Geek Rock of the 80s, Part 4

This week’s selection is a bit eclectic. The unifying theme is image, sort of. Well, for different definitions of the word ‘image’.

“Heart and Soul” by T’Pau

On the surface of things, this is a love song. Well, more like an “I still love you but you don’t love me back anymore” song. Love and loss. Actually, if you listen to the song closely, that’s not just on the surface. There’s a depth of feeling and emotion in this song that forces you feel a bit of the loss.

But so what, you say. What makes it Geek Rock? Why the band’s name, of course. T’Pau, played by Celia Lovsky, as the Vulcan Matriarch who officiated both Spock’s almost-wedding and his almost fight to the death with Kirk, is a pretty important character in the Star Trek pantheon. “Amok Time” is probably one of the best known episodes, partly for the fight music and funky weapons, partly for the big opportunity for Spock to show some serious emotions, but mainly for the glimpse into Vulcan culture. When the band decided on the name, they became geeks if they weren’t already and the rest of us had a reason to rejoice. And maybe smile quietly to ourselves when we caught normal people singing along.

“Whip It” by Devo

I almost picked “Jocko Homo” (“Are We Not Men?”) to represent Devo, but I feel like the song is almost too cold and mechanized (which is the intended aesthetic) and the video is over the top even for 80s New Wave. Fun, but doesn’t really capture things. “Whip It”, on the other hand, still gets a little play today, depending on what type of mix your station is into.

What makes it Geek Rock? It’s representative of Devo’s style and image. Funky helmets aside, their music typically evokes the image of a cold, impersonal future, something that’s still sometimes a fear for people today. In the 80s, we were on the cusp of that future if we let the machine and electronic culture rule us. Fortunately, we didn’t. We embraced technology while bending it to our will. Granted, we can thank advertising for some of that since it did, in some fashion, pay for all of the cool entertainment we loved, but we can also thank the will of the geek. Just because something was dehumanizing, didn’t mean we couldn’t twist reality to make it cool.

“Boom Tschak” by Kraftwerk

I discovered Kraftwerk somewhere in the middle of Grade 10. Actually, it’s more accurate to say a friend of mine introduced me to Kraftwerk after a friend of his introduced him, probably after… you get the idea. In the 80s, cruising the internet looking for new music was called word of mouth. Other than the radio, which was only going to play what music companies had decided were going to be the hits, you discovered new sounds either by talking to your friends or maybe fishing through the discount rack in the back of the record store (found a few great bands that way).

What makes it Geek Rock? To my mind, Kraftwerk comes under the heading of “Pioneers of Electronic Music”. Electronic instruments only, supplemented with computer generated sound, vocoders, and simple computer speech software. Music by geeks, for geeks. A lot of their work still speaks to me on a very basic level.

Next week only, I’m going to focus on a single band. Some of you might be surprised at who it is. Some of you, knowing my musical influences, have been wondering when I’d get to them.


Geek Rock of the 80s, Part 3

A little later than I wanted to be on this post, but it’s Back To School season and that involves a lot of prep when you have three kids. The theme for this week is the Undead, so let’s dig in and fire up the DeLorean.

“Dancing With Myself” by Billy Idol

Rocking out in a post apocalyptic world. A lot of very fashionable 80s zombies are looking for a little flesh to munch in this video and seem happy for a chance at Billy Idol who, with the aid of some strange electrical device, knocks them off his rooftop patio. When they come back, it’s time for a zombie dance party. Does it make sense? Not even remotely, but it’s fun and more entertaining than most of the zombie movies produced in the thirty years since.

I’ve read that the ultimate root of the song came from Billy watching Japanese night club patrons dancing by themselves in front of mirrors, taking themselves out of the crowd in the same room, which he found dehumanizing. I’ve also read other things with a much higher level of innuendo. Read into it what you like, but it’s still a great song.

What makes it Geek Rock? Aside from the zombies, to me, at its heart, it’s a song about not being noticed by the opposite sex, and learning to deal with it, something definitely familiar to the geeks of the 80s.

“Everlasting Love” by Howard Jones

Mummies on the streets of London? Well sure, why not. The video is a little surreal as no one except Howard notices the mummies walking the dog, taking a taxi to work, or having lunch in the window seat of a restaurant. They’re not scary, there’s no curse, and nothing bad is going to happen; just a couple of ancient Egyptians raised from the dead and trying living a normal life in the late 20th century.

What makes it Geek Rock? Looking for an enduring love in a world of casual and disposable relationships. You often hear about the 80s being the ‘me’ decade. Everything was all about status and attention. I don’t buy it, not that you have to take my word for things, but I was a teenager in the 80s so maybe my view is a bit coloured by youth, or maybe coloured by my early middle age in the early 21st. When I look around, this is a lot more of a ‘me’ decade than the 80s ever were.

The Cold War (about to end) notwithstanding, we felt like there was a pretty bright outlook for the future. A lot of things were on the way and you could almost taste them on the wind. We knew it. We were young and felt everything very intensely and relationships were hard. Which made it more important that they were real. Everlasting love may have been written for everyone, but we took it to heart. I know a surprising number of geeks in long term relationships. Married for 17 years and with that same amazing person for more than 20, I’m one of them.

“Thriller” by Michael Jackson

That’s the link to the super-extended, miniature movie video. Thirteen and three-quarters minutes of classic MJ wrapped in a faux horror movie. The zombie shuffle from which all other zombie shuffles were spawned and a little bit of narration from the man himself, Vincent Price.

What makes it Geek Rock? What doesn’t? Subject matter and visuals. Sure, Horror has always had a rep for being cooler than Science Fiction or Fantasy, but it’s all cut from the same cloth of dreams. And for the time period, MJ’s production crew went all out. This video is all kinds of awesome and has stood as a pop culture reference point for more than a generation now. I remember several truncated forms from video shows and Much Music (Canada’s version of MTV), but the full video didn’t get played very often so it’s a beautiful thing that you can have it on demand in the Internet Age. Michael Jackson may have been a strange one—I think that level of fame can really mess with your mind—but somewhere, someone on his team recognized early the vast, almost untapped geek market. And so, Thriller.

I think we’ll leave monsters behind with this post. Next week, it’s all about image.

Geek Rock of the 80s

In the days before the internet made the whole Geek Rock subgenre(s) possible, what did geeks do for music to call their own? Ask a non-geek and they’ll tell you we had Weird Al and had to be happy with that.

Well, I’ve been a Weird Al Yankovic fan since I was thirteen years old and got a copy of his second album (“Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D) on cassette at the end of grade 8. The man is talented, brilliant, and hilarious, and deserves multiple posts of his own, but he wasn’t the only Geek Rock available by a long shot.

Let’s hop into the Way Back Machine and drift back to the Stone Rock Age (the 1980s and my teen years). You’d be surprised what was out there for geeks. Sure, we listened to a lot of what everyone else listened to, and still do, but there was plenty of geek music hanging around if you were paying attention. Some of it was in disguise and some of it wasn’t, but a lot of it wasn’t as obvious as you’d think.

Prime example: Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is absolutely a geek anthem. Why? Because it was the end credits song of the movie Real Genius (which defined Geek Cinema for a generation, but that’s the subject of another post). Actually, I’d say we co-opted that entire sound track, but that was the big one—I can’t hear the song without thinking about the movie.

Over a few posts, I’m going to explore (mostly) 80s Geek Rock, offer a few thoughts on what made Geek Rock in the old days, why I love it, and how a lot of it holds up pretty well. Maybe we’ll even figure out how I define Geek Rock along the way. Maybe. There are a lot of reasons I might classify a song as geek. Subject matter is the big one, but not the only one.

For this first post, I’m going to toss three songs out there and see what everyone (or anyone) thinks. You’ll recognize all of them and not just because they still get played on the radio, depending on what station you’re listening to.

First up, “Ghost Busters” by Ray Parker Jr.

The tune was in your head even before you clicked play on the video, wasn’t it?

