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People who listen to a whole lot of rock 'n' roll and then try to organize it in their minds in some sort of serious way find themselves doing unnatural things. For example, they make lists that create a linear progression of musical worth, one song being "better" than those listed after it (there have been four lists like that in the two parts of this Supplement).
Now, we all really do know about the fallacy of linear thinking (we're no fools). We've seen how the Western thought processes have led to an inability to deal with religion; we've seen how a belief in "dichtomies" lead Westerners into schizophrenia; we've seen how unquestioning acceptance of chainlike cause-and-effect explanations has left Western academics helpless to describe the complexity of modern existence.
Knowing all this, how can we make this-one's-better-than-that-one lists of all our music?
But more to the point, what makes us want to do unnatural things to our rock?
The answer must lie in the medium that make us want what we want of our music consistently in the most unnatural of ways. That much we can intuit from our situation.
Our medium is the rock music radio. And it is "ours," as such--the kids'. It seems really remarkable to me just how exclusively the rock radio is just for us, the kids, the not-serious people, the smiling people, the hip people, the free, those running around out there with their ears plugged into vibrations. Not that we in any way control what goes over the rock radio, but that the rock radio is aimed specifically at us, to the exclusion of Pat Nixon and Everett Dirksen and your parents and my parents and everyone else out there grumping around.
John Short edits the SUPPLEMENT. It has been said that there is meth in his maddness.
And what this radio that is so much ours does is to present to us all that we know as our rock music. The radio defines the total "envelope" of our rock music experience.
It is important in trying to understand what I am saying to realize the absolute truth of the idea that the radio defines what rock music is. What the radio plays is rock. In order for something to be rock music it has to be radio-played or radio play-derivative. First of all, a given piece of music (perhaps a new kind of music) simply can not become known unless it is played on the radio; mere distribution in record stores of an album and discussion of it in rock magazines aren't enough to bring that music into the consciousness of a significant number of people. And if a certain music isn't effectively known, then it doesn't exist, certainly not as rock music. Secondly, sales of rock records are inextricably hitched to radio play; a manufacturer's survey found that over eighty per cent of albums are bought because people liked some of it that they heard on the radio. So if music doesn't get played, it pretty much can't survive and therefore can't be considered a viable part of rock.
I have defined rock in terms that seem to make it identical to "popular" music. There are those who would distinguish rock by its sound. But rock's sound is always changing, and thinking of it as changing is really allowing your definition to be much more flexible. And, above all, we can just see that rock is tied to what is accepted and radio-played: all the San Francisco Sound never made much money until the radio brought it in out of the cold; and all kinds of other sounds never would have dared to start if they didn't think they might be "accepted." Can't you sense, at least, the big power of the radio being quietly behind the channeling of The Money into freaky music?
Think about it; don't you just know it was the radio? Can't you see how maybe The Blues Project could be an unradioed underground for a few years at the Cafe A Go-Go in New York, but how a big movement never could exist until radio came in?
So, we see, radio defines what music is rock. Also it decides for us what we are going to want and makes us want it.
In other words, it isn't the case, as it might seem, that the radio plays a selection of songs that we could either like or not like depending on our tastes.
It will be seen in this article that the actual music which the radio plays is only a small part of the experience of the medium.
The experience of the medium of rock radio is very complex. And it is made even more infinitely complex by the contradictions between what the experience really is and both what people expect it to be and what people think it has been. People expect the experience will be those songs the most people like most as selected by the measuring of popular opinion. This is not the case. People think the experience has been the varied appeasement of different and conflicting groups of people with their individual favorite songs, playing each group's music a length of time corresponding to that group's percentage of the audience. This also is not the case.
The experience of the medium of rock radio is music selected for the effect it will have on all of us--all radio music affecting all of us in the same way, only to slightly different degrees. The rock radio plays music that it will make us like, on the passive end of our participation with the medium, and music that it will make us want to hear, in our active participation of the radio.
I will explain later how it is that the radio makes us want what our objective tastes deplore. But we all know this is true. "Rambling, Gambling Maa" is a song still in the Top 40, "Sky Pilot" was in it seven months ago; both were the kind of song you waited to hear when listening to the radio, neither one sounds like anything on any kind of record player.
The concept of a Top 40 is a self-preserving entity. There will always be a number one song to which we are to assign the emotion, "best." And there will always be ten records so special apart from all the other records that they will be the Top 10. The Top 10 will always have the same number of records in it so that there will always be enough for us to "like." Most importantly, the Top 40 sets it up so we can assign values to records relative to each other . . . and, by extension, relative to all records and music. Doesn't it seem that we're always liking something?
Now I can further explain what I mean by the "unnatural" things that the radio makes us want. Making lists of songs and their values relative to each other is "unnatural." It is a process which, when we try to do it, seems silly, but which, when done, seems gratifying.
