“OFF & ON” (WRITER: BOBBY SUTLIFF)
ARTIST: THE WINDBREAKERS
RELEASED 1985 ON TERMINAL LP
The Windbreakers, from Jackson, Mississippi, were a spoke on the wheel of 1980s American indie pop.
The success of R.E.M., from Athens, Georgia, led record companies to sign other pop bands from the South. The best such bands—Pylon and Love Tractor (also from Athens), Zeitgeist from Austin, Let’s Active from Winston-Salem, and the Windbreakers—created the best pop-rock of the time.
Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliff were the Windbreakers. Both played guitar, bass, and keyboards and
were able to share creative space despite different approaches. Sutliff has been accused of being more traditional in his pop/rock obsessions (Beatles, Byrds, etc.), while Lee rocked a bit harder and a bit fuzzier. They wrote individually and collaborated as well, and both brought a lot to each other’s songs.
“Off & On” is the first song from their first, and best, LP, Terminal, recorded in the summer of 1984 and issued the following year. Bobby Sutliff wrote it and sings it with a characteristic yearning, slightly nasal delivery. Like the rest of the album, “Off & On” is rich power pop full of great hooks: guitar hooks, melodic vocal hooks, keyboard hooks. I really like the odd chord changes in the verse, and the gut-string guitar solo is an unusual touch.
As good as it is, though, Terminal feels a little dizzying. Sutliff and Lee’s approaches veer back and forth between soft and hard, acoustic and electric, and the sound—usually hewing to guitar rock—features touches like electric sitar, synthesizer, and harp guitar. Some of the songs feature disorientingly crude electronic drums. The ones with real drums were produced by Mitch Easter of Let’s Active at his Drive-In Studio. Easter probably drummed on those tracks.
The bright sounds on much of Terminal are balanced out by the lyrics. Most of the lyrics are pretty dark, touching on ennui, desperation, anger, religious confusion, and disconnection. As Sutliff sings here,
Out of all the girls that I had to meet
All of my mistakes I had to repeat
I had to fall at your feet.
The group’s next album, Run, featured several terrific songs, but after that, Sutliff chose to go solo. Both have issued plenty of their own material, and the Windbreakers have reunited on and off over the years.