If you’ve heard of Greg Sage and his band Wipers, it was probably because another band you liked covered one of their songs. Melvins, Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Poison Idea, Mission of Burma, Red Fang, to name a few, have covered Wipers songs. Maybe you were introduced to the band when Kurt Cobain put two of their albums on his Top 50 list. Or when J Mascis named Greg Sage one of his guitar heroes. Even late in their career, Sonic Youth were citing the influence of the Wipers. Nevertheless, Greg Sage and his band Wipers are still woefully unknown beyond their cult status.
The Wipers have a back catalog of 9 studio albums and various EPs, live albums, and compilations – which can make diving into their songbook a daunting task. Luckily, The Void Report was able to rope in artist and musician Brian Walsby to provide this introduction to the band and the striking portrait of Greg Sage. This is also the debut piece in our new periodic series Retrogradus, that looks back at a lesser-known or misunderstood artist, album, era, or event.
It may have been when I was in eleventh grade when I first heard the Wipers. I think that it was on the infamous L.A. radio show Rodney on the Roq, which was hosted by notorious L.A. rock personality Rodney Bingenhiemer. By this time, I was this little kid who was discovering all kinds of new music to listen to and I was completely into the hardcore punk rock scene of underground music that was happening and that was very new, fresh, and exciting. The Wipers song in question was “Romeo.” I didn’t know if they even had records out. Turns out they had a few. Bandleader Greg Sage formed the band in Portland, Oregon in the late seventies and “Romeo” was on their third studio LP, Over the Edge.
“Romeo” completely blew me away with its desperation and power. It wasn’t like a lot of the stuff I was really into at the time, but it obviously had something to it that made me curious. I remember a little while later reading an interview with Greg Sage in an early issue of the magazine Maximum Rock and Roll (which was actually, in those early days, quite a good magazine to read). The interview really impressed me. Greg Sage seemed to me like a really smart, really individualistic kind of person. He seemed to strive for complete control of his music and his vision, preferring to home build all of his own gear and produce his bands records in basements instead of actual studios.
He also offered this prophetic viewpoint of what was going on at the time: “I have a lot of respect for hardcore punk rock, but how do you classify music without putting limits on it? We tend to attract more individualistic types. People who decide for themselves whether they like us or not.” After that, I became a fan. The Wipers have something like eleven records out and I honestly think all of them are good. There are some that I like better than others, but if you think about it that is an incredible track record. Greg Sage’s vision of his band has remained virtually untouched over the years. His original idea of putting out a massive body of work with as little interference from anybody has to be admired. His refusal to play the game has also, admittedly, meant that besides a very loyal cult following no one really knows much about this band and never will.
Then there is the guitar. Crushing. Huge. Not in a typical “rock” sort of way, but Sage’s guitar playing is easily some of the coolest I have ever heard. The only reference point that I think I can see is maybe Neil Young sometimes, and that is only a compliment. Whether doing delicate runs or piercing frenetic single note attacks, the man’s playing is simply fucking awesome, dude.
Before I run down a few of my favorite Wipers records to try to explain the appeal, let it be known that this isn’t for everybody. A lot of the Wipers stuff takes time to grow on you. And the singularity of Sage’s songwriting means that sometimes he repeats himself, which is perfectly understandable after twenty plus years of recording. The Wipers sound is pretty basic on the surface, like one song over and over. I don’t think that is true, but even if that is the case: what a great song!
IS THIS REAL? LP (1980). The first one is a good one. Probably the most “punk” sounding record, with a little bit of a “new wave” feel thrown in. Is This Real? contains twelve or so numbers that all fly by real quick, setting up the template of the earlier, more direct Wipers sound. Speedy tunes, a knack for good songwriting, and the usual doom and gloom lyrics dominate the record. The highlights are numerous, but I think I’d go with “Window Shop for Love,” “Alien Boy,” and “Return of the Rat” as being some of my favorites. Can’t forget about “Up Front,” the most frenetic song on here, which also boasts one of the greatest guitar solos in existence. Due to its availability at the time, Is This Real? is probably the most popular of Wipers records, and is as good a place to start as any. But better things were on the horizon…
YOUTH OF AMERICA LP (1981). Youth of America is one of the GREATEST RECORDS OF ALL TIME. It’s possibly my favorite Wipers release. More experimental and much denser then the first LP, Youth of America boasts six songs which are fleshed out by numerous guitar overdubs, piano, and some truly demented production. The band sounds ten times more desperate and intense as well. And the songs: “No Fair” starts off with a quiet melancholy introduction that blasts into a song that features another amazing Greg Sage guitar break. First time listeners will have their jaws scraping the floor as they listen to this winding ascending fucked up guitar break that still blows me away. The title track is an epic ten-minute plus song that is simply amazing. The whole middle part of the song features some ungodly guitar pyrotechnics, effects, and screams, as the rhythm section chugs on for what seems like an eternity, building in intensity. And then there is “When it’s Over,” which blazes along for over three minutes before the singing even starts. This song just keeps on building and building and is easily the most frenetic sounding Wipers song ever. A complete and total masterpiece. This is the one, baby.
