Early 80s MTV, post-punk and new wave

Gloria Vanderbit’s passing yesterday got me thinking about the classic Robert Hazard one-hit-wonder “Escalator of Life” that came out in 1982. It was one of those odd new-wavey hits that didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense lyrically (or in this case, took a metaphor and stretched it to its breaking point), but it was certainly one hell of a cool song at the time.

I often talk about the late 80s here at Walk in Silence, but I don’t think I give nearly enough love to the early 80s, which were just as influential to me as a kid. I listened to just as much radio and watched as much MTV then as I did later on, and my tastes were just as varied. I could be listening to the hard rock of WAAF in the morning as I got ready for school, but I could be listening to the classic rock of WAQY on the weekend, and watching the then-freeform stylings of early era MTV. I liked A Flock of Seagulls and Duran Duran and Pat Benatar just as much as I liked Led Zep, Eagles, and that little quirky southern band WAQY liked called REM.

As commercial as some of these stations and channels were, they weren’t averse to playing the occasional obscurity like The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” or Yello’s “The Evening’s Young”. They’d sneak in gems like The Jam’s “Town Called Malice” or Bow Wow Wow’s “Baby Oh No”. They were quirky but had crossover potential.

I remember a lot of these obscurities — the ones you remember from the era that don’t show up on those Just Can’t Get Enough compilations or those 80s Retro internet stations — because my mixtape-making actually started around this time, in late 1982. I’d made quasi-mixtapes before then, of course..mainly dubbing songs off the radio and from MTV (holding our cassette recorder close to the tv speaker, of course), but they didn’t contain that many songs. It wasn’t until November 1982 that I’d gathered a handful of used blank tapes and went wild. This first collection lasted six tapes and contained everything from A Flock of Seagulls to Led Zeppelin to Donnie Iris to Chilliwack to Thomas Dolby. It’s quite a manic and haphazard mix, created over the length of maybe two or three months.

I also started cataloging my mixtapes around then, first on index cards I would stick to the tapes with rubber bands, then a few years later with a steno notebook. Most all of those early tapes are long gone, having either gotten broken or tangled, taped over by something more important, or just faded back into white noise. But I kept these catalogs — mainly because I was a packrat — and much, much later (in 2007 or so) I started recreating them digitally using copied mp3s.

It’s kind of wild to see these mixtape track lists so many decades later; on the one hand, I’m not at all surprised that I was that obsessed over pop and rock music by the time I was twelve. There was just so much more out there coming out, and I just wanted to hear all of it! Sure, I had my questionable selections, but we all did around then. We’d gone from AM radio to the commercial FM radio to early MTV within the span of maybe four or five years. Some of us were just going to ride that particular avalanche and have fun while it happened.

Indie Rocks

Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, courtesy KEXP.org

For the last seven or eight months, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to KEXP online while working from home. It’s an affiliate of the University of Washington and non-profit, and they play some damn fine indie rock that’s made my ears perk up repeatedly. A good portion of my downloads during this time have been informed or influenced by the station.

Okay, that may sound like a shameless plug, but let’s be honest, I’ll happily plug any station that broadcasts purely out of a love for music rather than for the ratings. If your station is dedicated to a creative playlist, bands both local and international, and is not afraid to shake it up now and again, you’ve got my ears and my loyalty.

Sometimes it’s hard to find these stations, especially when they seem to be a vanishing breed. Even though the Giant Conglomerates seem to be losing money hand over fist due to a severe bout of All The Stations Are Playing The Same Damn Songs, it’s often hard to find these stations on your car stereo or elsewhere. You often have to go online and further afield like I did. I might live in San Francisco, but when a good number of the local commercial stations are all owned by Cumulus or some other big name, I have to dig a bit.

And sometimes the college stations don’t exactly work for me, either. Some like Berkeley’s KALX or Stanford’s KZSU are good but far too leftfield for my tastes. Others like Santa Clara’s KSCU run mostly on minimal programming and maximum library autoplay. Some have become shells of their former selves, broadcasting an NPR feed with very few live shows.

