Sunday, November 12, 2006

Upstairs At Eric's In Southeastern Iowa

It’s easier today to find new music, new artists, and become the obligatory small town music snob. At least that’s my perception. The funky cold medena known as the internets is a boon for those teens that check in daily to Pitchfork to learn that there’s a band called Rainer Maria and that the band Rainer Maria recently broke up. The teen can then go to school and weep to all of his/her emo friends that the best band since Pinkerton was released is no longer with us.
There was a time when musical elitism was passed through direct contact. Word of mouth was huge, as was the Maxell XL-II C-90 cassette. For whatever reason, I can specifically remember how one band made inroads in a small town Iowa community.
What makes this story unusual is the style of the band in question, the socio-economic make-up of the community, and the manner in which the musical penetration occurred.
The band was Yaz (known in England as Yazoo) and the album (actually in the form of a cassette) was called Upstairs At Eric’s. It was the summer of 1983, probably a full year after the album was actually issued.

Some background: Yaz was a British electronic band consisting of Alison Moyet on lead vocals and Vince Clarke on synthesizers. Moyet had/has a very rich, deep female alto which was a strange juxtaposition against Clarke’s cold keyboards. Clarke, who was involved in a relationship with Moyet during Yaz’s heyday, had recently left Depeche Mode who had found initial success with their album Speak & Spell. I had never heard of Depeche Mode, and I’m sure that many others in my town hadn’t either; Yaz’s sound was fairly reminiscent of them, but in the confines of a duo, Moyet and Clarke’s sound was sparse and dark with the occasional foray into dance music. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time.
One of my friends had the privilege of having a swimming pool at his home and an even greater privilege of having parent’s that entrusted him with taking care of himself. This glorious lack of parental supervision created a climate in which poor judgment, the illegal consumption of alcohol, and a comfortable area to congregate became commonplace among people in the same age group.
On one such occasion, we gathered on a warm June evening for an impromptu poolside party.
One attendee, a tall, pale fair skinned girl with an even taller mop of red hair, joined the festivities with a girl who was either a relative or friend of hers that happened to be visiting our town from the uber-cool confines of the Northeast. The visitor, in either an attempt to act cool or because of “new kid shyness,” was fairly reserved with a hint of arrogance. To make matters worse: she was attractive. With no time to worry about such dramatics (after all, she’d be gone in a few days, way too little time to break down any perceived walls of conceitedness to get into her pants) she was included in the social environment and even provided the luxury of having a go at the boombox with her own selection. She went back to the redhead’s car and pulled out a cassette of Upstairs At Eric’s. We were probably listening to Pyromania or 1999, both great albums in their own right, but certainly nothing tremendously groundbreaking and certainly not very hip to someone within earshot of a low-wattage college station or similarly located dance club.
Within moments of the pecking, tart synths of “Don’t Go,” some heads turned to ask “What is this?” while the bolder musical snobs looked at the strangely positioned mannequins on the cassette cover of the album. When the album was over, we probably countered with something ridiculous like Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but no matter: some creative soul (perhaps myself or the host of the party) secretly “lost” the cassette with the obvious intention of not returning it. Thankfully, liquor has a strange effect like causing people to forget things like inhibitions, panties, and cassette tapes of Upstairs At Eric’s.
From there, the cassette found its way into the car stereo of my friend’s Pontiac Firebird, where the sonic effects of the music was met with the approval under the influence of marijuana. It became an issue of 1.) either we must conceal the fact that the tape was in our possession or 2.) we must find a dubbing cassette to make a copy before returning it to its rightful owner before she left to go back east.
The first answer was hard to deal with as the red haired friend called the following day to inquire on the whereabouts of the tape. I could truthfully delay the return of the cassette since it was still in the armrest of the Firebird and, since it was summer, it may be a few days to coordinate with the schedule of the friend and the redhead.
Actually, I saw my friend on a fairly regular schedule, and by Monday, I had the cassette back but not before he had made a shitty copy of it on his dual cassette boombox; fidelity, Dolby, and the added tape hiss was not an issue with him.
I then received a couple of phone calls from party-goers who wanted to know the name of the band and if they too could get a copy made for their own collection. One of these calls was from someone who had a dubbing cassette desk in his components that could transfer the noise-reduction and do it at double speed.
Three copies were made (mine, his, and a friend of his) and we were pleased with the results. The original was dutifully provided back to the redhead in time for her to return it to her friend before she left our small town and planted the seed of Yaz among its teenage citizens.
By the following weekend, I ran across two additional people who had made third generation copies of our own, diminishing the fidelity even more, but not the enthusiasm for this electronic duo.
Upstairs At Eric’s was a strange find, particularly for a town that typically preferred heavy metal and who’s main employer was various manufacturing plants that provided high school graduates with minimal intelligence and initiative with a decent paying job until the plants eventually shut down.
The metal kids were actually fairly receptive to Eric’s trippier tracks like “I Before E (Except After C)” and “In My Room.” The chicks liked the love songs like “Only You” and “Midnight.” And, of course, the gay kids who had yet come out of the closet preferred the dance tracks like “Situation” and “Bring Your Love Down (Didn’t I).” It remains a touchtone album for me and it remains one of the best examples of 80’s British electronica today.
It also served as a precursor to gay dance music (Bronski Beat, the Clarke led Erasure, Dead or Alive) which makes the dichotomy between my hometown makeup and the fan base of a lot of these types of bands quite amusing.
One curious footnote to Yaz: My Father only demanded that I remove two music selections during family car trips, thereby securing my understanding that the driver of the vehicle is in charge of all of the controls as well. One tape was Yes’ Drama (ironically, I brought this tape because I thought the Cream-lovin’ guy would like it. We got lost, he got frustrated, and he felt this album was “distracting.” It is a shitty album. But still, let’s place blame correctly.) and the other was Upstairs At Eric’s. He told me to “Turn that shit off!” When I persisted and wanted to know why, he told me it sounded like “A guy trying to sound like a girl with a bunch of synthesizers.”
“That is a girl, Dad!”
It didn’t matter; he turned the radio on and we listed to N.P.R. instead.
A few months later, I was down at the Disc Jockey record store and noticed a strange album cover on the new releases section. It was Yaz’s second and final album You And Me Both released just before Moyet and Clarke ended their relationship together. I picked up a copy and went up to the counter to pay for it. Standing in line ahead of me was the redhead who’s friend introduced a small town to the English electronica band Yaz. In her hand was her own copy of You And Me Both and in her head she was still probably oblivious to the domino effect her friend had on a small town in Iowa the summer before.

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