Monday, November 07, 2016

I Belong to the Blank Generation: WKHS' Martin Q. Blank

WKHS 90.5 FM: "The only High School station in Maryland on the FM Dial"

Like Johns Hopkins University's little 10-watt WJHU (88.1 FM) in the late '70s and early 1980s (and WCVT in its pre-WTMD heyday), WKHS embodies the spirit and diverse programming of "indie format" college radio. But unlike WJHU or WCVT, WKHS broadcasts from a high school - Kent County High School in Worton, MD - and beams its signal out at over 17,000 watts, meaning its programs can be picked up all over the Eastern Shore, a 60-mile radius of coverage that extends to Dover, Newark, and parts of Pennsylvania. Yes, even across the Bay to Annapolis and Baltimore. That's how my wife Amy and I started listening to, and becoming smitten with, 90.5 on the FM dial.

To be specific, we love the community volunteer programming at WKHS. By day, the station is run and staffed by Kent County High School students whose on-air skills are, well, high-schoolish, and whose musical tastes reflect generic contemporary commercial music (i.e., tuneless auto-tuned hip-hop, mall-friendly "indie" rock, mindless metal, dancepop divas-of-the-moment, and the like); in other words, it's pretty bad - although I swear one morning I tuned in and heard some teen-with-a-clue playing 10cc's "Wall Street Shuffle," so there's hope for the future!

"Talk Hard!" with Happy Harry Hard-on

But other than that one exception, you won't find any teen DJs as clued in as Christian Slater's rebellious pirate radio jock "Happy Harry Hard-on" in the 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume. Or even as hip as Johnny Slash on Square Pegs. (When the students and community members aren't there - summers, weekends, late nights - WKHS simulcasts WXPN radio from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This arrangement helps to support WKHS from both a financial and a programming standpoint.)

"Calling all community volunteers!"

But on weekends and at night, the volunteers take over and the station soars. We've heard things we just don't hear on other stations. Imagine tuning in and hearing Hotlegs (the pre-Graham Gouldman group that would become 10cc) playing "Suite F.A."! Or a whole program on '60s Swedish Garage-Psychedelic music. These guys don't get paid. They are driven by a passion for what they play and their only reward, other than having the opportunity to share their music with a wider audience, comes from having listeners call in to chat, say thanks, or even request a song.

"WKHS also has a dedicated crew of community volunteers who do radio shows in the evenings. These shows are "labors of love" that consist of just about any genre of music that you can possibly imagine. Our volunteers are dedicated, knowledgeable, and entertaining." - WKHS web site

And while we generally like all their programs of "Commercial Free Diversity" - "Thrill of the Night" 1st Generation Rock and Roll (Sundays 6-8 pm with Al Miller and Dick Lillard, Mondays 6-8 pm with Ron Lockwood);  Charlie Stinchcomb and Bucky Murphy's "Voices from the Doorway" Doo Wop (Tuesday nights, 6-8 pm); P.J. Elbourn's "Dixieland & Big Band Jazz" (Wednesdays, 6-8 pm);  Lain Hawkridge's "Musicology" modern music "genre exploration" (Thursdays 6-8 pm); Willie "Moonman" Bacote's "Southern Soul" (Fridays 6-8 pm), Andy "The Coach" Moloney's "Music Show" (Saturdays 10 am-12 pm, Sundays 8 pm -12 am); as well as Mike Martinez's "Southern Star Country Club" (Mondays, 8-10 pm), Patrick Clancy's "One Particular Harbour" Island/Party Music show (Tuesdays, 8-10 pm), and Bill Staples' "Honky Tonk Jukebox" (Wednesdays, 8-10 pm) - it's Martin Q. Blank's "The Night Shift," which airs Fridays nights from 8-11 pm, that we LOVE.

Ultravox - "Young Savage" 7-inch (Island Records, 1977)

Amy and I first discovered Martin Q. Blank and his "Night Shift" when we heard him blasting Ultravox's "Young Savage" one Friday night. We were driving home from happy hour at a local bar and, I must confess, I was a little tight and overly enthused to hear a radio station playing anything by the early, John Foxx-led Ultravox. By this time, I had parked the car in front of our house, but kept the engine running and the radio on because the good tunes just kept coming. "They must be doing a '70s Punk and New Wave set," I recall saying, as I think we heard Richard Hell and the New Yorks Dolls in the DJ's "rock block."

