During my formative years, I was tuning in the glow on the late-night dial. It was Chicago radio’s heyday. The Loop, WXRT, WMET, WLS, and later WCKG were all major contenders for the musical soul of the city’s youth. While I credit these radio outlets with strengthening my sense of musical history (lots of Beatles, Stones, & Zep), they’re also the reason I have reams of Journey lyrics stuck in my subconscious, and somehow know every weedly-weedly-ing lick in the outro to The Scorpions’ “Rock Me Like a Hurricane.” When you spend entire summer days bouncing a ball in the backyard with your neighbor’s outdoor speakers as a soundtrack, it’s unfortunate what you can recall later in life.
But I wasn’t raised on radio.
Fortunately, The Older Brother/Cousin Force ran strong in my family. While I might have been digging “Saved by Zero” on WBBM-FM’s “Flamethrowin’ Five,” the LP-buying example set by my brother and cousins helped me realize that doing anything my radio advised wasn’t exactly the hippest. It wasn’t necessarily the music that they bought (“Mr Roboto” in gatefold? Cool!); it was simply that these guys loved the record store, and the notion of actually listening to an entire album of music. There’s an image stuck in my brain like a “Fore!”-era Huey Lewis video. Once, when I was young, the family truckster pulled up in front of my cousins’ house. Two of them had painted the names of their fave bands on their window shades, and lit the room from the inside. And I’ll tell you, seeing “Rush” and “The Who” spelled out on those white shades went a long way towards making me a music fan. It was never just going to be about those late night stations, the ones playing songs bringing tears to my eyes. Radio may have been a sound salvation, but I knew there was something deeper. One thing leads to another, indeed.
Just like Don Simmons, the man with the tragic affliction of “no soul” in “Amazon Women on the Moon,” many Americans are unfortunately raised with the belief that they had better do as they are told, and listen to the radio. After spending their entire lives as radio listeners, they’ve become prisoners to what it has to say. There’s a good reason why the “Now!” series of current pop hits packages consistently sells in the millions. All the hits of the previous few months are compiled in one place for the listener to enjoy, without all that annoying filler one would find on a single artist release.
Sometimes this attitude is warranted. I wouldn’t swear Caviar’s recent self-titled release on anybody. After their catchy single “Tangerine Speedo” picked up speed on modern rock stations nationwide, Caviar’s album was hastily released by Island/Bomb Trax with bland cover art suggesting its used-bin future. None of the album’s mid-tempo, Verve Pipe-meets-Fountains-of-Wayne rock comes close to the cloying, sexy vibe of “Tangerine Speedo.” But who cares? Island ‘s release of the record was an afterthought. It had already made its money off of the single, placing “Speedo” on soundtracks for “Charlie’s Angels” and “Gone in 60 Seconds” where it would help piggyback sales with the other decent, yet mediocre, songs on those collections. To the average radio-influenced music consumer, an album by an unknown – even with a solid hit single – is a risk. A soundtrack or hits compilation is a better bet. At least you can play it at parties.
There will always be bands like Caviar, whose 15 minutes are sold out from under them before they can even cash them in for a groupie’s blow job. But maybe it’s a risk they consciously took, putting all of their Speedos in a tangerine-colored basket. The label upsells the shit out of these groups, and like Jordan says, it gets the hell out of Saigon. And as they taxi down the runway, they can hear the rock bands shout, “don’t come back here.”
But the labels always do. And they bring more money. And many of the bands rolling daily into Jordan’s studio have realized that, to get signed, you either shut up or get cut up. To the labels, it’s only inches on a reel-to-reel. And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools. But maybe, just maybe, you can be the next Sugar Ray.
My, oh my, what a dream to live for.