In the early days of rock and roll, AM Radio was its greatest ally. Thanks to pioneering DJs like Alan Freed and the influential Top 40 format, this new sound was able to find a young, receptive audience fairly quickly. It was a dependable way to make or break a new act while keeping the old ones, the artists who regularly churned out popular songs, in business. Unfortunately, you only heard the hits, the big singles that were played repeatedly, depending on their popularity. Oh sure, occasionally the flip side of these massive songs were heard publicly, too, and sometimes, they became hits in their own right. But what if you also wanted to hear other tracks from proper albums? From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, you didn’t really have any solid options. But after that period, if you had a burning desire to hear more than just a happening A-side, you had to switch frequencies. AM Radio, for the most part, didn’t play them.
FM Radio had better sound but needed to offer an alternative rock format in order to compete. The solution arrived sometime in the late 1960s. When The Beatles decided not to release any singles from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and "The White Album", it was up to adventurous FM DJs to play something from those records rather than just the non-album singles AM Top 40 Radio was already devouring. As a result, A Day In The Life, Birthday and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds became just as popular with FM listeners as Strawberry Fields Forever and The Ballad Of John & Yoko were with AM Top 40 fans.
Because of the emphasis on album cuts as well as singles, music consumers who listened to FM Radio were given more reasons to invest in the LPs of their favourite bands. Established groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were able to get their music heard on both frequencies, but not always the same song. Interestingly, a number of their contemporaries weren’t so lucky. In fact, while a number of these bands were able to develop good followings on the FM dial, thanks to numerous album tracks and proper singles, they only managed one actual hit on AM Top 40 stations, creating an unusual and rare phenomenon. On one side of the dial, these bands became legends for their original material but on the other, they were one-hit wonders. Here are some surprising examples:
"All Along The Watchtower" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
On progressive rock radio, this Seattle guitar legend could do no wrong. Purple Haze, The Wind Cries Mary, Crosstown Traffic and Fire were just four of the many reasons why FM listeners stayed glued to their radios to hear him beginning in the late 1960s. But on the AM dial, not one of these numbers or any original Hendrix composition would ever crack the Top 40. In fact, it wasn’t until his third and final album with The Experience that he finally got some mainstream exposure.
Hendrix was an absolute student of the guitar. Not only had he spent years practicing as often as he could (even when he was in the bathroom), he also paid close attention to the masters, picking up on their ideas that he would immediately incorporate into his own technique. If only he had as much confidence in his singing and lyricism.
Because of those self-perceived shortcomings, Hendrix was a big admirer of Bob Dylan. He loved that he wasn’t a particularly strong singer and he especially appreciated the words to his songs. ("They are filled with the joys and sadness of life," he once said.) In late 1967, Dylan released John Wesley Harding, his first purely acoustic LP in 3 years. It was a major success despite the lack of promotion (Dylan wanted a low-key release) and there weren’t any singles issued from it.
In January 1968, Hendrix was putting together material for Electric Ladyland (named after the iconic New York recording studio where the album was completed). It was during this time that he first heard the Harding record. He was particularly taken with All Along The Watchtower, one of the most mysterious songs in the Dylan catalogue. Unlike the original which was recorded five times in one day (November 6, 1967), Hendrix went the perfectionist route for his version. Despite taking several stabs at the song on January 21st, Hendrix would continue to work on it throughout the summer adding overdub after overdub after overdub.
Finally satisfied, it was issued as a single a month after debuting on Electric Ladyland in the fall of 1968. Although the track peaked at #20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart, it has since become one of the best loved songs of the 1960s. Dylan was so impressed with this version that when he finally decided to play Watchtower live during his 1974 tour, he used Hendrix’ interpretation instead (although he also likes to play The Grateful Dead’s arrangement of the song, as well). In fact, whenever he does a live rendition of it, he considers it "a tribute to him in some kind of way.". The cover lives on today thanks to constant radio airplay and its inclusion in countless films and TV programs.
"Walk On The Wild Side" by Lou Reed
When Andy Warhol managed The Velvet Underground, he introduced them to the colourful characters of The Factory, the studio apartment the famed pop artist called home in New York City. Among them were Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, three colourful transvestites; Joe Dallesandro, a former prostitute and nude model turned actor; (That’s his crotch on the cover of The Rolling Stones’ album, Sticky Fingers. He’s also on the front of The Smiths’ first album. It’s a still from his most famous movie, Flesh.) and Joe Campbell, another hustler turned actor.
The Velvets’ chief songwriter, the mercurial Lou Reed, was a big fan of a 1956 Nelson Algren novel called A Walk On The Wild Side (Algren also wrote The Man With The Golden Arm) and was asked to write the music for a proposed musical version of the story. The project never happened. Realizing that he had plenty of eccentric inspiration right under his nose, the song’s lyrical direction became much more personal and ultimately had nothing to do with Algren’s novel. Each of the five previously mentioned "Warhol Superstars", as they were known at the time, were each given their own verse of tribute.
Walk On The Wild Side was originally supposed to be a Velvets song but by 1970, Reed split acrimoniously from the group to begin his solo career. He took all his ideas with him, a good number of which were reworked for the first phase of his second act. By 1972, he turned to friend David Bowie (who was riding high on the success of his Ziggy Stardust album and tour) and his guitarist, Mick Ronson, to help him put together his second solo LP. The result was Transformer, his only Gold album.
Issued a month before the record in November 1972, Walk On The Wild Side was Transformer’s first single (Perfect Day was the B-Side). Using both an electric bass and an upright bass, the track sounded like nothing else on the radio. It was pretty raunchy for its time, too. Reed comfortably drops in an oral sex reference ("But she never lost her head/Even when she was giving head") and he refers to his female backing vocalists as "coloured girls", a term you could never get away with today.
