Rockin’ in the freeform world

The Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love” is the dumbest song ever recorded. This isn’t up for debate.

We geezers who suffered through the abomination in real time (1976) were left to wonder how the Cap’n and his missus could get out of bed in the morning. The same goes for the quisling DJs who willingly spun the thing and the program directors who vowed to get Medieval on the ass of any jock displaying convictions and/or taste. 

“Muskrat Love” marked a nadir in the history of commercial radio, but it also made a wide-eyed younger me wonder if there might yet be room for greater diversity on the public airwaves. I mean, if you’re gonna play “Muskrat Love,” you’ll pretty much play anything, reasoned I. 

The muskrats and Tennille

Youthful I was way wrong, but hearing “Seven Nation Army” recently made me laugh until it hurt, as I pondered the possibility of a DJ playing the White Stripes and Captain and Tennille back to back. Couldn’t happen, right? Oh, indeed it could, but only on freeform radio — the freeform of yesteryear, that is.

“Classic” freeform boomed in the ’60s, fueled in part by politics, war, drugs, dissent, the Summer of Love, Woodstock and – yes – the then-reasonable prices of radio licenses. During the short-lived audio revolution – and it really was that – the underdog got to wield the upper hand for a change. DJs became underground heroes – Robin Hoods of the ’waves. While the classic freeforms included patchy public-affairs programming, the music was the raison. DJs were their own masters, and cherry-picked their own playlists. These ‘lists tended to be anti-MOR, of course, but in practice, they introduced many “underground” acts to the masses, just as college radio does now.

One such act was Brewer & Shipley, whose 1970 song “One Toke Over the Line” inexplicably crossed over to the mainstream and became a smash hit. The deal was a real head-scratcher. Even if the song wasn’t about marijuana, as Tom Shipley later claimed, emphasis

on “later” — everybody knew it was, even me, and I was 9. Where were The Man and his flunkies, the goons and yahoos and gatekeepers who historically stand guard against such insurgencies? My theory: “Toke” was a surefire hit, and dollars speak louder than subversive thoughts.

You might say the same about Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1971). The song was almost nine minutes on LP (that’s the version freeform played). The single was sawed in half — Single 1 was a little over four minutes, Single 2 about four and a half. WTF? It was even worse than an old 8-track. You know. You’re rockin’ along in the dark heart of a song, and — click, click — on to Side B.

Even at “only” four-plus minutes each, the “American Pie” singles were released in an era in which pop songs did not exceed three, except in extraordinary cases (like “American Pie”). The three-minute

Don McLean

rule? It wasn’t intended to benefit listeners by cramming in more groovy tunes. It was meant to cram in more advertising. This was the kind of crap freeform stood against, even as many of its freedom fighters flocked to the dark side: commercial radio

Am I romanticizing the era? Undoubtedly, but it was the closest that Paisley Nation ever came to capturing the button-down castle. 

Classic freeforms lingered into the ’70s, but eventually succumbed to the changing times and the rising prices of radio licenses, among other factors. The spirit of “classic” does linger on in places like Portland, Oregon, and Santa Cruz, California, though I’ll lay odds that at least some of today’s stations now require pre-approval of DJ selections. Be safe or be sorry, dude, and hang on to your license like it’s worth millions – ’cause it is.  

When I lived in Dallas in the ’80s, that city’s “community” station KNON demonstrated the worst aspects of the non-commercial airwaves. I don’t know what the station is up to nowadays, but the “then” KNON was run by knuckleheads, jam-packed with crap programming, and lacking a clue as to what it was supposed to be. 

Dallas is the largest U.S. metro area without a credible college radio station. It was in the ’80s, too. Because my college’s station, KSMU, was so pathetic — it was only broadcast in the student center — I got an inordinate amount of band interviews while working at the school newspaper. Trust me, they’d rather have been on mega-watt FM.