What makes it Geek Rock? I think the geek factor on this one is fairly obvious. Guest cameos and neon outlines aside, this is the theme song from the Ghostbusters movie and I’m reasonably certain that, geek or not, just about everyone over the age of five has seen the movie. Heck, one in five people alive in North America the year it released saw it in the theatre. A sequel, two cartoon series, and I’m not sure how many video games. Ghostbusters is a pop culture phenomenon/icon/fixture, but the release of the movie happened early in the Geek Era and marked something close to the beginning of the transition.

Who you gonna call?

“Coming Home” by Peter Schilling

Aside from the recent cover that tried to sell me an expensive car (nice to finally be the target market, I suppose), this is an interesting song. I don’t entirely get the tower of cars and roller skating waitresses motif in the video, but have to admit it gives some interesting imagery against the space race back drop. Long ago, I heard the story told in a documentary that Peter Schilling got mad about Bowie turning Major Tom from a hero into a junkie and so “Coming Home” was born. Wish I could confirm this story.

What makes it Geek Rock? Well, the space race may have been a matter of national pride in the US, and it may have been fighter jocks getting sent into orbit or to the moon (although they were a pretty smart bunch overall, don’t get me wrong), but it was the scientists and engineers who made it possible. The geeks.

Styx: Mr. Roboto

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.

What makes it Geek Rock? This song is all about identity and that’s at the heart of every geek’s psyche, or used to be. These days, it’s easy to be a geek or call yourself one, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in the 80s, high school wasn’t the best place to be a geek even with the safety of numbers. There was plenty of teasing and abuse, sometimes physical, and you did what you had to do to get through. Sometimes you adapted so you could appear to fit in, at least on the surface, sometimes you hid who you really were, sometimes you kept to yourself, and sometimes you stood there and took whatever was being dished out because you knew it was finite and then you could get on with your day. Coping strategies varied by individual and by day and by tormentor. All of those strategies are in the lyrics for Mr. Roboto. That’s probably what keeps it on the playlist at so many radio stations: it speaks to all of us on some level. Give it a close listen.

So there’s a start. Next post, the subject matter will get a little geekier: Star Trek, Video Games, and Super Heroes.

Me and My Saxophone

This is me:

This is my saxophone:

This is me and my saxophone making sweet, sweet music together:

Well, sweet music.

Okay, music.

More or less.

All right, so I blow into it and sounds that are more or less like notes come out of it. No, you can’t hear me play. Not yet.

My rhythm and timing stink, but are improving. You can hear me breathe, but that’s improving. I’ve more or less got the fingering down for the primary octave, and that’s improving, too. I’ve figured out just enough that I know how little I know.

Yes, I’m teaching myself. I have a couple of books and You Tube is handier than you might think, if you’re willing to dig a little for the right material.

I played saxophone as a kid. As in grade school. As in two thirds of a lifetime ago. Alto first, then tenor when my hands got a little bigger. The saxophone my utterly amazing wife got me for my birthday is a tenor, which is what I wanted. I’d been thinking about it for a long, long time. Probably since not long after we got married. I wished I hadn’t given it up when I went to high school, and every couple of years my fingers would get itchy enough to start pricing instruments, which would make the itch go away. Saxophones, generally, aren’t cheap.

But the world changes, and prices do come down eventually, and if you want to play but aren’t interested in a two thousand dollar instrument just to try out, you can find something much more reasonably. It’s a beginner’s instrument, but that’s okay because I’m certainly a beginner and will be for a really long time.

What really surprised me is that when I first picked it up, I could still remember the fingering for Mary Had a Little Lamb, the opening theme from M.A.S.H., and the snake charming song. I can do them without the squeaks and squawks now, too.

Now I’m learning to read music, which I never bothered with as a kid because I could just play the notes, right? And I’m learning what tempo and timing really mean, which is good too. I’d probably make faster progress, but I’m only willing to practice when the house is empty of other people. That will probably change sooner or later, but for now, I’d rather make noise by myself.

For now.

My ultimate (initial) goal is to be able to play Maneater by Hall & Oates. And now you’ve got the song stuck in your head. It’s okay, so do I. That’s going to take a while, and that’s okay. For now, there’s joy in learning to play. Joy in actual playing comes in tiny, growing bursts.

I’m forty-one and it’s never too late to learn something new or pick up something old. Anyone else?