developed as the stuff found on the estimable records that held such a large influence on Miller. And closer “Like a Girl Jesus” starts out in dreamy mode only to deliver a briefly rocking conclusion. The result is an outstanding album from a group that deserved much more than the cult status they attained.

Post Lolita Nation, Game Theory released a more mainstream though still worthy effort Two Steps from the Middle Ages in 1988 and a swell retrospective compilation Tinker to Evers to Chance in 1990 that even included a reworked version of “Beach State Rocking” from Miller’s pre-Game Theory outfit Alternative Learning. After their breakup Miller then formed the very interesting group the Loud Family, but that’s a subject for another piece.

As a cult band, Game Theory’s work has become difficult to find, and physical copies in any format are often prohibitively expensive. Lolita Nation has apparently changed hands for as much as $100 dollars, and that’s for the freaking compact disc, a circumstance that’s quite depressing to mull over. And that’s why Sue Trowbridge, the webmaster of the Scott Miller/ Game Theory/ Loud Family website, has made zip files of the entire Game Theory discography available for free listening.

Anybody with an appreciation for guitar-based pop-rock should check them out, for the work of Scott Miller was consistently exceptional. An ear can easily soak up the man’s love for his artistic calling in every groove, and it’s not a bit surprising that he wrote a book expressing those feelings titled MUSIC: What Happened?

Hopefully, the rights issues that have stymied the rerelease of Game Theory’s discography can get straightened out, for records like The Big Shot Chronicles should be in the hands of as many fans as possible, and it would be a fine testament to his legacy. There may be “too many damn bands” but one as fine as Game Theory should never get lost in the deluge.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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3 comments
TerryB
TerryB

Hope your terrific tribute will encourage others to tune in to what Scott selflessly and joyously delivered. We are all better for it.  And so sad.

Guest
Guest

Very nice write-up and a huge talent, and a genuinely good-natured and brilliant man. Scott Miller is sorely missed.

One very minor correction. His early band was "Alternate Learning" rather than "Alternative Learning."

Joseph Neff
Joseph Neff

Alternate Learning was indeed the name of Scott's early band. Thank you for the correction and for the nice words on the article.

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