There are few moments in one’s life more awkward than high school dances, an evening (that typically stretches on for an eternity) of intense gossip, nervous laughter, frequent stares, (hopefully) lots of touching, and the most asinine “dancing,” dresses, and hair-dos ever witnessed in public. Music nerds are not exempt from this phenomena. As much as we’d probably like to believe we’re above such adolescent trappings, most of us went along for the ride. So we should resist the urge to rewrite history, because history is often more telling (and humorous) when left alone.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t rewrite history’s soundtrack. Hence this theme’s subject matter: songs that would’ve cleared the dance floor at your senior prom. Oh, if we only knew then what we do now. This is our opportunity to retroactively thumb our noses at the sameness of the collected teenage masses — at their boring taste in lame-o pop music, or more to the point, the crappy taste of the creepy thirty-something DJ whose mission it was to get the kids to dance. Here’s our chance to bump that DJ aside and wreak havoc — for one song — on our senior prom. Just as the Prom Royalty are getting their groove on — huzzah! — a mighty victory for the counterculture that catapults the minority to shit-eating grins and high fives.
In the interest of walking the walk, I will not rewrite history, either. I was Prom King, after all. I swear all the less-popular kids from the various cliques I hung out with rallied together and elected me their silly hero for one night. I was a just an Average Joe who peaked at the right time. The funny thing is, I almost didn’t go to prom my senior year. I had no girlfriend at the time and little interest in attending. But I was eventually persuaded to crash the party, so to speak, with my friends at my side. I asked a friend of a friend to go as my date and the next thing I knew I was having my photo taken with a crown on my head and a befuddled look on my face. How could this be happening to me? I wasn’t Mr. Popular. I was the kid who tried out for the senior musical — a girl I really dug was big on drama — by singing Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” I was the kid who skipped a mandatory marching band performance to drive a few hours to bear witness to Nirvana only a few months before Kurt killed himself. I was the kid who was never above making an ass of himself for the sake of a laugh — especially if I could get the last laugh.
The ultimate last laugh would’ve been the Prom King disrupting the dance floor with a derisive, destructive tour de force. For this Class of ’94 grad, I suppose the chosen song could’ve been anything from Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, which came out a few months before my graduation. Or maybe “Afro” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. There are some good options from Unwound, Helium, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, Archers of Loaf, Jawbox, Frank Black, Stereolab, PJ Harvey, The Jesus Lizard, Royal Trux, and Polvo, too — all bands I was into at the time. But any “indie rock” song would have come across as a puzzling proposition to the classmates at my small high school. It’s almost too easy.
So instead I’m going with a song that, given its lyrics, would have been a better choice: Morrissey’s “The More You Ignore Me the Closer I Get” seems a smart pick for this unlikely Prom King. The song almost cracked the Top 40, but in rural Illinois no radio station would touch the Moz. I would have enjoyed spending those four minutes in the middle of the empty dance floor. In true Morrissey fashion, I would have thrown my crown on the ground and danced on it while swinging my arms wildly and twisting my torso in time with the music.
That would have shown them, eh?
—Doug Hoepker, Mixtured curator
Here’s how this process works: Each participant was asked to choose one awkward, undanceable, loud+proud, obnoxious, vulgar, too-cool-for-school, or just plain inappropriate song that fit their interpretation of the theme. The only hitch was the song had to be from (or very close to) the year of their graduation. The participants selected songs one after another in a pre-determined, random order, with the only stipulation being no repeats (of songs or artists). Here are the results.
1. Kris Gillespie, Class of ’89, chose …
My Bloody Valentine, “Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)”
Listen to “Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)”
WHAT HE SAID: At the end of 1988, feeling a little lost musically after The Smiths fell apart acrimoniously the year before, two powerful bolts of psychedelically-inclined music emanated from Creation Records that came to my rescue. One was a hazy daydream of Bunnymen/VU/Left Banke guitar pop that nodded to the past in every which way. The other was the nightmarish carnival of swirling, lysergic guitar squall, psycho-sexual smut and the sound of drums/drum machines tumbling down the stairs that sounded like nothing that came before it (except maybe hints of Sonic Youth at times). The former was the work of The House Of Love and the latter was, of course, My Bloody Valentine. Both would falter badly after one more exceptional album, though only MBV would become legends thanks to their mythical dysfunction.
“Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)” is the perfect antithesis to my memories of high school dances at the time — underage kids drunk on domestic beer and SoCo chanting out “Hey motherfucker, get laid get fucked” when the freelancing wedding DJ would drop Billy Idol’s treacly cover of “Mony Mony.” I would have welcomed the dancefloor cleansing that the lurching beat, eddying chord stabs, pummeling bassline, and rated-R lyrics of “Soft As Snow” would have rendered.
There’s two dirty secrets about My Bloody Valentine that folks rarely bother to talk about. First, damn near every song is about sex or some perversion of sex and secondly, Isn’t Anything is actually a better album than Loveless.
Though Kris currently resides in Brooklyn and has lived in the Greater New York area longer than anywhere else in his life, he still calls Lawrence, Kansas “home,” partly because he can’t bring himself to root for any of the New York professional sports teams. He’s currently North American GM/utility infielder for Domino Records, a UK-based record company — and yes we do still make records. Rock Chalk.
2. Eric Rovie, Class of ’92, chose …
Spacemen 3, “When Tomorrow Hits”
Listen to “When Tomorrow Hits”
WHAT HE SAID: The only song on the final Spacemen 3 record that features both Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember and Jason “J Spaceman” Pierce (the album is divided into Sonic Boom and J Spaceman sides and the feuding Spacemen recorded their parts without the other) is a drone-y but faithful cover of the Mudhoney song “When Tomorrow Hits.” Sounding like a Stooges song played at the wrong speed through a portable record player next to an untuned guitar feedbacking against an amp, the song builds slow tension with a simple mantra (“When tomorrow hits …”) before exploding into feedback and crashing cymbals. With nothing even remotely danceable in the three-plus minutes, even the stoners would probably sneak out to take a smoke break when this song comes on. Unless they were in the middle of an acid trip, in which case they might simply wash away in the feedback waves and the flickering of the disco ball lights.
Eric is originally from St. Paul, MN, but now lives and teaches collegiate courses in Philosophy and Religious Studies in suburban Atlanta, GA. He’s an avid collector of music in the physical formats, and generally favors Britpop, shoegaze, power pop, and alt-country. Like most good Twin Cities boys, he worships at the triple altar of the Replacements, Husker Du, and Soul Asylum.
3. Shalon Amber, Class of ’00, chose …
Elliott Smith, “Everything Reminds Me of Her”
Listen to “Everything Reminds Me of Her”
WHAT SHE SAID: I graduated high school in the year 2000, the year that Brittany Spears came out with her debut and horrible commercial pop saturated the high school dance floor. Yet, another album came out in my high school prom year: Figure 8 by Elliott Smith. If the DJ stopped that new Lil Jon track and turned on this song, the crowd would be consumed with overwhelming sadness, and the desire to bump and grind would come to a screeching halt.
Shalon has a soft spot for both mixes and collaborating with strangers, so Mixtured is like hillbilly heroin for her. She is working on an updated rock history textbook for college courses that will cover the entire millennium of music along with a 400 page addendum on modern day micro-genres.
4. Debra Hawhee, Class of ’88, chose …
INXS, “Need You Tonight”
Listen to “Need You Tonight”
WHAT SHE SAID: My choice from good old 1988 would be “Need You Tonight” by INXS. It has the distinction of being both undanceable and embarrassingly forthright: “there’s something about you girl / that makes me sweat.”
Debra teaches English at Penn State and is always looking for new music to listen to while running/biking/sweating.
5. Dheeru Pennepall, Class of ’96, chose …
Shellac, “Il Porno Star”
Dheeru is a Chicago musician who plays guitar for A Light Sleeper. He used to make louder noise in the bands Re:Rec and Bargos Steeler. His favorite record of all time is Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record.
