Jangle rock, a style of melodic guitar pop that was created in the ’60s was the template for one form of what we now call alternative rock. In the early ’80s in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, I would huddle around my trusty Toshiba boombox to hear the local college radio stations play bands like R.E.M., Lets Active and Tommy Keene. Due to a general disdain for synthesizers and the glam of new wave, many of these artists fit into a category of jangle rock.
While many of the bands associated with the renewed power pop/jangle rock genre would be from the American South, there were some notable exceptions like Miracle Legion (Connecticut) Marshall Crenshaw (Detroit) and Sacramento, California’s Game Theory.
As a band, Game Theory’s sound evolved from a kind of psychedelic nerd pop to a more melodic jangle rock. Each evolution of their sound was based on the Byrds as a starting point. By the time they settled into the Bay area music scene, their line up had changed dramatically to the point where leader Scott Miller was the only remnant from the original Sacramento area lineup.
Game Theory quickly became one of the West Coast’s leaders in the Paisley Underground movement. Like their power pop counterparts back East, they uses jangle rock to deliver rhythms, but unlike R.E.M or Tommy Keene, they were more psychedelic leaning.
Game Theory would bridge the gap between West and East Coast jangle pop with their fourth album Real Nighttime in 1985 which was produced by Mitch Easter. The follow up album, The Big Shot Chronicles would also be a Easter project and thrust the band into the national spotlight. Easter, the grand daddy of Southern jangle rock and leader of Let’s Active, recorded The Big Shot Chronicles at his Winston-Salem, North Carolina Drive In Studio.
The relaxed recording atmosphere of the Drive-In Studio hid the fact that The Big Shot Chronicles would be one of the bands most technically accomplished albums with a crisp clean sound, not usually associated with the low-fi alt rock movement. Blame it on Moon Pies and Cherwine, but the sessions produced some of the best performances from Scott Miller who’s high tenor was similar to Easter’s and suited his production style.
The Big Shot Chronicles is characterized by dense moody pop songs with moments of beautiful melody and bursts of explosive rhythm – not unlike Easter’s own work with Let’s Active or early R.E.M. Unlike some of those projects The Big Shot Chronicles was a dense swirling production with opposing chord and rhythm juxtapositions. It all seemed to work thanks to Miller’s high pitched vulnerable sounding vocals that countered the occasional aggressiveness to the arrangements.
The Big Shot Chronicles was the bands most successful album, selling more than the previous two combined. The video for “Erica’s World” made the move from MTV’s 120 show to light rotation during daytime hours and wooed the critics in New York. The album itself was re issued multiple times. The first CD re-issue in 1993 featured 5 extra tracks bringing the total to 17!
From a critical perspective Game Theory kept it’s standards high with a string of Mitch Easter produced albums that ended in 1988. After that, the band released a series of compilations. Although successful, the band never got the mass media attention of R.E.M., even at their most popular with The Big Shot Chronicles. Sadly Scott Miller passed away in 2013, but his wife and producer Ken Stringfellow gathered up past collaborators to polish up an album of unreleased and partially completed material called Supercalfragile.