In Paris in the spring of 1978, it was still possible to find a crummy-but-basically-okay hotel room in a prime Right Bank location for about $10 a night. It was in one such room, with my feet propped on the wrought iron balcony and Notre Dame spread out panoramically below, that, for me, the musical 1980s began.
Wandering around Europe for nearly a year, I'd spent the previous winter in a tiny Greek village with no electricity. The world and its entertainment wiles were far away. In Paris come May, though, news awaited. I arrived to find a tape from my friend Randy Crittenton, Arrogance's manager, who'd assembled a bunch of songs to let me in on what I'd missed in the previous months. I popped it into my clunky Panasonic cassette player—this was pre-Walkman—and heard, for the first time, Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith and a slew of others. I was astonished and thrilled. All of a sudden, it seemed, the revolution had arrived.
Around the time I was absorbing that tape in the Marais, the insurrection hit Raleigh full-force. Th' Cigaretz, a fledgling combo that would enjoy a meteoric career as North Carolina's first (and to my mind, best) punk band, were ordered by the police to stop playing at a May Day street party near Cameron Park. When the crowd objected, the cops charged in with truncheons flying. Chaos ensued. Dozens were bloodied and/or jailed. "The May Day Police Riot," as it was dubbed, became front-page news and a local scandal. It also served as a suitably anarchic coming-out—Raleigh punkdom's very own debutante ball.
When I returned in late summer, I found Raleigh transformed. Across from the N.C. State bell tower, Hillsborough Street housed dives like the Free Advice, which at night emitted a new kind of cacophony. Kids with strange haircuts mimeographed determinedly peculiar fanzines and papered telephone poles with posters designed to look like ransom notes. Some of these advertised records were made on the cheap by people who lived right down the street, not in Hollywood.
Such was the abrupt local advent of what still strikes me as the most exciting, creative and underappreciated period in American pop music, rock 'n' roll division. We can call it the '80s for convenience's sake, but for me the key time was 1978 to 85. That was when smart, exuberant and incredibly eclectic pop-rock exploded at the grassroots level all over the United States, from Austin and Minneapolis to Raleigh and Chapel Hill.
It was something to behold, and I did. In the fall of 1978, my funds depleted from European sojourning, I took a job as the arts editor of a Triangle alternative weekly that was about to begin publishing. Spectator it was called, and one of its self-declared missions was to cover the new music, local and national, in ways that other area publications clearly weren't.
Why did homegrown American rock 'n' roll erupt so suddenly and spectacularly in that brief moment? Sociomusicologists can adduce all sorts of complicated reasons, I'm sure, but, at the time, one stood out: disgust. The rock of Elvis in the '50s and the Beatles of the '60s was visceral and brilliantly direct, instinctive outpourings of style, wit and energy. By the mid-'70s much of that initial inspiration had congealed into dull, imitative sludge that was, to boot, a huge industry run by creeps with droopy mustaches. A small but significant portion of the audience knew it had been defrauded.
Pundits credit the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and other incendiaries with providing the spark that started the blaze. But to me it was clearly a case of spontaneous combustion. Kids from Sarasota to Spokane knew the truth of real rock when they heard it and they weren't hearing it on the radio—so they picked up guitars and started creating it themselves. Then and ultimately, this was the most remarkable thing of all: It happened all over at once, without cues from radio, television (MTV didn't yet exist) or any other corner of the mainstream media. The celebrants made it up as they went along.
For a couple of years, the omnipresent slogan was "D.I.Y.": Do it yourself. That meant create your own network of places to play and stay, your own sources of equipment and tech know-how, your own means of publicity and hype—not to mention your own aesthetic, look, hairstyle and plan for world domination. In the '90s the term "alternative," drained of meaning, would be marketed by conglomerates at malls. In the early '80s there actually existed an alternative, locally based music culture that, like the rock 'n' roll counterculture of the '60s, briefly was its own raison d'être.
The Triangle became the center of the "North Carolina music scene." The term was new. It wouldn't have made much sense before, when music meant New York or Los Angeles and everywhere else was nowhere. Now, suddenly, the music industry capitals were nowhere, and where you lived was potentially the hottest musical spot on the planet.
In the initial surge locally, roughly 1978 to '80, bands like Th' Cigaretz, the H-Bombs, the Fabulous Knobs, Secret Service and Butchwax played in friends' basements, at street fairs and college parties. It took a while for the local rock clubs to open up. One landmark came in the summer of 1980 when the Pier, the cavernous club in Raleigh's Cameron Village Subway, declared Mondays "New Wave Night." One of the first bands to play was a quartet of gawky 20-year-olds from Athens, Ga., called R.E.M.; it was their first trip outside Georgia.
From there, the floodgates opened, and the rosters at area clubs grew breathtakingly eclectic. At the Pier or the Cat's Cradle, you might see A Flock of Seagulls on Monday, followed by Doc Watson on Tuesday, Black Flag on Wednesday, John Hartford on Thursday, the Ramones on Friday, Arrogance on Saturday. (On Sundays, I recall going to someone's low-rent digs and seeing the brand-new Corrosion of Conformity practically reduce the place to rubble.)
