Cover Commentary

Second Looks at First Impressions

Originally published October 27th, 2003 in Stylus Magazine

Images and bonus covers added on May 20th, 2014

Despite the poor lighting from the partially burned out fluorescents and the requisite musty odor that older things seem to emit when they are stored, the room that makes up the vinyl record library is still awe inspiring. The shelves rise eight feet high, dwarfing any who enter with row upon row of twelve-inch records, packed in so tightly they seem on the brink of bursting out of the storage space. The seven-inches sit in a similar state of crowding in red containers along another wall. White plastic dividers poke out intermittently from between the records, bearing labels like ‘ESG,’ ‘Sonic Youth,’ or ‘Crime + the City Solution’ in order to make browsing the library a quick process for a DJ in search of a particular disc.

The comment sections are loaded with information, some of it humorous, some of it prattling and outdated, but much of it is found to be enlightening, particularly the discussions that arise on the albums that today sit in the canon of independent music.

This is the record collection of Boston’s WZBC, 90.3 FM. WZBC is the radio station of Boston College, although anyone who knows the station will tell you that the Abercrombie savvy student body of BC hasn’t embraced the station as warmly as the city of Boston (and the admirers who experience the station beyond the transmitter range via web cast) has. For thirty years, WZBC has been the major purveyor of independent, non-commercial music in Boston, drawing disk jockeys and other talent from dedicated students and community members who volunteer their time to offer valuable, cutting edge programming, and bring the best new music to their city’s scene. The station and its members have a bright history of recognition, being named “Best Rock Radio in Boston” the last time they offered such an award in 1999, and just this summer being cited by Esquire magazine as one of the “fifty best sources for good music in the United States,” one of only eleven radio stations named.

Since its inception in 1973, WZBC has collected an extremely extensive record collection, each one meticulously logged upon arrival and affixed with a big white sticker that features the artist, album title, and the date the record was received. The sticker also includes a section simply labeled ‘Comments’ where the disc jockeys can make note of specific tracks for airplay and voice their opinion on the album. Despite the seemingly innocuous intention of the comments section, the writings left by the disc jockeys of the past provide a wealth of information whose worth rivals that of the recordings themselves. It is not uncommon to see a single record that has been added to with dozens of comment stickers that spread from the upper left hand corner across the face of the sleeve and sometimes even onto the back. Surely there are those out there who are cringing at the thought of the album art on your favorite records being obscured and tread upon, but to the curious reader these stickers can shed new light on the albums we today hold dear and to the development of independent music culture as a whole. These are the stories, the opinions, and the arguments of people who were on the leading edge, the broadcasters of much of the music that is now the bedrock of many of our playlists and inspired legions of musicians to pick up instruments or to play and play a record groove dull. They document the birth of a landmark release, the increasing popularity and subsequent mainstreaming of pet bands and the dedication to music that would never be heard anywhere else. Perhaps even more importantly, they are the opinions of people like us: music fans with a passion for what they listen to and a fervent desire to discover something new, something powerful, and something lasting.

The comment sections are loaded with information, some of it humorous, some of it prattling and outdated, but much of it is found to be enlightening, particularly the discussions that arise on the albums that today sit in the canon of independent music.

Artist: The Smiths
Title: The Smiths
Date Received: 3/23/84

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The Smiths’ debut release introduced the world to Johnny Marr’s ringing guitars and Morrissey’s dreadfully dreary lyrics that combined to form a series of albums now seen as seminal in sound and in influence. The first real comment on the debut’s sticker (aside from an a single unsigned word clearly added later in blue ink-”Blows!”) is a modest defense of its contents, as well as a good indicator of what the tenor of thought was when The Smiths hit stateside.

“A lot of people strongly hate these guys, but I consider them to be just a band that simply plays a rather pleasant, melodic (if a tad affected and overly-sentimental) pop music.
Not unlike a brattier Aztec Camera. Don’t make the mistake of writing this off all together — D.S.”

