Flashback, Cash Back
By Andy Langer
July 21, 1997: Whoever coined the phrase, "Everything old is new again," must have been from Austin, because increasingly, local radio programmers and clubowners are saying this town's prevailing sound has become "Oh Wow" -- as in "Oh wow, I haven't heard that in a while." It's a term KAMX ("the Mix") Program Director Duty Hayes says he uses to describe songs from artists like A Flock of Seagulls, Missing Persons, and Simple Minds -- songs that not only still test well with audiences, but also fit into his station's modern playlist. In fact, it could be argued that music is an integral component of Ronald Reagan's famed "Trickle Down" economics theory, because the bulk of this current retro resurgence hinges on the Eighties. Today, everything from the Cure to the Cars, the Romantics to Devo, and "Tainted Love" to "The Safety Dance" are part of what could be termed the "new wave" of classic rock -- or more simply, Old Wave.
Although this phenomena of Eighties nostalgia isn't unique to Austin, the evidence of a local market for it is overwhelming. Not only do dance clubs like Paradox, the Roxy, World II, Eden 2000, Club Rio, and a half dozen others offer some kind of retro-themed nights, recent appearances from Missing Persons, Information Society, and Ratt have been standing-room-only successes. And let's not forget last month's well-documented Vanilla Ice debacle.
On local radio, nearly every major station features some kind of Eighties-based programming, from KHFI's "Way Back Wednesday" to KROX's "Flashback Lunch." In most cases, ratings reveal that retro-based programming constitutes these station's highest-rated daytime slots. Even as far back as three years ago, during KNACK's peak, Austin's first alternative rock station ushered in nostalgia with their Homegroan compilation, which featured local bands covering material from artists like the Human League, Dead or Alive, Wall of Voodoo, and the B-52s. Hell, if you listen close enough, Austin's biggest radio export of the year -- Abra Moore's "Four Leaf Clover" -- sounds a lot like the English Beat's "Save It For Later."
In theory, the driving forces behind this latest wave of nostalgia are no-brainers: demographics and MTV. In fact, the two are inherently intertwined. According to radio research and local clubowners, it's the 25-34 demographic that's drumming up demand. "The draw seems to be twentysomethings," says Paradox General Manger Earnie Montoya, whose club hosts the popular "Retro Rage" night every Sunday, and has also featured live performances from Blondie and Bronski Beat. "For dance clubs in particular, which are generally 18 and up, it's a great plus for us to be able to cater to an influx of what's generally a cleaner, older, and more respectable crowd that may also have a little more expendable income."
Not surprisingly, the market Montoya describes is mostly comprised of recent University of Texas graduates and a growing number of out-of-towners lured to Austin by the city's high-tech job boom. This is also the demographic that grew up almost exclusively in the MTV age -- when the channel still played videos, created as many superstars as one-hit wonders, and held some kind of regard as a social force.
"If it was on MTV, they remember it," says local deejay Rachel Marisay, who fields dozens of requests daily on 101X's "Flashback Lunch." "Today, you might think of Pat Benatar as a classic rock artist, but because she was on MTV she gets requested by a lot of the same people that want to hear Men Without Hats or A Flock Of Seagulls. They remember the songs and MTV's playlist, and the stuff that's resurfaced now was more musically diverse and was less limiting than any of the categorization today. And again, now with the flashback stuff, all anybody cares about is if they remember it, and if they can sing along to it... because that's ultimately why you flip around the radio dial, to find something you know and like."
While both the clubowners and radio programmers contend that familiarity is the key to any retro resurgence, there's some debate as to what works and what doesn't. KAMX's PD Hayes, who currently mixes Eighties flashbacks into his regular playlist and has tentative plans to launch an Eighties-specific specialty show, says some of MTV's biggest artists, like Culture Club, Thomas Dolby, and Duran Duran test poorly, while other artists like Simple Minds and A Flock Of Seagulls are "timeless."
At 101X, where Marisay and Program Director Sara Trexler set the boundaries of the "Flashback Lunch" playlist, Depeche Mode and the Cure don't test nearly as well as Soft Cell, the Romantics, and Devo (you can probably guess which songs). And yet despite their similarly alternative formats, Marisay says she gets a lot fewer requests for underground Eighties singles from bands like Section 25, The Vapors, and Killing Joke at 101X than she did while deejaying a similar show during her stint at KNACK.
"As this has continued to grow, what's `Flashback' has changed," says Trexler, who hosted flashback shows on 101X's sister station in Virginia before coming to Austin. "There is, at the minimum, a five-year delay and for the most part it's all stuff that's pre-1990 now. Five years ago, the flashback material featured more underground acts and mainstream stuff like Echo and the Bunnymen and early Depeche Mode, neither of which do real well now because the audience those flashbacks appealed to has moved on.
"And while I've never done a flashback show anywhere that hasn't included at least one request a day for Modern English's `I'll Melt With You' -- and things like Devo's `Whip It' and Simple Minds' `Don't You Forget About Me' are popular across every format -- a lot of individual markets are also different. Here, people want to hear Information Society and CCCP while in Virginia they preferred Black Flag, early Faith No More, and Iggy Pop. Also in Austin, there seems to be more of an emphasis on rhythm and dance, because there's a bigger club scene than in Virginia, which means artists like Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Shriekback, and the Beastie Boys seem to be more popular here."
Generally, local radio stations and dance clubs seem to feed off each other, with most club nights being sponsored by the stations, and most of the stations reporting big listener reaction from the songs that are popular in the clubs. "Radio is essential, because it reminds people of these songs they may have forgotten and gets them interested again," says Montoya. "And while I haven't seen many markets where retro isn't the rage on the radio stations, I can tell you that if radio wasn't happening, the clubs wouldn't be happening."
