“Poets of Rock”: Elektra labelmates 10,000 Maniacs & Tracy Chapman tackled tough topics

By on December 14, 2018

Night Flight’s “Poets of Rock” featured music videos by Natalie Merchant’s 10,000 Maniacs and Tracy Chapman, two Elektra Records labelmates with an intertwined history singing politically-conscious, socially-aware neo-folk rock songs that tackled tough topics.

Watch both videos — 10,000 Maniacs’ “What’s the Matter Here?” (1987) and Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” (1988) — in this special episode which originally aired on July 15, 1988, now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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10,000 Maniacs lead singer and lyricist Natalie Merchant grew up in Jamestown, a small town in upstate New York, about an hour and a half south of Buffalo. Her parents divorced when she was just seven years old.

By all accounts, Merchant was quite shy, reserved and introverted, but she was also quite a storyteller, someone who put stories about her own life into her songs.

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Three members of Merchant’s first Jamestown band, Still Life, formed the basis of 10,000 Maniacs, who came together in 1981.

Their name was inspired by the 1964 Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter film Two Thousand Maniacs (two other names they considered were Dick Turpin’s Ride to York, and Men of the Arctic).

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Merchant’s first original songs were peppy, folky little songs accented by hints of bluegrass and Italian folk songs she’d heard in her youth.

10,000 Maniacs’ debut album, Secrets of the I-Ching, arrived in 1983, a year after the band had released a mini-album, Human Conflict Number Five, on their own Christian Burial label.

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Their growing following led to them signing with Elektra Records, and issuing 1986’s The Wishing Chair.

1987’s In My Tribe — produced by Peter Asher, who worked with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor — spawned the single “What’s The Matter Here?,” which seems like an unlikely topic for most bands to be singing about: child abuse.

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Merchant and bandmate Robert Buck wrote the song — which charted at #9 on Billboard‘s Modern Rock Tracks, and reached #80 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 — after witnessing a young boy trying to escape a beating from his irate father.

Merchant explained the inspiration for this song during her 1998 VH1 “Storytellers” performance:

“It was a song I wrote about a little boy who was neglected and abused. In my neighborhood there was a house that was one of these houses that had kind of a black aura about it – you would walk on the other side of the street so you didn’t have to walk in front of it. It had a garbage-strewn yard; broken windows stuffed with rags; a large, vicious dog on a short leash that had dug a circular circumference into the yard over years of running in circles; a battered upholstered couch on the porch.”

“But at this particular house there was also a little boy. A very beautiful, harmless, innocent child. I’d see him playing on the front steps with a broken toy or maybe digging in the dirt with a spoon – he liked to do that. But every time I would walk by the house I would hear this voice coming out of the open door screaming obscenities at him. And I never really understood why – I mean, what can he do?”

The video — directed by Matt Mahurin — intercuts Merchant singing with shots of children playing, dancing and fighting.

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10,000 Maniacs arrived at a time when other artists — including their Elektra labelmate Tracy Chapman — were all coming into their own and singing intelligent, socially-aware lyrics rooted in shared human experience.

Read more about Tracy Chapman below.

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Tracy Chapman was born into a working class household in Cleveland, Ohio, her parents divorcing when she was four years old.

She and her older sister, Aneta, were raised by their single mother, who refused alimony payments and relied on low-paying jobs and welfare to raise her daughters.

By age eight, she was already playing the guitar and writing her own songs,.

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While attended Tufts University — in Medford, Massachusetts, a few miles northwest of Boston — she’d begun busking, in her words, near “the green pastures of Harvard University,” and played at coffeehauses and folk clubs in the Cambridge area.

Demo recordings she made at the local college radio station — along with help from a college classmate, Brian Koppleman, who recommended her to his father, Charles Koppleman, who ran SBK Publishing — led to her signing a publishing deal in 1986.

A year later, she signed a recording contract with Elektra Records, releasing her eponymous debut album, Tracy Chapman, in 1988.

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Chapman’s single “Fast Car” offered up a female perspective on the idea that owning a car equates with the freedom to be able to escape a bad situation or to overcome the endless cycle of poverty.

In this particular case, the song concerned a couple in a homeless shelter, discussing the difficulties of trying to face challenges in life, and how they needed a “fast car” to spirit them away to a better life somewhere else.

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After her debut album was released,  Chapman toured with Elektra labelmates 10,000 Maniacs, sharing with them a video director, Matt Mahurin, who lensed “Fast Car.”

After her performance of “Fast Car” at the televised Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert on June 11, 1988, at Wembley Stadium in London, England, the single began climbing up the Billboard Hot 100 charts, reaching its peak at #6 during the week ending August 27, 1988.

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Chapman’s debut album would end up selling over 17 million copies worldwide, earning her three Grammy Awards in 1989, including one for Best New Artist.

Night Flight’s “Poets of Rock” special — which also features videos by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, and more — is now streaming on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.