Starry faded into the background and became a historical footnote for the band despite being their best work.
The grand experiment known as grunge peaked in 1994. Green River, Mudhoney and Subpop had slowly primed the world for something that had punk’s do-it-yourself ethos with an added irreverence for the auditory health of listeners. Rock and Roll, perversely distorted and abused and the sheer volume and depth of guitar feedback that a band could get away with was constantly escalated in some perverse contest between bands. Nirvana’s Nevermind, of course, broke the world entirely by pushing that same aesthetic into something so uncommonly appealing that it became the beloved symbol of an era to punks and metal heads alike while being just as popular with every teenager who’s ever felt the pang of alienation or rebellion (read: every teenager). In many ways, grunge was the great equalizer. Its reach infected everything from American metal to British pop to Canadian rock. Once that happened, bands who might otherwise have just explored more traditional styles suddenly began drawing on weightier, more high-energy sounds. This aesthetic was particularly notable in Canada with bands like Sloan, Treble Charger and Limblifter. Each of these groups, at its core, is a traditional rock and roll band with songs — often cleverly written — about love, relationships or simple humanity. While they could have followed in the rock roots and growing success of the Tragically Hip, what differentiated them from pre-grunge bands was their emphasis on wild distortion, messy, meaty guitar riffs and pop-like harmonies which tied it all together. Hamilton, Ontario’s “The Killjoys” emerged into that environment with arguably one of the best and most under-celebrated records of the era, Starry.
Knowingly or not, Starry owed a lot to Teenage Fanclub’s 1991 record Bandwagonesque. It successfully married accessible pop melodies to loud, winding guitar riffs and droning, grinding feedback. The Killjoys were grunge-influenced rock music smothered in sweet maple syrup. The first track, “Today I Hate Everyone” was the first single and frankly a brilliant move from a marketing perspective. The engine of this genre was a generation of teens living in the shadow of their boomer parents and finding out the future may not be quite as bright as they’d been led to believe. They reveled in their self-imposed social exile. While the title has little to do with any real hostile or negative emotions, the refrain marked a mood that anyone could certainly relate to at some point in their lives. We all have days where we want to be left alone; couple that sentiment with a fast-paced punk anthem and you have a recipe for a track with serious longevity. It’s to the band’s credit that they were able to pull this off without resorting to anything so on-the-nose as open anger or hostility. Indeed, the whole sentiment seems to be more tongue-in-cheek than serious. The video, which features a little girl angrily leaving her own birthday party (where the band happens to be performing the song), plays with listeners, as its main character is identified with overlaid text as “Dana.” The joke here is that there is also a song on the album called “Dana” about a girl who’s upset. The link there would appear to suggest that both songs may actually celebrate the amusement around the fickle nature of a child’s temperament than anything more serious.
While there’s no denying “Today I Hate Everyone” remains one of the most timeless tracks on the record, it was far more than an anomaly. “Low” is arguably the most astonishingly under-appreciated track. It has the same winding guitar distortion of the best the day had to offer in the most popular British hits, it offered fantastic vocal harmonies and a late hook which brings in an underlying acoustic element without compromising or weighing down the momentum. In fact, it’s used in a similar manner to The Wedding Present’s “Brassneck” in that it forms a bit of a breakdown which takes an already-great song and elevates it to a whole other emotional level at the halfway mark. It’s hard to imagine how an acoustic strum could add a dimension to such a loud and fat rhythm guitar but thanks to the mixing talent of Metalworks Studios’ Terry Brown, “Low” features chord changes and innovative song structure which give it a more lasting appeal than “Today I Hate Everyone”.
Regrettably, it wasn’t until “Rave and Drool” from 1996’s Gimme Five found its way onto the very popular “Big Shiny Tunes” compilation series that The Killjoys gained the recognition they deserved. Sadly, it was for merely a pretty good song on a pretty decent album which didn’t hold a candle to the sparkling, grinding masterwork of Starry. “Rave and Drool” went on to be the song most people remember when asked about The Killjoys. Starry was eclipsed by the success of their follow-up hits. It faded into the background and became a historical footnote for the band despite being their best work.
Even being re-released on Warner after its initial Cargo Records release didn’t seem to do anything to win the band the wide reach they might have achieved in today’s world. It was a pre-internet time and success was a function of the power of your marketing reach. Nothing they released in the years since 1994 ever captured the energy, melody and positive spirit embodied in Starry. At the end of “Headlong”, vocalist Mike Trebilcock can be heard chuckling in the recording, symbolically illustrating the spirit underlying the whole experience. It’s at once angry, intense and refreshingly optimistic. It could be said of The Killjoys that they didn’t get the memo about the ‘90s being a time for seriousness, shoegazing, lamenting your own internal struggles and blaming the outside world. Starry somehow says there’s reason to be frustrated but we can spend about 37 minutes on that before we’re moving on. There are love songs to make.