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.

 

Classic Rock: Zebra

I was a huge fan of Zebra when I was in junior high.  I remember hearing “Who’s Behind the Door?” on WAAF — and seeing the video on MTV — and being totally blown away by the music.  I loved the sound of synthesizers back then, especially if they used the strings setting.  [I’d later get into Giuffria a year or so later for the same reason.]  I even got to see them live, when they opened up for Loverboy at the Worcester Centrum — my very first big arena concert.

I bought the cassette of the self-titled debut album right about the same time, and I nearly wore it out within a year.

Decades later, and I’m listening to it on mp3, and it suddenly dawns on me — this album sounds almost exactly like a Porcupine Tree album.

Think about it:  both lead singers are guitar virtuosos who write beautiful and complex melodies.  Sure, one sings in falsetto half the time, but never mind.  Plus the keyboards play a strong and vital part in the music, giving it a darker ambience.  There are a few shorter pop songs here and there, but there are also some lengthy prog-jam pieces in there as well.  It’s no wonder that I became such a huge PT fan in the late 90s.

I still pull out this album every now and again and give it a listen.  I’ll listen to album two, No Tellin’ Lies, every now and again as well, but this first album will always be a particular favorite of mine.

WiS: We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!!

I’ve been wanting to write this post since the two remastered cds came out in the middle of last year, and now I can finally do so! We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!!, aka Fuzzbox here in the states, was a cute and punky quartet out of Birmingham UK, and one of my first music crushes when I started listening to alternative rock. They’d been brought to my attention right about the same time as Sigue Sigue Sputnik in the glossy music mag Star Hits, and upon seeing their crazy-colored and spritzed hair and Goodwill-chic punky fashion, I was completely hooked–which in all honesty wasn’t really hard, considering it didn’t take much to rebel in a small town like mine. They made me realize punk wasn’t just about rebelling against society, like American punk had suggested–it was also about doing your own thing, however out there it might be, and not giving a shit about what other people thought about it.

Fuzzbox was only together for a short time, releasing only two albums and a handful of singles (like most punk bands were wont to do during the 80s, it seems) before going their separate ways, but they were just so damn fun to listen to that it didn’t matter.

Credit: last.fm - l-r, Tina, Vix, Magz & Jo

Credit: last.fm – l-r, Tina, Vix, Magz & Jo

Fuzzbox started sometime in 1985 with four friends who’d decided to start a band. And like any punk band worth their salt at the time, mastering your instrument wasn’t exactly high on the list of priorities. Consisting of Vickie Perks (aka Vix) on vocals, Tina O’Neill on drums and sax, and sisters Maggie (aka Magz–vocals, keys and guitars) and Jo Dunne (bass, guitars and keys), they immediately jumped in on the occasional open mike night at the local bars and learned their chops onstage. It’s said Maggie was the creator of the band name, announcing that they did in fact have a fuzz distortion guitar pedal they were about to use.

Their debut single was the gritty and poppy “XX Sex”, with shockingly direct feminist lyrics about exploitation and sexism in the media. They followed up with a ridiculous and silly summer single with labelmates The Nightingales and Ted Chippington with “Rockin’ with Rita”, and by summer’s end they were given a spot on the highly influential NME C86 compilation with “Console Me”. They prefaced their debut album that October with a jittery and bass-heavy single about unrequited love, “Love Is the Slug”, my musical introduction to them via MTV’s 120 Minutes.

Credit: fuzzbox.angelfire.com

Credit: fuzzbox.angelfire.com

Bostin’ Steve Austin (released as a self-titled album here in the states, but with the same cover) was released in December of 1986, featuring a dozen gems about the girls’ life in Birmingham–not just containing the teen heartbreak of “Love Is the Slug” and “Jackie”, it also contains the confrontational “XX Sex” and “What’s the Point” (their follow-up single released in January of 1987) and “Preconceptions”, as well as a weirdly hypnotic cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”. The quality of the music here is surprisingly tight, even when it hints at sounding on the verge of disintegrating into a distorted mess. Vix’s lyrics alternate between playful, angry, and emotional, and despite the simplicity of the melodies there’s a lot going on musically. The stop-start of “You Got Me”, the building tension in “Love Is the Slug” and even the 60s-girl-group pastiche of “Hollow Girl” works perfectly.

Bostin’ Steve Austin got a ridiculous amount of play on my tape players between early 1987 and mid-1989–this was the side of punk that I gravitated to, the revelation that I didn’t have to try fitting in with the in-crowd anymore. I didn’t really need to do much, of course–wear some of my college rock tee-shirts, my grandfather’s green trenchcoat, and let my hair grow out of its quintessentially 80s spiky ‘do (but not to the point of longhaired metaldom), and start writing music reviews for albums hardly anyone else in my school listened to.

