Peter Searcy’s gritty vocals helped make Louisville, Kentucky’s Squirrel Bait the rage of indie rock in the mid-’80s, when most of the band was still in high school. Big Wheel teamed him with the all-too-collegiate trio of guitarist Glenn Taylor, drummer Scott Langford and bassist Mike Bradon. (The band photo on the CD sleeve shows them shooting hoops.) Although “Bang, Bang, Bang,” the first track on East End, comes close to capturing the feisty, Hüsker Dü-ish roar of Squirrel Bait, most of East End takes a much mellower tack — melodic, heartfelt campfire songs played on electric guitars.
Despite that promising debut, things did not go well for Big Wheel; Holiday Manor, released after a lengthy legal wrangle with Giant Records, finds the band on a new label with a new drummer, Tom Tompkins. Recorded at Ardent Sudios in Memphis, the quartet trades in whatever rough edges existed in its sound for facile, commercial pop; the slick production strips Searcy’s vocals of any bite and makes him sound like Elton John crooning his treacliest ballads.
Happily, the band rebounded on its final album, Slowtown. Producer Paul Mahern (of the legendary Midwest punk band Zero Boys) relocates the sardonic edge in Searcy’s vocals, and the songs of twentysomething angst and yearning make the perfect vehicle. Lyrically, the album’s a complete downer, filled with songs of loss and mourning, missed opportunities and wrong choices. The poignant “Pete Rose” eulogizes the downfall of an American hero, while “Lazy Days” tenderly expresses the belief that tomorrow won’t be any better than today (“Maybe we’ll smile, maybe not/Maybe is all I’ve got in these lazy days”). In many ways, Big Wheel’s generational angst mirrored the sentiments of the era’s biggest hitmakers, but Taylor’s clean, ’70s-styled guitar leads distanced Big Wheel from the grunge bandwagon, and the group dissolved without ever finding an audience.
After Big Wheel’s demise, Searcy and drummer Tom Tompkins put together Starbilly, recruiting two new guitar players and a bassist but changing very little else. Searcy still plays the tortured romantic on Master Vibrator, his throaty vocals wracked with regret and sadness. The singer effectively milks the songs for all the pathos they’re worth, and never more so than on the aching, ballad-tempo cover of Hüsker Dü’s speed-metal anthem, “Diane.” Starbilly’s two guitars give it a fuller sound than Big Wheel, but the group still draws its influences from ’70s pop and metal, resisting the obvious commercial temptations to go grunge or punk. Instead, Searcy remains true to his original vision of middle-of-the-road, Midwestern pop for fans who might feel threatened by bands trendier than themselves.