Posted by: markfender | October 16, 2012

Headphone Diaries – Introduction

So, there I was in class when a couple students began talking about the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert the other night.

“They didn’t play any old stuff,” someone complained.

“Yeah,” someone else added. “Nothing from Californication.”

Wait, Californication is the old stuff now? I remember waxing nostalgic about Mother’s Milk after Blood Sugar Sex Magick came out. These damned kids today…

This segued into a thought I’d been having recently – does the music of my childhood hold up? It’s been a number of years since I listened to much of it. I’ve bought and sold so many CDs over the years that I’m sure there’s stuff I would feel kind of nostalgic for if I heard it now. I threw out all my old cassettes several moves ago because I no longer have the means of playing them.

So, I’m going to embark on a long-term project – to listen to music that came out in my formative years with a fresh ear. I’ll be skipping around a bit as things come to me, but I’m going to try to cover the years in order with whatever release lists I can find. There’s music I’ll be skipping as we journey through the years – I do not have and never had a need for any Sting song ever, for instance. There are entire genres I’ll be skipping as well, honestly because I never listened to them. It’s a revisit, not a new discovery. And I’ll probably wax rhapsodic about certain bands and cover their entire catalogs (or, at least the good bits) all in the same post. So, this isn’t exactly in any sort of order. I also don’t know how often I’ll update this. Certain weeks may receive no coverage while other weeks might spawn a couple posts. I’m doing this on my own time at my own pace.

Obviously, I think the decade in which I was a teenager to be the most important musically – that happens to everybody. But there were a couple important genres that emerged in the ’90s that have left their impact on the musical scene. Grunge changed the musical landscape for a couple years (and redefined our wardrobes), Britpop created a new explosion of British music onto American shores, and trip hop became the electronic music for people who weren’t interested in how many BPMs a song had. Not to mention that radio stations reprogrammed themselves into some sort of new format called ‘alternative.’ Obviously I’m biased, but I happen to think it was a pretty important decade for music. So, I’m interested in exploring that time space to see if that thesis holds up. It should be exciting.

So, first up, some background on me and why you should care. What formed my musical tastes? Should you pay attention to my opinions on alternative music? First off, I try to stay current with music. I like it. And like any good addiction, it requires constant new fixes for our audio journeys. As I get older, I find myself picking up fewer and fewer titles as my tastes formed decades ago diverge from what the kids are listening to, but I do still listen to it all to see if there’s anything I’m missing. (Full disclosure: I’m listening to Ellie Goulding’s new album as I write this – I probably won’t buy it but it doesn’t annoy me). I want to find new bands and explore new soundscapes. I use words like ‘soundscapes.’ I’m serious about this shit. So, this isn’t just a journey from an old graying person who misses his flannel complaining about how music just isn’t the same anymore. In fact, I’ll probably come to the opposite opinion when I’m done (except for the flannel thing – damn, that fabric was comfortable).

Three formative experiences in my musical tastes. These first two are related, so excuse a slight tangent:

I lived in Chicago in the late ’80s. As 14-year olds, we spent a lot of time messing around with audio equipment. We would record little radio dramas, pretend to be DJs, or take our portable rigs around town and interview people. We were weird. We used an old Atari 2600 to record sound effects from Yar’s Revenge for our science fiction serial. My remix of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know?” (where I only played the parts where she said “How will I know?” – she says that a LOT in that song) amuses me to this day. We used one of those kid synthesizers to record weird sounds and apply filters to them over and over until they became nonsense sounds. We once recreated an episode of Miami Vice using our best impersonations of Sesame Street characters, all to the Miami Vice soundtrack. It was 14-year old stuff and it was ridiculous.

I say all that to let you know that when I moved and my friends from Chicago and I would still exchange audio tapes, you have a background. We were audio nerds and we continued to correspond with audio. Two of these tape exchanges formulated my current music tastes. The first one was from one friend. He sent me a tape once with a collection of “music you shouldn’t listen to.” This was a weird way to express his Christian ideas, but whatever. This tape included such things as Guns ‘N Roses’ “Paradise City” so you sorta see where he’s coming from. One of the songs he included was Ministry’s “Stigmata,” off of The Land of Rape and Honey album. This was the greatest song I had ever heard.

