How College Radio, Dr Demento, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus Turned Me into a Punk Rock Antiquarian
When I turned 13 in September, 1977, my musical interests and overall aesthetic were already in the process of being shaped by an assortment of DJs on college radio stations (and, to a lesser extent, on specialty shows on commercial rock stations.) The college stations tended to have weak signals, and I wasn’t too close to any of their transmitters, so putting myself in the way of this influence often took some doing. Windy days, for example, really got in the way of the project. I used to have a little mono, battery-powered radio that I would carry to various locations in the house, riding the tuning knob to try to catch this or that stretch of this or that DJ on this or that station. You never knew what you were going to get, or if you were going to get anything, and that was definitely part of the appeal. It gave the music a sort of mystique that a more straightforward process could not have offered. There’s a lot of romance and allure in uncertainty. That’s quite funny when you think of what things were probably really like in the control booth on the other side of the signal, but in an another way, the way that mattered, these patchy blasts of subculture really were what they sounded like to my naive ears: transmissions from another world.
The stations were all right on top of each other on the proverbial left hand of darkness. The barest tremor of an index finger could switch you, with an Outer Limits sound effect marking the segue, from Metallic K.O. swimming in and out of focus on KFJC to little bits of “Janie Jones” and the New York Dolls and the Residents piercing through a wall of static on KZSU; then, without warning, patches of Kraut Rock obscurities would invade from KUSF. Trying to sort it all out could be annoying, but it was also a big part of what was interesting about doing it. You never knew what you were going to stumble on, or for how long. There was also no reliable way to research what had been transmitted. If you missed the back-announce, the information was gone, leaving the thirteen-year-old mind to fill in a whole lot of blanks with not a whole lot to go on.
KALX in Berkeley was my preference out of them all, as they seemed to play the most punk rock (which was the “going thing” at that time.) I was more likely to encounter things there that I’d never heard before. It was “free form radio” like the others, but there was also a consistent focus and overarching vision to the programming that the others lacked. It wasn’t just a bunch of people playing records they liked at random: it had a unique character. Fortunately, the ideal spot for picking up KALX, on a good day, was the corner of the top bunk in the room I shared with my brother, like Bobby and Peter without a Greg — that’s why I spent so much time there, ear to speaker, finger to knob, and one reason, of many no doubt, that my parents were so worried about me.
In contrast, the only way I could stand a chance of tuning in KZSU at Stanford was — no kidding — by climbing an oak tree at the “Rec Center” near my intermediate school, which I did regularly after school till my listening post was discovered by some mean guys who quickly realized that the thing to do when you find a guy sitting in a tree with a radio to his ear is to throw rocks at him. I think the song playing at that time was “Sonic Reducer,” or, as I remember it: Sonic *ow!* Reducer *oof!* ain’t no loser *Jesus!*… So that was goodbye to KZSU, if not to the Dead Boys. I’d have done anything for KZSU, but I wouldn’t do that. Things were nicer and less dangerous in KALX land, that is, back home on the bunk bed.
At that time, KALX was broadcast from the Lawrence Hall of Science, where my classes had been going on regular field trips since elementary school. I have no idea what we were meant to gain from these trips officially, but for me the main point of interest was that you could see the KALX dj in a glass booth that jutted into the cafeteria. It was like the radio made flesh. It was there, in that booth and cafeteria, that I caught my first in-person glimpse of the Ramones, who were, it appeared, there for an interview. It wasn’t like it is now, where every other person you meet looks like that. Back then they were the kind of guys who really stood out in a Hall of Science. And of course, I relished the fact that I was the only person in the school group who knew that this was something to be impressed by. Being a snob is so easy in the seventh grade. Well, it’s still pretty easy, to be honest.
Later on, when I went to college myself I signed up at KALX and eventually started doing a show of my own. (I lived in the dorms at Ehrman Hall, which was, incidentally, where KALX got its start over physical wires via a cigar box mixing board, twenty years earlier — kind of spooky, sort of.)
I was able to meet some of those people who had influenced me so much, and that was pretty strange. For example, the Amazing Mystery DJ, who inadvertently and at long distance had taught me more about music than any other single person. I know this will sound quite peculiar to anyone who knows either of us, but when my band’s first little record came out he put a note in my box that said “you are a good songwriter,” which felt like winning an award and which I saved and still have, somewhere. Even though I wasn’t, really, not yet — a good songwriter, I mean. (I also really used to like a KFJC dj who went by the name of Lou Wave. Had I gone to Foothill Junior College instead of UC Berkeley, and had Lou Wave put an approbatory note in my KFJC box, I’d have saved it as a make-shift award too, I’m sure. I’ve always wondered what happened to that guy.)
Things had changed a lot at KALX, and in “punk”, in those intervening years. The “going thing” was no longer the punk rock of the 70s, but was all hardcore and “thrash funk” and other things from which I recoiled with petulance and a fair bit of hostility. I was a throwback from the beginning, a situation I got used to. I didn’t know what I was doing, ever, but I knew I liked the Buzzcocks and the Undertones more than the Chilly Red Hot Peppers or whatever, so that’s the sort of thing I tended to play. A mere six years after 1977 I was a punk rock antiquarian, a nineteen-year-old curmudgeon, and an all around irritating guy.
My first taste of punk rock radio, though, and the true root of what was to become the college radio investigations I’ve just described, had come from Dr. Demento. People don’t always recall just how much punk rock he used to play in the midst of the novelty songs his show was most known for. It was there, I’m pretty sure, that I first heard “Cherry Bomb,” “Ain’t You,” “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes,” the Dickies’ various covers,“Your Love is Like Nuclear Waste,” “Warm Leatherette,” “Oh Bondage Up Yours,” and Devo’s pre-Eno Booji Boy “Mongoloid.” I believe I first heard the Ramones on his show as well.
In seventh and eight grades, I was, along with a handful of other nerdy misfits, a member of The Monty Python Club, a student group that met in Mr. Broz’s classroom at lunchtime. Mostly what we did was record the audio of Monty Python’s Flying Circus PBS TV broadcasts by putting a cassette recorder up against the TV speaker. Then we would bring the tapes to school, play them, and try to memorize them, in anticipation of a coming world where, it was to be hoped, being able to recite Monty Python sketches would confer some great, unspecified social benefit. (Still waiting. I have faith.)
Eventually, a couple of us started bringing in tapes made from the Dr. Demento show as well, and the Monty Python club transmogrified into an unofficial punk rock club (and lost most of its few members, and Mr. Broz.)
Wouldn’t it be great, I used to think, if there were a radio station that played Dr. Demento, punk rock, and Monty Python sketches round the clock instead of only once a week? College radio was the closest I could get, so once I discovered it, I jumped right in. It was a dream that was worth a little static.
Now, if anyone has bothered to read this far down the page, the punchline and I do have one, is this. What I used to look like at that time:
And here is the Monty Python Club, ca. 1978:
[I posted a version of this story a ways back on my old, now dying, blog.]