Saturday, October 7, 2017

Punk Radio

When the Ramones played CBGB's in '74, they didn’t strike anyone as a band that mattered; the set was 12 minutes long and they needed to play it twice to quell the crowd. Many thought the Ramones a joke, i.e. "Gabba gabba whatever." For the American labels, commercial-pop like ABBA and the Bee Gees muddled the innovation of New Wave and dismissed the punk snarl. Nevertheless, Sire Records saw the value (read that as "ca-ching") in these burgeoning genres and made recording artists of The Ramones, Talking Heads and The Pretenders. By 1977, a myriad of labels had signed Patti Smith, Television, and Blondie, while the UK sent over The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Generation X, The Jam and Elvis Costello, putting them on the to-do lists of radio promoters.

Still, the charming culture chasm that ushered in the '60s British Invasion didn't work this time around. Punk attitudes didn't unlock the hearts and minds of American radio programmers; those keys were held by the polite and the poppy, the well-connected and, by the early '80s, those anointed to participate in the soundtracks of John Hughes films (so little credit is given to 16 Candles and Pretty in Pink). Mainstream radio scoffed at all but the most accessible songs like Blondie's disco-fied "Heart of Glass," The Clash's Motown-influenced "Train In Vain,"  and Talking Heads' Al Green cover, "Take Me To the River," but little by little there were outcroppings on the radio dial. Starting in the summer of '76, Rodney Bingenheimer made KROQ the Los Angeles powerhouse of punk, a driving force in the exposure of English bands and LA scenesters. "Rodney on the ROQ," gave a foothold to SoCal hardcore upstarts like the Circle Jerks, Social Distortion, and The Minutemen. 

While mainstream stations clung to familiar artists and proven sounds, College radio became the electronic beacon of a new infrastructure, spreading the word and transmitting a sense of community and purpose. Though their broadcast signals were often small and local, college radio offered a crucial assist to bands as diverse as R.E.M, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Bad Brains, Bad Religion, Los Lobos and the Violent Femmes. 

Did "Smells Like Teen Spirit" strike anyone as likely Top 10 fodder when Nirvana released Nevermind in 1991? Today (or maybe yesterday), that record sounds exactly like a hit. Same goes for the herky-jerk camp of Devo's "Whip It," the rudimentary Sci-Fi of Gary Numan's "Cars," and the religious geo-politics of the Clash's "Rock the Casbah."  And despite the current generic "Girl, feat. Nondescript Rapper" format, there's always hope for a next wave.