In fact, Montoya says that when his club tries to break new dance-oriented records to its audience the rest of the week, without radio's help, he often relies on retro selections to keep people interested. "Dance clubs have always been about breaking new songs, and we try to break two or three new songs a month that aren't going to get much airplay," explains Montoya, who says he originally tried to separate his new and retro evenings but has found the two formats hopelessly interlocked. "It can be a slow process, where we start a new song with a spin at 3:30am and gradually push it up earlier in the evening as it gets more and more response. But to do that, and keep the energy up, you have to throw in a lot of songs they know -- the retro material. And so, as much as it pains me to say it, we have sort of been backed into the corner by popular demand into becoming a retro-based nightclub."
Radio's retro programming also seems to have had an impact on some local live music venues. While recent mainstream radio successes like Hanson and the Spice Girls seem to be trading off the popularity of cheesy Eighties pop flashbacks, most local clubowners say they've heard their patrons complain that acts ranging from Marilyn Manson to the Wallflowers are generally too drab and depressing. "You can't sell a lot of tequila shooters playing Nirvana," says Popular Talent's Mark Schaberg, who books deejays and live music into Bob Popular and has done well with shows by A Flock of Seagulls, Missing Persons, Information Society, and of course, Vanilla Ice.
But could alternative radio's more dreary artists also be indirectly responsible for a recent local resurgence in Eighties hard rock that's sold out shows such as Suicidal Tendencies at Stubb's and Ratt at the Back Room?
"These classic hard rock bands from the Eighties are becoming the trash disco of rock music," say Mark Olivarez, whose club, in addition to recent shows by Ratt and Warrant, will feature Dokken next week. "Today's modern artists may be going further with artistic merit and lyrical content, but I think people miss the fun of the Eighties songs and remember how good they felt with those songs and shows. When MTV ran that series not too long ago about the rock bands and where they are now, a lot of the Back Room people would chuckle and say they couldn't believe they used to `rock out' to that. And I'll be darned if those same people weren't the first ones in line to buy tickets for Ratt and Dokken, just for kicks."
Charles Attal, who books and co-owns Stubb's, says that although he's still wary of booking cock rock acts, he's excited about catering to the retro market by possibly hosting a Cheap Trick show later this summer. "Suicidal [Tendencies] delivered a crowd for us, but I was a little worried for a while," he says. "And yet, everyone I've consulted with on whether or not to book Cheap Trick says, `Wow, I'll be at that show.' They can't wait. But just five years ago, I think an Austin promoter would have sold only 500-600 tickets to that show, where now I think it ought to be good for 1500-1800."
Olivarez says the recent retro resurgence is even easier to measure, because he's getting twice the phone calls and ticket sales now for Dokken then when he hosted the same show, with the same lineup, last summer. And while Olivarez says he believes that new interest stems from the string of other retro shows in town, he says he's still careful to book nostalgic acts on a case-by-case basis.
"As long as you had a certain amount of credibility back then, you can come back now," says Olivarez. "This new wave of nostalgia isn't likely to affect some of the more gimmick-oriented one-hit wonders. I'll do Dokken because they were always talented musicians and they had gold records, but I wouldn't do Trixter. You have to ask, did a band have enough hits to justify coming back, and then, are they not so far back that the people who enjoyed those hits are too old to go out and have a good time in a club?"
Perhaps an even better gauge of how popular Eighties retro is comes from those people who don't always go to clubs -- those who are exposed to live music mostly through the cover-based party bands they see at fraternity mixers, corporate affairs, and charity events.
"The variety bands that specialize in classic rock and the Fifties and Sixties stuff are all but disappearing," says Popular Talent's Schaberg, who also books hundreds of cover bands for parties each year. "What used to be called your `Flashback Cadillacs' are now called your `Retro Rages.' On the party circuit, everything is steering towards Seventies R&B, disco, and Eighties flashbacks. And while a couple of years ago all the cover bands on Sixth Street and at the parties were competing for who had the best Eddie Vedder impression, now it's who can do the best job with the disco and Eighties retro material."
Clearly, whether a shift away from Pearl Jam back to Eighties New Wave and heavy metal is a good or bad thing is a matter of taste. Yet many local radio programmers say they realize that the current run of Eighties nostalgia is inherently a short-term phenomena, because as few as five years down the line, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, R.E.M., and U2 will also be considered classic material that listeners will demand to revisit as flashback programming. In fact, a few radio insiders are quietly hinting that the recent string of alternative one-hit wonders created by their finicky format (Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast At Tiffany's" and Filter's "Hey Man, Nice Shot" for instance) could already be prime material for "Oh Wow" moments.
In the end, it might just be KAMX's Hayes who has the most straightforward take on retro rage when he says that many of the most popular bands and songs of that era form the roots of today's alternative rock.
"Within any body of music, some songs are going to be transcendental, in that they transcend the year and mix well with whatever is going on," he says. "In reality, I don't know how newfound a lot of this interest even is, because in my mind, the Eighties never really went away and this music marked the birth of alternative.
"Timeless songs will always get requests, get people dancing, and get people to see a live performance, regardless of the era they're from. The Eighties gave rise to an accessible body of music, and as new and younger audiences that weren't around the first time get familiar with it, I think a lot of them are finding out they like these songs. And when you've got new people interested, and then add the nostalgia factor, you've got a winner."
Andy Langer hosts "The Next Big Thing," a new and local music show on 101X, Sundays, 6-10pm, immediately preceding "Retro Rage."
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