Since acquiring a functioning turntable a few weeks back, I’ve been slowly getting back into the habit of buying used records. Most of these have been favorite LP I never picked up back in the day because I already owned them on tape and albums by bands I’ve warmed up to since my collecting days ended.
The number and frequency of my purchases has been check by the asking prices for new and used records. I started buying records specifically because they offered the most bang for buck, so it’s a bit odd seeing some demand extortionate price for LPs that a retailer in the early Nineties couldn’t give away.
There are still some deals to be found in the realm of third-party Amazon sellers and auction sites. The latter was where I found a dude who was liquidating a large collection of records from 1978 to 1984 (a.k.a. “Andrew’s musical sweet spot”). Five albums of one’s choice for twenty bucks with free shipping.
Needing a fifth to round out my order of selections from Pat Benatar, The English Beat, Stray Cats, and The Cars, I opted for a The Rock Album — a 1980 K-Tel compilation featuring a solid line-up of classic rock standards.
It ended up becoming my favorite of the lot, as it perfectly fit my “toss it on and let it play” approach where the music spins in the background while I engage in other activities downstairs. Not every track has to be exceptional, so long as none are particularly unlistenable.
This in turn got me thinking about the whole K-Tel experience in general, which loomed large over my childhood and was a major player in my pop music education process. Heavily advertised on local UHF stations, their comps operated on an (arguably) “all killer, no filler” principle aimed at the Top 40 format crowd and its various sub-demographics.
As a pre-MTV tyke who didn’t really listen to the radio all that much and whose parents favored a lot of mushy singer-songwriter nonsense, those K-Tel ads provided my initial exposure to pop music of both the “oldies” and contemporary variety.
The song snippet and tracklist crawl of those ads still remains lodged in my skull through the present day, where I reflexively expect “bend me, shape me, any way you want me” to be followed with “won’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve.”
From a retrological standpoint, the hyper-topicality and generally ecumenical character of K-Tel’s collections offered an incomparable snapshot of pop music moments as they were instead of as folks would prefer to remember them to be — no idealized compartmentalization, but a world where “Der Kommissar” and “Don’t Fight It” shared “hot hits” real estate.
The familiar combination of nostalgia and academic interest prompted me to dig a bit deeper into K-Tel’s back catalog via the secondary market, starting with the single most significant music artifact of my tweener days.
Most of what I’ve purchased has been astonishingly affordable, running under six bucks for non-beat-to-shit samplers of early Eighties pop and early Seventies schmaltz. K-Tel’s rep for track truncation and quantity over fidelity have apparently created a buyers market for anyone looking for sub-collector’s grade copies.
It works for me, because the holistic experience outweighs any audiophile concerns. My primary criteria for purchases has been split between a solid line-up of tracks and some personal connection from my formative years.
The latter is what drew me to 1982′s Radio Active compilation.
At the dawn of the Reagan Era, my dad decided to replace his incinerated 1973 T-Bird with a 1978 Chrysler Cordoba. It was a lateral move in terms of fuel efficiency and baroque luxury coupe opulence, but the new ride came with a pre-installed 8-track deck.
My mom was undergoing the early stages of her sanity-breaking terror of getting older, exacerbated by a cancer scare and taking a job at a speaker factory which employed a number of aspiring young musician types. As a result of this, her previously square tastes in music took a sharp turn towards the contemporary — Prince, Van Halen, Cyndi Lauper.
She also bought a copy of Radio Active on 8-track, which was became her default choice of driving music for the better part of a year.
Despite being subjected to it during multiple shopping trips and rides to Cub Scout meetings, I remembered very little about the compilation itself. I recalled the title, the cut-rate Tron cover art, and how said cover at was crudely animated in a TV ad for the album I caught while watching a syndicated repeat of Diff’rent Strokes on Channel 25.
I also remembered that “Super Freak” and “Rapture” were on there, because both creeped my ten year old self out quite a bit.
Following a little pre-purchase research of the album, I’m surprised I didn’t remember more of the songs, as there’s a pretty decent cross section of familiar cuts from late 1981/early 1982 on there — “I’ve Done Everything For You,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “You Better, You Bet,” and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” among others.
It’s a weird cross-section of pop music just prior to MTV’s initial aftershocks making themselves felt and made weirder by K-Tel’s choice of track groupings — in which the second side leads off with a three-song block of funk and disco jams, followed Genesis’ “No Reply at All,” followed by a trio of new wave cuts.
Like most things associated with my mother, I expected there to be a few emotional gut-punches thrown into the mix, subtle triggers which I didn’t realize existed until they were tripped.
I was not expecting it to blindside me on the second fucking track.
“The Voice” came out of the Moody Blues’ early Eighties renaissance, capturing just enough of the band’s old magic to offset their shift towards plastic soft rock.
If you’re around my age, you’ve probably heard it dozens of times and, if you’re like me, completely forgot about until you were reminded that it existed.
It’s a stray bit of chart flotsam in an all but dead genre, lacking the sincere or ironic cred to grant it a referential afterlife.
And yet the power it holds over me is all too real.
The song debuted around the first time I experienced my first genuine awareness about the mortality of my loved ones. I don’t know what triggered it, as there were no deaths or other events that would set a ten-year old to thinking about such things. It certain wasn’t my mother’s health scare, as my parents kept any worrying details about it secret from my brother and me.
It just sort of…happened, and was utterly crippling in its inevitable enormity. Some day my parents would die. Some day I would die.
I remember sitting in the passenger seat of the Cordoba on a winter’s night. The overheated interior thick with smoke from my mother’s cigarette, the only illumination coming from the dash display and stereo deck.
“The Voice” started playing, and it was the saddest song I ever heard. Sadder than “Time in a Bottle” or “Puff the Magic Dragon” or “The Long and Winding Road.”
The song isn’t about death, but the haunting melody and my pre-adolescent existential crisis conspired to unleash a moment of teary-eyed panic.
“What are you crying about now?” my mom asked.
I let all the fears and anxieties I’d been bottling up loose in a weepy-stuttering torrent.
“Well, there’s nothing you can do about it, so stop being so goddamn stupid. I can’t take you into Zayre’s like that.”
Six years later, she was dead.