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Abnormalities from the “Normal” College Radio Genre

Proto-indie, Prog-punk, and Machine-Music Artifacts from KCSB’s Rock Library


Almost since the invention of the genre, rock music has been a pillar of college radio. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in fact, rock was so closely associated with the “college radio” identity that hundreds of college stations across the country just threw up their hands and officially transformed into rock stations. Though KCSB survived this mass conversion, it nevertheless emerged from that era with an absolutely enormous collection of rock vinyl.

Commanding more than an entire wall of shelves in the station’s music library, it’s easily the largest section there. The KCSBeat’s explorations of the library have so far steered around it, but such a behemoth cannot be ignored forever.

One reason the rock section has grown so imposingly huge is that, as a term of identification, “rock” is awfully vague. It’s a genre with so many subgenres that I doubt any one rock fan knows them all, let alone could name them off the top of their head; even as they were reciting all the existing subgenres, a dozen new ones would be invented. The DJs behind the many rock programs that have existed on KCSB’s schedule have always tended to dial into a certain rock subgenre, sub-subgenre, sub-sub-subgenre, or fully customized set of any of the foregoing. The first priority during my rock-library exploration, then, was to clear my mind of all of rock’s many category distinctions and to simply keep an eye (and ear) out for the rock you’d be unlikely to dig out of any other station’s shelves.

Thanks to the aforementioned college-station rock boom, KCSB’s rock racks are packed with what look like debut albums, never to be followed up, from young bands with little more to their names than studio time and high hopes. Today, they’d be called members of the “indie rock” movement, but what were they then? Undergrounders? Do-it-yourselfers? I happened across an album called Once in a Blue Moon by One Plus Two, a co-ed pop-rock band who, since this one seems to be at least their second album, at least made it past that hurdle of early burnout.

Having been released in 1986, it’s certainly touched with a bit of the synthesized flavor of the times, but not necessarily in a bad way. The caricature of aspiring rock bands from those days has become one of uncreative, semi-flamboyant pseudo-New Wavers, but One Plus Two sounds like it rose a cut above, with instrumentation that’s often pretty interesting—as in “Heaven Up There” (its relation to the similarly named Echo & the Bunnymen song released five years before, if any, remains unclear), the track excerpted here.

Wanting a little more of the same, I picked up Mambo-X’s Machines of Eden, certain that the disc behind its aggressively unattractive photonegative cover image with jagged teal text would deliver another dose of proto-indie fascination. Mambo-X turns out to have been as elaborately tricky (or even nihilistic) as One Plus Two was poppy, doubling down on the kind of sonic textures you would expect in a rock context but putting them toward entirely different purposes.

You’ll notice that the clip here comes from a song entitled “What Katherine the Great Thought as the Horse Descended.” This may or may not summon a number of vivid associations, depending on how well versed you are in 18th century Russian urban legend. Meditating on that track title and the others — “Building Bridges and Bombing Them,” “Crazy Women in Houses” — would seem to tell you as much about the band’s worldview as actually listening to them.

Climbing one rung higher on the ladder of abrasiveness, we find No Means No’s The Day Everything Became Nothing. It’s not actually clear from the album itself how to write their name; some sources say NOMEANSNO, others say nomeansno, and today they seem to go by NoMeansNo. But these confusions aside, this means the outfit has persisted to the modern day, which is slightly unusual for a band whose tattered record you pull out when looking for oddities in the KCSB music library.

Listening to tracks like “Dead Souls” and others, I admit to having trouble figuring out where on the rock map they fall. The almighty Internet, doing the classification work I don’t want to, calls them “progressive punk,” but it seems to me they might also be some obscure species of metal. Either way, I suspect there’s at least one rocker in the greater Santa Barbara area prepared to propose a show entirely composed of whatever sort of rock No Means No/NOMEANSNO/nomeansno/NoMeansNo performs.

And finally, we reach the point at which we can go no further. I was more than a little surprised to discover Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music sitting on the shelves, unstolen. Vilified on its 1975 release for apparently being nothing more than two full vinyl discs of static and distortion, it’s more recently attained a sort of vindication as “noise rock,” and noise-based music in general has come to the fore. Reed’s early exercise in the form is now a somewhat coveted (though not especially rare) item, given its almost visionary status in hindsight.

Listening to it — and the clip embedded into this article is both reflective and unreflective of the experience of all Metal Machine Music’s 64 minutes played straight through—I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment that, unlike the music critics of the mid-70s, I felt no impulse to break the records over my knee and throw the bits out my window, cursing all the while. Perhaps time has been both kind and unkind to this piece of music. Lou Reed might be happy to know that I don’t need to lobby anyone to create a noise show, since KCSB’s already got a few of them, but you know what? I suspect there’s space available for the DJ enterprising enough to concentrate exclusively on vintage noise.

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