(Or, Maxwell, Morse, Hertz, Branly, Popov, Poulsen, Edison, Stubblefield, Fessenden, Monkeyface, Marconi and how!)
by Austin Rich
Playlist & Footnotes: http://anywhereanywhen.com/2015/07/07/history-lesson-part-ii-mans-invisible-messenger
The story of the 20th Century is, in many ways, the story of the nerd. In the early 1900s, the train was technological revolution, and steam-powered printing presses saw a proliferation of newspapers and magazines in a way that allowed for quick and direct communication, at a time when prices dropped so low enough for anyone who could read to have access to the very ideas of the entire modern world. As communities slowly formed around these new technologies and forms of communication, the first attempts to connect the planet with phone lines was also underway. Electricity was in the air, and the stage was set for the real nerds to plan the next revolution that would radicalize the country and change culture forever: music & radio.
Nerds played a muted role in the world around us in those days. Inventors have been at the core of the world’s evolution, one piece at a time, as Mr. Cash would later say. Academics cloister themselves much like monks, emerging with a new form of math or a new insight in geology, or a different take on roots rock. Explorers forge new paths and return with artifacts, or new albums that will blow our minds. The nerds changed the way our lives were lived, day to day. Once electricity was the plaything of inventors, it was a race to find the things that this new discovery could bring to the world around us. To this end, people gathered in their sheds, their kitchens, their bedrooms, and at their desks, reading about this and experimenting with that.
Isolated, alone, immersed in new research & cutting edge technology, the late 19th Century gave rise to the modern nerd in the form of inventors. Before long, these nerds would develop a new form of communication that makes The Magazine seem quaint and old-fashioned: Radio.
Electricity, and what could be done with it, was starting to become old news, and even hobbyists were more interested in bigger things. With all the benefit this wired gear was getting us, the ideas of wireless – the properties of electricity in a form that was not contained in wires – still seemed absolutely fantastic. Wireless was an old notion, and had been floated well before light bulbs and telephones, but where it had been fantasy up until the late 1800s, now it was a Sci-Fi concept that absorbed the imaginations of many young inventors as they toiled in their workshops. The stage was set.
This is the story of Radio. Of enthusiasts who wanted to shape the future and had visions that many Americans were not yet able to imagine. As we continue our journey through these stories, what stands out to me is the solitude of these pioneers. Much like their modern counterparts, there were those who felt cut off and isolated from the world at large. Having few peers who understood their dreams and passions, these inventors spent endless hours at their desks, imagining the world and future as interpreted through books and magazines. The story of radio is as much technological breakthrough as it is mythology, hype, and marketing, performed by amateurs, hoping to make it big. In this way Radio and Internet have so much in common, and the way they each describe themselves is eerily familiar.
Presently, Radio is a quaint innovation, something that seems obvious and old fashioned, a relic of an era that must be buried in some physical book from the ancient past. But the impact Radio had on the world cannot be understated. In the first 20 years of the 20th Century, Wireless Telegraphy went from the stuff of pulp novels to a service that offered incredible communication over great distances. By 1930, Crystal Radio Sets were available to hobbyists in stories across the country. By 1940, regular broadcasts could be heard everywhere, all day, every day. Within the lifetime of my grandmother, she moved from a world devoid of instantaneous communication, to a world completely transformed by fireside chats and baseball games beamed straight into her home, all via a new piece of furniture that looked smart, too.
I can only equate it to being exposed to the blinking cursor on the TRS-80 I received for Christmas in 1987. Try to put in mind a paradigm shift of that proportion, and imagine how absolutely radical it must have been for those who understood the implications. I cried when I encountered that cursor, as I hacked out my first piece of BASIC code, trying to let sink in what this new reality afforded me. If Electricity was the rock and roll of our conception of the world, radio was punk rock, spreading ideas far and wide in a dangerous way that electricity could never dream.
As important as the story of electricity is, along side it is the story of radio, and both are so entwined with each other that they are essential to each other’s stories.
In addition to more excepts from Ken Burns “Empire of The Air” documentary, I also turned to 90 minute recording by Ben Brooks, “The First 50 Years of Radio,” something I found on one of my rabbit hole dives through a link slog. Ben was a radio & TV columnist for the New York Daily News, and Brooks helped assemble this recording to celebrate the November 1970 anniversary of the first broadcast of KDKA, one of the oldest radio stations in the United States. You’ll be hearing more from this documentary as this series progresses.
Now, let us get into this week’s history lesson.
* * * * * *
Side A: Hot Wire My Heart (The Fathers Of Radio)
This first side of this week’s collection is all about the many characters who all played roles in the development of early radio. When you get down to it, there are just too many people who played a part in mastering one small component that would later become part of the overall puzzle of radio. In spite of this, many claim to have been ground zero, and in some cases, used this title to market themselves. The ones mentioned here are Maxwell, Morse, Hertz, Branly, Popov, Poulsen, Edison, Stubblefield, & Fessenden.
