Summer Of The Mall Rat

May 19, 2012

As the school year came to a close in 1984, synchronistic events were occurring that would shape that summer for me and my friends.

By that May, all of us had obtained our drivers licenses, giving us the ability to escape the limited boundaries of our small hometown.

The fledgling MTV had become available in our area and, as it still hadn’t been co-opted by the major labels, those of us that had access to the channel had exposure to acts that we wouldn’t hear on the radio.

Those of us without MTV had become devotees of the newly-minted alternative rock station 97X from across the border in Ohio and though reception was maddeningly intermittent, it too provided a chance to hear new and exotic music.

With few responsibilities stealing our time, we took every opportunity available – usually when our buddy Beej would “borrow” his brother’s Datsun B210 (known as The Invisible Jet) – to hit the road for the bright lights of the dirty city known as Cincinnati.

We usually stuck to the malls. The malls had everything we didn’t have in our hometown – record stores, book stores, arcades, food courts, escalators – in one place.

And a lot of girls.

(there were, obviously, girls in our town, but we had known most of them since first grade – mall girls were exotic and mysterious)

The record stores in the malls, though chain stores, had more music than we could imagine and more than enough stock to quickly deplete our meager funds without venturing beyond the climate-controlled confines that became frequent haunts that summer.

However, we did wander about enough to discover Globe Records, the first indie record store I’d ever been in.

Globe was located in a part of the city that had little else to take us out of our way. It was a funky, little store, deeper than it was wide, tucked away in a strip mall setting.

It was a low-key place, lots of simple wood bins and racks. I seem to remember an open upstairs level which must have served as a good perch to monitor potential shoplifters.

There were large posters on the walls, haphazardly arrayed. I think the store’s backroom (and the stairs leading to the loft) might have been separated from the floor by a curtain of beads.

I can almost picture the place.

(I couldn’t have shopped there more than a dozen times and it was twenty-five years ago)

But I vividly recall the air musky with the scent of incense.

It had to have been the most bohemian place my friends and I had ever been up to that time in our lives.

Here are four songs that I remember well from that time…

Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth
from The Flat Earth (1984)

She Blinded Me With Science was a Top Ten single in early ’83, but the song was mostly ignored by the radio stations in our area. I had a cassette of its parent album, The Golden Age Of Wireless, dubbed from a friend, though, and was captivated by Thomas Dolby’s quirky style and songs like One Of Our Submarines and Europa And The Pirate Twins.

My buddy Streuss quickly purchased the various incarnations of The Golden Age Of Wireless and snagged the follow-up, The Flat Earth, upon its release. The manic Hyperactive! – a minor hit in the States – had short-lived appeal to me and I found the rest of the album difficult to embrace.

(it would really be Paloma who would help me rediscover the album a decade later)

Dolby’s reputation as a techno boffin might be well-deserved, but, despite the gadgetry, he somehow imbues his songs with more humanity than more traditional acts and the title song from The Flat Earth is strange and lovely.

“The earth can be any shape that you want it to be.”

The Psychedelic Furs – The Ghost In You
from Mirror Moves (1984)

My buddy Beej was the first of my friends to have cable. And, even before MTV arrived with the summer in 1984, he was discovering new bands watching WTBS’ Night Tracks late-night video show almost a year earlier.

He’d tell us of the videos he’d see by then-obscure acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers and those who would remain unknown such as Burning Sensations. The more unusual the name, the more likely it would catch his attention and he took note of The Psychedelic Furs.

(the rest of us had heard The Furs on the soundtrack to the movie Valley Girl)

The Ghost In You would be the lead track on Mirror Moves which Beej played into the ground throughout the summer, but I never tired of the lovely and dreamy song.

(and still haven’t)

Big Country – Wonderland
from Wonderland EP (1984)

Sandwiched between Big Country’s debut, The Crossing, and its follow-up, Steeltown, which would arrive in late ’84, was a four-track EP released that spring. I had taped The Crossing from a radio station’s late-night airing and finally snagged a cassette of it and the Wonderland EP on one of those record-shopping trips.

The highlight of the EP was the thunderous title track which became a minor hit for Big Country but I heard often on 97X.

The Alarm – 68 Guns
from Declaration (1984)

Earnest and idealistic, The Alarm had a lot in common with U2 when both bands emerged as part of the post-punk scene in the early ’80s. The Alarm served as a support act for U2 as the latter was breaking in the States with War in ’83, but as U2 marched onward to superstardom, The Alarm remained a fringe act.

