I like the idea that a voice can just go somewhere, uninvited, and just kinda hang out like a dirty thought in a nice clean mind. Maybe a thought is like a virus, you know, it can… it can… kill all the healthy thoughts and just take over. That would be serious.
- Happy Harry Hard-On, 1990
Twenty-five years later, when you listen to Christian Slater deep in the throes of perhaps the most defining role of his career, regular listeners of such popular podcasts as Marc Maron’s WTF or Kevin Smith’s SModcast will definitely recognize the similarities in the way the character connected with his audience in such a personal and meaningful way.
Growing up in an area like Ulster County in upstate New York, especially in 1990, you had to dig deep to discover any semblance of underground culture. Before the influential Rhino Records opened in New Paltz that year, the only way one was truly able to get hip on what was cool was to have a friend who went to the city all the time, subscribed to zines, or listened to local college radio. MTV, Rolling Stone, SPIN and the old Long Island-based free music paper The Island Ear were feeding me that summer between my sophomore and junior years, but I was also working my first on-the-books job at the local cineplex in Newburgh the August director Allan Moyle’s decade-long follow-up to his debut film, Times Square, hit a select number of theaters, including ours.
It was called Pump Up The Volume, the story about an only son whose parents relocated from the East Coast to Arizona where he sets up his own pirate radio station in the basement of the new family home, allowing him to inspire his new peers, while hiding from them in plain sight. However, according to Moyle, the original concept for Pump took on a much more macabre tone.
“The movie originally came from a script called Radio Death,” he explained to The A.V. Club. “It was the story about a guy who was planning to commit suicide on the air, but was having so much fun announcing it and discussing different ways with which he could off himself. But every night he would have his suicide on his mind and he’d go on-air and say, ‘Stay tuned, because this night could be your lucky night. I might kill myself on the air.’ And then that became his whole thing. So I wrote the script about this much darker guy than Happy Harry Hard-On wound up being.”
Transforming the script, however, helped the movie achieve a sense of mass appeal among the 120 Minutes set because of its story premise and the impressive roster of popular acts from the American underground music scene who turned up either in song or in spirit. “I liked what the film was about,” proclaimed Henry Rollins, who with Bad Brains as his backing band, covered the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” for the film’s soundtrack. “It’s not a very uncommon theme; its essentially about cultural change, where you got young people saying, ‘We want this,’ and their elders who have this antiquated sense of morality going, ‘Oh, no no no’ because they don’t understand it. Its the same thing that’s been happening since rock ’n’ roll was born and how it revolutionized young people in England and America. It was not a small sea change; it was profound. It literally changed the way young people voulez-voused with each other. It changed the nature of the sexual conversation, and the freedom of interacting with people who might be a little ethnically different than you. For me, rock ’n’ roll had as much to do with civil rights as it did First Amendment freedoms. Essentially, this town is trying to shut down rock ’n’ roll, and Christian Slater was pumping out that pirate radio signal. He was righteous, and you rooted for him.”
The movie was only in our theater for a week, but luckily I was able to catch it before my shift began one afternoon. To say I emerged from the darkness of a half-empty Cinema 7 that day an inspired young man is indeed an understatement. I had never thought much about radio in high school up until that point. I stopped listening to Top 40 in middle school, and the local AOR station was boring, so I stuck with my cassettes. But seeing Christian Slater transform from shy, introverted student Mark Hunter to Happy Harry Hard-On—this amalgamation of Howard Stern, Vin Scelsa, and Hunter S. Thompson, whose voice was masked with a vocoder—was truly an eye-opening experience that almost immediately gave my young life a sense of genuine purpose.
“I bet there are so many people who saw the film in college and literally reported to their campus station the next day,” said Rollins. “Its pretty easy to get a radio show, especially if you don’t mind working at 3 or 4 a.m. I did one semester at American University, and within two weeks me and Ian MacKaye walked into the station and I said to them, ‘I’m a student here, can I have a radio show?’ I was on the air two nights later, me and Ian MacKaye playing all our punk 45s with jocks calling the station threatening us.”
What Rollins said is the absolute truth. As soon as I started SUNY New Paltz, the first thing I did was sign up for an AM slot on my campus radio station. And, even though I did have a crew of friends in high school with whom I remain close to this day, joining the ranks of WFNP 88.7 FM marked the very first time in my life I had been part of a community of people just like me, where I wasn’t the only person in the room interested in talking about the similarities between The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Stop Breathin’” off Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. The fact that I went directly to my local Strawberries and picked up Sonic Youth’s then-just released major label debut Goo was no cosmic coincidence. It was a direct effect of this film, and how it inspired not only myself but many others in my generation to dig a little deeper into the culture of music, film, and art to discover what will come to define you as an appreciator of such things.
