jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)

"Let Me Go" by Heaven 17 is one of those quintessential 80s synthpop songs that you know from the first few notes, one that everyone loves to hear on those retro shows. For those of us who grew up watching the first few years of MTV, we loved it whenever that freaky black and white video came on where the trench-coated singer gets lost in an abandoned city. Surprisingly, it failed as a single in the UK (it only hit #41) but made it all the way to #4 in the US dance charts in 1982.

In doing research for my Walk in Silence project, the most interesting has been watching the evolution of post-punk and synthpop in the early 80s--specifically, the line that stretches from the death of UK punk in 1977, through the purposely uncommercial and experimental rock in the late 70s, up through the original post-punk of bands like Wire and early Public Image Limited...and the arrival of bands that got their start in the clubs such as Human League, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and so on. By 1981-82, the two had somehow melded together in the UK and hit the charts on a steady basis. Had MTV not been around, they probably would have been picked up eventually, but at the time, the US charts were still filled with either straight ahead guitar rock or the last vestiges of disco and other dance-oriented songs--and rarely were they heard together. What the British charts and MTV brought to the States was a catchy and radio-friendly mix of the two. And as most of these bands became bigger and more famous, some of the more leftfield post-punk made its way to the college radio stations and the outpost "new rock" stations such as WFNX and KROQ. It really wasn't until around 1983 or 1984 or so when the first hint of what became the "college rock" of the 80s made its presence known (primarily with bands like The Cure, The Smiths, XTC, and all the others we know and love now).

I'd like to think that in that brief time, from around 1981-1983, the synthpop, club and pub bands from the UK, the ones pioneering the post-punk genre, were the ones that laid the original foundation for 80s alternative rock.
jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)

Frankie Goes to Hollywood was ZZT Records' ridiculously famous band and primary moneymaker in the mid-80s, thanks to their many hit singles, campy videos, and their 1984 debut album Welcome to the Pleasuredome. As mentioned previously, they did end up putting a damper on some of the other ZZT bands (Propaganda and The Art of Noise, to name two), as all the money was being filtered to FGTH's promotion.

By 1986, however, many had written them off as all flash and little substance. What had been excellent dance floor tracks in 1983 and 1984 seemed a bit dated and hokey just a few short years later. The quintet regrouped to record a follow-up, and had decided on a much grittier sound with more serious lyrics, a complete 180 from the overbearing campiness of the previous album. Unfortunately, two things were against them when it was released in October of 1986: it was panned by nearly all the critics, and an evergrowing turmoil within the band itself. By the time they finished the tour for Liverpool, they'd broken up.

Despite what the critics say, I actually found this to be the better of their two albums--it's much stronger musically and lyrically, without all the ridiculous pomp. Its much more serious and socially aware Frankie. A few of the tracks have dated a bit, such as the ones like "Warriors of the Wasteland" that hint at Cold War paranoia, but overall I find it a much easier album to listen to.

I think that's it right there--while Pleasuredome was distinctly an album to put on at parties and at the clubs, Liverpool was an album to listen to at home. That's what I did, anyway. I owned the first album on vinyl and couldn't quite get myself into it, as it just seemed a side too long with too many meaningless segues. This one on the other hand, I listened to on my Walkman quite a bit. Around 1985-1986 I'd started listening to a lot of tapes on headphones as I fell asleep (this was just before the college radio discovery), and I finally bought this one, it got some pretty heavy rotation, along with Cream's Very Best of and Pink Floyd's The Wall. Right about the time my music obsession kicked into high gear, come to think of it.
jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)

This Mortal Coil wasn't so much a supergroup as it was a collective, masterminded by 4AD Records honcho Ivo Watts-Russell. It was originally created to cover a medley of two Modern English songs, with a Tim Buckley cover as the b-side. The Buckley cover, sung beautifully by Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser, ended up being a surprise favorite with fans, and so they quickly threw together a full album in 1984 called It'll End in Tears. The collective included musicians both on and off the 4AD label, from Howard Devoto to members of Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and even Modern English. The end result was a fascinating mix of gorgeous instrumentals and orignals, and covers done in unexpected and fascinating ways. It went over so well with the fans that they released two more albums under the TMC moniker, Filigree & Shadow (1986) and Blood (1991) before retiring the name. [Ivo did briefly revive the collective idea in 1998 with The Hope Blister, releasing the mini-LP ...smiles ok, but it was a much smaller affair.]

I first heard This Mortal Coil on 10 November 1986 at 1am. I know this detail, because this was the first night I started taping stuff from college radio, and I still have that tape. Here's the scene: it's Tuesday, a school night, and everyone else in the house has gone to bed. I'm the only one still awake, and I've got my headphones on and jacked into my small boombox, recording a good half hour of music from WMUA. Right at the 1am hour, the deejay quietly reads the station ID and plays the first few songs from side C of Filigree & Shadow...

