“We’ve got new thoughts, new ideas, it’s all so groovy/ It’s just a shame that we’ve all seen the same old movies.”
Chris Bailey of the Saints sang that in 1978. I’ve been thinking about those words a lot lately because of this trend on Facebook to list the music that influenced “you” as a teenager.
Maybe this trend has mercifully burnt its self-congratulatory self out by the time you’re reading this, or perhaps people have actually grown tired of listing what they think they should list, and they’re actually telling the truth (because I seriously doubt that every single person I know listened to Big Star’s Third and Pet Sounds when they were kids, unless they were hiding the discs inside the sleeve for Brain Salad Surgery or Frampton Comes Alive).
I finally saw a friend of mine post a list that was honest: it had, oh, Robin Trower and the Dead and Spirit and the Mahavishnu Orchestra on it, all that ugly, awful, smarmy crap that smart people actually listened to in the 1970s. When I saw that, I was like, hallelujah, baby, Proverbs 19:1, “Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool” (and since this person is a respected music critic, he probably is poor).
But a dull list of what we listened to, composed with one revisionist eye cocked over our figurative shoulder for peer approval, isn’t remotely as important as why we listened to these things, and how they made us feel.
Music isn’t just the soundtrack to our life, what was “on” in the background when we kissed someone, didn’t kiss someone, or filled out a college application; in many ways, music is wedded to why we kissed or didn’t kiss someone, and why we applied to the colleges we applied to.
So here is my story—a part of it, anyway (I’m cutting off my “teen” listening years when I left high school, despite the fact that I still had nearly three years of “teen” life technically left). In no particular order:
There was a girl who was a grade below me. God had invented the peasant blouse only because he knew that one day she would wear one. Her hair, the color of sunset-blonde late autumn leaves, was effortlessly sculpted into a perfect combination of Farrah flip and Dorothy Hamill wedge. Every time she walked into the lunchroom the sky would fill with moonbeams and starlight and I would hear Sweet’s “Fox on the Run” in my head.
Dean Friedman was a minor singer-songwriter of the Steve Goodman-meets-Dan Hill variety, but he wrote one extraordinary song that remains close to my heart: “Ariel,” which I loved precisely because it’s a silly, adorable, memorable, and articulate song about loving that girl with the Farrah flip and Dorothy Hammil Wedge.
Once upon a time, you would read about bands before you would hear them. You would then imagine what they sounded like. Sometimes, an artist would pretty much sound just like you thought they would—The Troggs are a good example. Other times, you were left thinking, wait, this is what they were getting so excited about? Todd Rundgren, for instance, is infinitely better described than heard.
I grew up in a thick and comfy old Tudor a few thousand yards into Nassau County. There was a beautiful rectangular desktop radio in my father’s den. The floor in the den was often cold because, like many offices in these old houses, it had been built on an old stone patio.
The radio on my father’s desk had a little door you opened to access the Cunard-age silver tuning apparatus, and the whole set glowed orange when you clicked it on. The radio was almost always set to WNYC or WQXR (and sometimes WHN when there was a Mets game on). Everything that came out of the radio, text and song, hummed with warmth and the huggable mid-lows of old-school FM frequencies.
One evening—I don’t recall the context or the date, not even when I crawl through my memory like a psychic chimneysweep—I heard something come out of this desktop reliquary: It was a startling, machine-age thump and a stuttering engine-rev guitar, repeating in a dumb-angel two-chord cycle. I knew, instantly, even though I had never heard them before, that I was listening to the Velvet Underground.
There were only a few times in my life when I knew that music would never, ever sound the same again, that a door had been kicked open which would let in light (and dark, and shade, and shadow) and change the way I heard everything. This was one of those times.
The Stranglers were strange and powerful and attitudinal and visceral, and due to their rather pronounced musicality and ludicrously baroque keyboard lines, they were the one “punk” band you could easily turn your ELP, Doors, and Yes-loving friends on to. The Stranglers are one of the only punk bands that I love just as much now as I did when I was a teen.