Though their albums were inconsistent and their range somewhat limited, the Welsh quartet proved more than capable of delivering some stellar moments such as the bracing anthem 68 Guns.

March 5, 1983

March 5, 2011

If I were able to teleport back to 1983 and show my iPod to that year’s version of me, it would undoubtedly blow my mind.

Obviously being visited by a being claiming to be myself from thirty years in the future would be mind blowing, but a device smaller than a cassette case containing 40,000 songs would have been the most amazing thing that I’d ever seen.

At the time, I’d been buying albums – in cassette form – for a year or so and I doubt that I had more than two dozen of them. It couldn’t have been more than three hundred songs.

Yeah, if someone had shown me a device the size of a cassette that would hold 150 times the number of songs I owned, my flabber would have been gasted.

Anyhow, it’s as good a time as any to peruse the Hot 100 chart from Billboard magazine for this week in 1983 and, as inspired by several other blogs, sift through the debut songs.

Seven songs debuted on that chart twenty-eight years ago and none of them even managed to make the Top 40 – though several came close – and I believe a couple of them are unavailable…

The System – You Are In My System
from Sweat
(debuted #90, peaked #64, 8 weeks on chart)

I don’t think I’d ever heard The System’s You Are In My System, but I did know Robert Palmer’s cover of the song from a few months later as I heard it sporadically on the radio that summer.

The System’s original sounds no different to me aside from lacking the suaveness of Robert Palmer

Single Bullet Theory – Keep It Tight
from Single Bullet Theory
(debuted #84, peaked #78, 4 weeks on chart)

Nor had I heard Single Bullet Theory’s lone hit, but I did know their name from seeing it on leader cards while browsing through record stores.

The Wikipedia page for the Virginia band tells the too common tale of a promising band getting snuffed out by a label’s indifference and/or ineptness.

Keep It Tight made me smile from its opening. It’s less than three minutes of New Wave-tinged power pop, complete with saxophone, that’s more fun than killin’ drifters and makes me curious about the rest of the band’s one album.

Robert Hazard – Escalator Of Life
from Robert Hazard
(debuted #83, peaked #58, 9 weeks on chart)

I’d come across things on Robert Hazard through the years and knew that he had written Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and seemed to have a cult following for his own music. And, from what I’d read, there seemed to be great affection for Hazard’s one hit Escalator Of Life.

The song was likely a bit too New Wave for the stations in our part of the Midwest to air in 1983. We wouldn’t get MTV for another year, so I didn’t hear the song or see the video at the time.

I can understand Escalator Of Life‘s appeal. It’s chilly, droning synth-pop with robotic vocals that’s an ode to excess (or maybe not). The song, like it’s accompanying video, is totally of its time.

Mac McAnally – Minimum Love
from Nothin’ But The Truth
(debuted #81, peaked #41, 12 weeks on chart)

I could have sworn that I saw Mac McAnally perform this song three or four times on Solid Gold in a span of a couple months in 1983. I wasn’t hearing the song on radio, but there was this McAnally fellow taking three or four minutes of screen time from the Soild Gold Dancers.

Minimum Love is pleasant enough adult pop, I suppose, and his voice reminds me of James Taylor. But the song didn’t do much for me then and I really haven’t warmed to it over the years.

Berlin – Sex (I’m A…)
from Pleasure Victim
(debuted #79, peaked #62, 7 weeks on chart)

Berlin was a band that I knew in early ’83 by reputation only as the L.A. band had caused a stir with the lyrics for their song Sex (I’m A…) and a lot of stations across the country wouldn’t play it.

I heard the song later that summer. My buddy Beej returned from a couple weeks in Arizona with albums by bands that he’d discovered on a Phoenix alternative radio station and Pleasure Victim was one of them. I dug it, but I was a little underwhelmed considering the hoopla.

Years later, I’d interview lead singer Terri Nunn who was an absolute sweetheart.

John Anderson – Swingin’
from Wild & Blue
(debuted #75, peaked #43, 14 weeks on chart)

Our small hometown had a country radio station which would usually be playing in our kitchen during breakfast, so I heard Swingin’ often that spring, but it also got played on the Top 40 stations I preferred right alongside Journey, Duran Duran, and Michael Jackson.

The song was hardly my cup of joe and I mostly remember how my friends Beej and Kirk The Pyro thought it be hysterical and would often sing the chorus, imitating Anderson’s gruff drawl.

