Listening to Alt-pop stations

Another downside to having to commute again is that I’m stuck listening to local terrestrial radio stations in the car. Now, before you get all het up about that statement, let me explain: I’m all for local terrestrial stations! They’re good for the community, they keep me updated on when the highway I’m currently driving on might be all sorts of borked a few miles up the road; they do in fact keep me entertained on an otherwise uneventful and sort of boring drive* in their own way. In fact, I just recently found a Bollywood-themed station out of San Jose!

[* – The one non-boring bit of the commute I will never tire of is coming across the western span of the Bay Bridge and back into San Francisco just as the sun is setting. It’s a glorious view and I still have moments where I’m amazed I live in such a ridiculously photogenic city.]

No, the issue I have is the commerciality of most of these stations. Sure, I totally understand that these stations need advertising and numbers and set rotations to keep them going nowadays, as freeform radio is pretty much relegated to college and non-profit stations. But what has always made me tire of these stations is that the playlist can be so…predicatable. When you listen to the radio as much as I do, the playlist patterns start getting more and more obvious. I’ve worked at both college and commercial stations so I know what rotations are and why they’re a thing… I guess I just tire of them a lot quicker than other people do.

There’s only so many times I can hear classic mainstays like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” or Green Day’s “Longview” in a week (at least four to six) or new songs like Tones & I’s “Dance Monkey” (same, if not more, and the song kind of similar to Crazy Frog’s “Axel F” in that I find it quite annoying and yet somehow ridiculously popular). There’s certain songs that are like playing bingo: the day isn’t complete without hearing That Particular Classic Track.

I mean, I hate to sound like an old and aging hipster yelling at clouds here, but sometimes these “alternative” stations feel more like… “alternapop” stations, playing it safe with the same bands that feel more pop than alternative. They aren’t nearly as adventurous as they make themselves out to be. This is especially notable when I’m listening to a non-profit station like KEXP, which is far more adventurous in its playlist…and inclusive. It occurred to me recently that our local alternative station rarely plays bands of color (at least that I know of), and rarely any women aside from “Dance Monkey”, Billie Eilish, Shaed’s “Trampoline” and Meg Myers’ cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill”. Maybe a Lana Del Rey track now and again, but it’s almost all men. That tells me it’s almost all about the numbers, and the numbers state that the listeners are mostly the “males 18 – 44” group. Everyone else gets the short shrift, even if that station is one of the very few in the area that plays the style and genre they like the most.

I’ll make do, but it’s really uninspiring after a while and I find myself spending most of my commute hitting the surf button for something different. I’m this close to giving up on these stations and ordering a headphone-to-USB cable so I can listen to my mp3 players in the car.

Thankfully, most of the terrestrial stations I do listen to, ones that appeal to my tastes and don’t bore me, also stream online where I can listen to them on my phone. Kind of tricky to do when your traveling, though.

Early 80s MTV, post-punk and new wave

Gloria Vanderbit’s passing yesterday got me thinking about the classic Robert Hazard one-hit-wonder “Escalator of Life” that came out in 1982. It was one of those odd new-wavey hits that didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense lyrically (or in this case, took a metaphor and stretched it to its breaking point), but it was certainly one hell of a cool song at the time.

I often talk about the late 80s here at Walk in Silence, but I don’t think I give nearly enough love to the early 80s, which were just as influential to me as a kid. I listened to just as much radio and watched as much MTV then as I did later on, and my tastes were just as varied. I could be listening to the hard rock of WAAF in the morning as I got ready for school, but I could be listening to the classic rock of WAQY on the weekend, and watching the then-freeform stylings of early era MTV. I liked A Flock of Seagulls and Duran Duran and Pat Benatar just as much as I liked Led Zep, Eagles, and that little quirky southern band WAQY liked called REM.

As commercial as some of these stations and channels were, they weren’t averse to playing the occasional obscurity like The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” or Yello’s “The Evening’s Young”. They’d sneak in gems like The Jam’s “Town Called Malice” or Bow Wow Wow’s “Baby Oh No”. They were quirky but had crossover potential.

I remember a lot of these obscurities — the ones you remember from the era that don’t show up on those Just Can’t Get Enough compilations or those 80s Retro internet stations — because my mixtape-making actually started around this time, in late 1982. I’d made quasi-mixtapes before then, of course..mainly dubbing songs off the radio and from MTV (holding our cassette recorder close to the tv speaker, of course), but they didn’t contain that many songs. It wasn’t until November 1982 that I’d gathered a handful of used blank tapes and went wild. This first collection lasted six tapes and contained everything from A Flock of Seagulls to Led Zeppelin to Donnie Iris to Chilliwack to Thomas Dolby. It’s quite a manic and haphazard mix, created over the length of maybe two or three months.

