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20 years of beer

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What was the music scene here like 20 years ago? Compared to the way things are now, I doubt you'd recognize the place.

For starters, what's missing today is a sense of blossoming self-awareness that weeklies like The Independent were developing here and in other cities in the early 1980s. We're still blossoming, sure, but that first jolt of excitement is sometimes missing. When the daily papers first joined in, it seemed to be more about market share than culture share.

So just what is a "scene"? It's the kind of social interaction where creative people and their audience intermingle by sheer physical proximity. It's a neighborly thing. The wait staff of a trendy restaurant might have a favorite local band, hell, they might even be a local band. A good "scene" is very fluid, with people leaving and arriving on a regular basis. The Triangle today is still pretty vibrant in this area, but also maturing and getting large enough to feel less "down-homey."

That giddy feeling of "a scene" from the late '70s/early '80s seems to have been sobered down a bit. One reason may be an expectation of professionalism in the way local performers present themselves. At the other extreme, there's a type of band that prefers to avoid too much success at all costs, lest it ruin their street credibility. Then there is the aging out of the very people who make up an artistic community, either as performer, presenter or paying customer.

Anyway, pull up a rock, have a seat and let's set the Wayback Machine to 1983, before I "age out" entirely. First, let's talk about vinyl. I am hard-pressed to find anything as visually gratifying as a 12-inch square album jacket. Lugging one of these around instantly demonstrated how cool you were. Records visually announced themselves before you even took the disc out to play. I miss that.

Corporate America ruled music as it does now. But 1983 was still just the late dawn in the D.I.Y., or "Do It Yourself" movement of record-making. Today, thanks to the ubiquitous CD-burner and PC, D.I.Y. is still with us and artists such as Ani DiFranco (www.righteousbabe.com) and recently Natalie Merchant (www.nataliemerchant.com) are D.I.Y. success stories. Local artists have wonderful tools to reach local listeners. But the Power Laws of market self-assignment, whereby 80 percent of the audience swarms toward only 20 percent of the content, is still going strong. The indies are now mini-major labels. The major labels are megalithic multi-national conglomerates. No one individual in the recording industry feels much like a "playa" anymore, regardless of what you might hear.

These albums came out in 1983: ZZ Top's Eliminator, Prince's 1999, Michael Jackson's Thriller, Ghost In The Machine by The Police, the first Run-DMC album single It's Like That. It's no wonder that the 1980s were a Big Decade, perhaps the last of its kind. It was when a hit record meant not only impressive sales and radio airplay, it meant a broad spectrum of people heard the same music. Today's fragmented music marketplace, creatively diverse and the source of thousands of really cool sounds, hasn't been able to support or even create big stars anymore. At least big stars worth writing about.

Here, the biggest difference between '83 and '03 is North Carolina's drinking law. In 1983, the minimum drinking age was raised to age 21. Here's the old law's impact on local music: Picture walking into the Cat's Cradle as a local band warmed up for an out-of-town headliner. The place would be packed with 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds just looking for a beer. Let me tell you, there is no shoe-gazing with a crowd like that. People drank, danced, got stupid, interacted with the band and then came back for more. In Chapel Hill, especially, the spirit would move women to ask any one to dance, or even better, inspire people to dance alone in their own groove. Everyone acted like Beatle Bob does at Sleazefest.

Crazy, isn't it? People happy to be in a rock club! Can you believe it? I don't know about you, but when I stroll into Local 506, The Brewery or The Cradle I'm surrounded, if I can borrow a technique from Dave Barry, by Serious Music Listeners. After the drinking laws changed, the teenagers went away to drink secretly in their cars, dorm rooms, parents' homes----and once there, to be sucked into MTV and later into computer games, the Internet and Instant Messaging. I don't care how cool your band is, it's a challenge to compete against all that crosstalk.

Who knew in 1983 that 1984 was just 20 years away?

Tony Madejczyk has been writing about the Triangle's music scene since 1981, most of that time for Spectator magazine. He is also co-host of 8 Track Flashback with Bruce Friedman, Saturdays noon to 4 p.m. on WNCU 90.7 FM.

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