“I hung around the fringes of college radio at the University Of Michigan,” remembered David Was, whose song “Dad I’m In Jail” from his groundbreaking ’80s R&B group Was (Not Was) was featured prominently during the film’s climactic chase scene. “My old pal Bill Adler (a key player in the birth of hip-hop) did an eclectic music show there. Then, when I relocated to Los Angeles, I used to sit in for Tom Schnabel at KCRW, which was not yet a national presence, but still the coolest station in the West! They had hardcore jazz shows, world music before there was even a name for it, and every micro-niche genre in-between. Free-form radio was a huge influence on my own life as both consumer and artist, which is why having a song in a film dedicated to frank expression and youth empowerment rang so true, even long after my own youth had faded to gray.”
“Before we were Concrete Blonde I would stay up mailing out LPs to college radio,” added Johnette Napolitano, whose group’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”—the original of which also served as Harry’s lead-in music for his broadcasts—was the centerpiece of the film’s soundtrack, which introduced the likes of Sonic Youth, Pixies, Descendents, and Urban Dance Squad to a wider audience. “I think our first paying gig was at a college radio station in Northern California. I completely believe in college radio and I still do.”
An old friend of mine from the WFNP days once stated in regard to the film’s influence on would-be DJs, “You can say it inspired a legion of collegiate dudes to pretend they’re Jack Nicholson while playing Pavement records.”
It is hard to imagine anyone but Slater and his Jack-isms taking on the guise of Hard Harry, though any Nicholson comparisons for the Gleaming The Cube star’s performance were more in line with the acting legend’s work on The King Of Marvin Gardens, where Nicholson played a late night talk-radio host not unlike Slater’s character in Pump Up The Volume. He owned that role in every way, shape and form, predominantly in the duality of portraying both the uber-extroverted Harry and his mild-mannered secret identity Mark. So much so, in fact, that’s its extremely difficult to visualize Moyle’s first choice for the part.
“I wanted somebody edgier,” stated the director to The A.V. Club. “I originally wanted John Cusack. He read the script and said, ‘Gee, if only I was a bit younger. I don’t want to play kids’ roles anymore.’ That would have been definitely cooler than Christian, but then again Christian had much more sex appeal, especially at the time. I was thrilled when we got him.”
Even more interesting was that Drew Barrymore nearly landed the role of Harry’s love interest and fellow high school outcast Nora, who became a recurring character on the radio show as the “Eat Me, Beat Me Lady,” which went to actress Samantha Mathis in what would be her on-screen debut.
“Drew really wanted the part,” explained the film’s producer Sandy Stern. “In fact, we saw every hot girl in Hollywood with a name. Every girl wanted that role, but we couldn’t find our Nora. But then the casting director said, ‘I know this girl, but she’s away in Greece. But she’s coming back and you have to meet her.’ And literally, on the last day of casting, Samantha came in having just gotten off the plane from Greece, and our casting director told her to go home and get some rest. She came back two days later and blew us away, like, ‘Who is this girl!’”
Indeed, Mathis proved to be a perfect romantic foil for Slater’s Harry, taking on the part with a fiery combination of intelligence, sexuality, and attitude that made her the quintessential crush for underground radio and record shop nerds like myself. The fierce independence by which she commanded the role of Nora indeed makes it hard to believe Pump was her first film.