This is why I’m still a big fan of streaming radio stations online. Not streaming full-stop; I do have a Spotify account but I rarely use it, and for the most part I only stream albums on New Release Fridays. I crave the live deejay atmosphere. [And most definitely not the “morning crew” kind, which I find far too irritating. Howard Stern may have made it popular, but that format is way beyond its sell-by date now.]

I’ll usually find these stations in one of two ways: either by word of mouth/band announcement (KEXP is known for hosting quite a few live-in-studio performances) or by local listening. I’ve favorited stations that I happened upon while on vacation. I love to find new stations and check them out via their website.

I find KEXP to be a perfect blend of all the good parts of the above. Maybe a little leftfield, but never weird for weirdness’ sake. Silly deejay banter, but never meathead locker room humor. Each host has their own style and tastes. I might hear a song on heavy rotation, but I won’t hear it eight times a day. They’ll often surprise me with deep cuts from new albums. They’ve introduced me to a hell of a lot of indie bands I never would have heard of otherwise.

And I’m always curious to find even more stations. Who knows what I’ll be listening to six months from now?

FM

fm movie poster
Back when I was a kid, one of my favorite records that I used to love taking out of the library — aside from The Beatles 1962-1966, which I did not yet own — was the soundtrack to a 1978 movie called FM.

It was an amazing double-album filled with huge rock hits of the last few years: Bob Seger’s “Night Moves”, Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane”, Boz Scaggs’ “Lido Shuffle”, Boston’s “More than a Feeling”, and more…and of course Steely Dan’s classic theme song.  Pretty much a perfect cross-section of what would become the classic rock genre in future radio programming.  [It’s still available on CD at this time, by the way, and highly recommended.]

I don’t remember the movie ever playing anywhere close at the time of its release (April 1978), but then again, I was only seven at the time.  The soundtrack was good enough for me.  Still, it would be another few years before I finally saw it when it was shown on one of the local independent TV channels a few years later.  I enjoyed it, even if some of the more mature issues (like Eric Swan’s sexual encounters or Mother’s consistently-baked persona) went right over my head.  The short version of the plot is that Q-Sky, an LA-based rock station with committed fans but not much profit, is being threatened by upper management to play more commercials and less music to make more money.  The stalwart deejays (your classic tropes here: the smooth-talking overnight guy, the ex-hippie still living in the previous decade, the young and spunky morning host, the cute and friendly girl everyone loves, the popular prima donna, and so on) decide to go against upper management to keep the station alive and rockin’ at whatever cost…even if it means going on strike.

[There are definitely shades of WKRP in Cincinnati here, but please note that the show was actually in pre-production talks when this movie came out; they’re not connected to each other in any way.]

It wasn’t until I read Richard Neer’s 2001 book FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio (also highly recommended) that I renewed my interest in the film.  It took me another number of years to finally find a dvd copy.  Years older and more knowledgeable about the way radio works, I’d discovered that the movie, for all it’s worth, was actually quite accurate in its portrayal of a radio station’s ups and downs during that time.

FM rock radio was in fact becoming the preferred choice for younger listeners by 1978, bypassing AM radio’s previous popularity — thus the riff ‘no static at all’ in the theme song.  It was also the zenith of rock radio to that point, with numerous bands releasing platinum and gold selling albums that are still highly regarded to this day.  At the same time, however, the financial woes of running a popular radio station had started taking its toll on the programming.  It was becoming harder and harder to be a free-form station where the deejay could play anything they wanted, when the business itself needed to make a profit to stay alive.  FM was in fact a spot-on commentary of this, even when it veered into the occasional Hollywood movie silliness.

Running a radio station nowadays is still just as hard as it’s ever been.  The issue is that it’s not built to be a moneymaker; it’s built to be a community service.  It provides free entertainment and information to its listeners; its money is made from its advertising or donations and fundraising events.  Most owners and station managers try to keep the moneymaking part of the business as unobtrusive as they can.

