O Positive

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Talk About Love


O Positive


Only Breathing/Cloud Factory

O Positive - Talk About Love

My initial impulse was to write a capsule review of Cloud Factory, the second O Positive EP.  I was going to first contextualize it within their career – how they jumped from a small indie label after a business dispute and ended up label-mates with the Godfathers and Winter Hours, and mention the success with which they met on the local airwaves, cashboxes (the EP was the best-selling record at Newbury Comics that Christmas), and even the Rolling Stone/Gavin Report charts.  From there, I’d start talking about the music – the shiny, clean production, the radio-friendly rave-ups like “In the Light”, and the more active (for want of a better word) lyrical perspective; the eerie and poignant epic closer “Watch Out, This Sled’s Made for a Maniac”. 

Instead, I’d like to tell a little story. 

It’s sometime in 1989, and my father is taking us to his apartment in Quincy.  A black billboard with lurid pink-and-yellow writing greets us as we get off Storrow and onto I-93 South.  “Have you heard WFNX?” my dad asks, flicking ash from his cigarette in the general direction of the billboard.  “They play songs like ‘Take the Skinheads Bowling’ and ‘Debbie Gibson is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child’.” 

I blush as red as the hot tobacco in my dad’s cigarette and shake my head.  I’d been moving away from the cheesy teen pop I was supposed to like, but these song titles seemed altogether too scandalous for my still very refined tastes.  At some point all the ‘FNX billboards and stickers got to me.  After getting sick of the stations we’d pre-programmed on our stereo, I waited until my mom had gone out for the night to twist the tuner over to 101.7 and slipped the headphones over my ears. 

The music I heard that night sounded edgier than the music aimed at my demographic.  To someone reared on classic rock and pre-fab bubblegum pop, artists like New Order, REM, and 10,000 Maniacs sounded both companionable and revolutionary.  Particularly on shows like “We Want the Airwaves”, the DJs and the folks who wrote in and made requests felt like a community of cool yet approachable people, and the we’re-all-friends-here vibe hastened my retreat into the arms of alternative radio. 

WFNX was a huge supporter of local music.  Where most commercial alternative stations might siphon the local artists off onto a Sunday night show, the ‘FNX playlist featured Boston-area big shots in regular rotation.  At the time, I’d assumed that music was something made in other, more exotic locales.  There was something exciting about hearing bands that had formed a mere 20 miles away from me! 

While WFNX wasn’t the first place I heard O Positive, they were huge supporters of the band.  Not long after I got Toyboat, I stayed up late to listen to the band perform a live studio set on Juanita the Scene Queen’s Sunday-night show.  Hearing them goof off one minute and play a heartbreaking ballad the next cemented my love of their music. 

My interview with Dave Herlihy took place the day that Stephen Mindich had announced the sale of the 101.7 frequency to the corporate oligarchs at Clear Channel.  WFNX got behind the band in a big way, particularly after the release of Cloud Factory.  In a 2008 interview with Jim Sullivan, Herlihy looked back at the station’s salad days.  Back in the day, ‘FNX treated us like a major-label band. They didn’t have the corporate playlist coming down from the mountaintop. Christmas ‘87, we were number one on their overall playlist with ‘Talk About Love,’ ahead of R.E.M. and U2. Yeah, baby. They were instrumental in our reaching our audience. The gigs became exponentially more crowded. ‘FNX was a tastemaker and played ‘modern rock’ before it was a format.”

This is a long lead-in to “Talk About Love”, the band’s big radio hit from an era when a big radio hit actually meant something.  If you were anywhere near a radio between 1987 and 1990, you’re probably singing along with it even before you hit the play button. 

It’s too bad that some of these songs can’t come out now, because they’re new and so fresh. It’s frustrating sometimes because we keep coming up with ideas and we never get to use them.

Alan Pettiti to Lisa Moore, The Noise, October 1987.

The lag time between the release of Cloud Factory and the band’s major-label deal meant that they’d written more songs than they could possibly record.  I was unable to find my favorite unreleased O Positive song “3/4”, but “Waited” was another live favorite that never made it to wax or aluminum.  This recording is from the band’s 2009 benefit show for Alan Pettiti’s sister Paula. 

