Every once in a while, I’ll discover an album that makes me think, “where the hell has this been my entire life?” The most recent addition to that list of mine is Steve Hiett’s Down On The Road By The Beach, a dreamy ambient pop record from 1983. Initially only available in Japan through CBS records, it’s found a resurgence in recent years thanks to two labels which reissued it together back in 2019 – Efficient Space and Be With Records.
Steve Hiett was mostly known for his photography work – shooting musicians for Rolling Stone in the ‘70s before moving to Paris and focusing on fashion photography. While discussing the logistics of a solo exhibit at a Tokyo art gallery, he asked if he could record a 7” to include with the gallery catalogue – and the next thing he knew, he had been offered a record deal with CBS Japan.
The music on Down On The Road… matches the album art to a T. Breezy guitars and the occasional drowned out vocals practically transport you to a chair on the beach. Equal parts ambient guitar and city pop grooves, Hiett sounds uniquely ahead of his time, as many of these tracks remind me of modern indie acts. For instance, the track “The Next Time” sounds like it could easily be an instrumental on a Mac Demarco album.
Other tracks, such as “Long Distance Look” or album closer “Standing There” would fit on a Brian Eno ambient guitar record – think Apollo, which was released the same year, but instead of in space you’re in the ocean.. Hiett somehow transforms the Chuck Berry classic “Roll Over, Beethoven” into a hazy beach rock tune that works really well.
While it’s romantic to think of modern indie acts finding this obscure LP in a dollar bin somewhere, that’s likely not the case – songwriters like Mac Demarco could have easily arrived at their current sound of hypnagogic pop through other means, while Hiett’s material remained virtually unknown until this recent run of reissues. Still, Down On The Road… sounds ahead of it’s time – and is perfect for a hazy summer walk down the lakefront.