Now Playing: “Open Your Eyes” by Lords of the New Church
There I was at 13, in my bedroom on the second floor of our four-bedroom, stuccoed suburban home. It was the first house my parents bought themselves, having spent their first 16 years together raising two children in what was originally my grandfather’s house. That had been a one-story. The two-story felt like a freakin’ mansion.
The year was 1994. On the walls was a seductive poster of Robert Smith (just him, no band) in one of his signature, romantically-flowered button-up shirts; one of those stoner-y blacklight posters in some abstract geometric design (yes, I also had a blacklight) and a “Magic Eye” speckled poster that you had to stare at forever (but not too hard) for a 3D image to emerge. I think mine revealed some dolphins (very edgy). Somewhere in the room was also a lava lamp. So psychedelic! Was it the 90’s or the 60's? I also burned a hefty amount of incense during those years, most likely purchased from The Psychic Eye, a popular mystical shop of curios like healing stones, gargoyle sculptures and tarot cards.
The most important item in my bedroom was my new stereo, a Sony LBT-A17 “Remote Controlled Compact Hi-Fidelity” system. It had been a Christmas present from my parents my 8th grade year. 5-CD changer. Dual cassette deck. AM/FM tuner with 30 presets. 5-band graphic equalizer. Auxiliary phono input, where I plugged in the Sharp record player my brother had gifted me from the Montgomery Ward he worked at. Prior to this stereo, I had a small cassette boombox. This was my first CD player. I promptly subscribed to both BMG and Columbia House record clubs. Columbia House was the “12 CD’s for 1¢” one, but BMG was the one that offered 4 free CD’s initially, followed by a purchase of one at full price and then 3 more free after that. It was a total scam in the way they’d keep sending you CD’s that you had to pay for unless you “opted out”. I can tell you those first four CD’s I ordered from BMG and thus the first four I ever owned: Duran Duran’s untitled “Wedding” album, Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut, Stone Temple Pilots’ Core, and Nirvana’s Nevermind.
Up until that point, I had been collecting used cassettes, purchased from a small chain of independent stores in Las Vegas called Record City. I was really into 80’s music, and it was easy to find cool stuff second-hand. It’s weird that even in 1994, 1986 seemed like such a long time ago. Listening to The Human League or OMD sounded ancient, from another age.
The primary source of my listening and music exposure was the “alternative” commercial radio station KEDG “The Edge” 103.5. Researching now, its format was Alternative for only about three years, but they happened to be the most significant three years of my adolescence. What was so beautiful about Alternative at the time was that it encompassed so much variety. If you tune into any commercial Alternative station now (the few that even exist), what you will primarily hear is Indie Rock. The Edge, along with stations like KROQ and Live 105 back in the day, had a playlist that went from Ace of Base to XTC and everywhere in between. They were definitely playing all of the newly emerging hard and heavy Grunge — Pearl Jam, Nirvana, STP — along with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Weezer and The Pixies. But you could also hear poppier and experimental new music from Kate Bush, The Ocean Blue, Pet Shop Boys and Bjork.
Even though it was just the early 90’s, my favorite time was their “Flashback” programming, wherein they played 80’s music exclusively. It happened everyday at lunch (noon to 1pm) and an occasional marathon weekend. I was infatuated with New Wave and Synthpop, and they didn’t just play the hits.
As most Gen-Xers growing up in the 80’s and 90’s did, I regularly recorded off the radio onto cassette. What a thrill that was. We couldn’t just look up our favorite songs on YouTube or Spotify on demand — you had to be patient and just wait until they were played. With a station like The Edge, this could be a real commitment, because they didn’t rotate the same 15 songs every hour. And if there was an older song I wanted to capture from their Flashback programming, it could take weeks. Months. But oh, I was determined.
I recently ordered a cassette-to-mp3 digitizer for $50 from Hammacher Schlemmer, a company that sells ridiculous convenience products for people with too much disposable income (but they do got some cool shit!). My current obsession with this machine is archiving all of my homemade recordings as well as the mixtapes I have been gifted over the years. Each of those has its own story, but there is one I want to focus on now — a certain Maxell XL II 90 labelled “RADIO MIX 103.5 KEDG THE EDGE”. A fucking time capsule. All my favorite songs captured from the radio when I was 13. And it’s kind of a mess. Choppy and warbled. Sometimes I’d catch a song halfway through, but fuck it, I hit REC anyway — even capturing 60 seconds was better than nothing. Most of the time I got most of the song.
Some of the songs featured on this particular tape include “Debonair” by the Afghan Whigs, The Cure’s cover of “Purple Haze” from The Crow soundtrack, “Laid” by James, “Hey” from Boingo (they had dropped the Oingo by then cos it was too nerdy) and some throwbacks: “Oh L’Amour” by Erasure, “Suedehead” from Morrissey and “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club.
All of the above were easily identifiable, and I knew the songs. But every once in awhile, you’d accidentally capture a piece of something else, perhaps right as your song was ending, before you’d stopped recording. Or maybe you went to grab a snack or yell at your brother about something while recording, so it would go on and on. You would later go back and record over the stuff you didn’t care about, but sometimes remnants would remain and peer out between your faves, begging for your attention. And those gems of snippets later noticed when listening back often caused painstaking searches that went on for years.
