Flashback: My Brief Career as a Rock Star

The following post is in honor of Vinyl Record Day, the 131st anniversary of the invention of the phonograph. The Hits Just Keep on Comin’ is hosting a worldwide blogswarm in observance of the day; please take a look at the other entries. Here is mine:

It all started with a Bay City Rollers 45.

I found a used copy of “Saturday Night” at a yard sale in 1976, and from the moment I heard it – I was all of 8 years old – I wanted to sing that song. I wanted to sing it in front of people, preferably ones who had been worked up into a near frenzy, screaming the letters “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night!” as I clapped my hands over my head and stared into spotlights careening wildly, an electric guitar hanging from my shoulders.

With that 45, and together with a few friends, I began my brief career in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Using tennis rackets for guitars and wooden dowels as drumsticks (weirdly enough, we weren’t creative enough to fake a drum kit), we began roaming the talent show circuit in north Georgia. If there was a turntable around, we were there with our records, ready to sing along to the latest Top 40 hit. I’m still not sure why people were so enamored with a bunch of 8-year-olds strumming tennis rackets and singing rock songs one octave higher than the original songs, but it worked.

We first named our band Starship – until we discovered that the band formerly known as the Jefferson Airplane had stolen our name (damn them!), and fearing legal problems down the road, we changed our name to something else space-like and futuristic, because that’s what was cool (e.g., ELO, Journey and Boston‘s album covers). The name: Satellite. (I know. You wish you’d thought of it.)

We also expanded our repertoire: Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice,” Alan O’Day’s “Undercover Angel,” and when Elvis died, every gold record he ever recorded. Whenever we heard something we liked on the radio, we would scrape up the change to buy the 45 at Sears, learn the lyrics, and bam! A new single!

The logistics were sometimes difficult. We sometimes had to rely on others to cue up the record for us, and predictably, we’d get “Starbird No. 2” instead of “Blinded by the Light.” (And trust me, you don’t want to rock along to “Starbird No. 2,” a dreadful B-side that sounds like a group of monks chanting.)

And in an even more bonehead move, someone would invariably forget to check the speed of the record player and put the single on 78 RPMs, causing “Da Doo Ron Ron” to sound like the Chipmunks on helium, or they’d go down to 33 1/3 or even 16 RPMs, and we’d sound like the undead sludging through some toxic muck.

Queen’s “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” presented a unique challenge. On their album News of the World, the group had placed the two songs one after the other so that the transition was seamless, like the movement to a classical piece. But then they put both songs on flip sides of a 45, so when Brian May’s lead guitar stopped abruptly on “We Will Rock You,” we had to run over to the record, quickly flip it over, and wait for Freddie Mercury’s quiet intro to “We Are the Champions.”

It all changed with Styx’s The Grand Illusion. (That sentence has never been written in the history of civilization.) With our discovery of the long-playing record we had a wealth of new material, and Styx was easy to sing. Our new signature hit became “Come Sail Away,” and we quickly learned other tracks from the album. In essence, each side of the LP became two parts of an entire concert. No longer did we need to play a song, go change the record and return to the stage, waiting for the first chords.

The only problem this presented was when we only wanted to play one song on an album. I have the last few seconds of Styx’s “Queen of Spades” permanently tattooed to my subconscious because we always wanted to sing “Renegade” and we never could set the needle down perfectly on the gap between the two songs on the album Pieces of Eight.

The beginning of the end

On VH1’s “Behind the Music,” bands’ breakups can usually be traced to drug and alcohol use or ego conflicts within the band. With Satellite, it was pretty simple: We couldn’t keep strumming tennis rackets to records.

One reason was the fragility of vinyl records. These discs were to be handled with care, for any scratch from fingernails or any foreign object could ruin a track, causing it to skip to another part of the song or, even more annoyingly, replay a portion over and over.

That happened during a performance at a Scout Expo when we were performing Foreigner’s “Double Vision.” We were playing to a decent crowd when all of a sudden Lou Gramm’s voice began singing, “My double vision alw – my double vision alw – my double vision alw…”

There’s only so long you can sing to that without sounding and feeling stupid. One of the band members had to go over and punch the record player so that the needle would play a different part of the song. Somehow I felt like a fraud, as if I were actually fooling these people all along, and they were shocked to hear a record skip while we played our tennis rackets.

Then at school one day, one of our teachers had had enough of our singing to records and told us if we were to ever be successful, we would have to play our own instruments. There would be no more record players in her classroom. One of my friends played the guitar, and I could play the piano. But without any practicing – and without drums – the performance suffered. Can you imagine “Come Sail Away” with a piano, guitar and no drums?

And thus the legend of Satellite came to an end. Too bad we preceded Milli Vanilli, or we might have made it.

“Saturday Night,” Bay City Rollers (Courtesy of YouTube)

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