Origin: Portland, Oregon
Genre: Punk rock, Noise rock
Years active: 1977–1988, 1993-1999
Is This Real? (1980)
Youth of America (1981)
Over the Edge (1983)
Land of the Lost (1986)
Follow Blind (1987)
The Circle (1988)
Silver Sail (1993)
The Herd (1996)
Power in One (1999)
Alien Boy (1980)
“Better Off Dead” (1978)
“Silver Sail” (1993)
“The Herd” (1996)
The Wipers were a punk rock group formed in Portland, Oregon in 1977 by guitarist Greg Sage, drummer Sam Henry and bassist Dave Koupal. The group’s tight song structure and use of heavy distortion has been hailed as extremely influential by numerous critics and musicians, including Melvins, Dinosaur Jr., Mono Men, Stephen Malkmus, Hole, Poison Idea, My Vitriol, Nation of Ulysses, and Nirvana.
The band originated as the brainchild of Greg Sage.
“I think I got that concept early on as a kid. I was very lucky to have my own professional record cutting lathe when I was in 7th grade due to my father being involved in the broadcast industry. I would cut records for friends at school of songs off the radio and learned the art of record making long before learning to play music. I would spend countless hours studying the grooves I would cut under the microscope that was attached to the lathe and loved the way music looked, moved and modulated within the thin walls. I might have spent too much time studying music through a microscope because it gave me a completely different outlook on what music is and a totally opposite understanding of it as well. There was something very magical and private when I zoomed into the magnified and secret world of sound in motion. I got to the point that I needed to create and paint my own sounds and colors into the walls of these grooves.”
Sage’s first instrument was bass guitar, because of the low tones that made larger grooves in the vinyl records due to slower modulations. Basses were harder to find and much more expensive when Sage was in grade school, so he used guitar instead.
His idea behind the Wipers started as only a recording project. The plan was to record 15 LPs in 10 years without touring or promotion. Sage thought that the mystique built from the lack of playing traditional rock ‘n’ roll would make people listen to their recordings much deeper with only their imagination to go by. He thought it would be easy to avoid press, shows, pictures and interviews. He looked at music as art rather than entertainment; he thought music was personal to the listener rather than a commodity.
Foundation, early years
Sage founded the punk rock band the Wipers in Portland, Oregon in 1977 along with drummer Sam Henry and bassist Dave Koupal. Wipers’ first single, “Better Off Dead”, was released in 1978 on Sage’s own Trap Records. After several years of playing and recording guitar, Sage wanted to do something different in music, and being labeled as a band seemed to be the first tradition and standard he should try to avoid. He wanted to make his own recordings and manufacture and run his own label himself without anyone else’s financing, to keep it as pure as possible. In 1979, Sage approached several Portland punk bands and asked them to record singles for his new Trap label. Some of those early bands were The Stiphnoyds, The Neo Boys and Sado Nation. Sage later rereleased some of the material on the compilation The History of Portland Punk, which included some tracks from the Wipers.
The Wipers first album, Is This Real?, was issued in 1980 on Park Avenue Records, a bigger label that the band hoped would gain them wider distribution. It was originally recorded on a 4-track in the band’s rehearsal studio, but the label insisted that the band use a professional studio. Once released, the LP quietly gained a cult following, although the band was best known for their live shows around the Portland area. At the time of its release, Is This Real? defied categorization, and its catchy, driving punk anthems are now regarded as post-punk classics.
Between the release of their first two LPs, Park Avenue released 1980’s Alien Boy EP, consisting of the title track and three demo outtakes. Released without the band’s permission, the EP was the first of many unauthorized or bootleg Wipers records for which the band received no royalties (until these early releases saw reissue on Sage’s own label Zeno Records in 2001). Sage has said regarding Is This Real?, “Hell, that record was in print for over twenty years and we never received a cent for it.”
“Youth of America”
Sample of “Youth of America”, from the 1981 album Youth of America by the Wipers. The full song is over 10 minutes long.
