Friday, November 05, 2004

Top 5: Keep On-a Rockin' Me, Baby

When a radio station is programming music, it follows a very simple formula--play the most popular songs the most often. It's why Top 40 and country stations play the biggest hits to death, every 90 minutes and sometimes even more often than that. It's why you hear some oldies more often than others, and why classic rock stations are still playing "Stairway to Heaven," "Layla," and "Free Bird" on a daily basis.

Determining which classics to play involves research, to find out which old songs appeal to a station's target audience and how much they appeal. This research is usually done by calling people in the demographic group the station is targeting and playing snippets of songs over the phone. The result of this research is sometimes predictable and sometimes not. "Stairway to Heaven," "Layla," and "Free Bird" wouldn't be on the air so much if they weren't still appealing. But when I was doing classic rock radio in the mid 90s, the highest-rated song in my station's library according to audience research was "Carry On Wayward Son" by Kansas--which you'd probably never guess.

The songs that get tested are driven by two factors: First, their sound. A station's sound depends on the details of the demographic they're shooting for. For example, my station played the four songs I mentioned above, but we also played stuff like War's "Cisco Kid" and "Rich Girl" by Hall and Oates, which a station wanting to rock harder or skew to a younger audience might shun. A harder-rocking or younger-skewing station, while still playing "Stairway," "Free Bird," and "Layla," might mix in more contemporary artists like Nirvana or Metallica. But with few exceptions, the core of the classic rock format tends to be based on the sort of thing you'd have heard blasting from a passing car full of white suburban teenagers on a summer night circa 1980 or so.

A second factor driving the research is familiarity. Songs that were substantial hits, or strong tracks from hit albums, make up the vast majority of the songs that get tested and on the air. Any veteran classic rock DJ can think of a boatload of songs that would sound insanely great on the radio, but would never make it because they wouldn't be familiar enough for the mass audience.

Having said all that, I think it's possible to argue that the first week of November, 1976, was one of the greatest weeks ever for classic rock on the singles chart. No fewer than five grade-A, hot rotation, classic rock staples were in the Top 20 all at the same time.

Number One: "Rock'n Me"/Steve Miller Band. A fine argument for the brain-dead simplicity of rock music, but also for the ability of a catchy tune to get in your head and stay there--28 years and counting.

Number Nine: "Magic Man"/Heart. All of the bad habits Heart was prone to on Dreamboat Annie threaten to derail this record--mystical mumbo-jumbo, flatulent synthesizers, and yelped vocals--but instead, it all works. Horrific edit alert: the full-length version, which is the only one you ever hear now, clocks in at 5:25. The 45 edit was 2:10.

Number 11: "Do You Feel Like We Do"/Peter Frampton. This one was also edited to nearly half its original length for 45RPM consumption--from about 13:45 to just under eight minutes, which was still astoundingly long for a single. It's one of those rare cases in which editing actually improves the song, by tightening up Frampton's 70s-vintage on-stage excesses. And you can still get to the bathroom and back while it's playing, which is important to DJs everywhere.

Number 12: "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"/Blue Oyster Cult. After several albums with song titles and subject matter out of bad sci-fi comics, BOC softened their sound a bit on Agents of Fortune, and this enormous hit was the result. What makes it a classic are those lush-yet-spooky vocals, fitting for a song whose lyrics are about the enticing nature of suicide.

Number 20: "More Than a Feeling"/Boston. Boston really only had one great album in them--well, maybe 1 1/2 if you count the solid tracks from Don't Look Back. But at the moment of "More Than a Feeling"'s release, there'd never been anything that sounded remotely like them. "More Than a Feeling" was one of the prototypical heavy-metal ballads (although Boston really wasn't all that heavy). Because there hasn't been anything quite like it since, this song has never been off the radio.

You could conceivably throw Rod Stewart's "Tonight's The Night" (Number Eight) and "Beth" by Kiss (Number 13) into this mix as well, both of which have gotten substantial classic-rock airplay over the years. It would only reinforce the point that classic rock radio is indelibly stamped with the hits from this week in 1976.

Another Week Heard From: Late last year, Eric Boehlert of Salon published a story suggesting that the week of December 20, 1969, was the greatest week in rock history, period. And I am not going to argue against a week that had the Beatles, the Temptations, the Rolling Stones, and CCR all in the Top Ten of the album chart at the same time.
[J]ust imagine the mix tape possibilities from that single '69 week. "Come Together," "Whole Lotta Love," "The Weight," "It's Not Unusual," "Green River," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Wooden Ships," "Gimme Shelter," "I Can't Get Next to You," "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," "Here Comes the Sun," "Evil Ways," "And When I Die," "Bad Moon Rising," "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," and "Born to Be Wild."
Although only "Come Together" and "Whole Lotta Love" were on the singles chart during that epic week, Boehlert's right about the list making a great mix tape.


At 11:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah...'76 had great tunes. We play some of them on WPVL, but we're more of a 50's, 60's, 70's oldies station. Our music logs are prepared by ABC Oldies Radio which we don't neccessarily follow to the letter. That's because songs like "Bus Stop" by the Hollies, "Dancing in the Street" by Martha & the Vandellas, "Reach Out, I'll Be There" by the Four Tops and everything pre-Abbey Road by the Beatles gets played EVERY SINGLE DAY! Even though all of the above are truly great songs, oldies radio stations tend to wear them out...thus wearing out their listening audience. As a listener, "Bus Stop" was a song you couldn't get enough of...back in the late 60's. But upon hearing it every day on any number of oldies stations today on your way to work, at work, on your way home from work, and everywhere it any more special? In this day and age, when you can program your car stereo for the songs you want and download any music you want from your computer, is it any wonder radio audiences are shrinking substantially? It doesn't help when so many radio stations are corporately owned and programmed with absolutely no imagination. That's why I'm glad I work at a station where we can do some local programming. ----Shark

At 9:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think radio people are not necessarily good judges of what's overplayed and what isn't. You have to sit there every day and listen to every song, and that's not how most people listen. Even when I have my radio on at the office, I'm not paying attention as hard as you are. It's just background. You might play "Bus Stop" every day, but I don't hear it every day.

I don't think you can say ABC Oldies Radio is wrong just because you agree with their taste. Not everybody wants variety. Songs that are familiar are comfortable. You might like to hear some other Hollies song that never gets played, but somebody else might prefer to hear "Bus Stop" again.

At 9:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops. I meant to say I don't think you can say ABC is wrong because you DISAGREE with their taste. Sorry.

I just thought of something else. If ABC does research like this post says, the songs you think are "wearing out" must not be wearing out. They would quit playing them if they really were wearing out, right?


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