...and something clicked in my head. This was the moment when I equated college radio, as well as the classic 4AD sound, with that of dark rooms, solitary listening, a completely different way of thinking, a place far away from the rest of the world...another world entirely. It was a perfect moment where the music, the setting and the ambience of it all fell into place. I'd been fascinated by college radio and the music they were playing for at least a few months by then, but that was the night when I knew there was no going back. It affected me as a writer-in-training as listening habits changed, and with that, the things I wrote became much darker--my characters started exposing cracks in their psyches, and certain scenes became much more visceral. Suddenly, I'd realized I didn't have to hold back.

Filigree & Shadow was the first TMC album I bought, most likely within a few months after that night. I believe I picked it up at Al Bum's. I specifically bought the tape, since I know I'd be listening to it mainly on my headphones. It's a dark and gorgeous double album. It's a wonderful mix of somber covers (Pearls Before Swine's "The Jeweller", Judy Collins' "My Father", Gary Ogan and Bill Lamb's "I Want to Live", and Colourbox's "Tarantula"), experimental covers (a devastating version of Quicksilver Messenger Service's "Fire Brothers"), and even a little twitchy (covers of Colin Newman's "Alone" and Talking Heads' "Drugs"), with many ethereal segue instrumentals linking them all together. I listened to it primarily at night, for obvious reasons. Once I even listened to it at night while sitting by myself on Short Sands Beach in York, Maine during a family vacation, watching the waves roll in and the moon rise. It's still one of my favorite albums of the 80s.
jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)

Yazoo (aka 'Yaz' in the US during their time together) was the duo of ex-Depeche Mode keyboardist/songwriter Vince Clarke and that band's friend and local pub singer Alison Moyet. They were only together for just about two or so years (1981-1983) before Vince eventually started Erasure and Alison went onto a brilliant solo career, but they left behind two albums (Upstairs at Eric's and You and Me Both) and a handful of singles that are considered classic synthpop hits and well worth picking up if you haven't already.

Upstairs at Eric's was an album I'd seen plenty of times in the past, and knew the single "Don't Go" from their low-budget and somewhat silly horror movie-themed video from the early days of MTV (and one of our local TV stations used the opening instrumental bit to "Situation" as the opening theme for one of their talk shows around the same time). You'd always see it in the midprice bins at the record stores where you could get tapes for five bucks. This is another one I had someone dub for me early on, and I had that copy for quite some time until I finally bought it myself.

This was part and parcel of music obsession back in the 80s, especially with us kids who were into the college rock sound and didn't have easy access to indie record stores. It was like proto-filesharing in a way, really. One of us would head over to the other person's house, peruse their music collection, and borrow a few albums for dubbing and mixtape purposes. Memorex and Maxell must have made a decent profit off us back then, with all the blank tapes we bought. We laughed at the "Hope taping is killing music" movement, not because we were rebelling against it, but because of how misguided it was. They missed the point--for a lot of us, it had nothing to do with wanting an album for free at all--it was that we wanted copies of these albums to listen to because we loved the music on them, and nine times out of ten we were going to eventually buy new copies when we had money or found them used and cheap. If we didn't, it was usually because we didn't like the album nearly as much as we thought, and it would eventually get taped over. It was our way of sharing the music we loved with our friends, and introducing new stuff to them that they may never have heard.

A lot of my tapes dating from 1985 to 1990 were second-generation copies of albums.  We'd borrow the titles or hand them blank tapes throughout the school year, and it sort of became a rite of passage come May, to copy as many albums as possible once we went on our separate ways to college. I was known for actually being a bit picky, telling friends which albums should be paired together on a 90 minute tape, or which songs should be placed in the blank spots if there was space left on a 60 minute tape. There was a two-part reason for it--paired albums were usually from the same band and in chronological order, so they would make sense in my collection, and extra songs at the end of an album had to have the same sound, or at least the same feel, as the main dubbed release, just to keep the ambience. In this case, Yazoo's two albums fit quite nicely on a single 90 minute tape. Yes, I was a bit too obsessive back even then...but it was all in fun, and I heard (and eventually bought) a lot of great music in the process.
jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)

1986: I've been picking up my monthly copy of the glossy teen magazine Star Hits (aka Smash Hits in the UK, and later in the US) just before the start of my shift at the YMCA.  Thanks to its UK ties and its focus on music, they featured quite a few British bands that I'd otherwise never hear or know about. I've also been looking at a few other music magazines, and stumbled upon a one-man band named The The, led by Matt Johnson. He's also made a mini-movie of his new album released that October called Infected. The movie is shown a number of times on USA Network's Night Flight show, where I end up taping it and watching it multiple times. The album itself is an angry missive about the state of Thatcher's Britain (aka, "The 51st State of the USA" per the lyrics), and holds back absolutely no punches.  This particular song is Matt looking Maggie straight in the eye and saying "This is what you've done to our country...I hope you're fucking happy."