Listen to Ultravox play "Young Savage."

Previously, I recall tuning in on another Friday night around the same time and being amazed to hear Barclay James Harvest (a band that practically defines '70s FM Radio AOR; I think I heard "Poor Boy Blues" and "Mill Boys" from 1974's Everyone Is Everybody Else) and Pure Prairie League (and not "Amy"- the only PPL song everybody plays - but rather "Angel" or "Falling In and Out of Love" from 1972's Bustin' Out). It was good. It was unexpected. It was album-oriented rock that harkened back to my era of musical consciousness (for better or worse): the '70s. We wondered who was playing this stuff, but it took that Ultravox-led rock block to get us to tune in regularly and find out.

Pure Prairie League - "Bustin' Out" (RCA, 1972)

“If I was stuck on a desert island with a Walkman and unlimited batteries, my choice of music would be Pure Prairie League. The first two albums are incredible.” - Martin Q. Blank (quote from "Tuned In" by David Healey, Star-Democrat, May 22, 2005)

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of articles written about WKHS's volunteer disc jockeys and the station doesn't post their playlists or stream or podcast their shows. Thankfully, there are two good  features from Maryland's regional papers. The Chestertown Spy's Bill Arrowood profiled them in his "WKHS Disc Jockeys Harken Back to Radio's Golden Era" piece (March 26, 2014) and Cecil Whig reporter David Healey interviewed Martin Q. Blank in his "Tuned In" review for Easton, MD's Star-Democrat (May 22, 2005).

Martin Q. Blank is "Tuned In"

A few years back, Martin Q. Blank got tired of listening to the same old songs on the radio. Most people would have just changed stations. He started his own radio show instead.
 - David Healey ("Tuned In," Star-Democrat, May 22, 2005)

"Martin Q. Blank" is actually the radio alias of Michael Coleman, son of former WKHS DJ Charlie Coleman. (If "Martin Q. Blank" sounds familiar, it's because it was taken from John Cusack's character in the 1997 film Grosse Pointe Blank.)

John Cusack, aka "Martin Q. Blank"

The Colemans were natives of nearby Chestertown in Kent County. Michael actually graduated from the high school where he now does his weekly radio show. Charlie Coleman (1952-2011) was a legendary figure at the station, broadcasting a Doo Wop show from 1988-1997 before switching over to do a Country program from 2000-2008. His son "Martin Q. Blank" made his broadcast debut in 1997 and, from the start, it was clear that good taste was in his gene pool.

From the start, he followed the advice of fellow WKHS disc jockey Charlie Coleman: “‘Don’t just play the hits,’ he told me. They can hear that every single day. Play the more obscure tracks that you don’t hear any more. They’re listening for songs they may have forgotten. The music is the most important thing, rather than the DJ playing it.” - Dan Healey ("Tuned In," Star-Democrat)

Blank breaks his three-hour "'70's, '80s, '90s & Beyond"-themed show into one-hour blocks representing each decade, starting with the '70s at 8 pm, continuing with the '80s at 9 pm, and finishing with the '90s at 10 pm. (The '70s and '80s playlists are the strongest, in this listener's opinion.) Blank has a very youthful voice, one that made Amy and I wonder how someone who sounded barely old enough to remember the '70s or '80s could know all these cool tunes from those times. So after he opened this past Friday's show with the theme song from WKRP in Cincinnati (which just happens to be one of Amy's all-time favorite TV shows - she actually sang along to it word-for-word, "Baby, if you ever wonder...")...

...followed by Buzzcocks playing 1978's "What Do I Get?"...

...and a trio of songs by D-Day ("Too Young To Date"), Blondie ("Accidents Never Happen" from Eat To the Beat) and Elvis Costello ("Oliver's Army" from Armed Forces) - all dating from 1979 - I resolved to call the station and find out.

D-Day - "Too Young To Date" 7-inch (Moment Productions, 1979)

Ring-a-ding-ding! "WKHS 90.5 FM, this is Martin," he answered.

