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Classic Crock: Parts I & II

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Classic Crock: Part I

We’re lucky in that while moving the Shears organization base-of-operations north to the Wilkes Barre-Pittston-Scranton megalopolis, we get to drive through three radio markets — Philadelphia, Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton and Northeast PA. That means that, with some dial spinning, we get to hear the Classic Rock format stations in all three. It doesn’t matter the call-signs or frequencies. They’re all pretty much the same, right? You know the one in your own market. Spin the FM dial right now and stop at the station playing “More than a Feeling”. That’s the one.

Yes. They all sound the same. We know that. We still listen. They’ve all distilled out the top 63 or 64 rock classic tracks and play them over and over, and then they play them some more. One or two top main tunes per artist, on average, and maybe 3-4 for your mega talents like Bowie or the Stones. We all know that and have accepted it.

They don’t even go that deep into the greatest hits CDs we’ve all collected over the years. They’ve focus-grouped the exact number of songs from the fixed selection created between 1965 and 1976, the exact tunes that will maximize revenue for the mix of advertisers that have joined the format. The same songs, the same sponsors and the same endless, irritating, overheated self-promotion.

Oh they’ll do the special countdowns and weekends, play rarer songs, and milk the promotion of them to the hilt, like the one right now that’s doing a ridiculous “Raiders of the Lost Classics” weekend. Well hell if these songs are so great, warranting a whole weekend, why not play them the rest of the time? What it comes off as, to this listener anyway, is a weekend-long acknowledgement that they’re holding out on us.

But it doesn’t put us off. No. It’s almost comforting that an entire generation can settle into such media complacency. Yes.

These frequency holders have discovered a way to squeeze value out of the airwaves and so they do. Get a radio station and start your own, you say? Many people think to. The ones that look into it will find that they’d sooner be able to gather the capital to build a suspension bridge. The government regulates these airwaves — to prevent overlap and interference, they say — and as with nearly everything a government regulates, a shortage was created. So the owners found themselves in possession of valuable assets. Valuable quite beyond the means of an individual or even a small company of individuals.

I have a love-hate relationship with these commercial engines. And make no mistake that’s what they are, no matter how warm and fuzzy the DJ’s schtick. The DJs need the gigs, man. Don’t blame them. They’re just driving the bus. They’re the gilt wrapping on the packaged and test-marketed rebellion.

Though there are many of us out there who came of age in the era of so-called underground radio, I sense that this is one of those things that are remembered better than they really were. The frequency holders have tapped into that too. They may not care much about music, but they’re not stupid.

Love-hate. To get my dose of the same ol’ CCR or Yes or Stones, usually on long car drives, I have to subject myself to, for instance, the overplayed and completely uncool Johnnie Cougar Mellencamp. Listen music directors, you may be trapped in your classic rock playlist focus group bubble, but John Mellencamp is just not cool. Come on and listen, really listen, to the trite derivative lyrics and trite derivative rhythms some time. Can anyone who refers to his own rock classic alienation anthem as a “ditty” ever qualify as cool?

Yes, Eric Clapton is a legend. But have you not noticed that his solo work since Derek and the Dominoes is so incredible dreary and BORING? Has anybody? No. Maybe it’s because you fall asleep three bars in.

And Fleetwood Mac? Don’t get me started. This is the most relentlessly talent-free and unoriginal combo in pop music history. They qualify as classic rock.

Yet their entire worthless careers have produced some good…one moment of mirth for all that schlock. Without them the movie School of Rock would have had to ridicule some other artist in that hilarious scene where Jack Black lures Joan Cusack into his plan by exploiting her weakness for alcohol-induced Stevie Nicks impersonations. Ha.

No if there was no Fleetwood Mac, the makers probably would have had to settle for some lesser cheesy talent, like maybe Johnnie Cougar Mellencamp, or whatever his name is this decade.

Love-Hate. But then it’s always good to hear that Joe Walsh song. You know the one. it must be his only song. It’s the only one they play. Nope. Sorry. They also play “Rocky Mountain Way”. The one I’m thinking…. no wait, I’m not thinking of it, it’s playing on the radio right now actually. It’s an honest song about his hard life as a rock star, the one where he sings “I lost my license now I don’t drive.” and “I can’t complain but sometimes I still do.” Classic lines, really. You know the one. You’ve heard it a million times.

