Friday, December 16, 2016

The Shortwave Radio Top Ten

It's my birthday, dammit, and I don't feel like writing about politics. Instead you get a music post about my new OCD hobby, the dying world of shortwave radio.

I was fascinated by long-distance AM radio in the 70s, back when the clear channel stations like WLS and WGN from Chicago and KAAY in Little Rock played music all night. And as some of you know I had a brief radio career as a DJ (country!) and reporter.

One recent night as I was spinning through the shortwave radio dial looking for anything other than Radio Havana or the apocalypically paranoid evangelist Brother Stair, I got lucky, picked up some salsa from Radio Nacional Brasilia, and decided I needed a top ten playlist of best songs about shortwave and long-distance radio.

I set a couple rules: Songs should be primarily about radio as a medium, not about music. And although CB radio is technically in the 11 meter band, which would be roughly 27000 AM (27.0 or so FM), I have banned all of the CB novelty hits of the 70s. (I should do a Truck Driver Top Ten, but I can't seem to get past the list's obvious number one, "Six Days On The Road" by Dave Dudley. Told you I was once a country DJ.)

Now, on with the countdown.

Number 10. Radio Birdman the band. Because you would definitely listen to a station called Radio Birdman.

Number 9. "Radio Nowhere," Bruce Springsteen - Almost left this off because of my Radio Not Music rule. There's a whole genre of songs denouncing broadcasting commercialism: "Radio Radio" by Elvis Costello, "Capital Radio One" by the Clash, "Radio Song" by R.E.M. This song fits in that tradition but only makes the list because Radio Nowhere sounds like a pirate station name and because Springsteen.

Number 8. "Mexican Radio," Wall of Voodoo. Technically the border blasters like Wolfman Jack's XERF were AM stations (what shortwave geeks call MW or "medium wave"), but I'm old enough to remember their last days in the 70s and the alien, clandestine feel was there. ("I'm on a wavelength far from home.") This song was a mainstay of my first radio show, a college station in the 80s. Inspirational verse: "I wish I was in Tijuana / eating barbecued iguana"). Honorable mention: "Border Radio" by the Blasters, "Heard It On The X" by ZZ Top.

Number 7. "Pirate Radio," John Hiatt - A lot of this is about the music, but clandestine and questionably legal radio is a priceless part of the broadcast legacy. And if you REALLY want to get clandestine:

Number 6. "Guerrila Radio," Rage Against The Machine. This band actually saw themselves as revolutionaries, hiding in the hills with a transmitter. The other dudes were later in Audioslave, but what HAS frontman Zach de la Rocha been doing the last 15 years, anyway? Honorable mention: Green Day's new "Revolution Radio."

Number 5. "This is Radio Clash," the Clash - RATM imagines themselves in the hills but Joe Strummer does it right and sets up his own station in New York City, brands it with his band's identity, and presents a newscast that's still way too relevant. Honorable mention: "Radio Head,", the Talking Heads and yes that is where the other band got its name.

Number 4. "Wavelength," Van Morrison - Not really ABOUT radio but the title is too perfect, not to mention the synth part that swirls like static and "I hear the Voice of America calling on my wavelength."

Number 3. "Radio Free Europe," R.E.M. - A major moment in rock history as the first single by a major band. The album is aptly named "Murmur," as Michael Stipe's mixed way down vocals are like a distant station you're struggling to hear.

Number 2. "London Calling," the Clash. They get to have two in the top ten because they're my favorite band. The iconic title song from their masterpiece album cops its name from a long time BBC top of the hour ID.

Number 1. "Radio Ethiopia," Patti Smith - It was really hard not to slot the Clash into number one. But this song's signal jamming intro, epic length and collision of styles makes it feel like a trip through the overseas dial.

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