In 1996, the Spice Girls had their first number 1 hit with “Wannabe”. The big screen was being dominated by films such as “Independence Day”, “Twister” and “Mission Impossible”. Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole and Ross Perot in the US presidential elections. Dolly the sheep was the first animal to be successfully cloned. IBM’s “Deep Blue” defeated Chess Champion Gary Kasparov for the first time (clearing the way for Skynet). And, amongst all of this, “the biggest band nobody’s ever heard of” released their debut album.
How much you know about Dispatch depends on if you’re a fan or not. If you’re a fan, you know everything about the band. If you’re not, it’s likely you know next to nothing. As Brad Corrigan, one of Dispatch’s three singers and multi-instrumentalists said, “there never seems to be any middle ground there”.
For those who aren’t fans though, the cliff notes version is this:
Pete “Francis” Heimbold, Chad “Stokes” Urmston and Brad “Braddigan” Corrigan, grouped together while attending Middleburgy College during the early 1990s – initially called “One Fell Swoop”, they changed their name in 1996 to “Dispatch”. They released their debut album, “Silent Steeples”, that same year, and followed up with “Bang Bang” in 1998, and “Four Day Trials” in 1999. The music is impossible to stick in a box, and over time wandered between indie, folk, rock, Afropop, reggae, jam, roots and everything in between.
Here’s the thing though: throughout their entire career (at least, the first phase of it), Dispatch never managed to receive any significant radio play. Fiercely independent, the band grew organically, with no label, no support – just a beat up van named “Wimpy”, that they would drive throughout the night to get to their next gig. In the period of a year and a half they went from being a band made up of a bunch of guys, jamming in their lounge room, to performing in front of 500 people, to 5000 people. Within two years, things had moved from no-one knowing their name, to suddenly having promoters coming up to them wanting to book stadiums.
Despite having opportunities to sign with a major, the band didn’t want to go down that route. They were proud of the the band’s independence, and didn’t want anything to compromise their relationship with their fans. More than once, Chad has remarked of their fans that, “the people who listened to the music were the only ones who really understood us.”
Dispatch was a band that blew up as a result of file-sharing; specifically, Napster. Napster was essentially Dispatch’s distribution network. They’d show up at a show with no copies of their records being out there, but still have 500 kids, there singing their lyrics. It’s a
surreal growth, that later on would be mimicked by the growth of people on Youtube and Myspace (Justin Bieber, Lilly Allen, etc), but Dispatch were really one of the first bands that stood out as a success that was “social media” driven.
As a result of this growth, when Dispatch decided to call it quits in 2004, their farewell show at the Hatch Shell in Boston attracted 110,000 fans from over 20 countries worldwide, making it one of the biggest independent music events in history – again, this is all without any significant radio coverage. And when the band reunited nine years later for a benefit show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden to raise funds for Zimbabwean humanitarian efforts, the show sold out in 23 minutes – marking Dispatch as the first independent band to sell out the storied venue. They then announced two more shows—both of which took a little longer to sell out… all of 30 minutes.
All of this is to illustrate that when Brad Corrigan calls the band “the biggest band nobody’s ever heard of”, it’s not gross hyperbole. It’s a statement of fact, and one that engenders fierce loyalty in their fans. And it all started, with 1996’s debut release, “Silent Steeples”.
When I first heard Silent Steeples, the year was 1999, and I was still living in South Africa. At the time, I was working at a video store – one of the best jobs of all time, purely because I could play whatever music I wanted to in the store. Ben Harper, Bob Schneider, The Low Life, Stabilo Boss, Third Eye Blind and more were my staples. The video store was in Umhlanga, a coastal town in the province of Natal. A haven for surfers, Umhlanga at the time was very much the type place that had the laid-back vibe where everything revolved around the beach. In the next 5 years, it would become built up and lost some of that small “coastal town” feel, but at the end of the 90s and early 2000s, it was a place where pretty much everyone knew everyone. And when I started spinning “Silent Steeples” at that video store in Umhlanga… well, life took a turn. Pretty girls started asking me who the band playing over the sound system was. Surfer dudes would come in to the store, and end up staying 20 minutes, just jamming to the tunes. The album literally led to friendships being made in that store, which very few albums can lay claim to.
In the early 2000s, I joined a band. Together, we listened to Dispatch, and we started covering various Dispatch tunes, intermingled with our own original songs. And, you know, somehow we became kind of popular, in a “big fish in a small pond” sort of way. After being somewhat shy during my school years, being in a band that became somewhat well-known in the area led to some dalliances with some very lovely girls, the kind of romances that I had always thought were reserved for guys much cooler than I was. And through these various relationships of tender kisses and fumbled touches, Dispatch was the soundtrack. The guys (and in particular, Silent Steeples) soundtracked my transition into adulthood, from finishing school, through to finding who I was as a person outside of those walls, to girls and love and loss and jobs and friends. A more innocent time, when girls taking off their clothes was still new; when your skin fit just right, and the world was just big enough that you could see the possibilities, but just small enough that you still felt safe.
I guess what I’m saying is, you either experienced this album, or you didn’t. It’s very much an album that’s a product of its time, which is why at the beginning of this piece I talked about things that happened in 1996, and now I’ve talked about where I found myself when listening to this album. The best albums aren’t those that live outside of the rest of your life’s circumstances, but those that become entwined with those circumstances. Listening to Silent Steeples now, I cannot listen to it without feeling like I’m in that video store, waiting for my shift to end so I can go set up for our next gig.
I’m older now, but this album takes me back. And just sometimes, you’re ok with that wave taking you out to sea.
Now I’m older, now much older
And this wave can take me out to sea
I feel the pull beneath my feet
But I can see her, she is calling
I can feel her there…I can feel her there
waiting for the fingers of the grey wave
or his mother’s hand to roll over him
with endless water…10,000 bridges
Show me father.”