Airwaves

January 24, 2013

djIt’s supposed to be the coldest night of the year tonight.

It was cold during the winter of ’81/’82. Or maybe it wasn’t and I merely recollect it as so.

I do know for certain that it was during that winter that time I might have previously spent sprawled out in the family room watching television was being spent sprawled out in my bedroom, listening to the radio.

Music had become an increasing curiosity in my world over the previous year or so as I realized that the subject was being broached as much as sports and girls in hallway conversations with my junior high buddies.

Accompanying me on this journey into an unexplored world – hell, making it possible – was a battered table-top radio which I’d relocated from my dad’s basement work space.

I’d kneel on my bed with my elbows on the window ledge and stare out into the darkness. Across the country road that ran in front of our house were fields that in warmer months teemed with soybeans or corn.

Now, in the dead of winter, there might be a dusting of snow covering the dormant earth, perhaps a few stray stalks of corn that had been knocked over and missed in the autumn harvest.

Staring out into the dark, I knew that I was gazing eastward and that somewhere beyond a horizon I couldn’t see, sixty miles or so away, was Cincinnati.

More than likely, I was listening to Q102, which was broadcasting from Cincinnati. The station was the one that was most popular with my peers and I was still hesitant to move around the dial much, preferring to listen to the music that the rest of my buddies were listening.

I’d stare into the darkness through the frosted window pane and listen to the DJs with whom I was becoming familiar – Mark, Chris, Janeen – and consider them somewhere out there in some studio, bantering with an audience of which I was now a member.

The DJ would mention neighborhoods and places with which I was familiar. The weather outside my window jibed with the forecasts that they’d rattle off between songs.

If I was shivering, they were shivering, too.

We were in it together.

At least that’s how I remember that winter.

Here are four songs that are listed from Q102’s playlist in Billboard from this week in 1982…

The Commodores – Oh No
from In the Pocket (1981)

One of my buddies at a record store in college was an older bass player and funk aficionado. He would show me pictures of his band in the ’70s and it was obvious that The Commodores had been a fashion influence.

(the visual that comes to mind when I think of The Commodores, I think of pictures of the ’70s and Brick House)

But when it comes to the sound of The Commodores, I think first of the mostly mellow band on the radio in the early ’80s. And the concisely titled Oh No is moi mellow.

Oh No was at the top of Q102’s chart even though further back in the same issue of Billboard, it had already dropped out of the Top 40 in that week’s Hot 100 chart.

I had no reference for Oh No‘s subject matter at the time, but it was quite obvious that it was quite adult and quite serious.

Rod Stewart – Young Turks
from Tonight I’m Yours (1981)

In 1981, my classmates and I knew little of Rod Stewart’s already extensive history aside from his disco vamp Do You Think I’m Sexy, that song’s follow-up Ain’t Love A Bitch (because he sang “bitch”), and rumors of stomach pumping.

And that winter, we all knew Young Turks. I totally dug the song, the tale of Billy and Patti and their ten-pound baby boy, which found Rod ditching the disco trappings for a more wiry, New Wave musical vibe.

Foreigner – Juke Box Hero
from Foreigner 4 (1981)

Foreigner 4 had been one of the biggest albums of the school year and, by January of 1982, it had already spawned two mammoth hits with Urgent and Waiting For A Girl Like You.

Thirty-one years ago, Q102 listed the album’s third single, Juke Box Hero, as an add to the station’s playlist in Billboard.

The protagonist in the song had at least made it to the venue, even if he got stuck in the rain with no ticket. With no car, no money, and not even old even to drive, I was was eighteen months away from my first concert.

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll
from I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll (1981)

There were several huge hits that were getting airplay on Q102 that winter – Olivia Newton John’s Physical, J. Geils Band’s Centerfold, Hall & Oates’ I Can’t Go For That

And then there was Joan Jett & The Blackheart’s I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, which, like Juke Box Hero, was a new add to Q102’s playlist.

I seem to recall hearing I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll for the first time following school one afternoon and several more times over the course of that evening including on Q102’s Top Ten At Ten that night.

It would remain on the nightly countdown for the next few months and, by March, the song would be entrenched at the top of Billboard‘s Hot 100 where it would remain for nearly two months.

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Didn’t See The Tower For The Steeple

October 31, 2012

One of the finest things about the treehouse lair that Paloma and I share is the number of windows.

The living room has a small, round window that I have always referred to as “the portal.” One clear, full-moon nights, the moonlight pours through in concentrated form, leaving a spotlight on the carpet.

