Guitar slingers in synth-pop land
The pioneering sounds of Translator
by Tony Sclafani
People nowadays talk about "1980s music" as if it was one big, happy genre, but in the early '80s, the "new music" scene was divided into two distinct, adversarial camps. On the commercial side were the synth pop artists. They were usually British and made their presence known in the U.S. via MTV. They had frothy songs, loud outfits and (usually) silly names like Kajagoogoo, A Flock of Seagulls and Soft Cell.
On the other side of this stylistic war lurked the guitar slingers, who were mostly American acts. They came armed with deeply personal and political songs and valued musical "authenticity" – which would become a buzzword a decade later. These acts had the dual job of slaying both the then-popular corporate rock acts and the synth popsters. Some, like R.E.M. and U2, triumphed. Others, like the Three O'Clock, Rank and File and the Dream Syndicate, fell by the wayside. One of the more talented casualties of this musical battleground was the San Francisco-based quartet Translator.
In 1982, Translator was in the vanguard of the guitar rock genre. They had well-written songs, a unique sound, and even got a fair amount of MTV airplay for their first single, the catchy lost love lament "Everywhere That I'm Not." The group also had a hot producer in David Kahne and a major label deal with Columbia Records.
But something happened to the band in its quest to "Break Down Barriers" (as one of their songs was called). After a flourish of fame, their cult audience shrank rather than expanded (like R.E.M.'s) and they called it quits in 1986 -- just before R.E.M. and U2 found top 40 singles success.
The R.E.M. comparison isn't random. Like the Georgia quartet, Translator merged folk melodicism with new wave rhythms and energy. They also drew critical raves: in the Nov. 1982 issue of Trouser Press, critic Jim Green said of their first LP, "I haven't been this taken with a debut album since U2's Boy."
Part of Translator's trouble was they were ahead of their time, being an alternative rock band before that appellation had any commercial currency. The idea of melding thought-provoking lyrics with pop-friendly melodies and visceral guitars was commercial suicide in the era of the Eurythmics. Listening to Translator now, though, you might draw comparisons to, say, the Gin Blossoms.
It also didn't help that the band members were all intense, intellectual types who were more comfortable debating philosophy than glad-handling media flaks. You weren't getting Boy George (or even Michael Stipe) with Translator.
Their name was also kinda forgettable; Jim Green dubbed it "cold" in his aforementioned review. Finally, there was the problem of lack of record company support, which several band members voiced to me during a 1986 interview.
And there's still no support from the record label folks. Some two decades later, all four of Translator's albums are out of print. Their 1996 CD anthology Everywhere That We Were is also no longer available. The vinyl is worth hunting down because each Translator album has its own distinct atmosphere. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Translator didn't contrive glossy, soundalike albums.
Translator was comprised of singer-songwriter-guitarists Steve Barton and Robert Darlington, bassist Larry Dekker and drummer David Scheff. Perfect Sound Forever recently spoke with Darlington, who was the last to join Translator. He was able to give his unique take on the band's story.
RD: The band formed in 1979 in Los Angeles as a trio. (Drummer Dave Scheff) and Steve Barton had been playing together and they found that they were getting tired of playing other people's stuff. Dave had gone to the University of California Santa Cruz with bassist Larry Dekker and invited him along. They started playing around the old L.A. club scene which was taking off -- with Madame Wong's and all. I was playing in a band and a woman we knew said, "You guys may like my friend's band." They were set up in a backyard and were really loud. I saw Dave and I thought he was the most amazing drummer I'd ever seen. And I really liked Steve's songs. I thought they were a better trio than the Police – doing more interesting music with better musicianship.
PSF: So how did you join the band?
RD: They came to see my band (The Lies) play at Madame Wong's. I was wearing a silk smoking jacket and kicking foam heads off the stage and doing crazy stuff. They thought it would be interesting to have somebody a little more flamboyant and eccentric. They said "We have an old Beatle song called "Cry for a Shadow" we want to cover." At this time, I didn't know anyone who knew what "Cry for a Shadow" was. I learned their whole set and they wound up having me come down and do the whole show with them.
The band found an ally early on in producer David Kahne, who would go on to work with the Bangles and Paul McCartney (among many others). Kahne produced the band's first two albums, Heartbeats and Triggers (1982) and No Time Like Now (1983).
PSF: How did the band hook up with producer David Kahne?
RD: That just really kind of happened accidentally. We had done a (demo) recording in Los Angeles and a friend knew David Kahne. David was very impressed by "Everywhere That I'm Not." David had produced Pearl Harbor and the Explosions and Romeo Void, so he was starting to get some attention. At that point, we had decided to move to San Francisco. Once we got there, we hooked up. David had some recording time at the Automatt, a very well known recording studio in San Francisco. We did "Current Events" which is a B-Side, "Everywhere That I'm Not," "Necessary Spinning" and "Everywhere." Those demos are the recordings that wound up on the first album.
