If He Was From Mars, Wouldn't That Be Cool?

Some time in 1984, my musical taste underwent a dramatic shift (or, I suppose, an expansion). Before that summer, my favorite bands were Duran Duran and Men at Work and I remember being thrilled to find a copy of the new Jellybean Benitez remix of Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It” at the local record store. I read Rolling Stone, bought lots of music (on vinyl, of course), and listened to Top-40 radio. My taste definitely tended toward the New Wave, but most of the bands I listened to were well known. That spring, my favorite record store had a strange poster on the front door for what seemed like months. It was some sort of weird snake thing, with the letters R.E.M. in the corner. Whatever it was, the album was coming in April.

When this mysterious new album–Reckoning–was released, I heard one of the employees talking about it excitedly to another customer: “their best stuff yet… a masterpiece.” I had absolutely no idea what I was getting, but I bought it on the spot. Until I got home, I didn’t even know whether R.E.M. was the name of the band or the album. It turned out to be a revelation to my 17-year-old ears. The strange, sometimes indecipherable lyrics, the jangly guitars… this was something different. Looking back now, I can point to many obvious influences (Velvet Underground, Big Star, The Byrds), but for me, it was totally new (I’d somehow missed the fact that Rolling Stone had named their previous album record of the year in 1983).

R.E.M. would be the gateway drug that led me to tons of other music. Reckoning was produced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, so I started listening to their music. Don was married to Marti Jones, so she got added to the mix. The first time I saw R.E.M. in concert (The R.E.M. Timeline says it was 10 October 1984), they barely filled a quarter of GWU’s Smith Center, but the few of us there were in for quite a show. Opening for R.E.M. was another band I’d never heard of: The dB’s. The dB’s would become one of my favorite bands of the 80s.

And at last, I’ve gotten to what I really wanted to write about. You see, someone over at MetaFilter posted a link to an article by Will Rigby, formerly of the dB’s (and Amy Rigby’s ex). Before there was a dB’s, Will went on a pilgrimage of sorts with Mitch Easter and fellow dB Peter Holsapple. They drove from North Carolina to Memphis to find the “Big Star essence:”

It seems quaint now to have gone 600 miles in search of the secret of a band that had barely existed, got almost no radio play, and had no impact on the marketplace. We didn’t want to go to Graceland, or Al Green’s church, or the Stax studio; we did try to re-create the photo on the back of Radio City, at its original location, TGI Friday’s (I don’t know whether that photo still exists, and of course it didn’t come out as anything more than a dumb snapshot). There was no essence to be found.

Ah, Big Star. Thanks to The Placemats Replacements, I’d heard of Alex Chilton and even owned some of his solo music. But I didn’t actually hear Big Star until the early 90s, by which time they’d been gone for a good 20 years. Still, their music fit right in with all this vaguely power-pop indie stuff I’d been listening to since the 80s. It seemed remarkably contemporary to me (and still does); the production sounded 70s, but the music itself fit right in in the 80s and 90s. You just can’t say that about Duran Duran or Culture Club.

Reading that Will Rigby article reminded me of a great period of musical discovery for me and made me feel a little wistful. It’s not that I don’t discover new music anymore–quite the opposite; it’s just that today’s discoveries aren’t such seismic shifts. I listen to a much wider variety of music than I did when I was 17, so it takes a lot more to surprise me. But just as important is the fact that discovering new music is so easy now. From peer-to-peer networks, to, to iTunes, it’s all there, ready to be heard. Big Star? Click. The dB’s? Click. Let’s Active? Click.