Friday, October 25, 2013

The Knack--Greatest Band Ever?

The Knack--one of the least appreciated bands of all time.

Anyone reading my latest posts knows that lately I’ve been in a nostalgic mood and in particular have been revisiting the earliest days of my infatuation with punk and new wave music.  In the course of my re-explorations I’ve actually unearthed a somewhat startling revelation:  the Knack was one of the greatest bands of all time.  Like everyone, I was quickly swept up in Knackmania at the time back in 1980, and in particular I loved “My Sharona”—hell, EVERYONE did.  That huge beat followed by the even-more-memorable, sinuous bass line that start it, the crisp guitar counterpoint, the edgy, misogynistic lyrics—it remains one of the catchiest songs of all time, no doubt.  I’ve also commented previously on how I consider the second, longer guitar solo to be one of the greatest guitar solos of all time, or at least one of the most enjoyable (I know all the Eddie and Yngwie fans out there are screaming in rage but those kinds of technical solos, while impressive, just aren’t as fun to listen to). 

I also loved their follow-up single, “Good Girls Don’t”, another lyrically incorrect but sonically very catchy powerpop-infused gem.  The noodling guitar, the catchy chorus, again the Knack just totally nail it on this song.

But for me, at the time at least, this was as far as I got with the Knack.  Unlike pretty much everyone else I knew, I never bought or received Get the Knack as a gift.  My aunt owned this album on 8-track, and so I would listen to it when I visited her and my grandparents in upstate New York in the summers, but I would only ever listen to these two songs.

What a tragic waste, because it kept me from appreciating the brilliance of the Knack for almost 20 years.  In the late 90’s when Napster was going strong I “acquired” “Your Number or Your Name”, which has in time become one of my all-time favorite songs by them, surpassed only by “Sharona”.  This song leaves a little of the sexual crudity and single entendres of their previous singles behind but instead is propelled forward by Bruce Gary's as-always magnificent drumming and Berton Averre’s sweet, jangly guitar.  Every time this song comes up on my “Favorites” playlist it never fails to put a smile on my face.

More recently I’ve been going back and trying to mine both Get the Knack as well as their subsequent albums and perhaps not surprisingly I’ve found a veritable gold mine of great songs.  “She’s So Selfish” slows the tempo down a little but like “Sharona” it rides forward on Prescott Niles’ slinky bass line and Bruce Gary's efficiently counter-pointing drumming.  While not as immediately catchy as “Good Girls Don’t” or “My Sharona”, it nevertheless surges and fades in a way that is memorable and fun.  It just sounds so much like all the great new wave of that period—twitchy, and yet strangely compelling.

“That’s What the Little Girls Do” is more jangle-pop in sound, similar to “Your Number Or Your Name”, a short but sweet confection, but you can hear the future echoes of stuff like LA’s Paisley Underground and the jangly alternative music of R.E.M. in it.

“Frustrated” is more of a “Sharona” clone, mimicking the surging bass line and stop-and-go rhythm of that hit but not quite capturing the immediacy and catchiness of their huge hit. Still, it's a fun song.

“Let Me Out” is another barn burner, a wild, fast rave-up that highlights the incredible musicianship of the band, while their cover of Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat” still manages to capture some of the innocence of the original.

If there are any missteps on their debut, its when the Knack slow things down too much, such as on ballads like “Lucinda” or “Maybe Tonight”.  The musicianship is still top-notch, but there’s just nothing that makes these songs jump out of the speakers like their up-tempo numbers.

By the time their second album, 1980’s  . . . But the Little Girls Understand, the Knack’s moment in the pop culture sun was over.  Thanks mostly to a tremendous backlash based in part on Capitol’s attempts to position the Knack as the second coming of the Beatles, the Knack’s sophomore effort, while not a complete and utter failure (it did after all reach #15 on the Billboard charts), was a tremendous step down from the bewildering success of their debut.  This is a shame, because again the Knack deliver an album filled with catchy and memorable songs.  In some senses one of the least compelling songs on this album was the single, “Baby Talks Dirty”, which seeks a little too effortfully to recapture the same magic of “My Sharona”, including the lurching, syncopated rhythm and bass line-driven tempo. While not a terrible song, it is a little too derivative and doesn’t seem to be their best first pitch.

The song I love the most instead from this album is the exceedingly odd “Tell Me You’re Mine”, with its clacking, clog dancing beginning, which leads into a typically catchy bass and guitar sequence.  The oddest thing about this song is Doug Fieger’s strangely affected vocal, which seems to be his attempt to mimic the sneery Southern drawl of Elvis Presley.  It would be distracting if it wasn’t for the fact that the music is so fantastic—the ridiculously tight rhythm, the crisp riffing of Niles’ guitar work, all of it is fantastic.

Similarly terrific is “I Want Ya”—it seriously seems like the Knack could just write catchy songs so effortlessly and this song is no exception.  Again it might be tainted a bit by its familiarity with their other, bigger hits from the album, but this is another song that fits well into the Knack wheelhouse, with all three musical instruments competing to see which one is tightest, basss, drums or guitar.  Kind of a three-way-tie for first and this song is another winner.

“It’s You” is a fast-paced, almost frantic (it almost reminds me of similar wild rides by Oingo Boingo), and their cover of “The Hard Way” by the Kinks shows a similar energy.  But too often the Knack seem to be trying to prove their rock chops on this album, and many of the wilder rockers like “Hold On Tight and Don’t Let Go”,   “End of the Game”, and (Havin’ A) Rave-Up” sound both too familiar to one another and not distinctive from the bar band ravings of any band playing the local joint on a Friday night. 

By their third album, 1981’s Round Trip, the Knack had been permanently passed up in the great rush to find the Next Big Thing, and this album sold much more poorly compared to its predecessors.  Again, this is a pity, because the Knack definitely had some great gems here.  For better or worse, they expanded beyond the simple formula of new wave/mod/powerpop that fueled their early hits, though some of the most effective moments on this album still hearken to their early sonic formula.  “Just Wait and See” is another jangly blast of pop fun, while “Boys Go Crazy” is a dizzy fun whirlwind of energy like “Good Girls Don’t” (which it lyrically resembles as well).   Most in-the-know critics consider “Another Lousy Day in Paradise” to be one of the Knack’s best songs, and it certainly warrants consideration for being in their top three; again, this song is just so effortlessly catchy and fun it seems like the Knack are barely trying, nor do they have to.  Clearly writing and playing sweet catchy rock-based pop is something these guys were born to do, and this song is a magnificent reminder of that.

After the failure of Round Trip, the Knack broke up for several years, but reunited at the start of the next decade to record 1991’s Serious Fun.  While too slickly produced to be as raw and innocent as their earlier work, this album showed the Knack to still be fine fettle.  In some senses this album seems to be a very belated answer to the pop metal movement of the later 80’s in that the Knack combine big arena style riffs with slick harmonies in a way that evokes (but greatly exceeds) similar work by bands like Poison or Warrant.  Songs like “Shine”, “Let’s Get Lost” and “River of Sighs” have the big riffs and bump-and-grind tempo of “Cherry Pie” or “She’s Only 17”.  The song I like best here is the ham-fisted “Rocket o’ Love” (which has more cowbell than anything outside a SNL skit), which nevertheless still manages to prove that the Knack could still write circles around younger, less talented metal bands.

The Knack would reunite occasionally throughout the mid-90’s and in 1998 released Zoom, with Terry Bozzio replacing Bruce Gary on drums.  This album returned to the jangly new wave rock of their early work and had several memorable songs, including the manic “Pop Is Dead”, the mellower jangle of “Can I Borrow a Kiss”, and the utterly brilliant “Smilin’”, which highlights all of the greatest strengths of the Knack—magnificently tight instrumentation, propulsive rhythm, catchy harmony-laden choruses.  “Ambition”, while not quite as catchy, is another classic Knack song and another highlight.  “Everything I Do” is a little too Beatlesque for my tastes, but “Love Is All There Is” is another sweet catchy blast of melodic energy.  “Terry and Julie Step Out” is fast and furious, while “Harder On You” is slower but its heavy, thudding bass anchors it firmly in the traditional Knack canon. 

