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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Remembering Radio (and Me), Part 2: 1983

So, 1983, the year I turned 15, my last year in junior high (in Spokane, WA, at that time they divided up the grades K-6, 7-9, and 10-12) and the first and only year during my youth which I spent outside the public school system (my parents thought I needed a different kind of educational experience, and sent me to a private school for a year--but whatever it was supposed to help with really didn't take). I learned to drive an old pick-up truck, and I started to develop some new talents and bad habits. And, well, I listened to the radio.

By 1983, the old KREM 92.9 FM station had been sold off by its partner television station, and its new owners had christened it KZZU "The Zoo"--and it would be difficult to over-estimate the impact that station had on my particular youth cohort. I'm sure there were people in jr. high and high school who somehow found out about and listened to that elusive "college music" or "New Wave" that I was hearing about, and no doubt there were people around me listening to rap and the beginnings of hip-hop, and for that matter certainly there was plenty of country music and the burgeoning genre of Christian pop and rock to be heard as well...but for me and so many others, The Zoo was it. We listened to Don and Ken, "The Breakfast Boys," in the morning while we waited for the bus, and sometimes the bus driver would even tune into that station for us, or those who drove would listen on their car radios, and we all traded their jokes with each other and with whomever may have missed them. One time, I even recall some on-air gag they pulled, which supposedly resulted in their being fired from their jobs, and someone in one of my classes actually started a petition to get them re-hired--and by the time it reached me, over half on my fellow ninth graders at Greenacres Jr. High had signed it. It was that big.

So what music were they shoving at us? Mainstream, MOR pop music mostly, with only occasional dips into something more dangerous or alternative. I was aware of what I was missing, by now; Friday Night Videos started showing in 1983, and I quickly became an addict (at least as often as I could sneak downstairs late at night on a Friday and watch it with the volume turned way down; I wouldn't get a television of my own in my bedroom until we got one to serve as the monitor for my Commodore 64 a year or two later). But on the radio, we weren't getting the Violent Femmes's "Blister in the Sun" or the Smiths's "This Charming Man" (though my older sister definitely knew about U2 and War by then). For us younger pop-radio-listening kids, when it wasn't Michael Jackson's continuing dominance of the charts, it was MJ teaming up with someone else (I'd figured out who Paul McCartney was by this point) for "Say Say Say"...

...or else we were doing a little bit of (appropriately moderated) head-banging with any number of cuts off Def Leppard's Pyromania.

I feel like I should say something about myself and rock at this point in time. A couple of years before this point--probably around 1981--this pinhead named Lynn Bryson, who was I suppose what you'd have to call a Mormon televangelist/huckster/shake-down artist, visited the churches in our area and promptly scared the shit out of me and probably hundreds of other moderately culturally adventuresome Mormon youth. He told us all about the backmasking on "Stairway to Heaven" and what KISS and RUSH stood for ("Knights in Satan's Service" and "Raised Under Satan's Hand," respectively) and how John Lennon was a witch, etc., etc. (He also spent a long time attacking Dungeons and Dragons, but that's another topic.) I eventually got over the terror he'd afflicted upon our community, but I suspect a lot of it stayed with me for years, on some level or another; I always felt vaguely bad about liking Def Leppard, because, obviously, how can you trust a band which can't spell its own name right? Anyway, this is probably the main reason I never drifted towards anything harder that what KZZU offered, despite the fact that there were hard rock stations aplenty and more Mötley Crüe fans talking about Shout at the Devil around me at school than I could shake a stick at.

Besides, Michael Jackson was unavoidable that year; Thriller, though released the year before, was on the charts for pretty much all of 1983, with one song after another going to the top of Casey Kasem's weekly list.  Honestly, the man had us in the palm of his hand, never more so than when he showed off his dance moves...

...which I suppose should have been a harbinger of things to come: not just the displacement of radio by video, but more generally, the diversification of media, making it possible for an artist who achieves success in one format to be able to play that off against, or use it as leverage towards, or just ignore, other formats. (MJ's whole successful struggle against MTV is this story in microcosm, I guess.)

Anyway, so obviously I listened to Thriller (I confess that "P.Y.T.," possibly the stupidest song on the whole album, was my favorite) and watched all the videos. But what else was radio in Spokane giving us? Well, Genesis's move into radio-friendly pop (it would be years before I knew anything about their progressive rock history; I'd never heard any of their stuff on old KJRB), with "Taking it All Too Hard" and "That's All" of the Genesis album:

On the bubble-gum side, there was of course the arrival of Madonna with her self-titled debut album:

And on the rougher side, there was ZZ Top--though again, this was a case of diversifying media platforms driving each other. While no doubt Eliminator would have caught a lot of ears on its own, it can't be disputed that it was videos like the one for "Legs" which, um, really got a huge number of us teenage male radio listeners interested:

And then, of course, there was Huey Lewis and the News's Sports: 30 years old this year, and still sounding great.

