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.
FUZZBOX, SPUTNIK AND THE THE – NIGHT FLIGHT
Before there was 120 Minutes on MTV, there was Night Flight on USA Network. NF was a four-hour block on weekends that played all kinds of weird things typically aimed at the arty or creative college kids. They’d do a retrospective of a video director, or a themed show of music from Australia, or cult movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Fantastic Planet, or band overviews, or what have you.
In 1986, the show featured a mini-film based on The The’s then-new album, Infected, a collection of eight videos filmed around the world and sharing a theme of being caught in uncomfortable situations—the theme of the album. I of course taped it, partly due to having seen the video for the title song on previous NF episodes. Additionally I’d read a review of the album from a music magazine (the name of which still escapes me) and was intrigued. I’m thinking I bought the tape at Strawberries in Leominster, but I could be wrong.
About the same time, the music magazine I read, Star Hits, had made a big thing out of this new band from England called Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Their claim to fame was being signed to EMI for a Malcolm McLaren-worthy four million dollars, not to mention having a sound akin to incredibly cheesy techno and a fashion sense of frightwigs, punk and all things Bladerunner. One of my pen pals at the time, a girl from the UK, put their single “21st Century Boy” on a compilation for me. That did it—I was hooked. If I wasn’t going to be the morbid and moody Cure fan all the time, Sputnik’s Dionysian anarchy was good enough for me. Silly release! Why not?
And lastly, there was the other fun punky band I latched onto via Night Flight and Star Hits, We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!! (exclamation marks intended). This tatty foursome were like British punk girls you didn’t so much want to go out with as you knew them as friends or at least crushes. They didn’t have the best musical abilities, but damn it, they were too cute not to like! And added to that, you realized their version of punk was what resonated with you most. Not the angry stuff, not the political stuff, but this, the celebration of being yourself and having fun doing it, and to hell with everyone else!
These three albums made quite the difference to me in late 1986, because that was when I’d started to change my outlook on life. I’d started drifting away from popular Top 40 music because it was boring me…I’d drifted away from trying to fit in with the popular crowd because that was a lesson in futility. And yet I was drifting away from older friends, some I’d known since elementary school, because I’d stopped trying to fit in with them. Some of these old friendships remained, but for the most part I started drifting. I’ll be honest and say that part of it was class in nature—most of my these friends were from families that, while not exactly poor, didn’t exactly aim any higher than they were expected to. These were the people that most likely weren’t going to go to college—basically graduate high school, get a job somewhere, and start a family before they hit twenty-five. I don’t hold that against them in any way, and I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that choice–it’s just that it wasn’t me. While I fit in for the most part with their group—more like they accepted me without question, unlike the more opinionated popular crowd—I realized I was different in that I wanted and needed to aim higher than that. Part of me felt guilty of course, but part of me was relieved that I’d come to this realization.
These three albums were part of this realization, albums I’d listen to on my walkman late at night when everyone else was asleep. It was my escape into another life I could prepare myself for—the rampant silliness and anarchy of Sputnik, the willful nonconformity of Fuzzbox, or the stark, no-holds-barred reality of The The. There was an opening that made itself present to me, and all I needed to do was take it.
At the time, it was taken in baby steps, as I tended to be of the school of thinking before acting. Sometimes too much so, but at least it was in the right direction.
In the writing field, my fiction made a turn for the strange, with the Infamous War Novel I’d been writing for the last year or so started taking on darker, weirder plot twists. Newer stories such as the nightmarish Dream Weaver and the roman a clef Teenage Thunder (yes, I stole song titles for all my writing at the time) I wrote while at my job at the YMCA, cornering myself on the back steps and frantically scribbling away when I wasn’t poring over the latest music magazine.
Socially I started testing people out by throwing this music at them. Some of them understood my excitement, having older siblings that listened to the stuff, but they themselves weren’t too excited. “It’s okay, but who sings about a ‘piss-stinking shopping center’?” one of my friends said to me about The The’s “Heartland”.
It must have been late 1986 or early 1987 when I went for broke and wrote a record review of Flaunt It for the school newspaper. My only motive for doing so was that I thought it was a hilarious and fun album and I thought others might want to know about it. Sure, there was an element of showing off my newfound nonconformity, but readers could take what they wanted from it, if at all. There may have been some pushback when I submitted it, though I don’t remember either way. I’d been writing for the school paper in one way or another since junior high. It was kind of expected, considering having a reporter father.
I must have been a few days after the publication when Jim B. walked up to me, asked if I was the one who wrote the review, and proceeded to thank me profusely for it. Someone had reviewed an album that wasn’t Top 40 crap! Even more so, someone reviewed something cool with the other nonconformist kids!
I was absolutely thrilled by the payoff. Over the course of the next few days, a few others had run into me and thanked me for the review or thought it was cool. One was Chris, one of the guys I’d met briefly in junior high but had lost touch with despite our getting along like gangbusters (and, as it turns out, being distantly related). Through him and the others, I met a new circle of friends that, to my surprise, totally fit in with my new mindset. The only problem was that they were all a year ahead of me. I didn’t take that too hard at first, though…since freshman year I’d met, hung around or got in trouble with others a few years ahead of me. I’d worry when the time came.
As the 86-87 school year wound down, I started hanging out with this group almost exclusively, going over each others’ houses to play games, watch movies, and of course talk about music.
Chris and I seemed to latch onto each other the most, mostly due to our mutual love for college radio and music in general. In a way he was the cool older brother I didn’t have. Every now and again we’d meet up, compare each other’s latest music purchases, and dub them if we could. We were both part of the music club crowd, so we’d be really bad influences sometimes, ordering albums we didn’t have the money for.
This new group of friends I had ended up running into each other or hanging out over the course of the summer. We’d go to movies, hang out at Hampshire Mall, and have all sorts of fun. And for me this was important because these guys were the class geeks, the upper rank of students. We didn’t always talk about mundane things—we had all sorts of intellectual conversations. Even when I was lost and resigned myself to just listening, it was a change from the teen soap opera conversations I’d hear with others in my own class.
By late 1987, this was my new circle of friends, and ones I’d cherish for a long time. I would probably need to thank those three bands—The The, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and Fuzzbox—for being a catalyst for getting us together.
13-16 September 2010