It’s comforting. somehow.

Classic Crock: Part II

At the outset of the Shears relo-trek north, o those long months ago, we were mightily encouraged to chance upon, while dial-scanning in our Conestoga wagon, an FM station up here in Northeast PA (Here’s a guide to the dialect .) broadcasting out of that media mecca, Pittston, PA. It sounded just what the rock doctor ordered for a sick-of-the-same-old-same-old fan. The Mountain 102 promised an open playlist format and crowed about their DJs as “musicologists”, who’d add context to the music with details about the bands and rock history, etc.

Musicologist…that should have been a clue. For one man’s mixologist is another’s beer slinger, and one gal’s hair dresser is another’s cosmetologist.

By and large the DJs are tolerable, but for the one, the one who shall remain nameless, the one who always ALWAYS says at least one sentence too much. Usually this extra bit is what he considers the capper to his mini-lectures, but more often it adds just that extra layer of facile politics, cloying pedantry (as a my friend, the other Bill S, describes it) and/or empty-gesture anti-corporate rant. You know, somehow, that he knows that without corporations there’d be no radio, no cars or computers, no music business and no Johnnie Cougar Mellencamps; but somehow he forgot that we know he knew. That makes it worse.

Luckily he telegraphs these little unwanted lagniappes with a kind of whiney twist in his voice in the first few words of the sentence-too-much. If you’re quick you can hit the Seek button before the actual — usually wrong-headed — opinionoid begins. For instance, while teasing a not-so-rarely played Jimi Hendrix cut, he took an offhand swipe at the music market in the sixties as it related to social change.

“Nnnnneeeyyyyyaaand don’t think the reason Hendrix recorded this in England had nothing to do with civil rights.”

Now first of all, this comment threw some light on the sham that is the station’s open format. All the comments these DJs make are calculated, sure, but this one was obviously more-than-a-little measured. Because what he really wanted to say was “American racism” instead of civil rights. But someone who checks his copy, maybe even he himself, flagged it as too much of a hot-button word. It’s one thing to pose as out-spoken, quite another to risk offending what few sponsors you have. So it would be “civil rights.” Yes, Martin Luther King and Selma and Jim Hendrix not finding a US record company are all of a piece. Mm hm.

And Mr Musiclogist is conveniently not remembering back well enough. Hendrix was a questionable commercial commodity on many fronts. Race was a minor factor, if a factor at all. Did Motown Records record him? If not was that a civil rights issue?

But I digress.

Gradually, as with all things, the honeymoon with the station ended and I hardly listen anymore. Yes they go deeper into the albums and play some offbeat stuff, but all the patterns of commercial radio are there. They have their little features — like the three-song block matching game worthy of pre-schoolers. And Saturday night has a show devoted to the patronizingly overindulged “blues” music. Come on. It DOES all sound the same, guys. And they’ll sprinkle in songs by some local “homegrown” artists. Hey, dudes, the artists are local for a REE-zon. We definitely prefer Led Zeppelin’s somewhat spicier “interpretations” of the blues, plus, they’re decidedly world-class, i.e. not local.

Very occasionally I will check back in, especially when chased from other dial stops. The Mountain is now my fourth choice and I’m actively looking for something to knock it lower. Still get nervous when I do choose it. The risk of unnecessary Fleetwood Mac exposure is too great.

Then again, credit-where-due, on my most recent try the other morning, they played “Mandolin Wind” from Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story album. You never hear that anymore. And they have played the epic, near-literary, young-man-sets-out-into-the-world saga (“Down in Rome I wasn’t gettin’ me none…of the things that keep a young man alive.”) title cut from that album, which also has the horrifically over-played “Maggie May.” Then right after “Mandolin Wind” they played “Where to Now St Peter” from Tumbleweed Connection, song-for-song Elton John’s best album, with Bernie Taupin at the height of his lyrical powers. That album gets, shamefully, nearly ZERO play on the more mainstream stations. Why?

But that dial-in I was as likely to hear Johnnie Cougar or Stevie Nicks. I would have immediately jumped, probably to Rock 107, the local “Home of Rock and Roll” standard Classic Crock format.

