10,000 Maniacs have one of the most misleader monikers in popular music. From their name, you’d expect speed metal or punk, but instead, they’re a folk-rock band with socially conscious lyrics and Natalie Merchant’s oddly mannered vocals. The band were previously known as Burn Victims before deriving their name from the budget horror film Two Thousand Maniacs!
The band formed in upstate New York in 1981 – 17-year-old Natalie Merchant was originally recruited as a backing singer, but stepped into the lead role after original vocalist Teri Newhouse quit. Founding members Dennis Drew and Steven Gustafson are still in the band forty years after its formation, while founding guitarist Rob Buck passed away in 2000. Guitarist John Lombardo co-wrote much of the band’s early material with Merchant, but quit in 1986, rejoining after Merchant left 10,000 Maniacs for a solo career in 1993.
The band started as an eclectic new wave outfit, with dub and folk in their sound. By 1987’s breakthrough In My Tribe, it was clear that Merchant was the band’s focal point. 10,000 Maniacs’ most successful release was 1993’s MTV Unplugged, with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Because the Night’, their last album before Merchant departed for a solo career. The band have soldiered on without Merchant, but I’ve followed her solo career rather than the band’s subsequent work.
10,000 Maniacs Album Reviews
Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982–1983 | The Wishing Chair | In My Tribe | Blind Man’s Zoo | Our Time In Eden | MTV Unplugged | Campfire Songs: The Popular, Obscure and Unknown Recordings of 10,000 Maniacs
Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982–1983
The compilation Hope Chest combines the first two 10,000 Maniacs’ releases onto one album – the 1982 EP Human Conflict Number Five and the 1983 album Secrets of the I Ching. The song ‘Tension’ was featured on both original releases and only the 1983 version is included here. Hope Chest is the only early 10,000 Maniacs album available on Spotify, so it’s effectively become the canonical album of their early work.
If you’ve only heard their subsequent folk-rock, it’s quite surprising – here they’re a young band with different ideas colliding awkwardly. Most surprisingly, there’s a heavy dub influence on songs like ‘National Education Week’. There are jagged post-punk guitars that you’d expect on a Joy Division album on ‘My Mother the War’. In their youthful exuberance they hit on some interesting sounds – ‘Death of Manolete’, about a Spanish bullfighter, combines Merchant’s engagingly pretentious monologue with post-punk intensity.
The edgy, dub-infused work of the early 10,000 Maniacs has common threads with their later success. But it’s different enough that you might enjoy this early adventurous phase without appreciating their later work, or vice versa.
The Wishing Chair
The Wishing Chair was 10,000 Maniacs’ first major-label album, recorded in London with folk-rock producer Joe Boyd. It’s a fascinating transitional album, linking the post-punk of Secrets of the I Ching with the folk-rock of In My Tribe. The post-punk guitars of ‘The Colonial Wing’ share album space with a cover of the traditional ‘Just as the Tide Was a Flowing’. At the same time, the band’s songwriting skills aren’t as strong as they’d become – the record drifts a little outside of key tracks like ‘Scorpio Rising’, ‘Can’t Ignore The Train’, and ‘My Mother The War’. I have the 15-track version, which adds a couple of tracks to the original vinyl release.
The lead-off track ‘Can’t Ignore The Train’ emphasises the folk-rock elements of the band’s sound, while ‘My Mother, the War’ has a new wave pulse. Best of all is ‘Scorpio Rising’, with Merchant’s dramatic “amaze me now”. ‘Tension’, retitled ‘Tension Makes A Tangle’ here, makes an appearance for a third successive Maniacs release.
The Wishing Chair is a solid major-label debut, but the group would find their signature style with their next release.
In My Tribe
John Lombardo, Merchant’s main writing partner up to this point, left the 10,000 Maniacs in 1986. This doesn’t hurt their output, with Rob Buck and Dennis Drew contributing material and Merchant writing key tracks like ‘Verdi Cries’ and ‘Like the Weather’ alone. It was a cover of Cat Stevens’ ‘Peace Train’, however, that helped bring the group wider attention. ‘Peace Train’ was removed from subsequent pressings of the album after Stevens declared a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie. Peter Asher, who produced James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James back in 1970, helps the band toward a more mainstream pop/rock sound.
Merchant’s socially conscious lyrics are front and centre here- the record opens with ‘What’s The Matter Here?’, addressing child abuse, while ‘Gun Shy’ takes on gun control. Rob Buck’s guitar jangle is appealing on songs like ‘What’s The Matter Here?’ and ‘Hey Jack Kerouac’, while R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe contributes vocals on ‘A Campfire Song’. The concluding guitar solo on ‘Don’t Talk’ is the band’s most memorable instrumental moment. The last pair of songs, ‘City of Angels’ and ‘Verdi Cries’, slow down the pace and they’re both terrific – ‘Verdi Cries’ was apparently inspired by Merchant’s neighbour playing opera loudly all day.
