Sunday, March 7, 2010

Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?

“It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled.” - Led Zeppelin

“I’m in love…with that song.” - The Replacements

In the grand scheme of all things rock and roll, it isn’t the recollection of the first time you hear a great song that sticks with you, rather the memories seem to lie in the instances when a particular song hits you in the gut. Sometimes the experience is a first-round knockout: a tune heard which instantly is recognized as a classic of its form. For me, the song I’ve heard this year that have fallen under that category are “Daddy’s Gone” by Glasvegas and “The ’59 Sound” by the Gaslight Anthem. I have to go back to 2007’s “Stuck Between Stations” and “Massive Nights” by the Hold Steady to find similar occurrences. Going back farther, it’s harder find other music made this decade which gets the heart pumping from the first note onwards. This is not to say there hasn’t been great rock and roll this decade, but for a good chunk of the 2000’s it was pretty hard to find. The 2000’s have been a transitional period for music, where the influences of old mediums like FM radio and MTV have become an afterthought. Much of the decade has seen the evolution from these almost extinct forms of influence to new, user-friendly ones such as streaming radio stations such as NME Radio and Pandora. MTV and FUSE have been replaced by YouTube, Facebook and MySpace as the primary means of releasing music videos. The advent of high-speed internet in the 21st Century has allowed music fans to hear more artists in a year than were ever played on Casey Kasem’s American Top Forty. But we have lost something intrinsic to rock and roll in gaining such freedom. Music has lost its communal influence; its ability to reach millions of listeners just by turning a little left of the dial.

Most people don’t remember the first time they heard Don MacLean’s epic salute to the history of rock and roll, “American Pie,” but there are many who can remember being around a group of good friends, cruising the streets of their hometown on a direct destination to nowhere and attempting to sing all the lyrics. It was rare all MacLean’s words would be recalled accurately, but trying to remember the verses was just a happy excuse to get to the chorus and the final big shout-out:

“Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry
Them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye
And singing this will be the day that I die.”

It wasn’t just the classic song that made this experience so memorable to so many. It was the spontaneity of hearing the song on the radio that caused such unrepentant joy. One could usually hear “American Pie” sometime after 9 P.M. wherever you were on a Friday or Saturday. If one cues it up on CD or an MP3 player, the element of surprise and elation is taken away. You know it’s coming like a karaoke song at a bar. It’s just not the same.

The role of a DJ was to know their audience and try to give them the best musical experience they could, combining old favorites, new hits, a few obscure ditties plus a dash of listener requests. They made concerts in their mind, understanding just when to bring the tempo down to a slow song like Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and when to raise it up with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Devil With a Blue Dress On.” George Lucas captured the old-school experience in his classic film “American Graffiti” with its unprecedented use of music to frame a film but also the incorporation of the mythic DJ, Wolfman Jack. Richard Linkletter expanded Lucas’ concept in his film “Dazed and Confused,” which celebrated mid-70’s rock in the same fashion Lucas did for 1950’s rock and roll. Linkletter used the influence of MTV to make some of “Dazed and Confused’s” scenes resemble music videos. Both films encompassed what it was like to be young or young at heart. The primary difference between the aforementioned films and films such as “Saturday Night Fever” is the song selection was used in hindsight, not in the presence of the moment. A good DJ doesn’t play “top forty.” They play to an audience like a rock star.

Understanding the mood of the listener is very similar to a rock band when they perform live. There was a depth of knowledge, mood and setting DJ’s possessed which rivals that of classical music conductors. Anyone who grew up listening to radio in the late 1980’s couldn’t escape Guns N’ Roses” classic hit “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” The challenge posed to the DJ was when to play it. How long do you wait, how many requests do you put up with before you acquiesce? A great DJ knows just how long to pull that string before they release it. At the height of a song’s peak, a DJ could cause an avalanche on the dance floor, a house party or a crammed 1977 Monte Carlo. They held your emotions and your night in their hands. Song selection could get you into that first awkward dance at high school, high-fives and shouts with your best buds or make you feel alone in a crowd of hundreds. These people performed concerts without a band, all they had was an innate feeling of music.