And, behind the couch, is a large, two-sided window that overlooks a well-trafficked neighborhood street. I have often stared out the window, my chin resting on the back of the couch, watching the flow of cars on the street just below and flow of pedestrians on the sidewalks.

It’s like an aquarium.

I particular like the view in the late hours when the traffic has subsided and all is still.

Late one night this past weekend, I was staring out the window and I noticed a handful of dull lights, a half dozen or so, some blinking lazily, some not.

The twinkling reds and whites were from a small communications tower across the street, up a hill, roughly four blocks away.

I was surprised to realize that, though I’ve lived here for some time and stared off in that direction countless times, the tower had never really registered.

I mean, I had obviously seen the tower, but, had I been asked to describe the vista across the street, I would have undoubtedly forgotten to note it.

The tower, spindly and unadorned, is dwarfed (in perspective) by the church across the street. The eye is immediately drawn to the church, especially at night when the illuminated steeple in the foreground rises above the tower – several blocks away – in the background.

The grey metal structure of the tower makes it all but vanish into the crisp night air, its presence given away only by those lights.

As I look across the street tonight, the air is frosty and the landscape glows from the (almost full) moon. There are broken clouds but not enough cover to – in the words of a childhood friend – “curtail the superfluity of the nocturnal luminary.”

I’ve been imagining the tower as broadcasting some radio station and strangers throughout the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond sharing a song and not even knowing it.

It’s not, but there were a lot of late autumn evenings in the early ’80s when music was new to me and nothing sounded better as the wind howled outside than the radio.

Here are four songs from four autumns that I might have heard on whichever station I was favoring at the time…

Vanity 6 – Nasty Girl
from Vanity 6 (1982)

Q102, a Top 40 station out of Cincinnati, had been the preferred station for most of my classmates in junior high and into high school. And, as a high school freshman in 1982, it was the station that was usually my destination, too.

In Billboard magazine, Q012’s playlist from thirty years ago this week is rife with familiar songs like Jackson Browne’s Somebody’s Baby, Laura Branigan’s Gloria, and Glenn Frey’s The One You Love (which is listed as #1).

Slightly more exotic is Vanity 6′ Nasty Girl which the station had just added. The outfit was a trio of women in lingerie and high-heels led by Vanity. Prince had put the act together – originally christening it The Hookers – and wrote and produced their lone album.

Nasty Girl got attention. It sounded like what you might expect a trio of women in lingerie and high-heels, put together by Prince, and originally dubbed The Hookers might sound. It’s a nifty blend of New Wave, rock, and funk with suggestive content that didn’t stop it from being in Q102’s nightly Top Ten for weeks that fall.

Aldo Nova – Monkey On Your Back
from Subject (1983)

An autumn later, I had broken free from the confines of Top 40 stations and spent much of my time listening to Q95, an album rock station in Indianapolis. Part of the station’s appeal was The Bob & Tom Show, which aired in the morning.

(this was twelve years before the show would go national)

One song I totally dug during the autumn of 1983 was Canadian Aldo Nova’s Monkey On Your Back. I had worn out Nova’s debut from a year earlier which had contained his lone US hit with the pop metal confection Fantasy.

Monkey On Your Back was an ominous, lurching rock with gurgling synthesizers and cautionary tale lyrics that seemed edgy to me at fifteen but not so much now.

The song is still a cool trip back in time.

Big Country – Steeltown
from Steeltown (1984)

I had actually discovered modern rock station 97X in October, 1983, months after the soon-to-be revered outlet took to the air. Reception was spotty, though, and rarely could pull it in for more than a few hours a week.

By the fall of 1984, 97X was my station of choice and I believe that its signal had been boosted. My friends and I also had our drivers’ licenses which meant more opportunity to get into Cincinnati and shop for music.

It had been listening to 97X that I had first heard Big Country’s In A Big Country. The song had made the band a sensation, but Steeltown‘s arrival in late 1984 was greeted with a yawn in the States.

It got excellent reviews and deservedly so as, even without a hit, it’s a better album than their debut.

The title track has a thunderous cadence reminiscent of In A Big Country. It’s bone-rattling.

The Waterboys – The Whole Of The Moon
from This Is The Sea (1986)

When autumn came around in 1985, 97X was still my preferred station and I was hearing the music of The Waterboys for the first time.

I had actually first heard the Scottish band before school one morning on an album rock station out of Dayton and it was enough to spur me to purchase a cassette of This Is The Sea.

The song I’d heard was The Whole Of The Moon. It might be rather enigmatic, but there’s something about the glorious song that restores a sense of wonder to my world.


