This week’s question was suggested by commenter Astor Clement, but is also one we have done before—albeit ages ago:
What’s the first piece of recorded music that you ever bought for yourself?
In the halcyon days of 1988, my musical world was rocked by the Australian group INXS and its sixth studio album, Kick. I had heard the songs on the radio over the previous year, as song after song became a hit—“New Sensation,” “Devil Inside,” “Need You Tonight,” and “Never Tear Us Apart.” (That last one still makes for a damn fine karaoke selection.) I was barely 9 years old, and it was the first time I remember connecting strongly with a band, as opposed to just a song, or a larger-than-life pop star like Michael Jackson. Sure, frontman Michael Hutchence may have been a glamorous, pin-up type, but the rest of the guys just seemed like, well, guys. They came across like a group of nerds who happened to be famous, as opposed to egotists actively seeking it out. And the songs were a potent cocktail of rock and dance grooves, electronic beats enlivened by Hutchence’s sexual swagger. I may not listen to the album much anymore, but I will never not turn it up when the opening lick to “Need You Tonight” erupts from my iTunes playlist.
I can’t be 100 percent sure, but it’s a safe bet that my hard-earned allowance money went to Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl on cassette. Considering how much I listened to it, I’m surprised I don’t have a firmer memory of actually buying it. The album came out June 1988, which was around the time I was starting to develop my own musical tastes (I’d grown up on a robust diet of The Kingston Trio, doo-wop, and ’80s country), though I probably didn’t buy it until after it had been out for a while and gotten more radio play. That album paved the way for my preteen musical tastes. Which, let’s be honest, mostly included Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul and a much-loved single of “Ice Ice Baby.”
I distinctly remember buying LL Cool J’s Bigger And Deffer in 1987, and the hour-plus I spent wandering around a Musicland, drunk with power after being given some cash and permission to buy whatever album I wanted. This was kind of a big deal for me at the time, because I had compromised my parents’ trust around music purchases by tricking my dad into buying Culture Club’s Waking Up With The House On Fire by convincing him they were my mom’s favorite band. (A story she loves telling to this day.) My family had just moved from Milwaukee to Denver, and my mother wanted to do something to put a smile on my face during the transition. For three days, Bigger And Deffer was my security blanket. On the fourth day, my mom paid attention to “Bristol Hotel,” a charming tune about the adventures of a prostitute from Jamaica, Queens. We promptly sought a refund. In hindsight, it was a good call.
Like Laura, I had Forever Your Girl on cassette, as well as The Bodyguard soundtrack and Billy Joel’s River Of Dreams, all bought on my behalf by my well-meaning mother. She also tried to keep me from watching MTV, which did not work even a little bit, and one afternoon I saw the video for “Peaches” by The Presidents Of The United States Of America. I promptly went out and bought the cassingle, which is all I could afford without having to ask my mom for an advance on my allowance. The next morning, I clearly remember a classmate explaining to me that the song was not about fruit as we lined up for homeroom. It wasn’t the true beginning of my adolescent rebellion—that happened a few months later, when I made friends with a girl who liked Rancid—but it was a start.
At the risk of outing myself as incredibly cool, I spent my first allowance money on the Miami Vice soundtrack. In 1985, my obsession with that show was all-consuming (What 7-year-old with an incredibly liberal mother wouldn’t love stories of sex, drugs, and crime on the seamy Miami streets?), and that naturally extended to its music, a collection of synth-and-sax jams tailor-made for all the Ferrari cruising I planned on doing once I finally turned 16. I never got the Ferrari—at least, not yet—but that well-worn cassette became my vehicle toward the wider world of pop music. My second, third, and fourth purchases were albums by Phil Collins (whose “In The Air Tonight” was the undisputed centerpiece of the soundtrack, and the 1980s), Glenn Frey, and, God help me, Don Johnson. In a broad sense, a lot of my musical tastes—a tendency toward brooding, neon-street melancholy; stuff that evokes late nights and cocaine—can probably be directly traced to Miami Vice. I bought it again on vinyl a few years ago for a mere $2; it sits on my shelves now as my record collection’s Rosetta Stone.
I did not take to pop music immediately or naturally. My mom certainly had (and has) good taste in music, but we didn’t have a tape deck in our family vehicle until I was 12 or 13, and I wasn’t much good at absorbing what was on the radio—nor was I particularly interested in MTV when we got cable. So I made it as far as middle school without knowing much of anything about music. I now realize that when I bought the Raiders Of The Lost Ark score on cassette from my local downtown record store (more than a decade after the movie came out, mind you) around the age of 12, I was making a bold step toward becoming one of those movie nerds who doesn’t know much of anything about music beyond the world of movie scores. But as it turns out, that didn’t take either. While I still love rousing John Williams music, the full Raiders album didn’t turn me into a score obsessive. If anything, I think the catchiness of the Raiders March combined with my lack of attention span for the rest of the album subtly taught me about the joys of a pop hook, and The Wonder Years soundtrack I bought a little while later nudged me further back to that world. There’s nothing wrong with being a scores-only nerd, of course, but it feels very foreign to the indie-rock dabbler I eventually became.