6. Matt Barber, Class of ’91, chose …
The Verlaines, “Gloom Junky”
Listen to “Gloom Junky”
WHAT HE SAID: I didn’t attend my senior prom, and I don’t understand dancing. Dance floors would have to be high on the list of most uncomfortable environs to find myself in. Certainly that has to do with an innate fear of looking stupid, which, if you ask me, most people do when they dance. That sort of attitude is typical of the kind of person who feels an intense and immediate connection to songs like “Gloom Junky.” In 1991, at the age of 18, I had no doubt I was mature and wise beyond my years, but there’s no way I could have comprehended the depths of a song like “Gloom Junky” then. Unfortunately, I didn’t know The Verlaines existed when I was in high school, but a consuming love of music and predilection for taking myself too seriously had already taken root.
Looking back, it seems there were already telltale signs that I’d gravitate to “sad bastard” music. This song’s introspective, melancholy tone and the scathing examination detailed in its lyrics are enough to kill any party. Me, I’d cheer the death if it meant I could willingly wallow in the exquisite sadness of this Graeme Downes masterpiece.
Matt spent his college days DJ-ing for 50,000-watt behemoth WICB at Ithaca College. He now lives in Buffalo, NY, where he has promoted shows, played drums in a few bands, and written music reviews for Buffalo alt-weeklies.
7. Aaron Burch, Class of ’96, chose …
Botch, “O Fortuna”
Listen to “O Fortuna”
WHAT HE SAID: My first book comes out next week and, a few weeks ago, I asked Dave Verellen, singer for Botch, if he would grace the book with a blurb. During the band’s lifespan, I easily saw them live more than any other band, and they just generally had a huge impact on me and my formative years of music listening. And so, no matter what he wrote, I was overly geeked at the prospect of having his name, and something he said about me, on my book. That what he said was so rad was all the better; and that he said the themes of the book reminded him of one of his favorite album titles of all time, Unbroken’s Life. Love. Regret., threw me into a week of scouring youtube for old hardcore vids from the late ’90s.
And then Mixtured hit me with this theme and I doubled down on said scouring. I figured I already mention Botch enough as is (and feared that, should Dave Google himself and find this, he’d be pushed over the edge into being creeped out by my fandom), so I went searching for the perfect choice — Undertow, Nineironspitfire, Unbroken, Snapcase, ISIS, Trial — but nothing hit that perfect combo of 1996 + some weird unnameable aspect I was looking for, and I kept coming back to Botch. And then I saw that this song came out in ’96 on an EP, and I remembered listening to it nonstop at the time, both amazingly loud and amazingly quiet (so my parents wouldn’t hear I was listening to “loud, screamy music” despite the awkwardness of my mom loving Carmina Burana).
So. There it is. Possibly my favorite cover of all time. I think of it every time the song is used in a movie or, more often, just the trailer (think basically any epic disaster movie that wants to up the epicness). The drumming in this version knocks me over, and then the guitar comes in and gives me the chills, and then Dave starts screaming and hell breaks loose and … I freaking love it.
Aaron is a writer currently learnin’ things at the University of Illinois. When not ballin’ at Clark Park, he divides his time between the HOBART literary journal, the book imprint Short Flight / Long Drive, and his own writing.
8. Robert Scott, Class of ’94, chose …
Unrest, “Breather X.O.X.O.”
Listen to “Breather X.O.X.O.”
WHAT HE SAID: 1993-94 was a weird time for popular music. The major record labels were scrambling to find the next Nirvana and proceeded to sign every independent band in America. For a brief moment it seemed as if the line between popular music and independent music was blurred and some rather strange music groups found themselves deep inside the Music Machine. It really felt like the music industry was going to change. Of course, we all know how this story ended: Kurt Cobain killed himself and the “alternative bubble” popped. Most bands were quickly dropped and many found themselves back on the same indie labels they had left behind.
During this brief moment, however, you could walk into a Camelot Music or Best Buy and find a pretty great selection of music. Unrest was one of those bands that found themselves on the cusp of a commercial breakthrough. Perfect Teeth was released in the fall of 1993 on 4AD (I know they are technically an independent label, but back then their music was distributed by Warner Brothers) and it quickly became one of those albums that I could not stop playing (much to the chagrin of my friends as I was one of those music snobs who insisted on commanding control of the car’s tape deck when we were out and about).
