The Day the (AM) Music Died

It’s Monday, about four minutes before noon, 10 May 1982. Huddling together amid stacks of cassettes and vinyl records, Top 40 disc jockeys Ron Lundy and Dan Ingram are about to drop the needle for the last time on WABC AM, in New York City. Like most of the AM dial, WABC is forgoing contemporary hit music for talk radio, a significant makeover for the station that ruled New York airwaves for most of the ’60s and ’70s.

“This is the beginning, not the end”, says Lundy, his voice rising, choking back tears. It’s his first on-air fib in 17 years at the station. WABC, after all, was the station that broadcasted the Beatles’ legendary Shea Stadium show in 1964, was sampled in Philip Glass’s 1976 opera, Einstein on the Beach, and could reach eager audiences, on a clear night at least, all the way south to Philadelphia and north to Toronto. For this station to make the switch from music to talk radio, it was indeed the end of something.

“It’s been a ball,” echoes Ingram, pausing to read Musicradio 77’s station’s moniker for the final time before the station mutates into Talk Radio 77. “Now we’d like to play just a couple things to nail it down”, he says, and then the familiar piano intro to John Lennon’s 1971 paean to peace, “Imagine”, hits the air, an apt choice for a funeral dirge. Ironically enough, Lennon himself was gunned down mere blocks away 15 months prior. When the song ends three minutes later, a brisk, high-pitched station jingle — the kind you only hear on AM — pronounced WABC as “the station you can talk to: Talk Radio 77”.

Welcome to 1982, the oldies endpoint; the year the music froze, on the AM dial at least. Nowadays it seems ridiculous, but there was a time, before the fragmented niches offered by Internet and satellite radio came along (third-wave psychobilly radio, anyone?), the music dial was divided into two camps: contemporary hit music — almost exclusively AM’s domain — and older, or classical, or college, or jazz on newfangled, niche FM. If you wanted a hit single, you produced it to sound good on AM radio, which meant eschewing deep bass and the low end for something that would sound best on the treble-heavy, tinny sound of an AM receiver, such as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production, made famous by songs such as “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes and the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road”. To sound good on mono AM, you needed a dense, reverberant, everything-at-once sound rather than a dynamic, stereo recording that only sounded good on FM, which the majority of people never even listened to.

As late as the mid-’70s, AM’s airwave reign seemed unstoppable, so much so that stereo technology, first developed in the ’60s, was shelved by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission; AM simply didn’t need stereo sound to compete with FM; or, as the joke went, “same static, but now in stereo”.

Then things started to slip. The sound of music began to change. In the late ’70s, disco went mainstream and with it a need for bass. In the pop arena, the super-clean sounds of acts like ABBA and Supertramp didn’t quite sound right in AM’s mono. And even before that, the emergence of progressive rock acts like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Pink Floyd completed a shift began by the Beatles and Bob Dylan in the late ’60s from the singles era into the era of “album oriented rock”. This music not only sounded better on FM, but could only get played on FM due to the free-wheeling format that would accommodate the longer, sprawling songs of the progressive rock ilk.

No longer fringe, FM’s ability to function as a source for mainstream music was emerging from the shadows of AM and quickly becoming a force. By the time the United States Federal Communications Commission finally brought stereo sound to AM radio, nobody cared. We weren’t tuning into AM for music anymore. Who needed to hear WABC Talk Radio 77’s weather updates in stereo? By the end of 1982, AM radio had begun its descent from its zenith as the source of popular culture to become the lame domain that is talk radio, with its incessant sports highlights and traffic/weather updates. AM was no longer cool, let alone musically relevant. When something ceases to be cool, or relevant, an endpoint is created, a reference point, an era (like when someone says they like “early” Fleetwood Mac).

It was because of AM’s demise that rock music had its first publically-defined era that not just musicologists and audiophiles recognized. While the emergence of studio technology mutated the face and sound of pop — just as technology has since changed both how and what we listen to many times over — something even more monumental had taken place in 1982, something that has outlasted all fads and eras, something that exists in virtually every North American town: oldies music, as defined by radio, was given an endpoint. Suddenly there was new rock, and old rock; contemporary and oldies.