Wanting the radio to play next bad songs such as "Sky Pilot" is unnatural. Humming radio station promo spots as if they were the songs we tuned-in for is unnatural. Also unnatural are excessive gushes of emotion one sometimes feels with the playing of a just average, but old and familiar song; laughing at what are annoyingly stupid jokes by the disc jockeys; and getting any feeling of participation out of what the disc jockey says.
Finding such a wide range of phenomenological experience of things unnatural, we can intuit an explanation and then work back to discover some few of the complex causes which work together to bring about the discovered phenomenon of the "unnatural" reactions.
Thus we see that the nature of the experience of the medium of rock radio is not one of getting the music we like, as we thought, but rather one of which music is only a small part.
We turn in the radio to tune into the flow of existence. Some people remain tuned into the constant flow of the world that they imagine to being going on around them by leaving their TV sets on all day long regardless of whether or not anyone's watching. We kids don't leave out TV sets running because we (1) aren't able to own them, (2) aren't in the house all day, but are in cars a lot, and (3) think we're "too smart" to ever do that anyway. Besides, TV doesn't give you a true sense of being tuned into the flow. What comes over the TV set is clearly a string of episodes that are merely based on what is imagined to exist out there in the flow of daily life.
Whereas the radio, the rock radio, tunes us in very directly to what we consider to be the progress of the changing events that are constantly reshaping the kind of lives we lead. Rock radio gives us "current" music, the time, the weather, the news. Remember that it is all presented over the radio air as a continuous flow of the same kind of sound. That is to say that the radio is all one kind of experience. The disc jockey reads the time and the weather off with the rhythm and sense of timing that makes it all sound like part of an intro to the next record.
In addition to the way in which the disc jockeys make the music, time, weather, and news all seem like part of the same general sound, the actual content of those four things is completely tied up in the idea of progress, or the flow.
The time, of course, defines progress. The disc jockey announces that it is 4:45; later he says it's 4:52. Why, we can see the intervals of progress being marked off. The other three elements of radio programming content mark the flow only slightly less directly. The weather is another sign that our condition is always changing. People who tune in to find out what the world is doing want to know what's its condition is--the weather. And people have been made to believe that what the world is doing is what is on the news. We all think, or are supposed to think, that the events on the news are what is "important." We realize that, when we are trying to get in touch with the flow of life around us, we can't possibly handle all the information people out there would tell us about what's happening. As a result, we're happy to sift off the most valuable information, or what's "important"--the news.
The music (which takes up most of the listening time) marks the most significant kind of progress in the flow--an evolution of ourselves. We see in what is played the changing of our own tastes, of ourselves . . . and all the other people we assume are listening and changing with us. We see individual songs introduced; we assimilate them; and then we finally come to reject them and pick up new ones. And even if we don't listen to radio steadily, we see a constant change in what we like. And we notice a greater change over the years of the kind of music that is played on the radio (e.g., the Beatles become more esoteric and the Canned Heat creeps into the Top 10).
The music is the overt point for why the rock radio stations are there in the first place. Why the time, news, and weather are there is because of what they do to what we think of the music. They help identify the music with a direction we can give our lives. That direction is forward. Way back in those safe pre-industrial revolution days, one used to be able to mark the meaning of his own existence in terms of how much work he had accomplished today towards getting the crops ready to be harvested. "Where are you at, baby?" a farmer in the Massachusetts Bay Colony might be asked; and he would answer, "Need a little more rain, then lots of sun in August and I'll have enough food to last us through winter." We know our existence to be less clearly defined these days. Our music, as the radio defines it for us, helps us to align ourselves with that more complicated form we call the flow.
I sincerely suggest that those of you are feeling "out of touch" should listen to the radio a little to put some more static in your existence. If you're in Boston, the radio you should be listening to is WMEX.
WMEX is, it seems at first listening, one of your basic commercial yahooing-disc-jockeys radio stations. It used to be most familiarly identified with a drive-in called Adventure Car Hop which offered a free second cheese-burger to all who yelled "woo-woo Ginsburg" (the name of WMEX's then biggest disc jockey) to the girl who brought the frappes. It has changed a lot since.
Perhaps it should have been mentioned earlier, but I have used WMEX as the model for what I have described rock radio to be and to do. WMEX truly represents the flow and it does all the things I've said rock radio does to you.
Some rock radio stations are different from WMEX and don't always affect you quite exactly as has been described. There is, for example, in Boston another rock station, WRKO, which, depending on the time of day you're talking about, is either more-listened-to or less-listened-to. But WRKO has a different philosophy of operation: it plays a pretty inflexible Top 40 and has its disc jockeys pointedly avoid all speech other than record titles.
It can become tedious not to hear an unrecorded human voice come over the radio for a long time. The disc jockey has a very important role. He represents the individual who's living in the moment, and who by his reactions to that moment decides what it is of the moment that he should let you know, be it the time, the weather, the news, or the record you will feel like after you start hearing it.
