August 1st 1981. It's 11:59PM Central time in Montgomery Alabama, USA. A wide-eyed afro coiffed me is staring intently at what was probably a 27 inch tubed TV in a huge console housing not only the rounded fish bowl like facade of the monitor but also a turntable to the left, an AM/FM receiver to the right & stereo speakers to boot. In my mind's eye, that piece of furniture wielding those visual & aural delights might as well have been an IMAX theater. Especially at this moment..
You see, I was born a music lover. My parents were music lovers & they raised me that way. My father, to this day, has at least 4 different music systems in his house. In 1981, he had the most incredible speakers at the time, a Sony reel to reel player, a Technics top of the line turntable, a Nakamichi cassette deck--the bloody guy had & still does have it all! In addition to all the gear he had & still has, he also had great taste in music. Prior to the life changing event that occurred that Summer in 1981, thanks to my parents, I'd been exposed to the best in R&B, Jazz, Pop, & we even watched the late night music shows of the 1970's together. Don Kirshner's Midnight Special & Late Night In Concert were staple weekend viewing for the family Shaw in the late '70's to early '80's. The proximity in age between me & my parents (mom 20 years & dad 24 years my senior) lead to us actually enjoying the same music when I was a pre-teen.
During one of those late night viewing episodes in 1980, I was exposed to something different. I'd been aware of the name David Bowie since the mid '70's but I really hadn't heard or paid attention to anything by him. In Alabama, I doubt I had access at the time. I remember this particular night even through the haze of my Bud Ice addled brain as though it happened yesterday. The whispering deadpan delivery of Kirshner announced that he had the exclusive to a new song by David Bowie. I found the declaration strange since everything on Midnight Special was live--bands playing to a narcoleptic audience. With this announcement, was he just going to play a recorded song with the undead audience bobbing their barely attached heads to the music? It was odd. Even more strange, Kirshner almost seemed excited. What he was introducing was a video.
After watching the surreal video of 'Ashes To Ashes', I understood why the normally laconic Kirshner experienced a 'rise' in his spirits. This video thing he showed actually told a story! I couldn't understand what story it might be but it was doing something. There was a visual that accompanied these wild lyrics & otherworldly sounds. I remember my parents sitting there watching this & mumbling something like, 'What is this shit,' and grimacing. I was on the other side of the couch mumbling 'What is this glorious new shit' with an odd wry grin on my face. I can't help but grin oddly. The curse of bad teeth & a misshapen mouth haunt me. Regardless of my afflictions, in 1980 David Bowie showed me a glimpse of the future.
I was fortunate enough to be living in an upper middle class neighborhood--one of the first graced with cable TV. Cable TV in 1980 consisted of ESPN, large local stations based in New York & Chicago, & of course the fledgling CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS & that was it! Nothing more. So in the Spring of '81, when the announcement of a 24 hour music television station was headed to cable & in light of watching Bowie just a few months earlier--it all made sense! Music Television!
So there I sat that August 1st of 1981. Parents asleep. I'm staring at a dot on the TV screen when suddenly it exploded! MTV! There was Mark Goodman proclaiming this new cable station as the home for 24 hour video music. He then cut to all of his VJ cohorts, Alan Hunter, Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn & J.J. Jackson & finally the first music video. I was baffled. The Buggles? What & who the fuck is this? "Video Killed The Radio Star" made sense conceptually but this video just seemed to kill the concept of 'music'! Looking back, I guess the song wasn't that horrible & MTV was brilliant to make it the first video. It was followed by a straight ahead recorded live video of Pat Benatar doing "Hit Me With Your Your Best Shot" or one of her other compelling rockers of the time. I have to admit, Pat had the loveliest ass in rock then & maybe ever & whatever video it was made sure you couldn't miss that ass-set! It was a pleasant distraction but I was looking for something musically like I'd seen months earlier with Bowie. A few bland hard rock videos later that night, I would see it--"The Look of Love" by ABC.
This wasn't Bowie! This was a campy Benny Hill-ish video shot in overly bright technicolor. But there was a style in both the music & the visuals that I connected with. Watching Bowie nine months earlier, I just wanted to understand the whole 'thing' that was 'Ashes To Ashes'. With ABC & 'The Look Of Love', I wanted to be in the video--Martin Fry in relief. If I remember correctly, I stayed glued to the TV that night until 3:00 or 4:00AM. I found The Lords of The New Church with "Open Your Eyes," Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure, Duran Duran with 'Planet Earth,' and I couldn't wait for what I would discover after a quick slumber. I became an MTV junkie. Of course I was one of millions. Overnight, rather bland looking girls I went to school with suddenly resembled Kim Wilde, Blondie, Siouxsie & even more impressively, Duran Duran! Haircuts became severe but fashionable. Gone was the stereotypical 'feathered' hair, ill fitting flared Wrangler jeans. Girls started looking more like Bananarama (to great effect) & even some the boys reinvented their look. Of course they were a bit more shy about it for fear of the unjust judgement of being labelled gay, queer or some other denigration. This was Montgomery Alabama at the birth of the 1980's. It was not the a guiding light of cultural acceptance then & probably not now.
