Rockin’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio Revisited

Jim Sullivan recounts 10 songs outside of rock that defined the FM airwaves for him

“Do you remember rock ‘n’ roll radio?” Joey Ramone sang back in 1980 on Ramones’ Phil Spector-produced End of the Century

“Do you remember lying in bed/With your covers pulled up over your head? /Radio playin’ so no one can see.”

 

VIDEO: The Ramones “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?”

Oh, yes, I do, I (silently) answered Joey back then. Rock ‘n’ roll radio wasn’t exactly dead then, though most stations weren’t playing Ramones. But point taken. It wasn’t what it was when we were growing up and AM, in particular, was useless. 

And I can re-affirm Joey’s point now, 40 years after he was bemoaning the death of his childhood sound salvation.

Many of us of a certain generation – let’s say from the mid-late ‘60s through the early-70s – grew up with AM radio in the foreground, with aggressive DJs loudly exclaiming about those heavy rotation hits. 

FM rock radio had yet to blossom – or maybe we just didn’t have access to a good progressive station or maybe we were just kids (as Patti Smith might say). We turned both to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 and our favorite local DJs for the countdown of the hits. And, of course, to our local AM station for the all-day soundtrack to our early teen years. Near my central Maine hometown, that guy was “Mighty” John Marshall on WGUY of Bangor. 

Sure, there was schlock, but there were some damn good hits. Some bands turned out to be one-hit wonders – and that’s fine, not every band has more than that one great song or album in them. More than that, for me, a Beatles-weaned-but-Black Sabbath-loving hard rock kid, Top 40 radio exposed me to a wide variety of musical styles that had yet to show up on radar, to say nothing of my crappy bedroom stereo.

Because the Top 40 of the day embraced and comprised a lot of pop music – country, R&B, soul, folk, even ska and reggae, novelty songs. All of those things entered the mix and they kicked a lot of doors open, should you choose to enter that realm. And, importantly, there were songs by artists new to me that I discovered, those songs opening the door to catalogs which boasted loads more (and oft better) stuff. 

This is a highly personal list of ten, not a best. Couldn’t do that. I got pick another ten pretty easily. And you’ve got your own, I bet. Maybe this will shake some of those songs loose from the tree of forgotten memories. 

 

Johnny Cash – “A Boy Named Sue”

The biggest door-opener for me into country music in general and Cash in particular, leading to the purchase of the man in black’s first two live prison albums  (this came from the San Quentin set) and my very first concert, featuring Johnny, The Tennessee Three and the Statler Brothers. Sure, this was a novelty song, but it was by Shel Silverstein and it was aces. I loved the booze and the fights and the challenges this poor boy named Sue faced – “It seems I had to fight my whole life through/Some gal would giggle and I’d get red/And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head/I tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.” And then the resolution where he meets up with the sonofabtich – beeped out for radio! loved it! – and fights him to near death before bonding.

 

AUDIO: Johnny Cash “A Boy Named Sue”

 

Joe Tex – “I Gotcha”

Both laid back and fierce, full of pleading and demands, fueled by betrayal. Pretty sure now what the “it” was that Joe was referring to when he sang “Give it to me.” I believe he succeeded in his get by song’s end. Introduced the gruff, sexy soul to my world. Later returned in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” ten years after Tex’s death at 47 (heart attack). Postscript: Later found out Tex and James Brown were not the best of pals and in 1963, Tex opened for Brown and mocked him by appearing in a tattered cape and rolling around on the floor screaming “Please, somebody help me get out of this tape.” Brown left the club and returned with a gun, but Tex had left the club.  

 

AUDIO: Joe Tex “I Gotcha”

 

Desmond Dekker and the Aces –     “The Israelites”

The first ska music to cross my little pop world: Dekker’s high voice, the syncopated beat, the scratchy guitar licks and the contemporary reference of “I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.” (I was a huge “B & C” fan.) It starts with Dekker’s protagonist getting up in the morning “slaving for bread, sir” and doesn’t get much better from there. (I will neither confirm nor deny that as a kid I might have heard he was eating “the same thing for breakfast.”) All upbeat bounciness, but upon further review, you realize the guy’s wife has left him and the Israelites referred to are likely the impoverished Rastas and their association with the 12 Tribes of Israel. Ska re-enters my world with The Specials, English Beat, Bad Manners and the Selector in the early ‘80s.

