Thursday, April 10, 2008

Off-Site: WWSU audio at reunion page

For the unaware, Wright State University's campus radio station is having a reunion that's generally for staff who worked there through the '80s and early '90s (although my impression is that pretty much anyone who has ever worked at the station is welcome). For some inexplicable reason, I still haven't registered for the reunion, but I will be there. And I've been keeping up with reunion planning events via the e-mail list and the WWSU '80s Reunion Page.

Although some would disagree, I think of the 1980s as sort of the silver age of indie rock. When rock and roll first came along and for the next decade or so after that, there was no need for the term "indie rock" because all rock was indie rock: that is, rock and roll music produced by small, independently owned record labels with limited resources -- because at that time, rock and roll was controversial and no executive with any business sense would touch a rock act. Of course, by the mid-'60s rock and roll had become big business, gigantic corporations had wised up, and record labels owned as sole proprietorships or close corporations were beginning to feel the squeeze. But even then you could find such labels competing with the big guys -- probably the most notorious example being CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL, who released on the independent label Fantasy Records throughout their career.

Through all of this, because the FCC carefully regulated the number of radio stations any single entity could own in a given market, even the smaller indie labels could still get their records on the charts by working hard to get them out to radio stations and cold calling the individual program directors. But a lot of that changed in the '80s when Ronald Reagan's FCC basically deregulated the commercial market (as the current FCC continues to do today). Suddenly, as more commercial stations in different regions came under centralized control, program directors became less and less likely to play anything but the playlist approved by some home office in Delaware.

In my view, it's here that college radio became an important outlet for indie rock. Don't get me wrong, good college stations have always been host to out-of-the-ordinary programming of all kinds, and a lot of that was music. But such music tended to be the kind of thing that wouldn't ordinarily appeal to a mass audience (like most of what BOMP! Records (god bless 'em) was putting out). I think it was in the '80s that a lot of music which was otherwise commercially viable suddenly found itself shut out of the commercial market simply because it was not on a major, corporate label.

This is what impressed me about what we used to call "Alternative" or "Modern" rock back then when I first started working at WWSU -- how radio friendly it otherwise was. Sure, artists like BONGWATER and HALF JAPANESE opened up new horizons for me about what music could sound like, but what amazed me most was how so many artists on college radio should have been climbing the top 40 charts.

I'm talking about acts like THE REPLACEMENTS, KILKENNY CATS, THE NUNS, THROWING MUSES, THE PIXIES, THE DIVINYLS, THE CURE, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, VOICE OF THE BEEHIVE, SOUNDGARDEN, and probably most glaringly CONCRETE BLONDE -- also, pretty much everything that was played at Alternative Tuesday. Although each of these artists had a sound that was a little outside the mainstream, none of it was anything the general public wouldn't have liked. Of course, a few of these artists would later chart on the Top 40, and one or two would have undeniable mass appeal later on in the '90s, but only after being relegated for years to the "Modern Rock" charts (or scoring chart toppers overseas while their albums languished in this 50-state cultural backwater). CONCRETE BLONDE, in fact, had been signed, ignored, and finally dropped by a major label several years before they had a string of Top 40 hits in the early '90s.

As I said, we called it "Alternative Rock" back then, but even when that term was taken seriously (i.e. before "Alternative Rock" became so mainstream that it was no longer an alternative to anything -- which is about when people started calling the music on college radio "indie rock"), it should've been replaced by something more descriptive: like "Human Rock" or "Real Person Rock" or something like that -- because the real difference between Alternative Rock artists and commercial radio artists was that the people making Alternative Rock were far more human and real to me than the people who made commercial rock.

First of all, people like Paul Westerberg, Bob Mould, Johnette Napolitano, and Kristin Hersh did not really look like rock stars. They were overweight or they were underweight or their faces weren't air brushed or their hair wasn't styled. Their wardrobes weren't selected by some art director in a New York design firm. Their videos (those that had them) weren't professionally produced, nor were most of their recordings. They played small venues where I didn't need binoculars to see them, and if I wanted to, I could meet most of them and have a conversation after the show (which I often did). They made music that was as good as or better than anything I could hear on commercial radio, but unlike bigger commercial artists, I felt like these guys were actually working for a living.

Anyway, that was the thing that really attracted me to Alternative Rock back then. I liked that most of it was fairly original but also had a good beat and melodies you could sing along to, and I liked that it seemed close somehow.

WWSU, like a thousand other college stations across this country, played this kind of music all the time, and in keeping with that indie aesthetic, the people who worked at WWSU produced all kinds of audio creations for the station: station IDs, comedy shows, news reports, unclassifiable oddities. In my previous post on WWSU, I mentioned "Das Boot," which Darryl Brandt and Matt DeWald produced in WWSU's secondary studio. I think I've also mentioned at some point that Matt lent me a reel-to-reel containing either the original or remixed versions of that recording. Unfortunately, I need a 1/4" reel-to-reel player to rip it, and I haven't located one yet.

But some kind soul at the WWSU Reunion page has gathered some other recordings produced at WWSU in the '80s and posted them on the WWSU Reunion Site. On the Audio Page, you'll find seven recordings to listen to. This is great stuff and a reminder of a time when all radio stations made their own spots rather than playing whatever Corporate sent them.

take care



Val said...

Wanna go as a couple to save $$?

Anonymous said...

you're just jealous that kim deal made it and you DIDN'T.

Anonymous said...

Two points I'd like to underscore from this excellent post:

1) "in the '80s...a lot of music which was otherwise commercially viable suddenly found itself shut out of the commercial market simply because it was not on a major, corporate label." 100% accurate; what serious person interested in music today doesn't consider bands like the Replacements, the Pixies, Jane's Addiction, etc. to have been major artists? And none of these guys had a mainstream hit; they took a halfhearted stab with the Replacement's "Don't Tell a Soul" (probably their worst album IMO; "all shook down" is really just a Paul Westeberg solo effort), but I doubt they cracked AT40. College radio then was not like the minor leagues, where obvious talent may get its start but would eventually graduate to the majors, rather the real talent was simply ignored because it wasn't on a major label, these folks didn't fit the 80's rock star paradigm, or they came from somewhere other than NY or LA.

2) "the real difference between Alternative Rock artists and commercial radio artists was that the people making Alternative Rock were far more human and real to me than the people who made commercial rock." Prior to Lollapalooza, the top bands in this category would headline at a thousand-seat venue, like St. Andrews in Detroit or the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. More often they were playing places like Lounge Ax, intimate places which allowed for a real connection with the artists.

BTW you should check out Lollapalooza now that it's taken up permanent residence as a 3-day summer festival in Chicago. A TON more artists and you can easily get away from the nostalgia crowd if you need to (though seeing the Pixies live there a couple years ago was heaven, even if Weezer was tuning up on the adjacent stage.

Harland said...

WWSU radio could be pretty cool, but it was hard to pick up anywhere off campus. I do remember driving in my car and pulling over near the Belmont drive-in theatre to listen to Laurie Anderson/O Superman.

Nick said...

This should be required reading for anyone who even considers working for college radio today.