Didn’t See The Tower For The Steeple

October 31, 2012

One of the finest things about the treehouse lair that Paloma and I share is the number of windows.

The living room has a small, round window that I have always referred to as “the portal.” One clear, full-moon nights, the moonlight pours through in concentrated form, leaving a spotlight on the carpet.

And, behind the couch, is a large, two-sided window that overlooks a well-trafficked neighborhood street. I have often stared out the window, my chin resting on the back of the couch, watching the flow of cars on the street just below and flow of pedestrians on the sidewalks.

It’s like an aquarium.

I particular like the view in the late hours when the traffic has subsided and all is still.

Late one night this past weekend, I was staring out the window and I noticed a handful of dull lights, a half dozen or so, some blinking lazily, some not.

The twinkling reds and whites were from a small communications tower across the street, up a hill, roughly four blocks away.

I was surprised to realize that, though I’ve lived here for some time and stared off in that direction countless times, the tower had never really registered.

I mean, I had obviously seen the tower, but, had I been asked to describe the vista across the street, I would have undoubtedly forgotten to note it.

The tower, spindly and unadorned, is dwarfed (in perspective) by the church across the street. The eye is immediately drawn to the church, especially at night when the illuminated steeple in the foreground rises above the tower – several blocks away – in the background.

The grey metal structure of the tower makes it all but vanish into the crisp night air, its presence given away only by those lights.

As I look across the street tonight, the air is frosty and the landscape glows from the (almost full) moon. There are broken clouds but not enough cover to – in the words of a childhood friend – “curtail the superfluity of the nocturnal luminary.”

I’ve been imagining the tower as broadcasting some radio station and strangers throughout the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond sharing a song and not even knowing it.

It’s not, but there were a lot of late autumn evenings in the early ’80s when music was new to me and nothing sounded better as the wind howled outside than the radio.

Here are four songs from four autumns that I might have heard on whichever station I was favoring at the time…

Vanity 6 – Nasty Girl
from Vanity 6 (1982)

Q102, a Top 40 station out of Cincinnati, had been the preferred station for most of my classmates in junior high and into high school. And, as a high school freshman in 1982, it was the station that was usually my destination, too.

In Billboard magazine, Q012’s playlist from thirty years ago this week is rife with familiar songs like Jackson Browne’s Somebody’s Baby, Laura Branigan’s Gloria, and Glenn Frey’s The One You Love (which is listed as #1).

Slightly more exotic is Vanity 6′ Nasty Girl which the station had just added. The outfit was a trio of women in lingerie and high-heels led by Vanity. Prince had put the act together – originally christening it The Hookers – and wrote and produced their lone album.

Nasty Girl got attention. It sounded like what you might expect a trio of women in lingerie and high-heels, put together by Prince, and originally dubbed The Hookers might sound. It’s a nifty blend of New Wave, rock, and funk with suggestive content that didn’t stop it from being in Q102’s nightly Top Ten for weeks that fall.

Aldo Nova – Monkey On Your Back
from Subject (1983)

An autumn later, I had broken free from the confines of Top 40 stations and spent much of my time listening to Q95, an album rock station in Indianapolis. Part of the station’s appeal was The Bob & Tom Show, which aired in the morning.

(this was twelve years before the show would go national)

One song I totally dug during the autumn of 1983 was Canadian Aldo Nova’s Monkey On Your Back. I had worn out Nova’s debut from a year earlier which had contained his lone US hit with the pop metal confection Fantasy.

Monkey On Your Back was an ominous, lurching rock with gurgling synthesizers and cautionary tale lyrics that seemed edgy to me at fifteen but not so much now.

The song is still a cool trip back in time.

Big Country – Steeltown
from Steeltown (1984)

I had actually discovered modern rock station 97X in October, 1983, months after the soon-to-be revered outlet took to the air. Reception was spotty, though, and rarely could pull it in for more than a few hours a week.

