Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The last beloved set of the masses

I was watching one of those Rockumentaries on Netflix last night. This one was about U2's The Joshua Tree, an album that is probably the defining moment in the history of my life as a music fan.

I had been a U2 fan since War was released in the U.S. at the end of 1982. Back then, they were one of those edgy new bands that you'd only hear on progressive AOR stations. Mixed among Red Rider, Planet P and Def Leppard was "New Year's Day" by U2. I had mostly followed pop music up to that point, but something made me switch the dial over to the new stuff that had more of an edge.

I became such a fan that I searched out their older albums -- Boy and October -- and bought those. It was the first time I had done that with a band. When The Unforgettable Fire came out, I played that thing over and over, and wished that the band was more popular so I could hear their songs more on the radio, and talk about the band with more people.

I couldn't find many people who knew who U2 was until I moved away to college. There, I found the alternative rock crowd and it wasn't long before I heard that U2 was working on a new album, The Joshua Tree.

When the first single came out -- "With Or Without You" -- in early 1987, I knew that this was their big break. People couldn't help but pay attention to them now. And they did. The Joshua Tree, even though it wasn't like anything else that was on the radio at the time, became a huge multiplatinum seller, and crossed so many boundaries that even Madonna fans had The Joshua Tree in their collection.

When my wife and I merged our music collections -- a rite of passage for couples hooking up -- our divergent musical tastes were obvious. We still don't like the same music. But each of us brought a cassette tape of The Joshua Tree to the pile.

The '80s was a time of huge albums that broke through all musical tastes and genres to become albums that everyone who followed music knew. First it was Michael Jackson's Thriller. Then it was Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA, and then it was U2's Joshua Tree. This was obvious to anyone who was musically aware during the '80s.

After that, I don't know if you can put another album in the category of those albums. Nirvana's Nevermind, maybe. But I knew people who didn't like Nirvana at the time. Sure, other albums sold more copies, but few of them became such music sensations that they were on the cover of Time magazine, too.

And then it occurred to me when I was watching the documentary:

The Joshua Tree is 25 years old this year.

Wow. I am ancient.

Music seems a lot more fractured now. Different styles of music, fans going their own way listening to what they want and not listening to what they don't. It's very difficult to come up with one song, let alone one album, that unifies so many as happened back in the '70s and '80s.

And, I think the same can be said for baseball cards. In fact, you can probably state a more definitive case for baseball cards than for music.

In 1987, there were three main card companies: Donruss, Fleer and Topps. In a year, Score would join the pack. Two years later, Upper Deck would appear. And then all hell broke loose, with lots of different companies issuing lots of different brands, with lots of different inserts, containing lots of different parallels.

How do you choose what you want?

Well you can't. It's too much. And so emerged categories of collectors.

The set collector. The player collector. The team collector. The autograph collector. The relic collector. The hit collector. The collector who only collects patches. The collector who only collects vintage. The collector who only collects rookies.

Separate. Distinct. Apart. And sometimes looking at the other collectors with a raised eyebrow. (But basically being pleasant about it, fortunately).

Nobody collected like that in 1987. In '87, you waited for the Topps set to arrive -- and, oh yeah, Fleer and Donruss, too -- and you collected that set. If the set was really good, it became a set that broke all boundaries, an iconic set, that people couldn't help but want to collect.

And I think the last time there was a set like that, the last set beloved by the masses ...

... was 1987 Topps. Also 25 years old this year.

Think of all the love there is for 1987 Topps on the blogs. Many say it's the first set they ever collected. The first set they ever remember seeing. Key cards of Barry Bonds, Wally Joyner, Bo Jackson, etc.

It is so appreciated that I feel like a loner because I've never been interested in the set and its appeal is lost on me.

That's kind of like how it was in 1987 if you didn't like U2 (there was always a contrarian who had to dislike what everyone else liked).

But I have to admit that it may be the last beloved set by most collectors.

What else has there been since then that can top it?

1989 Upper Deck? I know a lot of collectors who don't like UD at all and didn't like it in 1989.
1991 Topps? There's a lot of retro love for the set now, but it wasn't well-liked at the time.
1993 Upper Deck? Too many other sets to contend with the greatness of '93 UD.

And on and on. There are pockets of sets here and there that some collectors think are great -- 2004 Upper Deck Timeless Teams, 2004 Cracker Jack, 1991 Stadium Club, 2007-08 Masterpieces, etc., etc. But there are just too many sets out so that it can't be a consensus anymore. Never mind the fact that there are too many collectors who don't even think in terms of sets anymore. They're just trying to get the players that they like.

So we're each like all the music fans out there, wearing our individual ipods, listening to what we want to listen to, collecting what we want to collect, and not listening to and not collecting what we don't want.

What's wrong with that?

Nothing really, I guess. It's your hobby, your interests, you should be able to get what you want. Why spend money or effort on what you don't want? Besides, how dull would the blogs be if every blog talked about collecting the 2012 Topps set?

But the communal nature of collecting back in the '70s and '80s was pretty cool, too.

"Did you get the Robin Yount card yet? No? It's a really cool card. You should see it! Did you get Reggie Jackson? Oh, man, I want that card so much! Hey, I just finished off all the Phillies! Still need one of those stupid 4-player rookie cards, though."

And the same goes for music, too.

