So after posting about Fred Schneider, I started thinking about the glory days of College Rock. What a great category for music that doesn’t really exist. Let me explain… The term ‘college rock’ was given to most any band that could be heard almost exclusively on radio stations operated by college students. The bands that made this list came from diverse backgrounds and musical styles such that college rock doesn’t really define anything, except for the fact that these bands were popular amongst college students, which meant they mostly were very good and definitely worth your time.
Back in the early 80s this included a lot of bands that would surprise many of you youngsters. U2, Sonic Youth, and New Order would probably top the list of those bands you would never think had trouble getting on commercial radio, but there was a change that was to occur around 1985 (right around the time of We Are The World, interestingly enough).
If you cruise over to wikipedia.com and search for college rock, you’ll get a page with even less information than what I’m giving you here. However, it does give a partial list of the bands that someone considers part of the culture. How that list excludes the B-52s and Peter Gabriel is anyone’s guess, but I’m sure it was unintentional. If only I were motivated enough to want to edit a wiki page. But I’m betting that’ll never happen.
What I think is fascinating is the number of bands on that list that I experienced for the first time watching MTV. Back then MTV played videos. LOTS of videos. All day long. Most everyone at my little public school didn’t have cable or satellite (how I got my MTV), so I felt part of a special group that knew what good music sounded like, while the rest of my classmates had to suffer through commercial radio. I attempted to tell them of the great bands like U2, They Might Be Giants, Talking Heads, The Sugarcubes, and the incredible Dead Milkmen, but they weren’t impressed by my vast musical knowledge. I would even find myself singing songs and feeling stunned that no one around me knew/liked. It’s The End Of The World As We Know It is the one that sticks out most in my mind as the moment of illumination. I was singing it to myself (well, maybe not just to myself) during a pumpkin-carving after-school FBLA event and a couple of guys came over to me and TOLD me to quit. When I asked if there was a problem they said it sounded gay, meaning the worst possible meaning to them. I dared not tell them that REM was fronted by a very gay Michael Stipe for fear of my general health, but what happened next was exactly what I expected. One of them went out to his car and brought in an Aerosmith CD, and then cranked it loud enough that everyone would forget that I knew anything different. Such was life in a town without cable. They have cable there now, but I doubt if anything’s changed. Heh.
Back to the good memories… Several of these bands made the switch from college rock over to mainstream around 1985. The Police (who was HUGE) broke up and left this gaping hole in the industry. Filling this spot would be U2, Talking Heads, Duran Duran (who was already mainstream by a couple of years), Peter Gabriel, and Genesis (who had several albums out but no chart-toppers) It was at this time that The Bangles and Billy Idol also rose to stardom, both excellent talent but not thought-provoking. MTV stayed on the cutting edge of new music and introduced some great acts to the world. I remember spending a Saturday staring at the TV all day for the news updates of a show Midnight Oil put on in front of Exxon’s headquarters in NYC. [but again, I’ll do a whole Midnight Oil post someday.] I could put on MTV and listen to really good music instead of commercial crap every afternoon while doing homework or whatever, and feel better about everything. Those bands really spoke to me and their music stayed with me through the day when I had to go to a school where I didn’t want to be and spend time with people I really didn’t like. When I hear a band from that time it always makes me feel somewhat alone again. I can even remember as I started dating that I had no time for any girl who wouldn’t listen to 10,000 Maniacs. Yeah, it was that important. And yes, I spent many weekends alone.
College rock remained a class of music until “Alternative” was coined around 1990. Today it’s called Indie Rock but very little of it stops me cold and forces me to pay attention. In a time before the internet or satellite radio, finding good music was like a treasure hunt. When I finally made it to college I can remember several weekends where my friends would pile into a car and we’d hit the pawn shops and CD re-sellers. I can tell you where I bought each album in my collection. It was a kind of badge-of-honor to find something shockingly good in the last box in the last bin of some hidden pawn shop. Of course, you had to go through a lot of bad to find the gem, but then months later we’d sit around and swap albums. I once swapped a Course Of Empire CD for a rare Toad The Wet Sprocket CD. I really miss the CD I gave up, but I’ve listened to that Toad CD a hundred times since. In fact, I bought my first six Midnight Oil albums at pawn shops. One of them during a flash flood in Midland, TX. The water came rushing through the door as I laid the CD on the counter in front of the clerk. No one remembers what the weather was like while downloading an iTunes track. Still, the digital age has its advantages. Looking in my audio folder on my hard drive you’ll find a bunch of those older bands, some of whom are still putting out music. In fact, I read today that U2 will have out another album in October. Awesome.
Point is, college rock didn’t always make you think or even make sense [see below] but you could be assured that it was always good and made you feel ways about stuff. It was kind of a nerd’s world, where jocks and cheerleaders wouldn’t dare tread. Where everyone was welcome to just be yourself and not feel left out because you weren’t into Slayer, Barbara Mandrell, or Air Supply. It was for people who really liked music and loved being different for the sake of individuality.
For your viewing pleasure I’ve included this video of videos, one of my favorites that MTV ever aired, the video that made me think punk might just save the world…
If you don’t catch it, the 3rd verse says: “We asked for Mojo Nixon. He said, “He don’t work here.” We said, “If you don’t know Mojo Nixon then your store could use some fixin’.” :o) That always makes me smile. Don’t bother looking for Mojo Nixon today, he died several years ago. Though never big in the charts, he influenced a decade’s worth of punk. Cool stuff.
If you read all of this, you need a life. Sorry for simply rambling…but I did warn you. Maybe you’ll listen next time!
Update: Mojo Nixon isn’t dead. I write about this a couple of posts later. My confusion. Head over to his website and look around, if you’re so inclined.