If what comes over the radio is to suggest the flow of human existence, then it all must relate to humanity. The disc jockey is that humanity, man in the radio (as well as being the man in the radio). And the WMEX disc jockey can, after he has established his existence with the listener, make all the parts and sounds of his show all flow together much more smoothly with his changing rhythm and sound of his own voice.
With all these complex and obscure factors influencing what the radio show will sound like, it would seem difficult for a radio station to make sure its disc jockeys were doing everything they should. But no one really knows what makes a good disc jockey. People can't really be trained what to do because no one really knows what to want. That is, all that radio stations can do is go with whoever sounds good and seems to be popular. If he doesn't seem to work, he isn't told to change because no one could tell him how in most cases; he's fired. Whatever doesn't work is gotten rid of so the radio station can try something new to see if that works.
This process sounds very simple, but the experimental method of handling things emphasizes how complex trying to understand the medium of radio is.
We find it's impossible to come up with any idea of what radio should sound like before we hear someone try. Understanding that we can't come up with any theory lets us come to terms with the problem of why radio makes us want "unnatural" things. This is a very important idea.
There's a good example here in Boston of how little we know about what we want out of radio. WBCN started over a year ago as a hip radio station that would (1) play good songs from quality rock lp's instead of the "popular" stuff on the three-minute format 45's, and (2) relieve the banality of AM disc jockeys by putting people who talked naturally about what they really were feeling like. WBCN made it for a while; we all liked it because it was different, it was change (change, of course, being our ethic in radio).
But after a zoom in the ratings last summer, flagging listenership dropped it off the charts. I decided I didn't like listening to it much. I could play most things they did on the machine at home; but that kind of sound was for a different mood anyway. When you're listening to that kind of sound, you like to pick your own records. I decided the radio was meant to do something different, something unknown; and I started tuning in just MEX.
Most people also agreed that listening to what became the cliche of the slow-speaking hip-left disc jockey "rapping" on about whatever he felt like was a drag. But they could never bring themselves to say that they liked the WMEX disc jockeys.
It then became clear how important the disc jockeys were to the sound of radio, to the whole medium. The failure of what we thought we would want on WBCN showed us such "unnatural" things as the disc jockeys (their remarks, if written down, would seem incredibly banal) were an integral part of the medium itself.
All of which leads to an analysis of the medium. What sort of action are we participating in?
First off, we don't really listen to the radio while it's on. We've usually got it going while we're doing stuff, driving in a car, that sort of thing. We talk about having "picked up" something off the radio as if we weren't listening at all and just happened to hear what was actually coming out of the radio.
This only-half-listening-to-it makes it possible to use the radio for tuning into the flow of what we imagine to be the existence around us. If our entire activity was listening to the radio, given the way rock is programmed now, that listening would make us feel really lonely in the face of all the high-adrenalined activity we were tuned in to. (It is interesting to note that back in, let's say, the thirties somewhere, people used to gather their families and pay full attention to their radios; and programming was correspondingly different.)
Next, we find this medium has got a lot of static in it. Most radios we own have generally poor reproduction of sound, at least as compared with our stereos. And it's usually difficult to get the exact frequency of the station you want. Stations crowd each other off the dial in spite of FCC regulation, especially towards the right of the dial where WMEX is (1510 kc).
I once heard someone's theory about the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" album. He said the whole lp was about communication--communication between people and communication through the media of society. Especially the song "Blue Jay Way" ("There's a fog upon L.A. / And my friends have lost their way."), the Beatles are saying there's a sort of thick layer of static obscuring all our attempts to get through to people.
If the Beatles are saying this about our media, it is particularly true for radio. The radio is low percentage reception. And because radio people at least think they are responsive to what the listeners want of the medium, they keep the content to that which can be best heard when heard poorly.
The musical content of rock radio becomes, above all, what is simple. This helps us understand one of the "unnatural" things we find ourselves doing. Liking bad songs. We like those songs (e.g., "Sky Pilot") because they fully exploit the strengths and weaknesses of the radio. The songs are only complicated enough to approach the threshhold of what can't be heard. They have a strong drum beat to vibrate to, and usually one good, catchy riff that is repeated as many times as possible. It takes genius to write one great simple, yet very varied, song. The Beatles have written about fifty.
There is the theory of primal beats. This explanation says that we will like any song that has a simple one-two beat in it. The one-two subconsciously reminds us of the beating of our mother's heart which we heard when we were in the womb. The womb, it seems, is a nice place to be. Hearing this kind of sound makes us think we are there; consequently we are happy.
This sort of explanation might frighten us if we weren't long past any thinking that we were in control of what we wanted.
There is another thing about the medium that we know is true but aren't sure why. It is that repeated play of a song on the radio is necessary to our liking it. There are just very few songs played that we like the first time. Even with very good songs by very good groups we usually don't take a flying "like" from the start.
But once we decide we like a song we like it more and more each time it's played until we finally get tired of it. However, the more we hear it and like it the more we are guaranteed of always liking it when it returns as an oldie.
