Vinyl School Years: My Favorite Albums from the 1980s (Part 1)

Recently (at least, prior to the election), the topic of "favorite record albums from my teenage/high school years" has been making the rounds of Facebook. I thought I'd pitch in with my own list, especially since my dad, Jeff Field, posted a list of some of his most memorable albums on his own blogsite. They say that the music you listened to in high school shapes your listening habits for a lifetime, and while that is only partially true, I can say truthfully that these albums have left indelible memories on my psyche (for better or worse).

During my teenage years, particularly in high school (ABRHS 1983-1987), I favored listening to and collecting albums of what would now be called "alternative music", that is, music that usually wasn't being played on the major radio stations, and that, for want of a better word, sounded weird or offbeat. Off the beaten track, that is. This included music that at the time was labeled punk, hardcore, or new wave, art rock, post-punk, and other music that defied labels.

While friends of mine from high school introduced me to some of these bands, others I discovered from listening to local radio stations. I should begin by mentioning that ABRHS had its own wonderful radio station, with my fellow students playing the role of DJ.

Also, the Boston College radio station WZBC played alternative music, and what I liked to do was tape a segment of the program and go back and listen to it again and again until I found songs that really grabbed me. Then I'd try to identify the song and the band.

The next step was to head to Newbury Comics in Harvard Square, which had the best selection of alternative music albums, though back then they just called it "modern rock."

I was also influenced by a program that was broadcast in the early 1980s on the more mainstream Boston rock radio station, WBCN. It was called Nocturnal Emissions and was hosted by a mysterious dude, who went by the name of Oedipus. It also featured an eclectic mix of songs from bands that wouldn't have made it onto mainstream radio.

Some of the bands or artists I listened to eventually made it big (or were big already when I discovered them), while others languished in obscurity.

Below is a list of albums and bands that were influential to shaping my tastes in music, listed roughly in the order by which I discovered them. I decided to break this into two parts, so below are the first ten, and I'll post the next ten later.

I've chosen these albums according to the following criteria:

--The album came out around or during the years when I was in high school (1983-1987)

-- I personally bought the album during high school and still own the vinyl or the casette tape

-- I listened to the album so many times that the songs remain firmly embedded in my memory, and I can sing along to most of them

-- The album inspired me to dig deeper into the lyrics and music and background of the artist or band, listen to more albums from that artist/band and/or explore a whole area of musical subcultures

-- Recalling the album or hearing songs from the album still evokes a cascade of memories from my high school years

-- Finally, I've chosen to limit this list to one album per band. However, I discuss other albums by those bands as well. So, here we go:

1) Sandinista (The Clash) (1980)

Probably introduced to me by my neighborhood pals, my love for The Clash began with their first eponymous album, The Clash, which had its US release in 1979. I bought that album sometime between junior high and high school and had it under heavy rotation for a while. I was attracted to the strident energy and the rebellious lyrics of songs like "White Riot" and "I'm So Bored with the USA". While I skipped over their next two albums (my friends had them) I believe I bought the double cassette tape of their triple album Sandinista sometime around the start of high school. I remember listening to it repeatedly on my Walkman and also putting it on during long car trips--in fact, the album was great music for long rides. The Clash was my entry point into the domains of punk, ska, dub, and reggae. One memory that stands in my mind was listening to the album during a car ride with my dad, and him commenting on the politics that influenced the band's lyrics. With songs like "Washington Bullets" and "Police on my Back" (an Eddie Grant cover) you could say that this album was a sort of political awakening for me as well, in the age of Ronnie Ray-gun. in 1984 (George Orwell's prophetic year), my step-dad took me and the Bennett boys to see The Clash perform live at the Worcestor Centrum. It was my first rock concert, and I recall that it took a few days for my eardrums to recover.

2) Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (The Dead Kennedys) (1980)

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I think it was "California Uber Alles" that first grabbed my attention when I heard it on the radio. "Welcome to 1984, are you ready for the third world war? You too can meet the secret police. They'll draft you and jail your neice." If the Clash was beer, this was a stiff shot of whisky. I distinctly remember buying this album in a little record shop in our neighboring town of Concord MA, which sold alternative music to restless suburban youths. Jello Biafra's singing was even more frenetic than Joe Strummer of The Clash, the rhythms were faster, and the political messages were punchier and more sardonic. "Holiday in Cambodia" stands out in my mind as the most memorable song on the album--"It's a holiday in Cambodia, and you'll do what you're told!" with "California Uber Alles" coming in at a close second: "Last call for alcohol, last call for freedom of speech--happy hour is now enforced by law..." And who could forget those golden oldies: "When Ya Get Drafted" and "Kill the Poor?" an anthem for all times. This album marked my point of no return into the more obscene world of hardcore. Soon my friends and I were exchanging albums and casette tapes of other hardcore punk bands like Black Flag, D.O.A., and Psycho. But as with punk rock, the message got diluted by its transmutation into fashion. By high school, even my trendy younger sister was sporting a "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" t-shirt.

