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“But it all sounds the same.”
Remember that? It’s what your parents used to say about that annoying rock and roll.
I remember. My mother and I used to battle for control of the kitchen radio dial. She wanted it set permanently on the stodgy old talk-and-Sinatra station. I’d reset it on my favorite rock ’n roll station. The sparks would fly. “How can you listen to that noise?” she’d say. “It gives me a headache!” No amount of explaining about the artistry of Chuck Berry or the Beach Boys could soften her resolute unwillingness to understand. She couldn’t, I finally thought, because she was too old.
Thus instructed by her example, I was determined never to outgrow my enthusiasm for new music. And I never did — or so I thought.
I was at a party. There were many radio people present, from WDBS, WKIX, WQDR, WUNC. I engaged Mike Koste, WQDR’s morning disc jockey, in some light gossip about the radio business. I asked him why WQDR was sounding “harder.” He perked up, apparently surprised.
“You miss that old Creedence?” he began. “All those old songs? Well, we’ve tightened up a lot. We’ve added some new stuff and the whole thing sounds better.”
“I was thinking of stuff like old Paul Simon . . .” I replied.
“Old Paul Simon. That’s gone. All that old stuff.”
He went on about the old artists going and the new ones coming. I interrupted, advancing the notion that the net result was more “hard” rock, which I usually find tiresome. Mike looked at me quizzically while Greg Wells, another WQDR disc jockey (or “jock,” as they say in the business), delivered this devastating insight:
“Well, you know what it is, Dave . . . You’re just getting old.”
He was sincere.
This was hard to take. I was once a consummate rock afficianado. I knew what was popular and when, what radio station you could hear it on and where. I knew the call letters of more than 2000 radio stations, their histories and their formats. I considered myself a visionary. Back in my teens I predicted the rise of FM and underground radio. I thought up the term “progressive rock” before Claude Hall, an important columnist in the radio/record business, coined it in the press. I was there when they started playing albums instead of singles on New York FM radio in 1967. I could listen to the whole seven minutes of “Light My Fire” by the Doors on WOR-FM while everyone else heard the abbreviated version on Top 40 AM radio. I was listening when disc jockeys started talking soft and “with it” between album cuts. I was listening when Frank Zappa did testimonials for Hagstrom Guitars on the radio and nobody knew who he was. I was listening the first time Arlo Guthrie played “Alice’s Restaurant” live on the radio before the Newport Festival recording which later became so famous. I listened to the last concert at the Filmore East live on the only station that didn’t cut the Fish Cheer from Country Joe McDonald’s most well-known audience-participation song. I was at the Electric Butterfly in the East Village when a loud group called The United States of America played some of the best ear-splitting synthesizer/guitar rock I’d ever heard, followed by a tiny 16-year-old named Janis Ian who choked through every soaring vocal from the thick dope smoke in the air. I predicted every rock format that happened, including one I called “Progressive Favorites,” in which popular progressive-type singles would be mixed with less familiar but likeable cuts from popular albums. A young guy named Lee Abrams had the same idea. He sold the format and his services to Durham Life Broadcasting. The result in 1973 was WQDR.
And here was this WQDR jock telling me that I was getting old. I did the only thing I could do. I changed the subject, hoping to bend ensuing conversation in support of my Point.
I asked our conversational circle what they thought of the new WXYC, the Carolina student station. “Now there’s a real hard-rock station,” I said. “They’re relentless.” I figured, of course, that we’d all agree on this station’s tasteless excess. Mike Koste spoke first.
“Hey, I think their music’s great. It’s their presentation I don’t like. They should open with some Led Zepplin and segue into . . .”
I couldn’t believe it. So, with parental finality I dropped the full weight of My Judgement on hard rock, the music I have come, over the years, to like less and less. I said:
But it all sounds the same.
They all looked at me. Knowingly. And as it sank in, I knew too. I was getting old, rock-wise. I thought about how, yes, I didn’t know that much about new artists. Or their labels. Or album names. Or birthdays. Or girlfriends. I hadn’t read Rolling Stone more than twice in the past year. I hadn’t read the record trade magazines in two years. Of course I was out of touch.
So I defer, at least momentarily, to the authority of younger guys like Mike Koste on the subject of Rock Future. Here’s what Mike says we have to look forward to:
“Hard rock is making a comeback.”
Judging from what I hear now on FM radio, it seems so. For those who joined the bee-hive-dense crowd on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill at the Apple Chill fair, this might be no surprise either. In past fairs the acoustic music of string ensembles and bluegrass bands have entertained folks the Methodist Church lawn. This year, it was a hair-fuzzing, gut-twisting, hard-driving rock band. And the crowd it drew was convincingly large. Forced to man a booth only 80 yards away, I suffered a four-aspirin headache that wouldn’t quit for a week.