Translator was signed by the San Francisco-based label 415 Records, an independent label founded by rock-writer-turned-record-exec Howie Klein. Klein started 415 to give voice to the many late-'70s San Francisco punk bands. The fine out-of-print 1980 compilation LP, 415 Music, offers a tuneful overview of this lively scene.
RD: David got our demos them to Howie Klein, who at the time had his small label, 415 Records. We took the demo of "Everywhere That I'm Not" to (college radio station) KUSF and it became a huge college hit. Howie said, "Well, if all these people in the suburbs are calling in about it, there must be something to this band." Then Howie signed us to 415. We went right from doing these demos to having a record deal.
Translator's first LP Heartbeats and Triggers offered listeners a black-hued cover that perfectly reflected the serious-minded batch of songs inside. The LP was deemed original because almost no one was dredging up the ghost of folk rock then, much less revving it up with modern beats. Translator also threw in psychedelia ("Necessary Spinning"), updated Merseybeat ("Everywhere") and protest songs ("Sleeping Snakes").
RD: Response to the first album was great. A lot of people really responded to the fact that there were acoustic guitars, because there really hadn't been for a long time. I think some people thought it was going to be more acoustic when they saw us live. If there was any problem with the first two records, it was that in some ways that wasn't how the band sounded live. So I think in some ways people were a little disjointed with that. Whereas the last two albums sounded more like the band at a gig.
PSF: The band's songs seem more serious than what was happening in 1982.
RD: "Dark Region" and "Nothing is Saving Me" are certainly dark. I wrote the lyrics to "Dark Region" and on the opening each of us played the opening chord wrong – in a different key. I've always liked that song. I think my songs tend to be dark in a way but there's always a bit of a silver lining. "Nothing is Saving Me" reflected how we felt about the political climate at the time – which probably was even better than it is now.
PSF: Who were some of the band's influences?
RD: Number one would be the Beatles. That was an influence we all shared mutually. I saw the Beatles live when I was 12 and 13 – at the Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium. We could do Beatle covers all night. When we first moved to San Francisco, we would play at frat parties to earn money and we just covered pretty much anything. Also, people like Jimi Hendrix and Cream influenced us too, and a lot of folk music like Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake and even early James Taylor. I was listening to everything back then because things hadn't been compartmentalized. Some people have suggested we were influenced by R.E.M., but we were doing that jangly stuff before they were. They were really our peers.
PSF: Just before Translator's debut was released, 415 was picked up for distribution by Columbia Records. How did that work out for the band?
RD: The (415 label partnership) with Columbia was fortunate and unfortunate. It's a real political thing. I think a lot of people really believed in the 415 project at Columbia. But there were a lot of very small people there, and to accelerate their own careers it befitted them to make the people who wanted the 415 deal to look good look bad. The other thing too was our A&R guy Don DeVito. He was a very nice guy, but his other three clients were Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. So where's he going to find time for Translator? I think he really liked us, but at that time Columbia was trying to turn bands into solo acts -- which is what I think they tried to do with us with Steve, and Kevin Hunter and Wire Train.
PSF: So the 415-Columbia partnership wasn't ideal?
RD: I don't want to go into the business thing, but we weren't party to what happened between 415 and Columbia. So we found ourselves in a situation where we had almost no say. As it progressed it deteriorated more and more. There was a problem knowing what to do with us. And the complete lack of investment monetarily in the band was really difficult because there were bands like R.E.M. who did have record companies who believed in them and pushed them. They were very fortunate they got a good record deal. We'd been waiting so long to get a record deal I think that's one reason we jumped on what we got.
Translator's second album, No Time Like Now, was released to less fanfare than the debut, but was an impressive follow up, with "Un-Alone" and "Break Down Barriers" garnering college radio airplay. Several group members revealed to me in 1986 they were unhappy with the LP because they felt Kahne and Columbia were pushing the band in a more pop-oriented direction.
RD: I think David had a crisis of faith on that album. We had very little money and very little time. I think he learned a lot with us, because we were a challenge. David's gone on to work with a lot of people. Response to the LP wasn't that great. I also think the record cover was just not that good. It was still a time when album covers were something that you really wanted to look at and check out. The EP cover (for the 12 inch dance mix of "Break Down Barriers") is actually what we had wanted to be the second album cover, but the record company rejected it. The EP cover was a collage – a triple exposure that I did using a technique a friend of mine taught me.
PSF: You once told me the band originated the idea for MTV's "Unplugged" series.