3) I Just Can't Stop It (English Beat) (1980)

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This album was being passed around by friends about the time I entered high school. It's worth observing that my best friends were two or three years older than me and they were introducing me to music that most of my ninth grade peers weren't listening to at the time. Maybe The Clash primed me for digging this ska band with its amped up Jamaican-style tunes backed by horns. I remember listening to this album on casette tape during a bus trip to a swim meet in ninth grade. I loved the rhythms and the rhymes of Ranking Roger, the toastmaster of this band from Birmingham, UK. "Mirror in the Bathroom" is the standout song, though "Hands Off She's Mine" is also a favorite of mine. This album led me to other ska bands and to the ska-punk band Bad Brains. While I was listening to the album on my Walkman on the way to that swim meet, the captain of the team asked to take a listen. "You must have an older brother," he remarked after hearing the song.

4) Above the Fruited Plane (Polyrock) (1982)

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This new wave band from New York City came across my radar screen through a tape I made of WZBC's "modern rock" program. On the tape was a tune called "Working on My Love" with a very catchy synth bit. I went out and bought the EP (probably at Newbury Comics). I enjoyed the male-female vocal combo and the minimalist sounds and synth backings. Later I learned that the band was produced by Philip Glass, whose music I came to appreciate later in life. I went on to collect their other albums Polyrock and Changing Hearts, which were not easy to find. I think I found them in a record shop in Washington DC. While they didn't last beyond that album, Polyrock helped set the stage for my reception of other art rock bands coming out of NYC like the Talking Heads.

5) Feline (The Stranglers) (1983)

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I first discovered this band from a cassette tape recording I made off the radio, WZBC, possibly the same one that had the Polyrock song on it. The song was "Midsummer Night's Dream," a dreamy, maudlin chant backed by heavy synths weaving a story about meeting a wise old man who tells you what it's all for. It led me to this album, which represents the softer side of a band that was known for its raucous, raunchy tunes like "Peaches." It's a magical album that evokes the glamour and despair of Paris, Rome, and London. This album led me to a lifelong love of The Stranglers' music, which is difficult to place into any particular category of rock music. During my teen years, I became a young acolyte to this medieval menagerie of tunesters, and I collected several of their albums, starting with The Collection, a set of their bests including such unforgettable tunes as "Nice and Sleazy," "Golden Brown" (which I later found out was about heroin), and "Strange Little Girl." I then went on to other albums including Black and White, La Folie, and The Raven. Some of these rare albums I found in shops in New York City or DC, others in Boston. Aural Sculpture marked their turn to more popular, accessible tunes, which were nonetheless marked with their particular genius for wordery. One particular association I have is with the band is reading the novel Dune by Frank Herbert, in the summer between ninth and tenth grade. For some reason, I found that their album The Gospel According to the Meninblack went well with that epic story.

6) Quartet (Ultravox) (1982)

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I seem to recall that I discovered this band on my own, though I'm not too sure. The big song off this album was "Reap the Wild Wind" which got played on WZBC and perhaps on Nocturnal Emissions as well. I believe I bought the album at the same time I purchased Feline, and so Ultravox and The Stranglers have always been closely associated in my mind, even though they their styles are different in many respects. They both share a love for synthesized music and for songs that seem to hark back to some medieval European fantasy world. Everything about this album appealed to me, from the urgent melodic voice of Midge Ure to the keyboard work of Billie Currie. It is no coincidence that the album was produced by George Martin, famed producer for the Beatles's albums, which I'd loved and collected since I was a wee laddie. This album led me (and other friends) to others including Vienna and Rage in Eden, and also to their earlier more punk-oriented, dystopian albums like Ha!Ha!Ha! which featured John Foxx on lead vocals. The band seemed to peak with this album. Their next release, Lament, which I also picked up, wasn't nearly as important to me. It seemed that they'd played out their big ideas with Quartet. Decades later the members of the band reunited to make another studio album, Brilliant, which was a nice 30-year reunion for those of us who once loved this band.

7) Speaking in Tongues (Talking Heads) (1983)

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Then came David Byrne with his unique singing style, always on the verge of hysteria, but reining it in. Who could resist the upbeat sound of this band, which came out on the airwaves in the summer of 1983 with their funky hit song "Burning Down the House?" This new wave band from NYC was making the rounds and everyone was digging them with their danceable beats and catchy songs like "Making Flippy Floppy" and "Girlfriend is Better." I recall listening to this album around tenth grade, and in summer camp. This album propelled the band into the mainstream, and their next album Little Creatures was a bit poppish for my tastes. I did enjoy watching David Byrne dancing around in his enormous Zoot Suit in the Jonathan Demme film Stop Making Sense, which I recall watching with friends in the attic room of my home.

