05 Feb MUSIC THAT DEFINES QUEEN’S: THE 1980’S
This is the first article in a series exploring the music alumni associate with their time at Queen’s University.
My family is a Queen’s family. My parents went, my aunt went, and my cousins and I have followed in their footsteps. Ever since I was little, I have been listening wide-eyed to my parents’ stories of brutal exams, all-nighters at the Queen’s Journal, and nights out spent watching a friend’s band perform. Such stories probably subconsciously influenced my decision to go to Queen’s when it came time to decide in Grade 12. Who wouldn’t want to after being raised on a steady diet of nostalgia?
Their stories inspired me to start this series, a series about the music that has defined Queen’s over the decades. After reaching out to alumni online, I have had the opportunity to interview them and record their memories of their time at Queen’s and the music they associate with it. It seems fitting that I start this series with the 1980s, as my parents are the class ’89 and ’90, a part of the formative decade of many alumni’s lives.
Music has the uncanny ability to transport you back to a particular time or place. One interviewee and I laughed over the cheesiness of sentiments such as “music defining your life”, but we agreed that it rings true. Other interviewees repeated such sentiments – music is a trigger; it both defines and reconstructs their undergrad memories. You hear that particular song, and it immediately transports you back to your favourite bar on Princess St. or your first real heartbreak.
Across the board, Burning Down the House by The Talking Heads was that song for ‘80s alumni. It came up again and again as the anthem of Queen’s. If you were walking around campus, you could count on hearing David Byrne’s distinctive voice pouring out of student houses and residences alike. Starship’s We Built This City was alumnus Janet Hurley’s personal Queen’s anthem. It reminds her of being a hungover Gael, frantically biking downtown to dance with her frosh group, “Queen’s Vice.” The lyrics seemed to fit in her head, with lines like “the city by the Bay” and the “city that never sleeps.”
As consistent as Burning Down the House, the same club names were brought up again and again as the places people went to have a good time. On a Saturday night, you could find most of the Queen’s population at Whiskers, Alfie’s, or Stages. Whiskers is no longer standing but was located in the bottom of the Holiday Inn and was a popular spot for new wave music. Artists like Depeche Mode, New Order, and the Pet Shop Boys were making waves with experimental sounds and synths that could be heard at any club.
The Tragically Hip would play weekly shows at Alfie’s, which has been rechristened today as the Underground. With no big hits, they would blend into the background before reaching stardom; Janet remembers thinking, “Can we not have a cover band?”. Stages, of course, is familiar to everyone attending Queen’s – it was only in its early days in the ‘80s, having been converted from a cinema to a nightclub. One alumnus, Laura, remembers the entire club yelling along to Billy Idol’s Mony Mony and starting a collective call-and-response: when Idol goes, “Here she comes now Mony Mony,” you go, “Hey everybody, get laid, get fucked!”.
Perhaps music is such a strong trigger for these memories because the memories themselves are from a formative period in your life. It is during these key years that you grow into your own, navigating multiple firsts. As my aunt put it, your “world is expanding” as you break away from your parents and meet new people. Music provides the soundtrack to all of this change. My Aunt Maureen grew up in small Northern Canadian towns, so coming to Queen’s exposed her to a wealth of music she had never heard before. Peers from the big cities introduced her to new sounds that would shape her music tastes for years to come. She is still partial to the new wave that defines the ‘80s, with a soft spot for the angry music of The Dead Kennedys and a fresh-faced U2. U2 was the first concert my mom, Yvonne Haas, ever went to, driving to Syracuse from Kingston with a group of Queen’s friends.
Her music taste was similarly shaped by those around her, particularly by her close friend Sarah Hayes. A memory of hers that stuck with me growing up was Sarah blasting Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin while she fried up a huge steak during the frenzy of exam season. My mom got into Jimi Hendrix because of a crush she had on a guy in a cover band who would always play Hendrix songs. Relationships that may seem fleeting can still change you, even if it’s through something as small as discovering an artist. A Billy Idol concert at Queen’s defines a turning point in my aunt’s life. She was into edgier music and decided to go with some friends, who wanted to leave upon seeing the aggressive rock-star spitting beer on the crowd. At the time, she “didn’t have the personal strength” to stay without them, but the regret taught her to stand her ground. She says that weirdly, Billy Idol music is associated with an awakening sense of doing what she wants. Janet sums this up best with her words, “That’s why I love the ‘80s! That was the time that I turned into me.”
What was clear to me by the end of these interviews was the power of music as a social glue. Music brought people across campus together, in large part because it was not as easily accessible on your own. There was no instant gratification through a streaming service – you had to make mixtapes, patiently waiting for the radio station to play your song or using a friend’s record player to get the audio. Queen’s students would gather together to watch music videos or listen to records and tapes; music was a key part of socializing. Laura said that if you were walking through the student ghetto, you could sometimes find engineers blasting music from a big stereo on their lawn that would encourage passersby to dance along with them. In her 4th year, my mom would make mixtapes for her friends, painstakingly taping the music off of her housemate’s record player. She still cherishes the mixtapes she received from a friend at the Queen’s Journal, Scott Anderson, and her close friend Alison Holt, who spent time in the ICU after university. “Music for Alison being sick” is how my mom remembers the mixtapes she made for her during this time. She describes these tapes as a nice gift to give, a curated selection of songs with the timing carefully determined. Laura similarly described it as being “a real treasure to receive a mixtape from someone.” Making someone a playlist today just doesn’t have the same blood, sweat, and tears behind it.
Music unified my mom and her fellow students at the Queen’s Journal, who would blast Crowded House, Tom Waits, and R.EM. to keep everyone motivated through their all-nighters to get the paper out. My mom is still an avid Crowded House fan and got to meet the band at the Queen’s Entertainment Agency office, describing them as three nice, down-to-earth guys. Crowded House played at the JDUC arena, a concert both my mom and Janet attended. Don’t Dream It’s Over reminds Janet of being at the front, looking up at the band while a new love put his arms around her. Her association of music with romance at Queen’s extends beyond her own relationships.
Janet described walking in on her cousin and her roommate lying on the ground, passing a typewriter back-and-forth, all while Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red played in the background. They were typing out things they couldn’t say to each other face-to-face. To her, this song is the soundtrack to them falling in love. They are currently married and have four kids. Laura, another interviewee, similarly associates The Lady in Red with her RMC boyfriend at the time, who would become her husband. Our own Queen’s songs have a place in this romance – if you go to a wedding with other Queen’s alumni, you can count on everyone singing the Queen’s colours.
My mom thinks that aside from the physically shared nature of music in the ‘80s, it drew everyone together because people tended to like the same things. In her words, it was a unifying force, fostering a feeling of community both on and off-campus. This unifying power is by no means diminished in current times. Music led me to reconnect Janet with my mom, as it turns out they were both in Adelaide Hall their first year.
Janet kindly sent me old photographs, a few with my mom in them! I discovered that Laura also knows my mom through a close friend who introduced them at last year’s Homecoming. My mom watched a friend play at a Queen’s battle-of-the-bands years before actually knowing him, as they became acquainted when I befriended his daughter in elementary school. Music is still bringing people together, although not always in the ways you would expect. I’m sure 20 years from now, current Queen’s alumni will hear a 2010’s hit and be transported back to their own undergrad – it just might not be as heavy on the synths.
QUEEN’S IN THE 80’s Spotify Playlist and Interview Video
A big thank you to Alyssa Giovannangeli for the video production, Katherine Lidtke for editing, Erin Macintosh and Lauren Thompson for marketing, and Elana Yamanouchi the online director!
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: MUSE MARKETING TEAM