The second in a random series of musings about the way we listen to music. Part 1 is here. The guy in the picture is Charles Laquidara, arguably the pre-eminent DJ on Boston’s WBCN for many years….
In the late ‘60’s, early ‘70’s there was a ton of great rock and blues music around. And it was easy to hear not only because all my friends were listening to it – and loaning me albums – but because the radio was playing it as well. (Well, FM radio was anyway). This was when your only choices to own music were vinyl, cassettes and the loathsome invention known as eight-track.
I swear I’d go out and buy as many as four records a week. Sometimes I’d wait till the local department store had a sale and I’d scoop ‘em up for $2.99 each. (Sound cheap? I thought so too. My inflation calculator says that’s almost 18 bucks in 2015 dollars).
Anyway, this is what we were doing – listening to good music, going to concerts, reading Rolling Stone, occasionally getting high. Yeah, that wasn’t my whole life but after a while it sure felt like the most important part of it. (I was fortunate enough to live in New York City during most of the few brief years of the Fillmore East and attend a handful of concerts. More on that in a later post).
And while today it may be hard to believe – what with the proliferation of music in all media – almost none of this music was making its way to TV. Nor could it in any way, shape or form be considered mainstream. (Unlike today where every sports stadium has rock songs and everybody seemingly knows every pop song the minute it comes out).
I recall that at that time I knew someone who was reasonably well-connected with the entertainment scene. Occasionally he’d get me concert tickets. But one time he offered me tix to the Grammy awards for which I thanked him but promptly turned down. Why?
Because at that point in time the Grammys were totally ignoring what we were hearing on the radio. There wasn’t even a rock category! The closest was something they called ‘Pop’, which lumped together The Carpenters, Dionne Warwick and Paul Simon. Blues? (This being the year that B. B. King won). It was put under a broad R&B category. Which also included Aretha Franklin.
Now don’t get me wrong. These are great artists. But all in all, there was very little reflection of any sort of underground radio and these categories didn’t really even make any sense. The closest we had to being able to watch these bands – since we couldn’t always afford concert tickets – was something called “Midnight Special” and another show called “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.”
(Kirshner was a producer of the Monkees, a band that I initially loved until my tastes changed. He apparently got frustrated having to deal with their increasing desire for autonomy. So he assembled an even more fake band of studio musicians manifested as cartoon characters which he called The Archies. He at last then had the total control he wanted.)
And so despite all of this, this musical paradise lasted for a good part of the seventies. And during this time the scene went from blues-rock to country-rock to progressive rock to early punk (Ramones, Sex Pistols, etc.), to fusion to – in the late ’70’s – rap. It seemed to me that there was no limit to how far the music could go.
But what we didn’t realize at the time were the forces that were conspiring to end this situation. Well, I probably shouldn’t use the word ‘conspiring.’ There was no conspiracy. But what did happen is that as my generation – and the previous one – got older, they got married and went to concerts less.
And increasingly a younger generation started to determine what was popular. So while my friends and I were still enjoying long-form blues and jazz, another generation came up that believed that that exact same music was self-indulgent.
And thus was punk born, a form of music that was a return to the short, three-chord format, albeit with a nastier edge. And then to make things more interesting, an even younger cohort came up who were not only uninterested in long-form rock, they weren’t even interested in rock. And thus, disco. (Which, for me, the less said about, the better).
And throughout this whole time the record labels were starting to realize that the rock business could be very, very lucrative. And so I can’t put my finger on exactly when it happened. But over time the free outdoor concerts went away as did the ability to see three great bands for less than ten bucks. (Now you see maybe one band for 200 bucks). And by the time I moved to the Boston area in 1975, WBCN – one of the original underground stations – was still great but had started to move towards a more commercial format. Yes, rock was still ascendant. But not for long.
Next: Video killed the radio star