The truth is each depended on the other to make the breakthroughs that would become an element of the next breakthrough, and so on. In this pre-Internet era, inventors were all watching each other (and each other’s patents) in the same way you would follow any other hobby, and those who were leaders in those areas. The thought that anyone could completely invent and envision all the technology necessary to create Radio on their own undercuts the value of the scientific method itself, and how useful it can be for some people to become an expert in one very small area.
By having a community work on the problem, you can each solve the other’s problems without even knowing you’re doing it. While there are, inevitably, omissions that I’ll surely get e-mail about, I have done my best to represent as many as I could given the resources at my disposal. I would love to make this story complete, so please, send my your corrections.
01.) Turn It On * The Flaming Lips * Transmissions From The Satellite Heart
02.) Excerpt Part I * Ben Brooks * The First 50 Years of Radio Part One
03.) Edited Excerpts * Mike Staff * How To Become A Radio DJ
It’s easy to defend The Flaming Lips when they put out a great album, and have a hit song like, “Do You Realize?” and everyone is excited about festival concerts and the extreme production value they bring to their shows. But the cruel eye of hindsight is not so kind to them at times. While their output is treasured by hardcore fans, they become increasingly panned as the flops start to add up. This particular era of the band – we’ll call it the “Don’t Use Jelly” years – was not their strongest, to be perfectly frank. They had not yet written Clouds Taste Metallic, and where quite a long way off from The Soft Bulletin. In many ways they have become a bit of a cut-out-bin band, a novelty act that puts out Zaireeka (an album where you listen to all four discs simultaneously), or their absurd “7 Skies H3” (a 24 Hour Long Song), not to mention the song-for-song cover of Dark Side of The Moon, and “Christmas On Mars,” a holiday movie that is as inscrutable as it is terrifying. I can see why some people find them a problematic start to any story.
I don’t want to argue about their relevance or importance; I don’t want to claim that they are essential or a must for any smart psychedelic music fan; I don’t even want to convince you that you need to own or listen to anything else by them.
I just want to ask: have you ever heard anything as uplifting and strangely funny as “Turn It On” with these Mike Staff samples?
I gotta say, it’s better than it should be.
Now that you’re reconsidering The Flaming Lips, let’s get into it for a bit. I can’t change your mind, but they began to click for me when I had a better understanding when I considered the time and place. Mid-West in the early ’80’s, where the rules of punk rock were trying to set fire to the entire pre-history before The Ramones. Punk insisted that the bullshit excess of rock music from the ’60’s was completely valueless, and that only when we get loud and fast do we break out of the norms that had become “standard practice”. The past had nothing to teach us, and in the name of punk, we could only look forward to getting drunk and fucking shit up. The loudfastfuckyounow of punk awoke in their fans a rigidity of thought and uniform, behavior and musical ethos. Its narrowmindedness is often better summarized as a rejection of everything else rather than an articulate analysis of what they didn’t like about… well, anything.
The Flaming Lips understood that punk rock was due for an infusion of something new to save it: psychedelic rock. The story of punk had, ironically, been paved when rock & roll discovered psychedelia, spinning out of it a million permutations on a similar three-chord idea. Punk was a revolution, to be sure, but was insular and defined by negation, following a narrow aesthetic ideology. It had stagnated without anything new to expand it, and the fascistic denouement of all other things became a hinderance. The Flaming Lips never planned to create psychedelic punk per se, and even still, The Butthole Surfers beat them to the punch. But the Lips were such students of psychedelic rock and punk that their ideology was equally in those two worlds. In essence, the heart of the Flaming Lips is their curiosity about music in these varied forms and structures, and they have dedicated their lives to it.
Their early work borders on avant guarde, as the band is clearly still learning how to be a band. But after a handful of albums like this, a thread starts to emerge, and they get good at playing and writing songs. As the ’80’s closed, The Lips were a fairly strong band that could get a crowd, keep ’em, and put on a fun show the whole time. As the ’90’s began, they released records when everyone was watching for the next big alternative act. In the wake of this, Transmissions From The Satellite Heart hit stores, an album that not only summarized their sci-fi / earnest aesthetic in a nutshell, but wove a radio metaphor into the very fabric of their music, specifically the album opener, “Turn It On.”
If a mainstream band wore their heart on their sleeve more in the ’90s than The Lips, I’m hard pressed to name them at this time. “Put your life into a bubble / we can pick you up on radar / hit a satellite with feeling / Give the people what they paid for.” They have chosen this life, have dedicated themselves to being artists on display for us. We, as listeners, have a chance to pick up the signal they are sending, and fortunately for us they are the kind of band who will “hit” us with a feeling that is as real as possible. For the Lips, there is no better experience than that of celebration, or raising your voice to sing along to a song you hear on the radio, to Turn It On and On and WAY UP, and share that moment across the country at the same time and moment connecting us all in a positive expression of loving a simple rock and roll song.
How cool is that?