A subsequent response is less flattering:

“Fey, posey as hell, read an interview with Morrisey [sic] and learn why heterosexuality is really unhip. The music is limp, vocals disgustingly purple. They aren’t real men. Every college and/or new music station will be playing this. Why should ‘ZBC follow the lemmings off the cliff?- G.C.”

This comment sparked a bit of contention, and provoked the response of “Who are the real men and why does it matter?” from D.S. Rather than devoting an unnecessary amount of thought to the matter, G.C. simply responds “When we go to war, you’ll know why it’s important” which conjures a rather amusing image of the Mozzer toting an AK. Things are further defused when an anonymous writer slyly references the album’s front cover, remarking, “Real men don’t have belly folds.”

Artist: Husker Du
Title: Zen Arcade
Date Received: 7/9/84

In contrast to The Smiths stands Zen Arcade, whose comment sticker unabashedly gushes with positive comments. They open with as touching a sentiment I managed to discover throughout my vinyl diving:

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“I wish I was related to them-they would be so cool at thanksgiving dinner. E.D. Psst-This cost $13, so don’t fuck w/it.”

There isn’t an ounce of contempt or dissent detected in the two stickers that cover Zen Arcade. Comments like “Tremendous! Simply tremendous!” and “THE GREATEST RECORD EVER RELEASED! Tears in my eyes. P.A.” tend to dominate.

Only one writer is willing to qualify his admiration somewhat: “Some of this get pretty self-indulgent, but since they pull 90% of it off, they’re entitled. G.C.” The reception of Zen Arcade can be summed up by one comment that claims that it is the “best LP out right now.” That is at lest until “America’s other godhead power-trio” surfaces with their own masterpiece in the next month.

Artist: Minutemen
Title: Double Nickels on the Dime
Date Received: 8/22/84

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Coming hot on the heels of fellow SST labelmates Husker Du with a sprawling double album of their own, in a year of massive releases, The Minutemen hold their own and find the favor of the DJ’s.

“’Take that Huskers,’ Indeed- Their best yet! (Zen Arcade, Reckoning, or Let it Be? Fuck ‘Em! Other than Meat Puppets II, I can think of no better LP this year. Your friend, G.C.”

The energy in the language and even the handwriting itself on the sleeves of Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime convey the excitement that the disc jockeys had for these records. The list of 1984 releases given by G.C. above is a good enough picture of the musical landscape of that year. It’s difficult to imagine a world that doesn’t contain these records, but it is positively astounding to imagine that they all appeared just a few months apart from one another. The brilliance of these albums was immediately apparent, and their material has stood the test of time. The spirit and zeal that these releases inspired in this group of music lovers, clearly visible on the sleeves, survives to this day and surfaces every time the music falls on new ears.

Naturally, when someone loves something dearly, they cling to it protectively and try to ward off those who would look to take it for themselves. Unfortunately, when it comes to music, it is impossible to prevent your favorite bands from gaining wider appeal. It seems selfish-who am I kidding, it is selfish-but it stems from a genuine affinity for the band and their music, and the fear of that music being watered down or mainstreamed beyond recognition. At an institution like WZBC, whose very mission is to highlight obscure artists who are not receiving attention, a band that becomes more popular may require less spinning and the transitional period can be a tough one, incurring the wrath of both a band’s devoted fans and their harsh detractors.

Artist: Pixies
Title: Here Comes Your Man 12"
Date Received: 6/30/89

The Pixies were born in Boston, but hometown loyalty doesn’t spare them from the critical eye of the ZBC staff. Their first release, Come on Pilgrim, bears only a single colorful comment that reads, “The fact that this is on 4AD is more remarkable than the record itself.” In the time between that EP and the release of “Here Comes Your Man,” the initial single off of Doolittle, the Pixies had signed a deal with Elektra and were enjoying a wider distribution and increased publicity as the next big thing. The first comment is blissfully ignorant of this, however, as shown in this exchange:

“The dog is so cute,” says the DJ, referencing to the cover art,”Here Comes Your Man could be a ZBC hit. G.H.”
“Gene,” replies JMC, “It’s a fucking hit on MTV!”
“It’s even on the rock of Boston [WBCN, Boston’s major commercial rock station.] P.Ch.”

