You Make Make Me Sick: Old school Harvard radio

It’s high summer. Some of you might be occupying yourselves — as ever — with politics, celebrity gossip, traveling or, God help us, advancing your career or at least your all-important Project of the Month.  (Summer doesn’t change one’s personality or priorities, but it might well intensify them or make one’s flaws more transparent.) There’s a place for all of this, certainly, but for me, it’s definitely time to lighten up and talk about things that make me happy.

These are a few of my favorite things: Punk rock; classifying stuff; college radio. All three were combined in one special week of radio 26 years ago that I still remember, but first, a bit of explanation might be in order.

I miss college radio. When I lived in Boston I listened mainly to WMBR out of MIT and Harvard’s WHRB, and when I lived in Ljubljana I often tuned into Radio Študent, out of the University of Ljubljana, which was just as good. The freeform nature of it, the priority placed on hearing good music (not just a narrow band of preprogrammed hits), the casual anarchy that really wasn’t anarchy but was better, the assumption that neither the DJ nor the listeners were stupid, the following story notwithstanding.

Back in the spring of 1991 I visited Seattle and interviewed Jon Poneman, the co-founder of Sub Pop Records, for an article in the Boston Phoenix weekly newspaper. Sitting at a table at the Virginia Inn tavern across the street from Sub Pop HQ, along with his partner Bruce Pavitt, Poneman provided me with this memorable quote that’s now and again come back to me over the years: “With all respect to the rock-music listeners in the world, a lot of them have become accustomed to being treated like stupid animals. So we figure if we can herd them around like stupid animals, we will do so. It’s just being able to find the right marketing techniques and the most seductive forms of manipulation possible. And we find that actually, ironically enough, stupid animals like being reminded that they’re stupid animals on a regular basis.”

To quote my article: “Asked to explain, Poneman goes into a spiel on the role of the aesthetics of ‘dumb’ in rock history. ‘The pure essence of what we’re speaking about has been manifest in the work of the Ramones, the Dictators, Iggy and the Stooges, Jerry Lee Lewis…The idea of something being “dumb” is appropriated stupidly by people who don’t seem to quite get it. And that’s what I mean by the whole stupid-animals thing, because you can essentially regurgitate the same images in popular culture over and over again in a thinly veiled guise, and people will react to it.

‘I feel like a lot of the things that we assault the audience with should be very insulting and very ironic in nature, but, you know, amazingly enough, people react to it innocently, as if it’s the Summer of Love all over again.’ ”

On the other hand, there’s dumb, and then there’s dumb.

Which brings us to “You Make Me Sick” (or was it “You Make Make Me Sick”). During the week of May 12-18, 1986, WHRB’s underground Record Hospital program (which exists to this day) devoted its entire schedule to a retrospective of the first decade of punk rock — back then, basically the complete history.  I’ve included a graphic of both sides of the original flyer. The graphic depicting the week’s schedule seems to me to be a masterpiece, perfectly reflecting the genre’s energy and diversity. The show actually delved into punk’s ’60s and early ’70s ancestry before diving full-tilt into the Ramones, Pistols and their progeny. Although it was a Boston-area station, Boston punk bands didn’t get any more airtime than their counterparts in Chicago/Minneapolis, Canada, Texas, or Pennsylvania and NJ, and a full 17 hours on May 15 were devoted to West Coast hardcore. Many hours were given over to playing singles by bands even most committed punk fans had never heard before, and great pains were taken to representing international artists. I’d be very surprised if the event isn’t still regarded as one of the greatest weeks ever in the history of American college radio.

The orgy (the WHRB term for its theme shows) was coordinated by one Corey Loog Brennan, a/k/a T. Corey Brennan, later of the bands Bullet LaVolta and the Lemonheads, and still later a distinguished professor of classical studies at Rutgers University. But to me, he’ll always be the guy who helped put together that great week of old-school punk rock during one week in May of ’86.

Click on the images and enlarge them. It’s fun!

Bruce Pavitt (L) and Jon Poneman outside Sub Pop HQ, 1991


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