“The Future’s So Bright”: Lo-fi, left-of-center folk duo Timbuk3 & nuclear paranoia in Reagan’s ’80s

By on August 11, 2017

This popular episode of Night Flight’s “Flash Tracks” — which originally aired on October 7, 1988 — featured Austin, TX husband-wife duo Timbuk3, whose hit song “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” proved to be both a blessing and a curse during their career. Watch the video, and several more Timbuk3 videos, now on Night Flight Plus!

Eclectic, lo-fi and left-of-center ’80s folk-rock duo Timbuk3 — Pat MacDonald and Barbara K — have described themselves as making “clever, pulsating music created with thoughtful songwriting, haunting voices, expert instrumentation and a within-budget, drug-free, always in-time rhythm section consisting of homemade drum and bass tracks cranked out of a low-end boom-box.”

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MacDonald — a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, who started playing semi-professionally when he was thirteen, just out of 8th grade — originally met fiddle player and backup singer Barbara K (K for Kooyman, born and raised in San Antonio, Texas) in 1978, when she joined his band Pat MacDonald & the Essentials in Madison, Wisconsin.

He’d liked Barbara’s vocals on “Makin’ It On My Own,” a track they’d recorded for the Essentials’ lone album, and they later decided to splinter off to do the duo thing.

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Early on — inspired by a couple of Memphis street buskers who were playing an old shuffle blues accompanied by what he would describe later as “ancient steam-driven drum machine” — MacDonald decided to record drum and bass beats on cassette tapes that they’d then play on their “jam box” (as they called it, dubbing it “T-3PO”), which would provide a kind of live rhythm section to augment their spare sound of acoustic guitars, harmonica, violin and voices.

More about Timbuk3 below.

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They chose the vaguely African-sounding name Timbuk3 — a joke on Timbuktu, an ancient city in the landlocked West African country of Mali — because it reminded them of the pulsating, interlocking guitar stylings of Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade, a favorite of theirs.

For the next few years, they toured in their ’82 Chevy van, playing at coffeehouses, folk clubs, house parties or they would busk on the streets, under the stars.

They moved from Madison to Austin, Texas, where they got married in ’83 and had a son, Devin.

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Less than a year after arriving in Austin they would end up appearing on MTV’s “I.R.S. Records Presents The Cutting Edge,” who came to town in the summer of 1985 to showcase some of the bands in the city’s “New Sincerity” scene.

Timbuk3 opened the first of the three nights that MTV taped for the show, which led to them being invited out to L.A. to perform for the TV show’s preview, and that led to I.R.S. president Miles Copeland signing them to a record deal.

One song of Timbuk3’s in particular was singled out as a potential hit. It was titled after something that Barbara K had jokingly said sarcastically in the tour van (‘Oh, the future’s so bright, we’ll have to wear sunglasses!”), which MacDonald wrote down as a possible lyric with a nuclear angle, later changing sunglasses to shades.

His sociopolitical lyrics actually offered up a rather bleak point-of-view about a college student — enrolled in science classes, studying nuclear energy and “gettin’ good grades!” — who realizes that even though he seems to have a bright future ahead, he’s also uncertain about what that future might look like in Ronald Reagan’s America in the 1980s.

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MacDonald would later say that it was frequently frustrating and embarrassing that so many people misinterpreted the song’s chorus — meant to show how some people wear “blinders” to the realities of dangers like nuclear war — and focused on what they thought were positive thoughts about the future, not negative ones.

“The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” caught fire almost immediately, and suddenly Timbuk3 had an instant indie rock hit on their hands, climbing the Billboard pop charts to #19.

Timbuk3’s debut album — the stripped-down Greetings from Timbuk3, produced by Dennis Herring — was released in October of ’86, but there were no other hits to be found among the nine additional album tracks.

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The band’s video for “The Future’s So Bright” was directed by I.R.S. creative director Carl Grasso, offering up a kind of barren, post-apocalyptic landscape.

It features a donkey with a TV strapped to its back (which had been used on the album cover art).

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During their ’80s prime years, Timbuk3 made lots of TV appearances (“Saturday Night Live,” “Austin City Limits,” etc.), and even made an appearance in actor Dennis Quaid’s Austin-filmed D.O.A. remake.

They toured as an opening act with some of the biggest names in the business, including Bob Dylan, Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, James Brown and others.

In 1987, they received a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, and their video for “The Future’s So Bright” was nominated for MTV’s Best New Artist Video.

MacDonald and his wife Barbara K certainly enjoyed the validation of having a hit song after working so hard, but they didn’t enjoy everything that came along with promoting such a huge hit.

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All total, Timbuk3 released six albums during their career, four of them for the I.R.S. label — besides the debut LP, there was also Eden Alley (1988), Edge Of Allegiance (1989), and Big Shot In The Dark (1991) — but they never managed to chart another hit after “The Future’s So Bright.”

MacDonald and Barbara K continued to record and tour through 1995’s A Hundred Lovers, but they would stop making music together when their marriage dissolved in 1996.

Have a look at this episode of “Flash Tracks” — it also features the Sisters of Mercy and a band called Stump — which you’ll find streaming on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, 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.