In My Tribe was a breakthrough for the 10,000 Maniacs – it was easily their strongest record yet. The jangly and tuneful sound suited an era when other indie bands like R.E.M. were starting to crossover to the mainstream.
Blind Man’s Zoo
Peter Asher is again the producer and Blind Man’s Zoo is cut from a very similar template to In My Tribe, another album of jangly and politically correct pop/rock. Merchant arguably pushed her socially conscious lyrics too far here. Blind Man’s Zoo can feel overly serious at times, while it runs out of steam about 2/3 of the way through. Blind Man’s Zoo was a commercial disappointment after In My Tribe, although if you enjoyed that record you’ll like a lot of this one too.
My favourite song, ‘Trouble Me’ is a personal song dedicated to Merchant’s father, in contrast with the parade of serious issues songs. Material like ‘Please Forgive Us’, ‘Eat For Two’, and ‘Poison in the Well’ would have easily fitted onto In My Tribe. It’s the final pair of songs that’s particularly problematic; ‘Hateful Hate’ and ‘Jubilee’ are both slow-paced and drenched in melodramatic strings.
Blind Man’s Zoo has some strong songs, but it’s noticeable that the band changed their musical and lyrical approach for their next record.
Our Time In Eden
Our Time In Eden contains my favourite Maniacs song, the upbeat ‘These Are Days’. It’s a cliched pick but has so many great moments – the opening drum fill, the way Merchant’s vocals collide on the line “These days you might feel a shaft of light make its way across your face”. ‘Candy Everybody Wants’ is a rare piece of social commentary, presumably about mass media. The record’s dominated by subtle but well-written material like the nostalgia of ‘Stockton Gala Days’, the gentleness of ‘Circle Dream’, and the lovely title track.
More than before Merchant takes the spotlight on Our Time In Eden – it’s not surprising it was her final record with the band.
MTV Unplugged specials were huge in the early 1990s – Mariah Carey enjoyed an international hit with her acoustic version of ‘I’ll Be There’, while Eric Clapton sold 26 million copies of his Unplugged album. 10,000 Maniacs folk-rock is a natural fit for the format, even though some of these songs don’t sound much different from their studio versions. The setlist doesn’t reach any further back than 1987’s In My Tribe. A cover of Patti Smith’s ‘Because The Night’ became the band’s biggest hit, almost cracking the US top ten.
The opening ‘These Are Days’ lacks the buoyant optimism of the original, but most of these songs stand up to their studio versions. The violin solo on ‘Don’t Talk’ is a great arrangement choice, replicating the sting of the original better than an acoustic guitar could. Naturally, the setlist is heavy on songs from Our Time In Eden, and they’re often the most altered with their studio sheen removed. I prefer Campfire Songs as a career overview, but I’ve owned three Unplugged albums, and this is my favourite.
In between the recording and release of Unplugged Merchant announced her decision to leave the band. MTV Unplugged stands as her swansong with 10,000 Maniacs and their last top fifty album.
Campfire Songs: The Popular, Obscure and Unknown Recordings of 10,000 Maniacs
This retrospective covers the Natalie Merchant era of the 10,000 Maniacs. The first disc covers the hits, while the second rounds up rarities and b-sides. The hits generally get most of their best songs in one place, while the obscurities are surprisingly enjoyable. ‘Poppy Selling Man’ is a strong rarity, but it’s the string of covers in the middle of the disc that’s the main attraction. ‘Peace Train’ is restored to the band’s catalogue, while there’s a lovely acoustic cover of Tom Waits’ ‘I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You’. David Byrne duets on Iris DeMent’s ‘Let The Mystery Be’, taken from the MTV Unplugged session, and Michael Stipe duets on ‘From Sir With Love’. It’s also fun hearing Merchant sing “I’ll be a rock and roll bitch for you” on their cover of Bowie‘s ‘Starman’.
Campfire Songs works well as a one-stop shop for newcomers or for a way for dedicated fans to pick up the rare tracks.
Love Among The Ruins
1997, not rated
The band have soldiered on without Merchant, replacing her with Mary Ramsey who played viola and sang backing vocals on MTV Unplugged. Their best-known record with Ramsey is their first, which features a cover of Roxy Music’s ‘More Than This’.
10 Best 10,000 Maniacs Songs
These Are Days
My Mother, the War
Like The Weather
Stockton Gala Days
City of Angels
Because The Night