One of the main reasons we like oldies so much is because they remove us from the tension of getting used to new records and the threat of getting tired of the new ones we already like. We're a little bit nervous about any record as it is going through the rise and fall of its first genesis. But as an oldie, it is something we can like because of its repeated play, but not be tense about because of its popularity isn't threatened.
What repeated play means to the medium is that relatively few records can be introduced. Therefore the choice of what we will hear falls out of the hands of the listener into the hands of the disc jockeys, who then pick what the listeners will start to assimilate.
It is bad that the disc jockeys make the choice that we should be making for ourselves. If we didn't take so long to accept what we do accept, then we'd have time to hear a lot more and actually decide what to accept and what not to.
The necessity for an individual record's "repeated play" bleeds into the more general concept of "repeated sound." If a sound can be identified as familiar and reassuring, then we assimilate the new song faster. Unfortuately everyone, including the people selling the records, know this. So we get a group like Tommy James and the Shondells cutting a surprise hit with a new kind of sound in "I Think We're Along Now" (a crumby song with one catchy refrain); they followed that one up with a song, whose title I can't remember, but which was built around an imitation of the catchy riff in the first one. Now, it isn't very nice of Tommy James and the Shondells to try to get away with that sort of thing. But they did; and people listening generally saw what they were doing and just shrugged. We're not, it seems, a very critical audience.
The groups that are really well-known (and it is encouraging that about half of this group includes really great musicians such as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones) are, in their new songs, usually recognized by their style. This means that if Donovan comes out with a new song, people listening try to go with the flow of the new sound as soon as they hear it; they know they will probably like it. The identity of his sound with his name, and his name back to familiar sounds acts as an enzyme to the assimilation process.
It should also be remembered that most people who listen to the radio don't know the names of many groups, don't remember the titles of songs, and certainly can't identify styles. It seems that only the people who build up record collections and do that kind of careful listening ever become even the mediocre authorities. But the casual people often listen to the radio a lot; they just keep it in the background of their consciousness. And they can identify the new song of an old hit group as being a generally familiar sound which they are more ready to accept.
These people have an awareness of the rock radio really different from, for example, the kind of person who scores well on the CRIMSON's semi-annual exam period rock 'n' roll quizzes. They identify the radio's sound much more with the blurred flow of existence because they don't distinguish the elements of what they hear.
I remember, in this regard, that when I was a pre-pubescent child, I used to listen to the radio at night to drop me off to sleep. I was tremendously embarrassed to be talking with other boys, that I looked up to a lot, and to find myself unable to describe the difference between the Turtles and the Byrds (or whoever it was who were around then). It was about the time that I came to be able to identify these different rock groups that I found the radio no longer put me to sleep but rather kept me up.
But even when I didn't know what the different groups sounded like, I knew that, when it was announced that the next song was that of the Byrds, that this was a group that was "famous." Which is to say that certain names gain status by themselves, just as names. This is another minor trick to being accepted in rock radio's medium. A great name can make it for you, an average name doesn't affect your standing, and a difficult name can actually hurt your acceptability.
Sounds trivial, doesn't it? But, as I have said, the rock radio medium is an essentially unknown (or not understood) experience. We are constantly probing for explanations to the things which have "unnatural" importance.
As to the importance of a name, take the example of the Who. The Who are a fantastic group who do very simple, big beat rock 'n' roll, heavy on the guitars with lots of really tricky rhythms. It's the perfect stuff for radio because none of their songs depend on complex combinations or sensitive sounds that go beyond radio's threshhold of scratchy reproduction. But their name isn't known on the radio inspite of the fact that they've come up with many hit singles ("Magic Bus" was one of the best radio songs last year). This fact, combined with the problem that their record company, Decca, has handled their publicity miserably, has left them low in the sales. The trouble is that when the Who first got their songs into the Top 10 (somewhere around four years ago), there was another new hit group also from England called the Them. At the time groups were branching out from "the Beatles" into new kinds of names. The Who were simply confused with a lot of others. And the name was psychologically difficult to deal with. Everyone attaches a little of the literal meaning of a name to the way they think of a rock group--that's one of the charms of calling yourself something. "The Who" implied that they were unknown; this idea stuck.
It is a common belief that rock music is a heavily sexual experience. You feel the vibrations of the primal beats of rock most sensitively in those places where you are most sensitive . . . and it's those same places on your body where you are most sexual. The lyrics to one out of two rock 'n' roll songs say "sex" in so many words. The title (the title!) of a song that was number one by the Rolling Stones is "Let's Spend the Night Together"; and I recently heard an oldie called "Do It Again," which I can now remember as being a hit: the words go "Do it again just a little bit slower. Do it again just a little bit slower. I can't stand it when it's over."
And for more sexuality, people point to the way rock is danced to. That is, with a lot of moving your pelvis in and out. People who do this wear short dresses, which means they want sex. And they have long hair, which means they get sex all the time without end.
People who play rock are, themselves, the symbols of sex Rolling Stone Magazine's performer of the year for 1968 was Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix is the most sexually threatening being walking on this earth today.