Mainstream pop radio in Spokane wasn't completely impervious to the "second British Invasion" going on elsewhere, of course; even those of us who were listening to MOR (however putatively "edgy") rock stations like The Zoo were familiar with Boy George and the Culture Club, The Human League, the Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Naked Eyes (which I can remember my older sister being surprised and complimentary at my knowing their name), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and some others. (Personally, I was particularly fond of Spandau Ballet, though most of my friends dismissed them as Duran Duran knock-offs.) But, as I said before, the real range of pop music's synth- and post-punk explosion was centered in radio markets where there was a significant number of young adults hitting the clubs and building a mutually supportive musical culture. That wasn't Spokane, at least not for this teen-age Mormon living on a farm and attending suburban schools. No Echo and the Bunnymen's Porcupine, no R.E.M.'s Murmur. But at least we had David Bowie's accidental-indulgence-in-the-modern-music-mainstream, Let's Dance...

..and most of all, The Police's masterpiece, Synchronicity...

...which so captivated us that at least one person, long before he'd ever heard of "fan fiction," proceeded to spin out this long, complicated, faux-James Bond tale which centered around some arch-villain encoding a murderous secret message on the tracks of the album, the solution to which could only be found by decoding the lyrics, and then elaborating at length about this story in the lunch room at school. (That wasn't me, by the way. Absolutely was not me.)


Doug said...

From the Book of Lost Rock's entry on Przecławice (and their album "Dream Only By Night"): Despite their huge 1982-83 hit "Annabel Lee," Przecławice never became a household word in US pop music. While titling their second single "Za Naszą i Waszą (Wolność)" seems in retrospect an obvious mistake, its anthemic qualities appealed to listeners in the summer of 1983 who were not interested in Michael Jackson or Irene Cara. Indeed, many DJ's received requests in those months for "That Song" by "That Band," and knew exactly what tongue-tied listeners wanted. Przecławice's upbeat rendition of "The Raven," however, peaked at #23 on Billboard's chart, and the band never recovered its chart momentum. Many fans contend their second album, "Seek Not to Convince," was even better than "Dream Only By Night," with tighter compositions and a larger brass section, but the pop moment had moved on, and divisions were already appearing in the unwieldy lineup. Titling their third album "The Fall of the House of Usher" was either a signal or a Freudian slip of epic proportions.

Shortly thereafter the group's natural fissiparousness prevailed: The P Group tried dance numbers. The Przecławice Brass failed to compete with Herb Alpert. Przecławice's former lead accordionist swore never to perform in an English-speaking country again, despairing of the press' inability to print a proper ł, and went on to renown across the Balkans. P Town enjoyed moderate success with Lovecraftian ballads, plugging along (often touring with Miskatonic Youth, and with HP and the Mighty Shoggoth) until appearances of their songs in the "Twilight" movies brought unexpected commercial success. With P Town providing most of the soundtrack for the fourth and fifth films, are the stars right for a Przecławice resurrection?

Russell Arben Fox said...

Your forgot to link to their hit video, Doug: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwE5HSiZpWQ

Robert Couch said...

I think any of us living through -- or at least grow up in -- these years, can deeply appreciate the ethos evoked by these songs. With the wide and diverse range of musical choices these days, I suspect the role that music plays in providing generational identify is fading. No?


I don't know how I avoided most of this dreck. My youth was spent listening to SMITHS, YAZ, YELLO, HUMAN LEAGUE, THOMPSON TWINS, B52s, and DEAD CAN DANCE among others.

I listened to, but didn't like THE DEAD KENNEDYS and BLACK FLAG and their ilk — though I totally crushed on the guys that did.


Oh! And THE BEATTLES — was introduced to them by a friend's mother.

Russell Arben Fox said...


With the wide and diverse range of musical choices these days, I suspect the role that music plays in providing generational identify is fading. No?

That, indeed, is one of the themes of the whole series.


My youth was spent listening to SMITHS, YAZ, YELLO, HUMAN LEAGUE, THOMPSON TWINS, B52s, and DEAD CAN DANCE among others. I listened to, but didn't like THE DEAD KENNEDYS and BLACK FLAG and their ilk — though I totally crushed on the guys that did.

On what radio station in Spokane was this?!?! I mean, admittedly, I realize I probably just limited myself growing up; my older sister Samatha was listening to all this progressive/alt stuff, so obviously some radio station was playing more than just the break-out New Wave stuff. But I can't recall for the life of me what it might have been. (Sigh. In the end, I guess I was always was, and maybe always will be, too much for a Top 40 guy.)

ScottDFW said...

I keep waiting for the installment when you take the train off the rails of commercial radio.

Doug said...

Thanks, Russell! That's the, er, extra-long version.