One Epic Release Day, 30 Years Ago

It’s not often that we put importance on an album release date.  When it is, it’s usually for a single album that’s considered a historical artifact, like 2 June 1967 with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, or 9 March 1987 with U2’s The Joshua Tree.

But on 28/29 September 1987, we were treated with not one but four excellent albums that many consider a vital part of the 80s alternative rock movement.

First, we had a newbie:  Pixies’ debut EP on 4AD, Come On Pilgrim.

We all know the story behind the band by now…two UMass Amherst students (Frank Black and Joey Santiago) start up a noisy band and move to Boston; a smartass ad in the local paper pulls in exactly one audition, one Kim Deal; a friend of a friend, David Lovering, is chosen as drummer. Their off-kilter mix of punk, surf, folk and who knows what else is both frightening and intriguing. Ivo Watts-Russell is convinced signing them to his label is a bizarre move, and yet…

I remember hearing “Vamos” on WAMH probably around the same time their “Gigantic” single had come out (about six months after this EP) and thinking, what the hell is this…? By that time I was more into moody college rock, but this was something so leftfield yet so fascinating that I had to follow up. Of course, they were a local band by my standards, so I definitely had to check them out.

Next, we had a band on its way up, not quite there yet but already given a huge following: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, with their third album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.

They’d been around since 1984 with the delightfully weird but funky first album, but their follow-up, 1985’s Freaky Styley, was a bit too weird for a lot of people. This third album was a return to their rock-funk sound and became a favorite. Tragically, their guitarist Hillel Slovak would die of a heroin overdose after this album’s tour. His death would deeply affect the rest of the band, especially singer Anthony Keidis, and their next album, Mothers Milk, would reflect that darker edge. Still…that album would clear their way even more (especially with their fantastic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”), and a few years after that their popularity would peak with 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

 

Next, we had a band that had already reached significant heights with their distinctive sampling and synth-heavy sound, combined with curious lyrics (often about sex, emotional pain, and the darker side of love) and fascinating melodies. Depeche Mode had no way to go but up. Their album Music for the Masses would take their sound even further than before: louder, brasher, stronger.

“Never Let Me Down”, was the second single, released a month before the album (the first single, “Strangelove”, dropped a full five months previous, the usual habit for DM releases), and its in-your-face volume intrigued many fans. The rest of the album delivered just as much punch, to the delight of many, even as its lyrics seemed to be darker and more personal than ever. A little over two years later they’d return with their absolute best album, Violator.

 

And lastly, a band on its way out. It’s the story of too many bands; two front men with strong egos and opinions, writing absolutely stunning, gorgeously played music and proudly singing heart-on-sleeve lyrics that say exactly how you feel, splitting up in the most acrimonious way possible. The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come was their last gasp, their Abbey Road, containing some of the strongest songs they’d written…and by the time it hit the shops, the band was already in the past tense.

The Smiths was the band for the wallflower, the weirdo, the proud outcast.  Morrissey’s poetic missives perfectly balanced Johnny Marr’s amazing guitar work, and in the short four-plus years they’d been together, they’d given teenagers a hell of a strong and massive soundtrack to their lives.  Though their work on Strangeways had been enjoyable, just like always, the clashing of egos caused the band to fall apart.  Both Morrissey and Marr have moved on from it all, now playing Smiths songs in their live sets, have even talked with one another over the years, but life has gone on.

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Of course, there were other album releases that day — Yes’ Big Generator, Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In Souled Out, The Art of Noise’s In No Sense? Nonsense!, and Boston locals O-Positive with their Cloud Factory EP, for starters — but those four albums had to be the most important.  They were by four bands either on their way up or their way down, all four bands that could be considered integral to the growing alternative rock scene of the time.

Favorite Albums: Lonely Is an Eyesore

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CAD703, 4AD Records

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Martin Aston’s giant tome Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, and already I’m revisiting a lot of my collection from that label, many of which I haven’t listened to in ages, including this one.

Lonely Is an Eyesore is another album that’s turning thirty this year, originally released 15 June 1987.  It’s a stellar mix that should be in the collection of anyone who listens to classic alternative rock.  I’d heard of this import via 120 Minutes, and knew the only places I’d be able to find it would either be Al Bum’s in Amherst or Main Street Music in Northampton.  I also knew I’d have to buy the cassette, considering I knew it would be part of my late-night headphone listening.

