The Wipers were a punk rock group formed in Portland, Oregon in 1977 by guitarist Greg Sage, drummer Sam Henry and bassist Dave Koupal. Wipers were one of the earliest American purveyors of the genre, and the group's tight song structure and use of heavy distortion has been hailed as extremely influential by numerous critics and musicians, including Nirvana, who covered several of their songs.
The idea behind the Wipers started off as only a recording project. The plan was to record 15 LPs in 10 years without touring or promotion of any type. Sage's thoughts were that the mystique built from the lack of playing the traditional rock & roll promotion game 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, interviews. He looked at music as art rather than entertainment; with that concept in mind he thought music was personal to the listener rather than a commodity.
"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."
Greg Sage's first choice of instrument was bass guitar, because of the low tones that made larger grooves in the vinyl records due to slower modulations. Unfortunately, basses were harder to find and much more expensive when Sage was in grade school, so he had to go with guitar instead. After several years of playing and recording guitar he felt he 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, manufacture and run his own label himself without anyone else's financing to keep it as pure and unfiltered as possible. In fact, in 1979, Sage approached several young 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 re-released some of that material on a compilation record entitled The History Of Portland Punk.
It was soon found out that it was almost impossible to fulfill this idea: most labels did not want to accept this kind of a game as music was, first of all, business to them. Being such an independent artist was an oddity. Sage says he learned that it is almost impossible to be a true artist in the sense of the meaning he started off with and that survival was to learn to compromise. That was the reason why Sage wanted The Circle album to be the last Wipers album.
In spite of the original idea, Wipers used to play live shows and even released a live album, called Wipers Live.
Wipers' first single, Better Off Dead was released in 1978 on Sage's own Trap Records. Their first album, Is This Real?, came out the following year on Park Avenue Records, a bigger label that the band hoped would get them wider distribution. Originally recorded on a 4-track in the band's rehearsal studio, the label insisted 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.
In 1980, Park Avenue released the 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. In fact, Wipers never received royalties from these early releases until Sage's Zeno Records reissued them as a triple-CD 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." Following a dispute over the cover art for their second LP, Youth of America, Wipers parted ways with Park Avenue for good.
Though Is This Real? defied categorization upon its release, its catchy, driving punk anthems are now regarded as post-punk classics. Uninterested in more of the same, Sage tweaked and evolved the band's sound with each subsequent release. Sage 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 epically expansive, solo-driven title track and generally longer song lengths, 1981's Youth of America stands in sharp contrast to the short/fast punk approach of the time. The next LP, the militant, distortion-drenched Over the Edge, was the first Wipers record to meet with immediate acceptance. The single "Romeo", which had already been released on 7" by Trap, actually got some airplay. The band then embarked on their first extensive tour, documented on the excellent 1984 Live LP.
Many of the recording techniques and musical equipment was 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.
In the mid-80's, 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, one being the 1986 classic Land Of The Lost which featured the song "Let Me Know", which was used in the Keanu Reeves film, River's Edge. Copies of this album are highly soughtafter collectables. In 1988, then-18-year-old drummer Travis McNabb joined the band for the tour for the album The Circle. He went on to join Better Than Ezra and work with Shawn Mullins, Howie Day and Beggars, members of which later formed Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
Wipers broke up for the first time at the end of the eighties. In the early nineties, Sage relocated to Arizona and released a second solo record. He revived Wipers to record 3 more albums with rotating line-ups in the 90's, although he turned down the offer to open for "grunge" mega-stars Nirvana. Wipers' swan-song was 1999's Power in One.
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. Sam also continues to perform with Napalm Beach, the band he formed with Chris Newman in the early '80s. Travis was replaced by Steve Plouf who continues to work with Greg Sage and on other music projects. Steve operates a vintage goods/Zeno Records store in Portland Oregon appropriately named 'Zeno Oddities'.
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 (Tim Kerr Records) was released on four colored 7-inch records, and included 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.
In 2001, Greg Sage?s Zeno Records released a Wipers Box Set, which included the first three Wipers albums, which by that time had been long out-of-print, with additional never-before-released material.
Recently Jackpot Records and Greg have reissued Is This Real?, Youth of America, and Over the Edge on vinyl records, utilizing the original master recordings.