Or another possibility now is a jump to the local crooner station — the existence of which indicates a profitable market niche of radio-listening pensioners here in coal country — where Sinatra and Nat King Cole and the like hold forth. Yes, the former is overplayed and the latter under, but at least here you’ll hear some actual musicianship in the big band swing that backs them all up.

Big band swing — the heavy metal of its day — will emerge in some future time, we predict, as the most enduring and the ethnically agnostic (and thus, unifying) of American art forms. It came back briefly a few years ago and will likely again. (Question: Are Gap commercials part of the culture, or merely reflective of it?) Also on WNAK, beaming to you from the media mecca of Nanticoke, PA, Saturday night is actually “JukeBox Saturday Night,” a time- warp back to the ’40s, when the media could really get behind a war against fascism.

But there is a downside to this too. Listening to this station there is the distinct hazard of hearing Barbra Streisand — the most “overappreciated” talent of our time — screech something at you. Or that skin cancer commercial they play is a sure dial-spinner. Streisand…skin cancer…two facets of the same cosmic phenomenon somehow.

Then again, though, stick with WNAK and you’ll find it’s the only station around where you’ll hear Dinah Washington, a saintly and near forgotten talent who, if a comparison is possible at all, makes Streisand sound like a sick cat.

Every station has its traps. So just as the 40-50s classics stations fall into the Streisand trap, so too do the Classic Rock stations fall into the Mellencamp-Fleetwood Mac trap. This includes The Mountain. They may go deep into the albums, but they lose whatever credibility they may have built with us when they spray a Johnnie Cougar song.

It also may have to do with the loathsome and exploitive sex product commercials (including something that sounds like a paste, of which enough has already been said here.) I hit the buttons every time. I’m sure many others do too. But hey, they must be starved for sponsors.

Could be that but it’s also as much that this station is as locked into the canned rebellion and social pretense, and — subtler but no-less-annoying — relentless self-promotion, as the more mainstream classic rock stations. Yet The Mountain acts otherwise.

What is the word that describes that, acting one way and being another? Deception? Give me skin cancer any day.

So you’re tooling along in your Conestoga wagon and, bam, they play some trite and derivative Johnnie Cougar song. At times his theft goes down to the cadence level. Quick trivia: “I fight authority, authority always wins.” and “I fought the law and the law won.” Which came first?

Then we head over to WNAK, until, ooof, no not a Streisand strike this time, no. They play Rod Stewart rasping, actually rasping, “It Had to be You” from one of his recent, entirely unlistenable, albums of standards.

Rod “Shanghai Lil-never-used-the-pill” Stewart on the geezer crooner station. The circle is complete.

So over to 107 and then. boom, Eric Clapton’s there, and he’s singing “Cocaine.” Zzzzzz. Could it be possible for someone to make a song about a powerful stimulant that was so BORING. Eric has managed it. But then, he’s a legend. Living? Debatable, but a legend nonetheless.

And around and around we go.

So it’s back to NAK for the swing, and the pure voices, and the musicians, and the artful arrangements and, like Night-Train Lane, back to pining for Dinah.

This was a two-part post originally contributed at 40 Hours of TV.

And don’t forget our own Cinema Squeeze.

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About Billy Shears

  • tom hock

    Invest in Sirius Satillite radio – it’s worth every penny.

  • Funny, funny stuff. Mellencamp is “classic” rock now? Man, I’m glad I quit listening to the radio!

  • Antfreeze

    Ain’t radio a joke. The only station I can stand for more than ten minutes is the Western Michigan University station, WIDR. I’ve never heard the same song played twice. I’ve never heard a song that I’ve even heard before. (Except that one time a new DJ tried to play Don’t fear the reaper and we all got to hear the station manager come in screaming and tear the album out from under the needle and break the album to smithereens.) I’m not sure who’s to blame, apparently these worthless stations are making money somehow. Probably most people now days just use it as background noise to drown out the neighbors lawn mower. Great stuff Billy.

  • Thanks for the comments, guys. Glad you enjoyed it. Yes, Satellite radio is an option down the road. But someone should remind this broadcasters that they are bound by the FCC to serve the public interest, and someday they may be challenged at license renewal time on just how they think they’re doing that by giving the likes of J. Mellencamp a platform.