The sullen looking Lloyd Cole
Biff Bang Pow – There Must Be a Better Life (Creation) 1984
Game Theory – 24 (Alias) 1985
Peter Case – Satellite Beach (Geffen) 1986
Dentists – I’m Not the Devil (Homestead) 1985
Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – Rattlesnakes (Capitol) 1984
Chills – Party In My Heart (Homestead) 1987
Sam Phillips – Holding Onto The Earth (Virgin) 1988
Spongetones – Anna (Triapore) 1987
Any Trouble – Second Choice (Stiff) 1980
Neats – Six (Propellor) 1984
Donnie Iris – Ah Leah (MCA) 1980
Bonnie Hayes & Wild Combo – Girls Like Me (Slash) 1982
Kings – The Beat Goes On/Switching To Glide (Elektra) 1980
Adventures – Another Silent Day (Chrysalis) 1984
It was a very busy week indeed, so I decided to dip into the archives and repost a favorite mix. Iron Leg Digital Trip #21, The Real Alternative was first posted in this space nine (?!?) years ago.
I tried to use it to draw a picture of what my friends and I were listening to in the 80s, at least the stuff that fell outside of the explicitly retro garage/mod stuff we dug.
So pull down the ones and zeros and lend me your ears.
I’ll see you all next week.
This week’s edition of the Iron Leg Digital Trip is a little bit unusual, and something I’ve had cooking on the back burner for quite some time.
As is often the case with many Iron Leg (and Funky16Corners Radio) podcasts, the genesis of a particular mix has often been an old mix tape or CD that I made for personal use. This is one of those.
Back in the late 70s, when I was in high school, though I worked my way through the same hard rock menu as most kids my age (Aerosmith, Zeppelin, Sabbath etc), my first musical love was the Beatles. My junior high school years were saturated with the ’62-66’ and ’67-70’ compilations, and I had many friends who were so afflicted.
By the time I was a junior in high school, although punk rock was little more than a sinister whisper on the nightly news (anyone else remember breathless, outraged coverage of the Sex Pistols US tour??), New Wave began to make its way onto mainstream radio (and sometimes TV), and the true beginnings of what would come to be known as “alternative” music could be heard on college radio.
My friends and I were lucky enough to have access to WPRB-FM in Princeton, NJ, which was for years a remarkable free form station that gave us our first exposure to US and UK punk, new wave, ska and power pop. I remember taping shows off the station an hour at a time and playing them over and over (I’d kill to have one of those old C-60s right now).
It was right about that time that I started to drift away from many of my high school friends in regard to musical taste, and scouring stores like Cheap Thrills in New Brunswick and the Princeton Record Exchange for 45s and albums by many of the bands I was hearing on the radio.
This was still a few years before I became aware of the garage/psych revival, but the music I was attracted to sounded in many ways the same.
Many of the basic threads running through New Wave and power pop would be employed by the bands I would follow in the mid-80s, i.e. the influence of the Beatles, Kinks and Byrds, 60s girl group sounds and psychedelia.
My brothers and I became huge fans of R.E.M. pretty early in their existence, seeing them live three times before 1984 and what we heard when we listened to that group (and I’m sure a lot of other people did as well) was bits and pieces of 60s folk rock, run through a post punk filter.
The bands I was following by the middle of the 80s went far beyond the “influence” of the 60s, basically trying to recreate the sights and sounds of that decade to the nth degree.
However, no matter how much time I spent at the Dive, I never stopped listening to college radio, and around the same time I was getting into the revival stuff, residents of Monmouth and Ocean county also had access to a commercial alternative radio station, with WHTG-FM in Eatontown. When they were first coming up they were almost unique in their format. As “alternative” grew – though at the time nobody was calling it that, instead referring to ‘modern rock’ or ‘independent’ – WHTG became a powerhouse and exposed us to all kinds of incredible music. I heard many of the artists in this mix for the first time on their airwaves.
All of the music in this edition of the Iron Leg Digital Trip reaches back to the 60s to some extent. There are Beatle-y sounds, tastes of psychedelia, folk rock and even a bit of garage here and there. The difference between these groups, and the bands feature in the first two volumes of Gravel, is that none of these bands, no matter how retro their sound, ever moved into the world of the garage/psyche revival (some of these artists were long gone by 1985). They were listened to by many of the revival fans (which is where I heard Biff Bang Pow and the Dentists for the first time), but none of them ever made the fashion commitment (which was probably a wise commercial decision).
Though the tracks in this mix do not run in chronological order, the earliest selections here are from 1980 and the latest (Sam Phillips) is from 1988. If anything, what I’ve tried to do here is create a snapshot of the other sixties-influenced sounds of the decade.
Most of this music hails from a time when “alternative” wasn’t even a concept yet, to the beginning of an era when the major record companies had largely co-opted the sound, and even college radio stations had been taken over by student programmers eager for their own spot on the big money, major label food chain. There are a few major label tracks here, but they are almost all from a time long before the majors were scooping up and cranking out the “next R.E.M.” 100 times a week.
Things get started with a long time fave, ‘Back Again (Try)’ by Tommy Keene. The Washington, DC based Keene made some of the brightest power pop of the 80s, and continues recording today with the like of Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices.
Biff Bang Pow – named after a song by the Creation – was led by Alan McGee, the man who went on to form the hugely influential Creation record label (though he was later responsible for signing one of my least favorite bands of all time, Oasis, proving that nobody’s perfect). ‘There Must Be a Better Life’ has an extra sunny sound, and some wicked backward tape effects.
