I wish I could claim to be one of those kids who was wisely immersing myself in the jagged, angsty splendor of the likes of Joy Division and Jesus and Mary Chain. I wasn’t, though. Most of my record collection was taken up by the same touchstones of regrettable pop conformity that were on a lot of teenage bedroom shelves in the mid-eighties, or so the sales figures and MTV airplay assured me. These records were so resoundingly mediocre that I can’t even impose a retroactive, post-ironic coolness on them. I had the capacity for a more sophisticated musical palette, but I needed to pass through several different progressive gateways to get there.
In that journey, I was lucky to have WMAD-FM in Madison, at least as it stood in its mid-eighties derivation. At some point, the station adopted an odd hybrid of a format that would eventually be known as Adult Album Alternative. They played the familiar hits of classic rock mainstays like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones while also digging a little deeper into the archive to incorporate relatively obscurities from groups like the Five Man Electric Band. Into that mix they added the sort of college rock that was least likely to scare the hippie faithful: R.E.M., U2, The Smithereens, maybe the occasional Camper van Beethoven song. Real wild stuff like The Replacements and The Smiths could maybe get trotted out real late at night. The WMAD programmers combed the new releases with a very particular ear. There was a clear craving to bring new and different material to local listeners, but nothing so challenging that it would send the more skittish scurrying up the dial to the safety of the musty mimeographed playlist of the classic rock station.
I’m fairly certain I first heard Stealin’ Horses on WMAD. Formed in Kentucky, the band released their self-titled debut on Arista Records. I can’t comment with any authority on the entirety of the album, but the lead single was one of those earthy, heartland burners that was very much in vogue in the days when John Mellencamp was one of the biggest rock stars around. Importantly, “Turnaround” also had a damn nice hook. As I recall, they played it plenty on WMAD, and I sought it out at the college radio station I eventually settled into. There was always a touch of pride in having a track that came out of the C Stacks–where the largely unknown artists resided–that only I seemed to know, certainly that I’m the only one who could claim to play it. The handwriting on the tracking sheet taped to the album jacket told me that much. As time passed and I discovered more new music, I played it less and less. Still, without it and song like it I may never have found my way to the songs that inspired my obsession later.
(Disclaimer: The tale of Stealin’ Horses is a sad and typical one: snapped up by a major label and then discarded quickly when the first album failed to become a blockbuster. While they eventually managed to put out a second album that’s notably stil available, it looks to me like the Arista effort is decidedly out of print. The song is posted here with the understanding and belief that it can’t be purchased in a way that provides due compensation to both the artists and the proprietor of your favorite independently-owned, local record store. If I hear from somewhere with due authority to request its removal making such a request, I will quickly and dutifully comply.)