Radio Songs is a new column in which our own senior staff writer and college radio personality Len Comaratta wanders up and down “the bands,” delving into all things radio and sharing a batch of songs related to that week’s topic.
Personally, I love radio. Well, I love certain kinds of radio. Let’s put it that way. When I listen to the radio (and it’s usually in the car), I often tune in to the local college radio station or NPR affiliate. Occasionally, I venture up the band to the mainstream, commercial stations, but honestly, I find much of the music that plays on Top 40-styled stations to be simply horrible. And it’s not because I am old and/or out of touch. The way that it’s recorded for radio these days, with the highs and lows all cut out and everything just pushed to the limit to make it louder, certainly hasn’t helped matters. It’s a stifled environment that has far too little content and everything under tight control.
The days of FM’s childhood, when DJs were encouraged to be explorers, are long gone. Today, playlists are automated and stringently controlled, so the chances of hearing something that isn’t a single–more of an album “deep cut”–share the same odds as winning the Powerball. It’s the primary reason that I listen to college radio (and would even if I didn’t work at the station). The freedom on college radio is unrivaled anywhere on the terrestrial band. You have to go the Internet or satellite route to find anything remotely close (and both of those mediums, similar to cable television, have the added bonus of not being regulated by the FCC the way terrestrial radio is, so cuss away!).
Think about how many alternatives there are for an individual to “get” his or her music. Now, if you were to ask the average person on the street where the average music consumer goes to in order to listen to their music, how many do you think would default to “the Internet”? I mean, it’s a safe bet assuming that the majority of consumers get their music online. Given the options via the Internet–whether it is a site like Pandora or Spotify, Sound Cloud or Mix Cloud, iTunes or Tune In–not to mention actual vendors and magazines, the choices, methods, and sites for one to obtain and listen to music is borderline overwhelming.
So, it was a surprise to me when Vanity Fair teamed with 60 Minutes and recently did a poll of Americans and their music revealing that 49% of Americans listen to music mostly FROM THE RADIO!! In fact, radio blew the pants off of everyone, with “Digital Music Service” taking second place with a mere 17% of those polled. That said, the poll conveniently neglects to describe the demographic polled nor does it separate terrestrial radio from satellite, so take these numbers with the proverbial grain of salt. Regardless, the poll certainly suggests that radio still plays an important role in connecting music to a listening audience.
Radio may not necessarily be the hallowed ground that it used to be, but it is still revered (and in some cases, mourned) by audiences and artists alike. In fact, there are so many songs with radio as a theme or even as a character that going down this particular rabbit hole isn’t so much a choice as it is an imperative. With this column, we will investigate a variety of themes, styles, and motivations behind all kinds of “radio songs.” So, if you don’t see a song this go-around, just wait. It may be around the bend.
As this is the first, what better place to start than with the basics: AM and FM, music radio’s Romulus and Remus.
Everclear – “AM Radio”
Growing up in the 1970s, AM radio was king. Sure, FM was around and had been growing in popularity ever since it came into its own in the 1960s, but AM had been the staple. I remember fondly listening to both bands, but for the better part of my adolescence during the ’70s, it was AM. When we lived in Okinawa in ’78, we listened to AM. And when we moved to San Diego in ’82, we still listened to AM640. By middle school, though, I found myself pulled to the FM band and stations like 91X and KGB-101 and, from that point on, rarely looked back to AM.
First, let me say that I am not the biggest fan of Everclear (the band or the drink). Sure, they had a couple of songs that hit the right buttons. I dug “Santa Monica” when it came out, and I even dated a girl once who was such a fan of sunflowers (the plant) that I even included Everclear’s “Sunflowers” on a mix tape I made for her. But that aside, there was always something I found slightly off-putting about the way Art Alexakis sings, you know, that talk-sing, where he isn’t simply talking, but it isn’t really a form of melodic singing either. Enough said on that.