You can see that thread throughout all their work: this idea of sharing a celebratory feeling with a large number of people to create a magical moment, even a sad one, or a mundane one, and share that feeling through these transmissions, these records and songs The Lips have been making for almost 40 years now. Their perspective is so much a radio metaphor that, while it might seem crazy at first, they are the perfect band to kick off any story about radio.
This particular mix – with the Mike Staff Samples – comes from another audio essay I made in 2009, “A Sound Salvation.” I was rummaging through the library and came across this self-help tape by a NuRock style DJ, Mike Staff, who was going to reveal his tips for those who wanted to become successful professional DJs. This tape was perfect to mix with songs about radio and DJs, and the show wrote itself. While I don’t usually like to listen to individual songs from a show like this one (as I think the show works great as a whole), there is something about the way the mix during “Turn It On” worked that really sounds good to me. Mike Staff is over the top and full of himself, but his voice has that tone that makes you want to believe what he’s saying. And, for all his cheese, he makes a good point: Your Dream is Important to you, and can guide you if you will let it.
There are a pair of selections from the OHM compilation in this show, and any discussion of radio pioneers parallels the conversation about artists featured in that three disc set (which saw a DVD Movie version in 2005). While the modern perception of electronic music seems entirely focused on a post-Kraftwerk definition of the genre, and as we discussed in Part I, electricity had a huge impact on the world of music, in that it could now be recorded easily. Artists from the very beginning found ways to use electricity, building new devices and creating music as actual experiments involving new technology. As with any such overview, OHM has some glaring omissions and evident biases. But as an entry point into the world of early experimental electronic music artists, it is an excellent set, offering music from the late ’30’s to the early ’80’s, with tracks that range from actual music recording and production experiments performed by curious individuals, to melodic and fascinating songs that are structured anew with electronic sound sources. These artists work well at underscoring the narrative of radio pioneers, as both led similar lives, alone in their home-brewed studios with gear they designed themselves. Listening to music like this evokes an image of men in lab coats, experimenting in every sense of the word.
To help tell this story of radio, I turned to a hero and inspiration of mine, Don Joyce, who has been hosting Over The Edge since the early ’80’s. Over The Edge is a freeform collage program where Don mixes a three-to-five-hour version of the kinds of stuff that Negativland puts on their albums, of which Don is also a member. Over The Edge can be musical, surreal, and psychedelic, and involves heavy use of listener calls as part of the mix of the show. In the past the show has featured scripted comedy and drama, note perfect parodies of other kinds of radio (Christian, Conspiracy, or just plain old Call In), and often includes musical performances by other electronic / noise artists who work in a similar style or form. Don himself usually performs live booper on the show, and the overall effect is equivalent to that of a pallet-cleanser, forcing you to think about radio as something other than the advertising machine it has become.
Over The Edge covers a lot of ground, and by the ’90’s (when I started listening), multi-part programs were becoming a feature on the show. In the 2000s, Don began to extend these multi-part narratives in the same way his show extends throughout the evening. His year long exploration of the various foibles and mistakes that happen “on-air” was a 150 hour presentation that was very impressive by any definition of the word. His next trick was something even closer to my own obsessive interests: a 106 Part feature spread out over three years, charting every moment of radio’s lengthy and storied history, in a series called How Radio Was Done. It is an achievement that is unparalleled in broadcasting, and while Don is now in the middle of another 90+ Part series called “Universe,” it’s good to look back at his previous work and give this 300+ hour presentation the praise it deserves. I’ll be including parts of How Radio Was Done in my History Lesson series as long as they are relevant and fun to listen to.
Don Woody is not anyone about which you should necessarily know, and even his place in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame is more as a footnote than as a true heavy hitter in the story Rock & Roll. But his song “Morse Code” is not only entirely relevant to the conversation at hand, but is a good example of how many lesser known figures are also movers and shakers behind the scenes. Don was a support act for Red Foley, and Brenda Lee recorded a version of one of this tunes. Don’s backing band was none other than the Slewfoot Five, known for working with country legend Grady Martin (who popularized “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking,” among other things). But outside of his six or so songs released on Decca & Arco Records as cheap 45s, Don Woody’s career never broke into the national consciousness, and even in these MCA Rockabillies collections, he’s still more footnote than star.
People like this are often forgotten entirely if it weren’t for hardcore fans preserving music for future generations, and this series on Norton Records (picking up where Big Tone Records left off) deals with those forgotten gems and lost treasures that are not talked about much by modern fans. Music, like mythology, is dependent on the stories the culture is telling at any given moment, and while Don Woody’s tale – if there was ever much of one to tell – probably mirrors that of 100s of has-been artists who have put their hair up with pomade and tried to write a love song or two. The big difference here is that Don’s music, like all the artists featured on the MCA Rockabillies series, is as good, if not better, than anything that qualifies as well known from the same era.
A travesty? Maybe. If we knew enough about Don we could speculate more about what might have led to this minor god never gaining a reputation to make that of Hercules. Don’s career flamed out before the ’60’s really began, and maybe it was better that he took a shot and retreated to a simple down-home life, rather than become front page news when there’s nothing much worth reporting. His is certainly a more common story, and one that everyone can relate to to better than that of Carl Perkins, or Johnny Cash.
