BLURT’S INDELIBLES (THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT.9): The Windbreakers’ Terminal (1985, Homestead Records)


In which we talk to Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliff about their classic ’85 album, recently reissued with bonus material.

BY FRED MILLS

Terminal, by Jackson, Mississippi, power pop legends the Windbreakers, originally released in 1985 by the Homestead label, has been in yours truly’s personal Top 25 ever since it first appeared—we’re talking an LP rubbing shoulders on my shelf with everything from Who’s Next, Let It Bleed, Funhouse, and Daydream Nation to Shake Some Action, Stands for deciBels, Sincerely, and Places That Are Gone. As produced by Mitch Easter at his Winston-Salem Drive-In Studio (six songs) and Randy Everett in the band’s native Mississippi (four songs), Terminal is a timeless slice of Southern-spawned tuneage that sports all the expected power pop influences yet still sounds utterly fresh and unique unto itself.

Yet with one semi-flukey exception which you’ll read about shortly, Terminal has never seen a proper reissue for the CD and digital eras, leaving me and fellow fans to wonder whether or not it will ultimately be consigned to those perennial “whatever happened to…” essays. As of this writing, it doesn’t appear to be on any digital streaming services, although luckily the superb 2003 Windbreakers career overview Time Machine is on both Spotify and Apple Music, and six of the compilation’s 20 tunes were culled from it.

Windbreakers cofounders Bobby Sutliff and Tim Lee, of course, are not exactly unknown quantities, as both have remained fairly prolific in their post-WBs solo careers—check the Trouser Press entry detailing their work together and separately, as well as this 2015 BLURT interview with Lee about his band at the time, The Tim Lee 3—and although Sutliff’s near-fatal car accident in 2012 served to temporarily put his musical career on hold for awhile, he continues to write and even finds time to collaborate with Montana-based psych=pop monsters Donovan’s Brain. Still, the general public’s obliviousness as regards Terminal seems all the more criminal in 2017 if you actually drop the needle on the platter and allow its pleasures to pour forth anew.

There’s the opening trifecta of “Off & On” (jangly intro, a harpsichord motif, and yearning Sutliff vocals), “Changeless” (a tough, hard-twanging Lee-penned surf/powerpop gem right up there with Let’s Active’s “Every Word Means No” and the Smithereens’ “Behind the Wall of Sleep”), and “That Stupid Idea” (more gossamer jangles from Sutliff, whose soaring upper register here is the stuff of the angels). From that point the record simply doesn’t let loose of its grip on the listener, from Lee’s deceptively dark jangler “All That Stuff,” to a remarkable cover of Television’s “Glory” featuring the Rain Parade as the duo’s backing band, to sinewy, sitar-laced rocker (and Sutliff-Lee joint composition) “Running Out of Time,” which closes the record.

It’s a goddam classic album, period—feel free to rewind to paragraph #2, above—with not a single throwaway tune. It’s also quite possibly the most beautiful bummer of a power pop album the ‘80s produced, with virtually every song a meditation on the vagaries and vicissitudes of love and all the emotional trauma that phrase implies. Utter the words “windbreakers” and “terminal” to someone at a record store or a concert, and if their face lights up and a knowing smile breaks, you’ve got the equivalent of a sonic secret handshake. We Eighties-college-and-indie-rock fans have more than a few records like that, of course, but the thing is, back then the idea wasn’t to keep our favorite bands secret—we felt it was our mission to proselytize for ‘em.

(Below: front and back sleeves of the original LP, plus the new CD package.)

Enter Italian label Mark, which a few months ago reissued Terminal as a sharp-sounding remaster boasting five bonus tracks, four of them from a 1986 live performance. Also included is a bonus booklet adorned with reviews that originally appeared in the wake of Terminal’s release, and some of those critical observations bear quoting here:

“A brilliant jewel of aural splendor from the goldmine left by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Big Star.” —Option

“Think of them as a genteel Replacements with 12-string guitar, or an R.E.M with clear melodies and lyrics.” —Los Angeles Herald Examiner

“Originals that [evoke] everybody from Dylan to the Byrds, with references to the Beatles, acid-rock and the Left Banke. Sort of a brawnier approach to the Let’s Active sound, and more rural, too.” —Jet Lag

Is this the pop record of 1985, or what??” —Jim Testa, Jersey Beat

Well, yes—yes, Jim, it was. Matter of fact, it still is. In a moment, let’s take a trip back in time and revisit it, courtesy the two men who created it.

