By Madeline Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2021. No part of this site may be reproduced or re-blogged in whole or in part in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.
Don’t touch that dial!
Remember the days when we brought our transistor radios everywhere we went? That was the first form of portable music. We could hear the greatest music of all time in a small box, way before the iPod was invented!
In 1930, bright red Radio Flyer toy wagons – adorned with lightning bolt graphics were named after two popular new media – radio and the airplane, in tribute to Marconi and Lindbergh. The popularity of radio began to flourish and grow – from transistors to boom-boxes.
Do you remember lying in bed
With your covers pulled up over your head?
Radio playin’ so one can see
We need change, we need it fast
Before rock’s just part of the past
‘Cause lately it all sound the same to me
Whoa, whoa, oh
– The Ramones, Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio
I’ll start with a tune that always has the RADIO ON!
Jonathan Richman’s ‘Road Runner’ (originally recorded in 1972/released in 1976) is a fantastic driving song. Several versions were recorded with Richman’s band The Modern Lovers. The melody and beat were inspired by The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray.’ It is also driven by a Doors-style keyboard. The song is simply about driving fast in Boston, Massachusetts with the radio on.
One of many cover versions is by The Sex Pistols on their album The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. A song by Birmingham indie band Denim called ‘Middle of the Road’ from their 1992 album Back In Denim 1992 was obviously influenced by ‘Road Runner’ (with a reference to their own song ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ at the end). The song celebrates MOR music by listing all the legendary genres and artists that the singer dislikes.
Sleaford Mods adapted the ‘Road Runner’ / ‘Sister Ray’ riff to their song ‘Chop Chop Chop’ which Iggy Pop covered live in 2019 as ‘People Places Parties’.
Listen – ‘Road Runner’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gy88-5pc7c8
Listen – ‘Middle of the Road by Denim: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKoS9ClLezc
Listen – Sleaford Mods ‘Chop Chop Chop’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nodNflQIGU
Watch Iggy Pop ‘People, Places, Parties’ live @ BBC6, 2019 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLDEWc7E8XM
Lou Reed/The Velvet Underground released ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’ on their final album, Loaded in 1970. It was written by Lou Reed, who claims that it is autobiographical.
Then one fine morning, she puts on a New York station
You know, she don’t believe what she heard at all
She started shaking to that fine, fine music
You know, her life was saved by rock and roll…
The song became more popular when Lou recorded it live at the Academy of Music, New York City on December 21, 1973. It was released in February 1974 on his album Rock N’ Roll Animal.
Read my story about the album: https://madelinex.com/2017/12/21/animal/
Aretha Franklin’s hit, ‘Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)’ was written by Ahmet Ertegun (President of Atlantic Records) and Betty Nelson who was Ben E. King’s wife. King had recorded the song first. (He also had a hit with Lieber/Spector’s tune ‘Spanish Harlem’ – written about Phil Spector’s wife, Ronnie of the Ronettes who grew up in Harlem). Aretha’s version released in 1970 hit No. 1 in America. This is a wonderful song about a song that brings back painful memories.
‘The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)’ appears on The Doors sixth album, L.A. Woman. This was released in 1971. It was Morrison’s last album with The Doors, before he died in Paris. The lyrics first appeared in a poem in The Doors’ 1968 tour program. This is definitely “heavenly in its brilliance!”
Watch: Live at The Hollywood Bowl: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prWeT6tQt-w
Todd Rundgren included the song ‘Wolfman Jack’ on his double album Something/Anything? Released in 1972, in tribute to the 1950s/1960s radio personality with the gruff voice, who actually does a howling voiceover on the single version. Wolfman Jack’s name was a reference to Alan Freed’s ‘Moondog’ theme song. He, also loved horror movies, and adapated part of Howlin’ Wolf’s name. He appeared as himself in the film American Graffiti and hosted the American music television show The Midnight Special. He died in 1995.
Listen – Todd Rundgren’ s Single version with Wolfman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_hXJCtH_S8
The Guess Who had a hit song called ‘Clap for the Wolfman’, also about Wolfman Jack – which also had a voiceover by the man himself, complete with his unmistakable cackling laugh.