“Breather X.O.X.O.” is the perfect Unrest song in that it it highlights everything the band did so well. The Silvertone guitars drone. The drums push against time in startling ways. The androgynous vocals swoon. The cryptic lyrics detail a mysterious encounter that is equally romantic and creepy. It can be about anything or nothing at all. It is a perfect house of cards. Take one part away and the song would come crashing down. Plus, there’s no way you can successfully dance to it (unless you possess an odd number of limbs). Of course, this song’s musical subtleties would have been lost on a group of high school seniors at the prom in 1994. I’m sure this song wouldn’t have made it past the 30-second mark before some obnoxious football player demanded it be switched for House of Pain’s “Jump Around.”
Robert graduated from high school in 1994. He teaches 7th grade English and is the quieter half of the Doleful Lions.
9. Franklin Ridgway, Class of ’84, chose …
Listen to “Sacrifice”
WHAT HE SAID: In 1984, the heroic days of PiL, Chrome, and Killing Joke were past. No one in Shreveport, Louisiana had heard of Sonic Youth. Thank God, then, for Flipper. This song comes from their second album, Gone Fishin’, which was paradoxically both tighter and more abrasive than the first one; it was Flipper’s Fun House. One thing is certain: Flipper did not play well with Midnight Star or Kenny Loggins. Therefore, hail Flipper, for (almost) redeeming the Orwellian year of 1984.
Frank is a lecturer in the Dept. of English at the University of Illinois. He enjoys, in no particular order, ’70s punk rock, Black Dog’s BBQ, Marxist literary criticism, Argentina, and New Wave Theatre. He’s a Southern boy at heart.
10. Mason Kessinger, Class of ’99, chose …
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Today I was an Evil One”
Listen to “Today I was an Evil One”
WHAT HE SAID: I have nothing to report of my actual senior prom, neither from first-hand experience or by any ball-of-yarn tales of spiked punch, broken hearts, or lost innocence. If the Hillsboro, Illinois 1999 prom ever even happened I wouldn’t know enough to tell you that much. Many months before the Class of ’99 Prom, and a few before I first heard this record, I had already taken an early leave from high school (read: graduated early) and was living under the same roof as my older brother.
More than ten years later I still have this record in my collection. Thinking back I can still remember purchasing the album from the stacks at Parasol Mail Order and being immediately intrigued by the super high-gloss, almost entirely black LP jacket. To me, even at the time I first laid eyes on the record, the obvious and more refined choice would have been to apply a flat black finish on the jacket. Assuming that Will Oldham is like many of the talented musicians I’ve had the good fortune to work with, he probably had his hands in the design process from start to finish. I’d have to imagine that the treatment was intentional. Perhaps the showy high-gloss treatment is more akin to how Will Oldham playfully and mischievously wears his own mask of sorrow, always having a bit of fun while not getting too uptight about it?
Mason is fixated by Robert Wyatt, Arthur Russell, and Sonny Sharrock, to name but a few. He lives in the nation’s capitol, where he works as a web developer and designer for Poccuo.
11. Rachael Dietkus-Miller, Class of ’93, chose …
HUM, “Iron Clad Lou”
Listen to “Iron Clad Lou”
WHAT SHE SAID: Looking back, I was quite privileged to have grown up in East Central Illinois. Some of my fondest memories are from my high school days, going to rock shows nearly every weekend and occasionally sneaking out on a school night to see live bands in Champaign-Urbana at a house show or one of the (now) sadly missed venues like Treno’s, the (old) Blind Pig, and Channing-Murray.
Current besties who frequented shows with me back then might wonder why I didn’t choose Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., or Depeche Mode — all bands I loved immensely at that time that could have easily cleared the dance floor. But when I think about the early 1990’s and the prom I skipped (to go to one of those aforementioned house shows in Champaign), HUM’s “Iron Clad Lou” is the song that comes to mind. Given the year, no other song for me comes close to capturing those fond memories of great friends, local bands, and a vibrant, supportive scene.