But that’s another post altogether.  I’m just here to talk about one of my favorite movies and soundtracks!

Is That Freedom Rock, Man?

Somehow I fell down another retro rabbit hole and have been listening to the Sirius XM Classic Rock Party station over the last few days.  I’m fifteen again and listening to WAAF and WAQY in my messy bedroom, cranking up the 80s stylings of Twisted Sister, Billy Idol and Whitesnake alongside the classic 60s/70s hits of the Stones, Yes, and BROOOCE.

This was the music I grew up with.  I was too young to understand punk and post-punk back in the early 80s (at least not until that fateful evening in early 1986), and as much as I enjoyed the pop of American Top 40 and American Bandstand, it was the music of rock stations that stuck with me most. I was a nerdy, spotty kid that was completely obsessed with music and radio and would be just as happy sitting alone in front of my boombox as I would be outside roaming the neighborhood on my BMX with my buddies.  This was Diver Down and Pyromania playing on my sister’s boombox while we played touch football in the backyard.  This was me completely blown away by 90125 and Synchronicity and So.  This was my growing obsessions with other bands aside from the Beatles.  This was our state capital’s own honored rockers in the forms of Aerosmith, the J Geils Band and Boston.  This was where I learned to appreciate bands before my time like Jimi Hendrix and Cream and The Rolling Stones.

Decades later and here I am, hitting middle age and living on the opposite coast, listening to the still-epic “Born to Run”, still impressed by the guitar solo freakout of the back half of “Freebird”, still feel that “Layla” is a decent song but is about 3 minutes too long.  Living in a city where Janis and Jerry lived, where Steve Miller recorded the sound of the foghorn going past the Marina for the opening of his Sailor album, where the classic Frampton Comes Alive! was recorded just three miles away at a long-departed ballroom in Japantown.  Where Journey the Doobies and the Dead and the Airplane lived and recorded and became local heroes.

The playlist has its moments of amusing embarrassment.  All that LA glam metal of the 80s is still goofy, doofy, simplistic fun, just like I remember it.  All the prog rock of the 70s is still full of nerdy math and fantastical imagery.  All the arena rock bands are still full of that bombast.  Some of it’s kind of corny now, but you can’t help but have fun listening to it.  The playlist is also going to be a lot of the same heavy-rotation classics that you can’t escape, even after all these years.  It may even have its share of “oh, that song!” moments.

Sure, most of it’s a good three or four decades old now, but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to listen to.

Walk In Silence 1

I’d say the music that I connected to most at the time was classic rock.  I’d grown up listening to it, and started my music collection with the Beatles.  Not to say I didn’t enjoy other genres or station programming…I had a passing interest in the poppier Top 40 sounds, especially from about 1983 onwards, when it updated its sound and included multiple genres.  But thanks mainly to WAQY 102.1 FM out of East Longmeadow and WAAF 107.3, originally out of Worcester, I found myself listening to a lot of classic and AOR rock.

Looking back, I think part of it may be due to the quality of the production and the creativity of the music.  It didn’t necessarily need to be a genius creation, it just had to have something that caught my attention somehow.

That would mean John Bonham’s thunderous drums and John Paul Jones’ synth strings on the epic “Kashmir” — the first rock song to completely blow my mind — or the Beatlesque* sounds of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”.  Or it could be the countrified twang of Eagles.  Even the bubblegum fun of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” and “Fox On the Run” counted, thanks to their catchy guitar riffs and high-pitched harmonies.