The album was produced and conceived by label head Ivo Watts-Russell as a multi-format release, provided with its own music video, which I believe was either directed or produced (or both) by Vaughan Oliver from the label’s art collective, 23 Envelope.  [As an aside, these videos partly influenced my decision to attend Emerson to study film.  A lot of my shooting assignments look very similar in style and composition to the images you see in these videos.  Granted, I did not become a filmmaker, but I did use these visual and aural ideas in my future writing.]

 

Side One starts off with the quirky, sample-heavy “Hot Doggie” by Colourbox, an oddball electronic group more known as being two fifths of MARRS (the band behind the 1987 surprise hit “Pump Up the Volume”). It’s a wonderful opening track, maybe a bit silly, but that was part of Colourbox’s charm: they were like listening to a Big Audio Dynamite clone that played a lot of soul music with just a hint of moody ambience.

Following up is This Mortal Coil, a loose label-wide collective put together by Watts-Russell to record unique covers of his favorite 70s folk songs as well as haunting originals. By this time they’d released two stellar albums, 1984’s It’ll End in Tears and 1986’s Filigree & Shadow, both which I highly suggest. “Acid, Bitter and Sad” is a bit scattered as a track, but its multi-part construction is actually quite similar to the feel of their albums as a whole; the different sections take you on a specific journey, leading you to the next section and sometimes cutting short and leaving you floating in midair.

The Wolfgang Press was one of 4AD’s earlier post-punk band signings (various members were in previous 4AD bands Mass and Rema-Rema) with a deconstructive, sometimes brutalist sound similar to The Birthday Party. “Cut the Tree” is one of their quieter songs but retains their trademark intensity.

Next up is Throwing Muses, then a recent signing (their self-titled debut had been released a year earlier) and one of their first non-UK bands. The Muses, like their labelmates Pixies, were from New England and frequently played the Boston club scene. “Fish” is a very good example of what an early Muses track sounds like: tight and tense, unsure of which direction it’s going in, yet somehow still catchy and amazing. Kristin Hersh’s lyrics are sometimes confrontational and frequently obscure (the album title comes from this song), but the emotions behind them were never hidden.

Side One ends with the first of two amazing tracks from Australian/UK/European band Dead Can Dance. “Frontier” (a demo of a track from their debut album) amazes on multiple levels, from Lisa Gerrard’s soaring vocals to Brendan Perry’s haunting counterpoint drone-hum to the hypnotic oil barrel percussion.

Side Two starts with the always lovely Cocteau Twins with “Crushed”, a gorgeous and uplifting track that features all the CT staples: Robin Guthrie’s chiming effects-laden guitar work, Simon Raymonde’s melodic bass, and Elizabeth Fraser’s unconventional singing style. If you love this track, you will most definitely love the rest of their work.

Following up is semi-instrumentalist band Dif Juz* with one of my favorite songs of the late 80s, “No Motion”. I’ve always used this song as a benchmark that I would love to hit in my own music playing and writing, though I highly doubt I’ll ever reach it.  It’s one of the first examples of the experimental post-rock we hear nowadays from bands such as Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  Their discography is criminally small but well worth checking out.

* – As an aside, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who knew how to correctly pronounce this band’s name. In my head it’s always been /diff jooz/, and there’s a fan theory that the j is silent it should sound like the word ‘diffuse’, but apparently according to Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde, it is indeed /diff juzz/.

Clan of Xymox is one of the original darkwave bands that revel in their goth-like sound, maintaining that dark sound even when their style evolves from dark gloom to bright beauty. “Muscoviet Mosquito” (a much improved re-recording of an early EP track) is unrelenting in its speed and drive, even as singer Ronny Moorings meanders over the top.  They would follow this a few years later with an amazing album called Twist of Shadows that did well even in the US.

Finishing up the album is the second Dead Can Dance track, “The Protagonist, and an extremely good example of their more orchestral-esque works (like 1987’s Within the Realm of a Dying Sun and 1988’s The Serpent’s Egg).  Often DCD’s music isn’t so much about the melody as it is about the mood and the construction of the track; each attack and sustain is deliberate.

 

I believe I bought this cassette in late 1987, maybe early 1988, having heard a few of the tracks on 120 Minutes or on one of the college radio stations (I remember WAMH used to use part of “Frontier” for the background music of one of their PSAs about drug addiction).  I’d heard of most of these bands but sadly had not owned anything from any of them.  However, within a year I’d own most of the Cocteau Twins’ and Clan of Xymox’s discographies, a few of the Dead Can Dance albums (Within the Realm is still my favorite of theirs), and The Wolfgang Press’s 1992 album Queer would be one of my top favorite albums of that year.  A few years back Colourbox released a box set of their entire recorded output, which I of course picked up.  And every now and again I’ll pull this album back out and give it another listen.  I’d be a long-time fan of 4AD mostly because of this album, even as it evolved and changed their signature sounds over the last few decades.