"Hi Martin, this is Tom and Amy calling from Baltimore - we love your show!" I said, congratulating him on the night's programming so far and telling him I was most impressed by his playing D-Day's "Too Young To Date." I actually own this obscure punk single - and used to play it on my old WJHU radio show - but hadn't heard it in over 35 years! (I doubt many people have ever heard it, for that matter. Though it reached #1 on L.A.'s KROQ and was included on the now out-of-print New Wave Hits of the '80s Vol 1 - an ironically named compilation, since all the songs were recorded in 1979 - its Lolita subject matter is definitely politically incorrect and the record was briefly banned from airplay on California radio.) I asked Martin how old he was, because to me he sounded Too Young To Remember songs like "Too Young To Date" from 1979. I was floored when he told me he was 44!

I handed the phone to Amy and said, "Say hi, Amy!" "Hi Amy!" she spoke into the phone. Martin Q. Blank was very friendly and glad to hear we were calling from Baltimore. He even promised to dedicate his next three-song set at 9 pm to "Tom and Amy in Baltimore." It included selections from three of my favorite one-hit wonders: Killer Pussy, Josie Cotton and The Humans.

The callers often help fuel the show. “They turn me on to so much I don’t know about or that I forgot,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Man, I haven’t heard that in years.’” Some nights he doesn’t take requests but does a special show. That includes his annual “Miami Vice” night featuring songs from the 1980s TV series. Another recent show was made up entirely of soundtracks from ‘80s movies. He reaches deep to find that gem from the B side or that one- hit wonder. - Dan Healey ("Tuned In," Star-Democrat, May 22, 2005)

Martin Q. Blank is funny and self-deprecating. He frequently mentions that he is single and ad-libs lines when cueing up records. Tonight, for example, he introduced "What Do I Get?" by Buzzcocks with the crack, "Girls are always saying this to me." When he was interviewed by The Cecil Whig's Dan Healy back in 2005, Martin confessed that he sometimes wings it in the studio, bringing in a small number of records and CDs but otherwise playing it by ear based on his mood and the requests he gets. "As they're playing and the calls come in, that's when I start to pick the rest. I like to keep it loose."

For Blank, it’s all about the music — and the callers. - Dan Healey ("Tuned In," Star-Democrat, May 22, 2005)

As this Friday night's show continued, Martin played some so-so AC/DC, Journey, Boston, and Cheap Trick ("Dream Police") before returning to some older '70s gems, like Robert Gordon & Link Wray covering The Johnny Burnette Trio's rockabilly classic "Lonesome Train" and the mid-period (pre-Buckingham & Nicks), Bob-dominated (Bob Welch & Bob Weston) Fleetwood Mac playing "Hypnotized" (from 1973's Mystery To Me LP, a personal fave).

Tom & Amy's Triple-Play Dedication:

And then at 9 pm, the '80s set kicked off with Martin's three-song dedication to us:  "This next set goes out to some new callers, Tom and Amy from Baltimore!"

Killer Pussy - "Teenage Enema Nurses In Bondage"

Killer Pussy - "Teenage Enema Nurses In Bondage" EP (Sho-Pink Records, 1982)

Josie Cotton - "Johnny, Are You Queer?"

Josie Cotton - "Johnny, Are You Queer?" (WEA, 1981)

The Humans - "I Live in the City"

The Humans - "I Live in the City" (IRS Records, 1980)

I'm proud to say I own all three records and they are inspired choices. As their titles suggest, "Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage" and "Johnny, Are You Queer?" are pure novelty songs, but San Jose's The Humans were a solid New Wave outfit and "I Live in the City" is a great song musically and lyrically ("If you're gonna act like that you better get on the stage/You're looking for something, try this...She moved up to Hollywood, where she can scream - and she gets away with it!").

And there was more good stuff to come...The La's, R.E.M., Bad Company ("Electric Land"), The Bluebells ("Cath"), Rachel Sweet ("Voo Doo"), The Church ("Under the Milky Way"), The Nails ("88 Lines About 44 Women" - later used in a Clio award-winning Mazda commercial), INXS ("Mystify"), and - completely out of left-field, Canadian one-hit wonder Aldo Nova playing "Fantasy"! I can still remember the MTV music video (back in the days of yore when MTV actually played music!). Total cheese, but fun!