One such snippet on this tape was a 5-second clip that went, “Open your eyes, see the lights right in front of ya…” and that was it. That’s all I had. His voice sounded not unlike goth-y Brits Dave Gahan and Ian McCulloch, and there was a desperate urgency to this line. I had no context, though. It could have meant anything. To me, I always leaned toward the more intimate and emotional, and I imagined this was a line sung to a romantic interest, like “Wake up! I love you, dummy!”
Before Shazam. Before Google. Before Genius. Before all of these there was Phonolog (and later the Muze, Inc. computer database). In addition to your cool older cousins and the older siblings of your friends, who are the people I usually asked. And let’s not forget singing the one line you knew to every record store clerk in town. But back to Phonolog. That was the official name of that giant reference catalog in yellow and blue at the record store. If I recall correctly, the yellow section was Rock & Pop and the blue section was Classical. If you knew the Song Title, you could find the Artist and Album. What would happen is that based on whatever tiny snippets I had, I would try looking up possible titles. For this one, “Open Your Eyes” made sense. But sometimes you would look up a title and there would be dozens of songs with that same title. So then you’d look at the Artist. Sometimes you knew who some of them were and could immediately eliminate certain entries (for example, I knew it wasn’t “Open Your Eyes” by The Doobie Brothers) . And of course, some band names seemed more in line with what you were looking for, and those were the records you’d start hunting down in the used bins, hoping that was it. At the time, I may have seen Lords of the New Church listed but disregarded them as a Metal band by the sound of their name and never followed up.
When I eventually found the track — quite by accident after picking up the album randomly years later, having given up the hunt at some point— I was a little disappointed to find that it was not a romantic song after all but a political one. Not that it isn’t great and important and actually still hella relevant, but… it just wasn’t what I had imagined and built it up to be all those years.
Another snippet off the radio it took me years to find was, “And the battle’s just begun…”
Do you recognize it? I bet if I sang it to you, you’d know it.
Yet another significant analog search I recall was Trans-X’s “Living On Video”, a dynamite, futuristic, synth-laden “Hi-NRG” jam that is often found in many 80’s Synthpop and Dance playlists. I knew what this song was all along, but it was impossible to track down a recording of it in the mid-90’s. Anything of theirs was long out of print. I remember seeing it listed in the Phonolog on a compilation I searched high and low for for years in every used record shop across the Vegas and LA valleys. Eventually I ordered it from Tower Records on cassette. I now have two copies of the original 12" and the 7", thanks to eBay, where I just had to plug in the title and immediately saw a dozen copies available from all the nooks and crannies of the world.
Beyond pure romanticism for analog media and the olden days, there is something that is lost now with nearly all of the information in the universe at our fingertips that is tragic and I believe affects our emotional and intellectual lives — and that is mystery. Not knowing. Not being able to find an answer. Do you remember what that was like? How tolerant are you of that now? How does that acceptance of not knowing affect us? Our brain? Our expectations and thus our mood?
At 40 now, I am deeply reliant on technology. As a DJ the last 14 years and a teacher, I often ponder how the hell I would fulfill either of these roles without access to all of the resources I now have at my fingertips. When I was 16, I spent hours — days — making a mixtape for someone. I’d record a first draft and listen back. If I made a mistake or wasn’t happy with the flow, I’d start all over again from the beginning (at least on that side). It was a tedious process that required focus and passion. Now I click and drag lines of text or stitch YouTube videos together. It takes 1% of the time and effort. Is that good or bad? Probably neither. It just is what it is. But I can’t help feel some kind of loss beyond nostalgia. It’s just the times we live in, period. Because everything is so convenient and can happen so quickly, it’s rare to really take the time and care to do something meaningful and think deeply about it. At least for me, I admit. I have some kind of adult onset ADHD (likely caused by said technology). Until last summer in lockdown, I hadn’t been able to finish a goddamn book in years. I simply could not focus. With the time and space that allowed for more “leisure”, I slowly built up my resilience for long periods of quiet, focused time and have finished tons of books the last eight months.
I am currently working on my first radio show in nearly a year, a remotely-recorded three-hour program. It’s a good project, forcing me to take time and care and be thoughtful about what I’m picking and the order I’m choosing. Twice already I’ve listened back to a set and re-recorded it. I don’t have the setup to record from my vinyl collection, so it is an all-digital mix, with many of the tracks having been uploaded from my own personal CD collection that I’ve been building since 1994 (thanks to BMG and Columbia House), along with the thousands of downloads I’ve (effortlessly) amassed over the past decade.
I am working on this alongside the archiving project with my trusty cassette-to-mp3 converter.
I looked up that Trans-X song just now out of curiosity to try and find the compilation that I had ordered, and there is zero trace of it. At AllMusic.com it’s only listed as appearing on one 2004 2 Many DJ’s comp. Hmm. So the internet maybe doesn’t have all of the information in the universe. What I would give to search a 1990’s Phonolog right now or the Muze, Inc. computer. Where is all of the information now?! I suppose I should be happy that there is still some mystery left after all.
And maybe I am just waxing nostalgic.