Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder: 10,000 Maniacs
Pop culture memory is a funny thing. Songs and movies and TV shows leave an imprint on our brains that is unique. Our relationships to art are inescapably different from one another, but pop culture is also a shared experience, so there is a tendency for us to believe that our own experience matches that of those around us at least to a degree. Sometimes we are sorely mistaken.
If you had asked me to name the songs of 10,000 Maniacs that had hit the Top40 in the United States without referring to any official source, I would have most likely whiffed at the task big time. For example, I definitely would have guessed that the above song These Are Days was one of their bigger hits. It was featured in MTV commercials at the time of its release that played repeatedly, and my memory says that the actual video also got strong rotation on the video music channel. It’s a wonderful song about the realization that you are living the memories which will become some of the greatest in your life. It is one of the iconic songs of the band’s career.
but it never hit the Top40.
10,000 Maniacs began as a cover band called Still Life in the southwest New York state town of Jamestown (also the home of Lucille Ball and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell). The lead singer most closely associated with the group, Natalie Merchant, joined as a side vocalist, but was moved up front when two original members quit. The band’s name was changed to Burn Victims for a while before finally settling on 10,000 Maniacs (neither of these last two names seem to give a good hint about what the band is like, but that didn’t end up hindering some decent success).
After releasing a couple of critically-acclaimed albums, including The Wishing Chair, and getting a little bit of notice across the pond in the UK, the band went for a poppier sound on their third release, 1987’s “In My Tribe.” The new recording garnered 10,000 Maniacs their greatest attention yet, especially with their cover of the Cat Stevens song Peace Train.
With Baby Boomer nostalgia going strong at the time and nouveau hippies sprouting up amongst folks my own age, Peace Train seemed like a great idea to draw an audience to the band. Unfortunately, not long after the song had gotten them plenty of airplay, its originator Cat Stevens appeared to endorse a Muslim fatwa levied against author Salman Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for the content of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. While Rushdie himself has yet to be killed, several people associated with him have been severely injured due to violent attacks. 10,000 Maniacs did not not wish to be associated with Stevens’ remarks, so further pressings of “In My Tribe” have been done without Peace Train.
Ah yes, and the song never made it to the Top40.
The next song released from “In My Tribe” was the decidedly more modern-sounding, but still lively single Like The Weather. This video was the height of “artsy” MTV fare in its day and it played on pretty much every episode of 120 Minutes for a while. My friends and I had this song mainlined on our car stereos that year. Despite our enthusiasm, and the “alternative classic” status Like The Weather now enjoys, it never climbed higher than #68 on the US Hot 100.
“In My Tribe” had gone double platinum and 10,000 Maniacs was now one of the darlings of the postmodern music scene in the U.S., and Natalie Merchant was their face. Pretty much any college campus had a few girls walking around dressed up as her. In 1989 they followed up with their fourth studio album, “Blind Man’s Zoo,” and their biggest single to date, Trouble Me.
Natalie is now hanging out with old ladies and dressed for the occasion. Trouble Me slipped up into several music charts, hitting #31 in Canada, #7 on the Adult Contemporary chart, and #3 on the Alternative chart. So this was their first trip into the U.S. Top40, right?
Nope. Trouble Me topped out at #44.
As you can tell by the videos, Natalie Merchant was the star of the group and nobody else seemed to mind, but despite the increasing success of the band with each new album, she announced to the rest of the group in 1991 that she would be leaving to go solo two years later. This is pretty generous notice considering most folks nowadays think 2 weeks isn’t necessary. Despite a seeming fatal blow to the band, they continued going strong during Merchant’s remaining time on board. The band played at Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball alongside R.E.M. It sure seemed like the world was changing. 1992’s new album “Our Time In Eden” went double platinum and boasted the above-mentioned song These Are Days and a second single that also got pretty solid airplay, the horn-boosted Candy Everybody Wants.
This video played every 2 hours on the video screen for a couple of months when I worked at the Warner Brothers Studio Store in Chicago back in ’93. Maybe because I heard it so much in such a public place, I figured it had been at least a small hit. Again, no. Neither These Are Days or Candy Everybody Wants got any further that #66 on the U.S. Hot 100.
And Merchant’s exit date from the band was fast approaching.
As a sort of “Best of…” and commemorative event, 10,000 Maniacs shot a full hour episode of MTV’s “Unplugged,” a live music performance show that nixed the presence of electric guitars and keyboards. It was pretty big at the time, and like Eric Clapton had done, 10,000 Maniacs released a recording of their Unplugged show 2 months after Merchant’s exit had been made public.
And that’s when they had their first Top40 hit in the states. With a cover version of Patti Smith’s bombastic love song Because the Night, no less.
It’s a great song and a wonderful performance, but who would’ve predicted this would finally get the Maniacs into the Top40? The single actually climbed all the way to #11 the week of Thanksgiving 1993!
So this was their final huzzah, right? It must be, because the face of the band is gone. She went home the day she announced the split and wrote a new song for her first solo album, “Tigerlilly.” That album spawned three Top40 singles all by itself, including Carnival, Wonder, and Jealousy. The band is dead and gone, right?
Well… if you’ve been paying attention, then you know that the name of this series is “Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder,” and we’ve noted just one Top40 hit for 10,000 Maniacs so far. You’re a smart one.
As it happens, a duo called John & Mary had been opening for 10,000 Maniacs and were asked to join the band with Merchant’s departure. John Lombardo, who had left 10,000 Maniacs prior to the recording of “In My Tribe” was, in fact, coming home again and bringing along singer and violin player Mary Ramsey, who had pitched in on the MTV Unplugged recording. Some legal wrangling left the intrepid musicians performing under the unwieldy name of “John & Mary, Rob, Steve, Dennis, & Jerry” for some time before they were able to record under the famous band name again. When that finally happened, this is what resulted…
After years as an alternative darling based partly on their stellar musicianship, the slick production of this cover tune just leaves a bad taste for longtime fans. So of course it hit #25 on the U.S. Top40. Look, I love this song, but it’s the Roxy Music version as sung by Bryan Ferry that will always have the hearts of music fans around the world. The fact that a lesser version of More Than This as recorded by a lesser version of 10,000 Maniacs scored the only U.S. Top40 chart for the song and only the second Top40 hit for the band just…seems…wrong.
The album this cover appeared on, “Love Among the Ruins,” never made the Top100 on the album charts, and the follow-up, “The Earth Pressed Flat” did even less business. After some time away from the band, founding member and guitarist Rob Buck passed away with liver failure in December of 2000. Since then 10,000 Maniacs has been an on-and-off proposition, with Ramsey replaced as lead singer in 2002, and then returning in 2007. An eighth studio album, “Music From the Motion Picture” was released in 2013, with another, “Twice Told Tales” set for release later this year.
10,000 Maniacs will most likely never return to the critical and sales peak they enjoyed in the days of the alternative boom, but they seem to be pushing forward with making the music they love. When you consider how seldom the group’s founders actually showed up in their videos, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that’s just fine with them.