 

VIDEO: Desmond Dekker and the Aces “The Israelites”

 

Bobbie Gentry – “Ode to Billie Joe” Typical boy teen that I was, when I discovered country music I thought of it pretty much as a rough ‘n’ tumble guys world until Bobbi Gentry knocked my socks off with this tear-jerker short-story of a song about Billie Joe McAllister’s big jump off the Tallahassee Bridge.  “It was just another day – dry, dusty, out choppin’ cotton – and then the news comes from Choctaw Ridge. I’m not sure anyone had painted such a detailed picture in a song before, but I felt every detail deep in my bones and great sadness about the mysterious death. 

 

VIDEO: Bobbie Gentry “Ode To Billie Joe”

 

Tony Joe White – “Polk Salad Annie” Swamp rock? Cajun country? Another weird-ass death song? It was certainly a Southern life this Maine boy had no clue about. Hence, a fascination with. White penned and laconically sang about poor polk salad Annie, who was so poor she has to gather up this toxic root to cook for dinner. If that ain’t bad enough her “daddy was lazy and no-count” and “all her brothers were fit for was stealin’ watermelons.” Her momma? Well she was “a wretched, spiteful, straight-razor totin’ woman” who was “workin’ on a chain gang.” And then, you know, it gets worse: “Polk salad Annie/Gators got your granny – chomp, chomp.”  Opened up the doors for all kindsa southern rock on the mid- ‘70s. 

 

VIDEO: Tony Joe White “Polk Salad Annie”

 

Carole King – “It’s Too Late”/”I Feel the Earth Move” 

In 1971, I wasn’t listening to folk or soft-rock and, really, I knew little about King’s songwriting history with Gerry Goffin, so, aside from the delights of this Double-A side singer (remember those?) it brought me back to that King-Goffin catalog. And made me appreciate that great songs did not have to hit you with a hammer.  “It’s Too Late” had a melancholic adult take on relationships I wouldn’t experience ‘til years later, and “I Feel the Earth Move” was good, uptempo fun.

 

VIDEO: Carole King “It’s Too Late” 

 

VIDEO: Carole King “I Feel The Earth Move”

Paul Revere & the Raiders – “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)”

Another semi-embarrassment in retrospect. I hadn’t been paying any attention when this great Northwest garage band was rockin’ the world with “Kicks” and “Just Like Me,” but my ears perked up when I heard this one, written by John D. Loudermilk, not a member of the Cherokee nation. Cultural appropriation wasn’t a term then. Was it tacky? Yeah, maybe a little. Was it powerful? Well, yes – that “Indian nation will return” coda made my hair stand on end. 

 

VIDEO: Paul Revere & the Raiders – “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)”

 

Bloodrock – “D.O.A.” If I recall I was already aware of these Texas hard rockers via the Terry Knight connection – Knight produced Grand Funk Railroad and I was a Grand Funk fan – and their first album. But “D.O.A.,” from album two, was a huge left turn: Call it chill-rock, music that brings a chill when you hear it and yet you can’t turn away. (Like a good horror movie or a Nick Cave song.)  It’s about the aftermath of a plane crash – “We were flying along and hit something in the air” – and our protagonist finds himself surviving, but stunned with “something warm flowing down my fingers/Pain is flowing all through my back.” Rescue sirens bleat in the background. He’s not gonna make it. At the end: “God in heaven teach me how to die!” Did I hear the shorter radio edit or the longer album version first? Not sure. But this creepy song, which hit No. 36, nationally has to be the most outre Top 40 hit of that era (or any?). Remains the No. 1 shock of a semi-hit ever.  (Later covered by Butthole Surfers and, once at least, by R.E.M.)

 

AUDIO: Bloodrock “DOA”

 

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin –  “Je t’aime … moi non plus”

And this is a very close second. The breathy French ballad between gruff sensualist Gainsbourg and partner, the beautiful Birkin, released in 1969 was all about sex and presaged Donna Summer’s disco orgasm in “Love to Love You Baby” by six years. Who knew this kind of smooth and sexy French pop existed? How the hell did this get on the AM radio? How did I know this was about sex? I was only 13, but I had an inkling.

 

AUDIO: Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin –  “Je t’aime … moi non plus”

 

Chuck Berry – “My Ding-a-Ling”

OK, here’s the most embarrassing one – for both me and Chuck, I guess. First, it was his only No. 1. I knew who Berry was from the Beatles and Stones covers, but I’d never really listened to Berry himself ‘til I was 15. He wasn’t exactly pumping the charts then. And this hilarious, bawdy, not-all-that-subtle tune came out, made me laugh, reeled me in and then soon I was rockin’ to the hits album, Chuck Berry’s Golden DecadeAgain, kinda like “Je t’aime,” how the hell did this make it on AM radio? And years later, when more of Berry’s – shall we say – peccadillos were revealed, it kinda made sense he’d be singing an ode to his wanger.

 

VIDEO: Chuck Berry “My Ding-A-Ling” 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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