Who is The Greatest Hard Rock/Metal Band of All Time, Part 2 – The 1980s

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Rather than delve into the delusion that currently is supposed to oversee this country (and trust me, there’s plenty to call the Tangerine Ignoramus out on simply from this last weekend alone), I’ve decided to start something that will definitely be much more fun. Since college basketball is deciding the 64 teams (OK, 68 teams because of those simply idiotic play in games the NCAA conducts) that will compete for their championship, thought it would be fun to do the same but in a different arena – the genre of hard rock/metal music.

As it is one of my personal fortes, hard rock/metal music is essentially celebrating its 50th Anniversary since the release of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” which contained the lines “Get your motor running/heavy metal thunder.” With this in mind, I’ve put together a compilation of the top 64 hard rock/metal bands from four different eras – the 1960s/70s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s/10s – and split them up in accordance with those eras into “regions.” We’ll break down the matchups in each bracket and, with hope, readers will make their own comments and vote on the matchups and perhaps they’ll be some sort of prize at the end – the management here (re:  me) is still trying to come up with that prize.

What are the criteria for consideration? First, the band/singer would have to have some sort of longevity to their career – you don’t see many bands or singers that are considered “legendary” if they were only around for a couple of albums (Amy Winehouse is a rare exception, but that’s a discussion for another time). Second, the band/singer would have to have an impact on the genre – did they do something particularly noteworthy or notorious that put them into the annals of the genre’s history, a song or “behavior” that was historic. Third, just how popular were they when they were in existence – a band or singer that was wildly popular with the fans might get some leeway over a critical darling OR vice versa (depending on tastes). Fourth, what accolades did they receive – awards, gold records, and recognition by the industry (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, hello?) are all under consideration here. Finally, was the band/singer influential on future generations of music – have they helped shape the genre since they have left the sphere?

We talked about the 1960s/70s in Part 1, so now we’re ready to head into what was arguably the most diverse era of hard rock/metal over the past 50 years – the 1980s. From “hair metal” (basically pop-infused hard rock music that could be ballad intensive – something previously unheard of in the genre) to “death metal” and beyond, there were many candidates for this “regions” bracket. I am sure there will be some complaints as to the selections and, if so, please include those when you discuss the matchups in your reply!

BON JOVI

Bon Jovi (1) vs. Pantera (16)

As ugly as it is to admit, Bon Jovi was one of the most popular acts of the 1980s. Using enough Aquanet to put his own personal hole in the ozone layer over New Jersey, John Bongiovi – who would become the namesake of the group as Jon Bon Jovi – guitarist Richie Sambora and the rest of the group became the band that was OK with your parents to “rock out” to. They also brought the “power ballad” into its heyday, those songs that brought the girls out to the “rock shows” so the guys would come along.

Pantera, on the other hand, was everything that Bon Jovi wasn’t. Hard core, in your face – sometimes with a fist or a boot – fast and furious, guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell and Phil Anselmo mounted an offensive of thunderous rock that still resonates across the genre. While they were influential to many, they weren’t commercially successful – at least not on the level that Bon Jovi was. It will be an intriguing battle to see who emerges from this clash – but we know who would emerge if it were an actual fight!

Mötley Crüe (8) vs. Skid Row (9)

This is a typical battle of two bands that are closely matched. Strangely enough, though, most people are fans of one and not of the other, with those on the side of Skid Row and front man Sebastian Bach calling their opponents a rip-off of KISS and those taking up the fight for the Crüe and singer Vince Neil and Co. calling Skid Row a Guns ‘N Roses clone. What is true about both bands is they cranked out some memorable music over a short period; Skid Row’s heyday was roughly three years (1989-92), while the Crüe would be relevant for a longer period of time (1981-92). That may be the factor that weighs the winner of this matchup.

Guns ‘N Roses (4) vs. Ratt (13)

It is arguable that Guns ‘N Roses may be the top non-“hair metal” band in the 1980s region, setting them apart from Ratt, who firmly embraced their place in that subgenre. The Gunners captured the rebellious nature of rock and roll that was born in the 1960s and had been lost over the previous 20 years as rock became “corporate.” They also would serve as an inspiration to many bands, with such influence eventually leading to their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Ratt? Unfortunately, it looks like they ran into the “immovable object” here…but the votes will be what matters.