Even though I'm starting to hang out with that new group of friends who like this sort of stuff, at this point I'm testing the waters with my older friends, talking about my latest music obsessions. My three big tapes of 1986 are Sigue Sigue Sputnik's Flaunt It, Fuzzbox's We've Got a Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It!! and The The's Infected.

I let my friend Scott borrow the Infected tape (he'd heard of the band from one of his older siblings), but hands it back the next day, shrugging: "It's okay, but who wants to hear about a piss-stinking shopping center?"

Probably the funniest dismissal of my musical tastes I'd ever gotten in high school, really. :)

1988: U2 released the transitional Rattle and Hum that October, alongside the documentary of the same name. Released to mixed reviews by not just fans but the band themselves (it's often viewed as somewhat of a bloated, navelgazing movie), it holds up surprisingly well after all these years. Sure, they were ubiquitous and thought they were hot shit by that point--and they were, let's face it--but looking past all that, it does a stellar job of showing the band on the road and showing just how hard they were working at the time.

It's somewhat of an unwieldy album of live favorites, demos, and songs written on the road, and listening to it in one sitting is not unlike sitting through the Beatles' White Album--not necessarily a bad thing if you're a huge fan, but it's not for the casual listener). The strongest songs on there are the Americana-themed tracks, such as "Desire", "All I Want Is You", "God Part 2" and "Heartland". They're almost a logical extension of 1987's The Joshua Tree. They capture an America slowly making its way out of the 80s, still holding onto its roots yet wishing to escape their stifling grip at the same time. Pretty much exactly how I felt at the time.

This came out during my senior year in high school, and I'd originally copied it from Chris' cassette version (I bought my own via Columbia House a short time later), and the two of us went to see the film at Hampshire Mall when it came out. We knew there were a few live songs in the movie that weren't on the album, so we'd smuggled in a tape recorder to record those few tracks to make a complete collection. In a nice tie-in with yesterday's post, on that tape you could hear me quietly singing "I read the news today, oh boy..." when they kick into "Sunday Bloody Sunday", and Chris laughing and shushing me.

It also reminds me of that stint I had at the radio station in Orange. They'd gotten in these prerecorded PSAs from a Mormon priest who was actually kind of hip--he'd use recent pop songs as a music bed for his thirty-second messages. They were much like the LDS commercials you'd see on TV at that time, not so much about joining the church as just quick segments about how to be a better person towards yourself and others. They were our favorite PSAs to play during our shifts, just to hear the songs. They used "Love Rescue Me" from this album for one of them.
jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)

Elvis Hitler was a punk band from Detroit that didn't have a big following (they were more a cult band, given their goofy mix of rockabilly music and lowbrow humor), but they did have a minor hit on college radio in late 1988 with the above track. It's one of those "why didn't I think of that?" parody songs where you sing the lyrics of one song on top of another. In this case, Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" sets the perfect stage for the lyrics to the theme song to the TV show Green Acres.

Chris and Nathan and I pulled out this trick every now and again on our Flying Bohemians recordings, most memorably when we'd sing the words to The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" to U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday". The variant was the "Mr. Cleanhands" medley, in which we'd shoehorn as many songs with the repetitive I-V-VI melody line (think The English Beat's "Save It for Later") as we could and mix it up in our own song. I'm pretty sure "Green Haze" was partly the inspiration for us to do that.

Unlike a lot of kids in the 70s and 80s, I didn't get into punk via the scenes. When you live in a small town in central Massachusetts and you're under 18 for most of that era, you can't really go to any of those shows, let alone get to any of them unless you had an older sibling or older friend who could get you there and in the door. I was okay with that, really, because I've always been more of a listener than a scenester anyway. In fact, I really didn't get into punk rock until 1988 or so. Mind you, I was familiar with it--I recognized a lot of the band names from my forays into the record bins at Al Bum's and Main Street Music, as well as the songs they'd play on WMUA and WAMH back then--but I never got around to picking any of it up until I was in junior and senior year. I was just more into the moody sounds of post-punk.

I think that distancing made me appreciate the genre a little more, as I was able to take it for what it was--a musical (and often political and social) response to what was going on at the time. Reaganism and Thatcherism, living in economically weak cities and towns, extreme right wing craziness...that feeling of being stuck in a place you've grown to hate. I wasn't caught up in that, but I could understand it. I didn't experience that to such a degree that, say, DC, New York, LA and London did, but I understood where it was coming from. I'd outgrown my hometown and could not wait to get the hell out. That was the difference--I didn't hate living there and I didn't want to rebel...I'd just grown bored by it and wanted to expand my horizons, do my own thing without fear. Again, music was there as a way out, especially when I had one last year of high school to go. I knew I'd be stuck at home for a few more months, but I had the music (and my writing) to take me elsewhere for awhile.
jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)

Agent Orange was part of the wave of 80s punk bands out of Orange County, California, and one of the first to mix the genre up with surf rock (and also one of many punk bands all the skateboarders listened to back in the day). This was a distinctively SoCal sound, mixed bright and tight, unlike the deliberately messy sounds of Bay Area punk. They were part of the Posh Boy records roster, and made their way onto Enigma in the middle of the decade. This is probably their second-best known song (early single "Bloodstains" is their claim to fame).

