Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: The Conservatism of Rock Radio

Monday, December 10, 2007

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.


At 9:52 AM, December 10, 2007, Blogger Stevie T said...

Great reflections Doug, but did you really have to slam Toto in order to tell your story? Wikipedia praises the chorus of Toto's "Africa" as "catchy" and notes that it "incorporates metaphor." I think that says enough. Nevermind that it's the only song I remember by them.

"It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you / There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do...."

At 10:10 AM, December 10, 2007, Blogger Jason said...

Stevie, don't tell me you've forgotten Toto's other big hit, their paean to the beautiful Rosanna Arquette? Meet you all the way! No metaphor incorporated into that one, I'm afraid, but it is catchy.

Anyway, I think your last point is key, Doug. Radio still sucks, but so what? I can hop over to Pandora or get a Rhapsody account or download stuff off iTunes or any of a bunch of other websites. On Saturday, I heard XTC's "Senses Working Overtime" on the radio -- probably on the only station around here that would play something like that -- as I was getting home and it put me in the mood to hear more XTC. So I fired up YouTube, typed in XTC, and played various XTC songs for the next hour or so. 5 years ago, I would have had to call that one radio station, and they would have told me "Sorry, man. We just played an XTC song. We'll try to get another one on in a few hours."

To say nothing of the fact that there are so many places online to discuss music and get turned on to cool artists and songs you wouldn't have otherwise heard of (I just know Stevie has already jumped over to iTunes to download himself a copy of "Rosanna.")

At 5:30 PM, December 10, 2007, Blogger Stevie T said...

You read my mind Jason. Although I haven't yet downloaded it, I thought about it. When I was writing my comment, I knew there was some other song I was forgetting, and now you have saved me. Actually, you have helped me get Africa out of my head by replacing it with "Meet you all the / du dah du dah! / Rosanna yeah..."

Now if I could just replace that with "and I've got 1-2-3-4-5 / Senses working overtime...."

At 8:26 PM, December 10, 2007, Anonymous Doug said...

You're both leaving out "Hold the Line." How could you forget, "Hold the line / (dum dum dum dum) / Love isn't always on time / Woah. Woah. Woah."?

At 10:05 PM, December 10, 2007, Blogger Stevie T said...

Now there are not 1, not 2, but 3 Toto songs to be added to my song collection.

At 10:23 AM, December 11, 2007, Anonymous Jim C. said...

I'm coming late to the Toto party, but I first heard about them just before "Hold The Line" broke wide. It was okay, but I was always partial to the much softer, haunting "99." (To say nothing about "I Won't Hold You Back" or "Stranger In Town" or "I'll Supply The Love." Jeez, can you tell I grew up in the sticks? I feel like I'm reciting an Essential Childhood Music album...)

I have to agree about Saturday Night Live opening windows of perception musically. I know I'm enough younger that my perspective is different, but when the Talking Heads played on SNL, I was blown away (and convinced that David Byrne was coming to my house with an axe. Just watch him during "Artists Only" and tell me I'm wrong). Another time they did that was when the B-52s played Rock Lobster (with Teri Garr hosting,,,). I listened to WLS. They never played stuff like that!

What I remember about the Sex Pistols is that, in their day, I never heard the music. I followed their American tour on WLS, with Larry Lujack's coverage during the "Cheap Trashy Showbiz Report." I knew that Sid got punched in the nose, and then smeared the blood on his chest, but hear their music? Not on your life, apparently. I may have heard something when 20/20(?) did a report on their tour post-mortem - but we all know how terrible they sounded in the Wintergarden, so that was really no indicator. (When I did finally hear it, tracking down a copy of the album in high school, I couldn't believe it. *This* was what it was all about? It's a rock record! Yeah, I didn't want the album back in the day - I was 9.)

At 8:31 PM, December 11, 2007, Blogger red storm said...

Stevie T and Jason, (and other readers I've never met). Please allow me to add a dimension to your toto fansmanship:

On the long side, but worth a look.

a bit off topic, but I'll mention it anyway, here in Washington we have a radio station named The Globe. It used to be classic rock and was just refashioned (not by a clearchannel affiliate) into an indie-rock format with a slightly green focus. It's commercial radio, but it's not quite the crapstorm of clearchannel we usually get here in Washington and I occasionally find myself really enjoying it. The best part is that they've retained many of the old DJs, who tend to sound oddly bemused and surprised at the music they're announcing:

"Now that is some very interesting music by a band called Modest Mouse, who has apparently been around for a number of years."

It's clear that the DJs have suddenly made an earnest effort to understand a music scene they've eschewed since 1985 (and frankly, I don't blame them) and are surprised to find that a number of bands have managed to out some pretty good stuff.