However, most of this kind of sexuality is experienced at live rock show performances. At places like the Boston Teaparty. The Boston Teaparty drips sexuality. All the people standing around watching the show can feel it tingle kinetically like a spark from person to person. Also, they put loads of policemen downstairs at the door with shining holsters and guns--it's like handing each girl a leather whip as she walks in. The Boston Teaparty is a wonderful place. The whole scene is a very honest one somehow. It is not a very good "activity" for participation, but as a source of energy, it is a great test for your desperate youthfulness. How much of the kids in creaking brown leather do you want, how much can you take?
But this sexuality has nothing to do with the rock radio experience. The radio is only as loud as we set the volume to be. We get none of ths visual motion type of sexuality. The radio statics out the gasps, and fuzzes over the grunts. Besides, our minds aren't wandering because we're doing something specific in addition to having the radio on. And the disc jockey who controls the experience is hyping us up into activity rather than slowing us down into sensuality.
Recently when I was home for part of a vacation period, I started watching a lot of tube, consciously thinking what a new and different medium this was from the one I'd been on for the whole time before that (radio). Now that I've been at college for a long time I've really done sporatic tube and had effectively dropped out of that experience. Then when I came back to it, I was amazed to find out just how sexual the whole television experience is. The ads, of course, are incredible--mostly girls suggesting they could be touched, suggesting they want something (like a cigarette?), smiling that they like you, and leaning and sighing, talking slowly all over the place. The TV shows leave you believing that your life gives you all you want, including. . . .
The myth is that sex is an excessive part of the kids' existence. But it is much more on the grown-ups minds. I almost got up panting from the TV. Their medium is lots more full of sex than ours.
The way the medium of rock radio changes the way we experience our music is by forcing a series of compex comparisons on us of all the sounds we hear.
The disc jockey gets a rush of feeling going on inside of us It isn't really hard to do because he's got everything going with the flow for him. He's got what we're doing while we also listen working for him to keep us changing. And he's got oldies and hits that have proven to work on us while at the same time he controls the presentation of the three bits of information we want (time, weather, news).
The disc jockey maintains us by making contrasts to define how we feel. A slow solo followed by a fast, but simple catch-you-up kind of song makes you see not so much how different the two pieces of music are. Because you don't really care much for what the music is. But the change makes you feel how different you can feel like.
See, it is important to realize that listening to the rock radio is not an experience of listening to music; it is an experience of simply affecting the way you feel.
All is brought about by comparison between the sounds of successive records, by the way in which the order of the records played lifts you up, makes you bop, lets you think. A record really will sound different on the radio if a different record is played before it. If we are going to understand the sound of rock radio in the metaphor of being one continuum, a big flow, then every part of that flow is effected by the parts behind it pushing and the parts leading it on.
Bud Ballou, WMEX's nighttime disc jockey, explained selecting songs like this: "It's all comparative . . . people changing. They're looking back on the day. I try to get every one of those moods they're in. Not only the moods everyone's in; but one person--all the moods he goes through."
It is through the understanding of the importance of comparison that we can begin to see the explanation for one of the most "unnatural" things about our radio experience. Why does Andy Klein include "Wichita Lineman" in his list on page 3 of the best singles of last year? We don't objectively like "Wichita Lineman." But it's there. We can understand by beginning to intuit how all different kinds of sounds work together much better if they are different.
Rock radio is a method.
I was riding in a car coming down from New Hampshire at night in the middle of last week. An intensely bright, almost full moon was shining through the passage of dark clouds which completely blotted out its round light when they moved in front of it. It seemed that the moon, itself, was rising and falling behind the clouds. When it came out, it lit up and caught shadows on the white fields of snow drifted deep on both sides of the road. We were following the white line for a long time going down towards Cambridge swinging back and forth across the road, going into curves, and coming out of them. I was with some friends and we had tuned in to the radio. We would change stations with New Hampshire towns. There was a lot of crackling, and indecisiveness about the way what we wanted to hear was picked. I had been awake for 36 hours, and was wordlessly tired. It turned out that someone had a notebook right on top of the speaker the whole way. But through it the radio gave up some unbelievable sounds. It was good because otherwise we would have had to speak. . . .
The basic format for rock 'n' roll stations was started in Omaha in 1954 by someone named Bill Stewart. He began programming his radio station to play the records that people liked "most." He went around to the record stores and found out what sold. He figured what people would listen to if they heard a lot more of what they really liked. But also he was introducing a new definition of the medium.
He defined rock radio as we know it now--to be not a presentation of what we might like, but a presentation of what we have already indicated we want. In doing this, he limited the number of different songs down to a few that were really popular. It was this "unnatural" kind of limitation that his competitors thought was especially loony. Well, his idea got a tremendous amount of response and radio stations all over the country started picking up on it.