I also started cataloging my mixtapes around then, first on index cards I would stick to the tapes with rubber bands, then a few years later with a steno notebook. Most all of those early tapes are long gone, having either gotten broken or tangled, taped over by something more important, or just faded back into white noise. But I kept these catalogs — mainly because I was a packrat — and much, much later (in 2007 or so) I started recreating them digitally using copied mp3s.

It’s kind of wild to see these mixtape track lists so many decades later; on the one hand, I’m not at all surprised that I was that obsessed over pop and rock music by the time I was twelve. There was just so much more out there coming out, and I just wanted to hear all of it! Sure, I had my questionable selections, but we all did around then. We’d gone from AM radio to the commercial FM radio to early MTV within the span of maybe four or five years. Some of us were just going to ride that particular avalanche and have fun while it happened.

Indie Rocks

Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, courtesy KEXP.org

For the last seven or eight months, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to KEXP online while working from home. It’s an affiliate of the University of Washington and non-profit, and they play some damn fine indie rock that’s made my ears perk up repeatedly. A good portion of my downloads during this time have been informed or influenced by the station.

Okay, that may sound like a shameless plug, but let’s be honest, I’ll happily plug any station that broadcasts purely out of a love for music rather than for the ratings. If your station is dedicated to a creative playlist, bands both local and international, and is not afraid to shake it up now and again, you’ve got my ears and my loyalty.

Sometimes it’s hard to find these stations, especially when they seem to be a vanishing breed. Even though the Giant Conglomerates seem to be losing money hand over fist due to a severe bout of All The Stations Are Playing The Same Damn Songs, it’s often hard to find these stations on your car stereo or elsewhere. You often have to go online and further afield like I did. I might live in San Francisco, but when a good number of the local commercial stations are all owned by Cumulus or some other big name, I have to dig a bit.

And sometimes the college stations don’t exactly work for me, either. Some like Berkeley’s KALX or Stanford’s KZSU are good but far too leftfield for my tastes. Others like Santa Clara’s KSCU run mostly on minimal programming and maximum library autoplay. Some have become shells of their former selves, broadcasting an NPR feed with very few live shows.

This is why I’m still a big fan of streaming radio stations online. Not streaming full-stop; I do have a Spotify account but I rarely use it, and for the most part I only stream albums on New Release Fridays. I crave the live deejay atmosphere. [And most definitely not the “morning crew” kind, which I find far too irritating. Howard Stern may have made it popular, but that format is way beyond its sell-by date now.]

I’ll usually find these stations in one of two ways: either by word of mouth/band announcement (KEXP is known for hosting quite a few live-in-studio performances) or by local listening. I’ve favorited stations that I happened upon while on vacation. I love to find new stations and check them out via their website.

I find KEXP to be a perfect blend of all the good parts of the above. Maybe a little leftfield, but never weird for weirdness’ sake. Silly deejay banter, but never meathead locker room humor. Each host has their own style and tastes. I might hear a song on heavy rotation, but I won’t hear it eight times a day. They’ll often surprise me with deep cuts from new albums. They’ve introduced me to a hell of a lot of indie bands I never would have heard of otherwise.

And I’m always curious to find even more stations. Who knows what I’ll be listening to six months from now?

FM

fm movie poster
Back when I was a kid, one of my favorite records that I used to love taking out of the library — aside from The Beatles 1962-1966, which I did not yet own — was the soundtrack to a 1978 movie called FM.

It was an amazing double-album filled with huge rock hits of the last few years: Bob Seger’s “Night Moves”, Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane”, Boz Scaggs’ “Lido Shuffle”, Boston’s “More than a Feeling”, and more…and of course Steely Dan’s classic theme song.  Pretty much a perfect cross-section of what would become the classic rock genre in future radio programming.  [It’s still available on CD at this time, by the way, and highly recommended.]

I don’t remember the movie ever playing anywhere close at the time of its release (April 1978), but then again, I was only seven at the time.  The soundtrack was good enough for me.  Still, it would be another few years before I finally saw it when it was shown on one of the local independent TV channels a few years later.  I enjoyed it, even if some of the more mature issues (like Eric Swan’s sexual encounters or Mother’s consistently-baked persona) went right over my head.  The short version of the plot is that Q-Sky, an LA-based rock station with committed fans but not much profit, is being threatened by upper management to play more commercials and less music to make more money.  The stalwart deejays (your classic tropes here: the smooth-talking overnight guy, the ex-hippie still living in the previous decade, the young and spunky morning host, the cute and friendly girl everyone loves, the popular prima donna, and so on) decide to go against upper management to keep the station alive and rockin’ at whatever cost…even if it means going on strike.

[There are definitely shades of WKRP in Cincinnati here, but please note that the show was actually in pre-production talks when this movie came out; they’re not connected to each other in any way.]