Rachael lives in Urbana, IL, where she shakes her fists for the benefit of many worthwhile human rights and social causes. She plays a mean violin (see: Midwest indie-rockers Very Secretary) and has the rare distinction of having seen Ice-T, Sigur Ros, and Fugazi in concert. (Not the same concert, though. Man that would be weird.)
12. Jeremy Paquette, Class of ’95, chose …
Fugazi, “Bed for the Scraping”
Listen to “Bed for the Scraping”
WHAT HE SAID: This album came out about a week after my graduation, but in this fantasy maybe I had an advance copy of the CD or even better, maybe Fugazi is the house band at the shindig since my high school was in the suburbs of D.C. While my classmates were spending their nights writing carefully crafted love notes to Backstreet Boys and/or Deep Blue Something asking them to play at our prom, I put pen to paper and wrote to Ian MacKaye, pleading with him to join my local-hero double bill of Trouble Funk and Fugazi. Astonishingly, he accepts.
Trouble Funk starts the festivities off right. They kick out the jams and the crowd goes nuts. Ties are loosened, rented tuxedoes are drenched with sweat, and high heel shoes are kicked into a pile in the corner. At intermission, we all sip our non-alcoholic beverages (Shirley Temples for the ladies, Roy Rogers for the lads) and relax to the hits of the day. Pearl Jam, Mariah Carey, and Shaggy blast from the speakers, but it’s not until “Cotton Eye Joe” by Rednex comes on that the dancefloor is once again a mob scene full of gawky teens pawing each other to the beat.
Finally, Fugazi tune up and start off their set with the mindblowing “Bed For the Scraping.” The funky bass and drum opener gets the bodies moving and everything is perfect as it should be until Ian MacKaye opens his mouth and lets out that unbelievable bark. All of a sudden, the spell is broken and the dancefloor is emptied as hundreds of teens flood the streets loking for more illicit kicks, leaving behind a small group of straight edge kids to sip their grenadine-laced drinks in peace.
Jeremy is a long suffering mix addict and is the co-creator of the defunct mix tape fanzine Post Polvo Snooze Fest. He misses making mixes on cassette and the seamless transitions allowed by unleashing the analog pause button.
13. Eric Angevine, Class of ’87, chose …
Butthole Surfers, “Sweat Loaf”
Listen to “Sweat Loaf”
WHAT HE SAID: Sometimes, we live in the land of unlikely coincidences. That’s the only way that I can explain me ending up on Mixtured alongside Kris Gillespie (who chose first on this mix). We both know Doug in completely different contexts, but we both grew up in Lawrence, KS and went to Lawrence High in the late ’80s. We both went to KU and spun records (yes, records) at the awesome student radio station, KJHK. I can confirm that Kris’ take on the LHS prom scene is dead-on.
I could have chosen any number of actual popular songs of ’87. For instance, Genesis had a hit with “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight,” which only a narcoleptic could dance to. But then I realized Doug would have to put that pile of poo on the real soundtrack, and I don’t want that. I also thought of choosing tunes I loved at the time that would have allowed me to feel aloof and superior as the 12th-grade philistines flooded off the dance floor, but I had too many to choose from and couldn’t narrow my list down.
Finally, I decided to choose something so baffling to the sense of rhythm that even the most dedicated 1987 version of a hipster would have to recuse himself to the bleachers. “Sweat Loaf” does have a certain driving pulse that could induce a spastic sort of movement, but the opening father-son conversation, culminating in the ringing shout of “SATAN! SATAN! SATAN!”, would kill any momentum even the most radical glue-huffing skatepunk might have going.
As a dance-floor clearer, I’m going to give this one full marks.
Eric writes about sports for ESPN.com, which is a moderate step up in prestige from his years as a late-night community radio DJ. His wife has tried, unsuccessfully, to ban him from iTunes.
14. Mike Ingram, Class of ’00, chose …
Tom Waits, “Big in Japan”
Listen to “Big in Japan”
WHAT HE SAID: In May of 2000, “The Thong Song” was everywhere. You couldn’t escape it. In fact, amidst all of the N*Sync and Destiny’s Child (and slow jams from Brian McKnight and Savage Garden), I’m pretty sure “The Thong Song” was played three separate times at my senior prom. While everyone has horrible memories of the worst songs of his/her era being played at prom, I think I’d have taken Rupert Holmes or Atlantic Starr to the boy bands, Britney Spears, and the beginning of the shit-rap era.
