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.


June 23, 1984

June 26, 2011

As my personal, week-long wake listening to the E Street Band winds down, I thought that I’d pull up the Billboard Hot 100 for a corresponding week from a year in the early ’80s and examine the songs that were debuts.

Twenty-seven years ago this week, I was undoubtedly pushing the durability of the cassette of Born In The U.S.A. that I’d had for two weeks to the limit.

(much of that wear and tear occurring on side two’s opening salvo of No Surrender and Bobby Jean)

Over the previous year, I had begun to move away from Top 40 when it came to the radio, spending more time locked into the album rock stations and – when the reception was good enough – one of the first few alternative rock outlets in the country.

But, despite my broadening musical horizons, I was still quite aware of most of the songs that were hits. So, here are the songs which debuted on the Hot 100 during the week of June 23, 1984…

(with a tip of the chapeau to whiteray at Echoes In The Wind )

R.E.M. – So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)
from Reckoning
(debuted #95, peaked #78, 5 weeks on chart)

I’m not sure if I had heard R.E.M. in 1984. I know that I knew the name as their debut album Murmur had gotten a lot of press a year earlier and my buddy Bosco was an early champion of the band.

Perhaps I’d heard them during the nine months that I’d been listening to 97X, but I doubt that the offbeat Georgians would have resonated with me at the time. Over the next several years, though, I tentatively became a fan of R.E.M. and, by the time I got to college, I was devoted.

(because, in 1986, that was the law)

But R.E.M. became a band whose each new release – through 1998’s Up – was an immediate purchase. The jangly, mysterious So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry) has long been a must on any R.E.M. compilation and I’ve always loved the lyric “Go build yourself another dream, this choice isn’t mine.”

John Waite – Missing You
from No Brakes
(debuted #89, peaked #1, 24 weeks on chart)

I vividly remember the first time I heard John Waite’s Missing You. My buddy Beej and I had met a couple of girls from another high school who had come cruising in our town (which drew kids from many nearby towns for just that purpose).

Beej had gone off with the one girl and I had spent the evening hanging with Tina, driving about in Kathy’s Chevette when, at some point, a song I didn’t recognize came on the radio. The song simply stood out and, within thirty seconds, the hypnotic melody had me hooked.

Tina and I would see each other a few more times over the summer, but Missing You would become one of the biggest hits of the year and one of the more enduring pop songs of the ’80s.

Johnny Mathis – Simple
from A Special Part Of Me
(debuted #88, peaked #81, 8 weeks on chart)

Aside from duets with Dionne Warwick and Deniece Williams (with whom he had a #1 hit with in 1978 with Too Much, Too Little, Too Late) crooner Johnny Mathis hadn’t had a Top 40 hit since 1962.

I knew some of Mathis’ music from hearing my mom playing it on occasion while growing up, but I had never heard Simple. It’s not a bad song and I could hear it being played on light pop stations at the time beside the latest from Al Jarreau.

However, ever since viewing the controversial Home episode of The X-Files, I can’t think of Johnny Mathis and not recall the use of his song Wonderful, Wonderful during one of the most disturbing murder scenes I’ve ever seen.

Yes – It Can Happen
from 90125
(debuted #85, peaked #51, 7 weeks on chart)

Even though Yes had their heydey in the ’70s and were split by the time I really started paying attention, I was familiar with the band beyond the radio stuff as my buddy Streuss was a big fan.

(I recall his ongoing search for a copy of their Tormato album)

Then 90125 brought the reunited band to a new audience aided by the production of Trevor Horn and MTV. I think most of us owned a copy at the time and, though I’m still a bit burned out on Owner Of A Lonely Heart, songs like Leave It, Our Song, and the shimmering It Can Happen (complete with sitar) sound pretty good a quarter century on.

Lionel Richie – Stuck On You
from Can’t Slow Down
(debuted #72, peaked #3, 19 weeks on chart)

Somewhere, I read a piece lamenting the diminished communal experience of terrestrial radio which noted that, in 1984, whether you liked the man’s music or not, we all lived through the string of hits by Lionel Richie together.

Van Halen – Panama
from 1984
(debuted #52, peaked #13, 15 weeks on chart)

Panama immediately makes me think of MTV as the channel finally became available in our town in 1984. That summer, I must have seen the video for the song several hundred times (and we didn’t even have cable). I’d go over to my friend Beej’s house, we’d turn on MTV, and – more often than not – we’d hear the drone of the airplane that opened the video before the band crashed into the song.

What odds would you have gotten in Vegas that a year later, the original Van Halen – experiencing their greatest commercial success with 1984 – would be no more?


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.