In Boston, as far back as I can remember, there's been WBZ and WMEX. As far back as I can remember is 1956. But BZ and MEX never seemed to really compete with each other. They had divided up the town, and seemed to each feel that they were realizing their potential quite well. The contentment of those first ten years is remarkable only as compared with the all-out competition in Boston now.
This early Boston listenership was divided up by economic class rather than by age group the way it is now. BZ scored with the upper middle class suburbs and the college kids. One of its advantages was that it had a 50,000 watt transmitter, which MEX didn't have. With all that power, BZ was unchallenged to build a little kingdom of its own in eastern New England. It developed an incredibly good market for advertising; and, indeed, to those of us who have recently heard as many as 24 records played in one hour, it is awe-inspiring to think that we used to listen to only 8 or 9 surrounded by avalanches of consumer appeals.
Another thing that bothered one during that era was to come home and find your mother listening to your radio station. It gives you an idea what BZ sounded like if the grown-ups listened to it too. They played about zero black music of any kind, no progressive rock, but no more Frank Sinatra than most stations play now. They were basically Top 40, WBZ is playing a weaker version of it now; it's known in the business as "the Chicken 40."
Meanwhile, WMEX's signal didn't get very far away from Boston, but it reached all the lower middle income suburbs. Their programming seemed to really zoom right in on the tougher crowd in and around the city. They played a lot more of the really silly, shangalang-alang type of music that was around at the time; and their disc jockeys were, like, a lot more into the idiom than the college-oriented BZ guys. Or so I remember it. The easiest way to tell the difference was in the places they mentioned in their advertising. I'd never heard of any of the places, even of many of the towns, that MEX talked about. There's social stratification for you.
Anyway, onto this hopelessly archiaic scene burst WRKO in the summer of 1965 or exactly two and a half years ago. The first manifestation of WRKO was as a computer. As a machine, the station did six months on FM of solid music, nothing else, the same top twenty songs over and over again. It shook things up; the storm clouds gathered.
That next winter WRKO stuck in disc jockeys, played lots of music, and came on 50,000 watts strong on AM. When the station management had decided they were going to go into the top music area in Boston, they had handed the enterprise over to Bill Drake. Bill Drake is an entrepreneur who's got a system for running rock radio stations. He completely controls the programs of lots of different radio stations all over the country. He lives in California, doesn't leave it often, and identifies himself as a consultant.
Part of the Bill Drake idea is "more music." More music is what we think we want out of radio (actually, all we want is a really good flow). Not only did WRKO, called R-co, keep playing stuff all the time, but they made a big deal out of it.
Another part of the Bill Drake idea is to define what the hits are and keep it to that. Radio stations used to hold as their claim to fame how many nationwide hits they broke first on their air. You could only get a few each year. But you had to play many that flopped to get the one or two hits. The Bill Drake system abandoned breaking hits to stick with what people were sure to like.
R-co totally blitzed Boston radio. They went shooting up to number one, dropping BZ to a confused second, and WMEX to a fading third. It was very exciting when it was happening. I remember you could feel it like a movement rippling through the people. Then finally it showed itself. A theatre in downtown Boston offered a free sneak preview of the new James Bond movie to all who wore a trench coat and arrived at three o'clock in the morning. R-co did most of the heavy advertising. Everyone in the world knew about it. On the night of the show, the theatre was filled and ten thousand people turned away by 2:00 a.m. By 3:00 there were twenty thousand new people in the streets, some of them rioting. The flood of people became so heavy that those near the theatre couldn't leave. Windows were smashed, and the police poured in; but no one knew how to handle all this youth in the streets. R-co had created the first up-rising.
Westinghouse decided to take WBZ out of the pop music field, and quietly did so when no one was looking. Dick Summer, whose late show was unique and famous, and who was a friend of editors of this newspaper for years, moved to New York City to work for WNEW FM, an experimental serious-rock station.
Then WMEX decided it was in for a complete change, and started planning at the beginning of last year a total turn over. They brought up Warren Duffy from Washington, D.C. and made him program director in July. Duffy got a whole new set of disc jockeys, including Bud Ballou, who does the evening show.
Duffy brought with him the idea of "much more music" and worked on making the music they played more hip. WMEX were among the first people to work "underground" music into their Top 40. If you find it difficult to believe that it was only last July that AM radio started playing the kind of music that used to come only on WBCN, then it is only because your easy assimilation of it now obscures your memory. We have had large amounts of "far-out" music in this medium for only seven months. Perhaps you can remember what a big deal they made out of playing all seven minutes of the "long" abbreviated version of "Time Has Come Today" by the Chambers Brothers. That really isn't such a big deal now.
And it is true that record companies, as a result of this change in radio, have started to issue a new kind of record--singles based on the popularity of cuts on albums. Two out of three singles distributed in 1968 were cuts (both edited and unedited) from albums already released or released simultaneously. Sometimes, record companies make singles strictly for radio promotion; and you can't buy the song except on an album. The top 50 albums are now always outselling the best single.