Don fell in love. Don wrote some songs about it. He made a small name for himself, and then went home to BE in love, on his own terms, and not just for his own sake.
How many of us can say that?
Let that sink in for a moment.
1975 was on the cusp of punk’s big debut, where a sea of rock bands that were stewing in the proto-punk beginnings were coming to a head in the big explosions happening in the UK, LA & New York, when Punk, capital P, legendarily “started.” But to say even that is a pretension that ignores the very, very obvious: it wasn’t in a vacuum. It wasn’t like there were no rock bands before Television first took the stage. The stage was there already, and other bands in the years between had climbed on it before them. The world was stewing in weridness that was as perverse as it was diverse: The Flaming Groovies, MX-80 Sound, Debris, Simply Saucer, The Gizmos, Zolar-X, The Memphis Goons, The Count Five, The Seeds. The list goes on and on. And during those in-between years, guys were growing up in the suburbs who were learning to play from copying Ventures records, filtering The New York Dolls through their own peculiar perspective. Those very guys turned into something that more or less approximates San Francisco’s First & Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, Crime.
Their story is as improbable as it is absolutely fascinating. The members of Crime all met hanging out at bars in San Francisco, all united by this strange mix of glam rock tastes that quickly led to photo shoots before they even had a name. After getting into a rigorous three times a week practice ethic, they burst into a studio one day and recorded a handful of tracks in front of a befuddled hippy engineer who was told outright he was cutting “the first west coast punk record.” (This same engineer stormed off after the band told him they wanted to record it live, without mixing anything.) Those tracks would make up their first two 7″s, which they self-released at a time when very few bands imagined such a thing was possible. Their records always sold poorly, in spite of the fact that the band thought it would be clever to market material as “punk” to jump on a trend that was up and coming, despite the fact that they saw it as a fad with no real substance. It was only when Crime decided to start playing for audiences that they dropped the punk label and insisted on being called the first and only Rock ‘n’ Roll band from San Francisco (at the time, a pointed dig at the way Jefferson Airplane used to promote themselves).
Their debut performance for an audience was on Halloween, 1976. It was a “GayPolitical fundraiser” (their words), where they played to movers and shakers in the activist community, and for a few friends that came with the band. Their willingness to play in unusual venues became as much a staple of their shows, as did the S&M Police Uniforms they wore on stage: a Tuesday night at a gay club on Market, San Quentin Prison (dressed in guard uniforms), and occasionally at the Mabuhay Gardens to befuddled audiences who never seemed impressed. When no where else would give them a gig, they rented their own venues and financed the shows themselves, DIY before there was even a name for it.
Their flyers featured war criminals and serial killers (including Hitler), all designed to send a very specific message that was confrontational in every way imaginable. When you experienced the band Crime, it was on their terms, period. It was the antithesis of everything that was hip and cool at the time, but a completely unsustainable way to conduct a band. After three obscure seven inches and six years worth of shows that almost all lost money, they packed it in before it was possible to consider selling out as an option (though some claim that they did so on the third record, where they were paid largely in drugs, and the songs on it sound different than the rest of their stuff). What they had left in the very end was a pile of glam-tinted stories to last the next 40 years, and an astounding gauntlet to be thrown down at a time when punk had barely even begun to start in earnest.
Crime were, by all accounts, drugged out, drunk, on too much coffee, all of the above, and argumentative, with each other and anyone who would engage them. This never really won them over a devoted fan base, but they had a circle of friends who came to the shows mostly so they could all get fucked up together. They did score some opening spots for touring acts, but their performances were mostly controlled violence, where the band played mid-tempo “rock” songs at a time when people wanted fast and loud. It seemed that they were a band without a home: outside of close friends, scensters active in pre-punk San Francisico ran in very tight circles. Crime did not play their bullshit games, in a complete rejection of all things cool. Crime took the Suicide approach to performances: loud, plodding, and in your face. Crime took a fascist approach to their imagery, and made such a reputation for themselves that they were rejected by the scene itself.
Crime insist that they are too wild for radio, but the problem is that there’s a dirty, filthy pop song at the center of “Hot Wire My Heart,” a song with drugs and prostitutes, improbable bedroom talk in the form of a Velvet Turner Group reference, and this car radio metaphor as the narrative frame. “Got your eye on the main control / turn it on and let’s go.” Not the most subtle analogy, true, but neither is having to create a short in your own circuitry to get you to feel anything – sex, drugs, ANYTHING – at this jaded stage in your bored life. Through the sneering and slop they pour into the tune, the story of a stereo blasting to life after you finish twisting the wires to get the motor running, the band playing couldn’t be anyone but Crime, could it? The radio blasts to life, and its like a spike in your arm, a mean installation of dominating rhythm.