Clap for the Wolfman
He gonna rate your record high (Mmm, yes gracious)
Clap for the Wolfman
You gonna dig him ’til the day you die (Heh heh heh, oh wow)
Doo Ron Ron and The Duke of Earl, they were friends of mine
And I was on my moonlight drive
Snuggled in, said “Baby, just one kiss”, she said “No, no, no”
“Romance ain’t keeping me alive”
Said “Hey babe, d’you wanna coo, coo, coo?”, she said “Ah, ah, ah”
So I was left out in the cold
I said “You’re what I’ve been dreaming of”, she said “I don’t want to know”
(Oh you know, she was diggin’ the cat on the radio)…
Wolfman: You thought she was diggin’ you, but she was diggin’ ME!
Carpenters released ‘Yesterday Once More’ in 1973 on their album Now & Then. The singer recalls her favorite old songs while listening to an oldies radio station. The 20-minute album version takes up the entire B side – a medley of covers of the 1960s tunes within a mock radio program with DJ chatter in between. The main song becomes a soft, faint refrain at the end of the medley.
I never liked the sappy Carpenters – especially after they trashed Mott the Hoople in the headline: Carpenters Hammer at Hoople in Circus magazine. But when Mick Ronson (who actually was a member of Mott The Hoople in later years) told me that he loved them, I grew to appreciate their melodies and KC’s smooth voice.
The great rock band Redd Kross from California covered ‘Yesterday Once More’ on their Carpenters tribute album in 1994 titled, If I Were a Carpenter. I like this better than the original!! Especially at 2:40 when the transition sounds like Alice Cooper’s ‘Hello Hurray!’ The Redd Kross version was also a single, paired with Sonic Youth’s cover of another Carpenters song, ‘Superstar’ which also appears on the tribute album.
When I was young
I’d listen to the radio
Waitin’ for my favorite songs
When they played, I’d sing along
It made me smile.
Those were such happy times
And not so long ago
How I wondered where they’d gone
But they’re back again
Just like a long-lost friend
All the songs I loved so well.
That they’re startin’ to sing’s
Listen – Carpenters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfTnf4AiN4Y
Listen – Carpenters – Long version with medley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-juWpe5STk
Listen – Redd Kross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejJwjddKLec
A member of the bubblegum group The Ohio Express named Joey Levine returned to the Top 100, when he joined Reunion. They had a hit with the song ‘Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)’ which peaked at No. 8 in 1974. It’s a bit of a super-fast rap, with a smooth bluesy groove. It alternately breaks out into a double hand-clap pop tune. The lyrics are cool because they mention lots of bands and artists – including Mott The Hoople in the first verse, and later David Bowie and Johnny Thunder(s)! The choruses are great too!
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
At the end of my rainbow
Like a golden oldie
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
Gotta turn it up louder
So my DJ told me…
Australian singer and feminist Helen Reddy recorded her American No. 1 hit ‘Angie Baby’ in 1974. The strange song was written by Alan O’Day, who says that the song’s basis was in the lyrics to The Beatles song ‘Lady Madonna’ but there really is no correlation. This weird and confusing fantasy song is about a friendless, mentally ill girl. She becomes jubilant when her radio eats her ignorant boyfriend, or perhaps the radio is her secret lover? This slow groove has a cool funky bass line.
Watch the weird cartoon video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeAcjRLLjnw
Kraftwerk’s awesome title track from their 1976 album Radio-Activity is a themed album revolving around nuclear devastation and radio communications. The album cover graphic features a Volksempfänger, “people’s radio” used in Goebbels’ propaganda campaign. The “radioactivity” symbol replaced Volksempfänger in the album reissues.
There is a radio speaker on the cover on the original release. On subsequent reissues, there is a radiation symbol on the cover. The album originally came with a set of nuclear warning stickers. It was the band’s first completely electronic album.
Is in the air for you and me
Discovered by Madame Curie
Tune in to the melody
Another song from the album, ‘Antenna’ inspired Bowie’s speaker-to-speaker sound-travel effect on the title track of his album Station to Station that same year.