In 2000 Knack frontman Doug Fieger released a solo album, First Things First, which contains a couple of real gems.  Foremost among these is the leadoff track, “Nothing’s Easy”, which sounds uncannily familiar to me.  It is an acoustic song with a mid-tempo but you can hear the ghost of what this song would sound like electrified and performed at a faster tempo and I think it would be phenomenal.  ‘Without You” is a devastatingly sad song countered by Fieger’s unbelievably sweet vocals.  Unfortunately Fieger too often goes to extremes on this album, either by making ballads that are too slow and cloying or by rocking far too hard, and rarely hits that sweet middle spot the Knack so often hit.

In 2001 the Knack released Normal As the Next Guy (with David Henderson on drums) and again there are flashes of their original brilliance.  The guitarwork by Berton Averre is fantastic as always throughout and the slower tempos and more introspective lyrics suggest a Knack who have finally grown up.  “Disillusion Town”, another scathing look at the Hollywood celebrity machine similar in theme to “Another Lousy Day in Paradise” showcases this greater maturity.    “It’s Not Me”, with its pulsing bass and driving guitar line is a fine Knack classic, as is “Seven Days of Heaven”. But the big highlight, a song that belongs near the very top of the list of greatest Knack songs of all time, is “A World of My Own”, which despite occasionally dragging during the verse sections, builds both vocally and musically to one of the most magnificent, catchy, exquisite choruses of all time.  This song right now is one of my very favorites by the Knack and showed that they never lost their chops or their ability to craft sweet but crunchy music that could move and inspire their fans.  If there’s one song I wish that the “Knuke the Knack” assholes of the early 80’s could hear and that I think might change their minds, this is it.  The Knack may have moved off the pop culture radar after the monumental success of “My Sharona” but they never truly went away; they continued to write and record terrific, catchy music for people who knew where to look for it.  And for all of the disparaging comparisons to the Beatles hurled at them by their detractors, this song shows that they were nearly the equal of the Fab Four when it came to writing great songs.

Sadly, Knack frontman Doug Fieger died tragically young at age 57 in 2010, forever silencing one of the first, and best, voices of the new wave era.  But since his passing a couple of rarities have surfaced on iTunes.  In the late 60’s, a lifetime before his “overnight” success with the Knack, Fieger was a member of the Midwest band Sky.  Their sound leaned strongly toward the heavy blues rock of bands like Traffic and Free, as evidenced by the bump-and-grind raunch of song s like “Goodie Two Shoes” and “How’s That Treatin’ Your Mouth, Babe?”, off their 1970 self-titled debut.  “Take Off and Fly” is a mellow ballad but Doug’s voice is in fine form and you can see why many thought this band would be a huge success (including the Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller).  “Rockin’ Me Yet” has that olde tyme feel-good boogie woogie piano vibe of the best of ELO, as well as some honking sax.  “Make It In Time” is a delicate, feel-good confection more similar in spirit to songs like “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin or “That Would Be Something” by Paul McCartney.  Doug’s sweet voice evokes the very best of Freddy Mercury on “You Are The One”.  “One Love” is another rocker and it is probably the song that comes the closest to the catchy, propulsive powerpop Fieger would eventually craft with the Knack and is a major highlight of Sky’s catalogue—it still has elements of 60’s psychedelia, sounding at times like something Vanilla Fudge or Iron Butterfly might have crafted, but it still has a great, anchoring riff and a big singalong chorus strung together by some nifty bass playing. 

Sky’s second album, 1971’s Sailor’s Delight, continued on in the same vein.  “Make It Tight” is another lurching, grinding rocker that evokes “Honky Tonk Women” by the Stones, as is “Bring It On Back”, while “Let It Lie Low” boogies along with some terrific guitar work. “Come Back” sounds like an outtake from Let It Be by the Beatles again with an almost eerie similarity to the falsetto of Queen’s front man.  Thankfully Sky’s two albums are available on iTunes and people can hear some of his early brilliance for themselves.

Several phenomenal documents of the post-Sky, pre-Sharona era have also surfaced in recent years.  In 2012 Zen Records released Rock and Roll Is Good For You: the Fieger/Averre Demos, a set of demo recordings by the future Knack frontman and guitarist recorded between 1973 and 1975 or a good five years before the Knack hit it big, utterly belying the popular notion that the Knack achieved instant, overnight success.  Some of their future classics are already on display, a fun acoustic version of “Good Girls Don’t” which nevertheless manages to achieve the catchiness of the fleshed out version from their first LP.  “That’s What The Little Girls Do” from their second album is also here, even more sunny and perky in acoustic form.  “Flower My Fate” hearkens back to Doug’s Sky material, especially with its acidulous guitar work.  But other songs like “Little Lies”, “Corporate Shuffle”, and “(Here On This) Lonely Night” capture some of the future magic of the Knack’s work; “Little Lies” in particular has a fun, breezy feel that mirrors the direction their career would soon take. 

Also in 2012 Omnivore Records released the live recording, Havin’ a Rave-Up, of a Knack performance at LA’s Troubadour club from 1978 which illustrates their power and chops as a live act—rumor had it that everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty caught them live and/or jammed with them during their ascent to superstardom during this period.  The version of “My Sharona” amply demonstrates how visceral and potent this song was in a live setting.  Another great song is their cover of Jay & The Americans’ “Come A Little Bit Closer”, which is one of the ultimate bar band songs, as is their fiery version of “It’s Alright" by Adam Faith.   Two unreleased songs, “Evil Lies” and “Here On This Lonely Night” sounds like capable additions to the Knack canon, it’s puzzling why they were never released.  It’s a pity the sound is so muddy and dull, which takes a bit of the sheen off these cuts, but to even have them at all is a blessing. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Raised on Radio, Part II: the KROQ Era Circa 1981

Oingo Boingo, one of LA's first big breakout stars of the new wave era

In my previous post, I discussed how in spring of 1981 I made my first willful attempts to seek out new wave music.  Prior to this I liked the handful of new wave singles that had broken through into Top 40/popular culture:  “Heart of Glass” by Blondie (a new wave song in name only, a disco song in reality), “Candy-O” and “Let’s Go” by the Cars, “My Sharona” by the Knack (technically powerpop), “Pop Muzik” by M (pop dressed up in new wave synths and quirkiness), “Cars” by Gary Numan (one of the first REAL new wave songs), “Money” by the Flying Lizards, “Rock Lobster” by the B-52’s, “Brass in Pocket” by the Pretenders, “Whip It” by Devo, and “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors.  It was the latter song that caused me to actively seek out this music, first by buying the Vapors’ first album New Clear Days on cassette and second by trying to find stations that played new wave music on the radio.  All of these songs had crossed over into Top 40 radio and were easy to find, but I somehow knew or found out that there were stations that played ONLY new wave music and I vowed to find them.

And, because I was fortunate enough to live in Southern California, I did.  My first recollection was of finding two stations on the far right of the dial that seemed to be playing stuff that sounded different than the Top 40 stations.  I have no sharp recollections of what they were playing specifically the first time I listened to them but somehow I knew I’d found what I was looking for.

The stations were, of course, the pre-metal KNAC, broadcast out of my home town of Long Beach, and the now-legendary KROQ, and both would become the de facto radio stations for me and pretty much all of my friends for the next several years.  KNAC, 105.5 on the radio dial, has been much lamented by oldsters like myself because at this point in the early 80’s they played a bizarre, free-form format that mixed new wave and punk cuts with old rockabilly and blues singles, reggae and dub, and other pre-punk musical forms in an eclectic mix not frequently heard anywhere else.  It has since become super cool among people my age who lived in that area to lament KNAC’s loss to metal in 1985-1986 and to claim that it was cooler than KROQ.

But the honest truth was, I and most of my friends listened to KROQ more.  And the reason was that KROQ, while still a pretty wild and unprofessional station in that day, had achieved some stability after several tempestuous ups and downs through the 70’s.  In 1976 they’d hired Rodney Bingenheimer, the diminutive bowl-cutted scenester from LA’s psychedelic and glitter pasts, and Rodney’s show became a vehicle for artists from the emerging punk scenes in New York, England, and even Los Angeles.  Rodney was one of the first DJs in America to play the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and other leading lights of those scenes, and he would also famously play demos, singles, and tapes brought to him by local bands.  It’s hard to imagine new music would ever have achieved the popularity it did without pioneers like Rodney.