A DJ could play “Beth” by KISS and somehow you thought they played it for you and your friends, sitting in a garage lamenting various romantic entanglements. They could play “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC and bring forth dancing libation in a crowded basement. Whatever the song would be, the result would be a forthcoming of emotion. A spin of “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family would result in a gigantic circle of revelry, smiles and dancing. These moments brought people together, generated smiles, goodwill and fellowship. It didn’t matter if anyone could actually sing or even knew the words. What was important was absorbing yourself into the moment, the happy bliss of friends and the knowledge they felt the same thing at the same time. At its peak rock and roll could make friends from strangers, love from infatuation and marriage from courtship. Music could conquer anything for a moment or a minute. It takes a human soul to transform it into real emotion. Rock and roll was the drug. The DJ was the dealer.

It is hard to pinpoint an exact moment when the influence of the DJ began to wane although in most certainly happened in the 1990’s. In the late 80’s four genres began to permeate the listening public in a way that confounded the conventional wisdom of most industry insiders. Both were gaining steady followings throughout the decade but mainstream airplay eluded the majority of the artists. The alternative/modern rock/punk/grunge/whatever genre had rabid followings in college and urban areas. Artists such as the Cure, Husker Du and the Replacements released great record after great record during this period, gaining much critical praise but little in success in terms of airplay or sales. Speed metal or “thrash” bands Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer began to draw massive crowds due to phenomenal musicianship and fan rapport. Country music artists George Strait, Randy Travis and Reba MacEntyre began to see their audience expand by incorporating a pop music feel to many of their songs. Run-DMC saw unexpected chart success with a novelty mash-up of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”

“Hair bands” such as Motley Crue achieved massive chart success with party anthems like “Girls Girls Girls” and power-ballads such as the top ten hit “Home Sweet Home.” The full-lengths albums, however, left much to be desired in terms of overall quality. It was quite common for many people to fast forward or rewind the cassettes of the Crue, Poison and their peers to play the two or three listenable songs. This procedure resulted in the infamous “tape explosions” where the tape would become loose as the rewind, fast forward and play buttons were beat on like arcade games. This malfunction was not too detrimental if it occurred in a boom box or home stereo but when a cassette tape exploded in a car stereo, a mess ensued that not only took hours to remove but also severely damaged the cassette tape. Digging a tape out of a car stereo tended to take the fun out of an evening of anticipated fun to say the least. This continual source of frustration combined with sub-standard album quality slowly resulted in music fans looking elsewhere for their rock and roll.

The “hair bands” and other major pop stars of the eighties such as Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen began to take more time between album releases, resulting in six-plus singles from two-year old records. The DJ’s were told to play each and every release, along with the older singles. This philosophy resulted in audio overkill. People became sick of hearing the same artists and the same videos played continually for years. This concept of “milking the record” began to interfere with a radio station’s attempt to break new artists. Slowly, music fans began to turn the dial a little to the left in search of something new. In that process, they found stations playing music which was new and exciting. Metallica rocked harder and faster than Motley Crue. REM was more thoughtful and retrospective than Springsteen. Alabama made better dance songs than the “King of Pop.” As these artists began to become more renown to a larger audience, mainstream radio retreated into the comfort of “safe” artists such as Vanilla Ice, Warrant and Paula Abdul. The radio spectrum was about to splinter, all it needed was another brick from the wall.

