One fine night in the early fall of 1979, I was on the air at my college radio station when the studio telephone rang. (Or blinked, as the case may be.) It was the associate editor of the campus newspaper. “We’d like somebody to write a music column for the paper every week, and I can’t think of anyone better qualified to do it than you.” Honesty compels me to report that the editor happened to be a former girlfriend, and that was my primary qualification for the gig, because I had no other credentials at that point. I’d been on the campus station for less than a year, and I had neither a recognizable on-air style that made me unique, nor a golden ear for picking the hits. What I did have was passion for music and the ability to cobble together strings of coherent sentences. It was this that my ex remembered, and so “Stick ‘Em In Your Ear” was born. Working at a radio station gave me access to new music, concert news, and the occasional concert ticket. Because the station was populated by other music freaks, we often talked, and more often argued, about our preferences and prejudices. As a result, my opinions came to be passionately held and in my columns, bluntly expressed.
I used to have a bunch of these columns posted online, but when I changed ISPs a couple of years ago, they came down–and they aren’t going back up again. For one thing, the young man who wrote them comes across in print as pompous and arrogant now, utterly convinced of his own rectitude and completely lacking empathy for anyone else. For another, the writing is pretty rough. Even the best columns have a tossed-off, stream-of-consciousness feel to them, because that’s how I wrote in those days–when you think you’re perfect just the way you are, you don’t bother to edit.
I was going through some of these old columns recently and discovered one published 26 years ago today, on December 6, 1979. In the paper’s last edition of the calendar year, I listed my top albums and singles of 1979.
2. The Long Run/Eagles
3. Minute by Minute/Doobie Brothers
4. In Through the Out Door/Led Zeppelin
5. 52nd Street/Billy Joel
6. Breakfast in America/Supertramp
7. Rickie Lee Jones
8. Get the Knack
9. Time Passages/Al Stewart
10. Spirits Having Flown/Bee Gees
1. “What a Fool Believes”/Doobie Brothers
2. “Cruel to Be Kind”/Nick Lowe
3. “Heart of Glass”/Blondie
4. “Goodbye Stranger”/Supertramp
5. “Rise”/Herb Alpert
6. “Bad Case of Loving You”/Robert Palmer
7. “Let’s Go”/Cars
8. “Tragedy”/Bee Gees
9. “Goodnight Tonight”/Wings
10. “Sail On”/Commodores
It strikes me that those aren’t bad lists, even after all this time. On the singles list, I overrated “Rise” and “Goodnight Tonight,” and I liked “Heart of Glass” a lot more then than I do now. About Candy-O, I wrote, “It typifies what the late 70s have been about, rockwise.” I don’t agree with that now–looking back today, Candy-O is actually a break with 70s styles and a precursor of the polished, chilly, danceable 80s rock that MTV would make famous. Including the Bee Gees on both lists was an act of reverse iconoclasm, in which I praised an act everyone else was bashing at the time–although I still think the dramatic “Tragedy” is one of the most underrated records in their canon.
What’s missing from these lists is what was missing from our radio station: punk and new wave (with the exception of Blondie and Nick Lowe, whom we considered new-wavey at the time), and anything remotely alternative, the kind of music associated with adventuresome college radio. We were top-40 and album-rock fans. Our program director had worked the previous summer at Milwaukee’s top album-rock station and brought Lee Abrams’ legendary Superstars format (the first classic-rock format) to school with him in the fall. The playlist contained a limited number of new, below-the-radar bands–but most of them left most of us cold. We wanted to play the hits by the bands we loved, and they were many of the same ones we’d loved in high school. (If we’d paid better attention to the under-the-radar bands, we might have noticed that they resembled the Cars more than they did the Eagles or Doobies.)
As the new calendar year 1980 dawned, the station’s new program director–me–had no intention of changing things much. But some of those stories will have to wait for another time.