But Rodney was just one jock, and most of the other DJs at KROQ were playing typical 70’s fare until about 1978, when they became incorporating more and more new music into their repertoire.   But they still adhered to a so-called “freeform” format, which gave most of the decision-making power of what to play to the DJ, and things weren’t played systematically.  An amazing artifact of this era is an hour-long tape of legendary LA DJ Frazer Smith from 1978 at the following web site:

The artists being played represent predominantly OLD music (ZZ Top, Bob Seger, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Ace Frehley) a few prepunk pioneers (David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop), a couple of acts that kind of straddled the ground between the old and new (Cheap Trick, Tom Petty) and from what I heard just a couple examples of truly NEW acts, Elvis Costello and Devo.  But still, in 1978 NOBODY was playing Elvis Costello or Devo on the radio (or Iggy Pop for that matter), so even this was pretty surprising.  Actually, to me what’s amazing is what a smooth segue it is between “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zep and “Uncontrollable Urge” by Devo; despite being separated by a decade and a seemingly insurmountable musical gulf, they both actually sound eerily similar.  It is a reminder both of how innovative and raw Led Zeppelin were in their earliest days, and how much more prosaic so-called “new” music really was.  It also reminds me of the time I saw the legendary band Krotch (touted as “LA’s worst band” in the mid/late 80’s when I was at UCLA) and they played as their encore (the only part of the gig I saw; it took place in an apartment in Westwood after finals and we’d pre-partied too long at our place before leaving) they played “Communication Breakdown” and “Freedom of Choice” back to back and it sounded perfectly good and natural.

I have to say, if I’d have stumbled upon KROQ at this time in the late 70’s, I probably would have liked it.  I liked most of the artists they played even if I wasn’t a fanatic about any of them—unlike most everyone else who lived through the 70’s, at that time I was not obsessed with Led Zep, Aerosmith, or Kiss—and there was enough “old and familiar” and “new and interesting”.  And honestly, today this is VERY close to what I like to listen to now, which is a mix of the best of both the pre-punk and the post-punk era.

But at the time, the freeform format caused problems, most notably that it didn’t allow listeners to get familiar enough with the new songs through repetition that they would call in and request them and eventually buy them.  The radio industry exists in a delicate synergy with the music industry—the music biz needs radio to play their songs to make them known and popular and purchased, radio pays licensing fees to the music industry to play their songs, but uses the popularity of the songs to attract listeners, which of course lets them set higher advertising rates.  But if radio stations aren’t pushing new hits onto the public, the whole machine grinds to a halt.

About a year or so before I started listening to KROQ in winter of 1981, program director Rick Carroll had been (re)hired to clean up KROQ’s act.   Carroll’s solution was simple but effective:  he stamped the Top 40 FORMAT on KROQ’s “new music” SOUND.  Top 40 stations are characterized by firm schedules that result in movement of songs through “rotations”, from light to medium to heavy.  Carroll left a little bit of choice to the DJ’s—they were allowed to play a certain number of songs every hour of their own choice.  Initially this was four but eventually moved to one, and then of course went to zero when KROQ went all corporate around 1990.  According to anecdotes told by KROQ jocks years later, many of these DJ choice cuts ended up becoming hits by artists like Depeche Mode and Billy Idol.

Carroll’s “innovation” wasn’t exactly novel, but it provided exactly the structure and regularity that had been lacking previously, and that would continue to be lacking at their competitor KNAC.  If you were a listener tuning in to seek out the latest new wave hit, you could be fairly assured that you’d hear it within the hour, and you’d likely hear other top new wave hits you might have encountered only occasionally on pure Top 40 stations, and of course you’d be exposed to the newest hits-in-the-making as well.  People came, and stayed as the music struck a chord with them so to speak.

Which is exactly what happened to me:  I came in search of “Whip It” by Devo and “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors, and eventually got hooked in everything else.  In spring of 1981 KROQ was even then still sorting out what was truly “new” music and what wasn’t.  The web site below is a compendium of the “Top 106.7 songs” KROQ would regularly compile and count down on New Year’s eve, starting in 1980:

1980 is especially entertaining, containing as it does such decidedly UN-new artists as John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Van Halen, Queen, Bob Seger, Genesis, Rod Stewart, Heart, Roger Daltry, J. Geils, Paul McCartney, and Journey.  JOURNEY, people!!! KROQ was playing JOURNEY in 1980.  Of course, they were also playing Devo, the Talking Heads, the Police, XTC, the B-52’s, the Pretenders, the Clash, the Surf Punks, and the Dead Kennedys!  KROQ may have been the only non-college radio station in ANY media market to EVER play the Dead Kennedys!  Of course, my two “favorites, “Whip It” by Devo and “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors were #1, and #14 that year, respectively.

1981’s list was quite a bit more new wave-centric, but still managed to contain the Rolling Stones, King Crimson, Joe Walsh, Genesis, and Foreigner.  This is something that I vividly remember as well, this mix of new and not-really-new.  In fact, two songs I remember specifically hearing on KROQ around this time were “Let’s Get It Up” by AC/DC and “Destroyer” by the Kinks (they also played “Give the People What They Want” by the Kinks too).  The Kink’s album came out in September 1981 and AC/DC’s in December of that year.

The first two new music songs I can explicitly remember hearing on KROQ were “Bang Bang” by Iggy Pop and “Red Light” by Wall of Voodoo.  I’ve already posted about “Bang Bang”, which was released in June 1981 and came off one of Iggy’s least well regarded albums, Party.  “Red Light” by Wall of Voodoo presaged the memorable strangeness of their subsequent hit, “Mexican Radio” and its accompanying video.  “Red Light” is majestic and quirky at the same time; its swirling synths and syncopated beat recall the les strident elements of LA’s seminal synth punk band, the Screamers, but instead of Tomata Du Plenty’s harsh, barking vocals, Stan Ridgeway’s western drawl gives this song a country-ish feel despite the novelty of the synthesizers and knocking, pinging drum machines.

There were several other songs from this era I can recall hearing on KROQ early on.  One was “We Want the Airwaves” by the Ramones, which sounded dark and threatening to me.  I had no idea then about the Ramones’ critical role as one of the founding touchpoints for all of punk music; I didn’t hear their buzzsaw fast-and-furious first album for another 3 or 4 years when my friend John finally purchased it circa 1984 or 1985.  “Airwaves” is miles from the minimalist simplicity of their first (or second, or even third or fourth) album; at over three minutes it was practically “Stairway to Heaven” compared to the brevity of their early work—no song on their first three albums was longer than two minutes and 45 seconds.  And what sounded ominous and threatening to me in 1981 today sounds kind of desperate and even sad; by 1981 the Ramones were sensing that the window on their shot at the brass ring was closing if not already closed; far from being a threat, “We Want the Airwaves” was more an empty threat, a desperate appeal or plea to give them a chance, which unfortunately they never really got.  I also remember hearing “Do You Remember Rock n’ Roll Radio?” from their prior, fifth album End of the Century from May 1980, and “She’s a Sensation” like “Airwaves” off Pleasant Dreams, on KROQ during this early era.

I also remember two B-52’s songs being played back then, “Private Idaho” and “Give Me Back My Man” off their second album, Wild Planet, which came out in August 1980.  “Man” is very twitchy and twangy but unlike the shrill campy Farfisa on “Rock Lobster” it has a knocking, almost industrial sounding keyboard but is most notable for Cindy Wilson’s magnificent vocal, which starts out almost chirpy but by the time it builds to her plaintive shout, “GIVE! ME! GIVE back my man!”, is as passionate and heartfelt as anything from this era.  The odd lyrics stood out too:  “I’ll give you fish, I’ll give you candy, I’ll give you anything I have in my hand”.  It bespoke of a strange world (one where at the very least people bartered fish and/or candy for their lovers).  “Private Idaho”, with Fred Schneider’s weird yelping and again the strange lyrics about potatoes, also sticks in my brain from this time. 

