The first in a random series of musings about the way we listen to music …
I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial
Doing anything my radio advised
With every one of those late night stations
Playing songs bringing tears to my eyes
I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver
When the switch broke ’cause it’s old
They’re saying things that I can hardly believe
They really think we’re getting out of control
–Elvis Costello, Radio, Radio
I grew up (in Philadelphia), listening to top 40 radio. Well actually, overhearing the top 40 radio that my sisters were listening to. Additionally the TV show “American Bandstand” was on the air there for several years before it went national. And so I was able to enjoy a veritable stew of late ‘50’s early rock n’ roll, doo-wop, and girl groups. And then of course eventually, the British Invasion, Motown and then – starting in about 1967 – “underground radio.”
It’s this latter I wish to talk about. I can still remember clearly that top 40 AM radio trafficked pretty heavily in a certain sound, mostly short-form (3 minutes or so), catchy, upbeat. This is not to say the music was bad. In fact, much of it was pretty good. The Beatles and the Stones were on Top 40 as was the aforementioned Motown and a lot of good R & B songs.
But towards the end of the sixties, music began to become more long-form. (Dylan had set the path for this a few years prior, clocking in at over six minutes with “Like a Rolling Stone.” A few years later, “Hey Jude” came in at over seven minutes). But still there seemed to be something missing. For one thing, with the exception of B. B. King ‘s hit “The Thrill is Gone” late in the sixties, no real blues. For another, no real jamming of any sort. Top 40 was good but felt sort of homogenized for the masses.
Then somewhere around ’66-’67, underground (AKA progressive) radio started to take hold. While there were certainly other stations of note, four in particular come to mind: WNEW New York, WBCN Boston, WMMR Philadelphia, and KSAN, San Francisco. What was important about these stations is that they opened the door to free-form playing of music. So it was no longer just a slick disc jockey spinning records but a knowledgeable music aficionado playing long-form rock, jazz and blues. Entire album sides or sometimes entire albums would be played.
All of this started to happen while I was still a teeny-bopper listening to AM radio. But as mentioned in my initial post, I’d started listening to Hendrix and Cream and gradually became aware that there was something more to radio than what I was hearing. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I really started hearing the cool stuff. It wasn’t just NY per se – although that helped – but also the fact that I was starting to outgrow that music and was looking for something more.
So then it was goodbye Monkees, hello Zeppelin, Tull, Allmans, Dead, Yes, and eventually, Weather Report and John Coltrane, Miles. And so what was underground radio like at that time? Well, for want of a better word, free-form. Wide open. Creative. So you might hear a rock song, then jazz, then blues, then gospel. If the song was long, they played the whole thing. If someone said ‘fuck’ they left it in. (Before the FCC found out and prevented it, thereby saving Western Civilization).
And there was a fair amount of politics too, especially on a station like ‘BCN. This, of course, was all happening during the Vietnam War. Now, not all of my peers had turned against the war. But there were enough of them to make it feel like we were an army. It was – to quote Arlo Guthrie – “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”
But politics aside, radio at that time was all about that open expression, that feeling that anything was possible. And the money guys hadn’t yet figured out how lucrative rock and roll could be. So back then it was ‘yes’ to ‘anything goes’ and – for want of a better expression – power to the people.
In the late ‘60’s, early ‘70’s, we heard music in pretty much two ways – albums (which after Sergeant Pepper had become art forms) and by listening to the radio. (AM radio was still very much around. But if you wanted to hear anything really out there you had to listen to FM. Streaming? iTunes? Years in the future.)
And in those heady, free-form, creative, radical times, we had no reason to believe anything other than that this situation would get better and better, that longer and more creative music would play, that hippies would own stations. And that we’d always be able to see three great bands for five bucks. All of which was true – until it wasn’t.
(To be continued)