Meanwhile, Fuzzbox disappeared for a short while, and would reappear in early 1989 with a completely new and unexpected look and sound. I admit I wasn’t entirely sure how to approach it at first, having twitched and thought “oh god, they’ve become Jem and the Holograms.” But there was something about it…something about the slick late 80s production, the chart-ready poppiness, that called to me. I began to realize that this was the forbidden candy for me as a fan of college rock, the ultimate test: do I dare admit that, after labeling myself an alternative music nerd and a nonconformist, that I actually enjoyed this admittedly catchy music?

Credit: www.independent.ie - clockwise from top left: Vix, Maggie, Tina, Jo

Credit: http://www.independent.ie – clockwise from top left: Vix, Magz, Tina, Jo

Gone was the thrift-shop fashion as well, replaced by glitz and glamour. The fuzziness of their sound was also gone, replaced by shiny synthesizers and sequencers. They now had an outsider as a cowriter of songs in the form of session musician/producer Liam Sternberg. And yet…

…and yet, there was something about this new album, Big Bang, that I just could not give it up. I was older and now in college, and yet the music hinted at the readymade poppiness of 80s Top 40, the kind that was throwaway and yet catchy and likable at the same time. The Brummie humor was still there, hiding in the lyrics of lead single “International Rescue”, a loving ode to the Gerry Anderson tv classic Thunderbirds (and, in the video, a humorous nod to Jane Fonda’s Barbarella as well).

Credit: musicstack.com

Credit: musicstack.com

Big Bang kicked off with the irresistibly poppy “Pink Sunshine” (and also released as the second single) and my immediate reaction was to wonder where the hell my punk goddesses had gone off to…but I soon understood what they were doing. This wasn’t about rebelling, not anymore. It was about being an adult now, having gotten over the teenage growing pains. These were the Brummie girls stuck in their jobs, dealing with the drudgery of the real world and letting it all loose at the end of the working week.
There’s a lot of flirting and emotion going on with this album, and that’s part of what makes it so irresistible. There’s the rocking sci-fi of “Fast Forward Futurama”, the heartbreak of “Self!” (featuring the guitar work of none other than Queen’s Brian May!), and the gorgeous dancefloor bliss of “Versatile for Discos and Parties” (quite possibly my favorite track off the album). There’s even a brilliant cover of Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice”, retaining the song’s mystique but giving it additional emotional beauty. The album ends on a very somber yet lovely note with a track called “Beauty”, which sounds like nothing else they’ve ever recorded.

Big Bang‘s shameless pop wasn’t shameless at all–it was a loving tribute to the dance pop of the decade, one that was about to come to a close. The sound of 80s pop would age, and often not for the best, but when it was done right, it was still fun to listen to. A few years later, once I discovered anime movies and series, from Urusei Yatsura and Silent Möbius and later to the Gall Force series and Sailor Moon, I began to realize that, thanks to Big Bang, I now had begun a long-lasting love affair with Japanese Pop (aka J-Pop). I began seeing the album as an unintended but spot-on paean to the J-Pop so prevalent in the credits and montages in anime, and that made me love the album even more. It’s pure pop, but it’s still irresistibly fun.

In 1990 they would release a final single, “Your Loss My Gain”, written for a never-realized third album, and while it seemed they were progressing in a more mature pop direction, they soon split up. They all went their separate ways. Only Vix remained in the music industry, recording under various band names including Vix n’ the Kix. Three compilations would surface a bit over a decade later: two albums of demos and outtakes called Fuzz and Nonsense and Rules & Regulations to Pink Sunshine: The Fuzzbox Story, and a greatest hits collection amusingly titled Look at the Hits on That (a very Fuzzbox-worthy pun title). And in 2010, Vix, Maggie and Jo reunited with the help of Vix’s backing band for a one-off single, a cover of M’s classic track “Pop Muzik”. Sadly, Jo would pass away from a cancer-related illness in 2012, but a year later, Vix decided it was time to rerelease the band’s 80s discography. Bostin’ Steve Austin would finally have its debut on compact disc, and Big Bang would contain all the remaining 80s tracks, including the “Your Loss My Gain” single.

We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!! was a band that influenced not just my listening habits but my way of life when I was growing up in the late 80s; it was a refreshing view of punk-as-freedom rather than punk-as-anger, and helped me realize that the music I listen to, then and now. My tastes still lean towards the alternative, but I’m not above the shamelessly pop, especially if it’s done well. In relistening to Bostin Steve Austin I now hear a lot of the intelligence and fearlessness in the lyrics, which makes me appreciate it all the more. And as an added bonus, they’re there if all I want is some great and fun music to listen to.

Check it out:
Bostin Steve Austin: Splendiferous Edition, at Amazon.co.uk
Big Bang!: Orgasmatron Edition, at Amazon.co.uk
“Pop Muzik” single on iTunes

Gonna drive past the Stop n’ Shop with the radio on

I usually don’t offer news links here at Walk in Silence, and I never post a link when there might be a slight political dig involved.  This is not what WiS is about at all.