I first heard this song on a compilation I picked up in the summer of 1987 called Enigma Variations 2, which was an excellent sampler of alternative bands on the Enigma label. It features tracks from Don Dixon, Game Theory, the Dead Milkmen, Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper, and more. It also contained two tracks from Wire--a band I knew of at that time but had never heard until this album. They'd just regrouped after a six-year hiatus and just released an EP and an album on the label. I figured they had to be good, as the wrapper sticker for their 1987 album The Ideal Copy had kudos from Michael Stipe, Bob Mould and a handful of other punk and alternative bands, saying how influential they'd been. If you can find a copy of this compilation somewhere, I highly suggest picking it up. There's a few duds here and there, but for the most part it's a really tight mix.

If anything, 1987 is when my real social life kicked in. Yeah, I can say that's a bit unfair to all my past friends I knew growing up and knew since my days in elementary school. Many were good friends in the time I knew them, but I admit it was time for me to move on. In the fall of 1986, I had a chance meeting with a kid name Jim who thought my review of Sigue Sigue Sputnik's Flaunt It in the school paper was not only daring (given that I figured about 1% of the student body would know who the hell the band was), but awesome, because he thought he was the only person who'd heard of them. He told me he had a few other friends who thought the same thing, and for a brief moment I thought, hey, I'm not alone in this backwards, hicksville town. Soon after I headed over to their table at lunch time and started hanging out with them. I didn't exactly give my old friends the cold shoulder, but I'll be honest, I started moving away from them pretty quickly.

My main connection with this new group of friends was definitely music. I don't believe any of us were in the school band (unlike many of my previous friends, interestingly enough), and they were all one year ahead of me and probably a hell of a lot more intelligent than I was at the time, but we bonded quickly over music, specifically the college radio stations we listened to and the songs we heard on them, and the episodes of 120 Minutes we'd watch on Sunday nights. In those early days I'd only hang with them during the lunch periods and the occasional study period, as that was the only time I could see them, but we really became a much tighter unit during the summer of 1987, when we started going on our roadtrips to Amherst and Northampton. By that fall we'd hang out all the time during and after school, talking music and sharing our collection, throwing Monty Python and Young Ones references at each other (the shows had resurfaced as part of MTV's Sunday night lineup, and our exchange student that year was a kid from the UK who quickly became part of our circle, thanks partly to a love for those shows). I knew they were all going to be graduating that coming May, but I didn't care...I was finally hanging out with people who were on my wavelength. I'd enjoy it while I could.

I know I go on about it more often than I should, but I still consider those few years some of the best times of my life.
jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)

I'd heard of Cocteau Twins via the Trouser Press Record Guide during that initial research foray in 1986, and heard much about their dreamlike music, but didn't really know any of their songs until 1988 when I first heard Blue Bell Knoll on WMDK. I was immediately hooked, and did what I could to pick up their earlier stuff as soon as possible. I soon found a vinyl copy of The Pink Opaque US compilation, and later in 1989 found a few people who had copies of their albums. By that summer I had most of their 1984-86 output (Treasure, The Moon and the Melodies, and the surrounding EPs) dubbed on cassette. I played the hell out of those tapes for a good long time, right up until I was finally able to buy the cds or download the albums.

I learned a lot from this band. Specifically, I learned a lot from Simon Raymonde, the band's best-known bassist. His technique of using the bass to carry additional melody instead of merely providing the low end was a revelation to me in the late 80s, and I taught myself that technique by playing along with Blue Bell Knoll repeatedly until I had it down and could improvise on my own. But I also found myself analyzing how they got their signature dreamlike sound. It was partly their use of heavy reverb, giving everything an echoey, cavelike ambience (I always pictured them recording their songs in a darkened studio with perhaps a candle or two as their only illumination). But it was also their pastoral melodies, where everything seemed to have a zen-like, take-your-time relaxed flow. Nothing was rushed; everything in its own time, even the mysterious lyrics. This unique approach to music influenced my poetry and songwriting, and to some extent my prose as well.

Listening to Cocteau Twins often reminds me of those end-of-summer parties we had at the cabin out on Packard Pond. They were held in late August, just before everyone headed back to school or to college, when the New England summer was coming to a close, the days were cooling off and getting shorter. The first one was probably one of the last gatherings of everyone we knew and hung out with in high school, before we all dispersed to various parts of the country. We'd meet up again in smaller groups (and reconnect online later on), but this was a short and fun time to cherish. We played all kinds of board and card games, listened to music, watched movies and videos, and joked around all afternoon and evening. At night, we'd all grab the cots, beds and foldout couches in the separate parts of the cabin (I somehow always grabbed that rickety, squeaky iron bed near the stairs in the attic) and listen to the sounds of the evening as we drifted off to sleep...the frogs on the pond, the wind in the trees, or the summer storm rolling past. I'd put on my headphones and listen to my Cocteau Twins tapes and scribble some poetry in my comp book or a story idea in one of my notebooks. At the end of the party I'd always be the next-to-last one to leave, helping clean up and put away things, and of course to hold onto that feeling of close friendship as long as I could. A few weeks later, we'd all be heading our separate ways.