Mere months earlier, Tom Waits had released an opus called Mule Variations, which I can safely say no one at my high school was aware of, even if that guy from Primus did play on it. I was too busy buying maxi-singles by the Prodigy and the Sneaker Pimps, and figuring out a way to balance a love for both Dave Matthews Band and Radiohead to take note of Mule Variations, but once I finally came around years later and pored over it again and again, the realization that it came out when it did was certainly a shock.
In 2010, “Big In Japan” is everything I could want in a song, and it sends me into a head nod at the very least (and an embarrassing dance and drunken fist pump at the most), but the thought of what this song would have done to the senior prom crowd sandwiched in-between “No Scrubs” and “Mambo #5” is particularly pleasing.
15. Steve Frisbie, Class of ’88, chose …
Richard Thompson, “Turning of the Tide”
Listen to “Turning of the Tide”
WHAT HE SAID: At the senior prom, I danced enthusiastically to some righteous hard rock (ok, semi-hard rock) interspersed with the New Jack Swing hits of the day. I still love to hear these tunes, but I don’t seek them out. Their value to me is nostalgic. Yet there were a great many songs released that year which I now hold dear, written by artists of whom I was utterly ignorant in at the time.
Richard Thompson is an absolute freak of a guitar player, and he can write a pithy rock tune when he wants to. “Turning of the Tide” is a perfect example. While this isn’t the most danceable song in the world, it’s hardly un-danceable. If a song with a similar groove, say by Poison or Tom Petty, came on at my senior prom, we’d have danced. But for “Turning of the Tide,” the boys would have walked their dates to the bleachers, looking to run their fingers up and down those not-so-shabby dresses.
For years, Steve played with the proggy power pop band Frisbie. They were pretty damn good. One of Chicago’s finest singers, he currently lends his rock chops to the infamous Tributosaurus and sings sweet harmonies with Ingrid and the Unicorns.
16. Amy Wan, Class of ’90, chose …
Bob Mould, “See a Little Light”
Listen to “See a Little Light”
WHAT SHE SAID: I challenge anyone to listen to the opening jangle of “See a Little Light” and not start tapping your foot, nodding your head, or moving your body in some way. No one could actually dance to this mid-tempo bit of melancholia without looking completely awkward, but this song gets me as close to dancing as one could possibly be without actually dancing.
I think this might be a perfect prom theme in a retrospective sort of way because it reflects the mixed up feelings of hope, awkwardness, longing, and sadness that come from interacting with someone you used to be very close to. It’s too bitter to be nostalgia, too wistful to be anger. Having just gone to my twentieth high school reunion, I wish I could take a time machine back to my senior prom, play this song, and say, “This is what it’s going to feel like the next time you see these people again.”
Amy used to work in “the music industry” before she wised up and became a professor of English at Queens College in Flushing, NY. She was super excited to read that Unrest was reuniting for some gigs.
17. Jessica Hopper, Class of ’94, chose …
Earth, “Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine”
Listen to “Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine”
WHAT SHE SAID: I listened to this Earth album, on cassette, nearly every day in high school. Nothing like heavy, meditative, unremitting bass drone to tame that teen lassitude. I felt like a volcano of emotion, and this song was sort of the lava and the power-chill in one. No stupid lyrics to get in the way. This would have cleared the floor at the prom at the first high school I went to, which was a massive public high school where had I attended prom I would have been standing against a wall complaining, watching a thousand classmates hump each other to Boyz II Men (I can only speculate). The high school I graduated from was a mostly residential arts high school, and if there had been a prom, Earth2 would have been welcome given how stoned the entire student body was at all times.
When not caring for her newborn, Jessica divides her time as a music critic for such publications as the Chicago Reader, the Village Voice, SPIN, and her own popular blog. She is a music consultant for This American Life and released her first book, The Girls’ Guide to Rocking, in 2009. She lives in Chicago.
