Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Playing the Changes

In the late ‘50s into the ‘60s, my Dad operated a small radio/TV repair business. Sometimes it was on the side, occasionally it was his main occupation. He eventually gave it up, as color television and general transistorization shrank the ecological niche. The capital expense of color television repair equipment was too high, and transistor circuit board electronics were too hard to repair and cheap enough to just replace.

During this time he wound up in possession of all sorts of odds and ends. It happens pretty often once people know that you repair things; they just give you stuff, hoping that you can repair it easily enough to make it worth your while, and they’re just glad to get rid of it. You should see my workshop.

One thing that wound up in my Dad’s basement workshop was an old jukebox, designed to play 78s. It no longer worked and Dad gave it to me to take apart, because I liked taking things apart to see how they worked. I still do; it’s just getting harder and harder to figure out how they work, which is the source of my own reply to Clarke’s Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from something that has no business working in the first place.

The old jukebox had an electromechanical system that selected the record to be played: a bunch of push buttons that activated a servo that pushed the selected record out of a rack. Beneath the record was a spindle and turntable that pushed up to move the record off its carrier, up to the needle arm, which stayed at the one height.

Later 45 rpm record jukeboxes had a turntable that stayed at a constant height and the records were selected from a set of 45s that were in a sort of torus that rotated to bring the selection to the top. A mechanical arm then grabbed the correct record, pulled it from its position, then swung around to place the record on the turntable.

In both cases, the jukeboxes had a sort of mechanized ritual aspect to them: put in your coin, then watch the robotic sequence of actions that culminated in music. In some ways, the ritual is as much a part of the nostalgia as the music itself. Also, because of the delay, different songs never encroached upon one another.

The AM radio experience of the 1950s had a similar feel to the jukeboxs, with the added feature of the Disk Jockey persona, a hyperkinetic voice introducing records, selling product, and generally trying to generate a party atmosphere while sequestered into a tiny room with artificial lights. Often they’d talk right through the intro to the song, stopping only when the lyrics began. Memory tells me that it was a rare event to play songs back to back. That was usually reserved for phone-in “contests” of “Choose your Favorite Song and Win a Free Pen and Pencil Set,” or whatever.

When I got to RPI in the fall of 1968, WRPI-FM had just switched over to the “Progressive Rock” format, following the lead of some ground-breaking stations in NY, Boston, and Philadelphia. The next spring they boosted their power and coverage and became the most popular FM station in the Albany/Schenectady/Troy area.

I didn’t join WRPI until the spring of my Senior year, and I also staying in Troy during the summer between my undergraduate and graduate years at RPI. But I’d converted to the WRPI way of hearing music much earlier, and part of that was appreciating the segues.

A good deal of the joy of Progressive Radio was the mix, not just the music that was being played, but how it fit into the context of the other music that was being played. You can trace it back to the “party stack,” a set of 45s that people would bring to parties for dance music, and hit compilation records, often for a similar purpose. Then you had “Mood Music” which is to say, Music to Seduce Your Girlfriend By. That often had a lot of strings or Johnny Mathis, or Frank Sinatra.

Progressive Radio expanded the vision of the mix, and the segue, the seamless connection of one song to the other was the unit element. The typical radio setup was twin turntables and a mixing board, making it easy to do a cross-fade. We also had various additional sources like cassettes for station breaks, EBS and PSAs, and, for commercial stations, the commercials themselves. At WRPI, we used an eight-track player for pre-records, though there was also a couple of giant reel-to-reel tape decks that were also good for echo effects, or for playing practical jokes by getting a half second delay into the announcers headphones that is absolutely guaranteed to make it impossible to speak coherently.

There was a more-or-less standard evolution of DJ experience at WRPI. Someone would join the station with a particular set of musical tastes, maybe they liked folk, or jazz, or acid rock, and they’d lean toward that set of tastes initially. For that reason, there was a list of “format songs” categorized according to type, with a set sequence of types. You could choose any song from a group during the sequence, but you couldn’t vary the sequence much, though once each sequence you could play whatever you liked. I pushed the envelop on that pretty quickly by playing entire album sides (hey, “The Land of Grey and Pink” by Caravan is a single cut, even if it’s over 20 minutes long), and almost got into trouble for it.

By the time I got there, the “WRPI format” list was something like an inch thick of computer printout. You could literally go for days following the format and never play the same song twice. Some guys did play the same songs every show they had, but it was rare for someone to be on more than once a week, and the next guy would not have the same favorites. In fact, it was considered a gaffe to play something that the previous announcer had played. In many ways, it was the anti-thesis of the radio jukebox.

