Music and I have a long and storied relationship. It has been a constant companion throughout every stage of my life and worn many hats: emotional amplifier, consoling friend, nostalgia machine and dance partner, among others. The humble beginnings of my lifelong love (some might say obsession) for collecting physical media was by necessity.
As mentioned in the About section of this site, the song at the top of the US charts when I was born was none other than Elton John's "Crocodile Rock" - a prophetic coincidence I didn't discover until many years after I'd already been going by Croc for a while. I had chosen the name as a pseudonym to protect my identity on the internet message boards I visited because I was going to the University of Florida at the time, so it was intended as sort of a concession/tribute to my unsuccessful attempt to be school mascot Albert The Alligator. If I couldn't be Albert, well, no one was going to stop me from being Croc.
I grew up in a house that often had my parents playing their 60's and early 70's albums on their ancient stereo/record player, so rarely did a week go by where I didn't hear some kind of music. Their tastes were eclectic - folk, rock, pop, psychedelic rock, soul.
In addition to The Beatles, there was Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Simon & Garfunkel and the one that really freaked me out, Iron Butterfly's 17-minute psychedelic epic "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" with it's long, intense drum solo, brooding cultish organ and discordant guitar screeches.
I loved to stare at the album covers, especially those designed by Hipgnosis, who did Pink Floyd's famous "burning man" shot for Wish You Were Here.
I was probably only about 5 when I started my collection after inheriting some old records and a hideous burnt orange record player. It was one of those that had a tall spindle that you could stack your records on at the top and they'd drop, one at a time (ka-PLAK!, a sound that would send shivers down the spine of any modern day vinyl collector) onto the platter (or whatever other records you'd already stacked and heard below it), so you could listen to multiple records in a row without having to get up to change the record.
I listened to Casey Kasem on American Top 40 religiously, but I didn't just listen. No, it might as well have been schoolwork the way I would write down every song and artist on my lined notebook paper every week, even noting whenever possible if the song had risen or fell in the chart and by how many notches. To my dad's chagrin, AT40 aired Sunday mornings, at the same time as our weekly church service. I recall at least once having to be forcibly coerced to get out of the car because I was going to miss part of the countdown....religiously, indeed.
When I later found out that one of the local radio stations put out a little weekly flyer with each week's Top 40 on it, I'm sure it was a relief to our entire family.
Why did all that matter to me so much? What was I ever going to do with that information?
I'm not sure, but it was one of the earliest signs of how much I loved lists and keeping records (..of records). It felt important in a way I can't explain. Everything about music was compelling to me, and everything related to it.
Another fond memory is when my grandmother, who would go to the flea markets on a regular basis, would pick up stacks of vinyl 45's by random artists, a lot of it promotional (for radio use only) stuff. She had no idea what any of it was, but knew I'd enjoy going through it regardless. It was always amazing to get a new pile and listen to them one at a time, having no idea what I'd hear or like. I remember a promo of "Dance The Night Away" was my first exposure to Van Halen. I had no concept of A sides or B sides, it was just two songs to me. Some of these random artists would later become big, some would disappear into complete obscurity without most people ever having known they existed.
My records were by far my most prized possession. In second grade, we used to have to make up sentences using specific words. Mine usually had to do with my records. I wanted to eat, sleep and breathe music.
In the current age where owning music is easier than it's ever been, and you can go to YouTube and download almost any track that has been recorded, it's hard for me to explain to people who weren't alive then, how much more exciting and fulfilling it felt to have to go buy music at the store.
It's like anything, though - the more challenging or effort it is to get something, the more you inevitably appreciate it. I feel lucky that I got to experience those days. I would not trade them for anything, and in fact I kind of miss them a lot.
Recordland, which was my local music store in the Courtland Center mall (years later featured in the film Fahrenheit 9/11) had a large part of one wall sectioned off so that every song on the ENTIRE Billboard Hot 100 had a slot. You had to look on the latest posted chart to see what number the song you wanted was and HOPE that they had copies of it, so you could listen to it whenever you wanted.
In the days before home video games really started to become a thing (the Atari 2600 was still quite new), and cable TV hadn't quite broken out yet (yes, I'm old), I spent a LOT of time just listening to my 45's, and alphabetizing them. When I got one of those cheapo handled tape recorders that anyone who was around in the late '70s or early '80s probably remembers, I made my first mix tape at the ripe old age of 9.
I knew what "stereo" was...sort of. I would comically position my two small speakers equidistant on the floor of my bedroom on the left and right of the tape recorder, with it's tiny abysmal built-in mono microphone, imagining myself some kind of savvy sound engineer, recording my records onto the 3-for-a-dollar Certron cassettes you could find at the checkout stand at most stores. Let's just say it was about the music, not the sound quality.
Whenever I'd go on long car trips to visit other states, I'd bring that tape recorder, put a pillow over it so only I could hear it (I didn't have headphones), lay down across the back seat and stare out the window as the scenery rushed by to the sublime sounds of The Golden Age of Wireless by Thomas Dolby or Hunting High And Low by a-ha.
Sometime in 1983, my Uncle Art opened a record store (!) in Bridgeport, Michigan called Decades of Music. Sadly, I was a bit too young to work there, and it was so short-lived that I haven't ever been able to find any photos, either.
Not long after that, I began seeing ads and inserts for The Columbia Record and Tape Club, which boasted "12 RECORDS OR TAPES FOR A PENNY!". For kids like me with a limited income, it was too good to be true! Of course, you had to buy like 8 more at "club prices" which typically meant at least a few bucks more than they sold for in stores, to fulfill the agreement. On top of that, you had to tell them you DIDN'T want the monthly selection by a certain deadline, or you'd get it sent to you automatically, forcing you to go through the joyous process of figuring out how to send it back to them.