Up until this point, I wasn’t a big musical person. I had some cassette tapes of stuff I liked, but it wasn’t an obsession. I listened to the radio and could probably name a number of the bands I heard and tell you which ones I liked. But music was still just background noise. It was like watching a sitcom, enjoyable while it lasted but nothing to remember five minutes from now. But “Stigmata” absolutely crushed me. There’s always that one thing you hear sometime in your teenage years that excites that musical part of your brain where the switch flips and you suddenly “get it.” (This might be connected to the part of your brain that suddenly makes girls interesting as well – I have no scientific proof) Ministry made me “get it.” Everything about that song was amazing – the weird electronic drawl that drives up before he begins singing, the crushing drumbeat, the jackhammer after the second verse – all of it. I quickly sought out the whole album and became a giant industrial metalhead. “Music you shouldn’t listen to” indeed.

Because an industrial band was my introduction to “real music” (i.e. music I actually cared about), I think I’ve always been pretty accepting of electronic instruments. If a drum machine can do what a real drummer can’t do for you, that’s cool with me. Even after branching out into other genres, I’ve always had a healthy appreciation for sequencers, samplers, and other electronic noisemakers. Anything that makes a sound should and could be a musical instrument, even if it’s just the sound of Autotune.

I had another friend from Chicago named Dan. We were sort of forced to be friends, since our parents attended the same church. We had little in common besides a love of Transformers. But for some reason, after I moved, we became much better friends. Maybe it was because we were both going through that bullshit teen angst phases and found a person on the other side of the country we could commiserate with. Maybe it was that typical male machismo thing that prevents you from discussing your “feelings” with anyone else, except the person you know that you’ll never see again. For whatever reason, we became big letter writers, exchanging 14-page missives every couple of weeks. And usually, we’d include a cassette tape in these letters that contained whatever we were currently listening to. Most of the mix tapes I sent were full of industrial music from obscure German bands, but Dan was clued into a much more alternative scene. He introduced me to house music long before it had spread outside Chicago, for instance. And over the years, in between massive letters about Dan maybe-being-gay-no-probably-not-wait-definitely-gay, he sent me a lot of weird and eclectic music before there was really an alternative scene to speak of. Bands I first heard from him: The Cure, Catherine Wheel, Tori Amos, My Bloody Valentine, and Suzanne Vega. Some of those were good bands that worked their way into my regular rotation. Others (*cough* Catherine Wheel *cough*) did not. So, while I never liked everything he’d send, he sent me enough to inform a lot of my tastes in the burgeoning alternative scene.

The last piece of my weird musical taste came from the *gasp* radio. There wasn’t such a thing as an alternative radio station in Alabama in 1989 (I’m not sure there was EVER an alternative radio station in Alabama – I got the hell out of there). But, late at night one Sunday night, I discovered a weird radio show on the classic radio station out of Columbus, Georgia. This wasn’t a station that I could normally get – only at night and only after twisting that knob very carefully. I have no idea what the call letters were. All I know is that at midnight on a Sunday night, the radio station got turned over to one of their regular DJs who loved alternative music. She played a wide range of things. She was inordinately fond of early Cure, for instance. But interspersed between the Lemonheads, Dread Zeppelin, and Live’s first album was a lot of obscure bands that defined my musical tastes for years. I first heard things like Skrew, Godhead, and Machines of Loving Grace on this station. Of course, since this show was on midnight on Sunday night, it became difficult for me to stay awake for the entire show. But I managed to find a 120 minute cassette tape. I would stay up until 1 AM recording the first hour while listening on my headphones. Then I would manually flip the tape over and record the rest of the show. After the tape had been flipped, it was safe to go to sleep, never missing a moment of bizarre music. Then, I would listen to the whole show the rest of the week and get ready for the next week’s show. So, props to you, nameless radio DJ. You warped a young kid’s mind.

For those of you who grew up with Youtube and iPods, this probably all seems like a ridiculous amount of work to discover new music. But this is what people did back in the day. Trust me, you have it way better off now. I haven’t listened to the radio in years. I use Spotify to listen to new music. Pandora is amazing. I have much credit in the iTunes store. All this technology is hopefully going to make it easier for me to go back in time and relisten to the shit I was listening to while being annoyed at my parents. It’ll be fun.



  1. I heard ‘head like a hole’ by Nine Inch Nails on one of our classic rock stations the other day. I thought ‘hey cool!’ till I realized it was on a classic rock station, then I felt kinda old…

    • Tell me it was followed by “Rooster”. It was followed by “Rooster,” wasn’t it?

      • Nope, just commercials & I flipped to another station.

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