18. Scott Hess, Class of ’84, chose …
Beastie Boys, “Cooky Puss”
Listen to “Cooky Puss”
WHAT HE SAID: I split my high school years between an Ohio town that proudly nicknamed itself “Hamiltucky” and a Michigan hamlet that was more or less the Petri dish from whence The Preppie Handbook emerged . In the summer between sophomore and junior year, I had to navigate a sartorial shift from purple parachute pants and white Giorgio Brutinis to madras plaid Bermudas and L.L. Bean Blucher moccasins.
In Hamilton, Ohio, our racially mixed high school dances veered from marathon slow-grinding to the first three-quarters of “Free Bird” to extended, sweaty line-dance-fests to Zapp & Roger Troutman’s prescient, vocoded funk — albeit with the obligatory hillbilly hoedown “Rocky Top” thrown in for good measure at some point. We were accidentally eclectic, a concession to the reality that both sides of the river attended the same high school.
In Grosse Pointe, Michigan, we mixed punk and new wave with our preppy, navigating between our native Seger and Madonna, our adopted Prince, and a patchwork of artists like The Clash, Big Country, and The Jam. We scribbled the chunky Black Flag bars on our notebooks, and we shaved each other’s heads in the summer. We were scrupulously progressive, aiming to adopt at speed whatever the next big thing was, so long as somebody somewhere had already christened it thus in writing. We were cautiously edgy.
Despite these two vastly different environs, I think I’ve come up with the one song that might’ve flummoxed just about everyone at any dance: the Beastie Boys’ “Cooky Puss,” a fusion of artsy aspiration and cheesy tomfoolery, of unabashedly nerdy whiteness with urban-other casual. It was a record and a band that made almost no sense to anyone (including me and a couple close friends who liked this song but couldn’t say why) until the more accessible Licensed to Ill dropped a couple years later. In Hamilton, the white kids would’ve called it “fag music,” their epithet for anything outside their older brother’s eight track collection; and the black kids would’ve likely waited it out until some “real shit” like Cameo came on. In Michigan, everybody would’ve probably looked at each other blankly, then screamed at the DJ to “play Duran Duran!”
(Meanwhile, up the road in Romeo, a “Kid” named Bob Ritchie was spinning the “Cooky Puss” 12” in his bedroom, thinking there might be something to this white-rap game after all.)
Scott is the former V.P./Content for RollingStone.com and is now a leading expert on American youth. He’s also an apologist for the movie Ishtar and the actor John Ritter. His nearly invisible poetry blog is here.
19. Raul Fernandez, Class of ’86, chose …
Violent Femmes, “Country Death Song”
Listen to “Country Death Song”
WHAT HE SAID: I’m fudging, a bit. I actually skipped my senior prom. Instead, I went to the Chattanooga Lookouts’ (AA baseball team at the time affiliated with the Seattle Mariners) home opener. I did, however, go to prom my junior year with my very first real crush. Of course, you must know what I mean here: I was completely smitten with my date, but I was merely a ‘friend’ to her. I just remember being nervous all night (I think I went to the restroom about 37 times). I don’t remember any of the music that was played, and I can’t even tell you if anyone danced. I’m pretty sure I did not.
I can tell you what my favorite album was that year. It’s still one of my favorite albums of the 80’s, though it doesn’t get mentioned often when people in the know are making lists about the period. It was the Violent Femmes’ sophomore effort, Hallowed Ground. I probably listened to this record (actually, it was a tape of my friend’s record — music piracy was around long before the internets, people) hundreds of times that year. I memorized every line of every song, and I still think this album is better than their more lauded self-titled debut — though, I’ll admit, it is not nearly as fun.
The lead track, “Country Death Song,” sets the tone for this Southern Gothic masterpiece and is my clear-the-dance-floor pick. Gordon Gano, not a particularly great singer, gives one of the most impassioned vocal performances ever committed to tape. The song is a first-person narrative of child murder, which, in and of itself, would probably send everyone scurrying from the dance floor at pretty much any prom. But when he sings, “She was screaming as she fell but I never heard her hit,” and the rest of the Femmes head into an Avant-Appalachian break down, I’m pretty sure there would be no one left trying to cut the rug.
