THE WASHINGTON POST – “Take any 11 albums for a penny. Then take the 12th one for free!”
The mathematical absurdity still makes my mouth water. A penny! Come on now. For all that music?
Though business journalists have demystified the formula driving the Columbia Record & Tape Club, I remain hypnotised. Because in early 1983, when I was 12, there was no Craigslist or eBay or sidewalk boxes full of Crash Test Dummies discs. Back then, I marked my selections on the form in Parade magazine, added my mom’s cheque for USD1.86 – the penny plus USD1.85 for shipping – and waited by the mailbox.
Technically, this deal was far from over. By signing up, you were also agreeing to purchase eight more tapes over the next three years at regular club prices, which were often USD14.98 a pop. But we could face that reality later. What mattered in the moment was the cardboard container that arrived with your first dozen selections. I still remember pulling that box open.
Suddenly, I was no longer a kid forced to rotate between my cassette of the self-titled Cars debut, that red (1964-1967) Beatles greatest hits collection and an Abba tape I’d acquired in Norway during my father’s year-long teaching sabbatical. I was in ‘The Club.’
I could get pop music, funk, new wave, punk and at least three kinds of heavy metal: The wicked stuff (Ozzy, Judas Priest), the glossy (Def Leppard) and work I would be proud to share many decades later (AC/DC, Van Halen). Which brings me to the pandemic, and how I recently rediscovered the Columbia collection I’d kept stored on a shelf above my desk all these years.
As my world has shrunk and my social interactions have lately become defined by social distancing protocol, I’ve been employing my still pristine Panasonic 5085 boombox for parking lot chair circles and patio gatherings. And there is still magic in those tapes, at least the ones that will play. (Sorry, Prince’s 1999 and Black Flag’s The First Four Years) They make people happy and all it takes is six D batteries.
Though I’ve had to replace a couple – Beauty and the Beat, swapped out for a Go-Go’s Greatest Hits collection – the music from my original box remains a powerful antidote to the psychological toll of isolation.
So, in no particular order, here are the top seven plays from my initial Record Club booty and their release dates.
THE GO-GO’S, BEAUTY AND THE BEAT
The opening, Peter Gunnish-groove of the big single, We Got the Beat, is the musical equivalent of Atari, Growing Pains and legwarmers. Welcome to the ‘80s. It’s no wonder the band’s number two hit drove the mall scene opening of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And the Go-Go’s were more than one-hit wonders. They were a girl band, technically, though they were women in every way, sort of an instrument-playing update of the Shangri-Las. You didn’t want to meet them in an alley or sign up against them in Battle of the Band. They had chops, attitude and a legit, Top 10 frontwoman in Belinda Carlisle. How could Go-Go’s 1.0 have lasted just through 1984?
AC/DC, BACK IN BLACK
Like describing Matisse’s finest flowers, it’s hard to use words to explain the majestic sweep of AC/DC’s sixth record. The opener features a 2,000-pound bronze bell sounding before Angus Young’s dirty doom chords kick in and we hear lead singer Brian Johnson for the first time. (Bon Scott had died only months earlier, after Highway to Hell.) The next AC/DC record, 1981’s For Those About to Rock (We Salute You), had cannons, but this rebirth features the band at its best.
SIMON AND GARFUNKEL, GREATEST HITS
The music itself is really secondary here, though it’s hard to argue with a tape that features Mrs Robinson, The Boxer, The Sound of Silence and I Am a Rock – and that’s just side one. The true highlight for me was the cover, with Paul Simon’s moustache and weirdo fox-hunting chapeau as he stands next to Artie Garfunkel. I admit, S&G were a little on the soft side for my 12-year-old self, but I’d grown up building forts in the living room out of my parents’ copies of the duo’s record jackets. So even if I was far more likely to try to sneak into a Circle Jerks show than make the long pilgrimage to Central Park for the big reunion, I could appreciate this hit-packed collection.
THE CLASH, COMBAT ROCK
Nothing was cooler than Joe Strummer, and that’s still true. His punk army get-up – fatigues, Mohawk haircut, worn Telecaster – was just perfect, as was his push to Know Your Rights. Nobody knew then that the Clash were so close to the end, that lead singer Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones would implode before they could record a sixth album. Combat Rock featured their biggest hits, Rock the Casbah and Should I Stay (Or Should I Go).
OZZY OSBOURNE, DIARY OF A MADMAN
There was a time when Ozzy didn’t stammer or do reality TV. He also created some of the most bannable covers this side of the PMRC. (That’s the group formed, in part, by Tipper Gore that pushed for labelling albums seen as unfit for children.) On Diary, Ozzy wears blood-streaked stretchy pants and stares out, with a menacing glare, from this monstrous, Medieval library that could be a laboratory. The music was anything but theatre. This would be his last record with Randy Rhodes, the guitar hero who died tragically in a plane crash at the age of 25. And they did not cut corners. Over the Mountain blasts out of the boombox and Flying High Again is a deceivingly poppy blend of groove guitars.
THE KINKS, ONE FOR THE ROAD
There are better Kinks albums. Maybe at least 11 better ones. But there is no better document to the band’s arena-rock resurgence in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. This live album came after Van Halen’s rebranding of You Really Got Me, which seems to have led Ray and Dave Davies down the long, open road of barre chords. Even the most eccentric Kinks Klassics – okay, sorry – are arena-fied. And there is also Ray’s jokey intro to Lola, which he starts and stops and then starts again. If you are 12, this is one of the funniest musical jokes this side of My Bologna.
VAN HALEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST
“Have you seen junior’s grades?” Apparently David Lee Roth had, and they were not good.
The opening track offered the most mind-blowing guitar blast you can imagine, what sounded like a jet engine strung with Fender heavy gauges. But in fact, this was Eddie Van Halen at his most creative, blasting an electric piano through a Marshall amp. There is a lot to love about VH’s third album, from the oddball stylings of Diamond Dave on Could This Be Magic? to the grinding lead work of Eddie on Everybody Wants Some. And if you were a kid staring at the album cover, with the band members posing as a kind of heavy metal, mini-army, it would be hard to imagine a day when Van Hagar would rule.