Again — I highly suggest adding Lonely Is an Eyesore to your collection.

Finest Worksongs: REM

Thirty years ago this month, REM released their album Document.  It’s the one that contains their two hits that still get consistent plays on the radio to this day (one of them for somewhat trollish reasons, I’m guessing!), “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”.  It’s also the first REM album I actually bought, if you can believe that.

Of course, I’d known REM quite early on.  I remember MTV playing “Radio Free Europe” in its early days.  I remember “So. Central Rain” and “Pretty Persuasion” getting a lot of airplay on WAAF and WAQY.  Even “Driver 8” and “Can’t Get There from Here” got minor play.  And “Fall On Me” was a big college radio hit as well as a staple on the early days of 120 Minutes.

Document was, to date, their most commercial sounding album, and the last for the indie label IRS Records.  They’d release one final record, the singles/rarities album Eponymous, before signing to Warner Bros Records and releasing Green in late 1988.

Interestingly, Document is also the first place I’d heard a Wire song, “Strange”, which was from that band’s seminal Pink Flag album.  REM’s Michael Stipe was one of many musicians in the punk and college rock genre that sang the praises of Wire.  By the end of 1989, I’d have nearly all the Wire albums to date in my own collection, declaring them one of my top five favorite bands.  In early 1989 I and a few of my friends went to see REM at the Worcester Centrum, with a relatively new folk duo called Indigo Girls as the opener.  Suffice it to say, I also became a huge fan of that band.

For a short time in the late 80s, I was obsessed by REM.  I was definitely a fan of their early years, especially once I dubbed my the first four albums from my friends.  I was a mad fan of Green as well — still am, to be honest — even while others complained that they’d sold out and become ‘rockstars’.  They definitely epitomized that Athens GA sound that’s not quite country, not quite folk, not quite rock, but everything in between.  And not a day would go by where I wouldn’t hear one of their songs on a college radio station.

I was a passing fan of 1991’s Out of Time, but by then their sound had evolved to a point where the songs didn’t quite gel with me anymore.  I’d still follow them and pick up their albums, but after 1992’s Automatic for the People I was more of a song fan than an album fan of theirs.  It wasn’t until their last few albums, 2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse into Now that I became an album fan again.

I do come back to them occasionally, especially if they’re played on the radio or if I see one of the band members surfacing here and there.  [Michael Stipe, now wearing a full-on white Jethro beard, pops up in the news now and again, and Mike Mills is frequently spotted on Twitter.]   They’re part of a fond memory of that era of late 80s college rock and close friendship for me, but they’re also amazing musicians as well.

Meanwhile, 30 years ago…

Status: back half of sophomore year in high school.
Writing: finishing up the Infamous War Novel; starting Belief in Fate; trying out various ideas but not getting too far with them.
Radio: splitting time between college radio (WAMH and WMUA), AOR (WMDK and WRSI), rock (WAQY and WAAF), and a few pop stations.
TV: Still watching USA Network’s Night Flight occasionally. Taping episodes of 120 Minutes and watching them the following afternoon, plus numerous rewatches of Monty Python and other British alternative comedies.
Personal: single and sick of feeling sorry for myself; getting rid of my 80s spiky ‘do and letting my hair grow out a bit; just about sick of these damn braces.
Social: bouncing between two different social circles.
Music Collection: Approximately two milk crates full of vinyl, a small collection of singles, and a quickly growing cassette collection. At least a few dozen ‘radio tape’ mix tapes at this point.

Listening to…

…which, if you think about it, is not that different from the sounds I’m currently listening to.  🙂

Down the Rabbit Hole Again

Every time I think I’m escaping the rabbit hole of 80s college rock and moving on, I end up slinking back in again!  Well, this time I’m not working on a related writing project…I’m just enjoying the music this time out, while I wait for new releases to come out.

Plus, I get to listen to some of my radio mixtapes from back in the day!  It was a little over thirty years ago that I decided to put a blank tape in my Jonzbox and let it record 30 to 45 minutes of whatever WMUA was playing that evening, just to get a taste of their playlist.  I’d just bought a six-foot retractable antenna for the radio, which boosted the signal considerably, so I could go nuts at any time of day.  Soon I’d expand to other stations, with WAMH becoming my home base for the rest of the decade.