Not Dead, Only Frozen

“Good afternoon and welcome to the Rock ‘N’ Ray Michaels AM show on Oldies 1150 CKOC, your home for good times, great oldies.” It’s a sunny afternoon in 2010. I’m cruising along a highway outside Toronto listening as the fast-talking, hyped up DJ Rock ‘N’ Ray spins oldie after oldie. Every once in a while, the station plays a quick jingle in that high-voiced, quintessentially AM way. Michaels has been rambling on this afternoon about how the station is going to be broadcasting live from some car dealership or mall or the Boat Show or Home Show or Cottage Show on the weekend, and that the CKOC “oldies cruiser” will be there, with prizes galore. Tune in to win.

“Let’s kick it off with some CCR!” says Michaels, knocking down slow-rocker “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”. I crank it and cruise as Michaels follows CCR with “For All We Know” and, later on, plays a diverse mix spanning Gordon Lightfoot, the Stones, and Eric Burdon. Even though I’ve heard these songs zillions of times and can immediately recognize each one a second in, they never seem to grow tiresome when heard on the radio. These are songs I would never put on at home, or want to hear in a bar or on an iPod; they only seem to sound good on a tinny AM receiver, especially the one in my car.

While most oldies-focused stations (or those using monikers like “classic hits”, “classic rock”, “greatest hits”) make on-air claims to play “only the best from the ’60s and ’70s” (a few also add the ’80s), what’s really played are hits from 1965 up until 1982, the most popular period of popular music; or, as Michaels says, “the songs you know by heart”, from “Satisfaction” and “Ticket To Ride” up to and including “Shake It Up”, “Centerfold”, and “I Love Rock and Roll”.

That we all know these hits so well — no need for band names here — is partly testament to the tunes themselves, but largely because of the incessant nature of oldies radio. It doesn’t matter which day you tune in, or what hour, or what city or DJ, you’re going to hear these songs. If an artist had a hit single between 11965 and 1982, it’s still played today on AM; if your hit came after this year, no matter how good, it is not an oldie, and this distinction, like other “eras” of music (Baroque, Classical, Romantic) doesn’t shift according to taste or time.

Not that it’s so bad. For those of us still tuning in, AM oldies deejays continue to get the mix right; Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day In July” followed by Question Mark and the Mysterians’ brilliantly trashy “96 Tears”, followed by Stones/Beatles/Who, followed by the Seeds… it’s a mix that FM “oldies” stations never seem to replicate, always ruining the flow with a Boston track or too much BTO. Perhaps its more than the mix.

A Sound Argument

The 11th of March 2010. Texan band Neon Indian is in town as part of Canadian Music Week. For months, the band’s stellar LP, Psychic Chasms, has been blogged about as if they are this year’s version of the Vivian Girls. And it turns out for good reason. The album manages to sound both well-worn and new at the same time. Immediately memorable, songs such as “Deadbeat Summer” and “Terminally Chill” contain the same sort of hooks and catchiness inherent to pop hits, but the sonics here are somewhat deformed, at times sounding like you’re listening to the record on a slightly warped cassette player. Like other lost-in-time artists such as Ariel Pink, Best Coast, and Toro Y Moi, Neon Indian’s sound is a washed-out, “chill-wave” (or “glo-fi”) rendering of oldies radio, the sort of sound that reminds you of something, but is inherently different. In other words, while it conjures the past, it’s only retro in its top-coat sheen and could never be mistaken for a song from another era, nor charged with being mere nostalgia art.

“The lo-fi sound is not a novelty”, said Best Coast bassist Bobb Bruno in an interview with Eye Weekly magazine. Serving also as a producer on albums by artists Pocahaunted and Magic Lantern, Bruno explains, “When you look back on history, every period has a certain sound that defines the era — ’90s indie-rock was super-clean, with very few effects on anything; later in the 2000s, there were a ton of synths. I think this cycle in music just happens to be a thing that people like to hear.”

Fans of this music, however, tend to take the top-coat analogy a bit too literal. Walking into the Neon Indian show was like stepping into a time warp that takes you back to 1982. The crowd — the majority born in the early ’80s — don American Apparel costumes complete with Oates-worthy moustaches. On stage, Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo is rocking out to “Terminally Chill, fourth song from Psychic Chasms, an album that begins with a short intro called “AM”. Everybody’s digging it, even the ironic sweater-and-stash crowd not typically prone to dancing.

As I listen, I can’t help imagining how great this would sound in the car, on the radio. It’s the same feeling I had months earlier when King Khan and BBQ Show played a show that any fan of oldies radio would have loved. There’s just something to this sound that unites otherwise disparate listeners; even the most ardent fans of contemporary underground music, whether it’s the cinematic sounds of Jóhann Jóhannsson or the otherworldly soundscapes of James Farraro, crave the oldies once in a while. You may claim to only enjoy Sunn O))) but down a few brews and you really want some CCR.