***

Regular BLURT readers will recall our ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series in which yours truly has profiled the likes of Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter HoursGreen On Red, Thomas Anderson, and The Sidewinders. Sometimes these are fresh essays and interviews; other times they are features culled from the archives and updated as needed. I got the idea from a regular column titled “Indelibles” that I authored for BLURT precursor Harp magazine from roughly 2005 to the spring of 2008, when it closed up shop and filed for bankruptcy, and in fact several installments of my “College Rock Chronicles” have been retooled, expanded versions of stories originally published in Harp.

“Indelibles” itself was inspired by those great Mojo features in which a key, critically-significant album from the past was put under the microscope and viewed through a contemporary lens; the records we selected for each of my columns were, typically, just being reissued as expanded remasters, and the idea was to get the artist to discuss the making of the original album, reflect on its trajectory, and frame it within the larger context of what it meant to his or her career. If the artist was actually involved with the reissue, so much the better, and we would also delve into what went into that project, how bonus material was decided upon, etc. As a music fan first and a critic second, I have to say that it was pretty great to be able to geek out over some of my all-time favorite records by the likes of the Dream Syndicate, the dB’s, Let’s Active, the Clash, Wire, Pylon, the Slits, the Gun Club, Dinosaur Jr, etc.—not to mention being able to geek out in front of some of the people who actually created those records, but not as the slobbering fanboy I actually was, and instead under the assumed guise of (cough) a professional journalist and reporter. The truth is finally out.

So with this Windbreakers story, I’m formally re-booting “Indelibles.” Bobby, who lives with his wife Wendy in Columbus, Ohio, and Tim, based with his wife and bandmate Susan in Knoxville, Tennessee, were kind enough to weather my inquisition, and to them I just want to say—salute, gentlemen.

 

Set the stage for Terminal: With the first two EPs (1982’s 7” Meet the Windbreakers and 1983’s 12” Any Monkey With a Typewriter) under your belts, what was your collective state of mind as a band, and what was the music scene in your neck of the woods like circa 1984?
TIM LEE: Actually, shortly after Any Monkey… came out, we kinda ceased being a band for a while. I started another band, Beat Temptation, that lasted a year or so. During that time, though, the EP was getting some attention, and Sam Berger at Homestead asked if we’d be interested in doing a record for them.

Bobby and I had been hanging out during that time, so it was no big deal to start playing songs for each other and get back into it.

BOBBY SUTLIFF: The 1984 local music scene was an interesting hodge-podge. There were quite a few bands doing their own thing. We were all friends for the most part. Tim and I would together, or separately, sit it with them quite often. Tim’s other band, Beat Temptation, was very good and released a fine EP and a full-length LP.

How did you land the deal with Homestead?
TIM: Like I said, Sam Berger was the guy who asked us to make a record, but he left and was replaced by Gerard Cosloy by the time Terminal came out. It was very early in the life of that label, so it kinda felt like they were just getting their feet wet.

You decided to return to the well for the album with Mitch Easter; what had you liked about him and his studio? What did he bring to the table that made you and other artists gravitate to the studio?
TIM: We made the first Windbreakers EP in a gospel studio in Madison, Miss., and it was not a particularly wonderful experience. But we’d read about Mitch in New York Rocker, and we were fans of the songs he did on that Shake to Date compilation (1981 UK album issued by Shake/Albion to document New York Rocker’s Alan Betrock’s indie label as well as Chris Stamey’s Car label), and we knew about the Sneakers and H-Bombs and the dB’s. So we just called directory assistance and got his number.

We talked [to Mitch] a few times and then we made a trip to Winston-Salem and tracked two songs, mixing and everything, in about 20 hours or something like that. The first session with Mitch was so revealing for me, in that I was like, “Okay, this is why they say making records is fun!” He was so creative and so supportive of our goofy ideas, willing to go down any road to come up with something cool.