This line of conversation is further taken up on the Velouria 12" off of 1990's Bossanova. In a sense, it qualifies the above statement, casting it not as high minded elitism or anti-mainstream sentiment, but honest, sincere dedication to the radio station’s mission statement.

“Ok, I love the Pixies, you love the Pixies, we all love the Pixies, but BCN and FNX [Boston’s other commercial rock station] are going to be all over this, so why don’t we give some airtime to bands that really need the exposure.”

While the growth of the Pixies played out civilly between the DJ’s, some of the discussions regarding other bands and their rise to popularity resulted in friction and bickering, which often played out on the album comment stickers.

Artist: The Cure
Title: Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
Date Received: 6/1/87

Right off the bat, the tone of the first comment is somewhat loaded. It isn’t a comment on the music or the artist per se, so much as a warning to the other DJs. It reads, “Please keep in mind that these guys are playing the Centrum [big arena venue in Worcester, MA] next month. D.P.” Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me was a major step toward commercial notice for the Cure, featuring the single “Just Like Heaven,” which is ubiquitous on mainstream 80's and mix-pop format radio today.

At the time, their notoriety was just beginning to enter into mainstream consciousness, and it sparked debate as to the relevance of having the album in rotation at WZBC. This particular comment card, though, also manages to dredge up an intriguing hint of an older debate.

“My point,” continues D.P., “was to remind everybody about the R.E.M. controversy. It seems like everyone who was right then has their initials all over this.”

The “R.E.M. Controversy” seems to be the foremost example of a non-commercial mindset adapting to the rise of a band that was once a college rock mainstay. JMC sheds some light on the true nature of the controversy on the label of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me:

“The REM thing concerned ZBC playing an album-playing an album at the #1 position-while the rest of the country/college/AOR-Commercial also played it up heavily. If REM were simply played at a moderate level, there wouldn’t have been a ‘controversy’. This LP deserves some attention and is getting it. ‘Everyone’ is not all over it. In fact, the Placemats LP has gotten more attention, but that’s another story.”

These references led me to the R.E.M. section of the record library, where several records lay dormant, no doubt unplayed since the mid 1980's, certainly not in any kind of rotation today. Many of the crucial R.E.M. records had long since disappeared, probably slowly drawn out of the ZBC studios and integrated into someone’s personal collection. Others found their way into the library of the station’s training studio, covered up by fresh new stickers obscuring their story. One record, though damaged, did manage to fully illustrate the intensity the so-called “R.E.M. controversy” reached.

Artist: R.E.M.
Title: Can’t Get There From Here 12"
Date Received: 6/13/85

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“Can’t Get There from Here” b/w “Driver 8" was a single off of R.E.M’s Fables of the Reconstruction, a few years before “The One I Love” cracked the American Top Ten, but during a period when R.E.M. was beginning to draw the ears of larger audiences and commercial airplay. The comment section on the record is two stickers long, however much of it is unreadable. The bottom sticker has been torn off, leaving only fragments of the exchange, while the top sticker is emblazoned with a large, black pen scrawl of “FUCK YOU, ERIC” that spans the entire sticker. Beneath that is a mockingly sarcastic comment that expounds on the symbolism of the record’s sleeve and explains that the song is “specially fucking great for radio since this mix is a ‘radio edit.’” In a later expansion of this comment, the writer, who I deduce is Eric (the initials, and most of the comment is obscured by a gouge in the paper), responds to Lou, writer of the aforementioned expletive, reiterating the now familiar conceit that while this is a good record, the “playing [should be] done at home and not on the [radio].”

Clearly, dealing with increasing fame and success is not just something that can adversely affect the artists themselves. The fans that have dedicated themselves to this music, following the band from obscure beginnings to their big payoff, must also adapt. Their secret is out, and perhaps the special feeling they had for the group is somewhat diluted. What is interesting about these albums is that while you can hear the Cure and R.E.M. on mainstream radio at any given time, the Pixies never quite held onto that footing and have since ossified as the premier touchstone for modern independent music. Would this have happened had “Here Comes Your Man” been relegated to countless hits of the 80's compilations and needled the sensitive distinction between overplayed and under appreciated?

