Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Playlist Posts #1: Songs About The Radio

This is the first in a series of posts that include songs that I would put in a themed playlist.  Consider this an "annotated playlist".  Feel free to include your suggestions in the comments!

Not long ago I was teaching my high school course on American popular culture post-WWII.  The class mainly focuses on popular music, with digressions about television, computers and other technological advances.  One day, while talking about radio, it came out that pretty much NONE of the students listen to terrestrial radio anymore.  They either listen to satellite stations or they listen to streaming music websites or they download music to their iPods.   This was shocking to me.  When I was their age, I listened to the radio every day, and even now I stream my favorite radio station (WXPN out of the University of Pennsylvania) on my computer on a daily basis.

The following songs (in no particular order) are songs about the radio that evoke my memories of listening to the radio all day long when I was young.  I definitely owe my encyclopedic knowledge of "classic rock" to my years listening to  WIOQ, WMMR and WYSP (which sadly just transitioned to the dreaded "sports talk" format).  And the two years when I listed to WRTI (which in the 1980's was America's most powerful jazz station, watts wise) gave me a very thorough familiarity with jazz.  While my listening chops are not sharp anymore, there was a time when I could recognize drummers, bassists, horn players and others without identification.  Why?  Obsessive radio listening!

Al Stewart-- Song on the Radio: I've always loved Scottish folk-rocker Al Stewart.  His songs take an unusual interest in history, which appeals to me as a history teacher. In fact, the essay I wrote to get into college compared his song about the Siege of Leningrad (Roads to Moscow) with a photograph from WWII.  Anyway, this song with the catchy refrain "you're on my mind like a song on the radio" has always struck me as very "true" somehow.  I guess today's generation will miss out on the experience of a station (especially a Top 40 station) playing popular songs over and over again.  I mean, they can CHOOSE to repeat songs whenever they want, but the random nature of a "song on the radio" seems subtly different to me.


Marshall Crenshaw-- Radio Girl: This song is the first of a couple that focus on the listener's relationship with the deejay.  Besides having a beautiful, almost Hawaiian melody featuring slide guitar genius Sonny Landreth, the lyrics focus on the singer's imaginary relationship with a woman disc jockey.   As the song says:

Well I don't know what she looks like
I've never seen her face before.
But I hear her on my radio
From 1 AM til 4.
She's playing all my favorite records
She's telling me the latest news
I take her into my bed each night
And she rocks away my blues
'Cause she's my girl,
My radio girl

I had TWO radio girls.  When I was in high school, circa 1986-1988, I had a total crush on WYSP DJ Debbi Calton that only barely eclipsed my affection for Helen Leicht (then of WIOQ, I listen to her now on WXPN).  Debbi had a great love of rock and roll, a voice that thrilled me, and she did the 10 PM to 2 AM shift, so I listened to her as I fell asleep.  Helen hosted the weekend show "Breakfast with the Beatles", which helped school me on the Fab Four.  One of the things that was especially significant about these crushes was that (pre WWW) it was impossible to know what they looked like.  And while both are attractive women, neither looks at all like my mental image.  Oh well....


Dar Williams--Are You Out There: When I attended Hampshire College in the late 80's and early 90's I managed to broaden my horizons by gluing myself to WRSI out of Greenfield, Ma., one of the first "alternative" rock stations.  I would stay up every night until they signed off at 2 AM to make sure that I didn't miss anything.  Two of the disc jockeys I especially liked were Johnny Memphis and Jimmy Olsen.  It turns out that young folk singer (and resident of nearby Northampton) was listening too.  This song has a slightly more ethereal vibe.  The music is more disturbing, and echoes the words that seem to perfectly capture (to me) the feeling that I had as an awkward, isolated teenager who only cared about music.  To quote the song:

Perhaps I am a miscreation

No one knows the truth there is no future here

And you're the DJ speaks to my insomnia

And laughs at all I have to fear

Laughs at all I have to fear

You always play the madmen poets

Vinyl vision grungy bands

You never know who's still awake

You never know who understands and

Are you out there, can you hear this?