For my money it all does sound the same; all larynx-shredding vocals and post-Hendrix blues-derived electric guitar solos. It’s usually the electric guitar that gets me. It hits my cochlea like a dentist’s drill.
I’m tired of it. Give me something softer, like Bonnie Raitt or James Taylor or Leo Kottke or even Leon Russell. Give me some human, non-electronically-infatuated personalities, who sound like themselves and not a hundred other bands or singers. Give me the happy funk of a Boz Scaggs, or the droll cheek of a Randy Newman, or the weary charm of a Jimmy Buffett or the sexy warmth of a Linda Ronstadt.
I think the strain I feel in my musical tastes has its counterpart in the rock music business and its working partner, the radio business. I have an insistent notion that rock and radio are married. They work together. Without radio there would be no rock. And without rock, radio would sure be different.
This rock/radio relationship used to be simple. There were rock stations, usually called “Top 40,” and there were non-rock stations, those to which your mother listened. The rock stations programmed for young people and other stations programmed for “mature adults.”
The problem is that tastes have become increasingly balkanized. The non-rock, middle-of-the-road (MOR) format has broken up into formats like All-News and Easy-Listening, as well as plain old middle-road stuff. But the situation is much worse for Rock. Here is a partial list of formats evolved from old-fashioned top-40:
AOR (album-oriented rock — what WQDR does)
Magik (mix of oldies and progressive)
Hit Parade (“schlock rock” to some; what WRAL does).
What has happened to rock over the years to create this situation? One might also ask, “What has happened to popular music as a whole?”
The interesting answer to the first question is “a lot,” while the answer to the second is “not much.” Therein lies the source of our current problems.
Let’s take a look at what has happened to popular music during the 20 years or so since rock began.
What is rock anyway? Most authorities place its origin in the Rhythm and Blues of the early Fifties. Allen Freed named it Rock and Roll back in 1956. In the several years following, the genre included at its center artists like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Hank Ballard, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and, of course, Elvis. But those were the hard core rockers of the time. There were others that probably qualified as Rock and Roll, but who were at least knee-deep in the mainstream. This group included Connie Francis, The Skyliners, The Fleetwoods, Brenda Lee, The Four Preps, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darin, Paul Anka and Rick Nelson. There was the Soul Influence, too, with Brook Benton, Lloyd Price, The Coasters and even The Platters. Then there were the other popular artists of the period, who your mother might have liked. This bunch included artists like Sinatra, Pat Boone, Perry Como and Andy Williams. There were weird instrumental hits, too, by artists or groups like Bill Black, Duane Eddy, Johnny and the Hurricanes and whoever it was that did “Harlem Nocturne” and“Manhattan Spiritual.” There was also a country influence. Johnny Cash was going strong. Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison. Marty Robins. Bob Gibson. Top rock and roll radio stations played all that. Just about everybody under 25 listened to it. But you can’t call it all Rock and Roll. In fact, a lot of what one heard on Rock and Roll stations wasn’t Rock and Roll at all.
Let’s take the summer of 1960. Rock and roll was well established. Chuck Berry by then on the slide. Jerry Lee Lewis dormant. Buddy Holly already dead. So what were the big musical hits?
They were (I rely on memory here): “Dreamin” by Johnny Burnette; “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” by Connie Francis; “Mule Skinner Blues” by The Fendermen; “Mission Bell” by Donnie Books; “Paper Roses” by Anita Bryant; “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison; “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles (or Dante and the Evergreens, if you listened to New York radio), and it seems like Elvis had a hit then, too. Where is the rock and roll in all this? Almost nowhere, except the Elvis song, whatever it was. The rest was either novelty (“Alley Oop” and “Mule Skinner’s Blues”) or some combination of mainstream popular and country, with a rock influence here and there. The Orbison song (his best, I think) was country in lyrics and melody, but with a kind of rock arrangement (“dum dum dum dum de wo wah, oo yay yay yay yaah, oh oh oh oh-oo-wah, Only the Lonely”). The Burnette song was rock in tempo, like the Connie Francis song, but that was it.
Now let’s move up to the summer of 1963. By this time, the dance songs were coming out of a peak phase (twist, mashed potatoes, huckelbuck, monkey) and Surfing had just appeared. There were three big surfing hits that summer: “Surf City” by Jan and Dean, “Surfin USA” by the Beach Boys had “Wipe Out” with its flipside hit “Surfer Joe” by the Surfari’s. The rest of the songs were pretty regular: “Memphis” by Lonnie Mack (not Johnnie Rivers); “More” by Kai Winding; “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport” by Rolf Harris; “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto and “Hello Stranger” by Mary Wells. Today three of those hits, redone with added syrup, are staples on “Easy Listening” (a friend of mine calls them “Police State Music”) stations. Again, most of this was mainstream. Only the surfing music contributed anything to the rock and roll genre.