The later Cocteau Twins albums, particularly Heaven or Las Vegas and Four Calendar Café, were released while I was in Boston, and though they bring up memories of my time in that city, the feelings were still the same...getting used to the distance between friends in 1990, and going it completely alone in 1993. The Zen-like quality of their music remained an island of relief and respite, a place to rest my head stop thinking so damn much, even if for a short time.
jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)

I was thinking of this track a few days ago, and it happened to pop up on VH1 Classic last weekend, so I thought it would go well here on the A to Z. This is a track I'd hear on WFNX in my early college days, knowing I'd heard it somewhere before but never remembering who it was, until I finally got around to downloading the album a few years back. I'm actually kind of surprised, given its catchy pop, that it didn't get airplay in the US when it came out in 1985.

Propaganda was a band under Trever Horn's ZZT label in the UK. But instead of being quirky and weird like labelmates Art of Noise, or flashy and over-the-top like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, they chose to go with a sleek, metropolitan sound, with a bit of Krautrock thrown in there for good measure. Their album A Secret Wish is considered a great piece of dancy synthpop that was unfortunately overshadowed (and delayed in release) by FGTH's ridiculously overblown Welcome to the Pleasuredome album. They had a few minor hits in the UK with the above track, as well as with "Dr. Mabuse" and "P:Machinery", released one further album (1234) in 1990), and pretty much dissolved. They've reunited here and there over the years, doing a few live shows and releasing a few compilations and reissues, but their discography is relatively small.

I think of radio shows whenever I hear this track. Aside from hearing it on WFNX (I believe it was one of Julie Kramer's favorites back in the day), I'd hear it now and again on WMDK in the afternoon, and I'd hear all kinds of stuff from the band on WAMH. During the 87-88 and 88-89 semesters they had an industrial show on Thursday nights. That's how I got to know all those bands like Ministry and Front 242, as well as the more leftfield EBM bands like A Split Second and Clock DVA. Propaganda fit somewhere in the middle there, based in electronic sound and quite danceable, but much less aggressive in their approach.

A lot of what I gravitated towards in those years between 1986-89 was from WAMH and WMDK, but there were definitely specific shows that grabbed my attention. I don't remember the deejay names on WMDK, but I know their morning show was quite excellent, as I would always listen to it while getting ready for school (I even remember it was the radio on my bureau that was tuned only to that station). In 1989 they would always play the Go-Betweens' "Streets of Your Town" every morning as a gentle wake-up tune.  They also had a great afternoon guy that loved to play Crowded House whenever he could.

But it was WAMH, especially my junior and senior years, that grabbed my attention the most. The one show in particular that made the biggest impression on me was Haphazard Radio, which I believe was on Thursday afternoons. I wish I could remember the student's name, but he was one of the best college deejays out there in my opinion. He had this low, laid back voice, a natural for the airwaves. He was knowledgeable and fascinated by the stuff he played, and gave out all kinds of trivia and news. His in-between banter wasn't childish or vapid (the bane of many a student deejay), but he wasn't above joking around if need be. He played everything out there, from the obscure local indie bands to the major-label alternative bands.  I picked up a lot of new bands from his show; I also stole the show's name when I had my own show on WECB at Emerson.

There was also the countdown show, The Potted Plant Countdown, which they played on Sunday nights for years--I think this current semester is the first time in ages where they don't have it scheduled. The name originated from one of their local sponsors, a plant nursery who would donate a small plant that would be given away at the end of the show (usually given away to some student who called in and answered a trivia question correctly or some such). If I missed any of the other shows that week for one reason or another, I'd be sure to catch the countdown on Sunday while doing my homework, so I'd be caught up with the latest alternative music.

There were other shows on WAMH, many of them having all sorts of silly or creative names (The Sewers of Rangoon and Hey Look At All Those Psychos! come to mind). Even these names were an inspiration for many of my later compilations...something different and deliberately uncommercial, maybe ultimately harmless and pointless, but sounded cool at the same time. For that brief time, I listened to as many shows as I could, made sure I was in my room and the radio was on when it started, a blank tape at the ready in case I needed to tape something. And it was the best time ever.
jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)

Front 242's Front By Front! album has to be in my top ten albums of 1988, partly due to "Headhunter" being such a kick-ass single. This band is one of the original leaders of EBM (electronic body music), an intriguing mix of dance, synth, and post-punk that began in Belgium and became successful on college radio and dance floors in the mid-to-late 80s. In America many of the bands ended up being tied in with the WaxTrax label, which released many European EBM albums and singles and inspired many US bands such as Ministry and Front Line Assembly.

