Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I'm Doin' Alright, Gettin' Good Grades

The lyrics ‘I studied nuclear science, I love my classes. I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses’ would probably ring loud for anyone who listened to pop music during the mid 80s. They are of course from the 1986 hit ‘The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades’ by one of the quintessential one hit wonders of the 1980s, Timbuk 3. But there’s more to the Timbuk 3 story, than one signature song.

Timbuk 3 started life as the husband and wife duo of Pat McDonald and Barbara Kooyman McDonald (popularly known as Barbara K.). The couple had met during 1978, whilst Barbara was attending the University of Wisconsin. Both were gifted musicians across a range of instruments, and shared a love of like music styles from folk, pop to country rock. By the mid 80s they were based in Austin, Texas performing under the name Timbuk 3. Pat McDonald was the chief songwriter, but the duo shared duties across the scope of instrumentation. Pat handled everything from acoustic/ electric/bass guitars, harmonica and drum programming, whilst Barbara K. covered electric guitar, mandolin, violin and rhythm programming. When they started performing live they supplemented their sound with a boom box playing backing tracks.

By 1986 they had built up a solid fan base, and appeared on an episode of MTV’s ‘The Cutting Edge’, a program highlighting up and coming indie artists. The suits at indie label I.R.S. Records were suitably impressed and signed the duo soon after (I.R.S. was renowned for spotting indie-pop talent including Wall Of Voodoo - see future post). Timbuk 3 recorded their debut album ‘Greetings From Timbuk 3’, which featured the lead out single ‘The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades’. The song’s catchy country-rock tinged pop sound and quirky, irony laced lyrics made it an irresistibly radio friendly track. Pat McDonald’s dextrous harmonica playing added that final touch which would send the song rocketing into the pop charts. ‘The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades’ was also included on the EP ‘Airwave Jungle’, but it would be the single that would debut on Billboard’s Hot 100 during October 1986, going on to peak at #19 before year’s end. It also became a chart hit in the U.K. (#21) and Australia (#18) in early 1987.

The Dennis Herring produced album ‘Greetings From Timbuk 3’, though eclectic, proved to be a little too much on the dark side of acerbic, both musically and lyrically, to sustain the interest of the mainstream record buying public (US#50/UK#51/OZ#86) and the follow up single ‘Hairstyles And Attitudes’ fell on deaf ears. Though Timbuk 3 received a Grammy nomination for ‘Best New Artist’ in 1987, by 1988 their moment in the spotlight had passed. Their sophomore album ‘Eden Valley’ (US#107 - 1988) coincided with the duo appearing as the house band in a scene from the Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan thriller ‘D.O.A.’ in 1988.

They recorded one more album as a duo with 1989’s ‘Edge Of Allegiance’, though neither album nor feature single ‘Standard White Jesus’ made the mainstream charts. In 1991 the McDonalds recruited Wally Ingram (drums) and Courtney Audain (bass), and the newly expanded line-up continued to maintain a strong fan base on the college/indie music scene. They recorded three full length albums and an EP together; ‘Big Shot In The Dark’ (1991), ‘Espace Ornano - live’ (1993), ‘Looks Like Dark To Me’ (1994 - EP) and ‘A Hundred Lovers’ (1995), but a return to the mainstream pop charts remained elusive.

Timbuk 3 went their separate ways in late 1995, coinciding with the McDonald’s parting ways. Pat McDonald relocated to Spain and over the next decade recorded several albums for German indie label Ulftone, from 1997’s ‘Sleeps With His Guitar’, through 2003’s ‘Strange Love: PM Does DM’ (an album of Depeche Mode covers), to 2007’s ‘Troubadour Of Stomp’. He has written songs with the likes of Peter Frampton and Imogen Heap, and written songs recorded by the likes of Aerosmith and Night Ranger. McDonald is also involved with his friend Eric McFadden in the gothic-country duo Sons Of Crack Daniels, and in 2005 co-founded the Steel Bridge Songfest in his hometown of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Barbara K. focused on song writing for a period, initially working with former Timbuk 3 drummer Wally Ingram, and touring with David Lindley (with whom Ingram was drumming for) as an opening act during 1998. She has recorded two albums as a solo artist, ‘Ready’ (2000) and ‘Undercover’ (an acoustic set of Timbuk 3 songs), and has most recently worked with a new group called Ghosts and Sparrows.

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