KNON of yore should have provided that option, at least in part. You’ve got 24 x 7 x 365 hours a year to fill. Can’t you be that, a little?

The idea of freeform is not dead. Numerous other “classic lite” freeform outposts flourish across the land. Why “classic lite”? Everybody’s beholden to somebody — even classic freeform was beholden to someone — but the notion of “beholden” is much more insidious than it was in 1969. I keep returning to those damnable radio licenses — for a reason.

Then there’s the strain of freeform whose FCC licenses should never be in danger. I call it “quasi,” and I may be the only sucker on Earth who believes “quasi-freeform” is a thing, but I have my reasons.

Quasi stations are, for all intents and purposes, commercial. They have playlists and advertisements, but the DJs maintain a modicum of freedom in making his or her own choices. Their tracks tend to be deep album cuts and independently released songs by regionally known artists. I have no idea how many of these stations remain, but the survivors are almost exclusively in smaller markets on low-wattage AM. 

When I moved to Monterey, California, in the mid-’70s, I’d been living out of the loop for years in Bangkok, Thailand. My slim pop-culture pickin’s during that time were the rigidly formatted Armed Forces Radio and a single TV station that showed American television shows in Thai with English subtitles. Imagine Steve McGarrett telling Danno to “book ’em” or Archie calling Edith a “dingbat” in Thai. 

When I returned to the States, I was literally behind the times. I remedied this by scrutinizing Monterey’s “quasi” station, KMBY, like I was an entomologist and it a bug. The AM station covered only the Monterey Bay, but what glorious coverage! It spun most of the

A young Elvis Costello

extant musical styles – pop, country, blues, soul, reggae, even a smidge of heavy metal and nascent punk by the likes of Elvis Costello. My friends knew all the songs. I knew none, so all were new to me. 

I merried in the musical bounty of American popular music by taping hundreds of KMBY plays onto scores of cassette tapes with a mic trained on my General Electric AM clock radio. I scrupulously listed the tunes by number, title and artist in a yellow notebook whose cover finally fell off recently, 47 years on. The GE radio still works perfectly. 

The tapes corroded long ago, alas, but my little yellow notebook attests that between the heavy rotation of Chicago, the Bee Gees, James Taylor, etc., some coolness seeped in. Here’s a 10-song representative sample of what you wouldn’t expect to hear on ’70s pop radio: 

  • Back Stabbers (O’Jays)
  • Hard Luck Woman (KISS)
  • Honky’s Got Soul (Wild Cherry)
  • Itchy-Coo Park (Small Faces)
  • Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker) (Parliament)
  • Crackerbox Palace (George Harrison)
  • Nothing You Can Do (Dickey Betts and Great Southern)
  • Monterey (Eric Burdon)
  • I Want to Do Something Freaky to You (Leon Hayward)
  • Only Women Bleed (Alice Cooper)

Bonus tracks:

  • The themes from The Rockford Files, M*A*S*H and S.W.A.T.

It was a whole different world.

Total songs recorded and tallied: 1,408. 

KMBY? It’s now a “Classics” station. Wouldn’t it be freakin’ cool if the “Classics” in question were some of the same songs I listened to back in 1976, now classics themselves?

I suspect true, classic freeform radio is gone — shared musical experiences have given way to shuffling isolationism — but perhaps I suspect too soon.

I suspect true, classic freeform radio is gone –

shared musical experiences have given way to shuffling isolationism –

but perhaps I suspect too soon.

My son, 16 and both musically and technologically savvy, gives me a shred of hope. 

I explain the concept and ask if he would remove his ear pods and listen to free music without boundaries if it were available. Maybe even with friends! He looks at the ceiling, then the floor, calculating, I think, the potential level of threat to his splendid isolation. “Sure,” he says, “I’d be interested in something like that.”

Not a ringing endorsement, but he didn’t say no. For me, it’s a wee victory, calling to mind Jim Carrey’s great line in Dumb and Dumber: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?”

I’ll take it. 

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