“I was just out of high school when they had made the movie,” she told The A.V. Club. “It had a really big effect on me. I was really moved by how honest it was, and how it was really calling out the bullshit of high school society as well as the hypocrisy of adults. When I read it, I just knew that I wanted to be a part of it. I don’t mean to disparage any of the John Hughes movies; I grew up on them and I love them. But they were a bit softer around the edges. Then Allan Moyle came along and created something that was so punk rock, so in your face and raw and honest, it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
The fruition of the love story between Mark and Nora, two people who seduced each other through both audio and written correspondence before falling in love with one another’s true selves in actual life, can definitely be construed as a precursor of sorts to the way people would meet and date once America Online started up a year later in 1991. However, the more poignant harbinger which existed within the context of Pump Up The Volume was the advent of podcasting. Yes, many came for the eclectic array of music Harry would spin during his show, ranging from “Love Comes In Spurts” by Richard Hell & The Voidoids to Soundgarden’s “Heretic” to a super rare Beastie Boys outtake from the Licensed To Ill era called “The Scenario,” not to mention favorites from Ice-T, Above The Law, and Peter Murphy as well. But most stayed listening to Harry and his pirated broadcasts because of what he was saying in between the cuts, trying to make sense of the world and his surroundings while allowing others to do the same by writing letters and providing phone numbers for him to call. Coupled with a gonzo sense of expose journalism like putting the school’s guidance counselor on blast for the exorbitant amount of student expulsions in the wake of the witch hunt on Harry, conducted by Hubert Humphrey High’s draconian principal Loretta Creswood, brilliantly played by jazz singer and actress Annie Ross.
For Stern, who is renowned for his work on such films as Being John Malkovich and Saved! but credits Pump Up The Volume as his very first Hollywood project, the talk/music hybrid format that provided the movie’s premise was inspired by his younger days growing up on Long Island listening to the influential New York community radio station WBAI-FM, where in the ’70s he was able to enjoy hearing William S. Burroughs reading his books on the air as well as check out music programming like the Audio Experimental Theater, which featured such avant-garde giants as John Cage, Philip Glass, and Meredith Monk invading the airwaves of the metro area.
“When I received the treatment and knew I had to be involved I remembered that as a teenager growing up in the suburbs of New York, WBAI was the radio station that gave me a window to a world that exists out there other than this bedroom community,” he explained to The A.V. Club. “It gave me a vision that I’m in this small town, but Emerald City awaits. The radio, for me as a teenager, was so key in emotionally speaking to me and giving me a sense of hope as well. So when I read this treatment about a teenager who was using the radio as a means to speak to people, it really appealed to me on a personal level.”
Much like Maron and Smith do these days, Harry put it all on the table, everything he was feeling and experiencing on that day, and conveyed it to his listenership in a more peer-to-peer way as opposed to a more traditional radio host/audience divide. And while music has always been at the absolute root of the science of podcasting historically, its evolution into the realms of this journal-entry style of talk-radio as the format progressed and became easier for the public to ascertain speaks much louder to the heart of Pump.
“You know at the end of the movie when all those kids come over the air and announced their shows?” Moyle asked. “That’s definitely the birth of podcasting, isn’t it? And, for me, that cumulative signing on at the end was a particularly moving moment, and now it has become a reality. Any kid can start their own radio station from their bedrooms.”
“One could argue the case that it was [the genesis of podcasting],” agreed Mathis. “You can feel the spirit of the film in it, definitely. What Allan was talking about in the movie was seizing the radio waves, taking them for your own, and it is a really amazing thing now that literally anyone can do that and have a forum where they can speak their truth. Its really empowering.”
It was the breaking of that fourth wall between host and audience in a personal and honest way that helped Mark/Harry connect so intensely with his listeners, especially once Slater made the classic hero move by pulling off the mask to reveal his true identity while overlooking his crowd of fans on the down stroke of the film’s climax.
“Okay, this is really me now. No more hiding,” he announces from his escape jeep with Nora by his side, looking to help resolve the mess of emotions collectively felt by himself and his listeners in the wake of the suicide that would land him in hot water with the FCC:
Listen, we’re all worried, we’re all in pain. That just comes with having eyes and with having ears. But just remember one thing, it can’t get any worse, it can only get better. I mean High School is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks! But that’s the point, surviving it is the whole point! Quitting is not going to make you strong, living will. So just hang on and hang in there. You know, I know all about the hating and the sneering. I’m a member of the ‘why bother’ generation myself. But why did I bother to come out here tonight, and why did you? I mean, It’s time. It’s begins with us, not with politicians, the experts, or the teachers, but with us. With you and with me. The ones who need it most. I gotta believe, with everything in me, the whole world is longing for healing. Even the trees, the earth itself are crying out for it. You can hear it everywhere. Same kinda healing I desperately needed and I finally feel has begun, with you.
David Was, actually, is among the many voices who believe the concept of Pump Up The Volume would perfectly suit the torrential landscape of the modern era’s garden variety of political ills and societal dysfunctions.
