March 19, 2009

Easy Rockers of the 1970s

In a prior life, I was a radio DJ at a series of radio stations in Maine and New Hampshire. The gig I'm talking about today was Portland's 93.1 WMGX. I was the overnight DJ at WMGX starting in 1996. When I joined WMGX, the music format was what we now jokingly call "Yacht Rock" or "Easy Rock". It was heavy on the early- to mid-seventies pop-rock. We played some contemporary music too, but the most memorable music we played was the Yacht Rock.

Back when I was a DJ, radio studios had special cassette decks which were wired to record only when the announcer's microphone was on. I could record all my "breaks" over a six-hour shift onto one side of a 60 minute tape. I have literally dozens of "aircheck" tapes of my nights on WMGX. I have listened to a few of these tapes recently, which has brought back a lot of memories of that line of work, and my life in the mid 1990s.

I had fun talking on the radio, and I actually liked the music we played. Deejaying can be a lot of fun, during the daytime, anyway, when the building is full of people. Overnights, however, is a lonely and boring shift. I basically played the music, read magazines, and killed time, between the spots where I actually talked. This was before there was free and easy Internet, so I couldn't sit and browse the Web, update my Facebook, and blog about how bored I was. If I have ever shared with you a mind-bendingly obscure bit of music trivia (did you know Melissa Etheridge is from Leavenworth, Kansas? Did you know Linda Rondstadt sings backup on "Heart of Gold"?), I know this stuff because I literally read every liner note, every music trivia book, and The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits cover to fucking cover.

I actually spent a lot of time making mix tapes in the studio down the hall- I would use my own CDs from home + CDs I borrowed from the enormous collection in the studio. I would start a song in the main studio, leave the studio doors ajar, and crank up the speakers. While working on a mix tape down the hall, I would half-listen to the music from the main studio. When a song I was playing over the air wound down, I would hustle back and press START on the next track, then back to the tape!

I also pilfered a ton of LPs from the station's old vinyl collection, which was literally packed away in a storage closet. I had zero guilt about taking home stacks of LPs that would never be used again, or, in a lot of cases, had never been used in the first place.

So working overnights paralyzed my social life, and crippled my weekends too- I never had a problem sleeping during the day, but on the weekends, I would attempt to switch back to a regular schedule, so I could spend time with my girlfriend, but I ended up staggering about in a zombie-like haze, trying to stay conscious during daylight hours.

Last but not least, all DJs are paid peanuts. If you don't like the pay, there's a dozen people happy to take less to do your job.

Here's a representative sampling of the "easy rockers" I played every night on WMGX, in no particular order.

NOTE: When in the following list I say we played "lots of" or "plenty of" an artist, that means we played the same few songs every day, NOT that we played a wide variety of their songs. I would guess we played no more than 6 or 7 songs by each of these artists, but we played all of these acts at least 4 or 6 times a day.

  • Lots of Van Morrison, including "Moondance" and "Brown-Eyed Girl" (of course), but also "Wavelength", a song I have never heard anywhere else.
  • I think the Program Director had a crush on Rod Stewart, because we played him constantly, including "Reason To Believe", "The First Cut is the Deepest", "Tonight's The Night", and "You're In My Heart".
  • Lots of Jackson Browne, including "The Pretender", "In The Shape Of A Heart", "You Love The Thunder" and "Running On Empty"
  • Lots of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, including "Southern Cross", "Carry On", and the ultimate bathroom break song, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes".
  • Billy Joel: Lots of the Piano Man, including "It's Still Rock n Roll To Me", "You May Be Right", and "Movin Out"
  • Lots and lots of Elton John, mostly "Levon", "Tiny Dancer", "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me", and "Someone Saved My Life Tonight"
  • Plenty of James Taylor, but the least timeless of these songs has to be "Your Smiling Face".
  • All of The Eagles Greatest Hits Volume 1.
  • "Baker Street" and "Right Down The Line", by Gerry Rafferty
  • Classic one-hit wonder "Romeo's Tune", by Steve Forbert
  • "Crazy Love" by Poco
  • After voluntarily listening to Jimmy Buffett for the first time in a decade, I was struck how he is a mediocre singer, and his songs are all midtempo and dull. How is the Margaritaville myth so strong that "parrotheads" pay big bucks to see him every summer? We played lots of "Margaritaville", "Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes", "Cheeseburger In Paradise", and so on.
  • Pure Prairie League, "Amie"
  • "Dreamweaver" by Gary Wright
  • "Nights In White Satin" by The Moody Blues
  • The Doobie Brothers, "Black Water"
  • I think "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold" were the only two Neil Young songs we played. Trust me, I wanted to play "Cinnamon Girl", "Needle & The Damage Done", or "Rockin In The Free World" instead.
  • Plenty of Steely Dan, including "Do It Again" and "Reelin In The Years"
Coming soon: a sampler of the contemporary pop-rock I played back then.