OVER THE EDGE LP (1983) Over the Edge comes damn close to being my favorite Wipers record. Recording in a basement in Portland, Over the Edge doesn’t boast the production values of say, Dark Side of the Moon, but that is not the point anyways. A little more stripped down and less experimental than Youth of America, but it’s better than Is This Real? and boasts a ton of classics: “No One Wants An Alien,” “No Generation Gap,” and “So Young.” The song “Doom Town” is one of the most popular Wipers songs ever, and with good reason. It’s as powerful and bleak as anything they have done. Can’t forget about “Messenger” and the aforementioned “Romeo,” finally making it onto an album. This is the studio record that more or less ends the cycle of the earlier more direct Wipers style and it is unquestionably recommended.
WIPERS LIVE LP (1985) Don’t know the time period of these recordings, but this record is a personal favorite of mine. Besides being the first one that I could find, it also features live versions of songs that, if anything, are even better than the studio versions. That is true in the versions of “Now is the Time,” “Window Shop For Love,” “D-7,” and a blistering version of “Doom Town.” Greg Sage’s echo-y, overdriven guitar is all over this thing, and the harsh live recording captures perfectly what I would imagine what these folks would have been like in the live setting. Also includes a couple tunes unavailable anywhere else, like the cool as shit “Moon Rider.”
I am getting short on space here, but the second phase of the Wipers career begins with the following records: Land of The Lost (1986) boasts great songs with a slight decrease in intensity, but has tunes like “Just a Dream Away” and “Different Ways.” It also has one of the worst covers ever. Follow Blind (1987) is one of the mellowest Wipers records, but the beauty of the title track cannot be denied. Simply a beautiful song, timeless and gorgeous. The Circle (1988) kind of brings the two phases of the bands career together. Maybe the most consistent studio set since Over the Edge.
Around this time, Greg disbands the Wipers. Quite possibly a year later the “grunge explosion” starts and several people in famous bands at the time start spreading the gospel about the Wipers to others. Suddenly, with Nirvana especially talking about the virtues of the Wipers, a lot of interest begins to circulate. This inspires Greg to reform the band and suddenly during the season of grunge, Silver Sail (1993) comes out. People were lead to believe that Sage was the original “King of Grunge” and Greg responded to the expectations by putting out a non-grunge, more quiet record. Nirvana then got the Wipers to open up for them several times and was horrified to discover that their audience just didn’t get it, some of them booing the band tremendously. Nirvana would then get onstage and tell their audience how stupid they were for booing Sage, which I know I would have done. No doubt about it.
After the grunge thing tapered off, The Herd (1996) came out. It should be said that at this time I was kind of let down by all of these records simply because they weren’t like the earlier recordings. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I see that all of these are still quite good. But honestly, nothing is going to touch the first four records. In 1999, the Wipers released Power in One. It’s the best thing Sage has done in years. After that, who knows?
Since this was originally written ten years ago, there is probably some new stuff to add to the story. Not surprisingly, I do not think that there has been anything released since The Power in One that is supposed to be brand new material, but I do know that several of the Wipers records have been re-issued and re-released on various labels, including Sage’s own label, Zeno Records. I don’t know -or have heard- what the man himself has been up to in these last several years, and I don’t even know what records are available these days. You will have to find that out yourself. Good luck!
– Brian Walsby
Brian Walsby is a father/drummer/artists/cartoonist who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. His latest book Manchild 7: My Life is Like a Salad Tossed in the Air and Won’t Come Down is available now.