“Pump Up The Volume felt authentic and sincere and was properly cathartic in its way—the way good drama ought to work,” said Was. “Which is why having our music featured prominently, and in a proper narrative and emotional context, was so deeply satisfying. I believe the Founding Fathers would heartily approve of technology lending democracy an ankle (if not a whole leg) up in an hour when it is seriously drowning in dirty money and environmental depredation. The so-called people do have a voice, but have to find the will and the way to use it for purposes higher than sharing pictures of their pork belly sandwiches and their brilliantly funny puppies.”
In fact, there are moves being made to bring the story’s concept up to speed for the 21st century. Stern is currently working alongside some of Broadway’s most elite talents, including composer Jeff Thomson, lyricist Jeremy Desmon, and director Dave Solomon, to adapt the film as a musical. A concert version featuring the original song cycle written for the play was held in June of 2012 at Joe’s Pub in New York City, a review of which was featured on Vulture.com.
“None of the music from the movie is in the show,” Stern said. “Its all original numbers, and the songs are an homage to the flavor of that period.”
In seeing his film adapted for the Great White Way, Stern admits to a sense of wonderment in regard to the characters he helped develop a quarter century ago and who they would be like in this dangerous and progressive new era of human development.
“Its definitely raised certain what ifs,” he explained. “Where is Harry now? What would he be doing? The musical is not about any of that, but I’ve had enough conversations about what Harry would be like and where he would be now. You can’t really remake that movie without it being a period piece. You can’t put a contemporary spin on it, because if you did it would have to be something like a podcast or a blog.”
For Mathis, the rules of privacy have changed so drastically in our society she’s interested in seeing how this story about a pirate radio station in 1990 translates into the present time.
“The world is so different,” she said. “I don’t know how millennials would relate to something that deals with privacy issues. In some ways, its really relevant because privacy has become such a problem. On the other hand, it was a radical idea for Christian’s character to have this HAM radio station. But today, anybody can put anything on the internet, and being so radical as to put a pirate radio station on the air isn’t really a radical thing anymore. It will be interesting to see how young people will relate to it in that regard.”
However, Moyle is currently seeding ideas for the possibility of a sequel, one of which in fact does include the concept of a contemporary middle-aged version of Mark/Harry attempting to make a comeback. But alas, he remains undecided on a solid direction with which to take his classic cult film into the now.
“I’ve been asked over and over again to do a sequel to the film,” he said. “Every time I’m asked, I can’t figure out how to do it, because the landscape of underground speech is changing so fast and there’s nothing new about it. But if I could figure out how to write it in a way that’s fresh, I’d do it. I could have Christian return as a 50-year-old man who is messed up and needs to reach out to the world, and does so through podcasting. That could get made.”
“It could be something really cool. I’ve had people ask me about it before as well,” added Mathis in reference to a sequel idea. “I think there is certainly a spin you can take on Christian’s character where he is married with kids and disillusioned about society. We all have a fire in our bellies when we are 19, and we see the world so clearly. But there’s a certain dose of the arrogance of youth, too. Then you grow into your 20s and then your 30s and you become so wrapped up in your own life. You could do a version of it where Happy Harry Hard-On is no longer fired up as he once was and gets reignited after coming across the old tapes or something.”
However you slice it, the idea of bringing back Pump Up The Volume, be it a musical or a motion picture, could easily be upgraded and retrofitted to suit the lightning pace of today’s digital lifestyle. Perhaps the idea of completely rebooting the film idea and transforming it into a modern commentary on the facilitation of home broadcasting from the point of view of a high school junior into cool music and sick of the current climate of his school, which has been taken over by a corporate suit-turned-educational administrator intent on cramming the Common Core curriculum down the kids’ throats in order to line the pockets of he and his Wall Street cronies. Or even to expound upon Moyle’s idea in where Mark gets brought back into the life after his son discovered one of his old Hard Harry broadcasts ripped from cassette onto YouTube or SoundCloud. Whatever the case may be, as Harry so eloquently and bluntly put it during one of his broadcasts in the original film, the need for human interaction is a tale as old as time itself regardless of the technology that drives it.
“You see I didn’t plan it like this,” he confessed at the apex of the film. “My dumb dad got me this shortwave radio set so I could just talk to my buddies back east. But I couldn’t reach anybody. So I just imagined I was talking to nobody, I imagined nobody listening. Maybe I imagined there would be one person out there. And then one day I woke up, and I realized I was never going to be normal, so I said, ‘Fuck it.’ I said, ‘So be it.’ And Happy Harry Hard-On was born.”