First posted on October 22, 2007
It was 1985 and I had gotten through graduate school and was working for a well-known publishing house. A writer I had hired who was just out of college had hung a poster on her office wall. I was curious. “REM,” I said. “Who are they? Any good?” She gave me a look of slightly withering contempt. “It’s R.E.M.,” she replied. “And they are great.” I deserved that bemused response. I was out of it. One thing led to another and the upshot was I ended up getting everything R.E.M. had done up until then. I was hooked. My life was a cloistered one at graduate school, so I missed out on a good amount of the alternative rock scene from 1981-85. Everybody was raving about Michael Jackson there, but I suspected more was going on than was reaching my ears. There was. I spent several years catching up. A four-CD set came out several years ago that covered what turned out to be a rather special time on the scene. It is called Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the ‘80s Underground (Rhino) and it manages to cover succinctly the best of the less heralded alt groups of the era. I had purchased many of these tracks on vinyl, but missed a few here and there. It’s a great compilation and makes one realize on listening how something was up, for certain. They’ve got some R.E.M., sure. And they include lots of other bands, too: XTC, The Smiths, New Order, Dinosaur, Jr., The Replacements. There’s a little punk, new wave, no wave, and you can wave bye-bye at the end. I know there are plenty of things going on today too, but I have a certain nostalgia for these bands.
OK, now I am finally catching up with a hip-hop group who released their first (I think) CD in 1999. They are called Handsome Boy Modeling School and that CD is So. . . How’s Your Girl? (Tommy Boy Records). I don’t like everything coming out in the hip-hop vein. But I do like these folks (Dan the Automator and Prince Paul). First of all, they can be funny. Father Guido Sarducci makes a guest appearance, for example, and he is out there. Much of it is tongue-in-cheek. Second, they are likely to combine all kinds of styles and samples with live instruments and vocals. There is a rap veneer, but also shades of rock, Beethoven, funk, soul, and so on. It is musical! Perhaps a bit more guitar in the mix would have made it even better. Well they have at least one more CD that came out and it’s cool, but this one especially hits me.