“1989 – the number – another summer. Sound of the funky drummer.” These words brought forth Public Enemy. Their song “Fight the Power,” used in the classic Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing” began to gain airplay on MTV. One of the greatest protest songs ever written, “Fight the Power” capitalized on urban disaffection. “Now, the world is gone, I’m just one. Oh, God help me,” the final verse on Metallica’s epic anthem of disaffection, “One” resulted in the band’s first commercial hit without compromising any of their speed-metal credentials. “Stand in the place that you live. Now face west. Think about direction – wonder why you haven’t now” was REM’s version of a dance song. At the same time, the “new” sound of country music had taken hold, driving such stalwarts such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers into radio oblivion. In their place was a music that sounded kinda country, kinda rock and a lot like the Eagles and Poco. Leading the charge was Garth Brooks, an unabashed showman whose concerts resembled heavy metal bombast more than a Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry. When these diverse acts began to take hold on the radio and in record stores, the synth-based pop of the eighties went from life support to dead air. This ascension was culminated three years later, when Brooks, REM, and newcomers Nirvana all had number one albums. In a few more years, rap and hip-hop records would also become top ten mainstays. The invention of Soundscan, a computer program which gave actual sales results as opposed to estimates, was a major factor in this culture shift. A change was overdue to come and most likely would have occurred without Soundscan. However, technological advances quicken such changes, often with unforeseen results.

Initially, most people embrace the new sounds coming from the radio and music television stations. Record labels were left reeling about what artists they should sign or promote. Sales fell so sharply for the hair bands that many of them were left bankrupt, forced to play the same dingy bars where they began their careers. In the early 90s, one could tune into the top forty station and hear a wide range of genres that may never be experienced again. Like any rising styles of music, the initial output was fantastic. It was common to be at a party and jam out to Brooks and Dunn, the Breeders and Dr. Dre. It was a fantastic time to love music but like most cultural movements, it was short lived. Nirvana imploded with the death of Kurt Cobain, Garth Brooks grew tired of recording and semi-retired and rappers 2Pac and Notorious BIG were murdered. By 1995, record labels had begun signing every act they could find to big (and mostly unwarranted) contracts. Few of them had the impact of their predecessors. Despite their bravado, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw were not Garth Brooks. Green Day and the Offspring had all the volume but none of the danger inherent with Nirvana. The exception was hip/hop’s Eminem who managed to sell millions of records because he is inarguably one of the greatest artists of the modern era.

Radio was also transitioning in the 90s. Gigantic corporations Clear Channel and ABC/Disney began to scoop up radio stations like a kid at a baseball card show. To them, it seemed if they did not know what listeners wanted; it was more profitable to give music fans as little alternative as possible. The days of independent radio were numbered. People began to choose sides once again. Either all country, all rock or top forty pop (which was basically hip/hop) stations dominated the airwaves with a strength never seen before. The late 90s saw the biggest payola scandal since the days of Alan Freed. Granted, there was music that was legit. The technology pendulum swung again and most music fans decided it was time to quit.

Computers used to be the toy of the geeky rich kid in class. By the end of the 1990s, it started to become a staple of most households. The internet was still in its infancy, but CD burners gave music fans a better bargain than used CD stores, pawn shops or flea markets. CD burners allowed anyone with a computer to make an exact copy of a CD with little or no loss of sound. It became a common sight to see a group of friends at a record store, each with one CD to purchase, their sole intent to go home, make copies and share them with their friends. The writing (no pun intended) was on the wall. It would become much more difficult to market a poor album based on the quality of one hit single. Music fans took more chances with artists they liked if they could have a few buds buy an album of agreed taste. The record industry largely ignored this trend at the time, believing the new conglomerate radio stations would still lead the horse to water. Playlists became more homogenized due to the massive takeovers, yet this excessive promotion did not increase record sales. The meteor called the internet was about to land and radio was a listless dinosaur chewing leaves.

It seems easy to blame the arrival of widespread internet use of the record industry’s demise but the industry did themselves no favors. As the 21st century arrived, only Eminem, boy bands and country artists were still selling millions. The quality of radio music had dropped abysmally, leaving people little choice but to pursue an alternative and “fight the powers that be.” People didn’t choose to download just because it was easy, they did it because radio sucked. There was little a diverse group could agree on anymore. It is hard to believe those who bought Shania Twain CD’s also rocked out to Radiohead. The genres had retreated largely due to the lack of diversity on radio stations. Instead of a big, joyous party, there were complaints about whoever had the unfortunate position to be in charge of the music. While big radio drowned in their Kool-Aid, music lovers downloaded to their gigabyte heart’s content. Because the music was now free, people took more chances, listened to different things and passed them on. The era of being spoon-fed was over. No marketing wiz could save it. YouTube, Facebook and MySpace became the means of communicating what someone liked. Why have a request show if the song you want is just one click away and not somewhere left of the dial?