I bought the cassette of this at Al Bum's in Amherst MA. The store was on North Pleasant Street, next door to the gas station (there's a handful of boutique clothing stores there now). It was in a perfect location, right in the middle of the downtown shopping area and equidistant from both Amherst College (at the southern end of the town common) and UMass (just north of the shopping strip). There's a tiny parking lot in the back that didn't have meters, so if you were lucky, you'd find a spot and be able to hang out in the store for a good long time.

I don't remember how long this particular Al Bum's had been there before I found it, but by the time I started going there whenever my family went shopping there (or more often, when my dad and I would drive down there), probably around 1985-6 when I was still looking for Beatles bootlegs, of which they had a good handful.  I knew of their Worcester store (up the street from That's Entertainment, who also had a great Beatles bootleg selection).  By the time I'd started buying all the stuff I'd heard on college radio, I knew this was a good place to go. This was when I knew I'd have little luck searching at Strawberries or Musicland or any of those chain and mall stores for anything deeper than maybe the latest Cure and Smiths albums...Al Bum's was my first foray into the indie record store. Even when I and my friends discovered Main Street Music in Northampton, we'd always visit Al Bum's if we were in the Amherst area, especially if we were going to hit Panda East or Bonducci's as well.

I remember it being a very dusty place, I'm not sure why. I think it's because its prime color was a beige-brown from all the wood bins and the uncovered ceiling, and the overstock racks underneath were always dusty. Most of the walls were covered with posters you could buy up front, the usual Smiths and Cure and Bob Marley posters and all that. The walls were lined with the vinyl bins, with the tape wall way at the back behind clear plexiglass. Near the door was a magazine bin and that week's stack of The Valley Advocate. If I recall, the narrower middle rows were first carrying the non-rock titles and the seven-inch singles (and a small section near the front for the new releases), but that would later change to the vinyl area when they started selling cds in earnest.

I seem to remember buying this particular Front 242 cassette one October afternoon soon after it came out, and after hearing "Headhunter" a number of times on WAMH (they'd released that single about a month earlier). Back then the format I purchased was based on two things: 1)whatever format I had their other stuff in, and/or 2)how I'd listen to it the most. I bought a lot of cassettes on the premise that I'd be doing a lot of Walkman listening with them, and I knew this one would get quite a few plays. But I also remember that I bought it the same day I unexpectedly saw Chris coming in to the store. He'd graduated high school the year before me and was now at UMass right up the road, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him again. We chatted up the latest gossip and what new albums we were lusting over (trust me, that tended to be the focus of a LOT of our conversations back then), and so on, then went on our way.

I don't remember when the store closed up, but it must have been in the early 90s when I was in college.  The original in Worcester had stayed around for decades, but the Amherst store just vanished once I headed out to Boston, same with the Leominster store.  I'd later be a regular at Mystery Train up the street, but for the most part it was Al Bum's that originally paved the way for my indie collection.
jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)

[I'm trying not to duplicate bands on this challenge but this track was too good to pass up, and it dovetails nicely with another point of reference I wanted to make.]

This weird little track--even by Cure standards--was found on the b-side of the US single "Fascination Street" and the UK single "Lullaby", both released in April of 1989. I bought the "Lullaby" 12-inch single at Main Street Music in downtown Northampton, MA, one of many countless purchases at that beloved and sadly missed store. I first heard it on an afternoon show on Amherst College's radio station, WAMH 89.3, where it was the deejay's favorite track at that moment. It's very unlike many of the Cure tracks of that time, where it contained both the weirdness of their previous b-sides like "New Day" or "Splintered in Her Head", but driven like the album tracks "Push" or "Shiver and Shake". Coupled with the main single tracks, these were the first new songs that fans were hearing after 1987's Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, and you could instantly hear the difference in production. While Kiss Me and its singles were mixed very tight--little reverb and quite noisy and cramped in places--these singles were drenched in echo and given a hell of a lot of space to breathe. It was the first taste of Disintegration, one of their best and most revered albums.  That record would be that autumn's soundtrack for me, a melancholy goodbye to much of my personal life at the time.

This came out during my last semester in high school, when all sorts of things were in flux. I'd be graduating in a month and leaving the small town education system behind for the bright lights of Boston. I'd be finishing up my tenure at WCAT (at least until I returned in 1995). I now had a steady girlfriend, but as she was a few years younger than me so our relationship would end up being long-distance come September. Some of my best friends from the year previous might be coming home for the summer, but it would most likely be one of the last times, at least until futher notice, that I'd see them all in one place. On the one hand, I was looking forward to getting out on my own and living the college life I dreamed of, but I was also saddened that I'd be leaving my past behind. I wasn't quite sure how to feel.