This one is stuck in my head, as clear as the day I first kissed a girl. I grew up in Omaha, so no one will recall Pickles Record Store unless they grew up there. I was 8, making it 1990. Pickles was in the lower level of Westroads Mall, and at that age, it was intimidating to say the least. It was the era of teen mallrats, everyone looking to out-cool the other. For some reason, and I do appreciate it now, my dad made me walk into Pickles by myself, and ask for MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em. I was terrified. Pickles was the coolest of the cool, a place you’d expect to find Siouxsie Sioux crate digging. Harnessing all my strength, I skulked up to the clerk (a frightening, frowning goth girl with a nose ring) and asked for MC Hammer. She replied, “Do you want the cassette or the CD?” I had no goddamn idea what that meant. I meekly replied “cassette,” and thankfully, I made the right choice, because I was thusly able to blast “U Can’t Touch This” in my dad’s car.
In my narrow childhood world, The Beatles were more or less the only band that existed. So imagine my shock when I discovered a previously unheard of Beatles album, the succinctly titled Live! At The Star-Club In Hamburg, Germany, 1962, an unofficial live album recorded in that sliver of time post-Ringo and pre-fame. The recording quality is terrible, so much so the band tried repeatedly to block its release. And you’re essentially listening to an energetic cover band, as “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Ask Me Why” are the Lennon-McCartney songs present. But as an undiscerning 11-year-old, it was a thrill hearing those familiar voices run through “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Hallelujah I Love her So,” not to mention songs like “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby,” and “Twist And Shout,” that they’d later cover more memorably in the studio. Listening now, the most fascinating tracks are the older standards—“Bésame Mucho,” “Red Sails In The Sunset,” “I Remember You”—the band repurposed as rock songs. There simply weren’t enough rock songs in 1962 to fill set lists night after night, the early Beatles played every song they could think of, twisted around to fit their own style. Embracing such a broad range of influences no doubt left the band open to try different styles of music once their Beatlemania phase had passed. It’s a fascinating look at the band developing, and one that’s no longer easy to hear, as the Beatles finally won the rights back in 1998, and will probably never release what the band always considered an inferior recording.
Like Mike, my inaugural musical purchase involved some Beatles arcana: Anthology 1, which I picked up at a Borders Books And Music on a family trip. So swept up in Beatles Anthology-mania was I—taping ABC’s broadcast of the documentary; obsessively poring over an Entertainment Weekly breakdown of the project—that no thought was given to the actual contents of Anthology 1. It was not, as I assumed, a greatest-hits compilation of the Beatles tunes I loved hearing on the local oldies station, but rather an odds-and-ends collection whose first two sides are largely composed of pre-Beatles recordings. I say “sides” because I bought the compilation on cassette, not exactly the optimal format for a tracklist peppered with interviews and studio outtakes. Upset by how the first cassette sounded on a My First Sony Walkman (I couldn’t have known at the time that, like Live! At The Star-Club, that audio was pulled from less-than-stellar masters), I stuck with tape two, which at least introduced me to the “just rattle your jewelry” version of “Twist And Shout” performed at The Royal Variety Performance in 1963. It’d be a while until I understood the joke, but at least it was a song I’d heard before.
I didn’t really start forging my own tastes in music until I hit my teens and became influenced by the stuff I was seeing on MTV, so if I purchased anything prior to that, it hasn’t stuck with me. As such, my answer is Men At Work’s Cargo, which I bought on cassette. Like everyone else, I loved the band’s singles from debut album, Business As Usual, and if memory serves, I think I was swayed to invest in Men At Work’s sophomore effort because it was on sale. I absorbed every last moment of that thing—as us old-timers used to say of our oft-spun cassettes, I played it ’til it squeaked—and came to enjoy album cuts like the epic “No Sign Of Yesterday” and the faux reggae of “Blue For You” easily as much as singles like “Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive” and “It’s a Mistake,” but “Overkill” is still far and away my favorite track. I won’t say that sentimentality hasn’t colored my appreciation of Cargo—I probably wouldn’t like it nearly as much as I do if I hadn’t discovered it during such a formative time in my pop culture development—but that appreciation has kept me following frontman Colin Hay’s solo career to this day, which has paid off handsomely in its own right. Three decades later, he’s still got it!
