The following is an excerpt from Bruce Pollock’s By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Revolution of 1969.
Of all the cultural and political wars going on in 1969—between hawk and dove, moderate and radical, hippie and square, gay and straight, man and woman, parent and child, veteran and peace marcher, cop and protester, Nixon and his enemies—the battle between old guard singles fans of commercial AM radio and the new breed of album cut aficionados who preferred the mellow tones of progressive FM radio was nowhere near the most deadly. But it was nonetheless a surefire argument starter and social divider, the latest wrinkle in the age-old music fan caste system—epitomized in the past by Elvis vs. Pat Boone, the Shangri-las vs. Brenda Lee, Buddy Holly and the Crickets vs. Bobby Vee and the Shadows, and Bob Dylan vs. Peter, Paul and Mary (Dylan vs. the Beatles was a big one at first, the Beatles vs. the Stones was eventually a non-issue, Muddy Waters vs. the Stones was a red herring, Lesley Gore vs. Connie Francis was a fight none of us wanted to see, and the Four Seasons vs. the Beach Boys was strictly an East Coast–West Coast thing).
Launched in the summer of 1966, in less than three years the underground stations of the FM band had risen to become an instinctual if not street poetic force for all relevant music and propaganda, the voice of the counterculture, resulting in a concurrent surge of album sales, while the entrenched AM stations relied more and more heavily on market research, catchy slogans, canned bells and whistles, and the same twelve songs repeated every hour between Clearasil commercials.
At least, that was the format over WABC in New York City. Elsewhere, in the mythical secondary markets beyond the Hudson, great singles were born, played, and died unheard by sheltered Manhattanites and their brethren in the boroughs. But that was the price you paid for living in “the greatest city in the world,” on its way in the 1969 through May 1970 period to championships in professional football, baseball, and basketball. But even these secondary markets had a formula for what was playable, not at all based on artistry or the personal vision or taste of the deejay or program director. It had more to do with what the station up the road or across the river was playing: Buffalo looked at Cleveland, St. Louis looked at Chicago, Houston looked at Denver, San Jose looked at San Diego. Of course, a record had to start somewhere and somehow, usually in the even more mythical tertiary markets, their identities hidden from the average listener like the reporting bookstores on the New York Times best-seller list.
We all knew payola was still involved, chart numbers bought and sold, favors traded like Topps bubblegum cards, but exactly what the price of admission was, how much it paid for, and how much was earned was another mystery. As Berry Gordy implied in Motown’s inaugural hit in 1960, “Money” was what he both wanted and needed. But as the Beatles said in 1964, money alone “Can’t Buy Me Love.” For those remaining diehard transistor listeners with a strong antenna who could haul in some of those stations from their rooftop on a good night, the payola question was always rendered moot by the music. But by 1969 the limitless new world provided by progressive FM stations had all but eliminated the need to keep tabs on the weekly drama of the singles chart, unless, of course, you were a true believing fan of a form in danger of becoming a dying art.
Like John Sebastian, author of “Summer in the City” and “Do You Believe in Magic” for the Lovin’ Spoonful, reduced in 1969 to writing show tunes. “If anything I was pooh-poohing people who were trying to put art into rock,” he said. “At the time I was going, that’s really bullshit. A forty-five is special; it’s three minutes of heaven. It’s got to be an opiate. An awful lot of good chemistry has to happen in the studio. Moments—you have to get a series of them, magic moments that you did not plan, that you couldn’t train for . . . that just happen.”
“There’s something in me that’s singles-oriented,” Paul Simon told me. “You start to make a track and all of a sudden it’s got a great feel to it. A kind of magic happens that you couldn’t have predicted. ‘Let’s pull out all the stops and make an AM record.’ That sentence comes up a lot in the studio.”
“I once met John Lennon at a BMI dinner,” Doc Pomus said. “In fact, we spent the whole dinner together. And he was telling me originally all they wanted to do was reach a point, like Morty [Shuman] and myself, or like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, where they could make enough money to survive writing songs.”
Gerry Goffin attempted to explain.
