Musical Influence and Evolution
The 60's and 70's
I grew up during the heyday of Top 40 rock radio. I had the 60's on one side, New Wave on the other, and me blissful into the middle. More than any other era, the seventies defines "normal" to my brain.
I listened mostly to ambient pop-radio while growing up. I often did not listen to music, per say, but simply heard it as I went about my life. The brutal fact is that I knew nothing about music, was woefully ignorant of musical trends, and did not bother turning the radio on. I did not know the difference between AM and FM for the longest time, and only tuned into the top 40 station that my parents sometimes played. I do not remember the call letters of that station.
Certain words encompass my radio experience. Music then, on average, was far broader than it is today. Back then, each band searched for its own sound in order to succeed. Today, each band strives for the same type of sound, leaving me to perceive each band as the same.
In addition to unique sounds, there were more musical styles that reached the Top 40. You had pop-country, country-rock, folk-rock, pop-rock, glam, disco, reggae, and funk, among others. The Top 40 was truly a mash-up of styles and genres. Even with its breadth, the range of music in the 70's had shrunk. Whole genres had disappeared from radio play.
The other catchword of radio is "repetition." I remember these songs because the radio station played them incessantly. Quite honestly, I was often sick of them back when they were hits.
The 70's, more than any other musical era, defines "normal" in my brain.
The Electric Company and That Broadway Rhythm
I love the Broadway sound. In middle school, I would borrow Broadway shows from the library and listen to them on a mono tape recorder. What I could never figure out is WHY I liked them. I never knew where I got that taste from.
A few years ago, Barb Poff threw one of her film fests, and she showed 70's and 80's TV, including the Electric Company. The music of this show, produced near Broadway, was entirely in the Broadway sound. I mean, Rita Moreno for crying out loud! And the Short Circus!
I still love musicals, most especially the pop-styled ones. I frown on those composers who turned Broadway into a melancholy shadow of itself, such as Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I rejoice in the fun ones, such as Hairspray, Grease, and Bat Boy.
In addition to The Electric Company, musicals were more prominent on TV. The musicals from the 60's were now shown in various slots in the 70's. Some were in the mornings, but others had their yearly showing in the evenings, especially holidays. Noteworthy films included The Wizard of Oz, the Sound of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. You made a point of watching them if you wanted to see them.
The Banjo in my Grandfather's House
1977. Somewhere around the seventh grade, on one of those rare occasions where I visited my paternal grandfather's house, he had a banjo sitting by the sofa. I had no idea why one was there, as my grandfather did not play a banjo, although I do have some vague memories of other instruments about. This banjo was nickle plated all over and quite the looker. I had the opportunity to look at it closely. For some reason, the idea of playing the banjo fixed in my mind that day, and would somehow stick with me, taking years to resurface.
Oddly enough, even when I was old enough to buy an instrument, and had enough money, instruments always seemed out of my reach. It never occurred to me that I could buy one and learn it. (Never mind that I have a history of never practicing after I did buy and instrument.)
To me, music was something that somebody else did. Sometimes I wanted to learn something, yet somehow, I myself never got myself there.
New Wave and MTV
1981-1984. Up until 8th grade, I had barely listened to the radio outside of Top 40 stations. I am not sure that I even knew that rock stations existed. To the extent that I heard 70's music, I absorbed it from my environment. I eventually turned on the radio and began learning what music was like. I remember that being hard on my ears. I had to learn to like the music of the day.
In 1981, we got cable, and the first thing that came across the wire, quite literally as the tech hooked up the TV, was the Go-Go's "I Got the Beat". I now lived in the MTV era and all that entails. My exposure to popular music exploded. There's little more that I can say here. Poptopia! New music was always showing up, and it was all cool and highly different. For the first time, I got an idea of which bands were making which music.
1983. By 1983, my tastes had developed well enough that I could no longer stand the high-repetition radio stations grinding the same songs day in and day out. MTV was losing its luster as slick videos came onto the scene, pushing out the quirky videos of those early days. I wanted to be musically cooler than I already was.
WHFS was a progressive rock station broadcasting from Annapolis. By the mid-80's, it had lost its progressive roots and was playing a very eclectic variety of music, mostly varying with the DJ. They were not playlisted, so you could hear anything. They would pretty much play anything not in the Top 40. I think that they did have an informal rule that you should not hear something more than once or twice a day.
Just as I learned to listen to pop, I had to learn how to listen to this music. Some of it I liked, but much of it was very different to my ear. These bands were often well off the musical mainstream.
In time, as I found more and more music that I liked, this station became my lifeline to interesting radio. When I came home from college, I took notes on bands that I liked, and then focused on buying those records, if I could find them.
The Bangles, All Over the Place
1984. This is the first album that I fell in love with. I adored it from first play. I could not get enough of it. I was obsessed. I listened to it frequently during the day. I went to sleep with this thing on my tape player at night. Oddly enough, I can't listen to this album any more as I am so familiar with it that it fades into the environment.