IronMaiden

Iron Maiden (5) vs. Faith No More (12)

This may look like a mauling, but you’ve got to look deep at the subject. Faith No More were one of the few practitioners of what became known as “rap metal,” or rapping the lyrics instead of singing them, setting them apart in the business and spawning bands that still employ Faith No More’s style today. Iron Maiden was one of the most ferocious bands in the genre who had a great longevity in the business. They also had their impact on future bands, but they weren’t the groundbreakers that Faith No More was in their short time. It will be another tough matchup for the voters to decide.

Metallica (2) vs. Whitesnake (15)

Even considering the ample success that Whitesnake and David Coverdale enjoyed during the 1980s, there’s simply no way that I can see voters taking them over a band that is still going strong today (and if you haven’t heard Metallica’s latest Hardwired…to Self-Destruct, you’re missing out on their best record since the Black Album). Metallica has inspired many a kid to become the next great James Hetfield or Lars Ulrich, consistently powering out epic albums and taking down accolades left and right for their work. They also – whether you agree with them or not – have fought against piracy in the industry, something that all should applaud them for. Whitesnake might have had a chance against anyone else on this list…but not Metallica.

Metallica

Queensrÿche (7) vs. Anthrax (10)

This is another difficult clash between two talented bands. Queensrÿche arguably introduced the “rock opera” concept into hard rock music in the 80s (OK, don’t remind me of Quadrophenia or other monumental albums) and served as a conduit for politically charged rhetoric (“Empire” delves into the effects of drug trafficking in the inner cities). But of course, their main claim to fame? “Silent Lucidity,” a Pink Floyd-esque power ballad that made the Billboard Magazine Top Ten in 1990.

Anthrax had their own political stances, talking about the plight of Native Americans (“Indians”) and dabbling with rap and classical music in creating their sound. They are one of the few bands to have had success with two different vocalists, Joey Belladonna and John Bush, and they have influenced thrash metal wannabes for over two decades. Do you take style over substance? Or do you award a long, healthy career that has spawned new generations? Tough vote here…

Def Leppard (3) vs. Cinderella (14)

Another matchup between two bands that, at first look, are mirror images. It is only in looking deeper do you see their differences.

The Leppard were a part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) that came out in the late 70s/early 80s, but they weren’t content with staying in that category. They firmly embraced the “hair metal” groove of the decade and became one of the biggest acts of that time. They also demonstrated a great deal of craftsmanship to their records, taking lengthy amounts of time (in some cases, they had to, such as drummer’s Rick Allen’s unfortunate amputation of his arm after an auto accident that forced him to learn how to play drums on a specially created kit) to put out some of the best rock music of the era.

Cinderella was part of that “hair metal” act and even sucked into it a bit by going the power ballad route (“Nobody’s Fool”), but in essence they were a blues band looking for a groove. Singer/guitarist Tom Keifer is a tremendously underrated musician and the rest of the band provided the base for which Keifer could demonstrate his virtuosity. That their era of commercial success was short (1986-1990) was more a fact of the explosion of grunge and rap than any disqualifying factor from the group.

Slayer

Slayer (6) vs. Megadeth (11)

Man, the 1980s were a tough decade! It’s too bad that one of these bands has to depart in the first round as both, against the right competition, could go deep in this tournament. Slayer was the purveyor of “death metal” with their seminal album Seasons in the Abyss reaching their creative and critical high point. Megadeth, with singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine, have continued performing and releasing highly praised music for almost three decades now, including winning a Grammy Award this year for best metal performance for the title track from their album Dystopia. A knockdown, drag out fight is what to expect here.

That’s it for the second “region” of our tournament. We’ll look at the 1990s and the 2000s/10s (and be thinking of who could be the #1 seeds for those “regions” – would love to hear those opinions) later this week and get into the second round, hopefully by next Monday. Don’t forget to vote by replying here and I will compile the responses – and maybe award a prize once a champion is crowned to a reader!

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The Top Ten Underrated Hard Rock Songs, Part Two

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A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the first five songs that made up this list (and they are in no particular order other than awesome!). In that discussion, such bands as Faith No More, Body Count, Motörhead, Extreme, Faster Pussycat and Dangerous Toys, among others, and how certain songs performed by these bands just missed rocketing them to metal immortality. But there was something else that derailed these bands just as they were beginning to find their groove.

