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.