My favorite B-52’s song, and indeed a song that makes my own personal Top Ten (it might hover near the mythical Top Five), is “Planet Claire” off their 1979 debut album.  I don’t really recall hearing it on KROQ at this early date, but I do remember distinctly hearing it later, around ’84 or ’85, one night when I was driving around with my friend Steve in his dad’s huge old Cadillac; the eerie 50’s horror movie organ, Ricky Wilson’s savage, slashing guitar chords, and Fred Schneider’s increasingly agitated vocals all melded with our cruising along in a giant smooth driving dinosaur car.  One of the things I love about these early B-52’s singles is how they often swing from campy 50’s cheese to punk anger in a matter of seconds.  In “Rock Lobster”, it’s toward the end when Fred Schneider shouts “LET’S ROCK!” in a wild, angry voice; the goofy beach blanket bingo party is over and things are getting manic.  In “Planet Claire”, its when Schneider yells “BUT SHE ISN’T!”, which again signals a darker shift in the song itself.
One problem I have with my memories of this time is that, like in the “Planet Claire” example above, KROQ continued to play these songs for years afterward and so I’m never 100% sure if I’m remembering hearing them from that time or from hearing them at a later date, when I was both listening to KROQ more and was better versed in songs and band identities.  For example, I can distinctly remember hearing two Police songs, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da” on KROQ but I can’t be sure it was back then or later.  I probably did hear them at least once back then, but the first Police song I have a firm memory of hearing on KROQ was “Spirits in the Material World”, which was released in November 1981; I can still remember being puzzled by the way they said “In Ma-ma-terio”. 

The Police ended up being one of the bigger success stories of the new wave/post-punk era, delivering hit after hit from their first 3 or 4 albums.  They quickly transcended the new wave “ghetto” and their songs were played on both Top 40 and classic rock stations (like KMET and KLOS).  I’m not sure to this day what it was about their sound that melded better with Rush and Bob Seger than the music of their new wave brethren but somehow it made that leap.  I find it interesting to see bands in the 21st century who are incorporating Police/Sting influences.  Two obvious ones are Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” and “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars.  The latter is so similar to the lite reggae sound of early Police that perhaps not surprisingly the Grammy Academy had Mars and Sting perform a medley of songs together (including this one and “Walking on the Moon” by the Police) at the 2013 Grammies.  Gotye’s song fascinates me.  Sonically it does contain some Police-like elements, although what it reminds me of more is the melancholy timbre of “Senses Working Overtime” by another new wave success story, XTC; I also get elements of Fischer Z’s “So Long” in the vocals.  The lyrics are captivating; Gotye’s lead chorus makes it seem like he is the aggrieved party because she callously sends a friend to collect her things after their breakup, but when Kimbra gets her turn to tell her side of the story, we find out that this guy is a strange passive-aggressive asshole, pushing her aside and making her feel guilty for their disagreements.  But then we get to the kicker; as the snare drums build up a steady rumble in accompaniment, Kimbra’s vocals rise and soar in accusation and we find out the truth:  he was stuck on a former lover.  So who is this guy?  Some strange masochist who always pushes his current lover away, then pines for them when they’re gone?  I’ve known a lot of “the grass is greener” romantic types, who are unhappy with their current partner and pine for former lovers, but then continually repeat the cycle, and this seems like what’s going on here.

There are two bands I recall hearing a lot back then as well as later but I’m pretty sure I first heard them back then.  The first was the Pretenders.  The Pretenders followed up “Brass in Pocket”, their smash hit from 1979-1980, with a series of outstanding singles that made them, along with the Police, one of the most successful exports of the British punk/post-post punk scene.  Their cover of Ray Davies’ “Stop Your Sobbing” was another hit, and while it wasn’t a huge crossover smash like “Brass”, “Mystery Achievement” is one of my favorite songs by this incredible band, one I still love to hear today—its crisp, chunky guitar/rhythm at the chorus and the tapping, insistent drum and bass interludes make it a marvelous song.  “Tattooed Love Boys”, with it’s chiming, questioning guitar line and similarly from this first album, also got played by KROQ back then too.  But the song I totally love, and which I also heard around this time, was “The Wait”.  I love everything about this song, particularly Chrissie Hynde’s guttural, super sexy “UUHHH” that starts up the song after a brief instrumental interlude, followed by her heavy breathing and sing-songy lyrics.  These early Pretender singles often made highly effective use of Chrissie panting, sighing, etc., and her heavy breathing after the solo is both sexy and captivating.  The sound of it was so wild and tough and sexy to me then (and now).  The rapid-fire, stuttering staccato of James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar, and specifically his chunky pick slides proceeded by shrieking feedback,  show that he was one of the great guitar talents to emerge from the English punk scene.  I love the repeating regularity (“DUH! Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh”) of the main guitar refrain; it reminds me of the tight, crisp guitar on the Police’s “Synchronicity II”.  This is one of the songs that really ignited my passion for this “new” music.

In August of 1981, the Pretenders released their follow-up, Pretenders II, and it was even more cram packed with future KROQ cuts.  The first single was “Talk of the Town”; this was a softer, more romantic Chrissie Hynde, yearning and vulnerable rather than the tough talking mama of the first album.  When she pouts, “I want you; I want you but now”, it’s hard for any red-blooded man not to feel responsive.  This truly was pop music—sweet, affecting, but still anchored in Honeyman-Scott’s infectious guitar lines.  “Message of Love”, their follow-up, was tougher sonically, with its bass-heavy main groove and martial drums (Martin Chambers’ drumming is exceptional here, how he not only keeps the beat but drives the whole song forward with such infectious exuberance) but again the message was decidedly un-punk—rather, it was optimistic (“We fall but we keep getting up, over and over and over and over”) and almost as nakedly romantic as “Talk of the Town”, especially in the first lyrical stanza:

“Now the reason we’re here;
Every man and woman
Is to love each other
Take care of each other.

When love walks in the room
Everybody stand up
Oh its good good good
Like Bridgitte Bardot”

It’s hard to believe that it had been just a few short years since the Pistols arrived not to praise rock but to bury it, especially all of its romantic tropes about love.  But in songs like this the Pretenders were never sappy; the message of this song is that love is what keeps people trying and striving in life, not just romantic love but the love of friends and so forth.  We all help each other up when we fall or fail. It’s hard to argue with a message like that.

Continuing this amazing streak was the song “Day After Day”, another hopeful, uplifting song; I can definitely remember hearing this on KROQ at this time period too.  This song is another guitar triumph by James Honeyman-Scott, from the skirling guitar line that introduces the song and repeats throughout to the soaring majestic chorus elements. 

“The Adulteress”, the fourth single from this album, is heavy and chugging, almost metallic; Hynde confesses to “the greatest crime in history” (adultery) and it’s not clear if she’s ashamed or proud, at least initially (later the song seems to turn bitter, and then almost tragic) but there’s something almost noble and defiant sounding about it notwithstanding Hynde’s breathy, sensual delivery of the main lyric.  This is another song I distinctly remember hearing on KROQ at this time because very shortly after this another strongly sexual song by a female new wave singer became popular, “Never Say Never” by Romeo Void, and I can remember hearing this song first then wondering if “Never” was by the same band/woman.  “Bad Boys Get Spanked”, also off this album, was also played on KROQ to the best of my recollection, as was “Pack It Up”; I still recall Hynde’s opening lyrical salvo, “You guys are the pits of the world”, and her harsh and specific denunciations of her former lover and his shortcomings (including his “appalling taste in women” and his “insipid record collection”).  

The third (along with the Police and Pretenders) of the “Big Three” of early KROQ was a local LA product, Oingo Boingo.  Originally formed in the early 70’s by Danny Elfman’s brother Richard to make scores for his movies, Boingo later came under Danny Elfman’s control and began gigging around LA in the burgeoning new wave scene and immediately achieved recognition and success as one of the most frantic and entertaining bands on the LA scene. They were signed by I.R.S. Records in 1980 and released their debut album, Only a Lad, in June of 1981.  I can remember four songs off this album being played on KROQ.  The first was the title track, a twitchy, quirky romp that quickly became a huge hit on the ROQ.  Despite its pedophilic subject matter, “Little Girls” was also extremely popular.  The first song I remember hearing by them was “What You See”, with Elfman’s alternatingly furious and frantic vocals and strange high pitched yearning vocals making it sound very schizophrenic.  The other song I distinctly recall hearing around this time was “On the Outside”, which I still love, with Elfman’s yelping, strangely affected vocals and a jaunty beat.  Boingo were clearly NOT raw amateur punks bashing away on their instruments; every song on this album was technically very proficient and the production is crisp and clean.