I’m the Antenna
You’re the transmitter
Yet another song from Radio – Ativity, ‘Radio Stars’ is about pulsars and quasars, rather than about radio pop stars. On this track, Florian Schneider speaks in his natural voice. On all other Kraftwerk songs, he uses a vocoder.
Aus des Weltalls Ferne
Pulsare und Quasare
From the depths of space
Radio stars are transmitting
Pulsars and quasars
Listen – Radioactivity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X–F5b5IdqU
Listen – Antenna: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pp8Sv7WCcI0
Listen -Radio Stars: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSvCxzkYojM
Patti Smith released her second album Radio Ethiopia in late 1976 as a follow-up to her now classic debut Horses.
The title track is notoriously known as, “10 minutes of noise.” It was a controversial part of Patti’s live concerts –loved by some, hated by most. I loved it! The lyrics are quite cryptic, but Patti insists that they refer to Arthur Rimbaud’s dying wishes. (Patti dedicated the album to Rimbaud and to sculptor Constantin Brancusi). Lou Reed’s infamous answer to Patti’s album title was, “I’m radio Brooklyn!”
Deep in the heart of your brain is a lever
Deep in the heart of your brain is a switch
Deep in the heart of your flesh you are clever
Oh honey you met your match in a bitch
‘Radio Radio’ appeared as a single, just after the release of their album This Year’s Model by Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1977. It is not on any album. The most infamous performance of this song was on American TV, on Saturday Night Live, when Elvis was a last-minute substitute for the Sex Pistols (who were scheduled to perform on the show but were delayed in arriving due to visa problems). Elvis was told by his record label not to perform this song. He began a different song, but then launched into ‘Radio Radio’ on the live TV show, and could not be stopped! The lyrics are viciously critical of BBC radio.
Watch – SNL (partial): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eD_24nDzkeo
The Clash released the Capital Radio EP in 1977. It was only available as a giveaway to NME readers in a lottery. Most London teenagers became hip to American music on pirate radio airwaves. ‘Capital Radio One’ talks about the requirement of government radio licenses, and the limitations of music that could be played on commercial radio. I love Joe’s opening line, “Yes, it’s time for the Dr. Goebbels show!” It later appeared on the 10” EP Black Market Clash and on some future releases as well.
‘Capital Radio Two’ was another EP released in 1979 on 7-inch vinyl. This track starts off with a soft acoustic intro, then blasts off into a brutal version of ‘Capital Radio One.’ This appears on the limited EP The Cost of Living. It’s also on the Super Black Market Clash EP and other releases.
Listen: Capital Radio One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoGRhzpGm04
Listen: Capital Radio Two: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQcq-ExRSxM
‘This Is Radio Clash’ was a non-LP song released in 1981 as a 7-inch and 12-inch and on cassette. It was great being there in the studio to see them debut this early hip-hop groove (with sounds of gunshots and whistling missiles) on goofy old Tom Snyder’s television show in the summer of 1981. They also performed a faster version of ‘The Magnificent Seven.’ The B-side ‘Radio Clash’ is basically the same track with additional lyrics. It later appeared on various Clash compilations.
‘This Is Radio Clash’
“This is Radio Clash on pirate satellite
Orbiting your living room, cashing in the bill of rights.
“This is Radio Clash resuming all transmissions
Beaming from the mountain tops, using aural ammunition.
Listen – This Is Radio Clash – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krl-2hgFrJU
Watch – The Tom Snyder Show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gk0MnQft85M
Radio Birdman was an Australian band, highly influenced by Detroit groups, The MC5 and The Stooges. The band’s name is based upon mis-heard lyrics to The Stooges song ‘1970’ (which are actually, “Radio Burnin up above…”).
Radio Birdman were signed to Sire Records (becoming label-mates with the Ramones) in 1977, and released an album titled Radios Appear. All songs were written by Dez Tek, except for their super-fast cover version of The Stooges’ ‘TV Eye’ which is the opening track! It sounds more like the MC 5 performing the Stooges song!
Listen – ‘TV Eye’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ju-jMjrI-Es
British band Radio Stars had several great singles. In 1977, the band consisted of former members of Sparks (Martin Gordon on bass), Andy Ellison on vocals (who had been Marc Bolan’s band-mate in John’s Children) and Ian MacLeod on guitar. They had been together previously in another great band called Jet in 1976. They performed on Marc Bolan’s TV show Marc.