Crime is probably better known now than when they were initially around, and their reputation is easier to digest when they are old and on a reunion tour, rather than the drunken spitting hot mess they once were. But in their first release they admit that they don’t have a place on modern radio, in spite of their contrary belief that rock music needed, desperately, to be saved from itself, by any means necessary. They knew going in that their vision did not fit the format of their time, but now, in a post-Crime universe, radio is more than ready to Hot Wire the Hearts of people who missed this incredible band the first time.
10.) How Radio Was Done Part I (Excerpt Part III) * Don Joyce * Over The Edge Radio (27 April 2006)
11.) Music On A Long Thing Wire (1979) [Excerpt II] * Alvin Lucier * OHM: The Early Gurus Of Electronic Music
(End of Side A)
* * * * * *
Side B: An Epoch In History (Monkeyface & Marconi)
The flip side of today’s presentation is structured as the strangest morning DJ Zoo-Crew Duo, Monkeyface & Marconi! Lee de Forest had the unfortunate nickname of “Monkeyface,” and that detail stuck out as I was trying to summarize who these two men were. Their race to outdo the other through wild promotional stunts has become a thing of legend, but it was clear that they each contributed to the dark origins of radio in very different ways. You can be sure that their story will continue to develop as time goes on.
12.) The Down Home Boys / Original Stack O’ Lee Blues * Little Harvey Hull / Long “Cleve” Reed * The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
Along with lone mavericks like Lee de Forest and his friends were collectors, people who spent their time reading about and purchasing rare records. For these folks, a unknown 78 was just as important as the legendary statue that Bogart was talking about when he uttered the phrase that became title of this compilation. But there’s an irony to its use in the movie that the people behind this compilation probably shouldn’t have allowed to be associated with their album: the falcon, of course, was a fake, and Sam Spade delivered the line ironically when a cop asked what the fake statue was all about.
The plot thickens, as The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of claims to contain “previously unissued” recordings of music from the 20s and 30s, an allegation that ironically didn’t pan out too well for Yazoo Records in the long run, though in the wake of O Brother Where Art Thou? becoming a global phenomenon, netted them a few dollars. While the pairing of R. Crumb artwork with Richard Nevins liner notes is supposed to drive home the authenticity of these songs, among collectors it is clear that a few of these cuts have made their way to the public before, and perhaps only a handful were “unissued” in any meaningful sense of that word. The claim that some are mastered from unheard test pressings seems, at this late date, to be incredibly unlikely, but nonetheless, The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of persists as a collection for beginners.
Keep in mind, this was 2006, and the Inter-Web-A-Tron wasn’t as comprehensive as it has become. Old Timey Music was starting to become incredibly popular among the NPR crowd, no longer the realm of people who lived and breathed these recordings. But for new fans, you couldn’t just Lycos “Little Harvey Hull” any easier than you can now, and even still, the information is spotty. Without the deep knowledge of these collectors helping guide you in this largely forgotten world, it is easy enough to end up like Kasper Gutman and Wilmer, tricked by something that looks and sounds like the original, but is not. This does not mean that the fake has no value; in the case of The Maltese Falcon, prop collectors now shell out insane amounts of cash to own a replica that was meant to represent a fake. In the case of this collection, at least there is some great music on it, and the value of a good song – even one you’ve heard before – cannot be underestimated.
Starting here I begin my run of Lee de Forest songs, one of the bit-players in the story of Radio. This original tune has origins that lie in the deep forgotten past, but the “Stack ‘o’ Lee Blues” has taken a number of forms, contemporaneously to the release of this recording, as well as in the misheard forms of “Stagger Lee” in the years since. The beauty of these tunes is that they are reinterpreted by artists endlessly, creating a sort of ‘Song For Any Occasion.’ Considering that both the Lee of this song and Lee de Forest himself shared some of the same qualities, it not only seemed appropriate, but essential.
13.) Excerpts * Ken Burns * Empire Of The Air
14.) Wireless Fantasy (1960) [Excerpt I] * Vladimir Vussachevsky * OHM: The Early Gurus Of Electronic Music
15.) Relaxing With Lee * Buddy Rich / Charlie Parker / Curley Russell / Dizzy Gillespie / Thelonious Monk * Bird: Complete Charlie Parker
As we get comfortable with the details of Lee de Forest’s life, we continue to explore other realms new to this author’s ear. One project on the shelf in my office has been learning jazz, something I chip away at as the years go on, but feel like I make such minor progress when I assess it each time. The first thing that was really hard to wrap my head around was to realize that all these great jazz dudes all played with each other. I mean, I got that they all crossed paths, and that they might even play the same gig. But when it clicked that no, really, they all played with each other – in each other’s groups – and they each had their own groups, as well. I’ve given up long ago trying to draft a family tree, and instead try to focus on absorbing the songs. I still marvel at tracks like this, when you have five highly skilled performers all grooving to the same scene and were co-stars in each other’s movie about incredible artists.
Jazz really started to open up for me in big way when I heard bebop.