By early 1987 I’d changed things up in my bedroom.  It had gotten a new coat of paint, I’d gotten rid of some furniture I’d grown out of, and my radio had moved across the room to the top of the bookcase, where the few books that I had were slowly being shoved out to make way for my growing cassette collection.  I was hanging out with the Vanishing Misfits gang, which meant that a goodly amount of my collection at the time was borrowed albums dubbed onto tapes of questionable quality and age.  But hey, as long as I had the tunage, that’s all that mattered!

Interestingly, I only made one college radio tape that year, but I think it was because all my hard-earned money was going to buy albums down in the Pioneer Valley!  I did make a few mixtapes that year, though, mainly commercial radio stuff, but by the end of that year I was itching to make more.  I had one of my buddies who was into the hardcore punk/metal scene (he also introduced me to Slayer’s Reign in Blood…at catechism class, no less!) make me a mix on the back of a cassette dub I had of The Sisters of Mercy’s Floodland (my favorite album of the moment and possibly my number 2 favorite of the year, just under Music for the Masses).

Thinking back, 1987 was definitely a sea change year on multiple levels for me.  Changes in friendships, tastes in music, personal and emotional outlook.  My writing was still crap, but it was better crap than what I’d been writing just a few years earlier.  Hell, I was even changing the way I looked, letting my hair grow longer (no more 80s spike, thank god), wearing concert tees and pins of alternative bands.  Taking myself a bit more seriously.  Sure, I had a hell of a lot more growing up to do, but that was the year it took hold.  I was no longer the annoying nerd trying to fit in.  I was the kid with the Walkman, listening to bands you’d never heard of.  I was the kid who spent his study periods in the library, writing away in a notebook.  It was the year I’d finally figured myself out and didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about it.

 

The Joshua Tree Turns 30

I remember when U2’s breakthrough album The Joshua Tree came out, because it wasn’t just the usual music nerds like me that were eagerly awaiting for it; most of the guys I knew on my high school football team couldn’t wait to get their hands on it!  That was certainly a change.  Usually the jocks’ tastes in music and my tastes never crossed paths at all.

It could be that the teaser single, “With or Without You”, was such a huge hit that resonated with pretty much everyone.  I think there was also the fact that their previous  releases — the atmospheric The Unforgettable Fire from 1984, the excellent but far too short live album Under a Blood Red Sky from late 1983 and the amazing War from earlier that same year — were big favorites on MTV and rock radio.  And that classic performance at Live Aid in the summer of 1985 had given them a big ol’ boost as well.

I remember not being overly excited about the release at first.  Sure, I loved U2, but I wasn’t a hardcore dedicated fan yet.  In fact, I was more focused on the new Siouxsie & the Banshees cover album (Through the Looking Glass) that was released around the same time.  But I went ahead and bought it anyway, ordering the cassette from the BMG Music Club, and deemed it worthy of repeated listens.

It wasn’t until that summer, around the release of the third single “Where the Streets Have No Name” that the album really clicked with me.  I’d started hearing more deep cuts from the album being played on WAAF, WAQY and other New England radio stations as well.  The drifting beauty of “One Tree Hill”,  the barely restrained anger of “Bullet the Blue Sky”, the pastoral melancholy of “Red Hill Mining Town” (the last of which reminded me of the dead-end feeling I was having about my home town at the time).

The album kicked off such a storm of excitement that their tour ended up being THE EVENT TO SEE.  Sadly, I would never get to see them live until nearly ten years later for the PopMart Tour, but my sisters did get to see them down in Worcester for this tour, much to my extreme jealousy.  Numerous parts of the tour stops were filmed for what would end up being the documentary Rattle and Hum, released in 1988 complete with soundtrack and new songs recorded on the road.  And a little over ten years later, they’d resurrect and re-record one of the b-sides for “Streets” and release it as a single for one of their greatest hits mixes:

I’d revisit the album numerous times over the years: a constant soundtrack during my post-college writing years and even more during the Belfry years; talking with my then-girlfriend about how the album was sequenced into a specific flow of sound and mood; a constant replay when the band released their (almost) entire discography on iTunes; while working on my Walk in Silence project.  I’ve never grown tired of it.

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Thirty years on, this album is still considered a classic.  U2 themselves are celebrating its anniversary with a tour of North America and Europe, playing the album in its entirety.  I doubt I’ll be going when they stop by Santa Clara in late May, but I’m sure it’ll be a fantastic show.  [For a brief moment I thought hey, maybe they’ll come to Outside Lands!…and then I realized they’ll be wrapping up their European leg about the same time so I doubt they’ll be in the mood for trekking all the way back to California by that time.  Wishful thinking, though!]