Sometimes, the difference between a hit and a miss is merely a matter of timing.
In the fall of 1987 I started classes at Lewis University. It was there that I began my college radio career as a DJ on WLRA-FM. (A word of warning: this blog will often mention college radio. It is something I am extraordinarily passionate about, through advising student media at Grand Valley to hosting the national College Radio Day simulcast the last few years. I owe my career to it.)
“Ghost On the Beach” got a LOT of airplay on WLRA for two main reasons: first, the band was from Chicagoland, and we liked to support the locals. Two, the song was on “cart,” meaning that it was easily grabbed and cued up quickly. Carts were a lot like 8-tracks, except they only had one audio selection on them, and (if they were put back correctly) always started in the right place when you asked them to. WLRA played primarily vinyl, so a disk jockey who was not paying attention and forgot to cue a song would often be forced to grab a cart to prevent dead air. Carts were reserved for new releases, usually, so lazy DJs gave it extra spins.
The song would have been a huge hit, I think, had it come out five or six years later. The “college rock” sound of the late 80s was dominated by R.E.M, U2, and New Order. I always thought the Insiders sounded more Counting Crows – this song would have sounded better coming out of “Mr. Jones” than out of “Blue Monday”. As a result, while the song got airplay on alternative stations, it didn’t get enough groundswell to make the popular chart. The album sold only 100,000 copies, and Epic Records dropped the band. (Supposedly the album is hard to find and pricey. I now have one, and am open to bids.)
I played the song because I liked it. Shortly after starting at WLRA I immediately rebelled against the notion that “this isn’t what college radio is supposed to play.” Then, as now, there was this firm belief that college stations had to only play the weird new stuff and ignore the existence of things that sounded familiar, because “this is what college students like.” I disagreed. In 1987 you’d hear Aerosmith, Debbie Gibson, and Weird Al Yankovic on my show, sometimes in sequence. In an interview I gave with a writer last summer I explained that I was fine with students playing Katy Perry records if they wanted, for the true value of a college radio station – any radio station, for that matter – is reaching an audience with information they care about. Even if we matched the Hot 105 playlist, I told the reporter, we would be necessarily different since the programming was by students for students. (This belief makes me unpopular among those with a romanticized view of “alternative college radio.” I gladly take my lumps.) This was a record that I was all too happy to feature on my show. The Dylan fan in me loved the lyrical complexity in parts of the song (“A soggy Romeo, a soaking wet Juliet”). Were I to create a mixtape to sum up my college radio career, this would likely be the lead track.
About twenty years had passed before I ran across a physical copy of the single, finding it in a bin at the Grand Rapids Record & CD show one Sunday afternoon. I brought it home and played it, and immediately flashed back to those early radio shows, when I was given the power to impose my musical will without restriction on the two or three people that tuned in to the show. As the record ended in its sustained chord, I smiled for a second, and thought “Damn it, I have nothing else cued up.”
The video for the song, in all its 80s simplicity, is here.