Hard rock and metal were staples of the late 80s/early 90s, but the times they were a changin’. Just as some of these bands began to work on their sophomore efforts (Dangerous Toys were particularly victim of this), the rumble out of the Northwest was heard. The “Seattle sound” – driven by its early popular practitioners such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana but also by such groups as early as Mudhoney and the Melvins and by such powerhouses as Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots – took over the ears of the disaffected youth and reflected their angst with life. The band Temple of the Dog was an amalgam of these groups, with members from Mother Love Bone, Green River, Bad Radio and Skin Yard joining with members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam for one of the monster efforts of what came to be called the “grunge” era.

If grunge couldn’t do the job by itself, then the second punch of gangsta rap finished off the 80s-hard rock/metal scene. Technically coming out at the same time as the 80s-hard rock/metal took off, gangsta rap became more accepted on both radio and in the culture as the 90s rolled around. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Ice-T (he was also known for his metal work, making him one person who was going to win either way), Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, Nas…they all had a hand in the demise of hard rock as the 90s moved along. With the double blow of the emergence of both the gangsta rap and grunge genres – not only in popularity but also on radio and in the record stores – the “good times” were over for the 80s-hard rock/metal scene.

Alas, it probably couldn’t have been sustained much longer. By the early 90s, many of these bands were succumbing to the curse of the “rock and roll lifestyle” in the form of drug and alcohol addiction and becoming exactly what they had hated – the establishment (this was something that grunge carried on). Thus, even if these next five bands had found success with these underrated gems, they may not have been able to keep the fire burning for much longer.

Contraband, “All the Way to Memphis”

This was a group that should have been so much bigger than it was. Contraband was conceived as an outlet for members of several other groups to record while their “day jobs” (re: the band’s they were members of) were on hiatus. Members of Ratt, L. A. Guns, Vixen (one of the few all-female hard rock/metal bands), the Michael Schenker Group and Shark Island all contributed at least one member to the proceedings, which some might have thought would have been uncontrollable but came together quite well.

This particular song was a great choice. Originally done by Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople (Hunter would prove to be a popular writer for hard rock bands; his “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” was a huge hit for Great White), it lent itself well to the canoodling guitar work from Schenker and Tracii Guns and the howling vocals of Richard Black. The rest of the record was, if you’re a fan of the hard rock/metal genre, an outstanding effort (especially “Loud Guitars, Fast Cars and Wild, Wild Livin’”).

Unfortunately, Contraband was eventually devoured by what we discussed above. It also didn’t help when their eponymous debut record was poorly received by the public. Eventually, the players all went back to their original teams and a second record was never recorded.

Saxon, “Dallas 1PM”

This is one of the older selections on our list as Saxon was at the forefront of the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (NWOBHM) scene of the late 70s/through the 1980s. The British act never did find the same acclaim as bands such as Def Leppard and Iron Maiden did, but they did not disappoint in driving out album after album for their rabid fans. Wheels of Steel and Solid Ball of Rock are two of their more notable efforts and, to this day, they still are on tour and in the studio.

This song comes from their 1980 effort Strong Arm of the Law and, if you don’t recognize the significance of the title, you probably didn’t pay much attention in history class. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald as the President visited Dallas. At 1PM, doctors at the hospital declared Kennedy dead, hence the unlikely subject for a hard rock song.

There were a couple of problems that Saxon had with “Dallas 1PM.” First, citizens from the States of America hate having to think, especially about history. And second, citizens from the States of America hate having British people try to teach them history. The combination doomed what would have otherwise been an excellent chance to learn (and it is stunning how much you can learn if you listen to the lyrics of a hard rock/metal song…try it sometime).

Warrant, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

One of the original deviants of the “hair metal” genre, Warrant was all about the party. From their songs such as “Cherry Pie” and their hedonistic touring “pleasures,” Warrant was known more for their fun-and-games persona than their music. They were all excellent musicians, however, who wanted to be known for their music rather than their outside activities. Thus, when they issued “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” from the Cherry Pie album, people weren’t quite sure what to think.

The song was supposed to be the first song released off the album (the record company overruled and selected the title track) and it is arguable whether they would have found success with it. The opening acoustic guitar shows some nimble finger work and the story – of two men (an uncle and his nephew) witnessing the local sheriff and a deputy dumping two bodies they murdered into the local swamp – was more adult than anything else ever attempted by Warrant.