That being said, one of my online friends offered the following story link:

http://www.myfoxboston.com/video?clipId=8418846&autostart=true

I’ll skip the obvious “Fox News” jokes here, thank you.

The short version is that there’s an recent push by State House Representative Marty Walsh to have The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” be the official state rock song of Massachusetts, and Senator Elizabeth Warren is fully behind it.  Hey, why not?  It’s a great song–simple and a little odd, but then again, so is the state I grew up in.  And besides…Oklahoma has The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize??” as their official state rock song, so it’s not as if we’re creating a precedent for weirdness here.  And anyone who grew up in the Bay State in the 70s and 80s knows this song well, and knows exactly what Jonathan Richman is singing about when he talks about driving up 128 past the suburban trees and the Stop and Shop.  The state also has a deep and rich history in radio (read Donna Halper’s “Boston Radio 1920-2010” for an interesting and quick history lesson there), so it’s also a love song to all the great radio stations past and present.

That said, it’s kind of jarring when you watch that Fox25 News fluff piece and hear the voice of the flat-topped announcer saying “This song SUCKS!” less than a minute in (and right after the announcer willingly admits he doesn’t know the song and doesn’t think it has much to do with the state at all).  Then they let Flat-Top riff on what he thinks is a better song, to which he suggests Boston’s “Smokin'” from their eponymous ’76 debut. A generic party song (and definitely a “Bro” song at that) that has little to do at all with the state, other than the band’s name. The rest of the report is pretty much filler as the others suggest songs very stereotypical of their on-air personas (the token dweeb picks Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations”, the token female chooses some mellow “come to Boston” song, the main announcer/token straight man suggests a different Boston song that at least mentions Hyannis).

See a theme here?  All Boston-themed.

You know that famous New Yorker strip, right?  The drawing with Manhattan in the foreground and all these random unimportant locations off in the distance, placed randomly in otherwise blank space.  Boston media has frequently done the same, to be honest…there’s a long-running joke that most Bay Area politicians don’t know what’s beyond the 128 or 495 highway belt other than trees and maybe Worcester or Springfield…and most Bostonians are unaware that their drinking water comes from the Quabbin Reservoir, a manmade watershed way out in the middle of the state that took place of four small towns.  When it comes to music, most people think all Massachusetts bands (or at least the famous ones, anyway) come from Boston or one of its close suburbs.  And pretty much every show that I’ve ever seen at Comcast Center (aka Great Woods, back in my day) in Mansfield–which is much closer to Rhode Island than it is to Beantown–every band revs up the crowd with “Good evening Boston!!!”  Mind you, I’m not complaining, as the rest of the state has pretty much grown accustomed to it.

This story made me think of a few things, really…

On one level, I was forcibly hurled back to 1987, when I was a sophomore in high school and discovering all kinds of great new music on this crazy thing called college radio.  My biggest obsession of the time was the Cure, who’d just put out their double album Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me earlier that year.  I’d gone to see them live at the Worcester Centrum and bought a great tee-shirt that I wore until it was threadbare.  Hearing Flat-Top bark out “this song sucks!” in this piece brought me right back to those days when the popular kids in my class mocked me for listening to unpopular crap.  Mind you, that hardly bothers me now, but the context of the piece just rubbed me the wrong way.  These announcers had written off the song right off the bat, most likely due to Jonathan Richman’s warbly singing and the one-chord playing, but more than likely due to it not being a world-famous song.  Irreverence has been the normal frame of mind for media’s “Morning Teams” both on radio and TV for quite some time, so I’m sure the plan had been “let’s make fun of the weird song” from the beginning.  Still…it was jarring to hear something like that after all this time.  I haven’t had a jock diss my favorite music for at least two decades!

On another level, I also started thinking, what other songs out there would be indicative of Massachusetts?  There are place-centric songs out there of course: The Standells’ “Dirty Water”, Pixies’ “U-Mass”, about half the songs from Boston’s debut, The Get Up Kids’ “Mass Pike”, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “I Want My City Back”, and so on.  But I think that’s where the TV people had it wrong–they were focusing not just on Boston-centric songs, but also songs that mention a specific area.  What they needed to do, if they wanted to do their homework and perhaps extend this fluff piece into something more substantial (haha! yes, I know that’ll never happen), is to find songs by bands from the state that would say “this is what Massachusetts is about.”  It doesn’t have to say anything lyrically, it just has to represent the state somehow.  Oklahoma picked the Flaming Lips song not because of the lyrics, but because they are one of the most famous bands from that state.

And that is why I think “Roadrunner” is actually the perfect song suggestion: it’s a love song to the state.  It’s not about rocking out or getting by or trying to get the girl or anything…it’s simply about driving up 128 just outside the metro limits at some ungodly hour of the morning, rocking out to the radio.  It’s not about the commute or the drive, either…it’s about just being there, being in the state, and loving the fact that you’re there.