It was in the winter of 1964 that the Beatles and other British groups “invaded,” grabbing for rock a bigger share of airtime and public attention. But the Beatles showed some mainstream qualities after a while. Songs like “Michelle,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Yesterday,” and “Ringo’s Theme” were not mined at the Lennon-McCartney rock quarry.
There was something of special significance the Beatles did, however, that helped change the way records were marketed and played on the radio. They produced good albums. Rubber Soul and Revolver were not good singles married to a lot of dumb songs to make a package, like most albums. They were conceptually connected assortments of excellent songs. This made albums sell; but not until 1967 did any major radio stations pay attention to this fact. What snapped them to attention was, partly, the Sargeant Pepper album, perhaps the most important album ever, and partly the West coast-hippie-acid drug-anti-war subculture explosion that was going on at the same time. Disc Jockeys hungering for liberation from top 40 playlists moved to the fertile fields of FM. Some of these jocks were at least as important as the albums they played. In New York, Scott Muni left a secure and lavishly salaried air shift at WABC, the world’s largest and tightest Top 40 station, to do a poorly paid more-or-less free-form show on WOR-FM. He was joined there by Murray (the K) Kaufmann, Bill “Rosco” Mercer and others. Meanwhile, on the West coast, Tom Donahue moved to KMPX, where all the great subcultural groups of the time found their way to the FM airwaves. Now Scott Muni sells Rolaids (“How do you spell relief?”) and Tom Donahue is dead.
These new FM stations were cracks in the pavement through which flowers could grow. Beautiful flowers they were, too: Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Dead, Quicksilver, Traffic, The Mothers, King Crimson, The Who, The Youngbloods, and more. There in a lot of this music, an intense soaring quality that was experienced as much as heard. A lot of it was loud, and it was supposed to be. It flew along with drugged euphoria or just crashed through the old aesthetic walls in one’s head, opening the new rooms, new horizons, new realities.
With each wave of new music come styles that stand out, develop, and endure. The electric guitar, the most basic rock instrument since the days of Elvis and Chuck Berry, was brought to new heights of artistic invention in the late Sixties. Names like Hendrix and Clapton come quickly to mind as primary contributors to the advancement of rock guitar artistry. There were others, too: Winter, Santana, Beck, Plant, McLaughlin, Winwood . . . They started the ball rolling. It’s their influence that is heard today in the music of Peter Frampton and Robin Trower, and in the guitar improvisations of any randomly chosen band — Orleans or Yes or Genesis.
At its extremes we have groups like Kiss and Black Oak Arkansas, that do live concerts so overpoweringly loud that you could start a chain saw at one and not know the difference. But most rock groups are mid-hard, like Elvin Bishop or Boston or Little Feat; or a little on the softer, more acoustic and strummy side, like the Eagles or the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
I used to regard Fleetwood Mac as a basic, competent, less-than-highly-inspirational rock band. Albums like “Mystery to Me” come to mind — stuff you’d hear in the background at a party. I think of it as a kind of inertial rock, sounding like a lot of junk that happened before, and not going anywhere on its own. Now I’m thinking of Fleetwood Mac’s last two albums. The two interesting female leads — smokey-voiced Christine McVie and sexy-weird Stevie Nicks — shine out in flawless arrangements of nice songs. You can hear each instrument. The selections are long on melody and shorter on guitar improvisation. In other words, the band has made a big move to the mainstream. And it has made them very rich.
Why have they moved into the more popular sphere? Is it because they wanted the money? Maybe. I think it’s because, like me, they’ve gotten older, and they’re playing to a broader audience than the old yogurt-and-dope crowd that used to be their mainstay.
Other artists have adjusted to the aging process, too. I was talking to Steve Tulsky about that the other day. Steve is the program director at WDBS. “Look at Paul Simon,” he said. “There’s an example of someone who has matured with his audience. He’s still playing to the same people, only now they’re older and he’s older.”
In the meanwhile, Steve has a dilemma. He’s trying to hold together a two-part audience. One is the older crowd, which grew up on Top 40 radio, turned on to progressive rock at college age and now tire somewhat of the hard rock. The other is the younger crowd which has grown up with progressive rock and has a highly developed taste for the hard stuff.
It’s too bad that a station like WDBS, with its commitment to good music, has to suffer such a fracture, while an ordinary monster station like WRAL has no cracks at all in a giant audience that stretches from teens to fifties.
