The Death of Rock and Roll on American Radio in the 1970s

The 1960s saw a tidal wave of creativity in rock and roll, much of what was spun out on AM and emerging free form FM radio stations. The Doors and Led Zeppelin promised a great start to the 70’s. And then things hit a wall. We were soon listening to schmaltz like Knock Three Times by Tony Orlando and Dawn and throw away novelty songs like Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog by Three Dog Night. What happened to the driving sounds of Cream, The Who, and Captain Beefheart? Playlists happened.

American radio stations developed big audiences during the 1960s and the radio industry evolved to systematically capture that audience for their advertisers. Playlists came into being. To this day you cannot call a radio station to request anything not on their computer generated playlist. Only satellite radio provides that opportunity now and at this time rock and roll is diminished, fractured and in small pieces. It will never have the force it had when everyone listened to rock and roll on their local AM or FM radio station.

You had to live through the 70s to know the The Tenor of The Times. No small or medium size market station dared to offend advertisers by playing anything too jarring or disturbing to their listeners. As the 70s rolled on, corporate ownership of many stations produced an even greater chokehold on rock and roll. Great creativity continued, like with Carole King, but only in the realm of mellow, easy listening music. Troubadours like Cat Stevens, Nilsson, and Gordon Lightfoot became inexplicably popular in the vacuum of radio without hard driving rock and roll. Acts like the Carpenters and John Denver built up this mellow atmosphere until we were choking on that dreck.

Led Zeppelin was the greatest rock and roll/blues band of the 1970s. Maybe of all time. You’d just never know it from radio. Outside of the Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago markets, the only song played was Stairway to Heaven. The Grateful Dead suffered in their own way, with Trucking the only song radio allowed on the air. The great bands of that era made it in spite of radio, not because of it. Word of mouth and tremendous concert attendance fueled those bands’ popularity, circumventing radio. Rock and roll continued but the market place for it had been destroyed by greed heads selling toothpaste. It wasn’t a lack of creativity or artists in the 70s, the 60s spirit could have gone on longer, but advertising’s safe and cautious appeal to customers wouldn’t permit it.

Some of this destruction was committed by bands themselves, most extremely talented musicians who wandered into bombast and pretentiousness, held without check by competing bands that would have previously been on the radio. Yes, along with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and ELO, helped killed mainstream rock and roll in the early to mid 70’s by wallowing in symphonic and orchestral music. Although I am loathe to paraphrase a Nazi, when I hear someone say rock and roll and symphonic in a sentence I want to reach for my revolver.

Disco didn’t help. We were in a bad state until punk came along about 1977 or so, eventually forcing rock back to its roots and away from grand pianos. Still, punk didn’t get on the radio either, only a less charged variant called New Wave. In small and medium size cities I never heard Lou Reed, Patti Smith, or Iggy Pop on the radio, save for a distant college station that faded in and out. Around 1980 I went to a limited movie run showing a cheaply produced film at Tower Records in Sacramento, California. It simply showed new music groups from the UK, mostly Ska and Two Tone groups like the English Beat. Kids were dancing in the aisles to a film! No one stayed in their seats. They had never heard music before like this and the atmosphere was joyous.

My brother Tim worked radio in that era, both as a DJ and as a program director known as a PD. He and other DJs often brought tapes from home, hoping to get new music on the air. These tapes were routinely confiscated by the program director. Later, when Tim became a PD, he, too, confiscated tapes. Strange rules existed beyond the playlist according to a program director’s preferences. Like never playing two songs by women in a row. Tim had a minor victory now and then, he was one of the first to break Heart on the radio, a full year before that act became noticed nationwide.

The 1970s and 1980s were totally consumed by playlists, nearly two generations were deprived of fantastic music, now finally made known by satellite radio and the internet. A lost era, to fans and to the rock and roll groups who could have made it were they let on the air.

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Elvis Costello was the first rock and roll act I ever saw. I don’t remember the name of his band that night at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. Bill Graham’s bully boys were in force, keeping everybody in their seat rows and out of the main aisle. Still, everybody stood. Costello produced forty minutes of rock and roll and pure anger. It was very refreshing.

Elvis Costello, 1977, Radio, Radio

I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial
Doing anything my radio advised
With every one of those late night stations
Playing songs, bringing tears to me eyes

I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver
When the switch broke ’cause it’s old
They’re saying things that I can hardly believe
They really think we’re getting out of control

Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don’t give you any choice
‘Cause they think that it’s treason
So you had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio

I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I wanna make them wish they’d never seen me

Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed

You either shut up or get cut out
They don’t wanna hear about it
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel

Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don’t give you any choice
‘Cause they think that it’s treason
So you had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio

Costello got on SNL in late 1977 with Radio Radio but the director’s weren’t prepared for it, all of their pre-arranged camera angles set up for another song. Also, the content was loathsome to such a corporate driven advertising machine like NBC. Pardon the ads. Some things never change.

————

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About thomasfarley01

Freelance writer specializing in outdoor subjects, particularly rocks, gems and minerals.
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