Frog’s Midnight Album

November 10, 2010

For the first year or so that radio first had captured my interest, I was hesitant to roll the bones and scan the dial for fear of ending up in some hostile, unfamiliar musical terrain that might warp my psyche.

So, the orange hand indicating frequency on the cheap stereo in my bedroom was perpetually set to 101.9 – Q102. The station – based on the talk ’round the water fountain – tested well with my junior high peers.

As, at the outset, I had no expectations that music would be much more than something to fill the air around me, it made sense to align myself with a station that allowed me to contribute to hallway chatter.

So, it was Q102 which was Top 40 station but with a dose of songs from acts like The Who, Led Zeppelin, and others that would – a decade or so later – become the backbone of classic rock stations.

(at the time, neither Baba O’Reilly nor Black Dog were even ten years old and Keith Moon and John Bonham were still recently deceased)

There was a small cadre of classmates who were fiercely loyal to WEBN.

These kids usually had older siblings in high school and there was something more dangerous about ‘EBN in my mind. It was the station for long-haired hooligans who smoked cigarettes as the station blared from their Trans-Ams.

I doubt that I’d even listened to the station and I likely suspected that doing so would turn me into a juvie.

But as we reached the summer of ’82 – for me, the summer between leaving junior high and entering high school – I began to surf the dial with total abandon and even dial up ‘EBN.

No portal to Hell opened.

The station played some songs that I knew from Q102 so I was familiar with Journey, Joan Jett, and Asia, but there were acts that I’d never heard before – Black Sabbath, a lot of solo Ozzy, Rush, Jimi Hendrix…

It didn’t all resonate with me, but it became obvious that music was not going to turn me into a juvie.

And, the most appealing thing about this new station to me was Frog’s Midnight Album during which each weeknight the station would air a new album, one side at a time.

I had just begun to make a commitment to music, buying a handful of albums on cassette.

Frog’s Midnight Album was a chance to preview candidates that might earn consideration for my meager, hard-earned allowance. Of course, as blank tape was more affordable, the show also allowed me to build up a bit of a collection of albums.

Scanning the albums released as we headed for Thanksgiving in 1982, there are plenty of familiar titles. Here are four songs from some of those arrivals that I seem to recall hearing on Frog’s Midnight Album

Rush – Subdivisions
from Signals

I quickly realized upon entering high school that Rush was the only band that mattered for the stoners in band. At the time, I might have known the Canadian trio’s Tom Sawyer but likely little more.

But the group had a hit from Signals New World Man – that was getting played on all the stations and, upon hearing the album, I became a devotee of the band, eventually owned most of their catalog, and have seen them a couple of times live.

The pulsatic Subdivisions, which chronicled the pressures to “be cool or be cast out,” seemed awfully deep at the time and, if it might sound considerably obvious now, it’s still pretty stellar.

Pat Benatar – Anxiety (Get Nervous)
from Get Nervous

Even had I not ventured beyond Q102 or Top 40 radio, I would have been well acquainted with Pat Benatar as a string of hits made her a fixture on the airwaves in the early ’80s. She was fetching in spandex and her songs were on every crude mixtape I was making from the radio.

I dug the New Wave-vibe on Anxiety. I don’t remember hearing it on the radio, but I do know for certain that I had Get Nervous recorded onto a Maxell cassette courtesy of Frog’s Midnight Album.

Missing Persons – Destination Unknown
from Spring Session M

I do remembering hearing Destination Unknown on ‘EBN that autumn and, as much as I hate to admit it, my newly-developing ears mistakenly though the song to be The Go-Gos (especially as the station wouldn’t always name what had been played).

By the following summer, it seemed all of my friends and I had a copy of Spring Session M. Their sci-fi, space-age sound and the comely looks and style – plexiglass, fishbowl bra cups, bikini bottoms made of posters, and cotton-candy hair – of lead singer Dale Bozzio were irresistible to our teenage ears and eyes.

Jefferson Starship – Winds Of Change
from Winds Of Change

I knew Jefferson Starship for Miracles and early ’80s hits like Jane and Find Your Way Back. I saw them perform the latter two on an episode of Fridays late one night in ’81 (introduced by Father Guido Sarducci and Dawn).

Grace Slick struck me as a force of nature and, if I made a list of favorite female vocalists, she’d have to be considered. I’ve never really delved into the music of Jefferson Airplane/Starship much beyond the radio hits.

But I dug the title song for Winds Of Change when I heard it late one night on ‘EBN. The album got disinterested reviews at the time (if I recall), but I liked the song’s spacey, barren feel and Grace’s howl.