So how does one investigate new music in the mid-80s, when the internet as we currently know it didn’t even exist? How does one research a genre when all its available outlets are so slim? Well — thankfully, I had a local library and a magazine stand next door to it, both of which I’d already frequented for years.
The magazine stand, an old and dusty storefront with squeaky wooden floors, a basement stockroom and enough penny candy behind a glass case to feed us kids for years at a time, Norm’s Smoker was the one stop shop for dads and kids — the candy case, the cigars and cigarettes, the magazines and the comic books, and a dented and well-worn metal soda cooler. I used to pick up my Archie digests here and a little later on, issues of the comic book The ‘Nam, but after my musical awakening, I needed to find quality music magazines to peruse.
My family had a subscription to Rolling Stone in the early 80s but let it lapse, but I’d continued to read it at the library for free. Spin had launched in May of 1985, so I started reading that one as well. And in a completely leftfield move for me, I started picking up Star Hits, which had started up in late 1984. Star Hits was more of a teen magazine, but due to its tight relation to the UK — it originated as a British pop mag nearly a decade earlier as Smash Hits, and contained nearly all the same content. That’s what appealed to me; Star Hits pointed out to me that the general idea of popular music in the US was much, much different than in the UK. Pop, to me, was informed by what was on the Top 40 countdowns and on MTV. There was a lot of bleedover, of course, but there were a lot of stark differences as well. It was Star Hits that told me about The Cure and The Smiths and Depeche Mode — three now-giants of 80s alternative rock, but hardly heard of in Podunk, USA at the time, even if they were on major labels by 1986.*
At the library, I was blessed to have found a 1985 edition of Ira Robbins’ Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records, which became my musical bible over the newxt few years. I took that book out so many times and pored over it so obsessively that I finally had my parents special-order it from the Waldenbooks in Leominster for me.
Sure, I’d seen record guides before. I owned a few cheap ones that were little more than info scrapes from glossy magazines and the most minimal of discography information. There were the dry ones that focused on 50s and 60s rock (and kind of petered out come the 70s). And there were the Rolling Stone-related ones that mainly focused on the more popular rock bands of the last decade or so.
Trouser Press, on the other hand, was a godsend! Based on Robbins’ love for British music (and his previous fanzine of the same name, which he’d edited for the last decade), this tome was exactly what I was looking for. Between those well-worn covers I found a solid (if not always complete) discography of hundreds of bands I would need to familiarize myself with. I bought myself a small index card box and snagged a bunch of 3×5 cards from my dad’s bin and set to work copying out all the albums I’d need to look for the next time we were near a record store.
Was it as immediate as all that? Well, not really. It was more of a slow morphing. I was still listening to commercial radio well until around 1987 or so. First off, I understood that some college stations went off the air at the end of the semester. Even though I had discovered that station in April, I knew I only had a few more weeks of listening before it would disappear on me.
That left me with the summer of 1986, fending for myself. I’d recently started an after-school job at the local YMCA as a hall monitor, which really meant a few hours of walking around the building, cleaning things and making sure the kids didn’t injure themselves or goof off too long after their swimming classes ended (and let me tell you, I had to do a lot of barking to make sure they got to their awaiting parents upstairs!).
It was here of all places, during the drudgery of having run out of things to clean and monitor, that I hatched my plan of branching out. What else was I going to do? Walk around listlessly? Sure, I could have shot hoops or hung out at the front desk. All I had to do was make an appearance in front of the boss a few times, the rest was up to me.
So, I did two things: I read my issues of Star Hits when they came out, and I wrote. I perched myself at the foot of the back stairway with one of my notebooks and did a LOT of writing. The first attempt at consistent writing, actually. It was also when the Infamous War Novel got a major boost. Thanks to my new music discovery, weirder and darker ideas were starting to emerge. You can see a marked difference about a third of the way through, where the plot is less about the war going on and more about the lead character’s psyche as it slowly started to disintegrate.
One of the first purchases I made came at a perfect time — only a few short weeks later, The Cure released a major-label compilation of their singles thus far, entitled Standing on a Beach. This was exactly what I was looking for! This was a perfect starting point: jump in with both feet with a greatest hits package! SoaB got a crapton of play on my tape players within the first six months of its release, but amusingly its first play was in the family car the day I bouht it. Heh — little did my family know what they were in for! They already knew I was a music geek, thanks to my prodding for an allowance of sorts so I could buy albums. I bought it at Musicland down at Hampshire Mall in Hadley, specifically on cassette because it contained an extra twelve songs that were all b-sides. The drive back was…interesting, considering. Me grooving to this weird music, and my family squirming and side-eying me. The best bit though was hearing “Let’s Go to Bed”, where both me and one of my sisters suddenly realized we’d heard the track before: it had gotten some minor airtime in the early days of MTV, usually alongside Duran Duran.
The next purchase was Depeche Mode’s Catching Up with Depeche Mode (their US counterpart to the UK Singles 81-85), another greatest hits mix I could familiarize myself with. As with the Cure album, I was already familiar with one of its featured tracks; in this case it was their minor breakthrough hit “People Are People”, which had even made an appearance on American Top 40.
From there? It was a matter of searching.
And thus started a VERY long journey in the search for alternative rock.
* – In fact, at one point all three were on Sire Records. [The Smiths and Depeche Mode were on Sire in the US for the entirety of the 80s; The Cure released The Top, Japanese Whispers and most of their 1982-84 singles via Sire in the US.] This just goes to show that Seymour Stein, its cofounder, and signer of other classic alt.rock bands like Pretenders, Ramones, Talking Heads and Echo & the Bunnymen, was a true visionary for the alternative rock genre. It’s said he was even the one who gave it the original name of ‘new wave’.