Boingo’s follow-up, Nothing to Fear, was released the next summer, in June 1982, and it  continued their success.  The horn-accentuated “Nothing To Fear”, the danceable “Grey Matter”, with its strange xylophone elements (which presage the more well known song “Dead Man’s Party” from the legendary 80’s Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back To School), the almost plaintive “Private Life” with its galloping guitar and repeating elements, and the manic “Wild Sex (In the Working Class)” were all hugely popular on KROQ the next year.  I still love “Grey Matter” the best, particularly its strange, almost siren like synth beginning, before the drums and xylophone elements build on it, and the ominous, chanting background “grey matter” vocals.

Other, random songs I remember hearing at this time:  May 1981’s “Follow the Leaders” by Killing Joke; their later song “Eighties” was also big on KROQ in 1984 and almost became a pseudo-anthem for the station, but its blend of funky bass and almost danceable synths with furious blasts of strident guitar noise were clearly a new and exciting sound.  I wasn’t a particularly huge fan of Killing Joke at the time, certainly not enough to seek out their albums, but definitely liked these songs, with their mixture of synth/industrial elements and harsh, punky guitar—it’s not hard to see how influential this band and its sound were on future industrial bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails (indeed, its actually hard to envision Nine Inch Nails existing without KJ’s trailblazing)—and much later in life I became a big fan of their edgy post-punk (“Wardance” and “Requiem” are my favorites by them).

Another song I remember from 1981 is “Up All Night” by the Boomtown Rats.  I’d somehow missed out on their strange left-field hit “I Don’t Like Mondays” from 1979 but can definitely remember hearing this song and its odd, repeating chorus of “Up all night”. 

In addition, another song that stuck in my consciousness was “Lunacy” by the Plasmatics.  I’d seen the album cover for 1980’s New Hope for the Wretched, in a Warehouse Records store, and it was clearly extremely punk:  the band is situated around a car crashed into a swimming pool; guitarist Richie Stotts is wearing tights and a tutu and a blue mohawk and Wendy O. Williams has pink hair and bare breasts with duct tape over her nipples!  What I wasn’t aware of was that this particular song was their attempt to transition from punk to heavy metal; at that time heavy metal was so obscure and uncool that its sound wasn’t really well known. Listening to this song now I can clearly hear these metallic elements but at the time I just thought this was loud, abrasive punk rock.  At the time it sounded raw and threatening; today it just kind of sounds turgid and sad.  For a long time the Plasmatics, and this song in particular, were kind of a short-hand for the look and sound of “real” punk for me, cartoonish as both were. But it fit well with what I had “learned” about punk from episodes of C.H.I.P.S. and Quincy. 

Two other early KROQ staples I remember from this time were “Lunatic Fringe” by Red Rider and “Ever Since the World Began” by Gary Myrick. Red Rider had a subsequent follow-up single, the lusher and softer “China”, but I like the strange, new wave tinged prog rock of “Fringe” more.  I wrote about Gary Myrick in a previous post; I wasn’t a huge fan of his then but a few years ago I got really heavily into his strange prog rock take on new wave.  His unique vocals and his incendiary guitar playing made him early on sound like America’s best answer to Sting and the Police; the stuttering guitar line from “Ever Since the World Began” reminds me of “The Wait” by the Pretenders crossed with “Synchronicity” by the Police.  This album came out I late 1980 and even at this early time Myrick had absorbed, and was in turn influencing, the emerging new wave sound.  His song “She Talks in Stereo” off this album became a minor hit around this time, but I prefer “World Began” as week as the fast and catchy “Living Disaster”.  But my favorite Myrick song of all time is the shimmering, romantic and anthemic “Time To Win” off his second album, 1983’s Language.  This song was featured in the 1983 movie Valley Girl, when Randy and Julie finally make out after having snuck out of a val party to attend a Plimsouls gig in Hollywood.  I especially love the driving, soaring chorus.

I also remember four Devo songs off their June 1981 New Traditionalists album getting heavy airplay on KROQ when I first started listening:  “Going Under”, “Beautiful World”, “Jerking Back and Forth”, and “Through Being Cool”.  “Going Under” and “Beautiful World” were my favorites of this group, but my all-time favorite Devo songs are “Freedom of Choice”, “Girl U Want”, and especially “Gates of Steel” off their previous album, May 1980’s Freedom of Choice (“Don’t You Know”, “Ton O’ Luv”, and “It’s Not Right” were also great deep cuts from this album).  This is of course the album from which “Whip It” emerged to become a massive hit single but I still love “Gates of Steel” more, its frantic, insistent tempo, the perfect blend of hard, punky guitar and perky synths make it a much more fun song to dance to.  Devo quickly got pigeonholed as a “synth band” but particularly on this album they used synthesizers to enhance the strong guitar sound of songs like “Whip It”, “Gates”, “Don’t You Know”, and the title track; back then the synths sounded weird and quirky and new wave-y but today I’m struck more by how hard and raw the guitar sound was on these songs. 

Summer of 1981 saw the release of three albums that augured the REAL beginning of the new wave era:  Duran Duran’s first album, Beauty and the Beat by the Go-Go’s, and the Psychedelic Furs’ second disc, Talk Talk Talk.  Duran Duran’s album spawned two KROQ hits, “Planet Earth” and of course “Girls on Film”.  The Go-Go’s hit it HUGE with “Our Lips our Sealed” and “We Got the Beat”, but the songs I remember hearing played on KROQ at this time were the plaintive “How Much More”, the bitter ode to LA “This Town” (surpassed only by X’s “Los Angeles in terms of it’s negative assessment of LA), and most especially the dramatic, almost cinematic “Lust To Love”, perhaps the first ever lament of going from fuck buddies to lovers.  The Furs of course hit it big with their single “Pretty In Pink”, which Molly Ringwald loved so much she had John Hughes make a movie for her based loosely on its lyrics.  It is truly a marvelous song, particularly the propulsive drumming and the grinding but still melodic guitars and of course Richard Butler’s raspy vocals.  I never bought this album back in the day (though I loved “Pink”) but recently downloaded several other songs off of it:  “It Goes On”, with its heavy bass and skirling guitar almost reminds me of a Gen X song off Kiss Me Deadly if it wasn’t for Butler’s raspy, older-brother-of-Johnny-Rotten voice; speaking of Rotten, “Into You Like a Train” has the propulsive rhythm and atonal guitar of classic P.I.L. and is a really wonderful song, as is the similarly driving and atonal “Mr. Jones”, which also features Duncan Kilburn’s wild bursts of saxophone; the less frantic and more melodic “No Tears” shows off the Furs’ more sedate side, which would also surface in later hits like “The Ghost In You” and “Love My Way”.  The Furs’ first album, 1980’s Psychedelic Furs, didn’t yield any hits but there are a number of fine tracks, including the droning, almost psychedelic introspection of “Sister Europe”, the wild (post) punk punch of “Soap Commercial”, and the morose bombast of “Imitation of Christ”, which is punctuated by the uplifting chorus.  The Psychedelic Furs would have subsequent hits, including the xylophone accented “Love My Way” (still one of my favorite songs of the 80’s new wave era, but “Run and Run” and the exquisite title track are also outstanding off this album, 1982’s Forever Now, which is probably their most solid LP top to bottom) and three songs off 1984’s Mirror Moves:  “Heartbeat” ( the 12-inch remix of which was a major club hit in LA’s dance clubs that year), the lush, romantic “Heaven”, and the sweetly affecting “The Ghost In You”.

Another artist who went on to much bigger and better things started in fall of 1981 with a couple of KROQ singles:  Adam and the Ants.  In September 1981, Adam released his single “Prince Charming”, backed with “Christian D’Or”, and I remember hearing both of them on KROQ around that time.  “Prince Charming” was, and still is, a very weird song, with its weird yelling intro, buzzsaw guitar from Marco Pirroni, and strumming acoustic guitar.  The video was, of course, just as strange, silly to the point of extreme pretension.  But Adam’s insanely arresting fashion style—a meld of colonial tricorner hats and Indian warpaint— demonstrated in this video and in the videos for two of his other early hits, “Stand and Deliver” and “Antmusic”, made him easily the match of his New Ro compatriots Duran Duran, who were also getting nearly as much attention for their glammed up, Roxy Music-influenced look displayed in their videos as they were for their music.  It was around this time that I remember seeing music videos for the first time—recall that MTV didn’t make it to the west coast until the mid-80’s.  Usually these were shown in between feature length films on cable TV to fill in the time between half hours and my friend John would videotape them on their Betamax and he and I would watch them obsessively.

