What was the tipping point, though? What was the time and music where I finally got it, and sold my soul to the Indie Devil?
Well, that would be a summer afternoon when I finally found the album I’d been looking for since about April of 1986, when I first saw them mentioned in Star Hits and my British pen pal dropped one of their songs on that mixtape for me.
I found the cassette, with its hot pink spine and white norelco box, and the spandex-and-frightwig lead singer on the cover, alongside the band’s ringleader, guitarist and dual drummers, looking like something straight out of Blade Runner.
Yes, I’m talking about Sigue Sigue Sputnik and their debut album, Flaunt It. News of the band’s infamous four-million-pound signing to EMI in the UK had made its rounds in the American music magazines, and by August they’d come stateside with their ridiculous (yet ridiculously catchy) album — complete with commercials inserted between the songs. The music, now that I hear it decades later, is a cross between the aural weirdness of Suicide, the single-chord foundation of Neu!, and the twitchiness of early 80s synthpop, only it’s played by a couple of guys let loose on samplers and synthesizers and don’t quite know how to operate them correctly.
It’s gloriously amateur and exciting at the same time, as their entire shtick was to infuse science fiction into the mix, via images and soundbites from glitzy London, neon Tokyo, Blade Runner, THX 1138, the evening news (a reading of David Hinkley’s attempted subway vigilantism, among other things), and Max Headroom. The future was an apocalyptic mess, but it was damn sexy!
This ridiculousness was right in my wheelhouse.
From the moment I hit play and heard the synthetic orchestral crash opening the album version of “Love Missile F1-11”, I was completely hooked. It was so exciting, freakish, hilarious and over the top that it was enough to put the rest of my life in perspective.* That cassette followed me everywhere. I nearly wore it out and probably would have, if I hadn’t lost it later in 1987 to one of my friends!
Come September, I was a sophomore, no longer the lowest rank, and I had a fresh outlook on life. Some of my longtime friends may have thought I’d gone off the deep end or gotten all full of myself over the summer. Meeting up with my buddy Kevin again was something I was looking forward to as well — we’d crossed paths rarely over the summer, since he was a Royalston kid and too far away from it all (well, back then, anyway). He and I shared a lot of classes again, and also had the same lunch period, so we’d be like two peas in a pod. Bad jokes and puns, quoting Dr. Demento songs, and other silliness ensued on a regular basis. He probably saw the change as well. He didn’t say much about it, but apparently my more positive and outgoing attitude wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
So this is where the school newspaper comes in.
I was in a bit of a conundrum here…I did want to write for it, but I didn’t want to write reportage. I wasn’t a sports fan so I couldn’t have covered any games. I wasn’t the best at coming up with interview questions on the spot, and I was definitely no good at writing and listening at the same time. What I did offer was entertainment news, stuff that the other kids might be interested in. Pop music, movies, and whatnot.
And that autumn, I took the next step. I wrote a review of Flaunt It for the school paper. One of my first pieces of writing where I put everything into it. Oh, the Infamous War Novel was where I poured my emotions and insecurities, but this one review was where I would regale them with “DUDE. You MUST listen to this. It’s NUTS.” Or something along those lines, anyway. I was obsessed with this album, and I wanted other people to know about it.
That Friday when the paper came out, I excitedly grabbed a few copies and tore through it. My first real article I could be proud of!
And the general consensus of the review was just about as you’d expect in the halls of a small town high school in the 1980s: derision and crickets. Those who were bothered by my weirdo sense of taste made fun of me for listening to freaks in fishnets and questioned my sexuality. And the rest just shrugged, said ‘whatever’ and went on their way.
Just about what I’d expected.
But you know, my aim hadn’t been to try to fit in or make people like me for my new, improved and bizarre tastes. And maybe there was a half-serious attempt to indoctrinate others who were on the verge of letting their weirdness come out. But if anything, my real aim was to find out if anyone else in this town had the same tastes as I did.
At first I heard nothing, and that was what I’d figured. This small town was getting too small for me, damn it all! Sulking and frustrated, I turned back to the usual silliness with Kevin.
Jim approached me the following Tuesday.
“Hey, you’re Jon, right?”
Jim was a junior that I knew of and had seen around. We didn’t hang out but I knew who he was. He was one of the more outgoing students who were part of the Student Council, had been in a few school clubs, took AP classes, and got along fine with pretty much everyone.
I stopped and blinked. No one ever approached me like that. “Yeah?”
All at once he got excited. “Oh, man!” he gushed. “I saw your review last week! Me and a few of my friends saw it. I had no idea there were others here that liked the same music we do! That was a great article! Thanks for writing it!”
I stood there, dumbfounded for a few seconds.
Someone had liked my article?
Someone else knew who Sigue Sigue Sputnik was?
“Oh, that’s right,” he continued. “You know Chris, right? He says he used to hang out with you in junior high. He says he’s related somehow.”
Wait, Chris? Oh! Yeah, that kid I hung out with briefly in junior high, about two years ago! I’d seen him around. He still listened to music as much as I did?
“Yeah! I remember him.”
“So yeah! Thanks for writing up that review! We loved it!”
And with that, Jim waved and left, joining his friends at their table in the cafeteria.
Me, I just stood there for a second, trying to process what had just happened. No one outside of relatives had ever commented on my writing before, but more to the point, I had not expected such a pleased reaction from someone else in this school! I know I was the black sheep at this point, but the sudden acceptance threw me.
I may have dwelled on that — obsessed over it, more like — for the next few days, maybe even bothered Kevin about it (who took it in stride). I really wasn’t quite sure how to proceed…should I insinuate myself into this new crowd? Ingratiate myself? This was new territory for me. Or more to the point, it was new territory in that I wasn’t oblivious to whether or not I’d be accepted.
The answer to these questions came a short time later when I happened to run into Chris on the way through the cafeteria.** After a few fumbling words of introduction and small talk about the review, he was more than happy to invite me into his circle of friends.
Life was about to change.
* – Yes, I know. Basing my fifteen-year-old life on Sigue Sigue Sputnik? Really? Was I that sheltered from reality? But that’s the way I was back then — I rarely took anything in that was half-assed or didn’t immediately gel with me. This album was enough to put to rest my lingering feelings that I’d quickly outgrown my hometown already.
** – Everything happens there, doesn’t it? The layout of Athol High School makes the cafeteria a main gathering area as well as a connecting thruway between the gymnasium and auditorium and the classroom hallways. I’d run into pretty much everyone there. Come my senior year, Kevin and I would start our days in the hallway just outside the cafeteria and would chat with everyone who stopped by.