In spite of such tactics, it was often a case of Who's Scamming Who, as many of the people who signed up were not yet adults, did not have credit cards and therefore were pretty difficult to hold accountable to such contracts. I can say that of the few times in my life I joined the club, I came out comfortably ahead every time, and since the labels were already sticking it to the artists in terms of compensation anyway, I didn't lose any sleep over it. MAD magazine nailed it in their parody ad.
You can't talk about music in the '80s without mentioning the massive influence of MTV.
80's kids who had cable didn't really listen to the radio unless they were in the car. If we were near a TV, we'd have MTV on as a default, waiting for our favorite videos to come on, or a new World Premiere Video, or if it was the weekend, a concert or episodes of subversive britcom The Young Ones. Later staples such as Headbangers Ball, Yo MTV Raps! and 120 Minutes brought metal, hip hop and alternative into the mainstream.
Nothing influenced the buying habits of our generation more than MTV probably did, and nothing influenced the popularity (and sales) of a song more than a great video, or really even a decent one. I remember the insane hype of watching Michael Jackson's mini-movie Thriller as it premiered, which as both an MJ fan and a horror fan, blew me away. MTV rightfully got a lot of criticism for dragging their feet when it came to playing videos from black artists pre-MJ, but there is still a lot of great music I would likely not be aware of or liked as much if not for being exposed to it repeatedly on MTV.
By the way, if you too are a child of the '80s or just want to read something chock full of fascinating information about MTV's early growing pains and all the juicy behind the scenes stories about the videos themselves, I cannot recommend I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum enough. Never have I read a book so fast or with such a permanent grin on my face.
But as much of a fan of MTV as I was, I was on the verge of discovering a relatively unknown genre that would influence my tastes and spending habits even more.
It is 1984, and "Major Tom (Coming Home)" by German artist Peter Schilling is getting a lot of play on our local station, but it's a long version with a lot of synth breakdowns and extended instrumental passages. I had to have it, and learned that in addition to the version I knew and loved from my local station, there was a shorter edit that would get played on other stations, MTV and AT40. When I went to buy it at the record store, I asked the clerk if I could buy the longer version I'd heard on the radio. I held my breath as he pointed me over to a section of LP-sized vinyl and said "It'd be over there in the twelve inches if we have it."
Twelve inches?! Whatever. I eagerly flipped through the vinyl looking for it like Charlie Bucket unwrapping a Wonka Bar and finding the golden ticket. YESSSS! MINE.
Extended Version? Special Dance Mix? What the heck were all these different versions of songs I knew by heart? WHAT DID THEY SOUND LIKE? I had to know. Instantly, I became a remix junkie, an expensive habit when you're 11 and your weekly allowance is the same as the cost of one 12 inch. Remixes were rarely ever played on the radio, so for many songs if you didn't buy the 12 inch you'd never even know they existed.
I think the second one I ever bought was Yes's "Owner of a Lonely Heart", which had one of the more odd and unorthodox remixes I've ever heard, a simple disco-fied drum loop with just a bass riff and odd vocal snippets and effects - done by the individuals who thereafter formed the seminal experimental sampling group The Art of Noise (another favorite).
Eventually, I upgraded my stereo, got my first decent turntable. My good friends taught about what kind of blank tapes you wanted to buy to record stuff on (TDK SA-90, baby), taught me how to set the recording level and that you needed to fade the track out before the surface noise of the vinyl got louder than the song.
I started to make my own "remixes" with my dad's dual cassette deck, which involved a LOT of pausing, recording, pausing, rewinding, pausing, over and over until my dad sternly informed me that I was putting years of wear on his tape deck and he looked forward to my replacing it when it inevitably died in a week. To be fair, he was probably right, but I kept doing it and it never broke, so, yay? Unfortunately, the technology I had to work with was not suitable for translating the ideas in my head, and the mixes were pretty bad. It would be another 20 years before I remixed anything I was proud of.
Meanwhile, a few years after her divorce, my mom starting dating a guy who was a DJ at a local Flint station, WWCK 105.5 (according to Wikipedia, the #1 rated rock station in the US in 1985). I actually got to go into the station and check it out, which was only the coolest thing ever for a kid like me.
He also did deejayed weddings as a side gig and a few years later asked me if I wanted to help him out for a little extra cash. Get paid to play music? Yes, please!
The most memorable incident in my brief wedding DJ assistant career was when he asked me to cue up the bridal dance song, which was some heartfelt '70s ballad that you'd expect to hear as a bridal dance. His entire music library was on cassettes, which meant most tapes only had one song per side since you didn't really have time to be fast forwarding and finding where the next song started. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately depending on how you look at it) the flip side of this cassette was NOT a classic love song, but 1989 rap hit "Bust A Move" by Young MC, a song I know all the lyrics to and would years later perform (completely sober) at karaoke in front of my co-workers. Guess which song I had cued up to play?
As soon as I heard that unmistakable opening guitar riff, I felt sick in my gut, but to my shock and delight, the bride and groom just ran with it like they'd planned it all along, getting funky as only white people too happy to care how they look, can. It probably saved my butt with that job, and it gave all of us a great story to tell.
With the transition of the '80s into the '90s, and the rising popularity of grunge, alternative and house music, vinyl and even cassettes to some degree were ceding popularity to digital audio and compact discs. When I moved out of my parents house and went to California in 1997, I had a very limited amount of storage, so it would be over 20 years until I was reunited with my vinyl again. My CD collection, however, grew rapidly. Today I have almost 4000.
Stay tuned: I'll cover the rise of mashups, my unexpected DJ career and creating AudioDile in part two.