It wasn’t until I read Richard Neer’s 2001 book FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio (also highly recommended) that I renewed my interest in the film.  It took me another number of years to finally find a dvd copy.  Years older and more knowledgeable about the way radio works, I’d discovered that the movie, for all it’s worth, was actually quite accurate in its portrayal of a radio station’s ups and downs during that time.

FM rock radio was in fact becoming the preferred choice for younger listeners by 1978, bypassing AM radio’s previous popularity — thus the riff ‘no static at all’ in the theme song.  It was also the zenith of rock radio to that point, with numerous bands releasing platinum and gold selling albums that are still highly regarded to this day.  At the same time, however, the financial woes of running a popular radio station had started taking its toll on the programming.  It was becoming harder and harder to be a free-form station where the deejay could play anything they wanted, when the business itself needed to make a profit to stay alive.  FM was in fact a spot-on commentary of this, even when it veered into the occasional Hollywood movie silliness.

Running a radio station nowadays is still just as hard as it’s ever been.  The issue is that it’s not built to be a moneymaker; it’s built to be a community service.  It provides free entertainment and information to its listeners; its money is made from its advertising or donations and fundraising events.  Most owners and station managers try to keep the moneymaking part of the business as unobtrusive as they can.

But that’s another post altogether.  I’m just here to talk about one of my favorite movies and soundtracks!

Is That Freedom Rock, Man?

Somehow I fell down another retro rabbit hole and have been listening to the Sirius XM Classic Rock Party station over the last few days.  I’m fifteen again and listening to WAAF and WAQY in my messy bedroom, cranking up the 80s stylings of Twisted Sister, Billy Idol and Whitesnake alongside the classic 60s/70s hits of the Stones, Yes, and BROOOCE.

This was the music I grew up with.  I was too young to understand punk and post-punk back in the early 80s (at least not until that fateful evening in early 1986), and as much as I enjoyed the pop of American Top 40 and American Bandstand, it was the music of rock stations that stuck with me most. I was a nerdy, spotty kid that was completely obsessed with music and radio and would be just as happy sitting alone in front of my boombox as I would be outside roaming the neighborhood on my BMX with my buddies.  This was Diver Down and Pyromania playing on my sister’s boombox while we played touch football in the backyard.  This was me completely blown away by 90125 and Synchronicity and So.  This was my growing obsessions with other bands aside from the Beatles.  This was our state capital’s own honored rockers in the forms of Aerosmith, the J Geils Band and Boston.  This was where I learned to appreciate bands before my time like Jimi Hendrix and Cream and The Rolling Stones.

Decades later and here I am, hitting middle age and living on the opposite coast, listening to the still-epic “Born to Run”, still impressed by the guitar solo freakout of the back half of “Freebird”, still feel that “Layla” is a decent song but is about 3 minutes too long.  Living in a city where Janis and Jerry lived, where Steve Miller recorded the sound of the foghorn going past the Marina for the opening of his Sailor album, where the classic Frampton Comes Alive! was recorded just three miles away at a long-departed ballroom in Japantown.  Where Journey the Doobies and the Dead and the Airplane lived and recorded and became local heroes.

The playlist has its moments of amusing embarrassment.  All that LA glam metal of the 80s is still goofy, doofy, simplistic fun, just like I remember it.  All the prog rock of the 70s is still full of nerdy math and fantastical imagery.  All the arena rock bands are still full of that bombast.  Some of it’s kind of corny now, but you can’t help but have fun listening to it.  The playlist is also going to be a lot of the same heavy-rotation classics that you can’t escape, even after all these years.  It may even have its share of “oh, that song!” moments.

Sure, most of it’s a good three or four decades old now, but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to listen to.

Walk In Silence 1

I’d say the music that I connected to most at the time was classic rock.  I’d grown up listening to it, and started my music collection with the Beatles.  Not to say I didn’t enjoy other genres or station programming…I had a passing interest in the poppier Top 40 sounds, especially from about 1983 onwards, when it updated its sound and included multiple genres.  But thanks mainly to WAQY 102.1 FM out of East Longmeadow and WAAF 107.3, originally out of Worcester, I found myself listening to a lot of classic and AOR rock.

Looking back, I think part of it may be due to the quality of the production and the creativity of the music.  It didn’t necessarily need to be a genius creation, it just had to have something that caught my attention somehow.

That would mean John Bonham’s thunderous drums and John Paul Jones’ synth strings on the epic “Kashmir” — the first rock song to completely blow my mind — or the Beatlesque* sounds of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”.  Or it could be the countrified twang of Eagles.  Even the bubblegum fun of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” and “Fox On the Run” counted, thanks to their catchy guitar riffs and high-pitched harmonies.