That, of course, polarized the audience (and our student listeners). Some were very happy with WRPI, and some just wanted a big campus jukebox, maybe one filled with Progressive Rock, but a jukebox catering to student tastes (and requests) nonetheless.

Requests was one of the real issues, in fact. One of the most popular WRPI shows for many years was “Request Line Oldies” on Sunday night (Sunday was block programmed with special shows, the only day in the week departing from the Progressive format). But at other times, the DJs didn’t want to hear from requests.

They had a point. Nobody was getting paid; it was a student volunteer organization. So what did we announcers get out of it? Fame? We were faceless, and many of us used “on-air” pseudonyms (I just used my initials). Groupies? Yeah, right. Something swell to put on our resumes? Maybe for a few guys, mostly the techies. The sound of our own voices? Sometimes there were shows where the music was non-stop for an entire hour, right up to the station break, followed by a quick recitation of the playlist of the past hour, then back to another hour of solid music. It was public speaking for shy introverts.

No, most of us were there because we loved music, and loved to program the shows. Substituting someone else’s tastes turned it into just another unpaid job. Besides, if you’ve spent an entire week thinking about what you’re going to play, setting up a flow and a mood, you’re absolutely not going to suddenly break that flow by inserting Lighthouse, no matter how much you like Lighthouse.

Still, I did play a request from time to time, usually refraining from mentioning that it was a request, because all you had to do was say the word “request” and you’d spend the rest of the show on the phone dealing with the flood. WRPI had a lot of listeners.

I should also mention that there was one guy, John Robinson, (coincidentally a member of the Albany Science Fiction Club that I was part of at the time), who had an uncanny knack for calling me to request a cut that I had on my list for the night, often only one or two down. John had my number, I guess, in more ways than one.

Anyway, getting back to the DJ evolution. After first getting their “fave raves” out of their systems, getting tired of playing the same things over and over, the next step was to branch out or go deeper. The guys who started on Dylan would get to Van Ronk, or Buffy St. Marie, then whoops! Folkways and Rounder were filling their stack. The jazz guys would go from Brubeck to Miles, then to Coltrane and Coleman. And so forth. Even so, the format was there to keep them in line, more or less.

In the evenings and nighttime, though, the announcers were no longer subject to the format. Those were “prime time” (which extended to 2 A.M.), where the most experienced announcers were slotted. And during the “Great Music Drought” of the early 1970s, when rock hit a dry spell, some of the evening guys went over entirely to something else, most often jazz, to the further exasperation of the audience.

But after the overt musical glitches worked themselves through a DJs tastes, most of us began to work the flow itself, playing music that blended into a particular mood or theme. Then came the sort of one-upsmanship that enjoyed putting two things together in a way that both surprised and satisfied, like rubbing Neal Diamond up against Firesign Theater, or “Let It All Hang Out” into Frazier and Debolt. Sometimes the idea was to jolt the listener a bit, which could be as simple as hard following soft, or loud following quiet. I never did manage to find a place for the most jarring segue I ever heard, though. That was an accidental juxtaposition that came on a Sunday, between Barnett’s and my Indian Music block, and the following blues show. Soft Carnatic flute music flows into John Lee Hooker with all the grace of The Titanic into the iceberg.

The group dynamic that developed was competitive, with a little taste of messianic snobbery thrown it. “Here’s the good stuff,” we’d say, “And by the way, didn’t I just do a really good show?” The goal was to get people to call in, not to ask for you to play something they already liked, but to find out what the hell it was that you just played. Or to call and tell you how much they enjoyed what you were doing. Even better if it was your peers, though we know what happens when the comic starts getting laughs only from the band. In any case, the general consensus was that I was very good at whatever it was that we were doing.

Over the years, I’ve made mix tapes and more recently CDs. I’ve also listened to other people’s mix tapes, and some are good, but most are just ordinary, because that’s what ordinary is, isn’t it?

More recently, we have the phenomenon of the iPod and related devices, but I think the real advance there is the “shuffle,” which lets the machine surprise you. Most recently, I’ve loaded mine with albums by T-Bone Burnett, Mark Knopfler, Blossom Dearie, The Clash, African folk, African pop, The Low Millions, Cyndi Lauper, Jack Teagarden, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, The Cranberries, Elvis Costello, Javanese Gamelan, INXS, Diana Krall, Kaki King, The Crystal Method, Chris Issak, Suzanne Vega, The Don Redman Orchestra, and Artie Shaw. I’m paying particular attention to the segues that the shuffle provides.

I do wish it had a cross-fade function though. Sometimes the wait between songs just drives me crazy.

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