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.

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Odd Stuff In The Trunk

March 24, 2011

A couple weeks back, I was poking around for info on the ’80s cult movie Straight To Hell and most of what I found also mentioned another ’80s cult movie – Repo Man – mentioned.

(Alex Cox directed both movies)

My friends and I knew of Repo Man in 1984 when it was released and became an instant cult movie and favorite with midnight crowds. We certainly didn’t see it at the time, but, surprisingly, as we were living in Sticksville, we were aware of the movie.

Thinking back, it had to have been my buddy Beej’s uncle who told us about it. His uncle taught literature or something at a college in Cincinnati, an hour away, and was always turning us onto obscure (to us) new wave bands.

Eventually, we snagged a videocassette of Repo Man and a bunch of us watched it one Friday night.

It was Emilio Estevez’ first movie and he starred as a young punk named Otto being mentored in the ways of being a repo man by Harry Dean Stanton as the pair attempt to repossess a ’64 Chevy Malibu with two dead aliens in the trunk.

It’s been twenty-five years or more since that single viewing of Repo Man, but I remember digging some of it and thinking a lot of it was tedious.

The soundtrack consisted of Los Angeles bands – where the movie was set – including The Circle Jerks, Fear, and Burning Sensations.

That last band was known for their video hit Belly Of The Whale and – on the Repo Man soundtrack – covering the Jonathan Richman-penned Pablo Picasso. In the song it is opined that the artist “never got called an asshole.”

(though I seem to recall Paloma once referring to him as a bastard)

I don’t remember if there were or weren’t aliens in the trunk of that ’64 Malibu in Repo Man.

And though I had several friends who drove old Malibus at the time, I was with my buddy Streuss in his old man’s beloved Volvo when we got pulled over by the police.

I stood there in the night air with several friends as Streuss was unlocking the trunk of the car at the request of the cop.

All I could think of was Repo Man as the trunk lid swung open.

No aliens.

Instead, there was several handfuls of straw, a crumpled carton that had contained wine coolers, and one tube sock.

(and, no, despite the contents of the trunk his dad was not a serial killer nor some other deranged felon)

Though the soundtrack for Repo Man was heavy on punk music, we were more partial to the new wave and alternative acts we were discovering at the time from 97X, Night Flight, and Beej’s uncle. Here are four songs that I remember from that time…

Simple Minds – Waterfront
from Live In The City Of Light

Over the previous year, U2 had finally reached us in the Midwest with songs from War and Under A Blood Red Sky getting a smattering of attention on a couple radio stations. With Sparkle In The Rain, produced by U2 producer Steve Lillywhite, I heard Scotland’s Simple Minds for the first time and was drawn to their anthemic, widescreen sound.

Waterfront, with its thumping bassline and ringing guitars, was an immediate favorite. A year later, Simple Minds was no longer a band I’d only hear on alternative outlet 97X, but on an array of stations as the group scored with the massive hit Don’t You (Forget About Me).

Though Paloma and I have a copy of Sparkle In The Rain on vinyl, the only version I have ripped of Waterfront is this live version from ’87.

Guadalcanal Diary – Watusi Rodeo
from Walking In The Shadow Of The Big Man

The band Guadalcanal Diary were from Athens, Georgia and contemporaries of R.E.M., but, unlike Michael Stipe and company, the group never managed to cross over to a more mainstream audience. They did have a modicum of success with college audiences in the mid- to late- ’80s.

It’s the quirky and engaging Watusi Rodeo for which they are best remembered. The odd, little number about cowboys in the Congo lassoing water buffalo fused jangle-pop with surf rock and why it wasn’t blaring from every radio during the spring of ’84 is mystifying.

Talk Talk – Such A Shame
from It’s My Life

My buddy Beej did get hooked on Talk Talk by his uncle and had already played It’s My Life into the ground for me before the trio notched a lone US Top 40 hit with the album’s title track.

I liked It’s My Life, but I much preferred the pulsating, skittering follow-up Such A Shame.

The Alarm – Blaze Of Glory
from Declaration

With their post-punk guitars, martial drumming, earnest lyrics, and rebellious attitude, the Welsh quartet The Alarm also appealed to the growing affection my friends and I had for U2.

Several songs from their debut, full-length album Declaration popped up on 97X including the defiant Blaze Of Glory.