"...The guy knows his music. Sometimes we sit around and talk about music and he can destroy me with his knowledge.” - former WKHS station manager Steve Kramarck (quoted in "Tuned In" by Dan Healey, Star-Democrat, May 22, 2005)

I wasn't as wowed by the '90s portion of "The Night Shift," but there were some good songs here and there. Martin played Red House Painters ("Katie's Song"), Mother Love Bone, Feist, Wilco, Jules Shear, Trashcan Sinatras, and Dangermouse with Norah Jones covering The Lovin' Spoonful's "Darlin' Be Home Soon." But what piqued my interest was the first request he played, Thrush Hermit's "North Dakota." Not for the song so much as for who requested it: "My friend, Steve Randall from Baltimore."

“His CD collection is massive, and he somehow manages to lug the whole thing into the studio every week.” - Steve Randall (quoted in "Tuned In" by Dan Healey, Star-Democrat, May 22, 2005)

Apparently, Randall is a regular caller and Martin claims he has discovered quite a few bands and tunes thanks to him. I wondered if this was the Steve Randall I knew, the erstwhile bass player from the '70s punk band Ivan & The Executioners, who released the classic single "I Wanna Kill James Tailor" b/w "Biafran Boy." (The spelling of  sweet baby "James Taylor" was changed, for obvious legal reasons!). In addition to Steve, this band featured my friend and former St. Paul's classmate Hoppy Hopkins (Da Moronics, Mambo Combo, Rockabilly Band, etc.) on drums. (That's him about to get his head chopped off in the picture below.)

Ivan and The Executioners (Steve Randall, far right)

"I Wanna Kill James Tailor" b/w "Biafran Boy" 7-inch (Fine Taste, 1979)

That Steve Randall (aka "Steve Scandal") had very eclectic taste and was a damned fine rock critic, as well. I lost touch with him over the years, but I wonder if he turned Martin on to D-Day and some of the other obscurities heard on "The Night Shift." Hmmm, just a thought to ponder. (If not, and if Martin Q. Blank is reading this, be sure to get your hands on this record and dedicate it to your "Steve Randall"!) Martin mentioned his friend's name several more times as he introduced new musical "discoveries," as well as other regulars whose tastes he remembers.

I admit my attention was drifting in and out during the last hour of the broadcast, until I heard something that made me stop in my tracks. Martin Q. Blank ended his show with a real stunner: He played Sinatra! (I guess that was "The Beyond" part of his show's "'70s,'80s, '90s & Beyond" format.) And not just any Sinatra, but a true Sinatra rarity, one that even this Sinatraphile didn't have on CD. I'm talking about "Half As Lovely (Twice As True)." Originally the B-side of the 1954 Capitol Records single "The Gal That Got Away," it later appeared on the extremely rare This Is Sinatra 2 LP and the long out-of-print Australian International Sinatra Society's Sinatra Rarities - Volume Two LP. I think Martin was playing it for a female caller he hadn't spoken to in a while. Regardless: Mind. Blown.

Frank Sinatra - "The Rarities - Volume Two" (EMI Australia, 1983)

It sounds like Martin Q. Blank gets a lot a call-ins, and that must be reassuring because "dead air" and "radio silence" are the things that make DJs lose sleep. He obviously has a following, and I'm glad Amy and I have joined the ranks. Now, if only WKHS would start publishing their playlists! Until then, we'll just have to continue to call in!

"When it stops being fun, you stop doing it. If there are a hundred people out there listening, then it is well worth my time." - Martin Q. Blank (quoted in "Tune In" by Dan Healey, Star-Democrat, May 22, 2005)

Martin, it's well worth our time to listen to you! Thanks, and keep spinning those platters that matter!

Related Links:

"WKHS Disc Jockeys Harken Back to Radio's Golden Era" by Bill Arrowood (The Chestertown Spy, March 26, 2014)
"WKHS Disc Jockeys Harken Back to Radio's Golden Era" w/additional text and graphics (Baltimore Or Less)
"Tuned In" by Dave Healey, Special from the Cecil Whig (The Star-Democrat, May 22, 2005)
"Talk To Me" - Willie "Moonman" Bacote profile in Urbanite magazine (December 2008)
Martin Q. Blank on Facebook
Fans and Friends of Martin Q. Blank, The Nightshift (Facebook group)

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