Charlie Parker was, in a lot of ways, the father of bebop, but his own demons and faults were his inevitable downfall. Bebop was a new permutation that was seen by the old fashioned jazz cats as an upraised middle finger to the sanctity of form, a sort of – ahem – flipping the bird.
Charlie didn’t give a fuck. He blazed his own trail, fueled by drugs and determination, and mastered his craft at a young age. Bird recorded with some of the greatest artists bebop, but spent most of those years hooked on smack, with occasional bouts of alcoholism. Parker’s crime was, of course, timing; because of the Musician’s Union recording ban between 1942 & 1944, Bird’s initial performances were never recorded. When he started to make a name for himself, the previous generation found him to be over the top, subverting jazz in a way that the moldy figs would never understand.
As time went on his reputation and virtuosity spoke volumes about who was right or wrong. No matter where Charlie found himself, trouble followed, and over the 18 years of his formal career, he drove his body to death, which finally gave up one night in 1955, on the cusp of Rock & Roll beginning to take hold of the country. It was clear that his boozy records were much worse than his heroine laced tracks, but most of that 18 years was spent trying to hold himself together long enough to produce some of the greatest music ever recorded.
The story of Parker differs in that his is a cautionary tale, a nerdy pioneer who flew too close to the sun. Bird was well know for his collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, but dig: he worked with Miles Davis, in addition to becoming the supreme icon of the beat generation, who managed to combine base passions and desires with unparalleled intellectual curiosity, and set a template for what “cool” was for the rest of the 20th Century. His relentless pursuit of the chromatic scale was not only an ultra-hip means of expressing his own identity at a time when that was rarely possible for any artists, and more pointedly, any well-dressed black man in post-WWII America. Like most mavericks, his interest in his ideas isolated him from like-minded folks, and much of his life was spent wrestling with his music and his chemical interests. What was left of him when he passed could be described in many ways, but I like to imagine it was spontaneous human combusion; his work consumed him.
16.) Wireless Fantasy (1960) [Excerpt II] * Vladimir Vussachevsky * OHM: The Early Gurus Of Electronic Music / How Radio Was Done Part I (Excerpt Part IV) * Don Joyce * Over The Edge Radio (27 April 2006)
17.) Blue Spark * X * Beyond & Back: The X Anthology
Aside from the loosest connection to Spark-gap broadcasting, I take every opportunity I can to include an X tune in a show, so I can again remind people that I got to meet Exene Cervenka, and interview her form my 12th Anniversary broadcast. It was one of the coolest moments in my career, and she was game to hang out and chat and make my night.
As a huge fan of X ever since I was introduced to them via The Decline of Western Civilization, I’ve seen them several times now, and I find their songs an endless well of inspiration and perfect rock music structure. In many ways X distilled the entire history of rock and roll into a hopped up unit of cool, painting these perfect and harrowing images in song form. There’s a reason I ended the program with “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” for so long, and I will find any reason to play X. They’re just one of those bands.
But like I was at 20 when my friend Lyra Cyst forced me to watch Decline, there was a point when I didn’t have most of their albums, and when I was completely new to their stuff. For someone in that theoretical position, who wasn’t sure about a new band as they were generally skeptical about all things new, the Beyond & Back two-disc set would have been a great entry point. It not only gives you a very good overview of the band and their history, but offers treasures, unreleased tracks, all the hits, live bits, and other mixes of well known tunes.
What is genius about this collection is that it rocks all the way through – essential for hooking new accolades – and rewards long-term fans with treats you didn’t know you needed to own. A lot of collections like this tend to fall short of being anything other than a greatest hits shtick, or a contractual obligation release. To make it a two disc set that complements and introduces all at once is pretty fantastic, and a rarity for most artists.
“Blue Spark” has a sort of stop-start structure to it that you can imagine acting as an SOS Signal, sending out bum-bump message to someone across the bar. There is always an undercurrent of smoldering sexuality running beneath most X songs, a sort of pulse that vibrates in time with the rest of the tune. When X is firing on all cylinders they are sex, strutting around the stage with beers in hand and cocaine eyes that want to have their way in spite of the terrifying world that exists outside the club door. They’re looking to create a spark in the listener’s mind, to turn them on and make them dance and celebrate in this secret corner of the city, away from the pain and misery and violence and horror that the rest of city pummels them with each day. They just want to look you in the eye as they sway in ecstasy and know that you are feeling it too, in that moment. They paint a picture of a horny dude waiting for his famous wife to finally fuck him after a long day, but they do it in the most sexually propulsive way imaginable, ignoring the subtext of the loneliness and isolation both characters feel in their lives, separate and together in spite of their orgasms.
The build-up and release form does, when you squint at it, mirror the morse code that radio took before voices were seamlessly integrated into wireless broadcasts, and the penetrative power of radio itself could take the sex metaphor to other places, if I wanted to make that case. But I think X handles those with a little more deft that is not only the perfect rock song, but is more suggestive upon repeated listenings.