By trying to make their sound a bit more adult and include some seriousness to their compositions, Warrant signed their…well, death warrant. Their next album, the much more serious Dog Eat Dog, did not reach the level of success of earlier Warrant efforts and the band broke up. In a demonstration of the changing scene, the late Jani Lane (the vocalist for Warrant) said he knew “the proverbial writing was on the wall” when the band’s framed photo in the foyer of the Columbia Records (their record label) offices was replaced by the Seattle band Alice in Chains.

Cinderella, “Shelter Me”

Here’s another entry into that “consider us serious musicians” category that didn’t end up working well for the group. Cinderella was pretty much a blueprint for the “hair metal” bands of the 80s. Big hair? Check. Big guitars? Check. Raspy vocalist screaming loudly? Check. The band broke through with such rock anthems as “Save Me” and ballads like “Nobody’s Fool” but, by their third album, they were wanting to stretch their musical legs.

On the album Heartbreak Station, lead singer/guitarist Tom Keifer began to add in different touches that you normally don’t see in a hard rock effort. Dobros, saxophones and horns, female backing vocals and a boogie piano were put into this song, making it a bit of a departure from the earlier work by the band. Then there were the lyrics, pointing out the things that people will utilize to get relief from a maddening world. Overall it was more of a blues song than a traditional hard rock song and people didn’t know what the hell to do with it.

Perhaps that change in styles was the thing that sent the band into a downward spiral. The album didn’t reach the level of their earlier efforts (Night Songs and Long Cold Winter) and their swan song, Still Climbing, never got off the ground. Kiefer still performs today with a version of Cinderella, but they haven’t released a studio album since Still Climbing in 1994.

Junkyard, “Hollywood”

Junkyard was about five years too late to be the big success they should have been. Formed in 1987, they didn’t get their debut effort out on the scene until 1989. That eponymous debut record had many comparing them to Guns N’ Roses, but Junkyard was unique (in my mind, at least) in their full-on embrace of the biker culture. With this addition, there were also some sounds in mind that would give one pause to think they were a Southern rock band.

This tune captured the essence of both the Sunset Strip and Tinseltown in its attitude and its decadence. A raucous assault of guitars and moxie, Junkyard would never again reach this level. Their second album, Sixes, Sevens and Nines, failed miserably and their third record wasn’t released by their label, Geffen Records. They would disband in 1992 but are now back together, rocking crowds if not the charts.

So, there you have it (although I’d love to hear some other thoughts on the subject). Although the bands on this list might have had some success, just what could they have been if the fates had shifted differently? One will never know.

The Top Ten Underrated Hard Rock Songs, Part One

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As a method of getting away from the madness that is the 2016 General Election, I’ve been pondering other issues. Of course, I’ve been keeping up with Timeless (which, if you haven’t checked it out yet, you’re missing some good television) and I’ve been trying to finish reading a book that a friend of mine wrote long ago (and, with him in failing health, I’d like to tell him that I read it and enjoyed it, despite some early problems with his usage of an occurrence in our line of work). Then there’s always something going on in sports that can be talked about, whether it is Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton whining to the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, that he’s being hit too often (there are times he has a point, but not every time), the “Chase for the Sprint Cup” (ZZZZZZZZZZZ!) or baseball’s World Series (and congrats to the Chicago Cubs for winning this year and ensuring that Hell is freezing over; even as a New York Yankees fan, it’s great to see a team win it that hasn’t done it in 108 years).

But one thing we can always discuss (and something that I do like thinking about) is music. In the 20+ years I spent in the radio industry, I was always looking to pick the “next big song” to get on the air. I remember one time when I was the Music Director for a station where we debated whether to put the band Faith No More and the song “Epic” on the air. “It’s rap, it isn’t rock,” our Program Director stated. “No, it is a hybrid,” I replied. “You’ll start seeing more of this in the future – the melding of genres to reach as big an audience as possible (something I was proven correct on – for good or for ill).” After the debate, the PD finally added it as the song became one of the biggest tunes of 1989 and has since gone on to be called one of the greatest metal songs of all-time (#30 on VH1’s list) and one of the biggest one-hit wonders of all time (#67, once again by VH1), a bit of an insult to a band that had a great influence on many others.