I glommed onto Adam and the Ants pretty early—I think Prince Charming was the next album I purchased after Blondie’s Parallel Lines and the Vapors’ two albums.  But the song I liked the best was the B-side to “Prince”, “Christian D’Or”, with its wild buzzsaw guitar and its wacky lyrics listing all his fetishes.  This is still the punkiest Adam ever sounded.

The final five new wave songs that made an impact on me as 1981 drew to a close were all sexual and/or sexually ambiguous:  the decidedly UNambiguous novelty songs “Are You Ready For the Sex Girls?” by Gleaming Spires, “Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage” by Killer Pussy, and “Never Say Never” by Romeo Void; and the homosexuality associated songs “Homosapien” by ex-Buzzcock Pete Shelley and “Johnny Are You Queer?” by Josie Cotton. Spires was a side project for Leslie Bohem and David Kendricks of Sparks and their song is a typically cartoonish raunchy romp. Shelley’s “Homosapien” was a thinly veiled defense of homosexuality and an attack on homophobia, though few of us junior high school louts knew it at the time.  Josie Cotton’s “Johnny Are You Queer?” was more of a calling out of her boyfriend’s sexuality done in a catchy 60’s kitschy manner.  Cotton achieved a small measure of local fame for her 60’s girl group-influenced take on new wave; in addition to “Johnny” she also had another single “You Could Be the One” become popular on KROQ (both were also featured in the movie Valley Girl, along with a slew of other new wave hits from that particular year).  “Never Say Never” was a sensual blast of sexual energy that almost overwhelmed my pubescent sexuality (or lack thereof); Debra Iyala’s frank and sensual vocals opened up new doors in my young mind.  What’s funny is that I endlessly fantasized about what she looked like, this pouty, sexy, horny sounding new wave chick with the sexy voice, and of course when I saw her it was something of a surprise.  Nothing against zaftig women whatsoever, but she was NOT what I was expecting; I think I was picturing someone who looked more like Chrissy Amphlett of the Divinyls in her first incarnation in the video for their song “Boys In Town” off their 1982 Desperate album; I frankly hated her sleazy image in the “I Touch Myself” era but still love the punky energy of “Boys” and her torn stockings, bangs-in-the-face punkette image from that video.

So there it is.  In the space of about six months I went from totally clueless new wave poseur to .  .  . slightly less clueless new wave poseur.  But we were ALL poseurs back then; all of us were groping our way through the increasingly complex thicket of new music.  What amazes me is how well many of those bands, and their music, has withstood the test of time.  Obviously one-hit novelty songs like “Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage” haven’t aged well, though they are still a blast from a nostalgia point of view.  But bands like the Police, the Pretenders, the Cars, Devo, and the B-52’s all enjoyed long and fruitful careers and their music from that time continues to sparkle with wild energy. 

1981 to me was the last year of innocence for new wave.  In 1982 the floodgates opened, and for the next 2-3 years the world was inundated with new wave.  During this time even older, established bands like Heart and Linda Ronstadt would add synthesizers and quirky beats to their songs in order to keep up with the times.  And the flood of new wave music that followed inevitably contained both classic gems (bands like Depeche Mode, REM, and U2 emerged during this time) and forgettable crap (Mental As Anything, Roman Holliday, Haircut 100).  But I would still argue that the new wave era was more fun and more interesting than others that came before or since.  Were there a lot of hokey, embarrassingly silly novelty songs?  Sure.  But one thing you can say about new wave is, it was unique—almost every band sounded completely different.  From the synth pop and chirpy vocals of pink-haired, fishbowl brassiere wearing Missing Persons to the cableknit sweater blue eyed soul of Haircut 100 to the transgendered histrionics of Dead Or Alive, no two new wave bands ever looked OR sounded alike.  This is in stark contrast to the glam/hair metal era that came after it, where every band looked exactly alike (a combination of Dolls androgyny, Van Halen spandex, and Judas Priest leather and studs) and sounded alike (a mix of Aerosmith, Van Halen, and Motley Crue).  Each band would faithfully put out one single that showed their hard rocking bad-boy side and that contained lyrics celebrating mindless partying, rocking and/or rolling, or just plain sex, and a second single that was a ballad that showed their softer side (“they taught us how to live; they taught us how to love”).  Even the lamest new wave bands had their own gimmicks, look, sound, etc., which isn’t something you can say for the monotonous hordes of metal wannabes that replaced them on the charts.  Even grunge got to be fairly rote after awhile—Bush, Silverchair, Stone Temple Pilots, POTUS, etc., all sounded like second-rate Nirvana knockoffs.  As silly and campy as many new wave songs (and bands) were, the very uniqueness of the different sounds still stands out.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Raised on Radio Part I: Dispatches from the Outpost of New Wave

What was so strange about men with flower pots on their heads?

Some time around spring of 1981, I did something for the first time in my life:  I turned on a radio trying to look for a station or stations that played a specific type of music—“new” music.  I don’t know the exact date—I didn’t keep a diary or record this event in any way.  Even if I did keep a diary I’m not sure at the time I would have considered it to be a particularly meaningful or noteworthy action on my part. 

But I’ve been able to roughly recreate the crude chronology above because of a number of things.  First of all, my parents and I moved into a new house in January of 1980, when I was in 7th grade, in a neighborhood that had a different junior high school from the one I’d gone to.  We moved a lot when I was a kid and while this house was still in Long Beach, California, where we’d lived since the summer before I started 3rd grade in fall of 1975, it required me to leave the friend base I’d formed and attend a new school.  Initially my mom promised me that she would still let me attend my previous junior high school for the remaining 2.5 years of junior high (both junior highs funneled into the same high school so it wouldn’t be an issue then), but after one semester of driving me across town to my old junior high, my mom reneged on that little deal, to my great consternation at the time, and in fall of 1980 I started attending my local junior high.

I was comparatively lucky; in 5th and 6th grade my grade school (adjacent to my first junior high) had an academic “magnet” program for accelerated kids which I tested into, and this program was the only one for the grade schools in our district so several kids who lived in my new neighborhood had been in those classes with me, so I actually knew a few kids at my new school. However, I hadn’t seen them since we’d all started junior high, a time rife with clique formation and perceptions of coolness and so forth.  Luckily I did manage to hook back up with some of them and that made things at least a little better.

So anyway I do know roughly when this event happened because of these two well-documented events:  first, I am sure it occurred in the “new” house we’d been living in just over a year, and second, I am fairly certain it occurred after I started at my new school.  I was pretty lonely, having given up a pretty large number of friends and acquaintances at my old school for a handful of former classmates from two years before.  My old school had been more egalitarian; while there still was a popular “in” crowd, the distinction between them and the other kids wasn’t super hard and fast and most people including myself were friends with a pretty broad spectrum of groups.  In contrast, my new school was defined by some fairly rigid socioeconomic criteria which mapped onto the different neighborhoods around the school.  Kids who lived in “Pill Hill”, a gated community immediately adjacent to the school, and who’s parents were mostly doctors (hence the name), lawyers, and other wealthy, were at the top of the hierarchy; kids in Park Estates came in a close second.  My neighborhood, College Park, was down toward the bottom of the social strata, with little familial wealth and fewer college-bound kids and more working class families.

Like many kids that age, I was starting to seek out and try on new identities and experiences in an effort to find out who I was and where I fit into junior high society, and I think this fumbling attempt to find something “new” was one of my first real forays in this area.  Kids mature faster these days, and who knows maybe kids matured faster then than I remember, but to me I’ll always think of how neatly this attempt matches with my own entry into teenager-dom.  In May of 1980 I’d turned 13 so I was approaching 14 when this happened but still in that first flush of teenhood, when kids are often starting to make their first real attempts to discover who they are.  Just the year before I’d shared my first kisses (ironically with the cousin of my now-wife, whom I’ve known since 5th grade and had a crush on then but who never reciprocated until our senior year of college)  and my first semi-permanent boy-girl romantic relationship (even more ironically with my wife’s then best friend, who DID have a crush on me and definitely reciprocated, at least to the extent of introducing me to the joys of French kissing).