Back then, I sensed that their work was crisp and complex and simultaneously aggressive and subtle and melodic and snotty, and my appreciation for them and their masterfully complete albums has only grown. They certainly showed me that musicality and the belligerent and caustic values I associated with punk could be compatible (and I vastly preferred their kind of, oh, vomiting, gut-kicking expertise to the whining knitting of Television).
I think their third album, Black and White, which I studied as intently as others studied Dark Side of the Moon, was one of the first truly classic-rock punk rock albums, which is to say it features a unique band at the apex of both their energy and their artistry, attempting to make a major full-album statement.
I fell for the Kinks and I fell hard. In the era when access to music was not instantaneous, when information about musical treasures was searched for in the runes of magazines and the ruins of newsstands, the Kinks felt like a delicious, quirky cult. You might look right past any one of a hundred children wearing a Beatles or Stones T-shirt, but you would make goddamn sure you’d try to become friends with the person wearing the Kinks shirt.
I’ll be honest, they felt like the anti-Beatles, because they felt like a secret handshake. There is a time in your life when you need something that belongs just to you or a very small group of friends, and in the mid-ish 1970s, the Kinks fit that bill perfectly. The music was alternately effeminate and erotic and British and brutish and you wandered through the records and the history without a map, and that’s just what we needed (because, man, the Beatles and the Stones were all freaking maps!).
The Kink Kronikles, which remains one of the greatest single-artist music compilations ever made, was the way in. Honestly, it was like discovering a ticket to Hogwarts; you were part of a cult large enough to be accessible, but small enough to be exclusive.
Folk music was utterly simple, based on three chords and a message, and it held the secrets that made our older brothers seem so cool. It was the tollbooth to Ginsberg and Ché and terrors about the draft, and just like punk rock it could instruct and incite and hold those in power accountable. I think this has been way overlooked: For many of us, Folk served as a gateway to punk as logically as the Stooges, the Seeds, or Nuggets did.
Even at age 14 or 15, I sensed that Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, or Tom Paxton were coming from the same place as Joe Strummer or Johnny Rotten (and I have written, on numerous occasions, that Ochs, with his peculiar and aggressive wit and desire to hold the hypocritical to the fire of truth, was the closest thing America ever had to Johnny Rotten).
Around age 13 I became almost obsessively enamored of Phil Ochs, a quirky, moody, sarcastic songwriter of extraordinary vision and sensitivity.
I now recognize that my deep love of Ochs was also my first entrée to the dark, sardonic, melodic poet singers like Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Scott Walker, and even (going a bit sideways) Nick Drake and Elliot Smith.
Ochs taught me the beauty that could be found in the most talented, troubled mind, and I was severely attached to his nearly savagely confessional later work, like Rehearsals for Retirement.
When we were older, we would find out that rock ’n’ roll was a stucco castle finished with fools gold and easily invaded. But when we were young, we imagined that it was a paradise peopled by billionaires and legends, the dead and the mad and the unapproachably beautiful. The Good Rats, who haunted bars and clubs in the New York area and were a favorite of local radio for much of the 1970s, felt like ours.
True, every suburb, screaming with Mateus and Michelob-waving children with their older siblings’ licenses securely in their wallets, was bound to produce beloved local bands—but the Rats, who played thick-riffed, cleanly played high-end pop metal that landed somewhere between Santana and Mountain and Badfinger, really were an amazing band. And a fierce, ripping, and almost frightening live act (they had the peculiar quality of always playing like they were holding a grudge).
If you lived in the New York area they were everywhere in the 1970s, and their status as local heroes obscures that fact that one of their albums, 1978’s From Rats to Riches, is a fantastic record that still sounds great today (and, peculiarly, almost sounds like proto-Stoner Metal).
