Again, I blame the Beatles.
By the early 80s, I had most of their discography, with only a few holes here and there. Minor things like obscure b-sides. I would branch out to the solo discographies around the same time. Most of them were relatively easy to find, as they were still in print and selling. Paul’s was the easiest, as his output was large and consistent; John’s wasn’t that hard either, as he’d stopped recording in 1975 with only the Double Fantasy album and singles to follow up on; George and Ringo’s albums and singles were somewhat harder to find, but not exactly difficult if one knew where to look for them.
Which meant going to specialty shops! My father knew of one in Worcester that sold both comics and records that called itself That’s Entertainment, and that’s where I finally found (but did not buy) John and Yoko’s elusive experimental noise albums, Two Virgins, Life with the Lions and Wedding Album. But more importantly, that’s where I found (and bought!) my first Beatles bootleg entitled Casualties. It’s a takeoff of the legit Rarities compilation from 1980, containing an equal amount of outtakes (demos, alternate takes) and outfakes (mixes created by the bootlegger that aren’t entirely legit). These bootlegs let me hear my favorite band in a new light, hearing the fantastic early version of “I Am the Walrus” sans the sound effects and strings, a decade before it would show up on the Anthology compilation.
That in itself spawned another treasure hunt: to find more Beatle bootlegs! This would prove harder than expected, but it would also expand my knowledge of used record stores. Over the next few years I’d make it a leisurely pursuit. Since most of these records were expensive at nearly twenty bucks a pop, I could only purchase them if and when I had the money. I was still looking for them around 1985 and 1986 when my dad brought me to a store called Al Bum’s in downtown Amherst, not that far from the UMass and Amherst College campuses.
Al Bum’s was a dusty, grimy indie record store that knew its base really well. In the mid 80s, students were still dithering between cassettes and vinyl, and though cds were becoming more widely available, they hadn’t yet taken over the store’s main floor yet. Al Bum’s cassette wall was similar to the one at the Strawberries chain in Leominster, in that it took up most of the back wall and was semi-blocked by a wall of sheet plastic. Big fist-sized holes in the barrier let you take the tape out of its cubbyhole so you could look at it, but not be able to pull it (and its plastic security box) out of its section. You had to drop it down — risking cracking the cassette case itself — and it would ride a well-worn conveyor belt up to the front register. In the case of Al Bum’s, however, it looked as though that process had broken down quite some time ago. If you wanted a tape, you had to flag down a manager or let the register jockey know you wanted something.
It was also your store for music posters as well. Sure, you’d see the Bon Jovi and Duran Duran posters at the mall stores, but Al Bum’s was where you went for that Smiths poster you saw in Pretty in Pink, or that dayglo Bob Marley poster that looked so cool under a black light. For Christmas in 1986 my sister bought me a ridiculously large poster of the Cure which took up half the west wall of my bedroom. It stayed there until I brought it to college where it finally fell to pieces from wear.
I’d gone to other indie stores before…but this was the first one where I was actively looking for the music I was hearing. I didn’t buy a lot of it at that time — not yet, anyway — as I was really doing a lot of casing out while still wanting to buy those bootlegs.
As it happens, I only bought maybe six or seven of those total. It was mainly a cost thing: did I really want to spend twenty dollars on a record that may or may not be of good quality?
So — back to regular music purchasing. That is, buying the pop music I still listened to. I could easily find those anywhere, from the Mars department store, or the Music Forum downtown, or the chain stores at the malls. [I should also add the flea markets and the tag sales my dad and I would frequent on Sunday afternoons. I found some great tapes and vinyl super cheap that way.] I even joined the RCA Record Club for a while. And in the spirit of the time, I continued my habit of creating ‘radio tapes’ to add to the songs in my collection.
And now that I had a newer personal stereo and a mini boombox, both with tape players, I was able to listen to these tapes whenever and wherever.
Around 1985 or so, I’d started giving them names — silly, K-Tel-inspired names borrowed from one of the featured songs on the tape — and even made an attempt at keeping the theme and flow consistent, just like that label’s well-known mix albums.
Looking back on these radio tapes now, I’m kind of amused at how eclectic my tastes were, even then. There would be a 12-inch remix of ABC’s “How to Be a Millionaire” followed by Wham!’s “I’m Your Man” followed by INXS’ “This Time” and ending with Dire Straits’ “Industrial Disease”. That was the mix of the day, really, even on pop stations. It wasn’t until 1986 or so that the truly pop productions (thank you, Stock Aitken Waterman) came in with their Linn drum beats and moon-June lyrics of love found or lost (or parties having or heading towards). That was the thing: once the synth and the technology became cheaper and easier to buy and use, the Brills That Be saw an easy path to the top of the charts with catchy and fun music that might be great at the clubs (or in my case, the school gym floor), but was certainly far from being music meant to last. It’s great for having fun, but it certainly doesn’t have the longevity.]
This is why I was still listening to pop radio for most of the mid-80s, even after I discovered college radio. I wholeheartedly agree, it was good fun, and despite some of it not aging well at all over the years, it was tied to the lighter aspects of my social life, such as they were.