I had odd tastes in music as a kid. Well, not odd—no one who listens to as much Billy Joel as I did (and do) could really qualify for “odd.” But I didn’t buy a lot of albums, and when I did buy them, they were rarely by the sort of artists that my peers were listening to. I’m not saying I was cool—I’m saying if there’s a bright center of coolness to the universe, I was on the planet it was furthest from (to steal a phrase). It made sense at the time, but in retrospect, I’m not sure I could tell you why, exactly, the first album I ever bought with my own money was Elton John’s The One. I still like Elton John just fine, but that is not one of his best albums, and more, it’s not the sort of album a teenager would ever really be interested in, with its sappy ballads and muted uptempo “rockers.” It has its moments (“The Last Song” is lovely), but in general it’s about as middle-aged and bland as pop music can be—and yet, for some reason, I had to have it. I dunno, maybe listening to my parents’ Lionel Richie albums growing up did something to my brain.
Let’s take it back to the Sam Goody on Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, in 1997 when I combed through the racks with one thought in mind: obtaining a copy of Veruca Salt’s Eight Arms To Hold You. I had just received a CD boombox of my very own that had not one, but two, tapedecks for optimal mixtape making. But more importantly, it liberated me from listening to music on my parents’ stereo. Blasting “Volcano Girls,” the only Veruca Salt song I had heard, at full volume in my room, here I come! Followed very closely by demands to, “for the love of god, put headphones on.” Isn’t getting yelled at by your parents about the volume of your music the first step to teenagedom? I still have my copy tucked away in a giant CD book I lugged across state lines multiple times, and I still get excited about “Volcano Girls.”
I’m an extremely infrequent purchaser of music. The majority of the CDs in my collection were either stolen from my parents, received as gifts, or burned to disc after the digital files appeared, as if by some sort of mysterious Internet magic, on my computer. So it actually took me a lot of effort to remember the first album I ever acquired by personally trading cash money for it. At first, I thought it was Ben Folds’ Rockin’ The Suburbs, which I bought as a college freshman after my roommate Tom got me hooked on Folds’ piano-driven pop on rides back to our hometown. Then I remembered a previous purchase: The Demo CD by Tom’s band Fuse, a Sharpie-labeled CD-R that I spent five bucks on when I was 17. Fronted by my D&D buddy Dane, Fuse was (according to no less a venerable source than IndyBands.com, where a 16-year-old picture of the band’s glowering teenage members can still be found) “a progressive Hardcore band with an indescribable sound.” Being friends with its members was also the closest I ever got to being traditionally cool, going to see their shows in dingy basements full of hip-looking girls I was physically incapable of speaking to and occasionally trying to convince the guys in the band that the only thing their sound was missing was the addition of my marching band tuba on bass. They declined my generous offer, and, years later, the band broke up. Coincidence? Almost certainly not.
I’m not at all embarrassed to admit the first album I bought for myself was Hanson’s Middle Of Nowhere. I loved not only the catchy “MMM Bop” (to which I proudly knew all the syllables of the chorus) but also the more upbeat “Where’s The Love” and the soulful (at least by preteen standards) “Yearbook.” Hanson was crucial to my elementary school years. The band also served as my first concert and offered up my first celebrity crush in the form of youngest brother Zac. Years after the Hanson bubble burst, my high school best friend bought us tickets to one of the band’s smaller shows. The grown-up Hanson boys put on a great show with an acoustic cover of “MMM Bop” that proved they have a good sense of humor too. Little Caroline sure knew how to pick ’em.
I can proudly say that the first album I bought for myself was Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time, which I purchased in a Borders after visiting the dentist. My cousin had a big crush on Spears, so I was exposed to the title track and its video quite a bit, and after watching the Making The Video for “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” I knew that I wanted to hear the rest of this album. My mom, who had driven me around that day, wanted to know what I bought, and I remember being ashamed to show her what was in my Borders bag, not because of the quality of the music, but because of the girly cover. Looking back, that album is mostly forgettable except for those two singles, but it does contain the late ’90s gem “E-Mail My Heart,” a sugary sweet ode to love in the age of technology.
I always thought buying my first album would be a momentous occasion, and so I thought about it, and I thought about it, and I consulted my favorite musical countdown show Top Of The Pops about it, and I ended up at the only possible conclusion: The Spice Girls. Duh. Ginger Spice was my brassy idol, and I had been working on my Posh smirk for months. (Still working on it—still not perfected.) Disaster struck, though, when I gave that week’s pocket money back to my mom to buy the brand new Spice Girls album while I was at school and she forgot to do it. In a fit of adolescent rage, I stomped over to the nearest shop and bought the first thing I recognized, which is how my first purchased album ended up being Shania Twain’s Come On Over.