October 15, 2009
A Conversion Story
Every music lover has a conversion story. The great critic Ralph Gleason became a jazz fan when, bedridden with measles, he first heard big bands on the radio. In his book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus remembers "when a kid pushed a radio at me and demanded that I listen to a song called Rock Around the Clock, which I disliked at the time and still do." Marcus goes on to say that "music came together for me" when he was driving around with a friend and listening to rocknroll on the radio. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Mick Jagger, and many others heard rocknroll on Radio Luxembourg. For rock fans, radio was where we went for our altar call.
I can still remember the plastic radio my parents owned when I was nine: a white rectangular box, its single speaker covered with green cloth. My sister had been tuning it to WFEC AM, the only rocknroll station in the area. It was 1965, and before that wed listened to WKBO, where my dad had worked as an ad copywriter for a couple of years. WKBO played the music my mother liked -- Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Robert Goulet, and so on. My father tolerated the change to WFEC, but when rocknroll became a part of our lives, there was no turning back for me. It sent a charge through me, and while some of the music I liked then was juvenile and silly (as was I), a lot of it still gives me the same thrill, the same sense of adventure and possibility.
1965 was a great year to start listening to rock radio. The Top 10 began the year with "Come See About Me," by the Supremes; "Love Potion No. 9," by the Searchers; and "Shotgun," by Junior Walker and the All Stars. All three had carried over from late 1964, the year the British invaded the American charts. In May 1965, the Rolling Stones released "(I Cant Get No) Satisfaction," and the Byrds hit with a cover of Bob Dylans "Mr. Tambourine Man." That summer, Bobby Greggs rim shot on Dylans own single, "Like a Rolling Stone," announced to the world that rocknroll could also include poetry and emotional complexity; that it wasnt something that only teens listened to, then dropped when they got older. More important, they could still dance to it. Rocknroll was fun, even when it started to take itself seriously.
Top 40 radio was vast enough to contain multitudes, from the romantic pop of Sonny and Chers "I Got You Babe" to the Motown genius of the Four Tops "Same Old Song." It contained both the studio complexity of the Beach Boys "California Girls" and the straightforward simplicity of the McCoys "Hang On Sloopy." The record charts and radio-station music surveys from the mid-1960s to the early 70s chart the periods momentous societal changes. One of my favorite sources for researching the history of pop music in the 60s is the series of music surveys conducted from 1962 to 1980 for WABC, the powerhouse AM station in New York City. The charts were based on record sales in New York, and the singles listed were in heavy rotation there. Heres the Top 10 from the week of June 7, 1966:
The Critters dropped off the list two weeks later, but after a few months rebounded with another single, "Mr. Dieingly Sad." Whats striking about the list is how varied it is. Sinatra could still land at No.1, the Stones nipping at his heels, with Percy Sledge a little further down the list. At No.34 were the Swingin Medallions with "Double Shot of My Babys Love." James Brown was at No.19, the Standells at No.20. To listen to the radio then was to attend a master seminar in songwriting, record production, and the great variety of popular music the English-speaking world had to offer. In August, the Lovin Spoonful ("Summer in the City"), Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs ("Little Red Riding Hood"), and the Troggs ("Wild Thing") were in the top five, with the Supremes ("You Cant Hurry Love"), the Beach Boys ("Wouldnt It Be Nice?"), and Stevie Wonder (a cover of Dylans "Blowin in the Wind") helping to fill out the top 20.
For me, 1967 was the year that I was lost to rocknroll. I was drying the dishes in the kitchen when the Whos "I Can See for Miles" poured from the radio, and I felt a rush of emotion and excitement that I wanted to hear in every record after that. That singles combination of power and subtlety, melody and drive seemed to open up a world of hope and freedom. A random list of singles from that year helps dispel the notion that baby boomers, for all our self-indulgence and inability to move on, were wrong in thinking we were experiencing a musical revolution:
You have to forgive me for thinking I lived through a golden age.
But as the 60s ended, I no longer felt that way. By 1970, my friends and I thought AM radio was hopelessly square. Rock by then meant LPs -- two-minute singles were passť. One of the disc jockeys Greil Marcus and his friends listened to while driving around the Bay Area was Tom Donahue, who in 1967 left a varied career in AM to establish one of the first FM radio stations dedicated to rock. Donahue wrote a piece for Rolling Stone that year titled "AM Radio Is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up the Airwaves," and on his station he played album tracks, didnt talk through the intros to songs, and kept commercials to a minimum. In the beginning, FM rock radio was free-form, progressive, and thrilling. Donahue encouraged his disc jockeys to choose their own playlists; a song by the Band might be followed by a Sleepy John Estes record or something by John Coltrane. Music youd never get to hear on AM found a home on FM.
It took a couple of years for FM stations to get a foothold in the rest of the country, but by the early 1970s theyd sprung up even in cities of medium size. They all began as free and unstructured sources for music, as an "underground" phenomenon, with DJs playing whatever caught their ears and exposing listeners to a wide variety of music. As the FM audience grew, however, the stations themselves became as locked in and predictable as AM. Worse, FM began to limit itself to rock. By 1980, few FM rock stations ever played soul or R&B -- disco seemed to have tainted black music for them. When Marvin Gayes Whats Going On was released in 1971, FM rock stations played it with as much enthusiasm as they did any other album that year. Ten years later, FM rock stations were so stodgy they werent even playing new wave or punk bands, let alone Stevie Wonders "Master Blaster."
When, in 1982, Michael Jackson accused MTV of racism because it wouldnt play his videos, he had a point, but the network was reflecting what had already occurred in FM rock stations across the country. And MTV was at least playing videos by new English bands, such as the Clash and the Jam, which werent getting exposure on American radio. I heard the Clashs "Train in Vain" on AM radio, which then was in its last days. When disco died, so did AM.
None of us mourned that death at the time, and it surprises me that I now miss AM radio. But I believe it exposed listeners to such a wide variety of sounds and influences that we were constantly open to new things. Sly and the Family Stone happened when Sly Stone combined rock, funk, and soul to create something entirely new -- and we were prepared for it. I now firmly believe that pop songwriting was so strong in the 1960s because AM presented a constant turnover of great records, from soul to rock to pop to folk. Lennon and McCartney werent competing only with Jagger and Richards or Dylan, but with Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and so many others.
Perhaps young music fans can now find their music on satellite radio or on the Web. However, declining music sales suggest they arent hearing music that grabs them, and it may be that what theyre hearing is so similar to what they grew up hearing from their parents radios and car stereos that it doesnt have as much pull as it did for my generation. For us, radio -- whether AM in its prime or FM in its early days -- was local and communal, an experience you shared with your friends in a way that isnt possible with satellite radio or online. As I pointed out here a couple of months ago, the music business has changed a lot in the last 20 or so years, and that change has not been good for music. Technology moves forward, and we wont be going back.
. . . Joseph Taylor