During this time I reinvented my 'look'. I wasn't alone. Accompanied by my partner in crime, James, we went about revamping our wardrobes based on the images/imagery predominantly inspired by a single band. In 1983 James & I were hypnotized by Spandau Ballet. 'True' was an international hit, but in the strange world of Montgomery, even though #5 on the U.S. singles charts, "True" had never played on either of Montgomery's Top 40 stations. It took James and I repeated calls to the radio station--badgering an ignorant Alabama disc jockey who thought with a name like Spandau Ballet 'it had to be classical music,' before it got airplay. Interestingly, after it was played that initial time at our insistence, they kept playing it. Success! But we had to mimic the Spandau look. And we did. Cotton oversized shirts that required cuff links, pleated cotton slacks, bolo ties & penny loafers completed the ensemble. Of course we stole bits & pieces of fashion ideas from Duran Duran, Talk Talk & ABC as well. Other fledgling adopters of 'The New Wave' went in horribly different direction with their fashion sense. Parachute & pleather pants & jackets--all with baffling zippers & pockets with no purpose started to sprinkle into the fashion sense of schoolmates. Imagine, one day seeing a teen wearing ill fitting Lee Jeans, Converse sneakers & a Pink Floyd 'Dark Side Of The Moon' T-Shirt transformed & wearing red pleather pants (impossibly tight, legs sweating & chafing in the humidity of an Alabama June), & a matching red parachute jacket with 'zip-off' arms! Just to make sure no one missed it, throw inA Paul Young 'T' underneath. I saw it. Fucking ghastly. But it did mean there was power in MTV & my comrades in the quaint housing subdivision I lived called Carol Villa weren't the only ones feeling it.
While dressing the part of New Romantics, James & I weren't ignoring the ongoing waves of new music. Madness, The English Beat, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, The Producers, Joe Jackson, Graham Parker, John Hiatt, Nik Kershaw, Howard Jones, Tears For Fears--they all had a profound influence. I still hold onto a couple of sweaters I consider my Tears For Fears sweaters. They're over 30 years old now but I'd never willingly part with them.
MTV, although a great resource, didn't completely satisfy my hunger for new music. I couldn't stomach Mark Goodman's tastes. The horrible hard rock that was his staple was quickly degenerating into the more vapid hair metal. I knew there was more of the stuff I'd tasted previously and I desperately wanted more! I needed an additional resource & I found it. It was a magazine called Trouser Press. Somehow, it was on a newsstand in bloody Alabama! At the time, I knew it was some sort of cosmic mistake. Here's a hip music magazine in Montgomery--impossible! But there it was. I think it was A Flock of Seagulls on the cover with articles on Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, XTC--that's when I knew the world was much bigger than this gray little city. The malaise of classic rock, R&B & Country that made up Alabama radio at the time could now be side stepped by a glossy magazine courtesy of Ira. A. Robbins.
Trouser Press provide exposure to bands that weren't on MTV at the time but had relevance in this New Wave Music World. I bought dozens of LP's & EP's based on descriptions by Trouser Press alone. The money for these purchases came from slavish labor or cutting the yard. $20 each for the front & back. That was fine for releases I could find at the mall but most of the stuff in Trouser Press wasn't available at the local mass market record store. But again, Trouser Press had the answer in the classifieds. It was called Burning Airlines! Burning Airlines was a mail-order distributor out of Chicago & it became my resource for all music New Wave that I couldn't purchase locally. O.M.D., Combo Audio, Fiction Factory, Bill Nelson, XTC--they were all courtesy of Burning Airlines.
One of my biggest musical revelations during that time was courtesy of another friend--a best friend, Bernard. In our suburban hovel, affectionately known as Carol Villa, Bernard's house was the gathering place. His parents were liberal, his mom an absolute saint. We (me & a handful of others affectionately known as 'The Carol Villa Crew') could drop by Bernard's place unannounced without any grumbling from the parents. In fact, Bernard's mom welcomed it. One Saturday afternoon I stopped by & Bernard insisted that I listen to a couple of 12" singles he'd picked earlier in the day. One was by a risque named band called Kissing The Pink, the other by New Order. He knew my love for all things synthesizer based. A year earlier he saw me fall into a trance, watching Depeche Mode in a friend's basement & MTV playing 'Just Can't Get Enough' in the background during a heated game of Dungeons & Dragons.