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Sage then tweaked and evolved the Wiper’s sound with each subsequent release. He became known for not only his do-it-yourself ethic and guitar solos, but also for his domineering approach to the band’s creative process. With the new rhythm section of bassist Brad Davidson and drummer Brad Naish (ex-Styphnoids), Wipers recorded a second LP for Park Avenue. With its epic title track and longer song lengths, 1981’s Youth of America stands in sharp contrast to the short/fast punk approach of the time. According to Sage, this change of pace was a deliberate counter-reaction against the trend of releasing short songs, which many punk bands did at the time. The album was, according to Sage, not well received in the United States at the time of its release, though it did fare better in Europe. Along with other records by the Wipers, Youth of America has since come to be acknowledged as an important album in the development of American underground and independent rock movements of the early 80s. Following a dispute over the album’s cover art, Wipers parted ways with Park Avenue for good.
The next LP, the militant, distortion-drenched Over the Edge, was the first Wipers record to meet with immediate acceptance. The song “Romeo”, which had already been released on 7″ by Trap, received some airplay. The band then embarked on their first extensive tour, documented on their 1984 live LP. In spite of the original idea to not focus on live music, Wipers did play live, eventually releasing a 1985 live album, called simply Wipers.
Many of the Wipers’ recording techniques and musical equipment were designed by Sage and the band. The band members purposely relied on word-of-mouth advertising for their albums, often rejecting interviews, and played far fewer live shows than many of their punk contemporaries. Despite this, Wipers made the jump to Enigma Records subsidiary Restless Records, one of the biggest independent labels of the time signing punk-related bands. First to be released was Sage’s solo album Straight Ahead. Sage played all acoustic, electric, and bass guitar parts, and on many songs was backed by a drummer. The next few years saw three more LPs released on Restless. 1986’s Land of the Lost featured the song “Let Me Know”, used in the Keanu Reeves film, River’s Edge. Copies of this album are highly sought-after collectibles. In 1988, then-18-year-old drummer Travis McNabb joined the band for the tour for their sixth studio album The Circle, after which the band took an extended hiatus. Sage restarted the Wipers in 1993, releasing three additional albums, Silver Sail (1993), The Herd (1996) and Power in One (1999).
In 2001, Greg Sage’s Zeno Records released Wipers Box Set, which included the first three Wipers albums, which by that time had been long out-of-print, along with additional previously-unreleased material. Jackpot Records and Sage later reissued Is This Real?, Youth of America, and Over the Edge on vinyl, utilizing the original master recordings.
Sam Henry is still an active musician in Portland, Oregon, and continues to play with popular Northwest songwriters like Pete Krebs, Morgan Grace and Jimmy Boyer. Henry also continues to perform with Napalm Beach, the band he formed with Chris Newman in the early 1980s. McNabb went on to join Better Than Ezra and work with Shawn Mullins, Howie Day and Beggars, then toured for bluegrass/country music act Sugarland. He was replaced in Wipers by Steve Plouf, who continues to work with Greg Sage and on other music projects. Plouf operates a vintage goods/Zeno Records store in Portland, appropriately named Zeno Oddities.
Influence and legacy
Sage later remarked on their initial reception: “We weren’t even really a punk band. See, we were even farther out in left field than the punk movement because we didn’t even wish to be classified, and that was kind of a new territory. … When we put out Is This Real? … it definitely did not fit in; none of our records did. Then nine, ten years later people are saying: ‘Yeah, it’s the punk classic of the ’80s.'”
Wipers became better known after the wildly popular grunge band Nirvana covered two songs from Is This Real?, “D-7” and “Return of the Rat”. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain spoke of being heavily influenced by the band. The Wipers were a major influence on the grunge music scene in general, with bands such as The Melvins, Mudhoney, and Dinosaur Jr. citing them. Wipers albums like Is This Real? and Over the Edge are now widely considered to be among the greatest and most influential punk albums of all time.
In 1992, a tribute album Eight Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers was released by the Tim/Kerr label on four colored 7-inch records, featuring Wipers songs performed by Nirvana, Hole, Napalm Beach, M99, The Dharma Bums, Crackerbash, Poison Idea, and The Whirlees. The CD release of the tribute album was called Fourteen Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers, and expanded to include covers by Hazel, Calamity Jane, Saliva Tree, Honey, Nation of Ulysses, and Thurston Moore-Keith Nealy.