“They say nothing lasts forever,” sang A Flock of Seagulls lead singer Mike Score during a live set after Thursday night’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere screening of the documentary “Dare to be Different,” about WLIR, the hardscrabble Long Island radio station that launched legions of bands during its brief, bright life as the self-proclaimed “new music station” in the 1980s. Indeed, Score’s so-’80s hairdo (a bizarre front-comb-over with Wolverine corners) has long since been replaced by a bald dome.
Different documentaries play to different audiences, and “Dare to be Different” is definitely geared for the Generation X music listener who was fond of asymmetrical haircuts and pined for or emulated Molly Ringwald.
“It was a lot easier to be optimistic,” The English Beat’s Dave Wakeling, who played a solo set, said of his youth. Bullishness had been replaced by seasoned pride. LIR is the station, after all, that anointed groups like U2, the Talking Heads, Blondie, the Ramones, the B-52’s and English New Wave groups such as Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, Simple Minds, Billy Idol and Tears for Fears. Some even claim LIR was the first station to play that material girl, Madonna.
A smoke machine, self-regard and tortured emotions — a brew perfected by many of the bands championed by LIR — mixed with nostalgia Thursday night. The audience was dominated by New Yorkers, many of whom hailed from Long Island and Queens, where the radio signal was strongest (it was difficult to get it in most parts of Manhattan), with long memories.
As a girl growing up in Long Island, the film’s director Ellen Goldfarb was a rabid fan of WLIR, listening to it constantly, even making a pile of 90-minute tapes so that when she went away to college she could continue to listen to her favorite DJs, music, and even the ads in between. When she was older, as a mother and dietitian, she noticed on social media that there were tribute sites on Facebook and elsewhere reflecting a strong nostalgic following that hadn’t died out. “I thought, ‘Is there a story here?’” Goldfarb recalls.
In 2010, she contacted one of the fan sites and was able to get through to LIR program director Denis McNamara, who Goldfarb refers to as, “the pioneer. He was the Christopher Columbus,” she says. “WLIR was playing classic rock and he’d sneak in the B-52s and the Ramones, bands that maybe were getting played on college stations but not many.”
WLIR owner Elton Spitzer had given McNamara the freedom to play what he wanted to play, which is unheard of today. In fact, in 1982, the station was in financial crisis and it was McNamara who came up with the idea of not playing Springsteen and the Eagles, and instead going with an entirely new format.
McNamara remembers pitching the new format to the advertising “straights” and “suits,” who didn’t get it. But the youngest guy in…