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The Boom-Box Years

How the city lost its soundtrack.


A scene from the golden age of boom boxes, 1976 to 1985: A surly-looking PCP fiend was riding the appropriately graffitied uptown Lexington IRT with his Panasonic RX-5040 turned up, and an irritated construction worker grabbed the box and threw it out the window of the moving car. The last thing people on the train heard was the fast fade of “Let me take you to . . . Funkytoooown . . .”

The Walkman and now the iPod have made such blasting obsolete. Aside from the occasional non sequitur from a dissonant sing-along, listeners tend to be hermetically sealed. Gone forever from the city lexicon is the “summer song.” “Boogie Oogie Oogie” (A Taste of Honey, 1978), “Flashdance” (Irene Cara, 1983), and the double whammy of “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” and “Shadow Dancing” (Andy Gibb’s 1977–78 reign of terror) might have been pop nightmares. But they were shared nightmares that, in the best New York tradition, cut across class and even racial boundaries. In those long, hot boom-box summers, these loathsome songs brought urban commonality.

Every so often there’s a whiff of the blaster era today: an Escalade with pimp-my-ride woofers shimmying the asphalt. But it doesn’t match arriving on the mucky sands of Coney Island in 1984 to find every box miraculously set to “When Doves Cry.”


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