By the fall of 1984, 97X was my station of choice and I believe that its signal had been boosted. My friends and I also had our drivers’ licenses which meant more opportunity to get into Cincinnati and shop for music.

It had been listening to 97X that I had first heard Big Country’s In A Big Country. The song had made the band a sensation, but Steeltown‘s arrival in late 1984 was greeted with a yawn in the States.

It got excellent reviews and deservedly so as, even without a hit, it’s a better album than their debut.

The title track has a thunderous cadence reminiscent of In A Big Country. It’s bone-rattling.

The Waterboys – The Whole Of The Moon
from This Is The Sea (1986)

When autumn came around in 1985, 97X was still my preferred station and I was hearing the music of The Waterboys for the first time.

I had actually first heard the Scottish band before school one morning on an album rock station out of Dayton and it was enough to spur me to purchase a cassette of This Is The Sea.

The song I’d heard was The Whole Of The Moon. It might be rather enigmatic, but there’s something about the glorious song that restores a sense of wonder to my world.

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One Penny

April 13, 2011

I’ve lamented the lack of music easily available to me pre-drivers license.

There was a small section devoted to albums, cassettes, and 45s in the one diminutive department store of my hometown. There couldn’t have been more than three hundred titles and the lot of it would have fit easily into our den.

(which was of the typical, Midwestern, wood-paneled variety, circa 1979)

This lack of a proper record store was hardly an issue for the first year or so as this small selection of music available to me was strictly the most popular stuff – AC/DC, Journey, Styx…

It would be another year before I would be searching for titles that might require a trip to the nearest record stores, fifty miles (and several hours spent with the parents) away.

As I made my way through the final months of junior high in the spring of ’82, the sum of my music collection was, perhaps, half a dozen cassettes including Christopher Cross’ debut, Journey’s Escape, and J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame.

I was hardly cutting edge. I was a thirteen-year old kid in a town that sometimes didn’t make the map and those handful or so of titles had been purchased with most of the little wealth I had at that age.

So, it was a momentous morning that spring when, sprawled on the den floor leafing through the Sunday paper for the comics, I stopped, mesmerized by the text on the insert.

The bold headline promised me a dozen titles for a penny and my eyes scanned the titles from which I could choose.

I had certainly seen this offer before but my interest in music had reached a critical mass and I had to own more. This was a no-brainer and as I penciled in my selections I chose with the careful consideration of someone manning a key in a missile silo.

And so, I entered into a contractual obligation as a member of the Columbia Record & Tape Club.

Four to six weeks later I arrived home from school to hours and hours of music, the smell of newly-opened cassettes filling the air.

Each month, a new catalog arrived and I pored through the titles as I fulfilled the however many tapes it took for me to fulfill the deal.

I suddenly had a music collection.

I soured on the club by the following spring for the lack of liner notes. The stuff Columbia House had licensed would have a simple paper sleeve with the album cover art.

I needed more.

And, as my friends and I now had drivers licenses, I no longer needed Columbia House.

I don’t recall all of the cassettes I snagged with that intial haul of a dozen. There was Queen’s Greatest Hits , The Best Of Blondie. and Air Supply’s debut.

Here are four songs from four tapes which I do know arrived on that glorious April afternoon in 1982…

Joan Jett And The Blackhearts – Victim Of Circumstance
from I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll

The title track from Joan Jett’s I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll was a juggernaut. The song caught my ear the first night I heard it and, within a day or two, everyone at school was abuzz about it. The song dominated Q102’s Top Ten At Ten for what seemed like forever.

By April, I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll had been joined in the nightly countdown, on various evenings, by several other songs from the album including Crimson And Clover, You’re Too Possessive, and the driving Victim Of Circumstance.