The passionate and, at times, nasty nature of the comments I have seen leads me to draw an intriguing modern day parallel. The comment cards were filled out by disc jockeys that filled various slots on different days, and for the most part rarely saw each other aside from the occasional staff meeting. In a time before the Internet brought with it listservs, bulletin boards, chat rooms, and instant messaging, this was the only way that these people had to mass communicate with their coworkers. They didn’t have the benefit (or is it curse?) of an endless string of music review websites, pre-release leaks, and message board hype informing and influencing their thoughts on an album. The DJs had to rely on the comment sections, which served as a rudimentary precursor to those modern forums. The comment sections are not just full of useful information and opinions on the albums. They contain distinct flairs of personality, interpersonal relationships, humor, trolling, and all the things you would see in indirect, non-face-to-face discussions today. These were the discussion forums of their time, and over time the writings have become curiosities of an era of great musical upheaval and progression.

The DJ’s continue their discussion of the Pixies’ MTV status on the Here Comes Your Man 12":

“John, there’s no reason to go after Gene with a butcher knife just because he doesn’t have a teeny-bop sister to have him keep guard on what’s on MTV! D.F.P.”
“Funny Dave, you didn’t call my sister a teeny-bopper before she refused to go to Billy Joel with you. J.M.C.”

Artist: Lou Reed
Title: New Sensations
Date Received: 5/16/84

Things get immediately snarky on this Lou Reed album, with nary a reference to the content of the album in the exchange. The subject matter becomes obscured in a personal interaction, yielding this humorous exchange:

“Shitty cover. Eric.”
“What kind of a comment is that? K.B.”
“What fucking kind of comment does that look to you, Mr. Inquisitor? It’s a negative comment. Eric.”
“Swallow Nick Cave’s semen, Mr. Negative. K.B.”
“A former ZBC jock asked if Eric is 4 years old. I said yes, he is. O.S.”

Artist: Afghan Whigs
Title: Up In It
Date Received: 4/26/90

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Much like New Sensations, the argument on this comment sticker evolves out of the superficiality of the initial comment:

“Susanne, give the world a fucking break and for once write some intelligent comments for a change- F.P”

D.F.P. goes on to implore the readers to not waste space with mindless comments, and to actually listen to the album and comment on what is really important- the music within.

These are exchanges we’ve all seen occur wherever we go for our fix of musical discussion, just replace New Sensations with Sea Change, or Greg Dulli with Isaac Brock or Conor Oberst. With these new digital outlets for our seething hatred or gushing acclaim for a musical artist, coupled with the scant room on a compact disc jewel case, the epic conversations that once severely damaged vinyl records has dwindled in WZBC’s library. Though some interaction does take place, (for instance, I was labeled a fool recently for trashing an Anti-Pop Consortium disc. I stand by my claim.), rarely does it escalate to the level it has in the past, and if it does it spills off the recording and onto the net, the listserv, the message boards. In ten years, it will be to these new mediums that people will look to, in search of the first impressions on the bands that stir up controversy among us today.

The disc jockeys who scrawled all over these records ten, twenty years ago probably weren’t thinking ahead to the future, and how their comments would still be kicking around, the little tidbits they provided still informing (and at times entertaining) the newer, novice disc jockeys who are in many cases still far from any semblance of an encyclopedic knowledge of music history. These comment stickers serve as a zero-bullshit archive of a record’s history- if it was hated, if it was loved, what the listeners thought and how intense they got about it. They are free of revisionist historical perspectives and tampered biases that tack themselves onto the album over the years. These are just a few of the hundreds of albums with these stickers, a thin slice of a dense catalog that contains numerous treasures, whether they are notched in wax or written in pen.

Bonus Covers

Throwing Muses, Red Heaven (Back 2)
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