There’s a certain magic that some records have and that some records don’t have. It’s not a quality you can capture unless everything is going right. I’m talking about even at a record session. There are so many personalities involved, so many variables. It has to go through a lot of different ears, different people have to decide if it’s something people want to hear. I could always tell if a song was going to be a hit or not, or how big a hit it would be, by listening to it on the radio. I never listened at home; I used to always listen in the car. It was just something about the resonance of the car radio. Usually with the good records you caught the sound of a hit single.
While the hit single never did die out entirely, by the end of the 1960s AM radio was a severely wounded white buffalo staggering through the hinterlands, its whole oeuvre called into question by critics cramming for term papers in league with record executives looking for a bigger slice of the profits to be derived from album sales. As a longtime singles diehard, owner at the time of a life-threatening stack of Cashbox magazines, whose first attempt to get published was an enraged essay submitted to Seventeen magazine about the emotional veracity of the single “Judy’s Turn to Cry” by Lesley Gore, my bias is as pronounced now as it was obsessive then. However, 670 singles made the Billboard chart in 1969 for at least a week, and while that was down from 1966’s peak of 743, the next decade would barely average 500. With FM stations continuing to siphon off the album market of sophisticated college students, more and more the single was regarded as the lowest of common denominators, the gateway drug, as it were, for lusty adolescents fiddling with their first radio….
In 1969 you could still listen to both AM and FM radio; that is, singles and album cuts, the best of all possible worlds for an Elvis-bred connoisseur. Unfortunately, with WMGM having gone the way of Beautiful Music in 1962 and WINS tragically driven to all-news one dark day in April 1965, only “the Good Guys” on WMCA stood between the diehard and the dreaded WABC, which basically played the same twelve well-established monsters over and over again every day, whereas WMCA had room for the occasional sleeper, the odd stiff, an album cut or two. But even by 1968, the Good Guys, waging a losing battle against the soul stations on one side of the dial and the FM underground on the other, were edging into the all-talk format that would take them over in 1970.
The AM experience was a simple one, hit based, like a daily newspaper, filled with headlines, ads, and little else. FM was more like a literary magazine. You got poems, elaborate essays, funky short stories, excerpts from novels in progress. You could appreciate AM for the familiarity it offered, the chance to hear your favorite single during any given half-hour stretch. On FM the object was just the opposite, to hear something totally unexpected. If AM was order personified, adhering to a dictum passed down from the home office, FM made order out of chaos. If the role of the deejay on AM radio was strictly entertainment, on FM it was creative, educational, and, epitomizing the buzzword of the era, mind-expanding. The primary tool of the AM deejay in fulfilling his mission was the bell or the whistle; the FM deejay was instead schooled in the art of the segue.
A lost art on free radio, to be sure, segues can still be heard here and there, on public and/or listener-supported stations of 5000 watts or less, situated between two mountain ranges and broadcast only during daylight hours in months that end in Y. Satellite radio has become fairly popular of late by offering the kind of segues developed during the heady heyday of so-called “free form,” “progressive,” or “underground” radio in the late ’60s, but minus the creative dimension, the element of surprise, and hence the magic. If you’re listening to a station called Garage Rock, most of your questions have already been answered.
But, luckily, over the course of the last ten years technology has enabled everyone to become a music programmer, indulging a personal segue philosophy on mixed tapes for all occasions, from breakup to make-up to the eternal vernal equinox. Unluckily, this development has mainly served to reveal the paucity of the average person’s imagination, to say nothing of the average person’s record collection (let alone the aching and perhaps irreparable gaps in the record collections digitally stored in cyberspace). Going hand in hand to make a good segue, or, ideally, a good series of segues, leading to a lengthy, satisfying set of music, an extensive imagination and an unlimited record collection can never in and of themselves substitute for the kind of emotional commitment to the music and to the art that some generational bigots tend to think are beyond the grasp of anyone who didn’t come up in the era of “Radio Unnamable,” circa 1966 to 1970. (It was after 1970 that the segue started to go the way of the hula hoop and the hippie, as consultants were already out in force, looking to “monetize” the FM experience, eventually transforming it into, lo and behold, the New AM.)