To these ears, the Beatles had a lot to do with what was initially grabbing about GbV. By 1994, the Fab Four had become shorthand for nice harmonies and catchy tunes; even jokers like Weezer were getting put forward as modern-day Beatles. But if you were old enough for those transistor memories — and the members of GbV, bless their hearts, were — the Beatles meant something more profound: they did their magic in mono, and every new single offered a new possibility for what a pop record could sound and feel like. That was a hard trick by 1994, when virtually every kind of record had already been made by someone. But Bee Thousand managed it. The album's cut-and-paste structure was as jarring as its pop hooks were reassuring; the recording quality — some numbers sharply recorded, others full of mud — played with your perspective. So did the song lengths, when the minute-long tracks seemed fully fleshed out and the three-minute songs (only two of them) were epics. And the lyrics, which were singable but never quite graspable: sex and drugs were in there ("Hot Freaks" and "Weed King," respectively), but so was a kind of hazy, beer-blast transcendentalism.
The other celebrated aspects of GbV showed up when the band began regular touring. Pollard's mike swings and scissor kicks, that ubiquitous on-stage cooler of beer, and the uncanny ability to remember 50-odd songs per set. Most of all, their ability to jump from the sublime to the ridiculous at a moment's notice. I recall one night at the Paradise when the phrase "Dave Matthews sucks!" became a mantra echoing in one song after another. It was as if Pollard had just realized that the deepest truths about art could be inferred from the truth about Dave. "That's part of what a Guided by Voices show is, a train wreck that never seems to happen," says Sprout. "It flies down the track, wheels coming off, sparks flying, rivets popping, lots of smoke, but it never crashes. The people arrive at the end safe and happy."
The Bee Thousand line-up managed one more landmark album, Alien Lanes, on which the stylistic quirks of Bee Thousand were polished into a more formal prog-pop suite. Demos was the first to leave (briefly replaced by one of GbV's first critical champions, Spin magazine's Jim Greer), and problems developed during the follow-up, 1996's Under the Bushes Under the Stars. Pieced together from two sets of sessions (the first with ex-Pixies bassist Kim Deal producing), it was the first GbV album that was nothing more than a good batch of songs.
Pollard is said to have fired everybody next time around, pulling in Chicago band Cobra Verde to be the new GbV. (Sprout says his own departure was friendly — his son was born during a tour, and "I couldn't see not seeing my kids grow up" — and he guested on most of the later albums.) There would be more changes before the band played their last show, in January 2005 (Kevin March, from the '90s Boston band the Dambuilders, was the final drummer), and there'd be many more good batches of songs. Over time, production got fully hi-fi. Ric Ocasek's production on 1999's Do the Collapse drew the harshest "sellout" criticism, but time has proved it to be the quirkiest of the later batch. Still, Pollard never let out a turkey, at least not on a formal GbV album. (Side projects could be another story — hands up, everybody who shelled out for the recorded-in-one-night double LP by Acid Ranch.)