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.