If WMEX isn't back up tied with RKO in the ratings yet, it is only because R-co has got a much stronger signal. But MEX is going up to 50,000 watts as soon as the FCC approves it sometime this year, perhaps soon.
And we shouldn't doubt that WMEX is the best rock station in Boston and probably just about anywhere in the country. Their programming is organic the way R-co's can never be as long as they are locked into their system. Warren Duffy, who as Cousin Duffy does a 4:00 to 7:00 show, says that they at MEX aren't really sure where the hell Short is . . . . aren't really sure where they are going, they're just responding. That's a very existential way of looking at things. Because the medium is a very unknown phenomenon. How could they experience their situation otherwise?
WMEX is intentionaly free with the way it lets its disc jockeys set their own particular styles for their own shows. That's good because it recognizes the importance of humanity to the medium. But WMEX still isn't free enough to avoid getting stuck in its own format occasionally. For example, when the new Beatles album came out at the end of last year, the station groped around to fit it sensibly into the way it organized its music. But this couldn't be done.
There are thirty songs on the new album. Most of them are quite playable on radio; several of them are really great radio stuff. But how could their Top 40 react? Certainly, no number of them could suddenly go on the charts. It was impossible to measure which ones people liked most. People were pretty much above the usual manipulation that makes them like whatever they are given because the album was so generally known. There were all kinds of moods in the album so it was a perfect weapon for the disc jockeys to use to control the flow. And some songs were played effectively on MEX; but on the whole, their play was less than the interest of the music normally would have demanded.
It should be added that the album is still being played. But one suspects that if they weren't the Beatles, none of it ever would have been played. Not that all interesting music on albums ought to go on the radio, but that music which is well suited to do the kinds of things that radio does for us ought to be played. And now, even though MEX is playing album cuts, there is no way to effectively get these songs into the Top 40 without first getting them released as a single.
And there are other ways in which we suspect WMEX is not living up to the full potential of the medium. Of course, they still play some pretty awful songs: "You can hang yourself by not playing Jeannie C. Riley and the 1910 Fruit Gum Company," said Bud Ballou.
Bud Ballou does the evening show leading up to the late night talk show (the only way I can excuse the latter is by saying it makes us appreciate the rock shows all the more when we do get them). Ballou says that he thinks he would be able to identify much more closely with disc jockeys called the WMEX Bad Guys instead of, as it is now, the Good Guys.
His entire come-on is very cynical with feints towards being nasty, and transparent attempts to make enemies. Again we are up against something "unnatural." What is it in cynicism that appears to us so appealing, especially when the trip guide in the flow is the cynic?
I think that the message in cynicism is, in effect, that: we don't know anything really about our own existence, all we can do is to feel, but we do know that we can't accept the explanations that are given to us. Cynicism is a denial, and that is a good way of saying that we only trust what we experience and know to be true.
What I have just described isn't a message that Ballou, himself, is trying to get across. It's the kind of thinking his radio experience makes us feel like.
Cousin Duffy on the other hand, is a really "out front" personality (to borrow a term from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). That is to say that he is very direct, brings out front what is on his mind, and is terrificly aware of the moment. He has a neat trick of making you aware of a greater sphere of existence than the most immediate ones, as, for example, he places you not only in the time of day, but the time of year. It really helps you deal with the flow if someone does that kind of thing.
It should be remembered that it is the way disc jockeys control sound, of all kinds, that is most important. And it is through this control that they bring about their personalites.
Being a disc jockey is a high pressure existence. There is no job security in it. Just while I was in the studios of WMEX for a few hours, I got the feeling of a heavy tenseness in the way the people thought of their own situations. This sort of thing was specifically noticeable when I was talking to Ballou and Duffy and how they got to where they were. It seems that the pressure is on the individual as a performer to win the competition.
And competition defines much of the process they are participating in. The radio station is locked in a head-on ratings struggle with WRKO. The pressure is on Duffy, who is really a young guy, to out program the others in an area that continues to keep itself a mystery.
Ballou was telling me about how he started out as a college radio d.j. while at Syracuse, then got opportunities all the way up the system until he had a big show going in Buffalo that could be heard in half the states of the country. All the time he was biting his lip and saying things like, "You've just got to make it." He wasn't, let's say, nervous; it's just that his existence, because it is unpredictable, is, well, tight.
He appears really schizophrenic because he has to get all wound up for his show every night, but then gets unwound the rest of the time because you can't live at that intensity. (And his schizophrenia takes another form in the fantasy that he promulgates on his show about his non-existent engineer named Stanley, who, because he engineers his own show, is Ballou himself.)
But it's good that when he's on the air, he's going flat out. Because one of the things we've come to realize about the medium is that rapid talk is necessary to the effect. This is an idea that the slow-speaking disc jockeys on WBCN try to transcend. It doesn't work.
It is the disc jockeys who get together to decide what new songs will be introduced on the radio. In their decision they are choosing those songs which they will soon have us liking. (The way we think it is: "they are picking the songs they think we might like." Ho. Ho.)