"Doesn't Edge's guitar intro in 'In God's Country' blow your mind?"

And everyone comes back with an enthusiastic:


I miss that.

Maybe this is just me losing touch with today's youth and what is popular in music today. After all, there was a time when U2 wasn't famous and I seemed to be one of the few who knew who they were. Wasn't I going off on my own, listening to what I wanted and not listening to what I didn't want?

But actually I think it's more the nature of the times in which we live. You can make the same argument for television, since the advent of cable TV and the internet. The viewership is fragmented. Abundant choices. Abundant tastes. You could even point to the sobering studies about political, religious and cultural divisions. According to what I've read, there seems to be an inability to understand the other side, and a too eager willingness to put the other side down. We're entrenched in what we want and have no use for what we don't want.

Fortunately, this is just a baseball card blog. And baseball cards are just a hobby.

I may miss the days of cards and music when more people had more in common.

But collecting whatever you want sounds pretty good, too.


  1. I adored that set. The fact there was so much of it made it all the better. First one I collected in both OPC and Topps.

    Last new set I liked that much? Probably '90-91 Upper Deck hockey - despite all the destruction it caused.

  2. I admit, too, that I was not a U2 fan in 1987. That took a couple years yet. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" drove me insane the first few times I heard it. By about 1990 I was OK with them.

    I was big into Peter Gabriel in those days.

  3. Nice post.

    "The Joshua Tree" - released my freshman year in college - defined me. It was far and away my favorite album and the soundtrack of my first couple of years in college.

    It stirs up a flood of memories (the girlfriend who broke my heart, the parties as I desperately tried to find a niche, sneaking onto the The Ohio State University football field with a girl late one night while visiting friends, strolling around the Indiana University campus with my walkman and on and on.) It was constantly playing and I never got tired of it.

  4. Joshua Tree is definitely a top 10 all time album for me. The older I/we get, the more proactive you have to be to find new, good music.

    I was a big fan of that 1991 Topps set, their last real cardboard card but with much improved photos...

  5. There used to be a standard for music where the majority of popular songs were made by musicians with some musical talent.
    These days, it's mostly recycled keyboard pop.

  6. Funny thing about the Joshua Tree...

    In 1987 I got the Joshua Tree and an Elton John greatest hits cassette tape from an aunt for my birthday. I wanted nothing to do with either so I went to the mall to return them. As luck would have it, there was a card show going on that weekend. So I took the $25 I got from returning the tapes and shopped for cards.

    One guy offered me one card I liked for $25 but I turned it down because I wanted to check out the rest of the show. I eventually got a bunch of stuff including some vintage grab bags. One of the grab bags was full of Dodgers and included a couple dozen Topps Venezuela cards from the '60s. Sounds like a good deal right? U2 and Elton for rare vintage Dodgers? Nope.

    The card I passed on?

    The 1953 Topps Jackie Robinson that still haunts my dreams.

  7. This post kind of makes me sad. I do love that 87 set, though. It really was my first introduction to cards.


    Also, I always wonder about the collectors who hate 89 UD. Like you said, to each his own - but I think a big factor in those who love 89 UD is the tie-in to Ken Griffey Jr.

    So if the pro-89 collectors tend to be pro-Griffey...

    are the anti-89 collectors anti-Griffey?

  8. Along with Joshua Tree, I would throw Synchronicity in as another one of the greatest albums that defined the 80's.


  9. I would list it as my top favorite albums of all-time. My sister actually turned me onto U2 when they released October back in 1981. Been a fan ever since. If you've never seen their Under a Blood Red Sky performance on DVD (recorded at Denver's Red Rocks Amphitheatre), you've got to check it out. Classic performance

  10. I first became aware of U2 thru the "Gloria" video that was occasionally played on MTV. I then got old enough to get my first job and somehow I heard "Under a Blood Red Sky" and that might have been the first music cassette I ever bought. I had only LPs before. Played it over and over and then went on to buy "War", "Boy", and "October". My best friend and my brother also became huge fans. My brother sought out rarities and joined a fan club. I remained a big fan through "Zooropa", but they lost me after that. Some of their old stuff doesn't appeal to me as much as it used to (Wow! My iPod has just started playing U2's "Bad" as I type this!), but I still love much of the Joshua Tree. It certainly brings certain hopeful feelings from the late 80s that the world was going to get better and better.


  11. There are a few U2 songs here and there that I can tolerate, even fewer that I actually like. Along with Nirvana and Nickelback, I could live a happy life without ever hearing another U2 song.

    As for '89 UD, it was out of my league back in the day, so there will always be some bitterness when I think of the set. But to shoot down chuckneo's theory, Griffey is one of my all-time favorite players. '87 Topps was pretty awesome. "Future Stars" and "All-Star Rookies" hooked me.

    JT, The Writer's Journey

  12. Thanks for pointing me into this new music. Hadn't heard of U2. I'll check them out.

  13. wonderful post, for many levels. i want to comment on just one aspect, though, at the moment. i was re-reading one of the late chapters of "Mint Condition" yesterday, and came across the author's assertion that in today's baseball cards "the insert cards are the valuable ones and the base cards are the 'gum'" - i thought that was a brilliant way to explain what the hobby has become, for a number of reasons...

  14. I am among those that love the 1987Topps set-I'm almost finished collecting the set via blog trades and loving it!