 

I often say The Beatles’ 1967-1970 compilation is ‘officially’ the first album I ever owned, but that’s not entirely true.  I will admit that claim actually belongs to Shaun Cassidy’s Born Late, which I’d gotten for Christmas in 1977.  I kind of consider that a trial run, though…in December of 1977 my music collection was pretty much a reflection of what I thought album collecting was about at the time: pop music and buying whatever was popular at the time.  Why did I have my mom buy that Shaun Cassidy album?  Who knows.  I think it was because he was one of the Hardy Boys on TV at the time, and he was all over the covers of teen magazines at the time.  David’s little brother, also a musician and an actor and a heartthrob!  Buy it now!  Hell, I was six years old at the time, I didn’t know any better.  I didn’t even know I was breaking a perceived gender role at the time by liking a young pop star’s music.  My parents may have side-eyed me (more on the quality of the music than the gender role, that is), but I didn’t care.  Even then it was about the music.

All that changed in 1978, when two things happened.

First, the much maligned movie Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, featuring the insanely popular Bee Gees (another favorite band, thanks again to an older sister) and Peter Frampton (a huge pull, thanks to the fantastic Frampton Comes Alive album and his mindblowing use of the talkbox guitar effects on “Do You Feel Like We Do”).  I originally went because I liked the singers, but my mom had hinted that I’d enjoy the songs they’d be singing here.  It’s painful to watch now, but at the time it was silly and a lot of fun.

Second, I was made aware of an annual tradition on WLVI, channel 56 (6 on our dial), one of Metro Boston’s independent television stations (decades before it became an affiliate of The CW).  On a summery Sunday afternoon they’d play Yellow Submarine, the 1968 animated Beatles movie.

I knew the Beatles in passing, of course.  In the 70s, who didn’t?  They’d only broken up a few short years before and were enjoying healthy solo careers at that point (especially Paul McCartney).  Their music was still getting heavy rotation on the radio at the time.

[I should probably interrupt here and state that there was a third event that took place in 1978 that changed everything, even though I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time.  That event is the overwhelming change in radio listening habits in the United States.  It was this year when people began listening to music on the FM dial rather than on AM.  There are many and varied reasons for it — the acceptance of rock radio as a valid genre rather than an underground interest, and even the fact that home stereos were becoming more affordable.  By the time 1978 rolled around, we’d had a stereo in my parents’ bedroom that as soon moved to my sisters’ bedroom, where it got much higher use.  I ended up with a cheap hand-me-down kids’ record player where even to this day, I can still remember the loud nasally wrhirrrrrrrr of the motor.  I’d get the old stereo when my sisters upgraded, and finally getting my own sometime around 1983.]

So yes, it was in 1978 when I finally, officially, owned my first record, and also picked up on my first musical obsession.  Over the next four or five years, I searched and found all the Beatles-related records I could find.  Some of the albums I purchased were new (usually bought at Mars Bargainland, the department store outside of town), but many were found used at garage sales, town fairs and elsewhere.  First came the albums, then came the singles.  I believe I got Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road early on, because I was already familiar with most of those songs from the Sgt Pepper movie.  Revolver was another early one, thanks to familiarity with some of its tracks as well.  Imagine an eight-year-old  hearing “Tomorrow Never Knows” for the first time — I had no idea what I was listening to, but it certainly was amazing!

 *

I’m explaining all this, even though it has nothing to do with college radio, because this early obsession is a major reason why I latched onto it as closely as I did.

Even as the pop music of the seventies and eighties slowly morphed from one genre or style to another, I found myself irrevocably obsessed over it all.  I knew bands and their discographies almost as well as other kids my age might know who played on what NFL team and for how long.  Their stats were performance ratings and signature moves; my stats were release dates and what labels released them.

 

* – Beatlesque: usually means evoking psychedelic melodies of 1967, dreamlike whimsy, three-part harmony, and often attempting to sound like something from either Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Abbey Road.

Music for a Busy Day

Oof–nothing like an ongoing heavy workload at the Day Job to keep me from actually getting any real writing done.  I’m of two minds on it:  there are days when I just want to forget my writing for a day, relax and regain my energy…and then there are days (usually the very same ones, an hour or so later) when I call BS on that complaint and force myself to get that writing done out of sheer New England stubbornness.  Unless I’m dead tired by the end of my shift, the latter usually (and thankfully) wins out.

