When I started my research for the Walk in Silence project last year, I’d decided to write some personal notes and reflections on how college radio affected me in the late 80′s. It was a brief overview of what I want to cover in this book that lasted for twenty-five installments, a sort of a detailed outline of memories, thoughts on influential (to me) bands and albums, friendships, and such. I’ll be posting these sporadically on the site over the next few weeks or so.
My parents were enablers. Well, that, and I was insistent that they buy me such-and-such’s album. Still, it wasn’t in a bad way that they enabled my music addition. When we went shopping at the local mall, I’d gravitate to the music stores while my mom shopped for clothes and my dad spent his time in the bookstores. They didn’t mind that I went alone, because they knew that’s where I’d be and where I’d stay until they came to get me.
My first collection, of course, was the Beatles. After receiving the Blue Album (1967-1970) as a Christmas gift, I started my search for Beatles albums I needed to complete the discography. They came from varied areas—Help! came from my uncle, Abbey Road and a few others from the local department stores, still others from tag sales, flea markets, and elsewhere. The Beatles were the first band where I went out of my way to acquire a complete discography (including various bootlegs). It wasn’t enough to get the US catalog that was available at the time…I had to find the rare b-sides like “The Inner Light” and “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”…the ones that hadn’t been released elsewhere.
Once I started actively listening to music—sometime around 1981 or 1982—and more to the point, around the time I’d started taping stuff off the radio (1983-4 or so), that’s when I really started the collecting thing.
Part of it was due to acquiring various music reference books or taking them out of the library, and part of it was due to the info on new releases that radio deejays would give out. Most of it was from the books, though. And once I started listening to college radio, a lot of it came from a copy of the Trouser Press record guide form the local library (and then my own, once I found it at a book store).
Once I had all this info, I would wonder what those albums sounded like—not to mention what the covers looked like, since the stores in my town obviously never carried them. That sort of sparked, or at least fed, the mystique of college radio as something nocturnal [more on that later].
About 1984 onwards, my dad would let me buy an album or a cassette or two while on our roadtrips. Most of them were popular, easy-to-find titles like Purple Rain, Born in the USA and so on. It wasn’t until 1986, after I started listening to college radio, that the collecting really kicked in. One of the first acquisitions was the cassette version of The Cure’s Standing on a Beach—the one with the b-sides on it. I figured that would be a good place to start. (Amusingly enough, when I heard “Let’s Go to Bed”, I immediately remembered that song from the early days of MTV. Small world, and that wasn’t the last time that would happen.) That soon led to other first acquisitions—The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow (found at a record store in North Adams), Depeche Mode’s “Shake the Disease” single (found in a cutout bin at a K-Mart in Leominster!), and others.
Truthfully, I really had no real idea who to look for, since I was new to the genre. I basically looked for who I recognized from Trouser Press (or was mentioned in Star Hits, the teen music magazine I read at the time), or who I heard on college radio or on Night Flight and later on 120 Minutes. That would explain why I gravitated towards the more well-known of the bands—The Cure, Depeche Mode, and The Smiths.
Another way of collecting was via those record clubs one used to see advertised in TV Guide and in newspaper inserts. I believe RCA was the first one I joined, sometime around early 1987. By then I had a few part-time jobs—one had been at Victory Supermarket downtown, and later at the local YMCA. What little funds I got from that job that didn’t go into a savings account went to my pocket. That was my money for music magazines, candy, and the occasional cassette or LP, and also the money used so I could pay off the music club. I bought a small number of albums and ordered things for my sisters as well. One early purchase from them was World Party’s Private Revolution on cassette. I believe I also snagged a few albums on vinyl that were on sale.
I quit RCA around late 1987 when my friend Chris tried to get extra albums by signing his friends (read: me and a few others) to join Columbia House. I decided to join that one basically because it had a better selection—that is, RCA was more mainstream and CH was more adventurous in their selection. I stayed with them until college started, I believe, and finally quite for good sometime in 1991.
Back to stores—I spent most of my money at the mall stores, simply because they were more accessible. The Strawberries at Searstown Mall in Leominster had a great selection (I’d buy many major-label titles there like Music for the Masses, Love Hysteria, Flaunt It (the vinyl version), and so on). There were two at separate ends of the Hampshire Mall in Hadley—the one at the western end next to JC Penney (whose name I’ve forgotten) had a great selection. I remember being pleasantly surprised (and the cashier indifferent) when I found Love Tractor’s This Ain’t No Outerspace Ship on cassette there, soon after I heard it on WMUA.
My foray into the independent stores came early, specifically when I started looking for Beatles bootlegs. That’s Entertainment in Worcester was one such place my Dad took me in the early 80s. That was a neat store, because it carried a lot of their hard-to-find solo albums, like the early pre-Plastic Ono Band discs that John Lennon did with Yoko.
I think it must have been soon after I started listening to college radio that my dad brought me to Al Bum’s—first to the one on in Worcester, then to the one in Amherst—and soon after that, to Main Street Records in Northampton. Al Bum’s was a local mini-chain of new and used titles, and definitely catered to the college crowd. And since we didn’t go to Worcester as much as we did the Pioneer Valley (mostly due to ease of driving there), so the one in Amherst became a hangout. I found a few Beatles boots there, and later many alt.rock titles I’d been looking for.
By association, we also went to a storefront that was originally an outlet of a Noho store called Faces. That store in particular carried the usual proto-Hot Topic clothes and accessories (I was into silly pins back then, as everyone was). In the back, there was a small record store-within-a-store (sort of like the old fashioned Five and Dimes) called For the Record.
It was here that once I’d started buying more college rock titles, I’d find some great titles to add to my collection. One was Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s Flaunt It which I’d heard about through Star Hits. Another was The The’s Soul Mining, which I’d picked up after buying Infected elsewhere (possibly at a mall store). Flaunt It would end up being one of my life-changing purchases (so to speak), as not only did the music excite me and inspire my rebellious streak, I’d meet a whole new group of friends after writing a review of it in the school paper [more on that later as well].
Once I started hanging with that group, it became a weekend thing to drive down to Amherst and/or Northampton to hang out. These people were just shy of a year from graduating high school, so they of course gravitated to the Five College area (instead of roadtrips to, say, Keene or Leominster or Worcester). The Valley’s ambience grabbed us and fit our mindsets perfectly.
We made Al Bum’s our second home, as well as Main Street Records. Not to say that’s all we did, of course—we did go to the movies, eat out (the Panda East in Amherst was a favorite), and basically hung out, like any high school group. Just that mine had a few core members who were as big on the music as I was, and we gravitated to the music stores most of the time.
Of course, the collecting wasn’t always about buying. In our own way we were guilty of ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’ by borrowing each others’ tapes and vinyl, and dubbing them onto cheaply bought blank tapes we’d buy at Radio Shack or the department store or wherever. It almost became a ritual to let each other know who had what and borrow it throughout the course of the year. For the most part we were good about it, borrowing on a Friday and getting it back to them on a Monday. By the time my friends graduated high school, we were dubbing in earnest, trying to level off each others’ collections before everyone left in the fall.
At that point, in the late 80s, my penchant for collecting wasn’t as intense as it was later on…I was content to search for albums and not every single minutiae that got released.
August 31 – September 10, 2010