Before this time I’d never really sought out the radio in any systematic or meaningful way.  My parents were children of the 60’s and were into rock music (unlike the older parents of some of my friends, most of whom listened to classical music or maybe doo-wop or some other such oldie genre), so they owned records and played the radio in the car.  Up until this momentous occasion, I’d always been a passive radio listener who enjoyed it when it was on but was never allowed to turn it on myself and CERTAINLY was never allowed to choose the channel.  I mostly remember my dad playing the radio in the car, usually “album oriented rock” stations—what we’d call “classic rock” today—like LA’s KMET (I still remember one of their jingles from this time, “A small piece of heaven, 94.7, KMET, tweedle dee!”), where I can recall hearing songs like “Jackie Blue” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and “Hot Child in the City” by Nick Gilder (an artist I’ve come to love).  My mom would play more top 40 type stuff—I can remember hearing disco novelty songs like “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey and “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas. Another disco novelty I recall hearing on the radio was Patrick Hernandez's "Born To Be Alive".

In fact, I can only recall two minor personal flirtations with radio prior to this.  One was in the fall of 1976, when my teenage babysitter got obsessed (and got ME obsessed) with the song “Blinded by the Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band.  At that time, the AM radio station KTNQ, “The new 10-Q”, had formed and was playing top-40 music in the most repetitious format imaginable, which for us of course was a good thing because it practically guaranteed that they would play this song at LEAST once an hour; I swear I remember hearing it like every 20 minutes but perhaps that’s an exaggeration. 

After this one brief incident, I went back to treating the radio as “background noise”, until the summer of 1979, when I tried to act on my long-standing love of the Beatles and called in to LA’s premier oldies station (back when this stuff wasn’t actually THAT old), KRTH, “K-Earth 101”, to request a Beatles song (I can’t even remember which one, probably “She Loves You” or “I Feel Fine” since those are two of my favorite early songs by them).  I remember it was summer and my mother and I were living in a really cruddy, roach-infested apartment on the scuzzy end of Belmont Shore following my parents’ divorce.  My mom was at work and she’d left me home to my own devices, and what I did was spend THE ENTIRE DAY trying to get through on the call-in request line!  Nice use of a day; I’m sure I’m going to want that one back when I’m 97.  But I think my frustrating experience (I don’t recall ever getting through) set me off radio at least for awhile.

I was only moderately aware that there even WAS such a thing as “new” music in 1981.  Prior to 1980 I can only recall hearing a couple of sketchy TV news stories or newspaper stories about “punk rock”, and what I’d heard didn’t sound appetizing at all:  bands that spat on each other and wore their hair and clothing in styles designed to shock and disgust.  Not exactly what a teenage boy who is trying hard to be cool and attractive to the opposite sex and fit in with hyper-critical junior high peer groups would be attracted to.  My own tastes in music, circa 1977-1979, ranged from generic rock a la Rod Stewart  (“Tonight’s The Night” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”) to the smooth sensual disco of Donna Summer (I remember particularly liking “Hot Stuff” and “Love To Love You Baby”).

I also don’t recall hearing anything about a LOCAL punk scene at all; punk was something happening in England 5000 miles away.  Even though one of the most vibrant punk scenes in the world was unfolding not 30 miles from my own front door, and indeed by the early 80’s had spread to communities throughout the Southland, including nearby ones like Fullerton and Huntington Beach, I was so insulated from that in my suburban existence that none of it ever registered with me at the time.

But this music was nevertheless seeping into the public consciousness.  Few if any of the first-wave punk bands like the Sex Pistols, the Damned, or the Clash made much of an impact on the broader music awareness of most Southern Californians as far as I can recall.  But starting in 1979, second-wave, “new wave” bands were definitely making inroads into popular music tastes and trends.   It was in late 1978 that two bands, the Cars and Blondie, released albums (the Cars’ eponymously named first and Blondie’s third, Parallel Lines) that would break through and achieve national and even worldwide fame, in Blondie’s case spectacularly so as their disco single “Heart of Glass” became a #1 hit in April 1979.

While I have no recollections of direct experiences with the punk scene of 1976-1978, I did have fairly early exposure to these first new music shots across the bow of rock.  My aunt Kris, who was just two years older than me and more like a big sister, lived with my grandparents in a podunk small town in upstate (WAY upstate, practically in Canada and this time I’m NOT exaggerating) New York from which my whole family hails.  But she got connected with both these groups very early on, perhaps because she was just close enough to get the New York and/or Canadian radio stations playing this music.  She in fact was fairly obsessed with Blondie, and quickly bought that album along with Blondie’s earlier effort Plastic Letters and eventually Eat to the Beat when that album came out in October of 1979.  I also remember her having Candy-O by the Cars pretty early, and I think she’d bought their first album when it came out or shortly after too; that album came out in June 1979 and since I spent every summer staying with her and my grandparents she might have been listening to it that summer, or perhaps it was the next summer, I’m still not sure.  I can remember hearing “Just What I Needed” on the radio around this time, and I still love that song, along with “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” and the peppier, happier “Best Friend’s Girl” off their first album; off Candy-O I love the title track (especially its acidulous solo), and how it almost seems to explode out of the prior song on the album, “Shoo Be Doo”, the plodding, chugging guitars of “Candy-O” emerging from the swirling synths and shrieking, repeated, amplified ending of “Shoo Be Doo”.  “Let’s Go” from that album is honestly one of my favorite songs of all time.

The other huge new wave breakthrough of 1979, though they were really more of a powerpop band, was the Knack.  I still remember what a HUGE, ubiquitous hit “My Sharona” was, and it was a real game changer.  Unlike Blondie, who by Parallel Lines were pursuing a more sophisticated pan-musical sound that would eventually draw on everything from calypso (“The Tide Is High”) and the aforementioned disco (“Heart of Glass” and “Atomic”) to rap (“Rapture”, off their final first-run album, 1980’s Autoamerican), the Knack were unapologetically a new wave, “skinny tie” powerpop band, and I can remember both the initial surge in their appeal, and that of new wave, and the resulting anti-Knack (and anti-new wave) backlash (as evidenced by the “Knuke the Knack” bumper stickers that proliferated around this time).  I can still remember my best friend Jeff got like 3 copies of their album Get The Knack for his birthday that year, probably fall of 1979.

My aunt Kris had Get the Knack on 8-track and I got pretty familiar with that album as a result in the summer of 1980.  I still consider "My Sharona" to be one of the best, catchiest songs of all time; the propulsive drumming, the huge, throbbing bass, the guitar flourishes--everything about this song is amazing.   I also consider the Berton Averre's extended guitar solo to be one of the greatest guitar solos of all time--it just suddenly takes off, and takes the song out of it's quirky new wave powerpop repetition and flies away on a soaring, noodling 70's journey that is matched by few songs before or since.  But I also liked "Good Girls Don't" (despite its crude and obvious sexual entendres) and "Oh Tara".  Much later, in the Napster era circa 1999, I got into "Your Number Or Your Name"; I still think Capitol made a huge mistake not making that a third single from this album but I assume they felt they'd already saturated the market and gotten adequate sales out of that first album and wanted a second album.

I don't recall hearing any of the subsequent singles off the Knack's second album, . . . But the Little Girls Understand, which was released the next year in 1980.  "Baby Talks Dirty", the first single, was another pulsing, syncopated powerpop rocker in the same vein as "My Sharona", but somehow didn't have the same catchy appeal.  The songs I prefer off this album are "I Want Ya", which is highlighted by Bruce Davis' stupendous drumming and more inspired, busy-but-not-too-busy bass work by Prescott Niles, and the odd "Tell Me Your Mine", with its clog dancing intro and catchy guitar licks. Doug Fieger's vocals are very bizarre, an Elvis drawl that almost borders on Glenn Danzig or Alvin Stardust parody.  But this is probably the best song on this album, capturing the breezy catchy fun of "Sharona" more than the trying-too-hard "Baby Talks Dirty".

Even less was heard of the Knack's third album, Round Trip; I literally recall hearing nothing of it at the time but years later I downloaded some stuff from it, including the almost psychedelic "Just Wait and See", which almost reminds me of a paisley underground song by the likes of the Three O'Clock, and the similarly expansive jangle-pop anthem "Another Lousy Day in Paradise", a song many musical obscurists consider the Knack's best song of all.  In general this is the Knack's strongest album--it moves away from the short chords and catchy tempos of new wave/powerpop and expands their sound into new, more sophisticated territories.  Its a pity that their career got so derailed by the silly backlash against them.

