It’s hard to imagine rock history without the radio. Even the name “rock ‘n’ roll” was bestowed by a DJ, Alan Freed, who played a significant role in popularizing the music when he began spinning R&B records at a Cleveland station in the early ’50s. From then on, the relationship between rock and radio would remain absolutely essential, and many of the classic artists we know and love — from Tommy James to Alice Cooper — owe their careers to the DJs who put their songs on air. Even today in the internet age, radio play is still the highest marker of success, as you haven’t truly made it until you hear your band on a major station.
Considering all this, it’s not surprising that many artists have dedicated their songs to the medium they aspire to be featured on. Some praise the fun and importance of radio, some criticize the quality of its programming, and others use it as a metaphor or simply mention the device somewhere in their lyrics. But however they feel about it, radio has clearly had a big influence on many people, not only in their music, but in their daily lives as well.
To pay homage to the wonderful world of radio, this week’s JUKEBOX will be a list of radio-related tunes, penned and performed by some of the artists who have been lucky enough to ride the airwaves (and maybe a few who are still hoping to get there!).
1) “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?,” The Ramones (1980)
When asked to name a song about radio, this is likely the first one that comes to mind for many folks. It’s easy to see why, as the station-surfing intro instantly transports the listener back in time to the golden age of rock radio, filled with icons like “fifth Beatle” Murray the K and good old Moondog himself. These nostalgic images were intended to bemoan the state of popular music in the ’70s, but today, they’re still enough to make you long for the heydey of rock ‘n’ roll, when you could sneak a transistor radio under your pillow and tune in to one of those legendary late shows while your parents were sound asleep. Thanks to the Ramones and this great tune, rock ‘n’ roll radio won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
2) “Rock and Roll,” The Velvet Underground (1970)
Yet another quintessential radio song, this one is about the joy of tuning into a rock station and hearing that fine, fine music for the very first time. Many music fans can recall the first song or band they fell in love with, and Lou Reed perfectly captures that amazing feeling in this classic number.
3) “Three Minute Hero,” The Selecter (1980)
Many aspiring artists can probably relate to this one. “Three Minute Hero” is, not-surprisingly, a three-minute song about wanting to leave your mundane life behind to become a radio star. As it turned out, the song actually worked for Selecter, reaching #16 on the UK charts and remaining there for eight weeks, no doubt getting a fair share of airplay during that time. Their previous single was also a hit, called “On My Radio.” Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a trend here…
4) “W*O*L*D*,” Harry Chapin (1974)
Most radio-themed songs are concerned with the people listening to the station, but “W*O*L*D*” is actually from the perspective of a DJ. Like any other Harry Chapin song, this one’s a real downer, as it describes a man who spends his whole life drifting from station to station, ultimately realizing that he lost his only chance at true happiness when he broke up with his ex-wife years ago. Hey, nobody said the radio life was easy!
5) “Clap for the Wolfman,” The Guess Who (1974)
Personal confession time: when I first I saw this song listed on my The Best of the Guess Who CD, I assumed it was about some kind of circus freak show. To be fair though, I was only about 14 years old at the time and hadn’t yet been exposed to American Graffiti, aka. the movie that made me fall in love with early rock ‘n’ roll radio. Perhaps the title was supposed to be a reference to freak shows after all, as Wolfman Jack was certainly a very freaky dude whenever he went on air. But either way, “Clap for the Wolfman” is a fun tribute to a great personality, and the snippets of the Wolfman’s chatter are a real treat for those of us who never got to hear his show in our lifetimes.
6) “Pilot of the Airwaves,” Charlie Dore (1979)
“Pilot of the Airwaves” is one of those one-hit wonders that pretty much everyone has forgotten about, but it’s still a good song all the same. It’s told from the perspective of a girl who stays up late every night, listening to a particular DJ. She’s developed a fondness for him and considers him a friend, possibly because she’s lonely or sad about something and needs a companion, or maybe just because she really likes his voice. Anyway, it’s a very sweet song, thanks in large part to Dore’s light, soothing voice, and it nicely conveys the affection that a listener may have for their favorite DJ.
7) “Angie Baby,” Helen Reddy (1974)
Probably the weirdest, creepiest song about a radio you’ll ever hear, “Angie Baby” is the story of a strange girl who spends all her time in her room, listening to the radio and thinking up imaginary lovers. There’s been a lot of speculation about what exactly happens at the end of the song, but according the composer, Alan O’Day, Angie actually uses some kind of mental super powers to shrink the evil boy and keep him inside of her radio as her personal slave. Yes, that’s seriously it. In my opinion, this would have made a way scarier movie than Carrie.
8) “You Turn Me On (I’m a Radio),” Joni Mitchell (1972)
Leave it to Joni Mitchell to write a great love song that uses radio as the central metaphor. As usual, Mitchell’s lyrics are wonderfully clever, with lines like, “I’m a country station/I’m a little bit corny” and “If there’s no good reception for me/Then tune me out, ’cause honey/Who needs the static?” It’s an all around fabulous tune, and unlike more dated songs about telegrams and milkmen (coughHerman’sHermitscough) it’s cool to note that the metaphor still makes sense to modern ears, as radio has fortunately stayed with us into the 21st century.
9) “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat),” The Doors (1971)
In this bluesy track, Jim Morrison quite literally tells us about Texas radio, referring to high-powered AM stations based in Mexico which, unfettered by U.S. regulations, were easily able to broadcast across the border. Wolfman Jack helmed the most famous ones, XERF and XERB, exposing listeners to plenty of blues, R&B, and early rock ‘n’ roll. As a side note, the ZZ Top song, “I Heard It On the X,” also references these Mexican stations, whose call letters always started with the letter X.
10) “Portable Radio,” Hall & Oates (1979)
A single from Hall & Oates’ 1979 album X-Static, “Portable Radio” failed chart, although that’s not too surprising, since it’s not really anything special. I chose to include it, however, because the subject matter is, oddly enough, how awesome portable radios are and all the things you can do with them. Maybe this would make more sense if portable radios were a new invention at the time, but it almost sounds like it was made for an ’80s Radio Shack commercial. Maybe Hall & Oates simply wanted to pay homage to the medium, as we’re doing here, but whatever the reason behind the song, the music video offers zero insight and only makes it seem even stranger.
11) “Mohammed’s Radio,” Linda Ronstadt (1978)
While this is probably better known as a Warren Zevon song, Ronstadt’s cover is lovely, and in my opinion, hers sounds even more desperate and emotional than Zevon’s version. Although it’s a rather sad song, “Mohammed’s Radio” is really very optimistic and comforting, as it’s all about how music has the power to give people hope and happiness when everything else is going wrong. It really does show how radio can make a difference in the world, even if its just by playing the right song at the right time for one listener.
12) “Life Is A Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me),” Reunion (1974)
I knew when I started making this list that this would be the perfect song to end it on. “Life Is a Rock” runs through the entire history of rock radio, cramming as many famous names, songs, and random words as it can into only three and a half minutes. It’s extremely fun to try (and inevitably fail) to sing along with this song, or to even to comprehend everything that’s Joey Levine is saying (fun fact: he also sang “Chewy, Chewy” and “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” for the Ohio Express). It just goes to show just how much awesome music radio has brought us over the years, and here’s hoping it will bring us a lot more in the future.
Check out the full playlist below for even more radio-related tunes!