Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Liner Notes #1: Radio Ga Ga

Liner Notes #1: Radio Ga Ga

Liner Notes is my ongoing music column with Electric City Creative. Each month, I post supplementary material to the column’s topic on this site. In Issue #1, I talked about my fondness for radio and the not-yet-extinct Great Falls DJs.

Five Songs Full of Radio Nostalgia

For whatever reason, the peak of my radio nostalgia seems to be centered around the years 1993 and 1994. Perhaps this is because it was before my CD owning years, but these were the first songs that popped into my head when compiling a list. These are not an indicator of albums I compulsively listened to over time, since most of the singles from those were not played on local radio anyway.

Other contenders? “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow (1994), “Stay (I Missed You)” by Lisa Loeb (1994), “Heaven is a Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle (well, what do you know – 1987), “The Good Life” by Weezer (1996) ... and probably a bunch more, if I sat here and thought about it.

Radio fondness is a mysterious thing. Sometimes you hear a song and decide you need the whole album. Sometimes that album is great, sometimes the single is the only great thing. In a pre-download age, it could be hard to tell.

Sometimes there are songs heard on the radio that you love, even though they go against your normal musical inclinations. Perhaps we didn’t buy the albums, but later, after hearing it yet again on the radio, we’re off downloading. It’s Nostalgia meeting the Modern Age.

Here, then, is what made the cut:

1. What’s Up? - 4 Non Blondes (1993)

I had trouble falling asleep even as a kid. When other girls were long tuckered out at slumber parties, I’d lie there listening to the creaks in an unfamiliar house, wondering how many hours until morning. Houses without creaks were maddening — I had nothing but my own racing thoughts. At home, before I owned a three disc changer, I’d often let the radio keep me company.

And then one night, I decided I would pass the time by learning how to sign “What’s Up?” The only full words I knew in sign language were “time,” “you,” “and,” “me,” “my,” and “I.” Using almost entirely individual letter signs, I wanted to see if I could spell out the song reasonably in step with the music. The song had heavy airplay then, so I had plenty of opportunity to practice.

I can almost do it still, nearly twenty years later. My sleeplessness probably led directly to my later skills as a cello player, despite having tiny hands.

“What’s Up?” is one of the best songs to come out of the 90s. Linda Perry has a great rock n roll voice, like a more gravelly Anne Wilson. You either want to be her or be with her, and you can be sure that when someone picks this song for karaoke, the crowd sings along.

2. Come to My Window - Melissa Etheridge (1994)

Every Sunday night, K99 would play the Casey Kasem Top 40 Countdown, and I’d listen to part of it in the shower and then later portions once I went to bed. I didn’t necessarily like all the songs played, but I got list-making satisfaction out of the rise and fall of songs. He never really interviewed anyone, but he would quote other interviews with the musicians. During the height of Melissa Etheridge’s post-coming out popularity, he mentioned a joke she’d made about how she was the Queen of the Lesbians and kd lang was the King. Immediately, my list-making brain (trying to fall asleep, still) tried to rank all the non-straight musicians I knew.

I was only around ten years old. My list tapped out not long after Freddie Mercury and Elton John (whose real name, Reginald White, I also learned from Casey Kasem. Young Reggie made a list of names and decided). Surely there are more, I thought.

Of course there were and are more, and of course it shouldn’t be any more notable than hair color, but my burgeoning heart identified. And anyone willing to stand up and blaze a trail, critics be damned, wins some admiration in my book.

“Come to My Window” is a romantic song, a gender neutral song, and I still like it even though I’ve never purchased a Melissa Etheridge album, and I don’t mind when her other songs come on the radio. Apart from the whole “David Crosby’s the babydaddy” news, her life has been like many a straight person’s — longterm relationship, have some kids, divorce, remarry and do it all over again. Is it the ideal? Maybe not, but it’s got nothing to do with the excess of ovaries.

3. Because the Night - 10,000 Maniacs (1993)

Pardon my ignorance at the time, but I didn’t know this was a Patti Smith cover; I just knew that I liked it. Up until recently, I also had no idea that Bruce Springsteen wrote it. That’s quite the pedigree for a song, no matter who sings it. Taken from 10,000 Maniacs MTV Unplugged performance, this song was played nothing short of eleventy-gerbillion times during late 1993 and into 1994. That’s right — eleventy-gerbillion.

I’m a sucker for orchestra-backed songs, and even though Natalie Merchant spent the 80s and early 90s dressing like a dowdy Missoula librarian, there is something about her voice. I’m probably partial to it because it’s more in my range, and I would sing along while pottering around my room at the time. My dad liked 10,000 Maniacs, but he never got around to owning the Unplugged set, so my exposure came entirely from the radio.

K99 used to do a Battle of the Songs in the evening, and I remember this one holding on for weeks and weeks. (Bizarrely, another song that did so was something from Toad the Wet Sprocket. Yeah... I don’t know why, either.)

Really, 10,000 Maniacs became considerably less interesting once Natalie Merchant left for a solo career. They’re a prime example of a band that should have just gone ahead and changed their name when one of their most recognizable elements changed. You’re no longer the same — May as well quit pretending.

4. Loser - Beck (1993/1994)

This isn’t anywhere near my favorite Beck song, but like many, this was my first introduction to the Strangeness That Is One Mr. Beck Hansen. Originally released on vinyl for indie outfit Bong Load, it spread through college and modern rock radio airplay before being picked up by Geffen subsidiary DGC. I assume that when I first heard it, the major record deal had already happened, as our local radio stations were not known for their cutting edge, ahead of the curve tastes.

Filled with seemingly nonsense words and a half-Spanish chorus, it wasn’t like anything else I’d heard before. This song also featured several weeks in a row as the winner of Battle of the Songs, and the memory that sticks out most for me is that I’d often be cleaning my room when it came on the radio.

I went on to own a handful of Beck albums since — Odelay, Midnight Vultures, Mutations and Guero — and while his personality can be a bit grating at times, it’s always interesting to see what musical direction he heads next.

5. Sleeping in My Car - Roxette (1994)

(The original video is here. I couldn't embed it.)

Swedish pop. You know you love it.

It’s true, I have an irrational fondness for Roxette. It began with “It Must Have Been Love” when I was six years old, followed by pleading for (and receiving) The Look! for my eighth birthday. I watched their interviews on MTV and was fascinated by their hair. Even as I grew older and my musical tastes veered sharply into alternative and British rock, I would still sing along when Roxette came on the radio. There’s just something satisfying about their songs, and I can’t quite place what. I don’t care if that’s not hip to admit; that hasn’t stopped me before.

Any song with the word “car” (see also: “drive” or “run”) in the title automatically makes it better while on the road. Sure I was too young to be thinking about getting busy in the backseat of a car, but it sure sounded like a hell of a lot of fun. Also, there’s something nice about the line “The night is so pretty and so young.”

Go on, give Roxette another try. I won’t tell anyone.

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