So. New friends, new outlook, new music. My teenage life certainly had changed within the span of a year or two. I wasn’t going to complain.
Between autumn 1986 and autumn 1987, my music collection expanded — more like exploded — thanks to Amherst and Northampton’s used record shops, the mall stores in Hadley and Leominster, the RCA and Columbia House music clubs, and a hell of a lot of blank tapes.
UMass Amherst’s station, WMUA, was back on the air, and it became a late night staple for me after a day’s listening to the AOR of WMDK and WRSI, or the pop and rock of WAAF and WAQY. And I’d also just discovered their neighbor, WAMH 89.3 at Amherst College, so they were added to my late night listening lineup. That November, I made it a point to start making radio tapes of those college stations. Unlike the pop/rock radio tapes I’d made, however, I’d wait for the right moment, hit record, and just let the tape run for a good half hour or forty-five minutes. I heard songs and bands new and old; punk bands from the 70s and post-punk bands from the 80s; classics and obscurities; titles and names I should know. The Church. The Go-Betweens. Sonic Youth. Felt. The Only Ones. This Mortal Coil. Billy Bragg. The Woodentops. Peter Murphy. Danielle Dax. Love Tractor. The Damned. Bauhaus. Butthole Surfers. Hüsker Dü. Robyn Hitchcock. The Mighty Lemon Drops. The Chameleons UK. Love and Rockets.
I had a lot of catching up to do.
The easiest, of course, were the bands on major labels. This meant the Smiths and Depeche Mode, both of whom were on Sire; The Cure, who’d recently inked a deal with Elektra and would be re-releasing their back catalog soon; REM, who were at this point still on IRS but had a large following in collegiate New England and thus were easy to find. I could pick those up at Strawberries or Musicland at my leisure.
It was the others that started the thrill of the hunt. Knowing which mall stores were ‘cool’ enough to carry certain titles. Strawberries in Leominster had quite a large selection and gave me a better chance at finding items. Musicland in Hadley was somewhat smaller but still catered to the Pioneer Valley college crowd. The other music store in that mall (whose name I no longer remember, due to it changing multiple times) carried quite a few independent labels. Al Bum’s in Amherst carried imports, as did Main Street Music in Northampton.
That’s a good point right there — catering to the college crowd. New England (and specifically Massachusetts) is unique in this respect, due to the extremely high number of schools of higher learning, both in the Boston area and in the Pioneer Valley. College radio stations were not exactly a huge scene per se; they were more like one of New England’s best kept secrets.
Bob Mould mentions this in his book See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody —
“[Hüsker Dü] were quickly discovering that the East Coast had a unique mentality that might be summed up best in two words: college rock. A lot of it came down to the clustering of high-quality schools in the Northeast, particularly in the Boston area, where the tour took us next. There were many more college radio stations in the Northeast than in the Midwest, and they gave rise to the likes of the Bongos, Violent Femmes, and the dBs, bands who had a more accessible, more melodic sound than hardcore.”
Most college radio stations in this area did play their share of hardcore, of course. WMUA and WAMH were where I first heard Sonic Youth, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and so on. But their playlist was vast and varied: they were stations where I learned about industrial and its danceable offshoot EBM (electronic body music), with bands such as Ministry, Nitzer Ebb, Front 242 and D.A.F.; the ambient classic 4AD Records sound with Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and This Mortal Coil; the snotty goofball punk of The Dead Milkmen and the demented noise of Butthole Surfers. They were all champions of local bands: Dinosaur Jr., Pixies, Mission of Burma, Moving Targets, The Neighborhoods, Throwing Muses.* And especially: most emphatically, even, the sounds of British indie rock of The Cure, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Fuzzbox, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Wire, and more.
New England college radio played it all, and some of it was due to the fact that there really wasn’t that large of a physical scene to go along with it. There were nightclubs in Boston and in the Amherst/Hadley/Noho area, of course, but that was just it — they were in the college centers, but not anywhere else. Especially not out in my home town, that was for sure. The rest of us had to make do with the soundtrack and forgo the scene.
And that suited me just fine.
* – This could merit its own entry (or multiple entries), to tell the truth. Massachusetts has always had a fascinating music scene, both in the commercial and independent scenes. For every well known rock band out of New England (i.e., Aerosmith, The Cars, Boston, The J Geils Band, ‘Til Tuesday, all the way up to the present with Passion Pit — a band from my alma mater, Emerson College), there’s hundreds of local heroes like Tribe, Heretix, Caspian, Guster, The Lemonheads, and more. Go check out Brett Milano’s The Sound of Our Town and Carter Alan’s Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN for excellent histories on the local scenes.