The Conservatism of Rock Radio
Atrios was out driving and listening to the radio a few days ago. He had a thought:
Spent some time listening to the basic rock radio station for awhile, with a mix of all the things they played when I was growing up and newer things. The Talking Heads came on, and it occurred to me that the station probably wouldn't play music by a band that sounded just like the Talking Heads if they were a new band.
I'll go him one better. Mainstream radio didn't play Talking Heads when they were a new band. There are a number of bands from the late 70s and early 80s--pretty much anybody who was labeled punk or new wave--that were well established before they started to get significant radio play. Fabulous, exciting new music was popping up all around us, but you couldn't hear any of it on the radio. They were too busy playing Foreigner, Journey, Toto, Kansas, and a number of other groups I don't want to bother remembering.
You could read about the new music, so we had some idea of what it was, but you never really knew what you'd get until you played it. I bought any number of albums from new groups I'd never sampled but who sounded intriguing in print. Talking Heads was one, the Clash was another. I never heard the Jam until I put my own copy of their first album on the stereo. I knew about Blondie but never actually heard them until a cousin bought my brother their third album for Christmas. I must have heard the Sex Pistols before, because I saw the report on punk in late '76 on NBC News' Weekend show, hosted by Lloyd Dobbins, and I can't imagine they didn't show some footage (although what I most remember from that report is a discussion of whether or not one would want to stand next to Rat Scabies), but when I got my own copy of the album for Christmas '78, I certainly didn't remember it (and if I'd had any question of whether it was a keeper or not--I didn't--it would've been evaporated when I noticed my 8-year-old brother singing along to "EMI" the first time we played it). Basically, you were on your own for trying new music back in the day. Saturday Night Live helped some--I saw both Elvis Costello and Devo on the show before I bought their music--but there were too many new and interesting groups for them to cover everybody. (I have to admit that I wasn't blown away by Elvis's now infamous performance. I thought he was fine, but surely there was more exciting music to be had. It wasn't until a month or so later when a high-school friend mentioned that she and her friends were still making fun of what a jerk he was that I realized he had something I needed to know about.) But I could go through my record collection and remember records I bought based only on reputation--Siouxsie and the Banshees, XTC, Magazine, the Specials, the Beat (not Paul Collins's combo), Television, Tom Robinson Band, the Raincoats, Gang of Four. There was an excitement at the time, because new sounds were bubbling up at such a rate that you never knew what sound was going to come out when you dropped the needle down.
A lot of this was changed by MTV, of course, and I remember back in the early 80s when no one could figure out how the Stray Cats were selling out venues while receiving no radio airplay. A number of the groups I mentioned who later became big did it through MTV. The Clash got a lot of play for a single off their fifth album, "Rock the Casbah." Talking Heads did it with their fifth album single, "Burning Down the House." I may have told this story on this blog before, but when Speaking in Tongues came out, the local club DJ refused to play "Burning Down the House" until we bribed him a dollar (big money to an unemployed grad student at the time). My friends and I were enthusiastically dancing, but the rest of the floor cleared out. A couple of weeks later, after the video had had few spins on the MTV, we were at the club again, and the DJ put the single on all by himself. Patrons left their tables to get on the dancefloor. I later saw the tour for that album, and a picture of the house from that video got as big an ovation as any member of the band.
All this to say, Atrios is right, but it ain't nothing new. Let's just be glad that nowadays we've got a lot of other venues where we can check out what's new before the radio ever gets around to playing it.