18.) How Radio Was Done Part I (Excerpt Part V) * Don Joyce * Over The Edge Radio (27 April 2006)
19.) Static Radiates (Underwater Meditation) * Leb Laze * Library Catalog Music Series: Music For Troubled Machinery
20.) How Radio Was Done Part I (Excerpt Part VI) * Don Joyce * Over The Edge Radio (27 April 2006)
21.) The Message * The Estranged * Static Thoughts
Sometimes when you are building stories like this one, you start with a specific ending in mind. I knew I wanted to close with We The People, but I needed a lead in that offered the proper climax to its denouement. As I was flipping through different discs and records and digital albums, I accidentally fell down a rabbit hole that led to The Estranged, as is often the case. I put the album on and turned it up, and the end of the show revealed itself to me. Of course. Sometimes, you let rock and roll be your lodestone, and everything will work itself out; even though static thoughts, they were still able to get through.
In the wake of a new millennium, rock and roll was entering a dangerous period of synthesizers, Bumford & Lames, and laptop DJs that was threatening the future of guitars. Every party bleeped and blooped with a steady sonic pulse of un-ironic Erasure re-mix 12″s, and more and more kids were trying to ignore the work done by garage rock bands and punk-inspired retro acts, in favor of a future that was shiny and plastic. It was easy to get discouraged as math rock failed to hit it big, and while indie made a polished and tiny foothold in CW dramas, it felt as if someone had walked over Keith Moon’s grave. Where were the three-chord wonders? Who was gonna save the world from itself?
Like their heroes The Wipers, The Estranged came out of Portland, where Pierced Arrows and a few others were trying to save the scene from itself. The gimmick was simple: rock songs, well played, well written, and polished by guys who practiced relentlessly. Their movement from the garage to the studio was a tactical progression, and as they each became skilled performers, they worked out the tunes for Static Thoughts as their version of Is This Real? – a mission statement of influences – that was to become the blueprint for the rest of their output. The most strategic move was to get Jason Powers to engineer, who had made a name for producing great work with Scout Niblett, Holy Sons, The Decemberists, Grails & The Swords Project. The Estranged believed if they could get the kind of Indie Rock polish on a straight rock record, they could capture a new audience and bring them into the dirty sonic landscape that was punk.
“The Message” returns us to the beginning of our thematic story: broadcasting to an audience, trying to make yourself be heard. Many of us spend our days in a barrage of Static Thoughts, a swarm of ideas and notions that overwhelm us with a constant din of binge-watched TV, 100s of gigs of new .mp3s, computers inserted into every flat surface imaginable, and 10 layers of management each telling us what to do. This largely mirrors the relationship Monkeyface & Marconi had with each other, competing so hard to become well known that when they try to demonstrate their own technologies, their signals jam each other, so much static that neither could pick out a signal. Sometimes, it is all we can to do send out one message, anything, and make ourselves be heard. “The Message” uses a propulsive bassline to anchor the tune, a bouncy guitar riff, and Joy Division meets Television-esque vocals to cut to the heart of the matter. How can I get through? What can I say that will reach you? It feels like the message is not clear, and not getting through, no matter how hard you want to say what you mean. In the end, all we have are these awkward attempts, these moments where we work and craft and make ourselves as articulate as possible, and leave The Message behind for others to interpret.
In the wake of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s initial explosion at the end of the 1950s, American kids got the message very quickly: pick up a guitar, grab some friends, and start a band. This compulsion was so prevalent in the US that an entire genre of music – Garage Rock – developed, and kids from Tacoma Washington to the wilds of Florida found common ground when they all tried to learn “Louie Louie” and play at their friend’s backyard party. Now that the children of post-WWII families were starting to come of age, and the Viet Nam war was only just getting started, the combination of better education, more leisure time created a demand for entertainment to fill both leisure and radio air time. It also helped that rock and roll was, compared to the music of their parents, fairly easy to play. You could figure out how to strum a song from a record with a little patience and some beer, unlike the popular music of their parent’s generation, which required practice and study. Rock and Roll was closer to the metal, and the distance between you and a song was developing a good Pete Townsend windmill and being able to play “Psychotic Reaction” on demand.
The Garage Rock movement was unique in that it was fractured. The majority of Garage Bands never recorded, and even fewer played regular gigs. The scene was spread across the country, but due to the newness of rock journalism, the slim number of outlets that were interested in Rock Music, and the fact that the touring circuit was not yet carved in stone, each region had their own unique take on Garage that was largely unaware of what was happening elsewhere. The scene in Texas wasn’t grooving on records from Massachusetts, and vice versa. Garage Bands were only seeing releases on regional labels, often in small runs of 100 or less, if a recording was even possible. These bands didn’t always write original tunes, making their bread and butter in covers and playing local dances or shows at a VFW hall. After the Pat Boone-ification of rock music, garage became the line that was drawn across generations. The period between 1960 and 1965 saw an unbelievable uptick in these kinds of bands, all united by a love of Music and a belief that jamming on a riff with your buddies was the only sensible way to spend an afternoon.