In fact, a wide-open, all-permitting eclecticism was the order of the day as New Wave (a term borrowed from the realm of cinema) replaced punk as the catch phrase for the ongoing musical insurgency. The only thing not acceptable was the thudding, long-winded self-importance of the leftover '70s dinosaur-rock that still dominated the local commercial airwaves. New Wave meant wit, concision, skeptical irony, rampant imagination and no rulebook. In the contrast to the early '90s, when the prevalence of grunge decreed a new angsty seriousness and the neo-orthodoxy of loud guitars and torn T-shirts, New Wave countenanced all manner of silly costumes, goofy hairstyles, subversive playfulness and an ever-evolving potpourri of musical styles and influences: ska, Tex-Mex, reggae, hardcore, Brit-pop, synth-pop, blue-eyed soul, roots rock, you name it.
Still, North Carolina had its own slant on all this diversity, it seemed to me. Due to factors that perhaps stretched back to colonial days—or more likely, to local AM radio in the '60s—the indigenous specialty was guitar-pop, melodic singing and songwriting à la the Beatles. Once the New Wave bandwagon really got rolling, it quickly became clear that the artistic stakes were quite serious, and the bar was being set higher and higher. Stands for Decibels (1981) and Repercussion (1982), the first two albums by the dBs, four Winston-Salemites who'd relocated to New York but still came back to play N.C. clubs, astonished local fans with their sophistication; it was as if Forsyth County had produced its own Revolver and Sgt Pepper. The early efforts of Let's Active, a band led by multi-talented instigator Mitch Easter, provoked similar awe and wonder.
This surge in music making also conjured a local music-biz infrastructure that largely hadn't existed before. Beyond the clubs that came into existence or expanded their rosters during this period, the area saw the appearance of all sorts of other support personnel and businesses, from managers to college radio formats and recording studios such as Mitch Easter's legendary Drive-In. Lord help us, the Triangle even had its own cadre of rock critics. But perhaps nothing was more important symbolically than the existence of local records and a couple of labels, Chapel Hill's Moonlight Records and Record Bar's Dolphin imprint, that in the early '80s took timely gambles on North Carolina artists.
The other element that can't be underestimated was college-age fans. From the '70s through the New Wave era, local rock 'n' roll was largely was supported by collegiate audiences, for whom checking out favorite bands at clubs like the Cradle and the Brewery became a social ritual. When changes in the legal drinking age in the mid-'80s obliged collegians to shift their imbibing from music clubs to dorms and residences, that ritual was decisively sundered; the local scene would never be the same.
But that was still to come. In the first half of the '80s, the scene boomed and I watched it with constant amazement, feeling like my arts editor job was an unbeatable perch for an insatiable music fan such as I. From year to year, the quality and sophistication of the original music being made, and the number of really accomplished bands coming onto the scene kept escalating, to the point where North Carolina was home to outfits as exciting and distinctively diverse as the Right Profile, Fetchin' Bones, Bad Checks, the Pressure Boys, The Accelerators, The Connells, UV Prom, the Woods, Flat Duo Jets, the Graphic, the Othermothers, Southern Culture on the Skids, the X-Teens and many, many others (my apologies for all the names inevitably left out of this account).
Some years later a member of a band that played the Triangle often at that time said to me wistfully, "Remember the spirit of '84." I knew exactly what he meant. There was a great spirit to the scene then, quite beyond the freshness and exuberance of the music. Other eras would witness cooler-than-thou cliquishness and factionalism; at least in my memory, 1978 to '85 was distinguished by a heady mix of generosity, optimism and across-the-boards camaraderie.
In 1985 I went to Europe again, this time bearing tidings of the musical outpouring that had occurred since my previous sojourn. The news took the form of a three-cassette package with an explanatory booklet that I created with Spectator's generous backing. Titled Greetings from Comboland (a term I derived from Mitch Easter's hipster vocabulary), it featured a couple of songs each by 26 then-current N.C. acts, the cream of the early '80s renaissance.
Though I arrived unannounced and unconnected, I found that doors in London opened to me without hesitation. DJs, music writers, TV and record company folk had heard of the stirrings in the American South, and they seemed to be even more intrigued when they heard Comboland. Various things came out of this unlikely D.I.Y. initiative: The BBC sent over a camera crew; a couple of record deals were set in motion; and a British indie label called Making Waves released a compilation album, Welcome to Comboland, featuring a dozen bands culled from the acts on my tapes.
Besides the friendships that resulted from it, I'm mainly glad I undertook the Comboland project for the simple fact that those tapes still exist, a record of the N.C. pop wave at its shimmering mid-'80s crest. In retrospect, the timing was more apt than I could have imagined then. With the exception of Eight or Nine Feet (a band I managed in the late '80s), Dillon Fence and a few others, most of the decade's key North Carolina pop acts were in existence and recording at the time Comboland was assembled.
No, the Triangle's '80s scene never produced a band that became huge, as Athens did with the B-52s and R.E.M., or one that equaled the '90s success of Ben Folds Five, the Squirrel Nut Zippers or (on its own terms) Superchunk. But sales aren't always the best gauge of a musical entity's vitality or significance. Looking back on it now, the New Wave period in the United States as well as North Carolina seems to me a halcyon time, the moment when rock 'n' roll—a form now passing over the cultural horizon, alas—reached its point of maximum demo-cratic access and idiosyncratic intelligence, before the conglomerates learned how to co-opt what would sell and kill off the rest.
Someday, I fancy, future archaeologists will dig up Comboland or a cache of N.C. records of the '80s, and the ensuing dance party will re-create a bit of what the music signified at the point of origin: innocent abandon, tuneful rebellion and pure fun.