Sunday, October 7, 2007
It's been a while since I shared any of my mixes with you all, but rest assured, I've been making them (see my archive at Art of the Mix if you're interested). Anyhow, I'm here to share the latest.
This mix has been in my head for at least three years, potentially longer. But three years ago was when I was motivated enough to start keeping a list of radio songs. This is at least partially due to a professor whom I was TA-ing for at the time, who had a knack for finding songs about communication and media (and he's also aresponsible for a few of the final inclusions). Anyhow, this mix was always on the backburner. Recently I decided to finally move on it.
I asked around for suggestions. Due to the suggestions I received, I feel the need to justify my inclusions and exclusions.
First, the exclusions.
There are a surprising number of songs in popular music that are about or are somehow related to radio. One of the ways that I narrowed this down was to include only songs that were explicitly about radio. Thus, I cut songs about radio-as-relationship-metaphor (Joni's "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio"), love fostered via radio (Donna Summer's "On the Radio"), identity formed through rock and roll music on the radio (VU's "Rock and Roll") etc. There is one possible exception to this rule, which I will note in my annotated tracklist. So simply mentioning radio "Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place To Go," etc.) was not enough. I wanted radio to be the topic of the song, not merely a backdrop or a bit player. Interestingly, this forced me to really pay attention to lyrics, and I made some new discoveries in my understandings of some of these songs.
So, at least three years in the making, I give you my latest mix, Radio - Someone Still Loves You
1. Peter Gabriel - "On the Air"
Somehow this song didn't come to mind until a few nights ago, when I put on Peter Gabriel's second album (admittedly not my favorite). While the song played, I read the lyrics and was pleasantly shocked. It's not only a song about amateur (potentially pirate; he does after all, broadcast from a shack in the woods) broadcasting, but about ham radio as a substitute for human relationships ("Oh it's not easy / No it's not easy / Making real friends"). And clearly this is an appropriate opener.
2. Steely Dan - "FM"
Despite my love of their music, this may be the first time I've ever put Steely Dan on a mix. What I like about this song is its praise of the Frequency Modulation band: "No static at all!" Sure, I doubt Fagen et. al. were rebelling against AM, but isn't it just like a geeky jazz-rock band in the 1970s to champion FM?
3. Ramones - "We Want the Airwaves"
The only band to appear twice on the mix. This is a practice that I generally try to avoid, but the Ramones have two excellent songs about radio, so I had no choice. Interestingly, there is a political tension between their two radio songs. This one is clearly on the activist end, effectively a rallying cry for pirates and LPFM advocates. Songs about citizens taking over radio get a special nod in my book.
4. LL Cool J - "I Can't Live Without my Radio"
A classic. However, I'm concerned that at times, Cool James appears to be talking more about a boombox/tape deck than the medium of radio ("I'm lookin' at the wires behind the cassette / And now I'm on the right, standing on the eject" and "Get fresh batteries if it won't rewind"). Yet his choice of terminology is 'radio,' so it's included. In reality, this song appears to be more about the virtues of his box than anything else - male technological braggadocio.
5. Queen - "Radio Ga Ga"
In compiling this mix, I was a bit surprised by the amount of songs that qualify as laments for the medium, even in the 1970s/1980s (and along with that, the romanticization of the medium - so many of these songs reference listening to the radio in bed as a teen). "Radio Ga Ga" is an unabashed love song about the medium, delivered with classic Freddie Mercury panache. Furthermore, Susan Douglas lifted from the song in her introduction to Listening In: "You had your time, you had the power / You've yet to have your finest hour." One can only hope that it's true!
6. Starship - "We Built This City"
Another first - I have never put Starship on a mix before, and for good reason. Come on, what was once Jefferson Airplane was but a joke by its 1980s permutation. However, the lyrics of the song struck me - they're about the deregulation of broadcasting! This might sound like a stretch, but let's take a look at the lyrics. Not only does Marconi play the mamba (via Morse code on the wireless, no doubt), but "Someone always playing corporation games / Who cares theyre always changing corporation names." I think those lines are pretty clear, yeah? So let's look beneath the veneer of Starship's aesthetic cheese and look at the lyrics. Under normal circumstances I wouldn't vouch for the group, but the lyrics are fairly potent, particularly as they're pre-Telecommunications Act of 1996.
7. The Buggles - "Video Killed the Radio Star"
Another lament. Interestingly, this song has become canonized as the theme of the MTV era, yet it's pretty clear that the song is much more about radio than video. Also interesting is that the song was actually released in 1979, two years before MTV exploded on cable. It was only a few years ago that I realized how much despair is actually contained in the lyrics. These is true of each verse stanza, but particularly in the lines, "And now we meet in an abandoned studio / We hear the playback and it seems so long ago / And you remember the jingles used to go." Maybe its just me, but this always conjures images of an abandoned radio studio reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic environment - dimly lit, dusty, cobwebs, the equipment barely works, yet it works just enough for the aging radio folk to sit and reminisce about a time when the visual had less dominance, and radio reigned.