It’s weird, the whole dinosaur mentality dealing with a huge label like that. It’s like making out with IBM — you kiss one person, and then all of a sudden someone in a whole other state twitches.

Dave Herlihy on signing to Epic, Boston Phoenix, 4 May 1990

Studio days

After seven years of being a band and two well-received EPs, O Positive signed with Epic in the fall of 1989.  Once signed to the label, they started looking for a producer with whom to work on their album.  They selected Peter Walsh, a veteran British producer whose credits included Peter Gabriel Plays Live and Climate of Hunter by Scott Walker.  “[Walsh’s work] had the British well-produced thing about it, which we liked,” Herlihy recalls.  “All our stuff, we strove for good production value…We liked spontaneous playing, but we liked good production, like an Echo and the Bunnymen sort of a thing.  So Peter Walsh just fit the bill for us.”

The band made quick work of their time in the studio.  They went up to Vermont to record the album in November of that year, and completed the final mixes in February of 1990.  While the schedule looks pretty fast for a major label album at that time, it seemed like almost a leisurely pace after the shorter recording sessions that went into their previous work.  Herlihy sounds an ambivalent note about the two months that went into recording that album.  “I’ve come back to the perspective that to be a recording artist, you should be able to sit down and get it done, and not necessarily chew the same food over and over and over again.”  

The longer gestation period allowed the band to experiment more with unusual instrumentation.  While Walsh didn’t encourage them to use sides of raw beef as percussion (as Scott Walker has done), “Dave Martin was off in a separate studio doing all kinds of experimental textures…and doing all kinds of cool, ambient stuff that made it onto the record in different ways.”  “Hope the Boat”, the album’s second-side sleeper, benefits from Martin’s crafty skills.  “He had some bowed saws on there and some other things that were integrated into the main studio (recording).  All the while we were working on the album, Dave was in another studio doing all kinds of really tribal, ethnic, ambient stuff.”

toyboatToyBoatTOYBOAT & the Ocean

When their major-label debut, toyboatToyBoatTOYBOAT, came out, O Positive took an irreverent view of their unusual album title.  "It’s just a tongue twister, you know," Herlihy told the Harvard Crimson in 1990.  "We just wanted to have some fun. We wanted to hear the deejays say it, like they’re chewing molasses."

That may be, but there’s more to the title than just a prank on disc jockeys.  The record’s nautical theme extends from the album title, through the song titles – “Overflow”, “Hope the Boat” – to a smattering of references to boats, oceans, and water.  Session player Sonny Barbato's accordion lines suggest bagpipes and sea chanteys, further emphasizing the oceanic imagery that threads its way through the album.  

This lyrical and musical evocation of the sea was no accident.  “I was always trying to write songs and I’d always have my notebook with me,” Herlihy recalls.  “I began to see how the idea of floating or the idea of being safe but not really that safe, like a boat.  It’s a thin separation between you and drowning, but it feels like you’re safe.  For some reason it kept coming up and coming up again, and just the idea of moving along through a big space and you’re a little vessel.  It appealed to me.  We recognized it after the fact, and strung it together that way.” 

While the band had written a title track for the album, they held off on recording it until their next LP, Home Sweet Head.  About twenty-five songs had been demoed for the album, and “Toyboat Toyboat Toyboat” was completed after they turned in those demos to A&R.  Though the song hadn’t made the cut, band factotum Dave Martin suggested it as a title because of how well it tied the album’s theme together. 

On toyboatToyBoatTOYBOAT, the ocean represents a sense of uncertainty.  O Positive turns clichéd statements inside-out (“will you swim when your ship comes in/or wait to wonder at your hesitation?”) and counters sprightly major-key melodies with unsettling imagery (as on “Back of My Mind”, with the buried lyric about “you’re drowning in the deep blue sea”).  The band may have been in the catbird seat locally, but even while making their major-label debut they seemed to address the ways in which things could go wrong. 