Game Theory was for all intents and purposes Scott Miller, though there was a revolving band membership around him. I first heard the band thanks to the fact that they were produced by another fave of mine, Mitch Easter of Lets Active. ‘24’ is by far my favorite Game Theory track, due in large part to that opening guitar line, which I could listen to all day long.
If you were following the independent rock scene of the 80s then the name Peter Case should be a familiar one. Case was – with Paul Collins – one of the founding members of the Nerves (who did the original version of ‘Hanging On the Telephone’), as well as the mighty Plimsouls. By 1986 he was on his own and had recorded his first solo record for the Geffen label. ‘Satellite Beach’ is one of the better tracks on that record. I actually saw him tour for this album, in a solo acoustic show at Maxwells in Hoboken, NJ, and he was excellent.
The Dentists actually had a hit on the UK charts in 1985 with ‘I Had an Excellent Dream’. ‘I’m Not the Devil’ is from the same LP, and is a great example of their psych-drenched sound, which was produced by Alan Crockford of the legendary Prisoners.
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions were not only in heavy rotation on WHTG but I remember actually seeing their videos during the early years of MTV. The ‘Rattlesnakes’ LP is still one of my favorites of the era, with a number of excellent songs. The title track is my fave, and has always reminded me a little of Love, and not just because Arthur Lee gets a namecheck in the lyrics.
The Chills were on the vanguard of the New Zealand rock movement of the 80s (as much of a movement as a place as small as New Zealand can have), and got a lot of coverage in the indie rock mags/zines of the time. ‘Party In My Heart’ is from the excellent ‘Brave Words’ album.
Sam Phillips got her start as a Christian artist, and was for a time (including when she recorded ‘The Indescribable Wow’) married to T. Bone Burnett (who produced the album). The record is filled with sophisticated pop songs, the darkest of which is the vaguely psychedelic ‘Holding On to the Earth’.
I can’t recall how I found out about the Spongetones. ‘Whereverland’ is the only record of theirs I ever picked up, which is strange because it was in heavy rotation for a long time. Looking back, a lot of the criticism of the record suggests that it was a departure from their other work. Produced by Don Dixon (a great performer in his own right who I was lucky enough to see back in the day – with his wife Marti Jones – opening for none other than Chris Isaak), the record is a collection of lush, hook-filled pop. My fave track is the Beatle-esque ‘Anna’.
Any Trouble was another UK band, led by singer/songwriter Clive Gregson. Their sound was a poppier extension of the 70s pub rock scene, and ‘Second Choice’, with it’s soaring, anthemic chorus made it a minor hit in the early 80s.
Now the Neats…don’t get me started on the Neats. I first heard this Boston band on WPRB (in fact it was the song in this mix) and it wasn’t long before I tracked down the EP (featuring a couple of other local bands) including ‘Six’. I picked up their next two records – the EP ‘Monkeys Head In the Corner of the Room’ and the full length masterpiece ‘The Neats’ – and became a HUGE fan. They were a major fixture on my mixtapes, I wrote about them in my zines and for others as well and I was constantly trying to turn friends on to their music. I only got to see them twice, the first time was opening for R.E.M. (touring prior to the release of ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’) in a free, outdoor show at Rutgers University. About a year later, I saw them again at NYU (sharing a bill with the Chesterfield Kings) and in the time between the two shows the band had decided to go in a different direction. Gone were the ringing, psychedelic tinged folk rock, replaced with a heavier, bluesy vibe. I was – naturally – crestfallen. That said I recommend their early work (on the legendary Ace of Hearts label) without reservation.
Donnie Iris has an interesting history. He was a founding member of the Jaggerz, who in addition to recording some interesting blue-eyed soul for the Gable label, also had a hit with ‘The Rapper’. He went on to tour with Wild Cherry, and then re-emerged in the late 70s working an angle on the nascent power pop scene. I mainly remember him as a fixture from the early days of MTV, where he even had a couple of concert videos in rotation. ‘Ah Leah’ is a great, soaring bit of power pop, and was a minor chart hit in 1980.
Bonnie Hayes and Wild Combo’s ‘Girls Like Me’ will be immediately familiar if you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Valley Girl’ (which also featured the Plimsouls). Hayes was a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter who had started out in a punk band called the Punts before breaking out in a much poppier style. I fell in love with ‘Girls Like Me’ the first time I heard it, and was blown away when I finally found a copy of the LP ‘Good Clean Fun’ (still the only copy I’ve ever seen of that particular record.
If I had to venture a guess I probably heard the Kings double sider ‘The Beat Goes On/Switching To Glide’ on WMMR in Philadelphia. The song was a minor radio hit, and WMMR had a very adventurous playlist for a major commercial FM station, playing local bands like the Hooters, the A’s and Robert Hazard and the Heroes in regular rotation. I truly love this record, which is a perfect example of polished, commercial New Wave in they style of the Cars.
The final track in this mix is a bit of a departure. I don’t know if the Adventures debut LP (called ‘The Adventures’ in the UK and ‘Theodore and Friends’ in the US) was ever reissued on CD, but if you can find a copy on vinyl, do yourself a favor and pick it up.
They subscribed to a somewhat artier angle on the whole pop thing than many of the other groups in this mix, but I always found their harmonies, synths and ringing guitar lines irresistible. ‘Another Silent Day’ is my fave track from that album.
I hope you dig this little experiment, and I’ll be back next week with some cool stuff.