I still consider the Knack one of the greatest bands of all time, horribly derided as a one-hit wonder "skinny tie" band.  They were so much more than that, and indeed were one of the tightest, sharpest, most talented bands to come out of the new wave era.   Listening to their music now with over 30 years of hindsight I can see that the Knack probably would have been successful, perhaps even more so, in any era between about 1963 and today--their songs struck some elemental chord in people then (and now) and their crisp, polished playing put them leagues away from the amateurism of punk but they still kept some of the frantic energy of punk. 

Aside from "My Sharona", I recall four other new wave songs becoming popular and being played on the radio prior to 1980.  The first was not really a proper new wave band per se, but was instead a new wave-influenced novelty song by a side project of British musician Robin Scott called M.  The song of course was “Pop Muzik”, which hit #1 on the American singles charts in April of 1979.  Of course we didn’t know that this was a new wave novelty hit or a one hit wonder at the time, and I can remember this song being very popular with me and my friends when it came out in the summer after 6th grade.

The second song was another new wave novelty song that somehow became a huge local hit (it reached 22 on the national dance charts but I think it was much more high profile in Southern California), and that was the Flying Lizard’s cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money”, which was released in July 1979, shortly before “Pop Muzik”, which was released in August 1979.  I can vividly remember hearing it come on the radio as I waited in my mom’s car for her return from the bank sometime that summer (I can vaguely recall that it was warm out).  But I think this was really a regionally popular song as I’ve talked to many other people from other parts of the U.S. who can’t even remember this song.  I think this song’s appeal lay in how it re-imagined a classic rock song much the same way Devo’s bizarre, angular take on “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones became a minor sensation around this same time.

The third song was the very DEFINITION of a one hit wonder, at least in the States, but in his native England, Gary Numan had a slew of hits aside from his massively popular “Cars”.  Like “Pop Muzik” and “Money” this was unapologetically quirky and synth driven, and it while I liked both of these other songs (and “My Sharona”), I really truly enjoyed the unabashed newness of “Cars”, with its extended synth instrumental passage following the lyrical section.  “Cars” came out in late August 1979 but when I returned to stay the summer with my aunt and grandparents in 1980 my aunt had obtained a compilation 8-track of chart hits from the previous year that had this song on it along with “Heartbreaker” by Pat Benetar.

The fourth song of 1979 that pushed new wave to the forefront of popular music was “Rock Lobster” by the B-52’s, with its twangy guitar, shrieking Farfisa organ lines, and its maniacal ending with crazy made-up aquatic creature sound effects.  Released in summer of 1979, this song was HUGELY popular with me and my friends the following year, my first year of junior high, 7th grade.  I can remember people singing it in my Exploring Spanish class in particular.

In 1980, three other new wave songs “broke through” and became big hits.  The first one I can remember hearing on the radio was “Brass In Pocket” by the Pretenders.  I have a very distinct memory of my friend Jeff’s mom driving us to soccer practice and his sister to gymnastics and his sister was asking his mom what some of the lyrics were, and meant; it was only decades later that I realized that almost NOBODY knew or understood most of the lyrics to this song!  But unlike most of the other songs, which were purposefully quirky and usually heavily synth-driven, “Brass” was really just a rock song.  Aside from the fact that they had a “chick lead singer”—which in itself wasn’t THAT off the wall given the success of rock bands like Heart in the 70’s—there wasn’t really anything sonically that stamped the Pretenders as “new” music.  But somehow we all knew that it WAS. 

The other huge song of 1980 was “Whip It” by Devo, another benchmark song for me. Devo were VERY polarizing, more so than any other new wave band, even the Knack.  Devo had actually achieved some success prior to this:  their debut album delved into the top 100 on the Billboard charts and they even performed on Saturday Night Live.  But this was the first single of theirs to make it huge off any of their first three albums, and their weird look and the quirky nature of “Whip It” really became a line in the sand for many people.  It was okay to like the Knack or the Pretenders because they were regular guitar-driven rock, but almost more than any previous new wave hit, “Whip It” seemed to revel in its own strangeness.  Some people loved it, some hated it, and it became forever for me at least the dividing line between the old and the new.  It was not uncommon for non-new wavers to shout "DEVO!" at punkers as they walked by, ironic given that most of them hated new wave synth novelty bands like Devo and instead were into Black Flag and the Exploited by this time.

1980 was also the first year that I actually BOUGHT my own music, inspired by the third big new wave hit of 1980.  The first album I recall purchasing was Blondie’s Parallel Lines on cassette at the Wherehouse Records in the Marina Pacifica Mall in Long Beach; I think I rode my bike down there to buy it.  But I’m pretty sure my second purchase was New Clear Days by the Vapors, because while I liked all of the previously mentioned songs and was therefore already leaning toward this “new” music, “Turning Japanese” was the first new wave song that REALLY clicked with me.  As embarrassing as this is to admit now, I think one of the reasons it did so was my enormous fascination with comic books at the time, and with the X-Men in particular:  it was around this time that the Wolverine storyline was starting to be fleshed out by Chris Claremont, and specifically it was revealed that Wolverine had spent time in, and was fluent with, Japan and Japanese culture (this was around X-Men #118 or 119, when the X-Men are returning from their Antarctica battle with Magneto and are rescued by a Japanese freighter and taken to Japan, where they help Sunfire defeat Moses Magnum).  I particularly liked the lines “Everyone around me is a total stranger, everyone avoids me like a cyclone ranger”, which seemed to me to epitomize Wolverine’s famous psycho loner character.  And even though I find the “chop socky” guitar lines to be kind of cheesy now, at the time I liked them a lot, but I particularly liked the guitar aggressiveness of the rest of the song. 

I loved this album, and still do.  I especially like “Waiting for the Weekend”, the tragic story song “Letter From Hiro” (which reprises the Asian theme of “Turning Japanese” but in a more sedate context), the catchy, aggressive powerpop of “Trains”, the brooding melancholy of “Bunkers”, and especially the youthful rage of “News At Ten”, which was the closest I’d come yet to actual punk anger in music. 

So by 1981 I had had only occasional and sporadic exposure to anything remotely close to “new” music, but I was intrigued by it.  I think it appealed to me for several reasons.  First, it was the early 80’s, and there was still this optimism and admiration for the future, and this music seemed both in its sonics (particularly its emphasis on synthesizers) and in its lyrics to embrace the future.  It was trying to get away from the boringness of the 70’s and I could relate to that even though I had nothing overtly against the 70’s per se.  Second, I think there was definitely an element of youthful rebellion involved too; it was different from my parents’ music, and to a 13 year old that adds a tincture of attractiveness to everything.  Third of all, it was quickly becoming apparent that new wave was the chosen music of the higher social classes in Southern California.  After a lot of initial resistance to new wave, kids our age and a few years older had adopted it with a passion.  By 1981 musical battle lines were being drawn, with new wave and the rich, upwardly mobile college-bound kids on one side, and the old classic rock which seemed to belong to the older stoner kids, many of whom were still lingering around post-high school much like Matthew McConaughey’s character “Woody” Wooderson in the classic movie Dazed and Confused.  Heavy metal at that time was barely even on the musical radar, but would eventually become new wave’s number one rival and threat.

So with only the vaguest ideas of what “new music” really WAS, in spring of 1981 I started trying to more aggressively seek it out.  It’s been said to death how different the world is today, and how with the internet you can find anything within seconds, but unless you lived a big chunk of your life in the pre-internet age you have no conception of how true this is, or how difficult it was to find things you liked back then.  You could ask a friend, or better yet an older brother of a friend, who had cooler taste in music and a more extensive record collection than you.  But none of my friends had older brothers I knew well, and anyway most of my friends were as clueless as I was.  You could wander into one of the big box record stores, where they MIGHT have one or two new wave albums, though you’d have to search rack by rack to find it, and even then it wasn’t like they advertised things like that, you had to take your cues from what the album cover looked like, and the band’s fashions if indeed they showed the band.  But it wasn’t like there were tons of record stores near our suburban house.

So I did the one thing I could do:  turned on the small radio my mom had gotten me for Christmas that year and started sliding down the dial, stopping whenever I got a signal and listening. Since I had only a few concrete examples of what new wave music sounded like, I was basically listening for anything with heavy synthesizers, quirky rhythms, odd or affected vocals, and/or strange lyrical content.

What did I find?  Well, that will be the topic of my next post.