The radio-based mixtapes I made that year bore the name of The Last Home Year Cassettes in a (hopefully) prophetic and (admittedly) overdramatic realization that I wouldn't be around to listen to my favorite college station when it went back on the air come September. Keep in mind, kids, this was back in 1989, WAY before you whippersnappers could easily listen in from all over the world via streaming audio! I'd be heading in the opposite direction of many of my friends who had headed west to college, where I'd be well away from all the people and places I'd come to enjoy immensely for the last three or four years. I'd have all the great new and used record stores in the Boston area, but I'd be nowhere near Main Street Records. I'd have WFNX and WBCN, but I wouldn't have WAMH, WMDK and WRSI. I'd have all sorts of things to do in the city, but I'd be nowhere near the Pioneer Valley. This would take some time getting used to.

[I should add that in a fit of irony and perhaps a lot of pique, when I moved back home in 1995, that autumn I made a few more radio tapes and called those The Last Home Year Cassettes as well, but that's another post entirely.]
jon_chaisson: (Mooch writing)
[Note: This year's A to Z Challenge will continue last year's theme of music, though this time I'll be expanding on it by tying it in with my ongoing Walk in Silence project as well. This means that I'll be posting various songs that tie in with 80s college radio as well as songs that have affected me personally in one way or another. Hope you enjoy!]

The Cure's "A Forest" was one of the songs played the night I discovered college radio in late April of 1986. I've already touched on that evening, so I'll expand a little further on what happened afterwards...

I was still looking for jazz down on the low end of the dial at that time, but after that night, if it came in, I'd look for that station (WMUA, UMass Amherst) and see what they played. Sometimes they played more stuff that sounded neat, other times they played stuff that I just couldn't get into, depending on who was deejaying that night. I also figured there would be a possibility that the station would go off the air come May, when school let out. Since it was so late in the semester, I figured I'd listen to it when I could, write down a few things they played, and go from there.

This is when I found a copy of Ira Robbins' Trouser Press Record Guide at my local library (they're still going strong online here if you're curious), which helped open me up to all sorts of other alternative bands. Since The Cure was a band I'd heard of before that night in April (I remembered seeing the video for "Let's Go to Bed" way back in the early days of MTV), I chose them as the first alternative band to follow. As it so happened, they were releasing a compilation that May (Standing on a Beach - the Singles), in which the cassette version contained a handful of rare b-sides, so I jumped on that album as soon as it was released. And thanks to the Trouser Press book, I knew which further Cure albums to look for. The next purchase I'd make would be the ...Happily Ever After cassette, which was their second and third albums (Seventeen Seconds which featured the full version of "A Forest", and Faith) packaged together for the US Market. It took me a few years, but by 1988 I had the Cure's entire US discography in one format or another.  The Cure would remain one of my favorite alternative bands for quite a number of years, mostly due to the dark moodiness of their early albums up to and including Disintegration.  The dark atmosphere inspired many of the weirder scenes in my early writing attempts, and also inspired quite a few of my lyrics and poems around that time as well.

Meanwhile on the radio front, a new rock format was rising. At the time it was called "progressive" or "new music", stations with a small but significant reach (and mostly in the low 90s FM band) that had chosen to forgo the pop music formats and be more creative and adventurous with their music. There were two in my area at that time: WMDK 92.1 out of Peterborough NH (later to be taken over by alt.rock radio pioneer WFNX in the early 90s), and WRSI 93.9 out of Northampton (which featured Rachel Maddow at the time). These were the only commercial stations that played the more commercial-friendly modern rock of the time.  While they would play some of the more well-known bands such as INXS, REM and Crowded House, they were also playing lesser-known bands like the Smiths, the Cure, and Depeche Mode. Well--at least they were lesser-known bands by backwoods New Englander standards, because most of those bands were the darlings of college radio in that neck of the woods.  They were perfect stations for music fans like me, who needed a change from the increasingly-bland pop and rock being played out there.

During the summer of 1986 I was still listening to popular rock stations, but by the time autumn came around, I was ready for a new semester of college radio.
jon_chaisson: (Default)

This obscure little number is found at the end of Side 1 of Was (Not Was)' 1983 album Born to Laugh at Tornadoes. I'd never heard of the song until I heard PJ Harvey's version from the 1997 Lounge-a-Palooza compilation, but it's one of my favorite covers. It's a damn spooky song and it makes sense that Was (Not Was) got the Velvet Fog himself, Mel Torme, to sing it, as it sounds like one of those mood pieces he and Sinatra did so well back in the day. I do like how PJ Harvey was able to keep the torch sound in her version and also give it a trip-hop spin a la Portishead.
jon_chaisson: (Default)

Yes, that riff totally sounds like the Spencer Davis Group, doesn't it?

