Here’s how social influencers worked when I was in seventh grade. There was always one kid in class who was ahead of the curve — the kid who had the clothes, albums, magazines, knowledge or daring before the rest of us. Perhaps there was an older sibling to thank for the advanced knowledge; perhaps it was more permissive parents; perhaps it was benign neglect and a free-range childhood. In my case, it had to do with free-range and rock and roll music.
We are talking of the era before 500 TV channels, MTV, before Rolling Stone magazine, and long before digital platforms that spawned today’s “social influencers.”
The culture of my middle school years was different from the culture of my parents. It was the dawn of FM radio stations playing rock and roll, as well as deep cuts from albums, not just 45s and single releases. WBCN in Boston, for instance, was my jam. Once a classical music station, Boston Concert Network, it changed format and ushered in the relaxed, groovy talk stylings of Steven the Seagull and Charles Laquidera. Far out, man.
And albums. We all bought albums. Vinyl. With cardboard sleeves, kids. The terms persist, with reorchestrated meaning. And a kid with a heads-up on the arrival of the next big band or album release was an influencer.
For instance, I vividly remember the afternoon in 1968 when my friend Jon played Led Zeppelin’s first album for me. Mind blown and irrevocably influenced. It persists in my life soundtrack. Jon also had Wheels of Fire by Cream before anyone else, though he had to sneak into the Christmas present stash and unwrap it to be sure.
Jon’s key to a treasure map of rock bands was the Columbia Record Club. I too was beguiled by the astounding record library it offered for a pittance. Seemingly. But I couldn’t convince my parents of it being the key to cool, social influencer-dom. I just wanted to rock.
Jon and I were the garage band rock and roll drummers in 7th grade. Once we combined our drum kits to construct a set like our hero, Ginger Baker. For a few hours, we were in rock rhythm heaven; a drumming jungle gym.
This whole notion comes to mind because of a recent column in the Washington Post by Geoff Edgers: “A dozen albums for a penny? I’ve still got mine and plenty of time to listen.” A penny on the front end, high-priced album purchase commitment on the back end; that was the Columbia Record and Tape Club gambit.
As a lad in the 1980s, Edgers was beguiled by the allure. His bands, however, were far different than mine: the Go-Gos, the Clash, the Cars. Not the seminal works in my rock pantheon, though we do overlap with the Kinks and Van Halen. Edgers is a notorious Kinks fan.
The article stirred a record-collecting high school buddy of mine. He read the article, then boxed up his trove of Columbia Club cassettes and shipped them off to Edgers with a cryptic note. His album choices were about ten years ahead of Edger’s catalog.
“I did it in college,” that friend wrote me, “and then I’d move and successfully lose them. After reading the piece in the Washington Post the other day, I thought, What am I gonna do with the 60 or 70 cassettes I have in a closet? Donate them? Nah. Toss ‘em? Too easy; goes against my recycling grain. So, I packed them up and sent them to Geoff Edgers with a note that I hope he enjoys at his next social distancing soiree!”
He tracked the gift box. It was delivered on July 8. He awaits word. I hope for a follow-up column by Edgers on the fellow nutcase with an even larger stash of Columbia Club cassettes. Buy Columbia Club stock now — these two influencers are gonna make it great again. For a penny.
That friend had been my influencer during high school rock band life. He always had a new album, band or track to share, usually in a genre unfamiliar to me. Poco, for instance. He would extract a particular guitar riff or rhythm section groove. He knew I appreciated the nuances of a lyric or the melodic hook of a bridge between verse and chorus. Since I was a drummer, he handed off cool drum riffs from bands that became my favorites too. And we attended plenty of 1970s concerts together, though, sadly, not The Kinks.
As I review my lifelong passion for Led Zep, Cream, classic rock drum riffs, and being hooked by new musical discoveries, I realize that it has been more than a transitory social influence. It has been more than mere commerce. I’ve been the beneficiary of a shared affinity. That’s the best payback of digital media — flattening the world and aggregating people with common passions, not just selling things you don’t need. Rock on, Columbia Record Club.
Todd R. Nelson is a retired teacher in Penobscot, Maine.