So he knew New Order was going to get my attention which of course it did. Blue Monday had deadpan vocals, sparse synths, heavy rhythmic bass--sounds I'd never experienced out of any speaker so I was hooked! Looking back, it was probably my first exposure to post-punk. It would take me another three years to figure that out. Kissing The Pink wasn't bad either, in fact they were quite good, but 'Big Man Restless' versus Blue Monday? Blue Monday wins every time. During that time, I started to realize the labels & distributors of this new music were almost as important as the bands themselves. I started buy music based on the label they were associated with. I was purchasing a lot of stuff unheard.
4AD gave me the Cocteau Twins, Mute--Depeche Mode; Factory--New Order; Stiff had Elvis Costello, Madness, The Damned, Devo, Any Trouble, Furniture; while Rough Trade & Sire distributed or acted as a label for some of the bands listed above as well as dozens more. I would buy music based on a band's affiliation with any of those logos! A thumbs up or even sideways from Trouser Press, the right music label or distributor & off went a money order made out to Burning Airlines for yet another piece of vinyl. The musical heaven I was in at the time gave me an identity. It was an unwritten manifesto. I am New Wave, whatever the hell that might be--that's what I Am.
By the Summer of 1985, I experienced the then unexpected yet almost dominance of New Wave in the pop charts. In fact, I started to feel it becoming too much. The bands I championed in '81/'82 looked a lot different 4 years later. Duran Duran was fractured & giving me drivel like "Wild Boys." Spandau had gone 'easy listening,' The Thompson Twins were charting with complete shit like "Hold Me Now," Tears For Fears was going for the proverbial 'gold' with the 'Songs From The Big Chair' album. I was a little on edge. I smelled 'sell-out' all the way around. If you don't know the smell of 'sell-out,' I can only describe it as a sugary bile smell topped off with a sprinkling of camel dung. Things had gotten too bright. If you had spiky hair & could carry a tune you were in the club. It was a confusing time. Corey Hart, "Sunglasses At Night," Nik Kershaw, King (?), the aforementioned Paul Young--I wasn't sure what the hell this new-found New Wave success was fostering. In addition, I was hit with the news that the family Shaw would have to move that Summer prior to my senior year of high school. My father, who I affectionately call 'Geek,' was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force & fortunately he had choices. The Pentagon or an Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX.
Coinciding with this big decision was Live Aid '85. This was the largest music event, broadcast worldwide--ever! The brainchild of Bob Geldof (Boomtown Rats fame), Live Aid was an event to stifle the horrible hunger & sickness in Ethiopia, Africa. Considering this was pre-home computer, smart phone, tablet, etc., it was & still is the most ambitious music concert project ever. Two continents (really three when you included Aussie Aid/Oz For Africa), two outdoor sports stadiums; Wembley in London & JFKStadium in Philadelphia, Live Aid was the event of the Summer! Good fortune smiled on us that weekend. Bernard's parents were out of town for the weekend & we'd discovered the merits of alcohol a year earlier. Stocked with every flavor of cheap rotgut wine (Thunderbird, Mad Dog 20 20) & various malt liquors, we settled in Friday night to watch the Australian precursor to the big event. I remember INXS closing MTV's re-broadcast of OZ for Africa (which had actually occurred three weeks prior). Michael Hutchence radiated 'rock god' at the close of their recorded set which ended about 5:00AM in Alabama. I knew once the 'really live' Live Aid started in Wembley a few hours later we'd have to deal with rock's old brass. Queen, The Who, McCartney, Dire Straits, The Beach Boys (WTF?), etc., were obviously going to dominate the closing of both venues. But because of the headway made by artists in 'the New Wave' they also included Ultravox (above), Spandau Ballet, Adam Ant, Howard Jones, Simple Minds, Duran Duran, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, U2, Style Council & Thompson Twins! Total Validation. New Wave bands were no longer the outliers. No, they were now pretty much part of the 'pop establishment.' Something felt triumphant but wrong at the same time.
Live Aid ended. MTV resumed normal video scheduling. The event now over, I realized that this segment of my life was now over as well. I'd discovered since 1981 that I now felt a part of something. I'm still not sure what that 'something' was, I just knew it was because of this music & I wanted more. While all of these thoughts were running through my brain, I also knew that my senior year of high school wouldn't be spent with the guys I'd spent 48 hours with watching Live Aid. These were the guys I grew up with (Bernard, James, John, Go Go). We shaped each others lives. Before I left Bernard's house, the morning after Live Aid ended, I walked the few blocks back to my abode & Talk Talk "It's My Life" was the last sound left in my head. Everyone was extremely hungover from the two nights before but I managed a tear remembering the video because I realized at that moment it was not my life. Geek held my future. There was only one thing to do. Convince him that the Pentagon--Northern Virginia--was the only place to go. That's where we went & the year of 1985 in my musical journey continues...