Heard on the Radio


Me (upper left), on the cover of the only vinyl album I own

When podcasts tell me to do something, I listen. I don’t always do anything about it, but I listen. Today, in fact, the podcast told me to figure out how my parents music choices influenced me. Well, screw that. If I want to talk about my mom, I’m going to call her (Hi Mom!). Actually, that’s what the podcast wanted me to do. The truth is that my parents didn’t choose music for me to listen to, they allowed me to choose some of my own … and they forced me into various musical classes. By ‘force’, I mean they said, “Do you wanna’?” and I probably replied with an indifferent shrug.

My musical “parent” was the radio which doled out influential music sandwiched in a load of crappy schlock that wounds me even today. Like all parent/child stories, my memory and reality are probably only vaguely similar. But, it’s my memory and I get to edit it as I please!

It all started in Texas where our house had an intercom with an integrated radio. I was 8 years old and had never really listened to the radio. The radio was cruel choosing to play my favorite songs no more than once in each hour. Of course, it played that song every hour for weeks on end. I got around that ‘infrequency’ by holding a small tape recorder up to the intercom speaker. I was an 8 year old music pirate. Rather than spend my paltry allowance on honest albums, I made crappy copies from a crappy radio station heard over an even crappier speaker. I only remember one song from that era, the only song I cared about then: “Riding the Storm Out” by REO Speedwagon. Later I would learn to laugh at their accent, like the “er” on the end of the line “can’t fight this feeling any longer”. Later, I would get snarky. On that same radio, I also heard the Sex Pistols for the first time. I was unimpressed. It would take the Dead Kennedys to make that influence stick.

Nena and her armpits

A few years later, we moved to Germany where, for three years my influences come down to two songs. While visiting London, I heard “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell and my brain exploded at how simplicity could sound so rich. I still love that song although I’ll never admit to having heard it when it was still new. Back in Germany, I heard Nena performing “99 Luftballoons” which was later bastardized into an English-language song called “99 Red Balloons” by that other band called Nena. OK, it was the same band. The German version was definitely better. I can’t tell you what it meant in German, but I could then, and it was more poetic, more poignant. My strongest memory of that song was the video where the lead singer does something involving lifting her arms, resulting in a prominent display of armpit bush. I was scandalized! It didn’t take much to scandalize me. It seems silly now, but, really, I was just a kid!

GW’s nose. Does he have a cold?

Upon return to my birthplace, a little to the East of George Washington’s nose, I became or pretended to be cooler, listening only to the local college radio station. That’s when I heard “You Trip Me Up” by the Jesus and Mary Chain. That. Song. Changed. Me. Suddenly the musical rules and conventions didn’t make sense. Suddenly, the world opened up. Suddenly.

I left home, as all young birds do, some before they can fly. I fled to the nearest big city to be … whatever. I didn’t know. I didn’t listen to the radio much, not for awhile. Occasionally, I’d head home to visit my family accompanied only by my neuroses and a selection of tapes destined to be overplayed. Early in the trip, I’d listen to a formerly good radio station later destroyed by a radio conglomerate. I enjoyed most of it, but only one song stood out: “Killer Inside Me” by MC 900 Ft. Jesus. Unlike the above-mentioned songs, that one vanished from my life. The best part of the station was a particular DJ, Bill Amundson, who sounded a lot like the B-52’s Fred Schneider on speed. Bill is still around, but as an artist, not a DJ. Amundson is much better than the MC 900 Ft. Jesus song. It’s the right happy ending.

Now? Radio’s gone from my life. I don’t have patience for it. It doesn’t play what I want it to play. It doesn’t care what I want to listen to. Worse yet, it tries to sell me things in a non-ignorable way. I am post-radio. It feels good.

16 thoughts on “Heard on the Radio

  1. Post-radio. Of course, post-radio. Clever, yes, very clever you are. (I can barely think in language today. I’m getting things done Jedi style. Thank goodness I don’t have to talk to paint faces.)