Everclear’s “AM Radio”, featured on the group’s 2000 album, Songs from an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile, is Alexakis’ love letter to the radio he knew as a child. With “AM Radio”, Alexakis makes a point to counter today’s (well, 2000’s) world with the days when “we didn’t know about a world wide web,” flashing back to a series of years: 1970. ‘72, ‘75, and ‘77. And no, 1977 is not heralded for its historical status but more as the year our protagonist began going to concerts, specifically latter-day Zeppelin. All throughout the track he praises the radio for being his soundtrack, whether driving around with his sister in her Pinto or getting busted by the police while smoking up. The importance of the medium is stressed in the lyrics “There isn’t any place that I need to go / There isn’t anything that I need to know / I did not learn from the radio” and then reinforced when he adds, “When things get stupid and I just don’t know / Where to find my happy / I listen to my music on the AM radio.”
The song falls apart, though, via its inclusion of a variety of samples coupled with lyrics that seem to counter the inclusion of the sampled pieces. The song begins with an old vintage jingle from LA radio station KHJ before running into a sample of Jean Knight’s proto-disco classic “Mr. Big Stuff”, which itself is somehow morphed into the actual guitar lines of the song. Of course, Knight’s classic single was recorded in 1970 (the year the song begins) and effectively years before disco would explode; however, the association of her pop soul song with the disco era may certainly cause one to scratch their head when Alexakis sings, “We like pop, we like soul, we like rock, but we never liked disco.”
Steely Dan – “FM (No Static at All)”
“FM (No Static at All)” is Steely Dan’s contribution to the soundtrack of the film FM. The parenthetical title of the song, as well as its refrain within the song, refers to the higher fidelity often associated with the FM band over that of its fraternal spectrum, the AM band. While the soundtrack features heavies of the time, including Billy Joel, Dan Fogelberg, and the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan’s titular track opens the soundtrack and is one of the few original songs written for the film.
Released in the spring of 1978, FM follows a radio station program manager (actor Michael Brandon, who can be seen in this year’s new Captain America film) as he goes up against the station’s sales manager. Of course, in today’s climate, sales would most likely win the battle, as radio is utilized more today to sell commercials than play music or sell records. However, this story is fictional and occurs at a time when FM was still an underground phenomenon, so of course, the station owners “see the light” and eventually side with the program manager and DJs whose goal is not to make money so much as have quality programming on air. Ah, dare to dream! Despite it being a steadily growing influence over the previous decade, FM wouldn’t become the dominant band until the early/mid-’80s, and once it did so, it began its evolution into the beast we hear today.
Though the film featured a number of celebrity cameos like Linda Ronstadt, Tom Petty, and REO Speedwagon, and also featured actors Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles) and Martin Mull (in his film debut), the movie itself is rather forgettable. But looking at the soundtrack through hindsight reveals a relatively tight time capsule of popular hits of that era. Song-wise, there is nothing particularly striking about “FM”. It is a rather straightforward Steely Dan tune that oozes the jazz-rock sound perfected by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. But when they sing about “nothin’ but blues and Elvis” or “funked up muzak” or “hungry reggae,” they lyrically manage to capture a snapshot of FM radio when the medium was still a diverse landscape and not the pre-programmed “can tell the time of day by what song is playing” format it has devolved into.
!!! – “AM/FM”
Since we had a bit on AM and one on FM, it’s only appropriate to include a track that features both bands, and while Matt and Kim have a track called “AM/FM Sound”, reading the lyrics would suggest that that song is about something else entirely, so !!! it is. The first single from the group’s fourth release, Strange Weather, Isn’t It?, “AM/FM” is what we could probably call “classic !!!” with its signature neu-disco punk, throbbing, percolating basslines, and hushed vocals buried under hooks and grooves. That said, this lead single did very little to alter any perceptions of the band by critics or fans, and it even furthered opinion that while the band sounds good on this album, they also sound like they are just phoning it in. CoS’s Ryan Burleson described the performance as “a band confident enough to tweak its components without losing its edge… but the end result is, unfortunately, less thrilling or groundbreaking than expected.”