8) Greener Postures (Snakefinger) (1980)

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As with some of these other bands listed above, I found Snakefinger while re-listening to a ZBC program I'd recorded on casette tape. It was a song called "Trashing All the Loves of History." It sounded like some sort of underground cult that was pushing up out of the earth. And the slide guitar was creepy and cool. The name itself was worth a deeper investigation. Soon I had his album Greener Postures, with its bizarre artsy cover, and was listening to it with neighborhood pals. It made you want to sacrifice some innocent creature to dark spirits. Seriously though, it was cool, bizarre music that was just on the edge of sanity. From "The Golden Goat" to "The Picture Makers vs. The Children of the Sea," this was a highly imaginative world indeed for a young teenager. I have a distinct memory of my friends singing that haunting song "We are little children of the sea" while swimming and diving off a raft in summer at a local pond. "War? No, no, war's no good Snakefinger." "That's what they want you to think--it's the little wars they give us that are bad. We need a real war, but we have to wait til we're ready" was an oft-quoted line amongst us. Snakefinger was a mysterious dude all right. He proved to be an entry point into an even more bizarre world of music off the label Ralph Records. We bought some of his other records and singles, and because the local record shops (even Newbury Comics) didn't have them on site, I mail-ordered a set of other Ralph Records albums, featuring most famously the Residents--about as cultish and bizarre a group as you will ever come across--and other bands like Tuxedomoon and Yello. Later in high school I found out that Snakefinger was the stage name for Philip Lithman, originally a bluesman from the UK, so-called because of his unique abilities on slide guitar. I also found out much later that he was quite an accomplished bluesman. And in July 1987, after I'd graduated from high school, his obit appeared in the Globe.

9) Murmur (R.E.M.) (1983)

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It may have been the same tape as Snakefinger, I'm not sure (wish I'd kept those tapes), but the first song that I heard from this band hailing from Athens, GA was a delightful little ditty called "Gardening at Night." It had that folkish guitar work and the scratchy folksy voice of Michael Stipe that became the signature sounds of the band, at least until they went mainstream and varied their act. Their debut EP Chronic Town featured this song. That and Murmur, their first full album, were my initiation into R.E.M. At the time I started listening to them around 1983, they were just an obscure little college band out of Georgia. Nobody could have predicted then that they would become the mega-band of the 1990s and beyond, but catchy songs like "Radio Free Europe" and "Talk About the Passion" indicated they had a bright future ahead of them. After Murmur, they quickly put out a succession of albums: Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and Life's Rich Pageant, all of which I listened to and collected, and shared with friends. I associate the band with long bike rides deep into rural Massachusetts. Their grounded, folksy songs were sometimes haunting and melancholic, other times rocking and upbeat. They evoked the tall grass of summer and the rusty red leaves and yellow orange pumpkins of fall. By the time Pageant came out, they were on their way to stardom. They had ceased to be that little college band when I entered college in 1987, and became something much, much bigger.

10) The Golden Age of Wireless (Thomas Dolby) (1982)

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Around 1983, a fun novelty song called "Blinded by Science" came out on the airwaves. Backed by synthesizers, and featuring the voice of a "known scientist," this song got a great deal of airplay in the Boston area, even on more mainstream radio. About that time, a new channel called MTV came out and everybody was glued to the tube watching music videos. Of course the king of the new music video genre was Michael Jackson, with videos of songs from his new album Thriller, notably the title song and "Billie Jean." Dolby's song rocketed up to the top with its video of the mad scientist at work in his lab. His song was funky and danceable, and (I found out later) even gained the attention of Michael himself. I wasn't too impressed though. It wasn't until a friend loaned me his album The Golden Age of Wireless that I discovered the depth and beauty of this "novelty" artist. I was hooked into an alternate world with songs like "Radio Silence," "Flying North," and of course, "One of Our Submarines." The synth work was fresh and highly original, and the lyrics poetic and sci-fi. I associate this album with swimming especially (I was on the swim team in high school) and also with sci-fi films like Blade Runner, which came out around that time. The following year, his next album Flat Earth came out. His Michael Jackson soundalike song "Hyperactive" was in heavy rotation on mainstream stations, but the other songs were far more interesting, and "Screen Kiss" was the standout song on that album. After that, by my junior year in high school, he teamed up with funkmaster George Clinton to make "May the Cube Be With You" off the album Aliens Ate My Buick, which I devoured ravenously with its danceable beats and pomo takes on pop culture. The most accomplished song out of that album was the more serious and brooding tune called "Budapest by Blimp," which hovered over the history and legacy of Europe: "All the treasure we pilloried, splendour we stole ...They never told you that in school." This was around the time (give or take a couple years) when Indiana Jones first came out in the theaters, and I think that and Dolby's music blended together into my mind. There were other worlds to explore out there, and ancient mysteries to unravel.