Not that all oldies sound good in public settings. A week before the Neon Indian show, a much larger crowd sits inside the Air Canada Centre to watch the Toronto Raptors take on the New York Knicks. In homage to the Basketball Association of America, the Raptors are wearing replica Toronto Huskies jerseys from the 1947 team. Keeping with the retro vibe, the halftime show features the Raptor girls, normally fetching in short dresses and spandex, wearing poodle skirts and sweaters straight off a Mad Men casting shoot.

My wife whispers into my ear that she “feels sorry for them” as the girls trot to “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets, the type of “rock and roll music” touted by high-school music teachers trying to liven up the school’s jazz band. Like the marijuana “cigarettes” you were warned about in health class, it’s hopelessly lame and nobody seems to care about the Raptor girls or the song itself, with a group of fans in front of us referring to it — as if ‘gay’ is a bad thing — as “some gay song”.

The incident at the Raptors game illustrates that whether you play Bill Haley on a massive arena PA or the Everly Brothers in full-stereo surround sound on a crisp set of speakers, it doesn’t ring as true as “Wake Up Little Suzie” does powered through an AM radio. Oldies, or oldies-tinged, music resonates best when it simulates the AM sound, because that’s how we first heard these songs, and so that’s how we relate to it best.

Many artists within the lo-fi scene embrace this particular sound as an aesthetic quality. Muffled mono is not only desirable, but actually simulated through lo-fi recording techniques. These records sound roughly hewn because that’s what the artist intended it to sound like. Play the new Rangers album, Suburban Tours, and while it might sound like a poor recording to a casual listener, the sound is rather intentional. In fact, not only is it not “poor”, but the simulated sonic inefficiencies are what make it good.

Of course, arguing that the sonic qualities of AM radio sounds better than FM can be like taking a strong position on the merits of arena football. But whether or not you buy the AM-sounds-better argument, there’s no denying that, as an aesthetic device, it’s popular.

It would be interesting to actually hear some of this music that simulates the AM listening experience through lo-fi recording techniques on AM. Take for instance, Kurt Vile’s 2008 album Constant Hitmaker, which sounds at times like it’s drifting in and out of focus; guitar parts fade in and out and the production itself is muddy.That’s what makes it work so well. The breezy pop hooks of lead song, “Freeway” would be forgettable, boring at best, if not for the lo-fi quality. Similarly, bands such as Ducktails and Rangers both use the lo-fi aesthetic to muddy up what would otherwise be straightforward pop music. It all sounds distant yet familiar, present yet fuzzy.

At this point, it’s hard to imagine new music on AM. Yet now that satellite and Internet radio are kings and FM has gradually become a wasteland of oft-trotted Tom Pettyism, music may once again save the dial. AM has developed into a niche marketplace, not unlike community television from the early-’80s, with broadcasters renting out time slots for fractured audiences (religious, ethnic, federal workers, etc.). So it’s at least possible that an enterprising DJ with an ear tuned to the fringe pop of a Neon Indian or Kurt Vile or Ducktails might start using AM again as a sound source, renting space, as it were, on a station and playing this music.

Why wouldn’t this music wind up on AM? Or is AM radio truly a long-gone source for music, forever frozen in the 1965-1982 period, still showing up at local hockey arenas and Boat/Home/Cottage shows in the “oldies cruiser”, still employing the long-antiquated DJs playing songs that are now pushing 50 years old? Unfortunately for AM, as good as the oldies are, eventually even the best songs will sound as dated as Bill Haley at the Raptors game. Likewise, the talk-radio format is also ailing on AM, as even WABC (now owned by Disney, by the way) can’t quite generate enough revenue or younger listeners to keep going as is. Would people start tuning back into AM to hear specialized and contemporary AM programming that highlighted music like chill wave? It’s a possibility because, after all, the music may have died in 1982, but the sound lives on.

Jay Somerset is a writer and editor in Toronto. His writings on music and fringe culture have appeared in Signal To Noise, Arthur, Musicworks and Spacing magazines. He is currently at work on a feature on the new New Age music for Musicworks and is enjoying his role as Sacrificial Lamb Supervisor for New Jersey radio station WFMU. When not writing or browsing the web, Jay enjoys jogging, German cinema and fine wine. You can reach him at [email protected]

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