Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Marconi Plays the Mamba: Listen to the Radio!

"Lyrics dude, recite 'em some lyrics!"

                                                                                              --- Bill S. Preston, Esq.

Since the invention of radio, the youth of the world have defined their generations by the music they listen to.

Music is our poetry and our prose.

It's how we tell our story, before we have words of our own. It's how we express joy and sorrow, rage and love. It's how we celebrate the vibrancy of life, and mourn the unfairness of it all. Whatever the mood, whatever the situation, whatever the reason...

There's a song for that.

Radio has been around for about 120 years, and popular radio programming for about a century. In our grandparents' youth, the radio was a cathedral like piece of furniture, that the family gathered around to listen to programs like Little Orphan Annie, and Jack Benny.

The Baby Boomers took music to new heights (and depths). They plugged in their guitars, and cranked the amps. The artists of that era revolutionized music, and radio took Elvis Presley and the Beatles, into every corner of every home in the world. Music drove the culture, and the tinny sound of an AM radio was replaced by the blowtorch sound of the FM stereo.

Our own generation was the last of the great radio listeners. Our children live in a world that has been revolutionized again, when it comes to music -- their music is completely customizable (as is so much of the rest of their lives). That seems ideal, but when I really think about it, I wouldn't trade the days of sitting in front of the radio, waiting for the song that I thought I wanted to hear, for anything. There were no iPods, no iTunes, and unless you had the record (or, more likely, the cassette tape) of a certain band, the only way you were going to hear your song, was by catching it playing on the radio.

And, in the process, you were exposed to a wide range of music. Sure, you could call the radio station and request a song -- one of the great experiences of youth -- but let's be honest, the song got played when it got played. So, while I was waiting for "Faithfully" I got to hear "We Belong", "Come Sail Away" and "Rosanna."

Our music, and our lives for that matter, had an element of surprise and serendipity. We had something to look forward to and something to hope for. There is real joy in anticipation. Ask any kid in December. Anticipation is why Christmas Eve is more fun than Christmas Day. As long as there is anticipation, hope lives forever.

The music coming from the radio told us about our world. Right or wrong, the radio was the piper who played the tune, and we danced.

And what we danced to in the 1980's was unlike anything that had ever come before. The music scene of our youth was strange and varied, to put it mildly, and the voices fighting for our attention were legion, but in our world, in the Salt Lake radio market, there were two voices that were louder than all the rest:

KRSP: Rock 103.5 

In it's prime, KRSP played straight arena rock and roll -- Journey, REO Speedwagon, Van Halen, Poison, Billy Joel... as well as the genre already being termed classic rock: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Doors.

And KJQ -- somewhere on the other end of the radio dial -- that catered to a more eclectic sound; the alternative, modern, new wave sound that came to represent the faction of society that believed they were the counter culture. They weren't. They were as emblematic of the generation as the top 40 music.

The two dominant musical genres of our age -- Rock and Alternative -- were two sides of the same cassette tape. One preferred it's music loud, the other preferred it's lyrics loud. And together they created the soundtrack of our lives.

The songs on the radio were our voice. Sometimes that voice was happy. Sometimes it was angry. In the 1980's there was good chance that voice was flat out bizarre -- the title of this post, Marconi Plays the Mamba, is taken from the song voted as the Most Awesome Bad Song of All Time: We Built This City, by Starship. (I'm sure the other fifty songs on that list came out of the 80's too). Marconi was the inventor of radio, and a mamba is a poisonous snake. Maybe they meant to say mambo (a type of music) or samba (another musical genre), but they said mamba. The voice booming out of the radio said the creator of radio played with poisonous snakes.

And we stood up and said "HELL YES HE DID!"

That was music, and we loved it, despite -- probably because of -- the high weirdness of it all.

 Those voices coming from the speakers also said what we wished we could say -- to our parents, to our teachers, to our crush.

In my world, three voices were louder than all the rest: Duran Duran, Michael Jackson and Van Halen.

Duran Duran was the breakout music for Aaron and I -- it was the first music that we listened to, that our parents didn't. It wasn't John Denver or the Carpenters. It was't the Beatles or the Bee Gees. They didn't understand Duran Duran, and that was good enough for us.  Frankly, I wasn't sure what Reflex  Simon Le Bon was talking about, or why the Union of the Snake was on the rise...but he and the Taylor boys convinced me that it was something I ought to care about, and maybe look into, on my way to Rio.  Duran Duran inspired many backyard jam sessions -- on trash can drums and tennis racket guitars.

The next voice is the game changer. The one that reinvented everything:  Michael Jackson.

When I look back at my life, certain music appears, like sign posts, reminding me of certain times and places. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is like a billboard.

Thriller was released in 1982, and it set the world on fire. It is still the best selling album of all time. Thriller changed EVERYTHING. I wanted to look like him. I wanted to dress like him. I wanted to move like him.

No one ever moved like Michael Jackson. I have one indelible Michael Jackson moment. It's the moment that everyone knows. The Motown 25th Anniversary television program. I was watching because I knew Michael Jackson would be performing "Billie Jean."

There was the glove.

The white socks and loafers.

The hat.

The sequins.

The song and the dancing.

And then...

He moved backward.


That was the first time I had ever seen someone moonwalk. It was surreal.

The next day I -- we -- everyone -- found a new use for our sunday shoes. I practiced for hours -- days, months -- trying to learn to moonwalk. I remember watching myself in the glass of the sliding door on my aunt's deck. And one time -- only one -- did I move smooth enough to feel like I had done it. It feels ridiculous to say so, but that was a real highlight for me as a kid.

Then came the jackets with the zippers, the Thriller video, the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo on Beat It. We are the World. Michael Jackson was everywhere. He was a cultural juggernaut that I think, for my generation -- this generation called "X" -- was only eclipsed by Star Wars.

Michael Jackson was a beacon. He was a pop culture god. He gave us dance. He introduced us to music we had never heard before. He launched, for better or worse, the world of music videos. Michael Jackson was our Elvis, our Beatles. And like they had been for the previous generation, he was our great departure from the music of our parents. Without any exaggeration, he was the King of Pop.

There will never be another phenomenon like Michael Jackson. The music world is different. No one can maintain that kind of supremacy any more, there are, simply, too many choices.

The last voice is the loudest: Van Halen

This is the Sammy Hagar version of the band. I have nothing against David Lee Roth -- well, I do, but that's for another time. Aaron and I came to Van Halen the same time Sammy Hagar did. If Duran Duran was the music that our parents didn't understand, then Van Halen was the music they didn't understand -- very loudly. The guitar work of Eddie Van Halen blew the doors off of rock 'n roll. No one had ever played the way he did, and everyone since is imitating him. All due respect to Neil Peart, Alex Van Halen was the best rock drummer of all time. And Sammy Hagar managed to sing the soundtrack of our teenage lives.

Van Halen was the pinnacle of the 80's four man arena rock group. One lead guitar. One drummer. One bass player. And one lead singer. That was the formula for success.  And they all sounded better when you turned the volume knob to eleven. 

Aaron and I saw Van Halen in 1988, on the OU812 tour. Come to think of it, I think it's the only concert we ever saw together. We were sixteen, we were out without parents and we were ready to do some damage to our ear drums. 

Van Halen was the sound of summer. It was the sound of fast cars, and pretty girls. It was the sound of freedom. It was the thundering beat of the heart. It was the sound of life.

Music, and the radios that brought it to us, changed our lives forever, maybe like never before. We learned to love what came before, and anticipate what was coming next. We still search for the perfect song. We still thrill to hear the old classic. We still think in lyrics. 

Turn the dial. Tune in. And blow the speakers. 

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