the Horn Farm Paste Mob

retro listening

This past weekend, I decided to listen to the beginnings of my music collection, in roughly the order I first heard them, and take notes. I’ve included Youtube links for the audio where possible.

I don’t know how far I’ll go with this; I can date most of my purchases to within about 3 months until the middle of college. (!)

1. Information Society – Information Society

The first record I ever bought, from a store on State Street that I can clearly visualize but can’t remember the name of.

It’s hard to listen to “What’s On Your Mind” with new ears, though if I make a conscious effort, I can follow instruments I never attended to before, mostly the bass. I think this song might actually be great. How I would I know, though? I mean, really.

The rest… huh, I remember finding “Walking Away” as good as “Mind” or better (not now; kind of slow) and liking side B okay (also no). I did feel a strong wave of emotion at listening to big ballad “Repetition”, in a way I can’t describe or explain. Something like: the music is still very familiar, but the lyrics have gone from being meaningless to being… an insipid description of a situation that first happened to me years after I last listened to this song. I am not making this sound nearly as strange as it felt.

The project’s already a success! Something I totally don’t understand has happened!

I just wish I could remember what made 13-year-old me decide to walk into a record store and buy a tape. I’d been an avid top-40 radio listener for 4 or 5 years, and had a Fisher-Price tape player that I used for Weird Al and for the tapes of Torah chanting that the rabbi made for kids who had bar/bat mitzvahs coming up. I went to State Street pretty regularly to spend my entire allowance on books and arcade games. What happened?

2. Erasure – The Innocents

I was a compulsive-enough listmaker as a kid that I still remember the exact order of these first several purchases. More than that, actually; this album still FEELS like the number 2, the same way that Nacho Cheese Doritos do (plain Doritos were “1″, Cool Ranch were “3″) or lemon Starbursts or Dave Swift (the second kid on my birthday invite list from elementary school; the first was me).

OMG reverb. Maybe it wouldn’t sound like that on better speakers.

I never liked “A Little Respect” as much as “Chains Of Love”– like, to the point where I initially thought people must be laboring under some objective confusion when they talked about “Respect” as “that one big Erasure song”. (I was like that.)

“Witch In The Ditch”: This music is not very well-suited to a methodical, socially naive 13-year-old. I think *maybe* I knew that “the guys Erasure from are gay” (half true), but “gay” would have been a pretty limited signifier to me. Probably if I thought anything, I thought it meant the two of them were a couple.

“Weight Of The World”– so this is a good song! “Hallowed Ground”, too. Those backing synths seem like total 80s stadium bullshit, though. If I don’t tune them out, I just start thinking about Mister Mister and Night Ranger. I think when I was 13, I did just tune them out.

Wait, is this even the right running order? Where’s “Chains Of Love”? No! It was on shuffle! Crud. I would have noticed that earlier with just about any other of these.

“Ship Of Fools”: More wobbly inchoate emotion I can’t quite find words for. I wonder whether feelings were just, in fact, that poorly defined when I was a teenager, and I’m remembering exactly how this song made me feel at the time.

At the time, I identified my unease with this album as being because of the Christian imagery. Was it, secretly, the queerness? You’d think, right? And yet, I suspect not. Heterosexuality scared me; I remember being uncomfortable with the reference to pregnancy in “Phantom Bride”. Which, listening to it now, I can tell is MEANT to have emotional punch… there’s a verse and a half of build-up, and then “the morning sickness and the kick inside” are thrown in, just before the “phantom bride” line that creates a distraction by paying off the tension of not having the title appear in the chorus. And then there’s NO THIRD VERSE. They just go over the comfort/triumph lyrics for another minute; the reality of the pregnancy is a dead spot, a sudden chill that you shake off, kind of, mostly.

I could tell the “pray to the lord on high” business in “Yahoo!” was in quotes somehow, a borrowing. But the easy references to hallowed ground and preachers elsewhere made it seem like this album wasn’t FOR me.

3. New Order – Substance

At some point in here, MTV’s 11pm hour on weeknights consisted of Monty Python and “Post-Modern MTV”, their short alternative show. Maybe not in that order, I don’t remember. I taped Monty Python whenever I could, and, in mortal fear of missing part of it, always set the VCR to tape a few extra minutes on either end. I believe that’s how I first saw the video for “True Faith”, featuring Philippe Decoufle’s dance troupe in bizarre costumes, ritualistically beating one another up and jumping on trampolines. I *loved* it. I made everyone watch it, though since I don’t remember the timeline exactly, I don’t know if “everyone” was my parents or the middle-school friends who introduced me to Monty Python or the nascent high school crowd whose first mass hangouts, also heavily ritualized but without any costumed violence, took place that spring. Or what.

I also don’t remember if that motivated me to buy Substance or if it came later and just reaffirmed that this was totally The Right Thing To Like. For me, I mean. Most of my friends were lukewarm about the music and I don’t remember their reaction to the video, though they probably approved because it was weird. Ben Bridgman, my musical partner in crime for most of high school, either wasn’t around or hadn’t gotten into music yet.

I still listen to this record a lot. Paying extra attention now, I notice what a good educational tool it is for itself… the aesthetic of “True Faith” was familiar when I started, the cold post-punk of early New Order wasn’t. Listen to Substance a few times, though, and each song shows you how to listen to the one before it. (Except “Thieves Like Us”, which, I don’t know, whatever.)

This also has me thinking about how much out-and-out contempt I felt for Orgy’s cover of “Blue Monday” when I first heard it. And still do! I could talk about the ways Orgy missed the point, but the real question is why, by my lights, one is just not allowed to miss the point of that song. I have some theories.