It's disturbing because their decision is absolutely impossible. They have to choose from among 350 new records every week. Of these, WMEX selects only about ten or so to introduce. And yet, this is one of their big edges over WRKO, which picks only a couple of new songs a week.
Warren Duffy says WMEX makes up its Top 40 by songs requested on the "Request Line" telephone, record sales in local stores, and national trends as represented by publications such as Billboard Magazine. If this is how they know what we supposedly want, then this combination also helps determine which new records they choose to play.
Let us imagine what is wrong with this kind of a selection process for deciding what we want to hear on the radio.
First, the "Request Lines" are clearly not a good indication. The experience of calling up the radio station is in no way integrally related to the experience of liking music. And therefore, since only a few people call, the action of making a call is related to something else about the people who call and the request, itself, is incidental.
Second, record sales do not represent the experience of liking music on the radio. I've already said how the medium changes the kind of music we like. There are many things I like on the radio that I would never buy. And, also, record sales depend on what is played on the radio. If what is in the Top 40 depends on record sales, and what new songs that are introduced are modelled after the Top 40, then we get into one of those self-defeating circles.
Finally, the national trends as represented by Billboard are ultimately based on record sales and such things. It's another big circle. Billboard adds up the local trends to give us the whole. The whole then determines how the individual parts react. Or maybe Billboard takes money from someone to fix it all so at least we get out of this maddening circle.
All of which leads me to believe that they must automatically play stuff by known and accepted groups, and then fill up the remaining slots with anything to represent the other possible tastes.
It seems that it would be almost impossible for new groups to break into the cycle. And those that do would be chosen at virtual random.
Duffy said he thought that if a new kind of product like the Beatles ever came along, they might never get a chance.
Look at the way some of the people made it--
Tommy James and the Shondells (who are some sort of nutty local favorite) had a two-and-a-half-year-old 45 they cut dusted off by some disc jockey in the heartland of America. After the requests came pouring in for "The Hanky Panky," it became a national hit. Tommy James, who by this time was greasing cars, had to look all over the country to get his group together again.
Leslie Gore was at Sarah Lawrence and asked her father to cut a record of her for a birthday present. The record was "It's My Party; I Can Cry If I Want To." The rest is history.
Made it because she had it made.
And finally The First Edition, which has a song now on the charts called, of all things, "I Love You." They're disgusting. They're trying to get rich quick with my listening. The song was premiered on a prime time television variety show. I would guess that if some promoter hadn't got them on that show, their song never would have made it. The song is stupid.
What is radio doing now by picking up its new songs from the television? The whole idea throws mud in the face of any sort of enlightened thinking about what media are doing. Radio can't define its content in terms of what it sees on the tube. Where is this all going?
Worrying about where-it-all-comes-from is getting worse. The record manufacturers were perfectly attuned to what the radio wanted up until it started playing "underground" music last summer. That event opened the flood gates to the freaks.
Because they never expected the money to go in that direction, the kind of people who will play anything if it will sell were left holding the bag. There was lots of money to be paid to hippies. After a couple of months, those who were in it for anything but the music, such as The First Edition, began taking over the hippies' money. So now the market is clogged again, and it's harder than ever to tell who might be good.
Also, because so many new groups were made stars during the transition period, there's little room for new names of any kind.
How are we to find what we want now?
We ought to stop wanting things of the radio. We should stop thinking that the radio is responsive to our tastes. And we ought to let it be part of a disc jockey's own struggle for survival that he must use his intuition to put together the best flow.
The photos in thie Supplement are of the fence at the reconstruction of Harvard Hall, an event sponsored by members of Harvard-Radcliffe X (the anarchist group) earlier in the fall. The action was against the will of the university authorities. Those in it had their bursar's cards lifted. But nothing much came of it. The whole fence was eventually covered with paint of different color and design.
The photos are by Diana M. Henry of the CRIMSON photo board.
Painting a fence is an OK metaphor for the radio--it's a process of continuous flow with a clearcut direction (progress). But more importantly, it's the kids like this, confused by occult media such as the radio, who are driven to do simple, understandable things like paint fences.
Andy Klein's Pix: 68's Top 50 Singles
The following is a list of the top 50 singles of the past year of rock as compiled by Andy Klein, who is an authority on rock music; the order of the records is determined, as he explains, by worth. . . .
The list, unlike those distributed by the radio stations, has nothing to do with the relative popularity of this year's hits, but rather is based entirely upon the value in my head. Accordingly, Top Forty fans (of which I am one) will note the absence of several of the biggest hits of this year, as "Honey," "Judy in Disguise," and "Love is Blue," and the presence of songs as "Cold Feet" and "Stingy Jenny," which none of you have heard of. Too bad.
Unfortunately, the time span covered by this list has also been defined out of my memory and may not exactly coincide with the year 1968. It begins roughly between "Chain of Fools" and "I Second That Emotion" and ends between "Everyday People" and "Can I Change My Mind."
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