GETTING MORE TALE #860: We Stand Alone
On a recent road trip with Jen to the lake, I chose the music according to my recent modus operandi: 80s retro rock. The stuff I used to listen to at the lake when I was 15 or 16 years old. This time I decided on the Killer Dwarfs’ Big Deal album from 1988. I didn’t get the cassette until the cottage season of ’89. I have a lot of nostalgia for that year. I turned 17, I had friends, and I even met a girl that liked me. We held hands once!
The title Big Deal referred to the Dwarfs’ signing their big record deal with Epic. This was their major label debut. After two indies, they finally signed the “big deal”, and even made a music video lampooning the idea. The album is a solidly hard rock album with a melodic side and a dash of dreams. Big Deal‘s theme is dreaming, and making it come true. Self determination. It doesn’t sound like the band had to compromise too much in making the album. While a tad softer than the predecessor Stand Tall (1986), it sounds like a natural evolution from that point. Better background vocals, cleaner production, and more considered arrangements.
Epic Records even funded a jokey video for “We Stand Alone”, though unusually dark. It was very much a sequel to “Stand Tall (Stick To Your Guns)” from the prior album. This time, the band sign to a label (in blood!) who forces them to change their image and name to the “Cuddly Dwarfs”. They are forced to cut and style their hair. They give it a go, but by the end Russ Dwarf breaks his puppeteer’s strings and re-emerges with wild hair, tricycle and goofy stage shenanigans.
As the album played in the car, my brain immediately began flashing back to those times (as has been routine lately). Like an old film projector, images appeared in my mind. I was sitting in the basement, hand on the remote control of the VCR, ready to hit “record” on the new Killer Dwarfs video. Bob Schipper may have been watching with me, or he may have come over later. Either way, we both enjoyed the song, which was their most melodic yet. I can remember my thoughts and feelings watching the video, which had a tenebrous edge. I seem to have a reaction to videos where people have goey stuff dumped on their heads, like in Gowan’s video for “A Criminal Mind”. Killer Dwarfs had similar imagery in “We Stand Alone”, when faceless record company suits issue new haircuts for the Dwarfs. As such I’ll always see the video, and thus hear the song, with a sense of…shadow.
As the Dwarfs themselves have said, the videos may have been comedies, but the music and lyrics have always been dead serious. The album in general has a similar dark vibe for me. The records before and after were more aggressive, but Big Deal seems to have a different focus. Songs like “Power”, “Lifetime” and “Tell Me Please” have a certain foreboding to them for me. Others are different, like the accelerated “Burn It Down” which recalls the Dwarfs of old. There are no real duds on the album, which is a workmanlike slab of granite to seek out if you like 80s metal or Canadian rock bands.
The Dwarfs did well enough but didn’t have a major breakthrough. They were always respected, tending to get better album after album. I read a few critiques of Russ Graham’s voice, calling it too nasal like fellow Canadian Geddy Lee. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, it’s best to move on. While Russ is more aggressive than Geddy, I do hear the resemblance they are referring to. But don’t forget guitarist Mike Hall, who doesn’t get enough credit for his solo work and tasteful use of the whammy bar. On drums, the Dwarfs boast the heavy hitting Darrell Dwarf (Millar), an animated character who provides the ever-important thump. And of course Bad Ronbo Mayer on bass and backing vocals, keeping it together.
Peak Dwarfs for me was 1990’s Dirty Weapons, a seriously good heavy rock album with attitude and riffs. I have a whole different set of memories of that album, but not as nostagic. Dirty Weapons came at Childhood’s End, a period of rapid change. There it remains emblazoned in that part of my memory forever.