BOBBY: We were very aware of the dB’s, and by 1980/81 knew about Mitch. It’s actually quite a long way from Mississippi to North Carolina, but the trip was so very much worth it. After about 20 minutes with him in his garage studio—the Drive-In of course!—we knew we had found our mentor/kindred spirit. I remember one musical moment to this day. I pulled out my guitar and played the intro to Big Star’s “Way Out West.” Mitch walked into the room and said, “Oh, you know them?” We were friends for life.

What are some of your most prominent memories from the Drive-In sessions for Terminal? Hanging with Mitch (pictured left, with Tim) Faye Hunter, and Don Dixon? (The latter two guested on bass on selected tracks.)
TIM: Other than going out to eat, we were pretty much nose to the grindstone, but my favorite memory of being at the Drive-In was the sense of possibility. Electric sitar? Let’s do it. Dixon’s coming by today. Cool, let’s get him to play bass. That kind of thing.

BOBBY: Tim mentions going to eat in passing, but I must confess Mitch teaching us about the two different kinds of North Carolina Barbecue was very important! Faye remains one of the finest people I ever met and I miss her so much. (She passed away in 2013) It’s strange, I’ve lived in Ohio for 20 years now and so has Dixon. And oh yeah, early on we drafted Richard Barone into playing some amazing guitar for us.

Favorite songs cut at the Drive-In? Happy accidents? Failures best left on the cutting room floor?
BOBBY: My favorite Windbreakers tune recorded at the Drive-In was “Changeless.” Holy cow, that’s an amazing song—and should have been a massive hit. There are really no failures left behind. Mostly because we were on such a budget we had to use everything!

Tell us a little about working with Randy Everett for the other session back home—I recall spotting his name on more than just your records back in the day, so I’m guessing that he was a valuable guy to that region’s music scene.
TIM: Randy Everett is a guy that we’d just known around town. He was known as a jazz guitarist, but he was just trying his hand at studio engineering at the time. Rick Garner (Terminal co-engineer on the Mississippi session) was a businessman with an interest in music who bought some studio gear and set it up temporarily in his suburban home. That’s where we did the other tracks. As I recall, Bobby traded him a guitar for the studio time.

Randy very much became an important fixture on the recording scene in the South. A lot of folks worked with him, and I worked with him a lot on various sessions. A great friend; I actually saw him just a couple weeks ago. He’s still recording, and he’s also doing some very cool paintings.

BOBBY: Randy Everett is one of those guys other guitar players just hate! He is better than you are ever going to be. And in his own wonderful way he is just as good as anyone else behind the board. And, oh yeah, the guitar I traded him for studio time was a sunburst 1964 Fender Jazzmaster.

You cover Television’s “Glory” with the Rain Parade backing you up on the album; how did that connection happen?
TIM: We knew their record (1983’s Emergency Third Rail Power Trip), we dug it. I was booking shows at this tiny dive bar, and we were able to line them up for one. They stayed with me and (wife) Susan and hung out an extra day. We all just became fast friends. They had a day off coming up the following week, so we made a plan to record that Television song.
I remember all of us sitting at a sandwich shop before the session, mapping out the arrangement on the back of a brown paper bag.

BOBBY: Our entire connection with the Rain Parade was totally Tim and Susan. And wow—was I delighted about that since I was such a huge fan. Later on, I became friends with that other Paisley Pop genius band, True West, and was glad to bring them into our group of friends.

Anything else that was cut for Terminal that you ultimately decided against for whatever reasons?
BOBBY: Quick answer—no. Simply because we had to use everything!

Sonically, what do you think you were going for on Terminal?
TIM: To my mind, we just wanted to make a cool record. That was all. Perhaps Bobby remembers more about that.

BOBBY: Interesting question. I remember that (A) we didn’t want to sound overly dated like perhaps my beloved Flamin’ Groovies did from time to time; and (B) we didn’t want to sound like a “modern” ‘80s band would sound.