Pretty In Pink And The Ghost Of Iona

November 6, 2010

Paloma and I watched about an hour of that wretched flick Mannequin in which Andrew McCarthy plays a window dresser who becomes amorous with a mannequin…it’s dreadful.

We happened across it, several months ago, while channel-surfing one morning, and we stopped. It was as though the universe had thrown down the gauntlet and we felt compelled to push ourselves to watch as much as possible.

(twisted, yes, but hasn’t everyone done this?)

But, I’ve hit Pretty In Pink tonight and I realize that it’s difficult for me not to think of the movie Mannequin each and every time that Andrew McCarthy appears onscreen

As Blaine, the romantic interest of Molly Ringwald, McCarthy has the charisma of tepid soup.

I first saw Pretty In Pink at a midnight showing in the autumn of 1986 and McCarthy’s uninspired performance bothered me then. Now – post-Mannequin – I keep hoping that this is an alternate version and the movie ends with Blaine’s head on a stick.

Pretty In Pink is a John Hughes classic and a defining ’80s flick, but it wasn’t burned into my consciousness like the late writer/director’s The Breakfast Club, from the year before, had been.

That movie’s dialogue had become central to the syntax spoken amongst me and my friends when it was released during our junior year of high school.

But, as I was of a certain age at the time, I still watch Pretty In Pink if we cross paths.

Molly Ringwald is still endearing, but it’s Annie Potts as Ringwald’s best friend Iona that has always been far more interesting to me.

She’s aesthetically pleasing, owns a record store, wields a staple gun like a gunslinger, and is named Iona.

Neat.

It’s that record store, though, that increasingly stirred my imagination as I continued to watch. It was like seeing an old home movie.

In college, there were half a dozen record stores within mere blocks of one another. It would have been unthinkable at the time had I been told that they all would be gone less than two decades after I’d graduate.

I’d like to think that Iona still has her shop, staple gun still blazing, but I know that’s unlikely.

(at least Andrew McCarthy seems to have vanished, too)

Pretty In Pink‘s soundtrack brought wider exposure to acts like New Order, Echo & The Bunnymen, and – with the title song – The Psychedelic Furs. Though I was in college, our school’s radio station was all duct tape and chicken wire with a range of three blocks.

Ironically, I had had more opportunity to hear the music of the nascent college rock scene during my last couple years of high school despite living in a small town in the hinterlands as I was within range and listening to 97X.

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

Real Life – Send Me An Angel
from Heartland

When 97X went on the air in the autumn of ’83, the station not only exposed me to acts that I would never hear on the mainstream stations to which I was listening, I also heard songs that, months later, would become mainstream hits.

(Nena’s 99 Luftballoons, Peter Schilling’s Major Tom, and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun immediately come to mind)

The ethereal synth-pop track Send Me An Angel by Australians Real Life was another song that I heard for months on 97X before being surprised to hear it on Top 40 stations in early ’84.

Oingo Boingo – Just Another Day
from Dead Man’s Party

It wasn’t 97X, MTV, or the movie Weird Science – for which the band provided the title song – that offered me my first opportunity to hear Oingo Boingo.

It was Dr. Demento airing the Hollywood band’s song Insects on his weekly show a couple years before 97X even existed.

Of course, lead singer Danny Elfman has gone on to great success scoring films, but Oingo Boingo had quite a cult following in Southern California and the group managed to notch a couple minor hits along the way including the twitchy, darkly-tinged Just Another Day.

Stan Ridgway – Drive She Said
from The Big Heat

You might not know the name, but, if you’re familiar with ’80s music, the adenoidal vocals of Stan Ridgway might sound familiar. A founding member of the band Wall Of Voodoo, he sang lead on a trio of albums including Call Of The West, which spawned the iconic Mexican Radio.

(and I still think Wall Of Voodoo is one of the coolest band names ever)

Following Call Of The West, Ridgway opted for a solo career. He’s never recaptured the audience that discovered Mexican Radio, but he’s produced some engaging, offbeat music often with a strongly cinematic vibe such as the film noirish Drive She Said.

The Alarm – Sixty-Eight Guns
from Declaration

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. In fact, 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.

But The Alarm was a contender for a time and, though their albums were inconsistent and their sonic range somewhat limited, the Welsh quartet proved more than capable of delivering some stellar moments such as the bracing anthem Sixty-Eight Guns.