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RADIOHEADS

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The concert scene, September 20, 2003. By Justin Knight

The music, the night, and a thousand good friends

An hour before the 30th birthday party for Boston College's student-run radio station, WZBC, is to begin, the scene is quiet. In the long main hall, formerly a bowling alley, of New England's most famous indie-rock music venue--the Middle East club in Cambridge, Massachusetts--musicians set up their keyboards and guitars or sit in small groups at the bar, nursing drinks and cigarettes. Next door, at TT the Bear's Place, another popular music club, the same calm prevails. In an hour it will be shattered. Rolling over the proceeds from last year's fundraisers, WZBC has rented both spaces, hired a dozen bands, and spread the word through Boston's underground music scene that on this night--September 20--its party is the place to be. Nearly 1,000 people, a capacity crowd, answer the call, with many more turned away at the doors.

Nobody who knew WZBC in 1973 could have predicted such festivities. From 1960 until that year, 'ZBC had been VBC--the Voice of Boston College--and had been a carrier-current station, transmitting through the BC campus's own electrical wiring. In 1973, however, VBC received a license to broadcast over the air as WZBC, 90.3 FM. The station pumped out just nine watts, but in 1974 a new thousand-watt system was installed. The station's deejays ditched America's popular favorites for edgier stuff, and WZBC became a conduit for independent music in the Boston area. Remember Hall and Oates? The Captain and Tennille? Early WZBC listeners don't. They were nourished on The Sex Pistols, Fugazi, Black Flag, The Clash. Eventually the station attracted a loyal following and began winning numerous "Best of Boston"–type honors in the local press (most recently, Noise Magazine's 2002 Moxie Award for best rock radio station in Boston).

The 'ZBC contingent at the show is about a dozen strong, and includes station director Hannah Nolan-Spohn '05, publicity manager Sarah Korval '04, and the majority of the station's rock deejays, among them Brian Doyle '05, the history and English major who organized the event. They are a solidly jeans-and-T-shirt crew--the older the T-shirt, the better, and if it bears the logo of some defunct food product or an early punk band, well, that's just about the best. Indeed, claims to novelty and invention notwithstanding, indie-rockers betray a curious nostalgia, and styles on display at the 'ZBC show range through punk, mod, hipster, shoegazer, two-tone, and straight-edge. The audience includes young businessmen in khakis and oxfords, and riot grrrls in thick eyeliner and shredded tights.

At 9:00, the show begins. In the Middle East's smallish upstairs venue, Boston-based Devil Music sets the crowd a-stomping with their strange hillbilly–heavy metal hybrid, while downstairs in the big room, Tunnel of Love--three skinny dudes in striped tights and combat boots--channel the early days of British punk and rework a few rock classics, including a standout version of the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black." (The teenagers in the audience mostly stare at this act, and many wear a slightly worried expression--wondering, perhaps, if their parents were ever into this stuff.)

Foreground from left: WZBC's Hannah Nolan-Spohn '05, David Foley '05, J.J. Dempsey '05, Melissa Diaz-Infante '05; behind Dempsey: Mike Brady '05. By Justin Knight

In the 10:00 show at TT the Bear's, avant-garde noise band Nautical Almanac reproduces your worst-ever experience with a street person-- sneezes, shouts, words you don't understand--while Hella and Cul de Sac rage next door. WZBC, by contrast, maintains a low-key presence. There are 'ZBC posters on the walls, and the station's T-shirts and stickers are for sale. But there is no defining birthday moment, no speeches or formal acknowledgment from the stage of the station that brought the fans and the bands out for the night. "We don't want this to feel like a party for 'ZBC," says publicity manager Korval. "We want it to feel like a party for all our friends."

The big act of the night is Lightning Bolt, a merciless two-man sonic shock troupe from Providence, Rhode Island. The pair come armed with a bass, a drum kit, and their fabled stack of amps, which would fill most suburban kitchens. The sound produced makes for a full-body experience. "Can you feel the heat?" one sweat-soaked disciple asks his girlfriend after the band finishes, at nearly 1:00 a.m. "I can smell it," she replies, and they walk out the door laughing.

Tim Heffernan


Tim Heffernan is a Boston writer.

 

Photos (from top):

 

The concert scene, September 20, 2003. By Justin Knight

 

Foreground from left: WZBC's Hannah Nolan-Spohn '05, David Foley '05, J.J. Dempsey '05, Melissa Diaz-Infante '05; behind Dempsey: Mike Brady '05. By Justin Knight

 

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