As always, listening to music gets me through the day.  I’ve been listening to a lot of Radio BDC lately, switching over to KSCU or Sirius XM when I need a change of playlist.  Since I work at home, I can get away with something with a little stronger than your okay but spineless Listen At Work station.  It never hurts to stop what you’re doing for The Man and sing along to Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off” with wild abandon. 🙂

So what are you listening to today?

On College Radio vs Progressive Radio in Massachusetts in the late 80s

I’ve been thinking about this subject lately, partly due to the way I’ve decided to frame the text of Walk in Silence in book form.  I did not want to write just a memoir, nor did I want to write a simple book about alternative rock. I decided to make it a hybrid of both, and in the process I wanted to do a bit of research on radio history in general.  I not only want to go over some of the highlights of great alternative rock of the time and talk about my favorite songs and albums, but I want to explain the genre itself–how it formed, how it got there, and how it related to other music (and points in history) at that particular time.  It’s not just enough for me to say why “Under the Milky Way” is my all-time favorite song; I wanted to explain that the Church’s Starfish album was make-or-break for them after years of not-quite-success.  There’s also the fact that in the 80s, the lines between pop music, rock, and “new wave” were a hell of a lot more defined then.

On a more professional note, however, there were two different kinds of stations playing this kind of music at the time as well, and that’s what I want to speak about here.

There was the college radio station: the longtime home to the alternative, the free-form, and the not-quite-professional.  Ratings didn’t matter to college radio, only that they had the funding from wherever it happen to come from, be it fund drives or grants or the listening audience.  For most college stations, especially for colleges where it was more of an extracurricular position rather than part of the curriculum, the student disc jockeys may have at the least been instructed to vary their playlist or play a few core tracks, and at most been given stern reminders of FCC rules and regulations.  Other than that, you could get away with playing whatever you liked.  For the most part, the quality and style depended on whose shift you were listening to.  Some disc jockeys would play hardcore punk or EBM (Electronic body music, a danceable subgenre of industrial rock and championed by many European groups like Front 242), or maybe even that new post-punk influenced rock stuff coming from the UK, like the Smiths and the Cure.

On the other hand–or should I say, up a little higher on the dial–there were the professional radio stations.  Short version: by the early to mid 1980s, there seemed to be a shift in popular radio, and a lot of stations were starting to feel the crunch.  Slightly longer version: considering that popular FM radio was pretty much still in its teens at this time (it sounds weird, but it’s true: popular FM radio as we know it today really didn’t come into wide popularity well until the mid to late 70s), the FM stations that tried to cater to all sounds and styles were beginning to flounder.  Listening habits changed and people wanted to hear more of their favorite styles rather than a wide and often weird mishmash.  The wildly successful pop stations of AM yesteryear were now the wildly successful pop stations of FM now.  The rock stations did well, but they were also splintering, often due to their listenership; some like Worcester’s WAAF 107.3FM with its younger fanbase continued to follow trends to play the latest hard rock, while others like East Longmeadow’s WAQY 102.1FM began to drift with its older fanbase towards classic rock.

Of the latter, a newer subgenre emerged.  Partly inspired by the more adventurous free-form sounds of 70s FM radio, the arrival of Album-Oriented Radio (AOR) in the late 70s and early 80s catered more towards the connoisseur radio listener, the avid music listener who wanted more than just the throwaway pop or the mindless party rock.  True to its name, its playlist prided itself on featuring non-single album tracks, providing the listener with a much wider experience.  As the 80s wore on however, it was found that while AOR had its diehard fans, it was not a moneymaker.  A number of stations reverted back to a rock format, or were sold and completely changed formats.  Those who stayed were often extremely localized, such as Turners Falls’ WRSI 95.3FM (sold in 1996 and moving to Northampton at 93.9) and Peterborough NH’s WMDK 92.1FM, and placed in small but artistic-minded communities.  They may have been small, but they had the upper hand–they were run by music fans who knew their stock in trade, and knew how to sell it locally.