O Positive



O Positive - Overflow

Listening to a record you associate with a specific time in your life can feel like looking at a photo with a double exposure.  In one exposure, you see yourself as you were and the hole the music filled in your life.  You also see yourself as you are now.  Hearing the music anew helps you understand it – and yourself – in a different way. 

In the first exposure, I am thirteen.  I tumble into my room, stepping on the heels of my sneakers carefully so as not to tear the pompoms off my anklets.  A red tape-tag curls around my thumb, and I strum it as I kick my sneakers under the bed. 

I catapult myself onto the mattress and rip the tape-tag from the envelope in one fluid motion.  A cassette case is the first thing to fall from the envelope, shiny in a cellophane wrapper with a big sticker that says “Featuring the hit single ‘Back of My Mind’”.  A pair of black stickers with a rainbow-colored O Positive logo flutters next from the envelope.  I could feel a thick, rigid rectangle jammed at the opening, and I reached in and smoothed out a press kit with the palm of my hand. 

Grabbing my walkman from the nightstand, I peel the cellophane down from the hole punched in the upper right-hand corner of the case, careful to preserve the sticker.  Before I pop my tape in the deck, I remove the J-card from the cassette case.  A collage of creepy marionettes and gelatin-print mundanities leers out at me from under florescent light.  I unfold the J-card out to the next panel to find a photo of the band, taken somewhere on the harbor in the early evening.  They stand shrouded in shadows at the end of a pier, lit at a low angle redolent of ghost stories.  There’s Dave Herlihy on the far left, saluting the camera and scowling in proud defiance from behind granny glasses.  Alan Pettiti, the lead guitarist, stands at the center of the group, stepping forward from the shadows.  The low-angle lighting gives him a heavy-lidded look, like a gumshoe in a black-and-white movie.  Drummer Alex Lob eyes the camera warily, as though he’s trying to divine the f-stop through the camera lens.  Band factotum Dave Martin leans in like a closed parentheses, barely containing a smirk. 

I fold the sticker into the J-card and slip the tape into the deck, clicking the Play button with my thumb.  In the seconds before the music starts, I grab the folder and take out the photocopied press kit.  My initial instinct is to lie on my stomach with my head in my hands, perusing the clippings as I listen to the album. 

Within about five seconds, I rolled onto my side in a fetal clump.  The press kit hits the floor in a confusion of photostated, stapled-together pages. 

The song’s insistent rhythm draws me in.  The steady drumbeat and bassline that establish the song tugged at me, and the discordant piano punctuation suggests an ominous mood.  Ten seconds in and a choppy guitar line cascades over the rhythm track, sometimes racing the tempo and sometimes falling behind it.  The inconsistent cadence of this solo sounds like Morse code, or like a helicopter circling overhead. 

The vocal kicks in about twenty seconds into the song.  In his honeyed burr, Herlihy intones a pair of couplets that deepen the song’s suburban noir mood:

A happy house is camouflaged in town

It took me more than two nights to get it down

All the wonders are going up for sale

They get high, and cannot stand to fail

Our street was lined with perfect little houses painted blue or brown or white or yellow, piped with primary-colored drainage pipes and decorated with matching flowerpots.  The kids who resided within them lived among stable nuclear families.  Either their parents were still married, or their mothers had the good sense not to re-marry loutish men.  My mom wasn’t so lucky, as the neighborhood was all too aware. 

Look closely through the loop and you’ll see an irreverent curl playing on my upper lip. The band’s lyrics – with their literary allusions – flattered my intelligence.  This verse made me think of the opening lines of some Russian novel I read about in a how-to-write-fiction book I borrowed from the library.  When did my safe-in-suburbia classmates’ favorite bands do that? 

If you shift your gaze to the second exposure, though, you’ll see a suburban woman in early middle age, stopped short on a streetcorner.  A veil of steam emanates from her mouth, obscuring her facial expression.  21 years later, I hear the verse with a poignancy to which I was too close to recognize when I first heard the song.

It also took me 21 years before I realized that the band was not, in fact, standing on the end of a pier, but was rather crammed in a small room.  High-res

It also took me 21 years before I realized that the band was not, in fact, standing on the end of a pier, but was rather crammed in a small room.