Listen – Dirty Pictures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5qZ4p-YdwI
Watch – No Russians in Russia (Marc!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvP_DSwYFg0
Listen – Nervous Wreck, Top of the Pops 1978: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGzLQsqn1nQ
‘On The Radio’ was another collaboration between Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder. This was in 1979, after their hugely innovative worldwide hit ‘I Feel Love’ in 1977, which famously merged disco with electronic sounds.
David Bowie included his single ‘DJ’ on his album Lodger in 1978. He heavily imitates David Byrne on the vocals on this track – especially in the lines,
He used to be my boss and now he is a puppet dancer
I am a D.J., and I’ve got believers
See my write-up about the Lodger remix on its 40th anniversary:
Cheap Trick have great radio song called ‘On the Radio‘ from their album Heaven Tonight released in 1978.
Joy Division released ‘Transmission’ in 1979. Ian Curtis’ deep, depressive voice sings in celebration of the escapism afforded to us by the radio.
No language, just sound, that’s all we need know
To synchronise love to the beat of the show
And we could dance
Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio
Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio…
‘On My Radio’ is a great Ska dance tune by British band, The Selecter! This was released in 1979.
‘Oh Yeah (There’s a Band Playing on the Radio)’ is on the Roxy Music album Flesh and Blood, released in 1980. It’s just a nice slow dance song. The song playing on the radio is ‘Oh Yeah.’ It’s Bryan Ferry’s idea of an American country song – but it still sounds British to me!
‘Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?’ by The Ramones is a nostalgic tune, conjuring the memories we all have – of being euphorically alone in bed with our radios. Now that we are older, we realize that radios have always been our best bed partners!
This is on The Ramones 1980 album End of the Century, produced by Phil Spector – who heaped on the strings and horns, in an effort to be more radio-friendly. This tune is a remembrance of the great music of the 1950s – 1970s. The lyrics presciently predicted the downfall of rock music, especially its presentation as we knew it, moving from the airwaves to television with the advent of MTV the very next year, 1981. Our beloved rock music was now sadly “part of the past.” Even Mick Rock’s color photo of the band signaled a change. Things had been much more simple in black and white. It’s so funny that Dee Dee is in bed with a boom-box in the video!
The song begins with a DJ (Sean Donahue) announcing, “Come on, let’s rock and roll with the Ramones!” in the style of bubbly radio announcer Alan Freed, who is also named in the song.
Freed’s popular Moondog radio program, was named after his show’s theme song – a 1949 R&B track called ‘Moondog’s Symphony,’ an avant-garde piece which features a dog howling. Freed began promoting R&B music to a mass audience on WJW in Cleveland in 1951, and later in New York City at 1010 WINS). Freed also popularized the phrase “Rock and Roll.” He also promoted dances and live concerts, and appeared in many early rock ‘n’ roll films. Freed also worked at WABC AM radio in 1958. He was fired after a year when the FCC asked him sign a statement saying that he never accepted payola. He refused to sign, but it was true. This led to his downfall. He died an alcoholic at age 43 in 1965.
(The blind composer of ‘Moondog’ was a busker in New York City, also known as Moondog – Louis Hardin. Hardin was a serious composer who released several records in the 1950s. He was championed by jazz great Benny Goodman, composer Toscanini and even modern composer Steve Reich. Hardin sued Alan Freed for using his song and namesake in 1954. He won the case).
In ‘Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?’ Joey Ramone also sings about the old Cleveland music TV shows Hullaballo, Shindig and Upbeat. He refers to The Ed Sullivan Show which most notably debuted the Beatles in America. The lyrics also sound-checks Alan Freed and Murray the K. Other icons are mentioned; Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lennon and T. Rex. “Ol’ Moulty” is Victor Moulton, drummer of The Barbarians.
Listen – Moondog’s Symphony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0bxoxtalGU
‘We Want the Airwaves’ is another Ramones song in which they demand that rock and roll be played on the radio again. It was a single from their sixth album Pleasant Dreams, released in 1981 and produced by Graham Gouldman of 10cc. The track is more hard-rock than the usual Ramones sound.
‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by The Buggles was the first music video shown on MTV when it launched in America, one minute after midnight on August 1, 1981. The first recording of the song was made by Bruce Wooley and the Camera Club in 1978 on their album English Garden. Thomas Dolby played keyboards. The songwriters Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes later turned the song into an international hit, with their new Synthpop group The Buggles, in 1979. Strangely, it stalled at No. 40 in the USA. The single was released by Island Records. The song also appeared on The Buggles’ debut album The Age of Plastic. The song’s prophecy rang true, and unfortunately, the wonders of hearing music on the radio and using our imaginations became more and more obsolete over time. The song has become a famous one-hit-wonder.
‘Airwaves Dream’ was a 1980 track by Buzzcocks. It was the b-side of ‘Strange Thing.’ In the lyrics, the deceitful government radio tells you what you want to hear. It’s also on the great compilation LP Singles Going Steady.
The Kinks released ‘Around the Dial’ in 1981, on their album Give the People What They Want. The track begins with radio noise and then gets down to business with its heavy beat, and kicks into an even higher gear. This is about a favorite DJ who can no longer be found on the radio dial.
While the critics kept on knocking you
You just kept on rocking ’round the dial
Around the dial
I’ve been searchin’ for you on my radio
This time your station really must have gone underground
Somebody said you had a minor nervous breakdown
Was it something that you heard
Or something that you saw
That made you lose your mind
Did you lose control
Did you step out of line?
If you’re there, give us a sign
Speaking of Payola… Payola$ were a Canadian group who cleverly used a dollar sign in their name, which parodies the corrupt “pay for play” radio system in the 1960s. They had a hit with ‘Eyes of a Stranger.’ The new wave band’s album No Stranger to Danger was produced by the great guitarist Mick Ronson (who had helped skyrocket David Bowie to fame). Ronson also toured with Payola$ briefly in 1982, playing keyboards.
‘I Can’t Live Without My Radio’ was the first single from the first album by LL Cool J, which was also titled Radio! This Def Jam release in 1985 was co-written and produced by Rick Rubin. The lyrics speak of a great love for his boom box.
Just stimulated by the beat, bust out the rhyme
Get fresh batteries if it won’t rewind
’cause I play every day, even on the subway
I would of got a summons but I ran away
I’m the leader of the show, keepin’ you on the go
But I know I can’t live without my radio
‘Radio Ga Ga’ is an epic worldwide hit single by Queen. The electronically propelled song was recorded in 1984. It’s on their otherwise unremarkable album The Works. It was especially a live favorite, performed at every Queen concert ever since, most notably during their astounding Live Aid appearance in 1985. The promotional video shows scenes from Fritz Lang’s classic film, Metropolis. This is the song from which Lady Gaga took her name.
Most songs about radio condemn the medium for not realizing its importance, and being exploited for commercial reasons. ‘Radio Ga Ga’ stresses the magic and vitality of radio for all teenagers in every generation, lamenting its downfall and hoping for a resurgence. Freddie Mercury is singing the song to radio itself…
I’d sit alone and watch your light
My only friend through teenage nights
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio…
You had your time, you had the power
You’ve yet to have your finest hour
Radio, someone still loves you
Let’s hope you never leave, old friend
Like all good things, on you we depend
So stick around, ’cause we might miss you
When we grow tired of all this visual
Watch – promo film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azdwsXLmrHE
Watch – Live Aid:
Radiohead released ‘Creep’ in 1992 as a single. This grungey track is also on their debut album Pablo Honey released in 1993. It’s not about radio, but only about a creepy man!
The song ‘Misty’ appears in from the 1971 film Play ‘Misty’ For Me’ starring Clint Eastwood, who plays a disc jockey, stalked by an obsessive fan who constantly asks him to play this song. ‘Misty’ was composed by pianist Errol Garner in 1954. The instrumental became a jazz standard after appearing on the 1955 album Contrasts. Johnny Burke later composed the lyrics, sung by Johnny Mathis on his album Heavenly, released in 1959. It has also been covered by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and others.
Listen – Johnny Mathis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkC9bCuahC8
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See more in my Playlist category:
About A Song
Eat to the Beat