The record and radio industries responded in a fashion that’s similar to a limp animal waiting to be put out of its misery. It is common now to turn on that FM signal and hear Billy Joel on ten stations. He’s on the oldies station, the eighties station, the easy listening station and the rock station. If Joel and Elton John would cover “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” they’d cover the whole gamut. Instead of looking to the internet for inspiration, radio stations have chosen homogeny. This concept may be good for elevators on 50 story buildings and dentists’ offices, but it gives nothing but numbness to the average human. Gone are the days when you could be driving on the highway with nowhere to go, put the brakes on and say to yourself “What’s that song?”

That question is also now regulated to the internet and streaming radio. The listening public has become splintered into shards of taste. Similar yet so different there is no knowledge of the other. We listen to our own station, make our playlists and have become deaf to what else is out there. Getting what we want has given us less and less or what we need: Music that is new, different and challenging is all but gone as we spin the same record round. There is no need to absorb and tolerate anything different. It can just be deleted like a mix tape for a girl or boy that never quite understood your love.

Garth Brooks made us want to dance with “Friends in Low Places.” His melodic chime brought many of us to a moment of comradery. Whether we liked it or didn’t, if you were remotely out and about in the early 1990’s, that song was a part of your life. Maybe you sang along in a drunken stupor or were proud that you stood in the corner of the club and despised it. Either way, it brought people together. The same could be said for Nirvana, disco and right back to the Beatles. There was always something going on that could be danced to or criticized. Music was a passion. If there were bar fights over the song selection, at least people cared enough to complain or fight for their right to party. Now that Garth Brooks’ ditty is just an oldie, we either dance or chuckle when it is played. If we dance, we do so with our memories.

If we stand by the wall, it is also done with our memories. Popular music has become a reboot of the Lawrence Welk show, except there is nothing to really make fun of or rebel against. When we choose to rage against the establishment machine, are we not raging against ourselves? There was a time when we thought about these things as deeply as a nighttime infatuation. Music was love; love was music. One could not possibly exist without the other.

We could head-bang with each other, rap with each other and hold our arms together and love it all while we were in the back of a car, a basement dance floor or in the comfort of our own room. The future was a drug inhaled as we tiptoed through it. We might not have been who we wanted to be but music took every one of us to all of our fantasies. For a little while, the music on the radio synthesized itself. There weren’t just hicks, metal-heads, preps or punks. A little bit of each was inside us all. We danced to it, shouted and held each other close. We drove on the back roads looking for trouble, without really knowing what it was. We escaped on the wheels of hidden beers and a large automobile. All the while, the radio played a celebration song. When we were caught, it cried with us sad songs of wanting everything too much too soon. As we woke up, the morning voice of grace and redemption shone through those who’ve been there before. If the voices were sad, we regretted. If the voices were loud, we marched on. Regardless of circumstance, there was always a song. A radio played to top volume. Fists were pumped in the middle of the night, an arm held tight around someone while the sun rose. Music came like a breathless kiss, an invigorating injection to the vein of eternal youth.

Listen! Just for one second! Don’t you hear it? Turn the radio on. Find that elusive frequency. Get in your car; take a deep breath and drive. The second when you think you’re lost, turn the radio up, park your car and take it in. You may not know where you’re going, but your heart knows where you’ve been. Park your car and listen to the songs you know or may yet discover. Music breathes in the night, whether you’re lonely or with your one and only, the radio plays. If it does not sing for you, sing out for the jukebox of the past. It’s always there, playing those songs we sing to ourselves, making us dance to a tune from a forgotten June, Think of that song, the one making your heart skip. Take a drive with your memory into midnight. The nights you remember or the ones you wish you had. The nights when the songs played long after you went to bed. The songs you sang along to while the sun rose. Don’t you remember? Do you remember?

1 comment:

Brad said...

Ah...the days....