This track came out in 1992 from the House of Love's third album Babe Rainbow and really didn't do anything anywhere, but it's a great song nonetheless. By that time, most of the commercial alternative stations had jumped on the grunge bandwagon, leaving a lot of the great Britpop behind. The House of Love had been around since the late 80s with minor hits like "Christine", "I Don't Know Why I Love You" and "Marble" (a b-side given a new life on the US Modern Charts), but by 1993 they'd moved on. Hearing it now, though, it's a solid party rocker that should have had a lot more airplay than it did.
jon_chaisson: (Default)
What--you were expecting some other song? ;)

I will say this--the movie is pretty painful to watch, not so much for the acting but that the dialogue is pretty horrid, mainly due to too many rewrites. It's a film out of time--it's a pretty decent old school "let's put on a show in the barn" musical mashed up with a roller disco theme (it was also inspired by the 1947 Rita Hayworth movie Down to Earth).

On the plus side?

--Gene Kelly hoofing it.
--Electric Light Orchestra.
--The Tubes!
--Don Bluth cartoon sequence.
--I first learned about the nine muses of Greek mythology in this movie.
--I learned the name came from not Citizen Kane but a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem.
--I learned about how album covers are made and how they can be reproduced for sales purposes.
--It's actually a pretty decent soundtrack.
jon_chaisson: (Default)

I will totally fess up here--this was the first band I ever went to see live (they opened up for Loverboy at the Worcester Centrum), and I was completely obsessed with their debut album from 1983. I loved the interplay between the Felix Hanemann's synthesizers, Randy Jackson's intricate guitar work, and Guy Gelso's thunderous drumming, and this song definitely had that EPIC sound that drew fans. It all might sound a bit dated now, but if you put that aside, you'll actually hear some pretty damn good prog musicianship there. There's even a few tracks that, if they were arranged and mixed slightly different, could easily be Porcupine Tree songs.

Before my foray into Top 40 music and well before discovering college radio, for a time I was into the straight-ahead stuff you'd hear on rock stations. Along with the classic rock, you'd hear the occasional hair-metal/hard rock stuff. A lot of it went by the wayside--mostly for good reason--but some of it actually wasn't too bad. It was lightweight fun, something to listen to that you didn't have to take too seriously...a lot of arena rock was like that. Zebra didn't get too much airplay other than this and a few other songs ("Tell Me What You Want" from the first album, and probably "Bears" from the second one), and they were a little too serious to be taken lightly. This wasn't your typical throwaway hard rock, it was prog-metal a way. The lyrics might have been a bit bland, but their musicianship was pretty impressive.
jon_chaisson: (Default)

I just remembered that I'd wanted to use this song for the letter T, so I'm adding it here. This is a 1993 acoustic version of the original 1974 single.

Sparks is one of those bands that you know about but you're not sure if you actually know anything by them. If anything, you may remember "Cool Places", a song from their 1983 album In Outer Space, which had Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Gos sharing vocals. Or lacking that, you might recognize the band as the two Mael brothers--the pretty-boy singer Russell and the weird-looking, pencil-mustachioed keyboardist Ron--and their quirky videos in the early days of MTV.

I never really paid too much attention to them until just recently when I saw the above video on YouTube. I was familiar with the song through the Siouxsie & the Banshees cover from 1987's Through the Looking Glass. After that I started downloading more of their earlier albums, and I'm glad to say I'm quite happy I did--they're extremely odd, but they're damn fine songwriters and a lot of fun to listen to.
jon_chaisson: (Default)

Porcupine Tree is one of my Top 10 favorite bands. They're a fascinating group that's not quite prog, not quite hard rock, not quite alternative, but they're absolutely brilliant. Singer/songwriter Steven Wilson is a great and understated guitarist who rarely uses his ax to show off; more to the point, he uses it to paint an aural landscape.

This is one of their early singles from 1992, edited with its b-side (part 2) and its follow-up remix single (parts 3 and 4). Sure, the drug-themed narration (it's from a 60's documentary about LSD) and the opening guitar lick is indicative of Pink Floyd (one expects to hear "Another Brick in the Wall Part 1" at some point), but it's more than that. You've got Richard Barbieri's ethereal keyboard washes, Colin Edwin's sublime bass lines, and Chris Maitland's artistic drumming. By eight minutes in the track shifts direction and becomes a driving rock track, playing off the narration's mention of an LSD trip gone bad. By the time the track winds down again, so does the narrator's subject, coming down from his high and reclaiming his control.
jon_chaisson: (Default)

Ah, Sloan! One of my favorite Canadian bands, these guys are still around and writing brilliant tunes, they're well worth checking out. This little ditty was their US debut single from their Smeared album, which got a lot of airplay on WECB at Emerson when I was the music director at the time.
jon_chaisson: (Default)
(time to catch up on my meme here...)

A track from Sing-Sing's first album that came out in 2002. A project created by ex-Lush guitarist/lyricist Emma Anderson, it only lasted for just shy of ten years (disbanding in 2008) and released just two albums and a handful of singles. One of my favorite tracks of that summer, it featured on two of my compilations and was definitely on heavy rotation.


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