3 (also). They Might Be Giants – Lincoln

I bought this on the same trip downtown as the New Order tape. I’d seen “Don’t Let Start” on Nickelodeon’s music video program (the only music videos my parents let me watch until… not that long before all this started), and I don’t know if I’d heard any songs from Lincoln. What I definitely did hear was some reference to They Might Be Giants having a new album. New! This was clearly important. So that was the one I bought.

Okay wait, let me actually press play on the music.

Wow, in the context of the last three albums, this is… noisy! And much more sophisticated musically and lyrically. Much as I still love They Might Be Giants, I didn’t expect that.

It’s not really any more or less artificial than synthpop, but the artifice is front-and-center. Really, it’s noisy. The bridge of “Cowtown” is a heavily distorted guitar, the ‘voice’ sound from a cheap keyboard (I’m guessing) and a whistle shriek. Flansburgh was still writing songs as though he needed special permission to do it– either by making the song a genre sketch (“Lie Still Little Bottle”, “Santa’s Beard”) or throwing noise at it (“Cage And Aquarium”) or ideally, some of both (“You’ll Miss Me”)

No emotional landmines under any of these songs, though. They refer to some emotionally complicated situations, but the songs themselves are digestible whether or not you know what they’re cartoons of. That’s a little hard to admit, because of all the time I’ve spent defending TMBG against reductive criticism over the years, but fair’s fair.

5. XTC – Oranges & Lemons

Judging from old playlists, I started watching 120 Minutes sometime in April of 1989. I know that’s where I heard XTC first.

I’m not impressed by the combination of preachiness and anti-intellectualism– actually, the defensive arrogance is almost Zappa-esque in places. The music *sounds* good, though. The xylophone in “Poor Skeleton Steps Out” sounds like it’s 10 feet tall, and even when I don’t like a song it’s worth listening to the arrangement. I knew XTC were supposed to “sound like the Beatles” when I got this, but that made so little sense to me that I ignored it. After devouring the whole Beatles catalog a year ago, I finally get it, which throws into relief the bits of this album that are *old* XTC peeking through (“Across This Antheap”, which never reached me before).

There’s almost nothing inviting here, though. I can’t understand what drove me to buy another XTC album immediately…

6. XTC – Skylarking

Still not inspired. I know I liked it back then, and the songs which grab me on this one playthrough (“1000 Umbrellas”, “Sacrificial Bonfire”) are nice surprises, but…

I do recall all the songs about nature comforting the younger me. I’ve always been a little alienated by my lack of appreciation for trees and seasons and so on, and some of Skylarking’s songs at least gave me stand-ins for the thoughts I believed I was supposed to be having on school field trips.

Daming with faint praise is no fun. Next!

7. They Might Be Giants – They Might Be Giants

Not as satisfying as Lincoln, surprisingly! I’m starting to get fidgety for something resembling straight-up rock and roll. Lots of great songs, but sketchy tracks like “Number Three” and “Alienation’s For The Rich” break up the momentum.

Fun fact: “Boat Of Car” makes an excellent ringtone.

At this point, though, I think I was already hooked on anything that offered an aesthetic of abundance. Nineteen songs! Some of them barely even have a point! That’s so cool!

8. Adrian Belew – Mr. Music Head

Christgau’s old explanation of his grading system had a bit that went something like:

   D- It is impossible to understand why anyone would buy a D-   album.    F+ It is impossible to understand why anyone would release an F+   album.    F It is impossible to understand why anyone would record an F   album.

I read that before I played music myself, so the point that making music was fun even if the results were boring to listen to kind of blew my mind. (I mean, sometimes the act of cooking is relaxing in itself, but if the food doesn’t taste good, I generally regret the time spent on it.)

Nobody would call this an F record, and yet it doesn’t sound like it was even much fun to make. Listening to it is oddly like being stuck under a CNN monitor at the airport– so unrelated to my reasons for showing up that I don’t care whether it’s competent or not.

9. Wire – A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck

So, totally in love with picking out my own music, I went and read back issues of Rolling Stone at the library, trying to find more things to buy. A review of this album informed me that “you need a special decoder ring (not included) to understand the lyrics”… and I thought the writer meant it literally. My favorite band for most of high school, and I got into them through a misunderstanding.

(That writer turns out– I just learned!– to be Michael Azzerad.)

I now hear the band’s interest in drone/repetition coming up in places I didn’t before, like the sounds that start “The Finest Drops” (and continue identically pretty much all the way through).

Hey, you guys! This is basically a Radiohead album! Different concerns– Wire are more fascinated by alienation from one’s own body, Radiohead by alienation from one’s own mind– but a lot of the elements are in place.

I heard a lot about Radiohead’s influences when they shifted gears to Kid A, but I don’t remember 80s Wire coming up. Nobody really talks about 80s Wire at all. Listen to this, for example: “Free Falling Divisions”.


10. Public Image Ltd. – 9

Much more of a piece with what I was listening to than I thought at the time– when I was 13, I responded (badly) to Johnny Rotten’s voice and to the Van Halen guitars, neither of which drew me closer. But they were, in fact, another iconic post-punk band trying to reconcile themselves to adulthood or big budgets or whatever it was that generated all these records.

“Warrior” is enjoyably ludicrous.


One Response to “retro listening”

  1. the Horn Farm Paste Mob » Blog Archive » retro listening #41-50, on January 25th, 2012 at 9:41 pm, said:

    [...] year ago I started listening to my record collection in autobiographical order. Then I stopped for a while. Now it sounds like fun [...]

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