Along this line, I found myself recently reflecting on what were some of the most underrated hard rock songs in history. To be honest, some of these bands were quite popular, even without these listed songs having a great of success, but it could have been so much better for them if these songs had touched on their audience better than they did. Look through the list and enjoy the songs, then be sure to let me know whether I’ve got it right, I’m completely fucking nuts and/or the songs that you think deserve to be on the list!

Motörhead, Ice-T and Whitford Crane (Ugly Kid Joe), “Born to Raise Hell”

Separately these performers had some success. Motörhead, led by the late Lemmy Kilmister, was always at the forefront of the heavy metal scene from the late 70s to this decade. Ice-T, through his rapping, was quite well known, but T had a desire to do hard rock (to the point of forming Body Count, which barely missed this list with “There Goes the Neighborhood”). Crane was, at this point in time, the one well known by the listening public as, with his band Ugly Kid Joe, Crane had several hits by this point in 1994 (“Everything About You,” “Neighbor” and a remake of balladeer Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle”).

This was a chance for everyone involved to get together and have a bit of fun doing a song for the soundtrack to the movie Airheads (a highly underrated movie, lots of fun and entertaining). Taking an old Motörhead song that Lemmy had written for another band, they blasted the tune that became the theme song for the film. Unfortunately for everyone, it didn’t go as far as they thought it might; the film has become a cult classic but didn’t do well at the time of its release and the soundtrack album even less so. As such, it finds its place on this list.

Extreme, “Decadence Dance”

This was a band that should have gotten more attention in their time than they did. With vocals from Gary Cherone (who would go on to join Van Halen after the departure of Sammy Hagar) and guitar work from Nuno Bettencourt (a classically-trained virtuoso if ever there was one), Extreme did have a big hit with the power ballad “More Than Words” (history lesson here, young ones – hard rock and metal bands and artists could play as hard as they wanted if they included one ballad on their albums…that was what drew in the ladies). Their perceived magnum opus, Three Sides to Every Story, didn’t hold a candle to their 1990 effort Pornograffitti, from which this song came.

Along with “Get the Funk Out” (also found on this album and a gem in its own right), Extreme could meld hard rock, funky horns and the classical guitar work of Bettencourt into a sound that was quite intriguing to fans of the genre. Unfortunately, it didn’t ensure a long career for the band. Once Cherone left for Van Halen in 1996, the band broke up. They’ve since reformed (as most bands do) and are releasing a new album that is set to drop in 2017. Perhaps they wouldn’t have lost Cherone if this and other tracks had been more than moderately successful.

Faster Pussycat, “You’re So Vain”

The first of our two remakes on this list, Faster Pussycat was a part of the L. A. club scene of the 80s that produced such acts as Mötley Crüe, L. A. Guns and Guns N’ Roses, among others. Named after the Russ Meyer film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the band earned some kudos for their power ballad (sensing the trend here?) “The Ballad of Jayne,” but this remake of the Carly Simon classic should have propelled them to higher points. Perhaps it was because of where it was released; the 1990 double album Rubaiyat:  Elektra’s 40th Anniversary saw artists as diverse as The Cure, Tracy Chapman, Metallica, the Georgia Satellites and others joining Faster Pussycat in doing songs made famous by past Elektra artists. The sheer number of outstanding performances led to difficulty in only picking one great remake.

What I liked about this song was that they took what was a kind ballad (despite its lyrical bite, courtesy of Simon) and put the edge to it that Simon had in writing the song. The guitar work of Brent Muscat and Greg Steele alongside the sneering vocals of Taime Downe worked perfectly with the material they had to use. We could have gone perhaps with “Bathroom Wall” (one of their earlier works), but this one was one of their last chances at success before…well, we’ll get to that in Part Two.

Damn Yankees, “Piledriver”

It is tough for some to accept that Damn Yankees were underrated in anything. With Jack Blades (formerly of Night Ranger), Tommy Shaw (of Styx) and the Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent, handing the musicianship, they had some Top 40 success with this supergroup. But while Blades had his “Night Ranger”-esque songs (“Coming of Age” and “High Enough”) and Shaw had his Styxian tunes (“Come Again”), it was Uncle Ted who was left without a display of his talents.