 

I often say The Beatles’ 1967-1970 compilation is ‘officially’ the first album I ever owned, but that’s not entirely true.  I will admit that claim actually belongs to Shaun Cassidy’s Born Late, which I’d gotten for Christmas in 1977.  I kind of consider that a trial run, though…in December of 1977 my music collection was pretty much a reflection of what I thought album collecting was about at the time: pop music and buying whatever was popular at the time.  Why did I have my mom buy that Shaun Cassidy album?  Who knows.  I think it was because he was one of the Hardy Boys on TV at the time, and he was all over the covers of teen magazines at the time.  David’s little brother, also a musician and an actor and a heartthrob!  Buy it now!  Hell, I was six years old at the time, I didn’t know any better.  I didn’t even know I was breaking a perceived gender role at the time by liking a young pop star’s music.  My parents may have side-eyed me (more on the quality of the music than the gender role, that is), but I didn’t care.  Even then it was about the music.

All that changed in 1978, when two things happened.

First, the much maligned movie Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, featuring the insanely popular Bee Gees (another favorite band, thanks again to an older sister) and Peter Frampton (a huge pull, thanks to the fantastic Frampton Comes Alive album and his mindblowing use of the talkbox guitar effects on “Do You Feel Like We Do”).  I originally went because I liked the singers, but my mom had hinted that I’d enjoy the songs they’d be singing here.  It’s painful to watch now, but at the time it was silly and a lot of fun.

Second, I was made aware of an annual tradition on WLVI, channel 56 (6 on our dial), one of Metro Boston’s independent television stations (decades before it became an affiliate of The CW).  On a summery Sunday afternoon they’d play Yellow Submarine, the 1968 animated Beatles movie.

I knew the Beatles in passing, of course.  In the 70s, who didn’t?  They’d only broken up a few short years before and were enjoying healthy solo careers at that point (especially Paul McCartney).  Their music was still getting heavy rotation on the radio at the time.

[I should probably interrupt here and state that there was a third event that took place in 1978 that changed everything, even though I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time.  That event is the overwhelming change in radio listening habits in the United States.  It was this year when people began listening to music on the FM dial rather than on AM.  There are many and varied reasons for it — the acceptance of rock radio as a valid genre rather than an underground interest, and even the fact that home stereos were becoming more affordable.  By the time 1978 rolled around, we’d had a stereo in my parents’ bedroom that as soon moved to my sisters’ bedroom, where it got much higher use.  I ended up with a cheap hand-me-down kids’ record player where even to this day, I can still remember the loud nasally wrhirrrrrrrr of the motor.  I’d get the old stereo when my sisters upgraded, and finally getting my own sometime around 1983.]

So yes, it was in 1978 when I finally, officially, owned my first record, and also picked up on my first musical obsession.  Over the next four or five years, I searched and found all the Beatles-related records I could find.  Some of the albums I purchased were new (usually bought at Mars Bargainland, the department store outside of town), but many were found used at garage sales, town fairs and elsewhere.  First came the albums, then came the singles.  I believe I got Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road early on, because I was already familiar with most of those songs from the Sgt Pepper movie.  Revolver was another early one, thanks to familiarity with some of its tracks as well.  Imagine an eight-year-old  hearing “Tomorrow Never Knows” for the first time — I had no idea what I was listening to, but it certainly was amazing!

 *

I’m explaining all this, even though it has nothing to do with college radio, because this early obsession is a major reason why I latched onto it as closely as I did.

Even as the pop music of the seventies and eighties slowly morphed from one genre or style to another, I found myself irrevocably obsessed over it all.  I knew bands and their discographies almost as well as other kids my age might know who played on what NFL team and for how long.  Their stats were performance ratings and signature moves; my stats were release dates and what labels released them.

 

* – Beatlesque: usually means evoking psychedelic melodies of 1967, dreamlike whimsy, three-part harmony, and often attempting to sound like something from either Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Abbey Road.

Music for a Busy Day

Oof–nothing like an ongoing heavy workload at the Day Job to keep me from actually getting any real writing done.  I’m of two minds on it:  there are days when I just want to forget my writing for a day, relax and regain my energy…and then there are days (usually the very same ones, an hour or so later) when I call BS on that complaint and force myself to get that writing done out of sheer New England stubbornness.  Unless I’m dead tired by the end of my shift, the latter usually (and thankfully) wins out.

As always, listening to music gets me through the day.  I’ve been listening to a lot of Radio BDC lately, switching over to KSCU or Sirius XM when I need a change of playlist.  Since I work at home, I can get away with something with a little stronger than your okay but spineless Listen At Work station.  It never hurts to stop what you’re doing for The Man and sing along to Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off” with wild abandon. 🙂

So what are you listening to today?