    • I’ve been pseudo-Yoda-ed! Woohoo!

      If it matters, I just spent a brief conference call saying things like, “That stuff, what’s it called? It’s used in that other place …” Yup. I’m smart, but not today!

    • Is there any other way to sing? I looked less committed (less silly?) on the other parts of that album cover. If I’m gonna put the pics out there, why not put out the goofy ones!

      In some high school performance I put together, we chose between “99 Luftballoons” and ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” done as the Temptations. I lost that vote but we rocked that ELO!

    • Magic, podcasts, the internet, and more magic! That covers the eloquence part. The music comes from pretty much the same places. The best stuff comes from researching a bunch of semi-interesting bands and finding the awesome intersection between them. Such as Helmet, Don Caballero, and Tomahawk leading me to the awesome Battles.

  2. I was really influenced by my parents who listened to GREAT music. But I naturally rebelled and listened to crap during puberty and then rediscovered good music on my own through radio and the self-same radio-pirating. It still makes me hate DJs that talk over intros as if they are just a piece of elevator-music without relevance to the song. I know why DJs think they have to do it (1 second dead air and the listener surely will smash his radio in blind rage) but I hate it.

    • Our household had so little modern music that listening to my uncle’s Barry Manilow album felt rebellious. That probably explains something.

      I don’t mind the DJs as much as I hate the ads. The DJs feel like fellow music fans. When listening in Germany as a kid, I don’t remember hearing ads on WDR, AFN, BBC, or Radio Moscow. Yes, I listened to propaganda, both the band and the programming type. The band was better!

      • As a young teen I apparently really listened to shitty radio-stations, the ones where the DJs were less DJs and more entertainers who had to tell you how much more music they play than other radio stations (they didn’t) and how much fresher their music was (it wasn’t). The fellow music fans I encountered, when I started watching music television…those were the days.

        • Radio must have changed?!? Either that or I was a non-discerning listener back then. Evidence: I thought Barry Manilow was rebellious (compared to Herb Alpert, he was).

  3. Just about the only radio I listen to is CBC 1 (commercial free and usually interesting and informative) or CBC 2 (interesting music and commercial free) or a classical station that is publicly funded (no commercials, but not always what I want). Otherwise, I agree, regular radio sucks (it’s a pity I no longer have the time to regularly listen to shortwave).

    Lena really was kinda fun to listen to, too.

    • It kind of makes you yearn to joint the tin foil hat club: at least they believe that real information comes from out of the ether.

      CBC? If I had to, I guess I could move to Detroit and catch it leaking over the border. On the other hand, being post-radio is working out just fine!

      • If you ever get the urge, a lot of APR carries CBC programming – it was quite the lifesaver, sometimes in my truck driving days. Also, you don’t need to move to Detroit. I got good to great reception all along Hwy 2, 5 & 32 in North Dakota!

        • North Dakota? I lived too many years in South Dakota. I’ve had my Dakota jar filled!

          I just checked and I can also get it via my fancy-shmancy phone!

  4. Great post – respect to Nena’s armpits! That song is still played a lot in Germany, on one night out in Munich I heard it 4 times, minimum.

    I love your description of your homemade recording system – people pay lots of money for expensive FX pedals to achieve precisely that sound.

    I’m spoilt; BBC Radio was always very good and very well organised – pop in the day gradually shading through to more specialist stuff at night and then John Peel 5 nights a week playing absolutely anything that took his fancy – African music, Napalm Death, ambient dub, quite literally anything. As my bedtime got later, my tastes changed.

    • Nena’s armpits blew my undeveloped mind. Not nearly as much as her music though.

      I encountered one awesome radio station, a college station in South Dakota whose only policy was to play nothing that makes any chart. They gave me JAMC. Not Napalm Death but pretty adventurous.

      It’s great to have bedtime control!

Am I wrong?