The Psychedelic Furs – Love My Way
from Forever Now
(debuted #73, peaked #44, 10 weeks on chart)

Love My Way, produced by Todd Rundgren, was probably the first song by Psychedelic Furs that I ever heard, but it wasn’t on radio. Instead, I knew the song from its use in the movie Valley Girl . That autumn, 97X took to the airwaves and I heard more from the Furs including their signature song Pretty In Pink.

The following spring, my buddy Beej became a fan of the band from seeing their videos on Night Flight, the USA Network show which aired music videos over night on weekends. MTV wouldn’t be available to us until the summer, so Night Flight was the only chance to see the new medium for music.

During the summer of ’84, we wore out Psychedelic Furs’ new album, Mirror Moves, but it was the dreamy Love My Way that was my first exposure to one of the more iconic bands of the ’80s.


October 2, 2010

Was it just two weeks ago that the air conditioner was humming as summer’s last gasp pushed us into one final round of temperatures in the mid-90s?

(it was – I was there)

But the weather has respected the official onset of autumn as well as the arrival of October.

The air is cool and crisp and the sun is providing just enough warmth to allow us to throw every window in the treehouse open. Humans and animals are delighted as the humans drink their coffee and the animals sleep on the window sills.

Even if the past five months had not been a brutal endurance test pitting us against the sweltering heat and unremitting humidity, October has always been one of my favorite months.

I’m not entirely sure why, but the weather is likely a component as October has usually offered up an interesting and accomodating mix of meteorological conditions that often make the days pleasant and the nights perfect for sleep.

As a kid, October meant that we were deep enough into the school year that the culture shock of being back in school had passed as had the grieving process for the lost days of summer vacation. By the tenth month, most of us had adjusted to the routine of class and afterschool practices.

October meant fall break, those glorious two days that allowed us a chance to bask in every minute of the shortening days.

October also meant that we were reaching the end of the baseball season, culminating with the World Series.

(though my interest in baseball has greatly waned as an adult and, unless I am mistaken, the series has encroached on November)

And the birthdays of both my father and Paloma fall in October, which is rather important as both of them have been essential to the operation.

Personally, I’d be good with dispensing with months like February and September and adding a couple more Octobers.

October is a good egg.

October was also the month that, in 1983, I discovered the freshly minted 97X on the radio dial. It was as momentous a moment for me as the pilgrims discovering Halloween was for candymakers.

So, here are four random songs from a playlist that I put together duplicating that of the late, great 97X…

XTC – Dear God
from Skylarking

I was familiar with XTC thanks to 97X and songs like Making Plans For Nigel and Love On A Farmboy’s Wages, but my main exposure to the British act came once I entered college and my buddy Streuss became enthralled with their quirky brand of Beatles-tinged alternative rock. In fact, Skylarking came out at the beginning of my freshman year when I was learning to live without 97X.

Dear God didn’t appear on the original version of the band’s Todd Rundgren-produced masterpiece Skylarking, but was added after the controversial song gained popularity on college rock stations.

“And all the people that you made in your image, see them fighting in the street ’cause they can’t make opinions meet about God.”

The Plimsouls – A Million Miles Away
from Valley Girl soundtrack

Like a lot of folks who weren’t living in Southern California in 1983, the first time that I ever heard The Plimsouls was in the movie Valley Girl. The power-pop band not only had a couple songs on the once difficult to find soundtrack but made a cameo as a band performing in a club.

Somehow, the jangly, kinetic A Million Miles Away was little more than a minor hit at the time.

(that the ridiculously catchy song wasn’t everywhere is inexplicable)

The Nails – 88 Lines About 44 Women
from Mood Swing

I can’t say that I’ve ever heard anything else by The Nails, a Colorado band for which Dead Kennedy’s Jello Biafra was once a roadie, but 97X certainly played the hell out of the quirky 88 Lines About 44 Women back in the day.

Of course, with some of the song’s lyrical content it was destined to never be more than a cult hit.

Psychedelic Furs – The Ghost In You
from All Of This And Nothing

Like The Plimsouls, the British post-punk act Psychedelic Furs had music featured in Valley Girl with the song Love My Way (and would find even greater success when their song Pretty In Pink provided inspiration for the John Hughes movie of the same name).

The Ghost In You would be the first track on the Furs’ 1984 album Mirror Moves and a song that my friend Beej would discover watching WTBS’ Night Tracks late-night video show.

Beej played Mirror Moves into the ground that summer, but I never tired of the lovely and dreamy song (and still haven’t).