Old music that still rocks
With the help of satellite radio, pop music from the '70s and '80s is winning a new audience.
BOSTON — It dawned on me somewhere between the bench press and the quadriceps extension machine in my local gym: I was really digging what I was hearing on the house sound system, as was Chris DiNunzio, the 20-something night manager and music programmer-of-the-moment. We'd been listening to XM Satellite radio, satellite being the radio equivalent of HBO or Showtime - that is, you pay for it, but it's uncensored.
Having been lazy or cheap, I'd never put multichannel satellite radio - XM or its competitor, Sirius - in my vehicle. I hadn't swallowed the implicit "You never thought you'd pay for cable TV either, did you?'' pitch. I had thought all those narrowly specific channels would just confuse me.
But I fell in a sort of love (all over again) with what I was hearing at the gym that night: Iggy Pop's "Bang Bang," Devo's "Gut Feeling," Gang of Four's "Damaged Goods," and the Pretenders' "Talk of the Town," among others during my 40-minute workout. As I often write about music and am of a certain age, these alternative music hits (if you want to call them hits) from the late-1970s and 1980s hit me hard where I once lived and, it seemed, where I was living again - at least at the gym.
We'd been listening to FRED, a companion channel to ETHEL, both modern alternative rock outlets on XM. The channels are named after stars of the old sitcom "I Love Lucy." Listening to the music brought this thought: This stuff is a quarter century or so old. If, when I was discovering the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the mid-1960s, someone had said, "Hey, check out the Glenn Miller Band from 1940,'' I would have turned tail.
Pop music has telescoped over the years, aided and abetted by new technology and a widely splintered and sophisticated audience. There is this feeling that what's old will soon be new again. And what's new will echo the old, as the new kids plunder the past, just like the Stones did with "Howlin' Wolf."
It's been happening all over the pop culture landscape, not just in music. We don't know if this explains a "Dukes of Hazzard" movie - what could? - but it certainly does suggest that a younger generation wants to know what its parents knew. A recent article in Rolling Stone magazine posited that the youth of America are saving classic rock by saluting Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and their ilk, indicating there is, perhaps, not the obligatory rebellion phase that was so common when I was young.
My folks liked the fact that I liked the "Jesus Christ Superstar" rock opera, and, boy, that got my goat. Sure, most of today's parents will blanch at gangsta rap and thrash metal, but virtually any form of punk or new wave created back in the heyday of the '70s or '80s will fly now. Rhino Records made that clear with two punk and new wave collections released over the past couple of years. And with FRED and ETHEL, the music - maybe once considered radical - has catapulted into today's world where it nestles nicely next to Bloc Party, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, and the Arctic Monkeys.
Is it that good music and good styles win out over time, even in second- and third-generation form? Maybe. It's reassuring that this music of long ago has found a youthful audience that appreciates it all over again.
And so I'd just like to salute the meaningful artists of yore and hope they're still alive to cash their royalty checks, and to tip my hat to the new groups who know how to pillage best.
• Jim Sullivan is a former arts writer and columnist for The Boston Globe.