The late 1980s/early 1990s band, the Vulgar Boatmen, had a very small cult following — so small that I’ll bet you’ve never heard of them. Why they never became better known and more successful is a mystery that is part of their attraction and was even the subject of a documentary film. But once you listen to the clips in this post, I challenge you to name a better band that no one else on this blog has ever heard of.
Here is the Vulgar Boatmen’s title song from their 1989 album of the same name — You and Your Sister
The story of the Vulgar Boatmen is as odd as their inexplicable lack of broader success. The core of the band were Robert Ray, an English professor at the University of Florida, and his former graduate student at Indiana University, Dale Lawrence. Ray “holds a PhD from Indiana University, an MBA from Harvard, a JD from the University of Virginia, and an AB from Princeton” and is the author of four books on film studies. Lawrence was once a member of the punk band, Gizmos, and has since headed the touring wing of the Vulgar Boatmen. Ray and Lawrence composed their songs in the 80s and 90s by mailing audio cassettes to each other between Indiana and Florida. It all sounds crazy, but the results are beautiful, like this classic — Drive Somewhere
This is like most Vulgar Boatmen songs. It’s about driving, girls or some other everyday activity. It’s simple and repetitive, almost to the point of absurdity. But the tiny variations, layered guitars, and occasional viola make the Vulgar Boatmen a worthy successor to the Dadaist composer, Erik Satie. One critic captured the group’s sound well, saying:
the nebulous group’s ability to grasp and shape simple elements into three-chord (often two-chord) songs of delicate grandeur is unmatched by any of the countless groups that have attempted the same feat. With Lawrence and Ray’s high, clear voices singing intimately unrevealing lyrics about people and places, always raising more questions than they answer, the Vulgar Boatmen are as American as an Andrew Wyeth painting and as evocative as a Robert Frost poem.
They’re also pretty awesome live. Here are they are in a 1992 concert singing Wide Awake:
And here is a live performance of Katie. All I know is that it curves and shakes.
But don’t despair. The Vulgar Boatmen are still out there, at least with Dale Lawrence at the helm, with the very occasional performance. Here they are in Chicago last year singing Wide Awake. Notice that these lyrics are different from the earlier live version I clipped but the same as those on the studio album version.