Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Life - The Thought

As you might have guessed I've experienced, and am experiencing, among other things, a sort of young adult renaissance. Back in my late teens and early 20s, basically my high school and college years, I went through a period of musical exploration. Although I started listening to classic rock (the only station that our super primitive radio would pull in), I quickly turned to what because "alternative music" or "new wave".

I still enjoy that music.

Which I think is normal, I don't think we keep exploring music genres, do we? I can't stand certain music, never could, and other types of music I've always enjoyed.

When I was a kid we upgraded our house stereo to something with multiple speakers in each speaker box. Per my mom it lived in the kitchen so we could hear music all the time, for our own intonation/etc, because we all played musical instruments. I'd commandeer it when I could and listen to WXCI, the West CONN station. It was the only alternative rock station in a huge area. There was one on Long Island for a bit (at 92.7), but WXCI was it for a bit. I'm sure they played stuff other than alternative rock but I don't remember it.

Back then we couldn't just Google a song or listen to clips on YouTube or whatnot. You had to hear the song, ID the band and the song (hopefully the DJ would actually say the band and song after it played, instead of before), then get to a record store and search it for said band and song. David Bowie alluded to this in a 1999 interview I only saw after he died. This whole process was pretty involved and required a pretty good amount of commitment. As he says, rock and roll had a "call to arms kind of feeling to it".

For us "record store" meant Johnny's in Darien, CT, the only place that offered non-mainstream albums. They sold t-shirts, albums (and later CDs), pins, Vans sneakers, everything. You'd know you were there when you saw the checkered VW Bug parked across the street. Honestly, though, we rarely bought stuff, we mainly looked to see what we might be able to buy.

In the meantime the only way to collect music was to record songs off the radio.

In order to capture songs I'd set up something like a butterfly trap, or, if you will, a shotgun. I'd put in long tapes, 120 minute ones, and just record whatever played on the radio for the next two hours. Then I'd review it, see if there were any good songs, copy them off onto another tape, then record over the 120 minute tape with another 2 hours of whatever.

I also spent a lot of time hitting "Record" just as one song ended, hoping to catch all of the next song. If I didn't want the song (I had it already, I didn't like it, etc) then I'd stop and carefully rewind the tape with my finger to get it "just right".

A well done tape was a work of art.

If the 120 minute tapes were a shotgun approach, the "Sit and Record" method was more like a sniper. I'd sit by the radio and record targeted songs, whether they were songs already announced ("and after the break the new Adam Ant song!") or I was doing the "hit record as the last song ended" thing).

The "Sit and Record" method resulted in higher quality recordings. This was because I recorded over just a short portion of tape (the beginning of songs, if I didn't want to keep it I'd rewind and record over it) but otherwise the recordings were on virgin material. Therefore I used better tapes for my sniper sessions. Typically the best quality tapes were available only up to 90 minutes long instead of the 120 minute long junk tapes.

Gathering songs from the motley assortment of tapes, I'd create mix tapes.

As technology advanced I started taping off of albums, and, as CDs started making their appearance, off of CDs. Most of this was so I could play the music in the car because us poor bike racers generally had just cassette players for them. Although CD adapters were neat, portable CD players skipped regularly when you hit a bump and such. If you were lucky enough to carpool with someone you could assign that someone to hold the CD player up in the air, their arms acting as suspension. If they got tired and the CD player hit something and skipped you'd shoot them a dirty look. The arm would go back up and you'd keep going.

Or you could place the CD player on a folded up jacket or something. Problem was if you took an exit fast or did some other higher-G maneuver. The CD player would end up on the floor on the passenger side or, worse, between the passenger seat and the door. Then you'd have to go to radio or see if you really did get all the tapes out of the glovebox.

Jeepers. The things we used to do.

Through the last few weeks one thing popped up in my personal radar - this one song I had on tape. It was on one of my scrap tapes, a 15 minute long tape originally meant for saving computer files off of our TRS-80 Model III.

Our TRS-80.
Hard to take a picture of it in the basement so poor quality but it's there.
I should try and boot it up. I don't even know if I need a floppy disc to do that.

You see, back then, there were really no hard drives for computers, and the ultra slow/simple TRS-80 was a solid $2000-3000. There were reel to reel tapes for computers and, if you were super advanced, there were these things called "floppy discs". The cheap version of a reel to reel was the cassette tape, whether for music or for data, and therefore those ubiquitous cassette tapes got recruited for computer use.

Our TRS-80 Model III came with a cassette player "storage solution". We had two tapes for it, a 15 minute tape and an 8 minute tape.

When we upgraded to floppy drives it freed up the cassette player and two near-useless tapes. 15 minutes? It would barely hold a few songs. The 8 minute tape I think got tossed.

The 15 minute tape (it was green, the 8 minute was orange or something) became my scrap tape, where I'd hold songs temporarily to record onto another tape. The 120 minute tapes were also scrap tapes. Generally speaking the 120s were so thin and so long that they'd regularly jam in the tape deck. The idea was to use them to gather stuff then transfer the good songs to a more durable tape.