By 1965 a number of changes – culturally and musically – were beginning to take hold. Music was beginning to mutate again, political and social tension was coming to a head, and in a post-Kennedy Assassination world, it as difficult to imagine the naiveté of the early ’60s continuing for much longer. The beginnings of a musical political consciousness was starting to awaken, and you could no longer play a sort of primitive frat rock and be taken seriously.
Enter Ron Dillman, a newspaper writer covering the music beat for the Orlando Sentinel. Ron knew the score, and followed the local scene pretty closely, in spite of his square dress and stupid hat. Ron was at all the shows, and was always supportive of new acts. Ron was noticing the changes, how the bubble gum of the last few years wasn’t sticking anymore. It was the perfect name – We The People – a populist slogan that communicated you were a dove, but in a strange in a psychedelic way, like The United States of America. Ron was on the cusp of a modal shift, and he knew that the right gimmick could bag him a few hit records. He just needed a band.
It was serendipity when Ron showed up at a Trademarks show to hear that it was their last show with Ralphie, their drummer, an account that he didn’t own his own set, and was never available to do road gigs because he couldn’t get the time off from work. Ron instantly thought of The Offbeats, who just lost their singer / songwriter to another band, and were looking to keep the act together. He realized that they were both sort of chasing the same idea, but from different angles, and that they might complement each other better than either of them thought. The Trademarks featured really fuzzy guitars and harmonicas as part of their sound, while The Offbeats had a member – Wayne Proctor – who played a thing they called “the octochord,” which sort of sounded like a sitar. This octochord was homemade by a family friend, and might just work with the sound everyone else was developing. Ron’s philosophy was: throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks.
Ron introduced the bands to each other at a local watering hole, where they all talked shop for three hours, running over gear and records. Ron went on to sell the band on his name (We The People), mentioning that he could get them a record deal (maybe) if they used it, and that it would be a hit, guaranteed (lie) if they just tried it out. The band dug what Ron had to say, and before long they were jamming out future hits like “You Burn Me Up And Down” and “Into The Past.” Ron ran into a streak of luck when he successfully managed to get someone from Hotline Records to drop by a rehearsal, who immediately agreed to put out “My Brother, the Man” in 1966. To everyone’s surprise, it was a top 10 regional hit in Florida. Ron couldn’t believe it. He was doing everything he could imagine to get We The People off the ground, and in a strange turn of events, it was starting to work.
Challenge Records caught wind the group, and struck a deal to release three 45s to follow up the success. Challenge had lucky with “Tequila” by The Champs, and with records by Jan & Dean and The Knickerbockers among their releases, it seemed a little strange to be making a foray into psychedelic garage. But Challenge was taking a lot of chances in those days, as they were doing rather poorly, and were looking anywhere for a hit like “Tequila” to give them the money they needed to continue. Bands like We The People benefited from Challenge’s risky behavior, and before long their follow up, “Mirror of Your Mind” was getting airplay as far north as Nashville. The band released two more singles in fairly rapid succession, and while they were generally liked, only the B-Side to their last release with Challenge hit #2 in the region, keeping them on the radio for a while but never bringing them to a national audience. Challenge stopped offering We The People deals, and soon the label folded.
Ron quickly made the calls to get the band on RCA Records for a three single deal. However, Wayne Proctor, one of the primary songwriters, suddenly quit. He was dodging the draft, using college as his “out,” but this meant he couldn’t be associated with a socialist rock band in order to make the argument fly. In spite of the loss, their RCA Singles did okay, and hit the local airwaves, unfortunately to tepid success. When Tommy Talton left after their last 45 failed to make it big, it seemed like the end for the band.
Ron made a few last ditch efforts to course correct with the remaining members. But the writing on the wall was clear; this band now only existed “Into The Past.” Ron tried desperately to keep the band alive, and sunk every last dollar into promoting and renting a venue for a Halloween 1970 show. After an endless number of phone calls to replace last minute members dropping out, he managed to get some form of We The People to finish playing 10 songs in capes that evening, the bare minimum needed to count as a full set and not get called out for ripping off the audience. After that night Ron realized that managing the band no longer has the spark it once did, and dissolved We The People, paying out the remaining members with his own money, leaving him in the hole for years to come.
What We The People left behind is more than some bands ever get to do. 14 songs recorded in a studio, and a story that is so set in a time and a place as to sound like a joke from my parent’s generation. But their sound was pretty mind blowing, and prefigured punk in a number of ways. But if Lee de Forest and the other mavericks that helped pioneer radio had a band manager analog, it would have to be Ron Dillman, manager of We The People. He had a vision, an idea, and the tenacity to do it, in spite having no real idea how the music industry really worked. Sure, he did not succeed; Ron wanted a hit, and Lee wanted to be The Father of Radio. What neither of their realized was that their efforts in the past have left an indelible mark on the present, and to those who want to follow the story, their reward is something that sounds like it could have happened to them if the circumstances were just a little different.