Indeed, what was this?
No commercials, no flashy filler. No growly masculine voiceover, no sexy feminine voiceover. Just a voice off the street. And something about the music — it was hard to describe, but it was like a step backward, but in a good way. A very good way. There was something truthful about what I was hearing. The focus was on the sound and the mood, and the lyrics were far from the moon/June pop or the party-all-night rock. It wasn’t music written for the charts, and it was refreshing.
Another batch of songs later and I finally got my answer: I was listening to WMUA 91.1, a college radio station based at University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
College radio! So this was what it sounded like!
I wasn’t completely ignorant of it…I had one sister just graduating from college and another about to attend, so I knew such stations existed. Most of the more serious music magazines like Rolling Stone and the like would often mention these punk bands in passing that I’d never hear on other stations. I was familiar with WMUA as well, having occasionally heard it in the background whenever we drove down through the Pioneer Valley. The reason I’d never actually paid attention to college radio before then was simple: most of those stations rarely came in up my way. Our house was in a valley, and the nearest college was a good thirty or so miles away. I’d need a really good antenna or at least a radio with a strong receiver if I was going to get anything in.*
I listened to the station for a good hour or two that night, getting the feel of what they were playing. It was quite an eclectic mix; sometimes loud and punky, other times quiet and melodic. I’ll admit it wasn’t exactly a jaw-dropping, eye-opening, mind-blowing event. It was more a revelation. I’d heard of this genre in passing, and now I was finally experiencing it for the first time. I do in fact remember three songs from that night:
The first two were Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” and “Add It Up.” The almost feminine, not quite fey voice of Gordon Gano’s delivery was not exactly the kind of singing voice you’d hear on American Top 40. Musically they were sparse and dirty, tight but frenetic, and not exactly something you’d share with your parents. I was drawn to the hint of Isley Brothers with the former (with its progressively quieter delivery on a later verse only to burst out in the chorus), and the a capella introduction of the latter (I’ll admit I thought it was an old lady singing when I first heard it), and when I finally got a dubbed copy of the album some months later, it was on heavy rotation for years afterwards.**
The third song was by a band called The Cure, and the song in question was “A Forest”. Brooding, spooky, and full of reverb, it was the first song in years that struck me so viscerally: I wasn’t just lying in my darkened bedroom, listening to the radio with my headphones…I was also deep in the woods surrounding my house, in the dead of night, completely aware of my cold and dangerous surroundings. I’d based images in the IWN on songs I knew, but this was the first time an image came to me unbidden and unexpected.
I had to investigate this music further.
* – This was tested a day or so later when I tried to get WMUA on my min boombox. It came in ever so faintly, just enough that I’d have to pump the volume up considerably and hope for the best. A short time and a quick run to Radio Shack later, I had a six-foot retractable antenna on it, and I was in business!
** – I was quite amused when it got a well-deserved nudge in popularity over a decade later thanks to John Cusack’s film Grosse Point Blank. This album is considered a must-have in anyone’s collection.