Jimmy Olson, Johnny Memphis,

I was out here listening all the time

And though the static walls surround me

You were out there and you found me

I was out here listening all the time

Last night we drank in parking lots

And why do we drink?
I guess we do it cause

And when I turned your station on 

You sounded more familiar than that party was

You were more familiar than that party

It's the first time I stayed up all night

It's getting light I hear the birds

I'm driving home on empty streets

I think I put my shirt on backwards

Are you out there, can you hear this 

Jimmy Olson , Johnny Memphis

I was out here listening all the time

And though the static walls surround me 

You were out there and you found me

I was out here listening all the time

I know that there were lots of times when "I turned your station on just so I'd be understood
", and I hope that kids today can find someone (not just a music database) to trust--preferably in their real life, but if not, a radio host would do.  It did for me.


Rush-- Spirit of Radio: This song by the mighty Canadian power trio Rush (off their 1980 release "Permanent Waves") is another one that seems to synopsize how radio can come to mean so much to listeners.  Besides having an undeniably rocking syncopated rhthym, the lyrics are very perceptive: 

Begin the day with a friendly voice,
A companion unobtrusive
Plays that song that's so elusive
And the magic music makes your morning mood.

Off on your way, hit the open road,
There is magic at your fingers
For the spirit ever lingers,
Undemanding contact in your happy solitude. 

Anyone who has listened to the radio on a long car drive, or had a bad morning made tolerable thanks to hearing your favorite song can relate to this song.

Another noteworthy part of this song is the cautionary aspect of Neil Peart's lyric.  He seems to worry that the commercial aspects of the music business may put radio in danger.  I absolutely love the line:

One likes to believe in the freedom of music,
But glittering prizes and endless compromises
Shatter the illusion of integrity. 

and not just because of the emphatic "Yeah" singer Geddy Lee adds at the end. 


Bruce Springsteen-- Radio Nowhere: The first single off Springsteen's 2009 release "Magic", this song seems to respond to the previous one by Rush.  The singer is driving through the night, and there is nothing worth listening to on the dial.  The song is one of his all-time best rockers, in my opinion which is suitable considering lyrics like:

I want a thousand guitars
I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices speaking in tongues

This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
Is there anybody alive out there?

I was driving through the misty rain
Searchin' for a mystery train
Boppin' through the wild blue
Tryin' to make a connection to you

This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
Is there anybody alive out there?

I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear some rhythm


Queen--Radio Gaga: Decades before Bruce's lament, Queen's Roger Taylor wrote this tribute to radio.  Fearing that it would fade away in the face of the superficially more attractive television, Taylor's ode to radio is more focused on radio shows from the pre-tv era, but still resonates with me. 

I'd sit alone and watch your light
My only friend through teenage nights
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio
The performance of this song at Live Aid was breathtaking to me, as over 100,000 people at London's Wembley Stadium, in an ironic tribute to the power of television, not radio, mimiced the behavior of the actors in the song's video by clapping their hands over their heads during the refrain.


R.E.M.--Radio Song: This last song, from Athens, Georgia's 1980's alt-rockers R.E.M came from their 1991 album "Out of Time".  It daringly combined the new genre of rap, featuring the rapper KRS-ONE (whose acronymic name stands for "Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone").  The song is funny, and would seem to criticize people who listen to the radio too much:

Check it out
What are you saying
What are you playing
Who are you obeying
Day out day in?
Baby, baby, baby, baby
That stuff is driving me crazy
DJs communicate to the masses
Sex and violent classes
Now our children grow up prisoners
All their lives radio listeners

Supposedly songwriter Michael Stipe was trying to make fun of people's relationship with radio.  While this song is the most dated sounding of all the ones on this list, I thought it was a humorous way to end this playlist, and to remember not to take things so seriously!

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe I forgot "Wavelength" by Van Morrison. "When I was down you always comfort me" indeed.