The Replacements – “Left of the Dial”
The Replacements’ fourth album, Tim, is notable for more than just being one of the Mats’ strongest albums. Tim saw the Minneapolis troupe jump from local label Twin-Tone Records to the big time (sort of), landing on Sire. In addition to making the major label crossover, Tim is also the final Replacements album to feature all original members, as Bob Stinson found himself booted from the band shortly after the album’s release.
While “Bastards of Young” is probably the most recognized track off Tim, it’s “Left of the Dial that calls out to anyone who has ever listened to college radio. The “left” in the song’s title refers to the left portion of the FM dial, specifically under 92MHz (in the Americas), where lower wattage, non-commercial stations, such as NPR affiliates and college radio stations, often broadcast from. (On a personal note, next to “Unsatisfied” from Let It Be, Tim’s predecessor, “Left of the Dial” is probably my favorite Replacements song.)
Now, it’s easy to call this an ode to college radio simply from the title, and to be fair, it has been described as such without any derision from any of the band members; however, it is also a love letter to a particular person: Angie Carlson. As guitarist for ’80s alt-rock band (and Mitch Easter-led) Let’s Active, Carlson crossed Westerberg’s path while both their bands were on their respective tours. They never played together and, from what can be gathered, never met again. The next time he heard her was during an interview on a college radio station. The title line refers to Westerberg, rather than getting together in person, having to settle for hearing her on the radio, left of the dial.
Fishbone – “? (Modern Industry)”
While in high school, I had an opportunity to go see Fishbone play at Mary Washington College. It was on their Truth and Soul tour, and if you could catch Fishbone on any tour, that probably would have been the one to see. Unfortunately for me, I had to skip the show in favor of studying for a calculus exam that was being held the following day. Fast-forward a decade or so. Fishbone came to a small bar in the town I stayed in after college and not only that, the majority of the material played made the show seem as if I never missed that one in high school. Their set list was filled with numbers from the group’s early days such as “Ugly” and “Party at Ground Zero” (both off their self-titled debut), but sadly, “? (Modern Industry)” was not one of them.
One of the big notes made about Fishbone’s debut is how indebted (to a degree) the band was to ska and how it blended those elements with their punkish backgrounds. Considering the evolution of the band’s sound, Fishbone is easily the group’s most ska-based work and, by extension, the group’s most party-like party album. That said, “? (Modern Industry)”, with its distinct lack of both horns and “skat-skat” guitar work, is one of the least ska-like songs on the album. Style aside, you may be wondering just what in the hell this Fishbone song has to do with any of the previously mentioned songs. Well, nothing directly.
This song isn’t so much an ode to radio, nor does it sing to the glory of the medium or its place atop any sort of societal pedestal in the same manner as, say, Alexakis’ reverence for AM radio, but it is filled with love for radio. All throughout the song, the members of the band can be heard hollering a whole mess of radio call signs, and we can only assume that these stations somehow spoke to the band in the same way that, say, 91X did for me as a kid or WHFS did for many growing up around Washington, D.C., 20-plus years ago.
The video is filled with even more love as a continuous stream of station call letters beyond those mentioned in the song flows across the bottom of the screen for the video’s duration. As a kid watching MTV, I would try to see how many stations I recognized and if my beloved 91X was mentioned (it was). While re-watching the video, I actually got a little farklempt when I saw my college radio station’s call letters (WUVT) scroll by. Listening to this song and watching the video again has me asking the following question: If they did play this song today, would they change up the station call letters the way Black Flag (or bands covering Black Flag) change up the television shows listed in “TV Party”, or would they stay true to course and keep the old lyrics? I’d hope the latter. Nothing seems quite as disheartening as Angelo Moore screaming, “I Heart Radio” or “Pandora” in lieu of the song’s original lyrics.