8. Everclear - "AM Radio"
Here's one that was hipped to me by a colleague. I've never felt strongly about Everclear one way or the other, but this is a great radio song, as, in contrast to the Steely Dan track, opts to romanticize the era when Amplitude Modulation reigned as the dominant source of radio broadcasting. That alone makes it interesting. I also appreciate the quip "You'd have to wait, but you could hear it on the AM radio." Those of us that spent our childhood and adolescent years listening to radio with cassette recorders at the ready can surely sympathize with such a line. I often wish that I'd held on to those many tapes of songs I taped off of the radio - they'd be a trip to listen to now. Alas.
9. Wall of Voodoo - "Mexican Radio"
When paying close attention to the lyrics of many of these songs, I'm shocked at how well represented radio history is in popular music. Here we have an ode to border radio! Amazing.
10. Ramones - "Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio"
The second great Ramones track about radio. This one is probably my favorite. Again, we have the imagery of a teenager listening to rock and roll radio in bed. The general vibe of the song is great (love that sax line), and I've identified with the lines "We need change and we need and we need it fast / Before rock's just part of the past / 'Cause lately it all sounds the same to me" for some time. Maybe I'm just getting old. At any rate, you have to love all of the name dropping of disc jockeys and rock stars here as well. Not to mention the Phil Spector production.
11. Elvis Costello - "Radio Radio"
I would be remiss were I not to include this classic, potentially the most obvious yet most loved of radio songs. Again, I'm struck that the sentiment regarding radio in rock lyrics even in the mid-late 1970s spoke against commercialism and homogenization. More than that, Elvis is totally making a culture industry argument: "Radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel." You'd better listen!
12. The Clash - "This is Radio Clash"
Three cheers for songs about pirate radio! "Capital Radio" was also in the running, but the content and delivery of "Radio Clash" was to good to resist. This is another one to be filed under revolutionary radio - "Orbiting your living room / Cashing in the bill of rights." Indeed - in addition to the British pirates of the '60s, weren't Dunifer, Kantako et. al. cashing in the bill of rights in the microradio movement?
13. The Replacements - "Left of the Dial"
This is the one song that could be considered an exception to my rule that the songs had to be about radio. But "Left of the Dial" holds a very special place in my heart for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it was the last song I played as DJ at WPTS. In reconsideration, I guess it is a song *about* radio - after all, the narrator knows where to find the other party - the noncommercial portion of the FM band. But there's clearly a non-radio narrative here too. Sue me. Plus, how many songs are about college radio?
14. REM - "Radio Free Europe"
Again, I'm amazed at how well represented radio history is in popular music. Here we have a little ditty about a US CIA operated clandestine station (really a coalition of stations) formed with the mission of spreading democracy and dismantling communism via broadcast propaganda. Take that Red Scare! The organization is also behind a more recent clandestine effort, Radio Free Afghanistan.
15. John Hartford - "Turn Your Radio On"
Here's one that I was unfamiliar with until recently. Of course, I found out via an excellent radio-themed edition of Bob Dylan's Sirius show that this version is actually cover. Alas, the mix was already made. It's true to the original at any rate. I love the idea of radio as a means of communication with a higher power. I feel like there were similar uses of the telephone in popular culture, but no specific examples come to mind at the moment.
16. Neil Young - "Payola Blues"
This one requires little explanation. Sure it's somewhat tongue-in-cheek ("cash-a-wad-a-wad-a"), but Neil Young's dedication to Alan Freed "wherever you are" adds a romantic/nostalgic element to the song. And once again, the song is still relevant today, given the covert forms of payola currently in practice.
17. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - "Radio Nowhere"
Almost immediately after Springsteen offered this track as a free download on iTunes, fans began labeling it "'57 Channels and Nothin' On' for radio." An accurate assessment, but I think "Radio Nowhere" has a greater urgency, lacking the humor of "57 Channels." I feel ya, Boss. Sure the lyrics aren't particularly poetic, and the music is fairly standard (in fact, it's the same chord progression as the Joan Osborne hit "One of Us"), but the spirit of the song hits home, and is delivered flawlessly. I'm curious as to whether this song has charted at all on airplay charts.
18. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - "The Last DJ"
Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised that a number of songs chronicle radio's downfall amidst deregulation, but I am a little shocked/pleased that folks like Springsteen and Petty, once radio staples and still on major labels, bluntly criticize the state of the medium in song. As I recall, Petty was also in some hot water from his record company in the mid 1990s for posting a then-new album on his website for download. I guess he really was 'born a rebel' (hey hey hey).
19. Rush - "The Spirit of Radio"
Closing us out is a song that I guess I never paid much attention to lyrically, for I took it as a celebration. In fact, we have another lament. Starting off with a romantic verse about waking to "a friendly voice," the song's chorus ends up making a culture industry argument of sorts:
"One likes to believe in the freedom of music / But glittering prizes and endless compromises / Shatter the illusion of integrity" and the coda: "For the words of the prophets [profits?] were written on the studio wall / Concert hall / And echoes with the sounds of salesmen." I guess the CBC isn't all it's cracked up to be.
So there you have it. I'm glad I finally got this mix out of my system. It was a much more interesting experiment than I anticipated, primarily due to the various facets of radio history articulated in these songs. Maybe I can submit this mix for my comps. Maybe not.