Monday, August 26, 2013

Remembering Radio (and Me), Part 1: 1978

Last week, Matt Yglesias asked why people don't remember the 1990s more fondly. (This isn't the first time he's blogged nostalgically for his Clinton-era youth.) Noah Millman and Jacob T. Levy provided some context for his reminiscences, but I wasn't having any of it: the simple--and, I think, incontrovertible--fact is that, while much which has replaced it has great merit, what used to be called "pop culture," and particularly pop music, finally tottered off and died in the early 90s, and that's something to mourn, not something to look back on fondly. In an ensuing Facebook discussion, it was made clear to me that my problem--a problem which is probably common to many American 40-somethings--is that for years and years I listened to the radio to learn about and participate in pop culture, and when the old world of radio at last collapsed (some fifteen years after the Buggles predicted it), only to be mostly replaced by something which sounded like pop radio, worked like pop radio, but quite obviously wasn't....well, let's just say it's a transition which marked a major cultural turning point in my life. The fact that other turning points (like my marriage) coincided with that moment in time are relevant, but they don't tell the whole story. The story is one of my no longer listening to the radio, and/or the radio no longer holding on to listeners like me.

I suppose, in response, I could write a long essay explaining my views about the long, slow, decline and transformation of pop radio. That would be typical of me, I know. But instead--forget that. It's the end of summer, and everyone is already waking up from vacation and getting back to work (fall semester started for us last week here at Friends); no time or desire to engage in serious introspection. So instead, I'll just follow Matt's lead, and get nostalgic. Before the Labor Day holiday closes out the frivolous summer entirely, here's some random memories, in four parts, of the decade and a half during which pop radio ruled my mind. I'm sure my reliable eight readers will be delighted.

******

1978, thirty-five years ago, the year I turned 10 years old. I'm pretty certain that was the year that I discovered pop radio. It's not like I wasn't already the sort of kid to play recorded music loud and dance around the living room to LPs that I played on the massive living room stereo; thanks to my mom I was, at the very least, getting pretty familiar with Broadway tunes and musical soundtracks. But I really don't think I'd paid much attention at all to pop music before then--I mean, I'm sure I picked up on this thing called "disco" from my older siblings or the television (I did watch American Bandstand on occasion, once Saturday morning cartoons had ended), but I just don't think it penetrated my thinking.

It was a cousin of mine, I believe, a kid a couple of years older than me, who turned me on. He had a radio in his bedroom, and he told me about Casey Kasem's show "American Top 40." Was I merely curious? Did I think that knowing what the best-selling records were would make me more popular at school? Was it just something that appealed to my (still abiding) desire for pointless trivia? Who knows--all I can say is that I was hooked. I somehow got a hold of an old radio and put it in my bedroom, and started listening in. I made some great discoveries--like E.G. Marshall's "CBS Radio Mystery Theater" late on Sunday nights, which I'd listen to with the sound turned way down. Mostly, though, I discovered rock and roll, though I didn't know what I was listening to at the time. The station which I gravitated to was KJRB 790, a great old AM rock (later oldies, after that sports, and now apparently all news and talk) station in Spokane, WA, that for some reason I can still remember so much about. It was, I think, the only station in the Spokane that was really playing serious rock, and while I had no idea who The Rolling Stones were, and couldn't begin to figure out the lyrics The Who were singing, I nonetheless managed to get a solid education in the harder edge of mainstream pop radio, circa 1978. Stuff like The Stones's "Beast of Burden"...



and Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London"...



and The Who's "Who Are You?"...



...were what I started out with. Cuts off of Boston's Don't Look Back and Journey's Infinity were probably in there too.

But I have to be honest: radio didn't turn me into a rocker. Partly because, I suppose, I had some vague religious suspicion about the stuff I was listening to (though the real anti-rock and roll hammer wouldn't fall in our church community for a couple more years), but mostly, I think, just because at age 9 and 10, I simply couldn't make sense of a lot of it. I suppose that if KJRB was all there had been, I might have burned out on pop music entirely. But Casey Kasem and AT40 made sure I was aware of other stuff, and some of that sunk in a little deeper. There was another station, KREM 92.9, an FM station that had what I've since realized had what is called an "adult album" format, meaning that it would play a much broader range of music and had DJs that had a little more time to play around on air. Dork that I was, this was the station I would call up, asking that they play some song or another (which I did while possessing, as I said, my nerdy childhood ignorance of what I was talking about; I recall one time I requested they play the then-new Chicago tune "No Tell Lover," which I'd thought was "Hotel Lover"--I'm sure the DJs must have cracked up over the pipsqueak voice on the receiver getting the name of the song wrong). But I'm grateful for them, because it was they which gave me my two favorite songs of my early youth, and thus accidentally planted seeds for a subsequent appreciation of R&B and folk. First was the very first 45 single record I ever bought, the Spinners's cover of "Working My Way Back to You"....



...which I think I actually first heard on the radio at our local Schwinn store while I was looking for a new bike that my parents had promised to buy for me, and just thought was the grooviest damn thing I'd ever heard (assuming I even knew the word "groovy" back then). And then there was the song which led me to buy my very first commercial tape cassette, which I dearly wish I still possessed: Al Stewart's Time Passages. I had to steal a tape recorder from my parents to play it, and I ruined it by listening, then rewinding, then listening, again and again to just the title track:



Why did this song resonate with me? I have no idea. Maybe even as a child I was longing to, somehow, be what I imagined to be an older, worldy-wise person, with adult responsibilities and desires and regrets. Maybe I was just always a fogey in some manner or another, or a sucker for nostalgia. Or maybe I loved it just because it was so utterly anti-disco. (It's probably the same reason why I couldn't get enough, in 1978, of "With a Little Luck" or "Right Down the Line," even though I wouldn't learn who Paul McCartney or Gerry Rafferty were for years.) Anyway, it's clear that KREM's pop ethos had planted it's roots deep in my pop music soul. (Though why and how I also ended memorizing--accurately this time--the complete lyrics of Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler," also released in 1978, I have no idea.) 

Of course, I was missing so much. No Elvis Costello's This Year's Model, no The Scream by Siouxsie and the Banshees, no Todd Rundgren or Peter Garbiel or Squeeze. Spokane wasn't offering much in terms of what I guess at the time was probably called "college radio." That would bother me, later. But that's another part of the story.

2 comments:

Robert Couch said...

Nice, Russell. Sometime I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on the changes in pop culture, and culture more broadly, and the role played by the transition from radio to video (and to internet media sharing). In particular, I've wondered the extent and manner in which geographical communities have been altered by the erosion of (more or less exclusive) radio broadcasting, which tended to keep communities bound together in a particular and identifiable way....

Wm said...

My cousin introduced me to Asia the summer I turned 10 and from that moment on I began listening to top40 radio. I have fond memories of listening to Casey Kasem on my parents clock radio.

There were certain songs that I really liked, and when my family moved to the Bay Area in the late '80s and I discovered Modern Rock radio (Live 105) at the age of 14, I listened to radio hours every evening while I did (or didn't do) my homework.