You’ve got to dive deep on their eponymous debut album to find “Piledriver,” a Nugent-esque tour de force that reaches out and grabs you from the beginning. The jingling doodling from Nuge suddenly explodes in a blitzkrieg of guitar that never again lets up on the listener. “Piledriver” is also the only song that Nugent sings for Damn Yankees, who normally utilized Ted just as a guitar god, harkening back to his pre-“Cat Scratch Fever” days when artists such as Meat Loaf were the vocalist on his solo albums.

Dangerous Toys, “Scared”

This Austin, TX band could have been so much bigger than they were in the 80s. Most often compared to Guns N’ Roses, Dangerous Toys had a lot of the same stylings as the Axl Rose led outfit, but also incorporated plenty of blues licks and Southern rock attitude into their music. You just have to listen to “Teas’n, Pleas’n” to get this sound in your head.

Scared” was the tune that was supposed to have carried them over the top into superstardom, but it only served as a place marker while the audience waited for their next effort. Their second album, Hellacious Acres, didn’t do quite as well as expected and the tour that would have supported their effort, called “Operation Rock & Roll” (it was just after the start of the First Gulf War) with such acts as Motörhead, Judas Priest and Alice Cooper, was shut down only 10 weeks into the schedule. Dangerous Toys never again reached the levels of success that they did after their eponymous first release which, from front to back, is a classic.

There’s plenty for you to listen to here, so we’ll take a break. But Part Two will bring you more of those underrated gems of hard rock and the reason why the genre seemingly disappeared overnight.

Why I Chose Satellite Radio over Terrestrial Radio

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There have been a couple of things that I have failed to pick up on when they came out. One, believe it or not, was cellphones. When they were becoming more popular in the 90s and even the 2000s, I told people I would never have one. “If it was really that important,” I would say, “they can call me at home. And if I’m not there, they can leave a message.” That lasted until I got my first cellphone and, as they say, the rest is history. Now I cannot imagine not having one.

The second thing was satellite radio, in particular SiriusXM. For 16 years I worked in the radio industry as a DJ and a music director and I felt some loyalty to the industry, that it would be incredibly wrong to buy satellite radio and violate a personal bond with broadcasting and the radio industry as a whole. Hell, the radio station was free and, as long as I could put up with the DJ that came on every 20 minutes or so, I continued to listen. For the last few years, however, I have been an aficionado of satellite radio and I sincerely doubt that I will ever return to “terrestrial” radio.

As a former radio DJ, I knew the ins and outs of the business. I also knew how the music actually got on the air that we played for our listeners. As a music director, I would chart the requests we received each week, monitor the new music added to the station, try to predict what we would add to the station’s playlist and offer suggestions as to the new music we would add. Sometimes, especially in Album Oriented Rock (AOR), those songs were more predicated on the artist rather than any great musical achievement (in this late 80s/early 90s, this meant a lot of crappy music from Aerosmith and many others instead of truly groundbreaking work from bands like Nirvana and Faith No More). But there was a dirty little secret that does still exist, even in the programming of stations today.

Back in the 1950s Alan Freed, the legendary Cleveland DJ who coined the term “rock & roll,” was the man whom artists and record companies needed to sway to guarantee their single or album’s success. Through his radio programs in both Cleveland and later in New York (where he added television), Freed passed along to the youth of the 1950s (probably our mothers and fathers) what was supposed to be the best music in the United States. Freed himself was responsible for “breaking out” such artists as Bill Haley & the Comets, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino (Freed was partial to black artists, who would often write and perform songs only to see white artists cover them so they were “acceptable” to the white audiences, according to the record labels). The ability that Freed had to “make or break” careers came with a hefty price, however.

In 1958, Freed was accused of accepting money from the record companies to play and promote certain songs, known as “payola” (a mix of the words “payoff” and “Victrola”) and, to a lesser extent, accepted credits as an author or producer on some of the songs he was playing on the air, which was a conflict of interest if true (this was also the case for a man named Dick Clark, but that is a story for another time). He was immediately fired from his spot at WABC in New York and lost his television gigs also in 1959, although there was no law on the books that made what he did criminal.