Unsurprisingly, there was some controversy over this which likely helped propel the song to #16 in America. Apparently, the questionable parts of the song were silenced on Top 40 Radio but on the FM dial (at least if you listen to the song today), it aired uncensored. Walk On The Wild Side has been covered and sampled so many times, Wikipedia actually lists many of the examples. It is one of the greatest songs in rock and roll history.
While Reed would score a number of FM solo hits in the 1980s and 1990s (among them Love You Suzanne, Dirty Boulevard and What’s Good), Wild Side would be the only song in his catalogue that AM Top 40 listeners ever heard.
"New World Man" by Rush
In the days of two-sided audio releases, there was an insistence on keeping running times even on both sides. In May of 1982, this Toronto trio were in the middle of making Signals, their ninth studio album, when their producer Terry Brown made a suggestion. In order to have roughly 21 minutes of music on each side of the record, a 4-minute song needed to be added to side two in order to balance everything out.
The result was New World Man, which was written and recorded in one day. Released as the album’s first single, it was the most successful song the band ever released in America. It peaked at #21 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart. Although its follow-up, the classic Subdivisions, performed brilliantly on FM Radio like its predecessor, it unfortunately failed to hit the Top 40. Despite accumulating 40 Mainstream Rock hits since 1981, New World Man remains the band’s only Top 40 hit.
"Touch Of Grey" by The Grateful Dead
They were the anchor band of the Haight-Ashbury scene in 1960s San Francisco. The prototype for future jam bands like Phish and moe., these unabashed hippies would earn Gold album after Gold album thanks to FM hits like Truckin’ and Casey Jones. In 1974, their record label released Skeletons From The Closet, their first compilation which has been certified triple Platinum in America. It remains their biggest seller. Interestingly, not one of the tracks on it ever cracked The Top 40. Thanks to relentless touring and recording through the 60s, 70s and early 80s, the band were able to thrive without true mainstream chart success.
That all changed in 1987 when The Dead issued In The Dark, their first studio album of new material in 5 years. The first single was Touch Of Grey, a folky rocker that was written in 1982 and had long been a part of the band’s live set list. It was determined that a video would be made to help promote it. A wise decision. MTV and MuchMusic played it repeatedly reaching a whole new generation of fans not at all familiar with their past work. Featuring puppet controlled skeletons in place of the band members during a live performance (the real guys appear near the end), Touch Of Grey became a Top 20 Adult Contemporary hit, a number one Mainstream Rock smash and peaked at #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart.
In The Dark went Platinum but the band would never make another studio album or hit The Top 40 again. For the next 8 years, lead singer Jerry Garcia would struggle mightily with a serious heroin addiction and a tumultous personal life. In 1995, while going through another round of rehabilitation, he died of a heart attack at the age of 53. Surviving members went on to other projects but occasionally reunite as simply The Dead.
"Candy" by Iggy Pop
This Michigan legend was notorious for having inappropriate relationships with underage teenagers while in his 20s. One such girl inspired his only Top 40 hit.
Betsy was a thin, blond 13-year-old from Ann Arbor who first laid eyes on Iggy in 1969. As he later recalled of that first encounter in his co-written autobiography, I Need More, "She looked at me penetratingly. So I suppose you can figure out what happened next." According to his authorized biography, Open Up And Bleed, music journalist Paul Trynka reports that despite her young age, she was more mature than her older boyfriend. Bright and street-smart, Iggy acted "child-like and sincere" when they were together. But he was a mess. As the frontman for The Stooges, one of the most notorious pre-punk bands of the late 60s and early 70s, drugs ruined everything. Two years later, there was an accidental pregnancy which led to an abortion. Betsy was 15 at the time.
By the summer of 1971, the couple were staying with Rick Derringer (Rock And Roll Hoochie Koo) and his wife at their New York City apartment. One night, some valued jewellery went missing. Liz Derringer was certain about who was responsible. Both Iggy and Betsy were addicts and had already overstayed their welcome. Amazingly, Iggy was able to return most of the stolen items but his romance with Betsy was kaput. She went back home to her parents in Michigan and later died of cirrhosis of the liver. According to Open Up And Bleed, while dying, she told a friend that Iggy "was the love of her life". That same friend told Trynka that Betsy’s parents hold the singer responsible for her death and refuse to talk to the media.
Nearly 20 years later, Iggy Pop was in a much better place both professionally and personally. Happily married to an Asian actress, he had signed a new record deal with Virgin. His first release for the label was 1990’s Brick By Brick, one of his finest albums. Produced by Don Was (who later worked with Iggy on Avenue B, the album that chronicled his life around the time of his divorce nearly 10 years later), it avoided the dissonance and cacophony of his earlier efforts. Rock radio embraced Home, the album’s opener, and Candy, a duet with Kate Pierson of The B-52s. The latter song was able to crossover and become a Top 40 hit.
A tribute to his ex-girlfriend Betsy, Candy wasn’t the first time Iggy had immortalized her in song. Previously, there was Dog Food (from 1980’s Soldier), I’m Sick Of You (a Stooges track you can hear on Nude & Rude and A Million In Prizes), and Winners & Losers (from 1986’s Blah Blah Blah), all of which preceded his mainstream breakthrough. With the exception of that last song, Iggy actually mentions his ex by name in those recordings.
Candy was a Top 5 Modern Rock smash and peaked at #28 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Chart. Despite having FM rock hits like Lust For Life, Real Wild Child, Cry For Love, Cold Metal, Wild America and Little Know It All, the Brick By Brick hit remains Iggy’s only foray into The Top 40.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, January 18, 2010