The album itself contained all the ingredients that now dominate my musical preferences. It contained: female vocals, jangle guitars, clean sounds, harmonies, under-produced aesthetics, highly accessible, and unpretentious. For all practical purposes, it was an indie album recorded on a major label.
The Bangles themselves were part of the Paisley Underground, a group of bands which predominated my to-buy list back in college. I did not know what the Paisley underground was until many years later, when I realized that this cluster of bands dominated my to-buy list of the era.
Kirsty MacColl, Early Recordings
1984-5. I heard these tunes on WHFS and adored them. I could never find nor order them, no matter how hard I tried, for I thought that Kirsty MacColl was named Kristy McCall. In the end, I searched for these tracks for twenty years before I found them. I am sure that I could have done something clever to find them, way back when, but that was before the internet made finding things easy, and back before Kirsty's early work were collected into a convenient CD packaging.
There is something accessible and adorable that I find in these tunes. The sentiments are open and honest. The words are singable, and the tunes easy to follow. She did something right by me. That did not continue. Unfortunately, she moved on in her musical way. She became more sophisticated, and I lost any empathy with the songs.
Winter Hours, Leaving Time
1985. I picked this EP up in Books Strings and Things down in Blacksburg, Virginia. I read down the list of songs on the jacket and could bring each tune to mind. Normally, I can't do that. In this case, I had heard each of the songs on WHFS, and each track had stuck with me. I gladly bought this album, following that up with their remaining albums.
There is something about the tone of this band that resonates with me, somewhat melancholy, somewhat dreaming. I call this tone "introspective." As my musical tastes matured, I found a a love for the instrospective, encompassing such acts as Mazzy Star, the Sundays, and Azure Ray.
WHFS Goes Playlist
1992? I am not sure of the exact date of this trainwreck, but it happened in the early 90's. The Eistein brothers sold WHFS, and the new management wanted something completely different from the station. Among their first actions was playlisting. Instead of playing a huge variety of interesting items, the DJ's would now play a narrow variety of more popular items, taking the station mainstream in the newly popular alternative music scene. Once the station went mainstream, those tracks not-so-popular with the masses disappeared from the air, and I found myself deaf, having no good source for new music.
Between grunge, rap, and the wasteland that was 90s radio, I gravitated to those bands that I already knew, and only occasionally lucked into something that I adored.
Primitive Radio Gods, Rocket
1996. I bought this album for the track, "Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand". That track was beautiful. The remaining album was worthless. By worthless, I mean garbage. That was the tipping point for me. I had been growing disgusted with music for a while. I was now so disgusted with pop music that I stopped buying music all together. I had no love left. Even though I had far more money than I had in college, I bought far less.
The Deering Goodtime Banjo
1996. Somewhere along the line, I finally got the gumption up to buy a banjo. I taught myself how to play it and began playing with Three Left Feet, and English Country Dance Band. I'll be honest here. "Began playing with" is better described as "they tolerated my incompetence." I had a great deal to learn about everything musical.
As practicalities turned out, I didn't get to play much in the beginning. The band lacked a percussionist, so I often wound up keeping time rather than playing. That was the best musical education that I had. That act gave me a solid respect for timing, and readied me for my instrument, for the job of the banjo player is to lay down the rhythm. If you don't lay it down steady, you sound bad.
I played very little outside of Three Left Feet. I did spend some Friday nights playing with the Glen Echo Open Band. That was a good experience. You would be surprised at how good a pickup band can sound. I did try to play with others here and there, but we had a great divergence in styles.
Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock
2000. I was dating Heather C. at the time. She showed me this album in the record store. "My friend swears by this band," she said. On that recommendation, I bought it and I liked it.
The importance of this album is not the album itself, but the excitement of rediscovering the indie music scene. This album got me back into buying music after four years in the wilderness. This album reconnected me to the addiction that I loved so well. For the next six years, I would be spending significant funds in the pursuit of this passion. It was only with the birth of a child that I pulled back from my manic pursuit of twee and pop.
Amazon.com Samples and Allmusic.com
Along with helping my rediscovery of indie pop, Amazon began doing two very influential things in my musical life: they placed song samples onto their CD store, and they placed "people who bought this also bought ..." onto my sales page. Seeing what other people bought took me to bands that I would not otherwise have discovered. Being able to hear their sample helped to direct my buying habits. I could focus on those things which I liked rather than risk money on a lemon.
Allmusic.com helped me to understand what I was buying. What I discovered is that the albums that I preferred fell into distinct and recognized categories: twee pop, indie pop, neo-psychadelia, etc. My ear, in its ignorance, picked out these categories. Once I knew these categories were out there, I used them to find more of what I loved.
Theoretical Girl, "The Boy I Left Behind"
2008. This song showed up as a featured video on YouTube. I adored this tune. The thing that I most adored about it was that it was NEW. The music scene had drifted into unexciting boredom again, but here was LIFE. The Brits were, once again, and after too long a hiatus, producing Britpop again.
From there, I found The Violets and Ipso Facto, both good listens in their way.
I now feel like there is some hope for popular music.