Growing up in the suppurating pastel and Monsanto hole that was the suburban 1970s, you probably thought of Pink Floyd as one thing—an inaccessible, cool god that your friends who weren’t into theater talked about in whispers and half-smiles. But then you found out that there was this, this other Pink Floyd.
For many of us, this was the introduction to the world behind the Wizard’s curtain, all of the things Rolling Stone and WPLJ didn’t explain to you, a world of magic and melody and dark flowers and rainbows that turned from orange to mud-colored very quickly. Piper instantly became your favorite album and the one you had to tell everyone about. It was like Baby’s First Cult Record.
Wire’s first three albums—Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154—were all conceived and executed with the kind of craft and precision that approached the perfection that we had come to expect from the Beatles (and only from the Beatles).
Although other Punk Rock-era bands appealed to us for many different and valid reasons, only Wire, it seemed, appealed to this side of us that the Beatles had seeded: each and every track on Wire’s albums was expertly drafted and conceived, yet was also simple, progressive, visceral, and artistic.
It was like listening to Abbey Road-era Beatles playing Hamburg-era Beatles material. We may have had high emotional and social expectations for Punk, but only Wire provided us with the kind of intentionality and, well, perfection we had come to expect from the Beatles.
You knew the Sex Pistols were dangerous before you ever heard them, when they were just a rumor so exciting as to be virtually erotic.
If Bowie and Pre-Raphaelite Marc Bolan and even beautiful (the most beautiful!) Lance shook our sexual stability, the Sex Pistols seemed to signal that all of society, not just sexual tradition, was being threatened. We had just been through Watergate and the garbage vapors of Vietnam, yet we had no music that seemed to sound like our cynicism felt, but here are these British songs making that noise!
So we shared these sounds of war, too naïve to know it was just show business, and we passed them among friends as if they were pornography, and then waved them like they were the flag, and they were great records, too. When I heard the Ramones and the Pistols I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, finally, rock ’n’ roll that actually sounds like the way people describe rock ’n’ roll.”
And then there was the Beatles. Was there ever anything that was that popular yet actually that inarguably brilliant? Was there ever a Tsar or a dictator (because the Beatles had a fascistic hold on our generation’s attention) who was so universally good and worthy?
Like dinosaurs, the space program, and the ’69 Mets, everyone thought the Beatles were theirs. And like those other cultural leviathans, there was a different level of study and involvement one could engage in when entering Beatle-world, from casual obsessive to sturdy obsessive.
The Beatles were equally as enchanting to the novice and the expert, and like dinosaurs, astronauts, and sports heroes, you could point to their footsteps, their bones, their relics, and say, they were here, they walked among us, yet they are greater than us.
And everyone loved the Beatles, and strangely, I think this happened not because they embraced the middle but because they defined the outer, the inner, and the middle, and they always made sure they executed each side of the equation as if they were building Brunelleschi’s Dome.
Later, much later, I would grow to hate their ubiquity, and react to the monopoly they had on our generation’s very definition of rock music. But long, long before that, they owned my heart, and through their story we learned of the myths and lay lines of rock ’n’ roll and pop, and everything practical and ethereal about rock and pop, too.
Sure, there was a lot more. From the first three Costello albums to the Jam to Cheap Trick, and my God, the Ramones. But these were the stories I wanted to tell. Oh, and the Speedies were really important to me, too, but that’s another story entirely.
Every one of you has your own story. A story of self-discovery, and the albums that were right there that told you something about the path you were on.
Next time you try to make a list, don’t just think about what was on that cheap turntable from Korvettes on those school nights when the sun set too soon and the future felt too far away—think about the way your heart beat fast and hard and the way your mind fizzled with dreams when that particular song was on, and why you desperately needed to tell someone else about it, maybe even tell her, about that song, that artist, that record.
Because, babies, why is infinitely more interesting than what.
I dedicate this to Eric Sheidlower, Jon Gordon, and Matthew Goodman, who went on so many of these musical voyages with me, and to Steve Hochman, even though he loved—and still loves—the Dead.