RD: In 1983, we had just finished a tour opening for the B-52's and a lot of the new songs we had written using acoustic instruments. Steve and Dave went to MTV and said, "We'd like to do an acoustic show," and they said, "Acoustic music will never be popular on MTV." About a year later, we saw the idea that we had. R.E.M. was doing it: "Live from Athens! It's unbelievable! Acoustic music from Peter Buck's living room!" They probably had the same idea we did. They were a bigger band. Then, of course, MTV Unplugged became one of the biggest things ever. So in some ways we were ahead of our time.
PSF: After No Time Like Now, how did the band go about finding a new producer?
RD: Originally Ray Manzarek had been interested and came to see us in L.A., but the record company didn't want him to do it. Then Elliott Mazer produced some stuff for us – the guy that worked with Neil Young on a lot of early stuff. They didn't want us to work with him.
The band ended up working with rock producer Ed Stasium for its self-titled 1985 album, which featured the single "Come With Me." The witty, politically-charged anti-Reagan rocker "Another American Night" was also a minor college radio hit (buyer beware: it was left off the Columbia "best of" CD).
RD: We wanted a change in producers because that second album had seemed very stressful. I liked the record, but it wasn't the direction we wanted to go – we wanted to get back to our sound, the guitar sound. Ed had worked with the Ramones and Talking Heads and we hit it off right away. I think our third album is one of the best records of the 1980s – songs, production, and musicianship. And that album is virtually unknown. People to this day don't know that we brought out that record.
PSF: I remember hearing a cut you penned, "Gravity," on a progressive radio station and thinking it would be your breakthrough single. It had surf-influenced lead guitar, easy-to-remember lyrics, and a rousing sing-along chorus.
RD: It was supposed to be my first single. Then a couple of things happened. I was (misquoted or quoted out-of-context) in Billboard magazine and it really ticked off the people at Columbia. We came home from (a video shoot in) India and found out they were angry with us. I sent a letter to (a Columbia record exec) and said I was sorry. The other thing was we went on a tour with the Kinks and we were getting, I think, too good a response and they booted us off the tour. The record company blamed us for whatever caused this fiasco to happen. We weren't able to finish the tour. We had to go back home and the third album was lost forever. The video for "Come With Me" was climbing the MTV charts before Columbia had it yanked to promote a group called Cock Robin.
PSF: What were some of the other issues regarding record company support?
RD: I think part of the problem at Columbia is they had people there who had very traditional ideas. Like the video that was done in India, "Come With Me," they originally wanted to be done on the streets of San Francisco where the limo pulls up and the door opens and the long legs... tits and ass stuff. I don't think they understood where we were coming from.
Translator pulled out all the stops on their final LP, Evening of the Harvest, released May 1986. There's a double-speed rock raveup ("Standing in Line"), a Crazy Horse-like pounder (the title track), and several songs that draw on blues, Indian and early 1970s classic rock. It's arguably the band's finest LP and a prototype for the kind of alternative rock that would tear up the charts just five years later.
RD: It was basically recorded live and then overdubbed. . It got a great review in Rolling Stone by David Fricke. We brought together some old songs like "Complications," "Is There a Heaven Singing?" and "Winter Crying," because we knew this was probably our swan song. But that record wasn't promoted either.
PSF: So the band called it quits after the 1986 tour?
RD: Looking back, we probably should have just taken a sabbatical and gone back to it later instead of making this total break with everything. Our only regret is that we never went to Europe, where we would have done really well. Columbia wouldn't put up the money, but we should have begged or borrowed for it. The guy who handled European matters at Columbia didn't have a clue as to what we were about.
Back in 1983, Translator cut a razor-sharp interpretation of the early Beatles instrumental "Cry for a Shadow" as a B-Side of the dance mix of "Break Down Barriers." In 1995, a rumor started that their old recording was a new track by the three surviving Beatles.
RD: We heard an article had been printed in the L.A. Times saying that a version of "Cry for a Shadow" had been recorded by the three surviving Beatles and was going to be on one of the Anthology compilations. Supposedly, this guy's sources had confirmed it, and there were even rumors that Apple had confirmed it. This writer really thought it was the Beatles and, of course, it turned out to be Translator. Around that time was when Sony/Columbia Legacy released our "best of" CD with "Cry for a Shadow" on it, so somebody just thought, this has got to be the Beatles, I guess. They had to write a retraction in the L.A. Times. We were incredibly flattered that somebody thought we were the Beatles. The only problem was some people thought maybe we had instigated some sort of sham to draw attention to ourselves. But if Translator had a problem it's that we didn't draw enough attention to ourselves.
Special thanks to Trudy Fisher for the photos
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