Cult of Personality (Living Colour). 40 Songs for 40 years (1990)

This was my first year of college, and my roommate arrived a school with one important piece of gear: a CD player. While the format had made its debut eight years earlier, it was just beginning to become popular with people my age.

CDs often cost twice as much as cassettes, so it was a significant commitment to change formats. Years later, I was reading the liner notes of the Wonder Stuff CD The Eight Legged Groove Machine (released in 1988) and saw this in the fine print: "ENJOY YOUR C. D (you payed enough)" (sic). And this from a record with a track called "It's Yer Money I'm After, Baby". 

But experiencing the superior convenience of my roommate's very small CD collection convinced me to make the switch. He graciously agreed to let me use his stereo, and that inaugurated more than 20 years of CD collecting.

For reasons that I don't remember, the first CD I bought was Vivid by Living Colour, largely on the strength of their hit single Cult of Personality. The song has since become something of a minor classic, although the muddled politics of the lyrics grated on me even then. That said, I liked the musicianship on the album, and I still stand by Vernon Reid's solo. 

Not long after this was released, Billy Joel evidently decided to get into the "let's make a song that lists a bunch of famous stuff from history" game and released the insipid We Didn't Start the Fire. He ditched the opening quote from Malcolm X and stripped out the politics altogether. This idea is so terrible that he rode it all the way to a #1 hit and a Grammy nomination. It's solid commercial instincts like this that convinced me to abandon any hope of making money in pop music.

Romeo Had Juliet (Lou Reed). 40 Songs for 40 years, 1989

In all the tributes to Lou Reed this week, they’ve missed one critical milestone: on April 17, 1989, Lou Reed was the guest on the radio call-in show Rockline. It changed my life.

Most weeks, Rockline featured acts that were comfortably inside the rock mainstream (the previous guest was Eddie Money), but every now and then they’d have someone interesting. I’d never heard of Lou Reed, so I was only half-following the interview, which mostly served as background noise while I did homework.

Then they played Dirty Blvd., the lead single off of his new record New York. There, in my bedroom, listening to KLOS on my Realistic clock radio, a new universe of rock opened to me. The music was stripped down and bit sloppy, and I saw that it was fine just as it was. The words mixed the literary with the everyday, and even though I could tell that the literary and street references were a bit dodgy, anyone could see he was going for something a lot more interesting than the other bands I was listening to.

I bought the cassette and played it so often it warped.

In his liner notes, Lou Reed says that you should listen to New York straight through, “as though it were a book or a movie”. He got some critical grief for this at the time (so pretentious!), but he’s right. So, to get you started, here’s Romeo Had Juliette, track one from New York.

Welcome To the Jungle (Guns N' Roses). 40 Songs for 40 years, 1988

Growing up in LA, I played freelance gigs whenever I could squeeze them in between classwork. One I particularly enjoyed was the Asian Philharmonic Society, where I was a member of their all-anglo percussion section. One of my fellow players was a student in my teacher’s studio at CalState LA. She was quiet, serious, and wore black combat boots, and when she said she had a band, I was expecting something like Sonic Youth.

But in the late 80s, drummers who wanted to make a living weren’t playing art rock, they were playing hair metal. My friend hit the stage with hair and makeup that would have fit right in at a Poison concert.

Having seen so many talented friends struggle to make a living in music, I don’t blame anyone for trying to get whatever edge they can, even if that means playing in an all-girl hair metal band with a lead flute—which, for the record, was every bit as bad an idea as it sounds.

Hair metal is such an obvious target of derision, there’s hardly any point in attacking it. I’m mostly just disappointed. The bands who made hair metal should have been great: they practiced a lot; they liked The Rolling Stones, The Ramones, The Clash, The Damned, Wire. A group of misfits and outcasts like that should have produced LA’s answer to the New York Dolls.

Instead, we got crap like Mötley Crüe and Warrant. In fairness, they sold truckloads of records, which they promptly converted to truckloads of drugs. Say what you want about hair metal bands, the hedonism and debauchery they sang about was no affectation.

The only band that really delivered on the promise was Guns N’ Roses (the unconventional apostrophe replacing the more metal-inflected umlaut that had been a mainstay of ersatz-heavy band names since Blue Öyster Cult in the late 60s). About bloody time.

On a clandestine late-night MTV binge, I heard Welcome To the Jungle for the first time. Finally, here was music that gave the (vicarious) transgressive thrill that had been missing from hair metal all along.

The drum parts were also unbelievably easy, which meant that when my friends and I covered Sweet Child O’ Mine in our rock band, I could get swept up in the show as much as my friends in the audience.

Learning to Fly (Pink Floyd). 40 Songs for 40 Years, 1987

This record really hasn’t held up well for me (it’s an OK David Gilmour solo album, I guess), but it earns its spot on the list because this is the first—and only—big rock show I ever went to. A few months later, I turned into a proper music snob, and by the time I was in college, I wouldn’t even think about going to a show with more than 300 people.

Like thousands of other kids, I waited by the phone until the instant tickets went on sale. I later learned TicketMaster had reserved the good tickets for scalpers and industry insiders, so no amount of speed dialing could get me a good seat. I was stuck in the nosebleed section.

My dad—a huge Pink Floyd fan to this day—said he’d drive me and my friend to the show, but since the tickets had already sold out, he couldn’t get a seat. With the full confidence of the totally naïve, I assured my dad that surely someone would have a seat to sell before the show. Dad was understandably skeptical but agreed to go along anyway—partly out of hope that I was right, and partly just to keep an eye on me.

When we got to the show, I walked up to a guy who clearly had a ticket to sell—really good seats, he said. I was too savvy to believe this, but he only wanted face value, so that was good enough for me.

My friend and I went off to our seats high above the stage floor. My dad found his seat, too: sixth row, center.

Big Time (Peter Gabriel). 40 Songs for 40 Years, 1986

Contemporary pop music is distended folk art, amplified (acoustically and culturally) to grotesque proportions. Big Time uses this to full ironic effect, as a fabulously wealthy international superstar sneers at the ambition that made his success possible.

Which made it the perfect soundtrack for my first year of high school, filled as it was with the shiny, attractive children of shiny, attractive professional parents. While my friends and I would have been quick to protest that we were different, the truth is that we breathed the same air as everybody else; even the self-identified rebels got a good night’s sleep before their SATs.

The archetype of success in my high school was an anodyne omnicompetence that proved an excellent preparation for my years as a consultant. You do what powerful people want you to do, and they reward you. Eventually, you become powerful, and people do what you tell them to do. And just like Peter Gabriel (and me), you can play this game with an insulating layer of ironic detachment that separates you from the pathetic striving ambition of everybody else. Neat trick, yes?

Nine years after this song came out, I had started my first real job. I sat at my Steelcase desk, with my many-buttoned office phone majestic and beige before me. In one of my first acts as a professional management consultant, it was time to record my outgoing voicemail message.

There was only one way to begin:

“Hi there!”