Pop Star

St. Louis' pre-eminent expert on pop music tries his hand at a new venture

Jan 1, 2003 at 4:00 am
Every new year, music junkies -- a reassuringly predictable lot -- start sniffing around for the next big thing, the fresh new sound, the name to drop when positioning themselves as up-to-the-minute, down-with-the-scene crazy-future individuals. "Dude, glitchcore was, like, so last year," they loudly proclaim to one another while standing in line at the record store, hoping against hope that the hot girl in the Kid 606 T-shirt will notice them. "Neorevisionist deconstructed Slovenian two-step -- that's pretty much all I'm feelin' these days." (Glance casually at Hot Girl, who's sure to be intrigued by such fascinating against-the-graininess. Nope, she's still reading Magnet -- damn her!) Fortunately for these forward-thinking, futurecentric fans, crit-geeks get off on inventing subgenres and microscenes. Magazines sell this bullshit to identity-challenged junior consumers, until eventually a character on Dawson's Creek mentions it or something, and then it's time for the whole nauseating cycle to start up again.

Other music fans look to the past for inspiration and couldn't care less whether they're ahead of the curve. In this category is Jordan Oakes, who's arguably St. Louis' most devoted and knowledgeable power-pop scholar. Wondering what the last Shoes album sounded like? Jonesing for a good long rant about the relative merits of Badfinger and the Raspberries? If the names Let's Active, the Bongos, the dBs and the Grays mean anything to you, you probably already know who Jordan Oakes is. In the mid-'80s, when we first made his acquaintance, he was into making mix tapes: Radar Station owes him big for turning us on to Big Star and Game Theory, and surely we weren't the sole beneficiary of his sonic largesse. In any case, Oakes wasn't content to merely shape the tastes of impressionable teenage girls from Webster Groves. He went on to publish an internationally distributed fanzine, Yellow Pills; mastermind several great Yellow Pills compilations; pose for pictures with worshipful Japanese strangers; and, most recently, start his own label, Yellow Pills Incorporated. ("Yellow Pills," by the way, is the title of a 20/20 song -- but if you're still reading, you probably already knew that.)

The first Yellow Pills release is actually a reissue of the 1982 debut of an obscure Miami trio called the Wind, who fell desperately in love with the first two Beatles albums and took it from there. A member of the band ran into Rolling Stone critic Kurt Loder in an elevator and gave him a copy of the Wind's self-released, totally mono record. After Loder did a nice write-up, in which he compared the Wind to Big Star, Oakes, along with approximately 8,000 others, bought a copy of the LP. Now, some twenty years later, Oakes is reissuing Where It's at With the Wind, along with bonus tracks taken from the less successful, Mitch Easter-produced follow-up.

We caught up with Oakes recently at Yellow Pills world headquarters, a small South City walkup that also serves as home to Oakes, approximately 6,000 records and three adorable mutts. "I want to find albums that are worth putting out that no one else is putting out," Oakes explains. "I don't want to be predictable."

For years, Oakes had an outlet for his music-missionary inclinations. He chose the artists and songs for all the Yellow Pills comps; he came up with the track order and wrote the liner notes. But Big Deal, the label that commissioned his services and licensed his fanzine's name, went kaput a couple of years ago, leaving some ruffled feathers and unpaid royalty checks. "I felt bad," he says. "That's one mistake I don't want to make -- I don't want to be a record-label jerk." Right now, Oakes -- who freely admits he's not the world's most organized guy -- is trying his damnedest to learn the business on the fly. After a nine-month struggle with an incompetent manufacturer, he's finally got 1,000 copies of the CD, which he's selling by mail order and on consignment at local record stores. With any luck, he'll move them all by the end of the decade and press up another batch. Oakes, who currently ekes out a living thanks to eBay, isn't laboring under the impression that he's gonna be the Irv Gotti of underground pop. "When you think about it, no one ever makes it big in power-pop," he says with a soft chuckle. "My favorite, almost my ideal, is Scott Miller [of Game Theory and the Loud Family] -- even to call him power-pop is wrong because he's kinda beyond that. He has a cult following, yeah, but even with him, all his albums are out of print. That doesn't bode well for anybody. And in terms of fame, the Wind makes the dBs look like the Beatles."

E-mail Oakes at [email protected] for ordering information.