Why is this? It’s because a lot of rock music has merged with the mainstream, and because, as we have seen, Popular Radio always has played a lot of mainstream music anyway. One can listen to WRAL and hear the mainstream rockers like Elton John and Fleetwood Mac and never be troubled by the likes of Frank Zappa. The price for this convenience is putting up with Olivia Newton-John and Barry Manilow. But for most listeners, this isn’t a price because they like those artists. Let’s remember that as popular as progressive rock has been, most people have grown up on Top 40 or something similar. The development of rock as an art form has passed many of them by.
You can tell how rock has grown and mainstream hasn’t. Take a progressive rock station and a mainstream station today. Imagine playing old rock songs on either station. It works on the mainstream station. It doesn’t on the progressive station. Putting “Rock Around the Clock” or Chuck Berry, or surfing music or even early Beatles on a progressive rock station today is a difficult task. Rock Music has changed so much over the years that the old stuff is hard to fit. Doing the reverse would make even less sense. Imagine mixing Bad Company with Connie Francis. It doesn’t make sense. On the contrary, mainstream popular music doesn’t suffer from either change or obsolescence. The Carpenters wouldn’t sound out-of-place in a 1959 playlist. Pat Boone wouldn’t sound too ridiculous today. The Big Belting Voices are all but interchangeable in time. One year’s Jay Black (of Jay and the Americans) is another’s Gary Puckett and another’s Tom Jones. Those guys always sound the same.
After all those years, Rock has become a mature musical genre. It is more influential than influenced by other music. Bluegrass, Jazz and Folk are the same. Most of the changes are developed within the genre. Somebody comes up with a modification of a basic style, or does some thing with a new instrument (synthesizer for example). But on the whole, there’s an ingrown quality. That’s why it starts to sound the same.
Think about it. After a while doesn’t all Bluegrass sound the same? Or Dixieland? Or Folk? One likes to think that rock is broader, like Jazz, and this is probably so. I occasionally think that during the next fifty years hard rock will become to overall rock what Dixieland has become to jazz. Who knows?
Well, rock may be a bonafide genre, but the hard core is, alas, not big. A radio station committed to playing at least some hard rock is also committing itself to a smaller if more devoted audience than many other stations will attract by not playing hard rock.
And where does the listener fit into all this? It can get pretty confusing at the receiving end, too. More and more stations are competing for ever-smaller slices of the total-audience pie. For all those broadcasters, the changing nature of the rock listening market has provoked some pretty fancy coping. There are a load of different formats designed to reach the largest or the most clearly defined demographic spread. WRAL’s format is called “Hit Parade” and most of it comes in tapes from a programming service in California. WQDR is programmed locally on advice from their consultant from Atlanta. In bigger markets, where there are many more stations, the differences become subtle. Some will play more singles than album cuts. Some will stress certain artists to attract one kind of listener and other artists to get another kind of listener.
But what about a listener like me? I want to hear a little rock, but I don’t want to hear any more guitar solos that sound like a 2000-pound mosquito riding a laser beam; and I want to hear Leo Kottke and Loudon Wainright and Maria Mauldaur, too.
I feel like that Jethro Tull album title: Too Old to Rock and Roll and Too Young to Die.
So, as a listener, I’m faced with three choices. One is tolerance — to set the dial and put up with occasional disagreeable stuff. Another is to spin the dial all the time, searching for satisfaction. The third choice is just to turn the damn thing off. I know many people who are doing that. If listening to the radio takes effort, why bother?
I do bother, because I always feel, when I turn the radio off and look at it, that I’m missing something.
So that’s why, if I have to vote for a favorite station, it would have to be WDBS. They at least try to please people who are interested in good music. They actually manage to get away with playing Led Zepplin, Manhattan Transfer, Emmylou Harris and Weather Report all in one show. I get turned off by a lot I hear there. But it’s about the only place on the dial where I can get turned on by music I’ve never heard before. WQDR can turn me on, sometimes more often in a given period than WDBS (hell, WQDR plays “Miracles” about every other day); but it’s almost all familiar.
Actually, what’s so important about all this? Why do you have to listen to music all the time anyway? Did you ever think about what it was like when only the rich had music? When poor people sang in bars and played kazoos and other quaint native instruments? Isn’t it pretty silly to worry about not being able to get your favorite songs every time you turn on the radio?
Sure, it’s crazy. I wonder if the aesthetic part of one’s mind becomes corpulent from overfeeding. Every so often I notice that the people I know with the biggest stereos don’t play any musical instruments. And the best musicians I know usually have the crappiest stereos. Or no stereo at all. Sometimes they don’t even have a radio. They can even enjoy themselves without a musical background!
Some people read books. Others sometimes sit still and think of nothing at all.
Pardon my rantings.
All us old people get like this sometimes.