The good tapes were 90 minutes long, durable enough for car play, reliable, not prone to tangling up inside a tape player. Typically they had upgraded material, either High Bias tape or Metal Bias tape. They were the carbon and titanium of the tape world. High Bias was good but Metal was the schnizzle, one step below CDs.

Sort of.

I recorded the best stuff on Metal, and we had two tape decks that were Metal compatible (and had Dolby noise reduction, which is what Dolby did before whatever they do now, like doing the sound for the new Star Wars movie).

One song I had on my 15 minute scrap tape was one that had lyrics that included stuff like:
Shalala sing a simple song
But in my mind everything is wrong
I (wish?) the words just to feel at ease
But tension builds to be released... 
I'm looking in my mirror now
See the face I have to shave 
There was something super compelling about the song. Yeah, it had some of the normal elements of new wave music, with synth drum stuff, a Euro accent (but not English… the accent really drew me in), bass stuff…

The problem was I had no idea who performed the song or what it was called.

I first recorded the song about 30 years ago, maybe a year or two beyond that. I listened to that 15 minute tape regularly throughout college, and I transferred the song onto some of my mix tapes. The cheap, 15 minute, originally-meant-for-computer, not High Bias, not Metal Bias tape became my master tape for this song. Poor quality recording dubbed onto other tapes. It's like a copy of a fax of a copy of a fax, if you know what I mean.

Fast forward about 15-20 years.

Now there was something called the internet. MP3s. You can buy music online without buying anything physical. Yada yada yada.

Every now and then I'd Google some of the lyrics of the song. No success. When my SoCal host told me about Shazam (an app that identifies music - just hold your phone up to the music and let Shazam listen to it for a bit) I downloaded the app specifically to check this song.

To get the tape to play I had to have a tape player and something to push sound to speakers (amp or receiver which contains an amp). I had a tape deck but my stereo/amp was dead. I put a cable into the tape deck headset jack ("out") and the other end into a laptop mic jack ("in") and recorded onto the laptop.

Problem was I had no way of hearing what I was recording.

I was limited to 60 seconds because after that I had to pay for whatever application.

With no idea of output level, no idea of input level, the recording sounded horrible. When I played it for Shazam the app told me, predictably, that it couldn't identify the song. Of course not, it was a horrible recording.

I liked the song so much I'd regularly listen to those 60 distorted seconds while on the trainer.

Fast forward another few years.

With Facebook a FB friend that rides happens to have been a WXCI DJ back in the day, and a few times he offered to ID the song (anything from the 80s). I never got around to putting anything up, and, recently, sitting at my laptop, I just videotaped the keyboard while I played that 60 second recording of the song and posted it for him.

He ID'ed the song immediately.

The Thought. "Every Single Day".

He even linked to the YouTube clip below. I clicked, listened, and I was in shock. It was the song.

It took 30-odd years but I finally knew who did the "See the face I have to shave" song.

I realized why I like the accent - it's a Dutch band and I have some affinity to the Dutch accent after spending much of my childhood in Holland. I associate Dutch accents with women, not men, so that sort of put a twist on that, it's probably why I didn't recognize the accent.

I've mentioned before how music really tugs at me. What I didn't realize was that even music I didn't know I was missing would tug at me.

I listened to a slew of The Thought songs in one sitting and I had this weird feeling that many of them sounded familiar. Slowly I realized that I'd heard and liked many of these songs but never captured them on my 120 minute shotgun tapes or my sniper "sit by the stereo and hit record+play when the song ends" sessions.

The Thought, "Rise and Fall", has a drum intro that reminded me of Powell and Perralta's Bones Brigades 2 "Future Primitive" bridge song as I thought of it (go to 34:45 of the video). I remember thinking the two were similar, but I didn't know the "other" song. It was The Thought.

"Secrets of the Heart". I had no idea they did this song, and, honestly, I forgot about this song until I heard it.

"Eight Miles High". Did I hear their version or some other cover? I don't know.

"Out of Oblivion". I don't know what to call them, the harmonics? Another one that resonated with me, and it still does.

The songs remind me of XTC, which is maybe why I liked XTC.

Finally, the tie in to cycling.

"Tension builds to be released."

Sounds like one thing, of course, but for me it perfectly describes a sprinter's race. The tension builds until it's just unbearable in the bell lap, then, finally, the sprinter launches his sprint.


Anyway, if you're in the area and you drop by, chances are that you'll hear The Thought playing.


I had lunch with an old friend recently. A familiar song came on, something I hadn't heard for years and years. I couldn't place it, neither could she. So she pulled out her phone and said, "Let me Shazam it."

I immediately thought of the only song I'd Shazam'ed. I wondered how this would go.

It came back with XTC. "Mayor of Simplteton".

And so it was.

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