Monday, February 19, 2007

Mixtape Monday: Raised On Radio, Side Two

(What is Mixtape Monday?)

At its best, radio was a promise. You gave your time, your patience, your imagination; and in return radio would surprise you, delight you with old favorites, educate you with the new, even send you screaming into the streets.

Or it would just feed you a steady diet of meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll. But you can’t even count on that anymore.

The Firm tune was a radio hit when I was in high school, and it always amused me. This was Jimmy Page’s band with Paul Rodgers from Bad Company. I never had much time for Rodgers, to be honest, and even less for Page. My reaction to Led Zeppelin was complicated; I was drawn in by the complexity and depth of the soundscapes Page was creating, but repelled every time Robert Plant opened his mouth. In their solo careers, though, the equation was reversed—Plant, finally playing to his strengths, made some excellent solo sides, while Page fumbled around looking for the proper vehicle, eventually proving that there is a place beyond self-parody by teaming up with profession Led Zep plagiarist David Coverdale, in a move roughly equivalent to Paul McCartney joining XTC, or The Edge signing up with Coldplay, or Keith Richards stepping into a full-time gig with The Littlest Red Rooster, the All-Midget Tribute to the Music of the Rolling Stones, Coming Soon to the Fuddles County Fairgrounds, and playing every show with his calves strapped to his thighs and elf-shoes sewn on to his kneepads.

The Firm was part of those wilderness years, but I wasn’t listening to either Page or Rodgers—I was digging on bassist Tony Franklin, who played like Pino Palladino and looked like a stray member of The Alarm, and whose loopy lines could perk up even a tired old blooze stomp like this. Unfortunately, as a glimpse at his discography shows, he’s never had Palladino’s pop smarts, choosing instead to continually mire himself in the sort of muso wank only of interest to the kind of people who read guitar magazines.

Anyway. A lot of these songs I first heard on Boston’s WFNX, which was quite a good station in the late 80s and early 90s. They’d been a sort of underground station for a few years, the broadcast arm of the Boston Phoenix—which was, again at the time, quite a good newspaper—and found themselves perfectly positioned to take advantage of the rise of “alternative” as a marketing category. For a while it worked. Their success was hindered somewhat by a spotty signal and a limited broadcast area, but somehow that just added to the mystique. But in the end grunge swept in, homogenizing everything in a wash of distorted downtuned guitars, and ‘FNX, like so many stations, just never found their way again after that. The Phoenix started its downhill slide at about the same time. Both are still around, but are pale shadows of their past glories.

Luka Bloom’s “You” showed up on WERU, the public station out of Blue Hill, Maine. When we vacationed in Bar Harbor, we would lock that station in, and its wonderfully eclectic folk-rock mix never disappointed. We’d dug Luka for years, ever since we caught a blistering set opening for The Pogues—nearly two years before the release of Riverside, not long after he’d changed his name—and we already owned the newest CD, but I don’t think we’d ever heard him on the radio. We were driving along the hills looping around Acadia, the sun flickering through the trees, salt air, perfect, and this came on. The hairs on my neck stood up. Later that fall, the title track of The Acoustic Motorbike started getting some airplay in Boston, which was nice; but he never blew up like he deserved.

The Collection of Marie-Claire” turned up on WBCN’s Sunday late-night freeform block, the wittily-titled Nocturnal Emissions. That timeslot was the bastion of ‘BCN’s program director Oedipus, and to his credit he held on to it and kept it wide open to new music for years as ‘BCN blundered through several corporate retoolings and format changes, showing many beloved longtime jocks the door and programming Howard Stern, luring Nik Carter over from spinning records at ‘FNX to running his mouth for four hours solid in the afternoon drivetime, getting crasser and crappier and more successful all the time.

‘BCN had an outlaw mystique, from Charles tripping on-air to the missing-pet reports to later rumors of cocaine and payola. One DJ was allegedly fired for off-air remarks about the head of corporate owner, and later spent time in prison for sexual assault. It all got weird and ugly as it wound down, but for years the station commanded an extraordinary loyalty, positioning itself as the epicenter of Boston’s fierce hometown pride, and repaid that love with a massive commitment to local bands, a dedication to breaking new music, and sponsorship of the city’s pop-cultural scene. All that has faded.

Oedipus had the sense to quit years ago, as he felt the corporate vise tightening. They still play some local music; longtime hacks Juanita and Shred are still there, and somehow Bradley Jay keeps hanging on; but WBCN was over for me long before I moved out of its signal area.

Here in the Flower City, we’ve got a decent Triple-A station, a classic rocker that’s good for a chuckle, and a corporate pseudo-freeform station (“You never know what you’ll hear next”—but you know it’s going to be a song you’ve already heard a million times on some other station). There are a bunch of college stations, of course; they’re very good for what they are, but they can’t help but be hit-and-miss—it’s the nature of the beast.

I read an interview with a local program director, and when he talked about the problems of managing and programming a library of nearly 3,800 songs, I snorted audibly; I’ve got twice that many on my hard drive, and I’m adding more every day. And I’m not even a fanatic: There are power users on Soulseek with thirty-five thousand files, more music than you could listen to in a lifetime.

But you can’t listen to it in the car. You can’t dial it in and be surprised, and hear your favorite song that you’ve never heard before. At its best, radio was a promise to the listener. And that promise has been so debased, so often broken or ignored, that I do not think it can ever be meaningful again.

Download Side Two (45:31, 41.6 meg file: YouSendIt link good until 26 February), and weep with me.

[ MP3 expired - so sorry ]

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