These two local stations never really sold themselves as “AOR” but more as “progressive radio”.  This term may have confused some, considering the word ‘progressive’ often went hand in hand with ‘rock’, and together ‘progressive rock’ often meant twenty-minute hyperbolic workouts from bands like Yes, early Genesis, and ELP.  But by the 80s, ‘progressive radio’ actually meant something different–it was almost a taunt, a term that said ‘we’re better than you–we play music for smart people’, and in its own way it was true.  The passive radio listener just wants background noise, but the active radio listener wants something that will stimulate the brain.  And it just so happened that post-punk sounds coming out of the UK and the collegiate sounds emerging in the US fit the bill at that point in time.  If there were no college radio stations nearby, or none with the wattage strength to reach long distances (especially over hilly central Massachusetts), these progressive stations would offer up the most radio-friendly of it.

And for a good couple of years, probably from around 1984 or 1985 up to 1988, these stations could get away with playing the not-quite-commercial rock.  These bands weren’t being played anywhere else except on college and progressive radio stations.
While college radio was much more open-minded and adventurous in its available playlist, it had its own shortcomings as well.  Part of the whole alternative music scene in parts of the US was its exclusiveness–it was music for the nerds and the geeks and the people on the fringes of society who didn’t belong in the popular cliques.  Morrissey may have sung and the music that they constantly play / it says nothing to me about my life / hang the blessed DJ in response to a UK radio personality who tastelessly followed up coverage of the Chernobyl disaster with Wham!’s “I’m Your Man”, but in the US it took on a slightly different meaning.  For those of us here in the States, it was simply a rebellion against the tired, creatively vacant mainstream.

But what was mainstream, anyway? Especially in the last few years of the decade when more ‘modern rock’ songs were showing up on the Top 40 charts? What was there to rebel against when the keys to our rebellion were now becoming mainstream?  By the early 90s, many college radio stations were refusing to play anything by the Cure or Morrissey or Depeche Mode or REM, simply because they were being played on commercial radio.  They would need to start looking elsewhere for their alternative fix.

On the other hand, progressive radio could still get away with it.  Perhaps it was that, as professional stations, they had to constantly keep an eye on shifting tastes.  Progressive radio is where I first started hearing Britpop, back in 1989 with Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, well before a lot of other stations played it.  They also kept an eye on other subgenres of rock that fit into their playlist, like the folk rock sound of Tracy Chapman, Tanita Tikaram and Indigo Girls, the blues rock of Jeff Healey, or the new funk of Lenny Kravitz.  They were able to balance the commercial with the alternative, and that kept their stations alive much longer.  It also kept the alternative sound in the spotlight, making way for newer “adult alternative rock” stations such as WXRV (The River) 92.5FM in Haverhill.  It also helped usher in more “new alternative” sounds–bands that may lean towards the mainstream, but are decidedly not intellectually vacant pop.

 *

Over two decades later, I’ve been noticing a slow but significant return to departmentalizing the different genres of rock on FM radio.  It’s partly due to the advent of the internet, and it’s also due, as it always has been, to the shifting tastes of its listeners.  For a brief time in the 90s, alternative rock became so polarizing that on the one hand we had all-commercial rock radio on one end and very anti-commercial rock radio on the other.  Now, however, we’re starting to see specific subgenres again, and they’re being played on both college radio and on indie rock stations, sometimes within the same hour.  We’ll hear the bizarro tUnE-yArDs alongside the catchy pop of Capital Cities alongside the folk rock anthems of Frank Turner.  Listeners can access the sounds not just on FM radio but on satellite stations, online-only stations, streaming sites and even playing their mp3 library set to “random”.  But thanks to these same things, we can set our listening preferences so we’re only listening to weird left-field rock or synthpop or folk rock.  We’re not just bound to the FM dial anymore, but we can bound ourselves to just how wide or how narrow we want our music to be.  Radio may continually shift in its never-ending search for new sounds and higher earnings, but as always, it comes around and settles in new and more interesting ways for us to listen.