The brief glory days of AM rock radio

If you’re younger than I am or if you didn’t grow up in America, you might not know what I mean by AM rock radio, so I’ll try to explain.

The transition of music and music listeners from radio to the Internet reminds me a lot of something I’ve seen before: the late ’70s/early ’80s trend away from playing music on AM radio. If you listen to music on the radio at all, you are probably doing it on the FM band. Nowadays, AM is reserved mostly for news and talk radio. It wasn’t always that way.

AM was where you heard all the top hits of the day for many many years. That was still true when I was a young adolescent in the mid-70s, just getting a taste for rock ‘n’ roll. The sound was a bit trebly and not in stereo, but that was normal. No one thought anything of it. FM radio existed at that point, but there were very few FM stations, at least in my neck of the woods, in the Texas Hill Country. Usually there was one classical station (if you were lucky) and one station that played elevator music (pretty much guaranteed, if there was only one, that would be it). And there was a problem called FM drift. You had to keep retuning the dial every few minutes, cuz the signal would drift to the left or right and it would be off the station.

There was a brief golden age, between about ’75 and ’79, when the music on AM radio was especially good. I’m talking about rock and pop stations, but the country music stations were pretty good at that time also. It basically ended when disco began to take over and you heard nothing else for a few years till everybody got fed up and people started smashing their records and wearing “Disco Sucks” T-shirts.

There were some basic rules to AM rock radio. For one thing, it couldn’t rock too hard. For another, it had to be clean. Sex and drug references had to be well-disguised in metaphor. It was for the kids, but Mom and Dad were going to be listening, so no shenanigans. Strangely enough, those vague restrictions led to some pretty good songcraft.

Here are some of the songs you might typically hear on one of those stations during that time:

Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street

Elton John – Daniel, Tiny Dancer, Someone Saved My Life Tonight

Little River Band – Reminiscing

Billy Joel – Honesty, Only the Good Die Young

ELO – Strange Magic, Evil Woman, Telephone Line

Firefall – You Are the Woman, Just Remember I Love You

Todd Rundgren – Hello It’s Me

Linda Ronstadt – Allison, You’re No Good

Seals & Crofts – Summer Breeze, Diamond Girl

The Who – Mama’s Got a Squeezebox

Chicago – Color My World, 25 or 6 to 4, Saturday in the Park

James Taylor – Shower the People, Up on a Roof, Smiling Face

The weird thing is, I didn’t realize how good it was at the time, only in hindsight. (All I thought back then was, couldn’t we rock a little harder?) There was some dreck on the airwaves to be sure, but any hour of a popular AM station playlist from ’76 would blow the crap they play today right out of the water. Maybe somebody else can come up with other examples.

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14 Comments

Filed under commentary, pop, rock

14 responses to “The brief glory days of AM rock radio

  1. ceed

    Oh my, some great songs there! I did not grow up in the US so I got my rock fix from underground pirate radio stations. Pretty cool listening to a show that sometimes ended with the police busting in to the studio and pull the plug.

    • What were the typical songs played on those stations? I’m guessing they rocked a bit harder than the ones I mentioned? Were the pirates on AM or FM? Also, what about mainstream radio? I assume there was pop music of some sort. No Elton John or James Taylor?

  2. I totally remember that! I was born in the early 70s… but I remember being a little kid and listening to AM radio and hearing Chicago, ELO, Linda Rondstadt, and Queen!! Thanks for the post…brings back memories!!!

    • Did you ever listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40? I used to, religiously. Then sometime, probably around ’78 or so, I suddenly realized the higher the songs were in the charts, the less I liked them. I don’t know whether that was more because of a change in the music or that I was growing up.

      The next year was when I discovered rock ‘n’ roll and 8 track tapes. From then on I had little or no patience with pop, basically till sometime in college. Took me a while to realize that good pop can be just as good as good rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s damn sure better than bad pop or rock.

      • Yep! I sure did used to listen to that guy! But I don’t recall if it was on AM radio ~ i thought that was a bit later… I was born in 73 so I don’t recall too much of the 70s…I was a pre-teen in the 80s and I loved Duran Duran as 4th grader and then in 5th grade my loyalties shifted to all Michael Jackson all the time… By the time in got to Junior high in 86 ~ I was all about The Cure, The Cramps and anything else sorta punk/new -wave… In southern California we had KROQ which was always playing the cutting edge until the early 90s… I also loved dance music though (except Disco!!) ~ in Southern Cal, there was a lot of Latin Freestyle and Funk/early Hip Hop… So I loved that too…Grandmaster Flash, Debbie Deb, Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam… Etc. But my parents listened to all the classics (classic Rock and Pop, etc.) so I heard that from them… My mom had the albums by Linda Rondstadt, Queen, The Doors, etc. and my stepdad was rocking Jimi Hendrix, Allman Bros… So I was lucky that way.

      • Wow, even as a kid you had good taste. Having a family that loves good music makes a big difference that way.

