It’s an unavoidable irony that, however much music is valued for being genuine and honest, people often lie about their musical tastes. The reasons vary, though, the desire to sound cool generally ranks high on the list. Even when we admit to liking an “uncool” song or artist, it’s frequently couched in terms of being enjoyed “ironically” or as a “guilty pleasure.” The former is rhetorical nonsense while the latter manages to be something far more pointless. Not only does the tepid excuse compound the lie, it undercuts the pleasure – and pop music without the pleasure has no reason for being.
Even when we don’t feel the need to add verbal asterisks, it can still be difficult to treat the component parts of our tastes as points on a continuum rather than candidates for a flea market. Despite a few moments of the pointless pretense only teenagers and college students are capable of, I’ve been fortunate to have a few particular points on my own continuum that have stood out with undeniable clarity and continue to shape my love of music.
Whether being dropped off at school by my parents or running errands with them on weekends, my local Top 40 AM station – the now-defunct WMAJ – provided the soundtrack of my childhood. Thanks to the inclusion of Meco’s disco-infused rendition of the Star Wars theme, their playlist unified virtually everything I loved the most in popular culture at the time. Some songs are long (and arguably better) forgotten, but “Baker Street” and “The Things We Do for Love” inevitably evoke strong memories, perhaps stronger for being melancholy ones.
When MTV debuted in 1981, the scarcity of music videos from popular American bands necessitated playing those made by lesser-known British artists, especially new-wave and post-punk acts. As original MTV VJ Mark Goodman recounted in the documentary series Soundbreaking, “By default, we wound up being really progressive and really sort of ahead of our time.” My own experience was much the same.
I still enjoyed Styx more than was healthy and had no idea that The Jam were on the verge of splitting up when they made the video for “Town Called Malice,” but this period remains one of the rare moments when my musical tastes genuinely verged on being cool, without the need for disclaimers.
Though I still gravitated toward the artists whose emphasis on melody and song-craft echoed that of my Top 40 favorites, it simply meant that Elvis Costello and Squeeze joined rather than supplanted Paul McCartney and Fleetwood Mac in my affections.
Like most golden ages, it didn’t last. As music videos became more inventive, the songs themselves felt increasingly less so. MTV’s playlist quickly realigned itself with what Casey Kasem played each week on American Top 40 – albeit with some hiccups where artists of color were concerned – and British bands that weren’t Duran Duran or the current incarnations of progressive-rock groups from the Seventies became a much rarer sight. A somewhat more expansive playlist made WMMR, my local album-rock station, the most engaging radio option but rarely offered the same thrill of discovery that MTV had just a few years earlier.
This held true until I stumbled across a program that helped fill the void, Rock Over London. Hosted by London-based DJ Graham Dene, the syndicated program aired Sunday nights and offered a range of music that often felt much richer than what WMMR played the rest of the week. The name notwithstanding, what made Rock Over London so appealing at the time was its disregard for arbitrary distinctions between rock and pop. It united my Top 40 childhood with an MTV-inspired love of UK New Wave/post-punk, cementing my association with British artists with quality in the process.
“Cool” clearly had nothing to do with it, or I wouldn’t have been so intrigued by the prospect of Marillion’s latest single or an archival classic from ELO. As with WMAJ several years earlier, some of the songs are best forgotten, but many have stuck with me. More than a few of them sent me to the record store the next day. Rock Over London wasn’t just a weekly reminder that the artists I enjoyed so much in MTV’s early days were still making music alongside older artists and newcomers. More so than anything else in my life, their playlist encouraged me to explore.
This wasn’t a function of “curation” – the grievously overused term that people were wise enough to reserve for museums at the time. I trusted the show. More to the point, I trusted in the songs. “When Smokey Sings” by ABC. “Angels Don’t Cry” by the Psychedelic Furs. “China In Your Hand” by T’Pau. When one of them caught my ear, I wanted the chance to relive that moment of discovery via cassette or vinyl – or even on CD, if the money from my part-time job allowed.
Songs that otherwise never made it on the radio here were equally capable of leaving an impression. At a moment when the future of the Rolling Stones was genuinely in doubt, the undeniable kick and Jagger-esque vocal of Broken English’s “Comin’ On Strong” filled the void while also reinforcing my desire for Keith and Mick to work out their differences.
The effect also held true for established artists. Van Morrison had largely been just a name until 1987’s “Did Ye Get Healed?” and the prospect of a full album like that with the awesome name Poetic Champions Compose connected the dots, and if not for Rock Over London, David Bowie’s “When The Wind Blows” might have passed me by. Even the most popular of the former Beatles could still surprise. Paul McCartney’s “Once Upon a Long Ago” wasn’t officially released in America but remains as dear to me as any of his 1970s hits.
Despite occasional appearances by groups like The Cure or R.E.M., the Top 40 hadn’t improved all that much when I went away to college. I couldn’t find Rock Over London on any of the radio stations where I went to school, but fortunately working at the campus station offered the opportunity to fill the gap. The station called it the “New Music Show,” and I played plenty of that while also digging into the past where it made sense. Some of those songs weren’t especially cool – even the ones I first heard on Rock Over London – but I rarely felt the need to lie about them.
Photo: R.E.M. (Getty Images)