Unfortunately, speaking to the talking heads comment, it seems to me that radio stations (and MTV, on Demand videos, etc) have no problem putting out music that sounds like the talking heads (I have at least 3 friends in moderately successful bands who make their livings off sounding like a slightly diluted David Byrne). The problems are that bands today, in seeking to pay homage to their favorite influences, are merely regurgitating them merely borrowing from them, and secondly, that with the advent of youtube, itunes, and the instant gratification culture, any chump with an internet connection and a song they like can be instant expert (this has obvious benefits, but the downside is that you've got a nation of dilletantes posing as music buffs dumbing down the airwaves further by removing the barriers of taste between the few good new acts and the rest of the disposable garbage that comes out of the trash can that is now "new-music Tuesday") and, well, I forget what the third problem is, and frankly this list is truncated since I can't list ALL the problems with new music, which would be nearly as exhausting as attempting to read this run-on sentence. But anyway, I guess the third problem centers around originality. It's such a tiresome thing to say, but that doesn't make it any less true -- we're either running out of new ideas or we're running out of prophets or there's just so much shit out there that it's impossible to sift through the mess to find what you really want.

Forgive me for the self-serving link to my own blog, but you all may find it topical (and hopefully better written than this comment).

My grandmother, who is 84 years old, delivered a very apt critique of the music on my i-pod during one of our 17 hour trips to Florida a few years ago. Maybe someone should hire her to remodel the airwaves...then again, we'd probably end up with a lot of champagne music. Frankly, I'm not sure that's such a band thing.

At 8:35 PM, December 11, 2007, Blogger red storm said...

Oh, right -- I should have mentioned I'm Don B's old college pal.

At 10:08 AM, December 12, 2007, Blogger Stuart Shea said...

I actually miss the rains down in Africa.

At 10:47 AM, December 12, 2007, Blogger Jason said...

Red Storm -- although I've been a Chicagoan for about a decade now, I was raised in Gaithersburg and still get back there a couple of times a year, so I'm familiar with the Globe. It's actually pretty similar to a station we have here in Chicago -- WXRT, and those of you in Chicago have probably guessed that it's the station on which I heard Senses Working Overtime the other day. Anyway, you'll be absolutely thrilled to know, I'm sure, that the radio industry has a nice ticky-tacky box to put stations like that into: Adult Album Alternative, or Triple-A.

Our oldies station, on the other hand, turned into Jack-FM, whose motto is "Playing What We Want," although apparently, what they want to play is "Rock that had mainstream popularity between 1965 and 1995, but especially the 1980s." I just turned the station on while I was typing this post and got:

U2 -- Where the Streets Have No Name
Steve Miller Band -- Abracadabra
Dire Straits -- Money for Nothing
Prince -- Let's Go Crazy

(What can I say -- I got distracted while I was writing). Not a bad selection of songs, but not exactly expanding my horizons.

But I digress. The point of mentioning Jack is that when they changed formats, our oldies guys were shunted off to the internet. Which is a shame, because I'd really love to hear Dick Biondi and Scott Shannon talk up Arcade Fire or the Shins. Our Triple-A station has been puttering along with the same on-air staff for about 30 years, from what I can tell.

As for the "nation of experts" issue, I don't mind that. Finding good music has always been a signal-to-noise problem. We have a lot more signal nowadays, which means more noise, but relatively speaking, I don't think there's any more noise (and there may be less) than there was in the old days. Yeah, every chump with a keyboard can start talking about how his favorite lame band of the moment is the greatest thing since the Ramones. But it doesn't take long to figure out who really knows what they're talking about (i.e. whose taste I trust) and who doesn't.

At 11:33 PM, December 12, 2007, Anonymous Doug said...

Jim C: By the time you caught up to the Sex Pistols, much of the rest of the world had, too, and some of their sounds had already been subsumed into the mainstream. On the other hand, your reaction is also a testament to what hype can do. I had one friend in the late 70s who was way into heavy metal, and he borrowed my Pistols album and had the same reaction you did.

You're right about the Heads on SNL. I wasn't able to see the show and knew that I'd have to check it in reruns, but I eagerly went to another friend who had to see how it went. He got a worried look on his face and said, "They were . . . weird. David Byrne just wasn't right." It made me even more annoyed that I'd missed them.

At 11:47 PM, December 12, 2007, Anonymous Doug said...

red storm: There are a handful of people out there making vague David Byrne impressions, but for the most part, at least as far as I've heard, their bands don't sound like the full-fledged Talking Heads. And I'm still not sure how much radio play they're pulling down.

You're right on the money about originality, though. A lot of bands aren't getting nudged by their influences, they're trying to reinhabit them. We've got a lot of great music in the history or rock, and too many people these days are simply happy to emulate it rather than try to move it to the next level. But don't get too upset with the fact that so much junk is on YouTube. We don't have to watch it all--we can still focus on the small percentage that's actually good.

At 1:05 AM, December 13, 2007, Anonymous Doug said...

Jason: I thought you might've heard XTC on Q101, too. The best quote on Jack-FM I've heard (although I can't find it again right now) was something like, "Sure, it sounds like an ipod--the ipod of your boring friend with lame musical tastes whose ipod you never wanted to listen to in the first place."


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