Kari, my first college girlfriend, had Upstairs at Eric’s on cassette. We caught each other’s eye during freshman orientation, and I remember pointing her out to John in the crowd. I lamented afterwards that I wasn’t able to find her to talk with her after the assembly, and John matter-of-factly informed me that on a campus of 15,000 I was bound to run into her again. Sure enough, crossing campus one night soon thereafter with my newly found group of friends, we passed her. Even more amazing, I learned that our new friend Jennifer knew Kari because they were both in the vocal program.
Kari went to a high school and school district with the same name as mine, but that was located in Northwestern Ohio, which always amazed me (perhaps the first hint that my world wasn’t quite as unique as I had previously thought). She had done some modeling in high school, and although she looked every bit the punk when we dated – dyed hair, dark makeup, black wardrobe, piercings – her striking beauty still shone through with an exotic hint. She’s the girlfriend who pierced my cartilage the night of the Bizarre Love Triangle.
I went to Kari’s parent’s house once while we were dating. I remember her hometown seeming every bit as rural as mine (perhaps more so), but I don’t remember if I spent the night or not. Her parents’ house was close enough to Bowling Green that it’s possible we just went there one weekend afternoon. I do know I brought her home to my parents’ house one long weekend while we were dating. I introduced her to my high school punk friends and took her to Thursday’s.
Much like the intertwined relationships of college and young adulthood, there was a certain incestuous nature to the alternative bands of the ’80s. The tangling of rosters was always fascinating to me: The Cure’s Robert Smith playing with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Electronic’s Pet Shop Boys/New Order/Smiths lineup, the Mission UK/Sisters of Mercy connections, and on and on. And then there’s Vince Clarke...
Clarke helped found Depeche Mode and contributed three hits to their Speak & Spell debut, “Dreaming of Me”, “New Life”, and “Just Can’t Get Enough”, then left the band. He hooked up with Alison Moyet and produced two albums in the same number of years under the Yaz banner (Yazoo in the UK). Before teaming up with Andy Bell to form Erasure – his longest lasting musical partnership – in 1985, there was a detour as The Assembly (producing the Feargal Sharkey fronted single “Never Never”).
If there is a godfather of ’80s college alternative synth, it’s Clarke. But among the considerable body of Clarke’s work (or the entire genre of synthpop, for that matter), it was never more organic than Yaz’s output. 1982’s Upstairs at Eric’s has a surprising warmth to it, owed in no small part to Moyet’s vocals. Even in the late ’80s, it still felt fresh and connected with us on so many levels.
My relationship with Kari imploded spectacularly before the first semester ended. It was entirely my fault, and I don’t know that we ever made it back to being anything more than the fringes of civil in each other’s presence for the remainder of my time on campus. But there were so many nights we spent on the deck of the campus library seeping well into the early morning hours where we poured our hearts out to each other, living the drama that only a college-aged couple can. The chiming ballad of “Only You”, though, remains one of my favorite songs of the era. It’s when wrapped in that aural warmth that I can close my eyes and still see Kari’s face from all those years ago, and remember how fortunate I was to have known her.
On a musically related sidenote, possibly the only synthpop act to come close to matching the lushness of Yaz was the (equally) criminally short-lived early 2000s Akron band, 20goto10. Classically trained vocalist Sara Eugene’s pipes were every bit as haunting and full as anything Moyet has done.
I am a nostalgia whore. And music is almost always a trigger for me. Probably close to 15 years ago I sat down and just wrote lists and lists of songs and a one or two sentence description of what immediately comes to mind when I hear those songs. This list of music and associations spans my entire life – from the pop music and 8-tracks my sister first exposed me to in the ’70s and early ’80s to the classic and hard rock I that shaped my middle school and early high school years of the mid-’80s to the alternative college rock of the late ’80s that defined some of the most influential times in my young adulthood.
Somewhere around a dozen years ago, I created a pair of CD sets for my wife and close college friends, compiling songs that I felt captured our shared history from that last era. These exercises collided spectacularly a few years ago when, after thoughtfully combining the two playlists into a single, five-hour-plus late ’80s time capsule, I originally sat down to write about each of the tracks. Seventy songs about 24 months, each track taking me on a different journey. Sometimes diving into the artist’s history, sometimes into my personal history, sometimes on tangents I never expected, I made my way through the first 13 tracks, then life got in the way. It’s an exercise I’ve wanted to revisit for quite a while, but I didn’t want to publish anything more until I was certain I could devote the time to it the project deserves.
My favorite outcome from when I originally published the first 13 tracks here was receiving feedback from not just the people who were there, but also encouragement from people whose musical opinion I value, like Matt Sebastian over at Slicing Up Eyeballs and Dave Purcell. I was also amazed by the way my writing provided a catalyst for people from my past to engage me – like Matt Kish, who I referenced in Track 10 – when I had no idea they were out there, let alone reading my blog or remembered me more than 20 years later.
It’s the memory of those exchanges – sometimes just brief Twitter responses, sometimes lengthy email conversations – that has kept this project alive in my head over the last few years. In January, I set out to resume this creative workout, and I have been writing furiously ever since, picking up right where I had left off with Track 14 and plowing ahead with renewed creative energies. I intend to post a track a week until this thing is compete, and my ultimate goals remain the same as they did when this project was originally launched: When finished, you’ll have some perspective on the music of the era, a window into the events that shaped me into the person I have become, and the blueprint for a kickass ’80s playlist!
Links to the introduction and the first 13 tracks can be found here, as well as along the right side of the blog in the “End of the Eighties” section. I hope you’ll take the time over the next few days to revisit the original tracks and continue to come back each Wednesday for new songs over the next year or so to add to the playlist as we time travel together, letting the music take us where my memory bends, and I hope you'll join the conversation by commenting on the blog, as well as spread the word far and wide on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook.