Like I imagine most folks my age do I live in a near continual state of gratitude that smart phones and social media did not exist when I was a teenager or in university. There are some moments from my past that I’m elated remain nothing more than fading memories in the minds of myself and a few friends never to see the spotlight of Youtube, Facebook or Twitter. The ceaseless documentation of our lives, while sure to be nostalgically appealing in our later years, remains overwhelmingly unsettling. Considering how mistakes and indiscretions so easily become fodder for mobs of strangers and internet trolls I worry for my kids’ post-pubescent futures.
When Air Band Competitions Ruled the Eighties
Nevertheless, once in a while I’m reminded of more innocent events from my youth that would be wonderful to share with the world. Brilliant, unfilmed nuggets forever lost to history thus never achieving their inevitable viral video destiny. Timing is everything and my embarrassments were ahead of their time.
I was recently reminded of one such episode while reading Amanda Palmer’s terrific book, The Art of Asking . In the heart of the book she briefly talks about her differing reaction to being a solo artist as opposed to being part of a band when it came to asking for support and compensation. She writes: “I’d started putting “Amanda Palmer and the Void” on my gig flyers. I figured nobody could argue with that on technical grounds. I had a backup band of approximately no people. (I’m not the only one who’s done it. See: Marina and the Diamonds, Tracy and the Plastics.)”
And with that simple, almost throw away, paragraph a memory flooded back of what was apparently a groundbreaking performance of mine way back in 1986.
I grew up in a small town with a K-8 public elementary school. The kind of school with one class for each grade and you went to school with mostly the same twenty-five kids your entire life. It’s the very best kind of school, even if it meant that lifelong friendships were tempered with lifelong enemies.
Back in the 80s, the most anticipated event of the year for the older students was the much beloved, and hotly contested, air band competition. This was equally true in high school though perhaps by then school dances had taken top spot thanks to the opportunity slow dancing in a darkened gymnasium provided for awkward teenage groping; intentional or otherwise.
I have no idea if these contests remain popular today; I suppose I’ll find out in a few years when my own children reach the age where rock star mimicry is presumably in favour. I realize there are infamous air guitar competitions held today but these seem mostly a venue for middle-aged dreamers attempting to recapture their 80s glory or whom simply forgot to grow up. Whether digitally addicted kids today share a love of this campy art form remains a mystery to me. Regardless of their current status, make no mistake, in the 80s these things were the absolute peak of teen entertainment.
In high school the performances were legendary as groups of cliquey friends would take the stage to perform their favourite bands’ greatest hit. Homages to ZZ Top replete with long beards and fuzzy guitars were popular. Tributes to giants of cheese like Journey or Foreigner often brought the house down. And risqué songs were especially appreciated with the oldest kids striving to push the envelope of decorum with the teachers. This line was notably crossed when a group of hockey jocks performed “Big Balls’ by AC/DC complete with softballs stuffed down black nylons hung around their necks.
Even kids not typically part of the proverbial in crowd would sometimes get involved in air band competitions under the right circumstances. The most vivid example being the time a noted leader in the skid community and his cronies took the stage for an impromptu performance of “Master of Puppets’ by Metallica. And why not, they were pretty much in costume every day anyway. A couple of brooms from the janitor’s closet and voila, instant metal madness and for a few moments, school-wide stardom.
But that was high school. In elementary school the songs and acts were decidedly more family friendly. Rock and pop were still the music of choice, no doubt, but things were definitely less controversial. Hormones were filling our bodies but acts of rebellion and angst remained a couple years away for us. And this is where my missed moment of future Youtube glory begins.
I had never been much of a performer. Sure, there was my debut lead role in our Grade 4 presentation of Johnny Appleseed in which it took every ounce of restraint my ten year old mind could humanly muster to keep from bursting out in laughter when I had to proclaim in front of my classmates and assembled parents that “the squirrels were busy gathering their nuts for winter”.
In Grade 6 I suffered some manner of hemorrhage in the judgment center of my brain and volunteered to participate in the local music festival singing both a duet with a friend and a solo. Again I miraculously managed to maintain a straight face when my good friend and I stood upon a stage and in two part harmony declared to a room full of strangers that “the music of my hunting horn excites me all day long”.
Things proceeded to deteriorate into outright trauma when in the midst of my solo I completely forgot the words to the second verse of the song. I was mortified. With help from my accompanist/teacher I was eventually able to finish but not before promising myself to NEVER perform vocally in public again. A rare promise I’ve kept for thirty-three years and counting.
Interesting side note, I scored higher on my solo than another kid who actually remembered all the words to the song. Imagine how awful he felt afterwards?
Still, even the most timid public performer yearns for peer adulation and by Grade 8 hormones had successfully stifled my common sense. I was now one of the oldest kids in the school and was feeling a tad ballsier than years previous. There were no longer older kids to intimidate me or be embarrassed in front of. I was like a gopher suddenly finding the courage to stick my head out of the ground. The air band competition was certainly popular and being part of that could only help my fledgling social standing with the recently blossoming female contingent of my class. Besides, I didn’t actually have to sing. Not for real. It was all just pretend.
Plus, I had the perfect song.
In retrospect, a grasp of ‘cool’ was not the strong suit of my 14th year on the planet. I could easily have cobbled together a group of friends to perform a magical Duran Duran chart-topper. Or, more likely, a Honeymoon Suite hit that would have left the Platinum Blonde fans with mouths agape. But no, I figured I had an ace up my sleeve on this competition. A band nobody else would do, let alone know. A band that while not exactly conventional was remarkably funny and as we all know, humour is the ultimate trump card in air banding.
Back in the days before MP3 and iPods, even before CDs and Discmans, dubbed cassette tapes were all the rage for teen and adult copyright infringers alike. Even my grandfather had a homemade cassette tray filled with tapes he’d recorded (mostly from albums) each with a shocking pink insert and handwritten titles.
This priceless cassette tray was kept under the driver’s seat of his motorhome and provided auditory entertainment for driver and passengers on long trips across our great nation or just sitting in the backyard parking spot. Whenever I joined my grandparents in that motorhome there was one particular tape that I ALWAYS wanted to listen to because it was freaking awesome. It was a collection of Homer and Jethro’s Greatest Hits.
Homer and Jethro were to fifties country music what Weird Al Yankovic is to modern day pop music. Of course, I had no idea what the original songs were for the most part, but these parodies were unequivocally hilarious in my obviously damaged mind. One song, in particular, was a special favourite and it came to me that it would make for a fabulous air band performance. That song was the immortal “The Battle of Kookamonga”, a parody of the Johnny Horton megahit “The Battle of New Orleans”.
Oddly enough, despite my song choice being on the tipping point of genius, I was unable to recruit a single friend to join me in an air band competition entry. Obviously I was beyond my years in coolness and these chumps would one day mourn their lack of foresight; that day undoubtedly being the one following the day I won the hearts and adulation of the entire school by winning the air band competition. A competition I was now determined to win single-handedly.
My grand scheme was to get on stage with an assortment of stuffed animals sporting cardboard and paper instruments acting as my backup band. What’s more, this being a duet after all, I had a toy Muppet puppet (Fozzie Bear I think or perhaps my sister’s Miss Piggy) on my left hand that I used as the Jethro to my Homer. Let me tell you it took an incredible skill to alternate between lip-syncing myself then closing my mouth and working the puppet’s mouth as vocal parts switched during the song, never mind when we were “singing” together. This, THIS, is the video that would be so fantastic to have today.
Shocking to perhaps only me, I did not win the competition. Many a great performance has gone unappreciated by an audience lacking vision; sometimes being ahead of your time means that your time never comes. Your loss, World.