  3. woodjean

    We have come a long long way since AM radio or 78 records were all we could listen to. There was a time when there was no TV (as you know) so the family would sit around a big radio–that had tubes in the back which lit up–and listen to programs like The Lone Ranger, Big John and Sparky (for kids), George Burns and Gracie Allen, and others I don’t know about.

    In Texas at that time there were “both” kinds of music, country “and” western. Some of the big stars, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra etc. had programs and of course sang. Spike Jones and his band were on radio as were other big bands.
    Some of this is actually before my time but I do remember that when I was a pre-teen we did have two radio stations that played early rock and roll. (KTSA and KONO from San Antonio)

    I think the songs had to be under 3 minutes long and could not be too rocky. Preachers all over were telling their congregations that rock and roll was from the devil. So of course we loved it even more. The djs were idols to us. They knew all about this new evil music. 😉

  4. I remember well the time when we where listening to the (AM) pirate radio stations, mostly vessels somewhere on the North Sea.

    Have a look at my list of songs played by the radios:
    http://bit.ly/9HywBs

  5. diyhades

    I’m a tad young to remember the days when AM radio was king, but I have heard about them before. I haven’t heard too much classic rock, or anything like that, but my folks aren’t from this country and didn’t listen to or encourage my listening to that kind of music. I had a roommate once who loved Queen, so I did get to hear some of that, and another friend of mine loves the oldies because it’s all her parents listened to and she grew up with it. I heard (and liked) some Jimi Hendrix and Cream because a professor I had used to play music like that in the background during class. I keep meaning to go check out some more stuff by them. Don’t know why I haven’t yet… I think I keep getting distracted by the new stuff.

  6. For me the “golden years” of AM rock were about 1966-75. What I remember most was in the late 60s, the incredible variety of things I’d hear on one station! Getting ready for school in the mornings, I might hear the Beatles, Wayne Newton, Johnny Cash, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Engelbert, Monkees, Jimi Hendrix, James Last, Tammy Wynette, Jefferson Airplane….
    It all seems like a weird dream now, and when I tell young people about how it was, I don’t think they quite believe me.

    I made a two-CD compilation of 1970s songs that I liked in my youth. Many of them were not big hits (which is why I never got too sick of them), but nearly every one of them I heard on *AM* radio:

    Disc 1:

    Fly Like an Eagle [Steve Miller Band]; Tell Her She’s Lovely [El Chicano]; Ain’t No Sunshine [Bill Withers]; Right Place Wrong Time [Dr John]; Do You Know What I Mean [Lee Michaels]; Draggin’ the Line [Tommy James]; 25 or 6 to 4 [Chicago]; My Old School [Steely Dan]; Free Ride [Edgar Winter Group]; Doctor My Eyes [Jackson Browne]; Hello It’s Me [Todd Rundgren]; I’m Not in Love [10cc]; Showdown [Electric Light Orchestra]; Witch Queen of New Orleans [Redbone]; Witchy Woman [Eagles]; Chicago [Graham Nash]; Classical Gas [Mason Williams]; Lucky Man [Emerson Lake & Palmer]; Blue Collar [Bachman Turner Overdrive]; Also Sprach Zarathustra [Deodato]

    Disc 2:

    It Don’t Come Easy [Ringo Starr]; Theme from Shaft [Isaac Hayes]; Radar Love [Golden Earring]; Green Eyed Lady [Sugarloaf]; Behind Blue Eyes [the Who]; Jesus is Just Alright [Doobie Brothers]; Everybody’s Everything [Santana]; Hey Big Brother [Rare Earth]; Freddie’s Dead [Curtis Mayfield]; People Gotta Move [Gino Vanelli]; You Haven’t Done Nothin’ [Stevie Wonder]; Outa-Space [Billy Preston]; Frankenstein [Edgar Winter Group]; No More Mr Nice Guy [Alice Cooper]; Bungle in the Jungle [Jethro Tull]; America [Yes]; Joy [Apollo 100]; Point of Know Return [Kansas]; Easy Livin’ [Uriah Heep]; Hold Your Head Up [Argent]

  7. L. R.

    “She Did It” by Eric Carmen, “Magic” by Pilot, “Star Baby” by the Guess Who, “Isn’t It Time” by the Babys, “We’re All Alone” by Rita Coolidge, “Ariel” by Dean Friedman, “Heaven on the Seventh Floor” by Paul Nicholas, “Let’s Pretend” by the Raspberries, “Gettin’ Ready For Love” by Diana Ross, “You Made Me Believe in Magic” by the Bay City Rollers, and “Hey Deanie” by Shaun Cassidy!

  8. Thanks for the kind words about AM Rock Radio in the 1970’s. I was a dj during that hey day of rock including 9 years on WLS in Chicago from 1961 to 1970. It was the Brigadoon of Broadcasting. Rock On!
    Clark Weber

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