Raul is currently a tennis teaching professional and coaches a local high school team in the Chattanooga area. Before that he worked at an Independent Record Store in Knoxville for seven years. He has done two stints as a DJ: one at WUTK while he was attending the University of Tennessee and also a short stint on the pirate radio station KFAR (Knoxville First Amendment Radio) before it was raided by the Feds in 2004. He has fathered hundreds of mixtapes and regularly blogs and shares his comps at Burn and Shine.
20. Jonathan Scott, Class of ’90, chose …
Jad Fair & Daniel Johnston, “Frankenstein Vs. The World”
Listen to “Frankenstein Vs. The World”
WHAT HE SAID: I have spent the last 20 years trying to forget my high school years. I can safely say it was the low point of my existence. For matters of honesty, I must admit I never graduated from high school. I did get my GED eventually, but in October of 1989 I was kicked out of St. Francis High School (my second such booting from an area high school). Like I said, high school is something I would rather forget. In the dark ages of mental health treatment (the 1980s), being a kid with bipolar disorder meant that you were either “stupid” or just a “bad seed” (my mother was told I was both by my teachers).
The one saving grace of my high school life was music; other than skateboarding it was all I really cared about in high school. I never went to any dances because until I was about 20 I had very little interest in the opposite sex, so I never really dated in high school. My parents, who at this point were very desperate to solve whatever problems I was having at that time, decided that the music I was listening to was making me “depressed” and making me behave antisocially. My mother read Tipper Gore’s book in 1988 and my parents became convinced that the evil punk music I was obsessed with was detrimental to my mental well being.
So one day in 1989, I came home and went upstairs to my room to find all of my records gone. While I was at school my parents went through my record collection and got rid of all the inappropriate material, which in my parents’ eyes was basically everything except the Beatles, The Monkees, The Beach Boys, and the music they grew up with, ’cause everyone knows that the Beatles and Beach Boys were always wholesome lads.
I wasn’t going down without a fight. Around this time my best friend, Doug Rogers, started making me tapes of stuff he had — mostly generic hardcore stuff (Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, etc.). This was my plan: I didn’t have to buy records anymore and keep them in the house; my friends could make me unmarked tapes full of all the music I wanted and the good Christian soldiers (my parents) would be none the wiser.
Doug copied a tape that his friend from Evanston, John Doyle, had made for him and gave it to me. I got this in 1989 and it had Beat Happening’s Black Candy on it, Mission Of Burma’s Signals, Calls And Marches, Julian Cope, and the song I chose for this mix, “Frankenstein Vs. The World” by Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston. The few times Doug and I hung out with John he always struck me as a lot more sophisticated than me or Doug. He knew a lot of music that I had no clue about, and he had Big Black’s Peel Sessions on vinyl.
I can remember the first time I heard this tape all the way through like it was yesterday. It was revelatory to hear this stuff, and the song that I kept playing over and over again was the Jad Fair song. It confused me, it made me laugh, and I totally loved it. I used to drive to school with my windows down playing the Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston album It’s Spooky at full blast just to see the reactions. This was music that annoyed all the assholes I hated in high school and it made me so happy.
When I think about where my own music has gone over the years, I can’t help but think that Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston were the guys who helped get me to the point I am now. I wish I had gone to my prom and played this song, but most people in school had already heard it in the parking lot. In retrospect, being obsessed with Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair, two guys with mental health histories, when I myself was dealing with a lot of the same stuff seems all the more fitting now. I am quite sure I would be doing something very different with my life now if it weren’t for Doug and John’s tapes — especially John’s.
Jonathan has released songs under the moniker Doleful Lions for well over a decade. The Doleful Lions have a new album coming out this Halloween called Let’s Break Bobby Beausoleil Out Of Prison. True story: The Doleful Lions’ seven-inch, “Hang Around in Your Head” b/w “Motel Swim,” blew the woofers on the speakers I (the creator of Mixtured) had used since college. Those speakers had survived for more than a decade but were no match for the sweet low-end of a Doleful Lions’ ballad.