I’m struck how almost every single song is about a break-up, or a looming break-up, or looking back at the post-breakup wreckage, running into the girl who broke up with you, etc. Was this by design, or were both of you simultaneously in the throes of heartbreak when you happened to be writing material for the album?
LEE: I was already married, so I’d probably turned my attention to the heartbreak of everyday life, as opposed to any specific romantic strife. (I didn’t mean that to sound as stupid as it did.) (No worries, Tim.—Parenthetical Ed.)

BOBBY: Um, yeah, I kept rewriting the same song over and over. It was of course all about the same person.

What was your reaction when the reviews started rolling in? It was fun to read the ones you selected for the new booklet. I don’t think a lot of young fans can truly appreciate what the fanzine network back then was all about, and how it was “our internet,” along with the occasional breakthrough via a mention in Rolling Stone or Spin. I’ve written in the past about how there was this very special “us against the mainstream” feeling prior to the grunge explosion that has resulted in a bonafide community of friends who still commune on Facebook, etc.
TIM: It’s always gratifying to get good reviews, and most of ours were pretty positive. You’re right, the fanzine network was pretty great. They were physical things, not just something out in cyberspace. It was a very cool scene during the early days of the independent thing.

BOBBY: It’s of course the only reason we ever made a record—to get a good review! I’m only sort of kidding. I’ve got to say this—I met quite a few fellow musicians in those days who are still very close friends. That is so wonderful.

Tell us a little about getting out on the road to promote Terminal, and in particular the 12/26/86 show you culled the reissue’s live bonus tracks from.
TIM: At the time, Bobby wasn’t able to tour, so I put together a band in Atlanta and did an East Coast/Midwest tour. It was a lotta fun. Bobby knows more about that live recording than I do… he’s the very handy archivist of the group.

BOBBY: By the time of the 12/26/86 show, I had been out of the band for quite a while and was well into recording my first solo album – 1987’s Only Ghosts Remain. That show was a Christmastime one-off thing. I don’t think we actually did another Windbreakers show together for a couple of years

Speaking of bonus tracks, any other rarities or oddities out there? You included “Lonely Beach,” from the 1985 Disciples of Agriculture French compilation, here. What was the story on it?
BOBBY: It’s my faux surf instrumental, which was recorded in quite a lo-fi way on my Fostex X-15 4 track cassette deck. I did redo it years later in somewhat higher fidelity on my solo disc On A Ladder, but I’m sure the original is better. I went through everything I could find recently and there remain two unreleased studio tracks from 1982 or so. That’s about it.

How did this reissue come about with the Mark label? (Note: Mark is a subsidiary of Italy’s metal-tilting Minotauro Records and to date has also reissued the Original Sins’ 1989 album The Hardest Way.)
TIM: The short answer is, the Mark label asked about it, and nobody had prior to that. [Previously] the entirety of Terminal was tacked onto the end of the CD of 1989’s At Home with Bobby & Tim because CDs were new and we didn’t feel we could ask people to pay $16 for one record. So we gave them a second one free. The mastering on the current reissue is much, much better.

Update us on any current activities—and what’s the possibility for future Windbreakers projects?
TIM: I stay busy with mine and Susan’s band Bark, plus I end up playing with a wide range of other folks here in Knoxville. Most of the time, I’m busier musically than when I was young.

BOBBY: I’ve been working on perhaps a solo disc for the last year or so—about half way there, I reckon.

TIM: We got together 10 or 12 years ago and recorded a couple of songs. They turned out pretty well, and we had a good time doing it. Around that time, we also recorded a song for a Buffalo Springfield tribute record. I guess we just never had the impetus to keep at it. (Note: Five Way Street: A Tribute To Buffalo Springfield came out on Not Lame in 2006. Details and a stream of the Windbreakers doing “Expecting to Fly” is here at Discogs.)
After Bobby was in that awful accident a few years back, we made a tentative plan to get together with Mitch and record some songs, but that ended up not happening.

BOBBY: I’d be happy to turn over what I’ve got for a new Windbreakers disc. But I totally understand how unimportant that is in the world’s big picture.

***

Ah, Mr. Sutliff, some of us out here in Windbreakersville might opt to differ regarding that last point. Let the cajoling and convincing begin, fellow punters…

 

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