(the latter two being about as close to punk rock as most of us had ever gotten)

Loverboy – Take Me To The Top
from Get Lucky

I’d wager that radio in our part of the Midwest had to have embraced Loverboy as much as anywhere south of their Canadian homeland. Not only did the hits from their first couple albums – Turn Me Loose, The Kid Is Hot Tonight, Working For The Weekend – get played incessitantly, other songs got plenty of attention, too.

Take Me To The Top was an album track that all of the rock stations were playing. The moody, mid-tempo song had the expected Loverboy mix of synthesizer and guitars that was heard blaring from every Camaro in town.

Aldo Nova – Fantasy
from Aldo Nova

The deciding factor when I selected that chosen dozen was, usually, song recognition. I wanted songs that I had heard, preferably on the radio but, also, on the jukebox at the bowling alley.

(hence the Queen and Blondie compilations)

One title on which I “gambled” was the debut by Canadian Aldo Nova. The cooler-than-cool Fantasy was the only song I had heard, but I dug it so much I had to get the full cassette.

Quarterflash – Find Another Fool
from Quarterflash

I’ve duly noted how fetching my friends and I found Quarterflash lead singer/saxophonist Rindy Ross to be. And, for a brief year or so, the usually mellow rockin’ group notched a few hits.

I suppose the only song most people remember Quarterflash for is Harden My Heart, but the follow-up Find Another Fool was quite popular at the time, too. It’s got a far more frantic feel with a similar lyric of a woman scorned and is a bit like the kid sister to some of Pat Benatar’s more New Wave-tinged tracks from the early ’80s.


Beyond The One Hit Of The One-Hit Wonders Of The ’80s

April 7, 2009

During the past week, on several different evenings, I channel-surfed into one of those countdown shows on VH1 – this one covering the greatest one-hit wonders of the ‘80s.

It sucked me into its vortex like a black hole scarfing down a small galaxy.

(I am not a physicist so I do not stand behind the accuracy of that simile)

It was a lot of familiar ground – Thomas Dolby, Toni Basil, The Buggles – but there were also songs by acts that actually had other, lesser hits or at least other songs that I heard on the radio.

There were also songs by groups that might not have been well-known to most of the public, but who were favorites of me and my friends – the aforementioned Dolby, Devo and ‘Til Tuesday (to name a few).

So, here are some lesser-known songs by acts identified far more by a singular hit…

Devo – Girl U Want
In high school, a friend who was passionate about Devo made me familiar with the band beyond Whip It and Working In A Coal Mine. There might still be graffiti in our hometown relating to Devo.

Girl U Want is simply groovy – groovy being the first word that comes to mind when I think of the song. Then, I think of the movie Tank Girl as it appeared in that flick’s animated, opening credits.

Big Country – The Storm
Is there anyone who still believes that there were actual bagpipes in Big Country’s song In A Big Country?

I owned the first four or five Big Country albums, buying them as they were released. Steeltown, their second record, would be the one to own, but their debut, with the hit, is a strong album, too.

The Storm was a favorite from the first time I heard it on that debut.

‘Til Tuesday – Coming Up Close
Like most guys watching MTV in 1985, my friends and I were left slack-jawed and smitten by Aimee Mann in ‘Til Tuesday’s video for Voices Carry.

Image aside, ‘Til Tuesday made three very good records, shedding members over the course of those albums. By the time the band reached its end after Everything’s Different Now, Aimee Mann had guided their sound from chilly New Wave to a more organic, guitar-jangling alternative rock.

That sound had been hinted at on the group’s second album, especially on the stellar Coming Up Close.

Aldo Nova – Monkey On Your Back
I’ve read music writers who have noted Aldo Nova’s song Fantasy as one of the first pop metal hits, paving the way for radio stations to play acts like Def Leppard.

His second album, Subject, was a more interesting record (at least it was to me in 1983) – the songs were stronger and there were some strange, brief instrumentals between some of them.

Lyrics were not one of Nova’s strength, but Monkey On Your Back seemed edgy to me at fifteen; not so much now, but it’s a cool trip back in time.