Thursday, March 30, 2006

Maybe if the melody is filled with both the pain and the ecstasy of loving me

I'll make another post about music, and this time I'll take a page out of Bill's book. I'll dig up a memory from the Eighties and share it with you, dear brilliant and scrupulous readers.

My '80s: Thomas Dolby

Many of us (at least those who are my approximate age) started to like music at a really glorious time -- the early '80s. It was the confluence of UK punk, this new-fangled stuff called "new wave", anthemic rock, and another new-fangled type of thing called "synthesizer pop". Just to name a few.

Arguably the most memorable artist to emerge from the early days of the "synth-pop" genre was Thomas Dolby (nee Thomas Morgan Robertson). Virtually an unheard of tactic at the time, he did a great deal of tinkering around in the studio to produce a multitude of synthetic sounds, which he combined with real instruments to make a one-man band. Today this is pretty common, and I would guess that Trent Reznor, Kurt Ralske (Ultra Vivid Scene), Marc Bianchi (Her Space Holiday) and Trevor HollAnd (HollAnd, Sea Saw) all site Thomas Dolby as a profound influence on their career path.

Anyway, back to the point.

I used to stay up, eagerly anticipating "The Top Ten at Ten" on G-105. It was 1983. I would vacillate between "Beat it" and "Down Under". Maybe "Every Breath You Take" would be my favorite for a few weeks. Or "Electric Avenue" (insert parody lyrics "We're gonna walk down to K-Mart to buy some shoes. They only cost a dollar") would tickle my fancy for weeks on end.

My sister had introduced me to the Violent Femmes, but I wasn't cool enough to "get it". I was 12, for cryin' out loud! I still had to have my music spoon-fed to me. However, I was beginning to be able to hear some idiosynchrosies and I was able to sort of understand why I liked what I liked. I just wasn't ready for something as outside the box as Violent Femmes.

One thing I wasn't privy to, though, was the glory of stereophony. I routinely listened to music on a cruddy little clock radio, or on my parents' stereo system, which, in hindsight was never wired properly.

So I was up late one night. Beyond bedtime, waiting for the "top 10 at 10". I discovered that I could foil my parents by listening to my portable personal cassette player and am/fm radio tuner, or what Bill referred to as "jogger". It was big and bulky. About the size of a 400-page paperback book. The cassette part of it had three buttons. Play, stop/eject, and fast forward. The only way to rewind a tape was to flip it over, fast forward, then flip it back over. Not that I had a lot of tapes, or that anyone knew of a better life, but that's just how it was. The radio part worked just fine, and listening to the radio with the headphones might have been my first serious exposure to stereophony. Like I say, my parents component system wasn't really hooked up properly, and they probably had the left channel speaker situated right beside the right channel speaker anyway. They didn't and still don't care about stuff like that.

I heard "She Blinded Me With Science" on the headphones, in its stereophonic glory and I was completely blown away. HOW? CAN? HE? DO? THAT? Not only was there a lot going on, but it was all the fuck over the stereo field. I didn't know that such a thing existed. In particular, there's an extended "drum" solo towards the end of the song that ping-pongs from right to left and with varying levels of intensity in each channel. I still remember the feeling I had when I realized what was going on.

For weeks, I would call the station, requesting the song so I could re-live that. I would listen to the "top ten at 10" and bask in the stereophonic goodness of Mr. Dolby's triumph.

Then it occurred to me. Why don't I just tape it, and then listen to it whenever I wanted? Well, the component cassette deck my parents had wasn't going to do the job. Either it didn't have a "line in", or the ancient amp/tuner didn't have an auxiliary "line out". Or my parents didn't care enough to set the damn thing up properly. I wasn't clever enough to figure it out, either. No problem, I thought. I'll just use the portable tape recorder. You know. Just like the one that Rerun used to make a bootleg of the Doobie Brothers concert. It weighed about 10 pounds and was roughly the size of a hard-bound Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. I'd hold it up to the radio, tell my sister so shut the fuck up for four minutes while I was recording, and it would be all good. Of course I could have gotten a ride to the mall and blown my allowance at Record Bar on a copy of The Golden Age of Wireless. But why would I do that when I could get my own copy from the radio for free?

We all remember doing this as a kid. You had to patiently wait for the moment your song came on. Most of the time, the first few seconds of your song was cut off. To avoid this, you had to be lightning-quick with your reflexes, or have the benefit of the deejay giving you a heads-up. The sound quality was going to be a little shoddy since you were recording at ambient level, complete with all the background noise and normal room tone. However, we didn't know any better, and it was 1983 anyway.

My plan had worked (or so I thought, anyway). I recorded the song, and now I could listen to it whenever I wanted, at the forceful touch of a single button. Ahhhhh. Technology! I proudly told my parents and my sister about this song that I love and how cool it is that the drum solo goes in the left ear, then in the right ear, and back and forth and louder and softer, and how head-swimmingly awesome it was. And how I had so cleverly and masterfully taped that very song from the radio. I urged them to gather 'round to listen to the brilliant song that I was about to play for them.

As you've guessed by now, I didn't have a firm grasp on how recording in stereo works. My "copy" of "She Blinded Me With Science" was not only muddy (at best), but lacked the stereophonic goodness. It was indeed a monophonic mess. I was monumentally upset, to say the least. However, I was convinced that there was something wrong with the radio station. My plan was perfect, so it couldn't have been my technologically retarded attempt at recording. It had to be the radio station. Maybe they forgot to broadcast in stereo. Yeah. That had to be it.

I used a brand new cassette and tried it again the next night. Naturally it yielded the same results.

I never did purchase a copy of "The Golden Age of Wireless", and I quickly forgot about that song thanks to Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz". In fact, I haven't given much thought to the matter until I decided to undertake this project.

Note: I can't be sure that "Puttin' on the Ritz" came after "She Blinded Me With Science", but that's my recollection.

now playing:

50 Foot Wave Golden Ocean


Brushback said...

I never did purchase a copy of "The Golden Age of Wireless", and I quickly forgot about that song thanks to Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz".

I don't know if it was intentional on your part, but this is one of the funniest lines I've read all month.

Bill Purdy said...

What's a bit spooky is... I could have written this piece. I had a similar experience with Thomas Dolby (although I never allowed myself to be distracted by Taco). I bought "Golden Age of Wireless," but I still listen to "The Flat Earth," which is a much more mature and nuanced album (as one would expect, seeing as how it's still listenable 20 years later).

You didn't mention it, but for most of us our introduction to Thomas Dolby was Foreigner's "4" LP, on which he played keyboards.