In 1960, that was changed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and, in a true miscarriage of justice, Freed was convicted on two counts of commercial bribery in 1962 (once again, despite there being no laws on the books at the time the alleged crimes were committed). Given a small fine and a suspended sentence, Freed would be blackballed by the major players in the music community; he would bounce around at smaller stations across the U. S. for the rest of his life, passing away in 1965.

While many would like to think that Freed was the only case of “payola” that has ever existed in the world of music, that isn’t the case. Although many DJs knew about the rules (the FCC put a punishment of a $10,000 fine and/or a year in prison for accepting payments from the record companies), there was a way around the new laws.

Instead of paying off the on-air talent themselves, record companies began to woo those with the power to get the music on the air with special “freebies” that, for all practical purposes, only looked like “promotional” tools. How many times have (or did) you dialed up a local radio station because they were giving away free tickets to a concert or an album or CD? How about special “concert trips” where you were whisked to a far-away show? These were the new “payola” (as some of these “freebies” ended up in station employees’ hands), just this time around those in charge decided to look the other way.

In the 1980s and 1990s (and even today), this was still the way the game was played. The record companies would call up one day a week (usually on a Monday, as Tuesday was the day adds were done to the station’s playlist after the labels released the latest albums) and try to woo you to play the latest music from the label’s artists. Using the “promotional” tools at their disposal, the A&R people would do everything short of sleeping with the DJs and music directors (although I heard of that too) to get their records on the air.

Although I left radio in the late 1990s, I still felt a tremendous bond with the industry, so much so that when Sirius satellite radio – and then XM – came about, I was about as “anti” as you could get.

The satellite radio industry began in 1990, when the FCC assigned frequencies for satellite radio (using digital sound) to use, even though there were no satellites in the air at the time and no one broadcasting in that format. In 2001, XM became the first satellite radio service and, in early 2002, Sirius joined in the battle. After spending billions refining their products and fighting against each other, the twosome decided to merge in 2007 and SiriusXM Radio came to life. As of this summer, SiriusXM can boast of roughly 28 million subscribers.

In the end, it was my lovely wife’s frustrations with terrestrial radio that brought about the changeover to satellite. After a particularly lengthy drive – in which she had spent much of it looking for a suitable radio station to listen to – we began to discuss getting satellite radio. Because we didn’t always know the stations when we were traveling, we thought that having a set schedule of stations to pick from would be more suitable to our lifestyles. As such, in 2010 we installed a SiriusXM receiver in our vehicle and the difference was immeasurable.

Normally when dealing with radio, you can find one station in each of the formats in a given “metro” area or city:  a Top 40 station, a Classic Rock station, a news/talk station, etc. With SiriusXM, you can pick pretty much any musical genre or era and have a place to go. Want to listen to Frank Sinatra? There’s several channels, including hits from the 1940s and 50s and a “Siriusly Sinatra” dedicated station. Feel like some rock music? There are almost two dozen stations there, covering everything from the 1950s to today. Country music has six channels, Christian music three…as you can see, it covers everything.

Then there is the pleasant respite from commercials that SiriusXM gives the listener. For the most part, every station on the SiriusXM dial is commercial-free radio (save for simulcasts of radio and/or television broadcasts). This means that you won’t be jumping around the radio dial, trying to find some music when your favorite radio station goes off on a five-minute commercial binge (like television, radio goes to commercial breaks at the same times – 10, 25, 40 and 50 minutes past the hour, in most cases). About the only reason you’ll leave a station is because you want to hear something different.

You need more? How about the vast libraries that the SiriusXM stations have put together. Due to the advent of digital music, the SiriusXM libraries play virtually anything that has been digitized for listening consumption. Because they also haven’t been corrupted by radio “consultants” nor the radio conglomerates (in one city my wife and I lived in, two radio groups controlled 15 stations that were in town), they will play things that you won’t hear on terrestrial radio; instead of hearing “Stairway to Heaven” for the third time in a week, you might hear instead a deep cut from Rainbow (grossly neglected in terrestrial radio, along with many other artists).

Finally, there are the host of specialty stations that SiriusXM delivers that would never appear on terrestrial radio. Channels that focus on the music of Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Pitbull, the Grateful Dead…these are all artists that have their own dedicated stations on SiriusXM (especially my favorite, Radio Margaritaville and Jimmy Buffett). There are also “limited engagement” stations that have featured Billy Joel, Tom Petty and Elton John in the past year. If you would like to listen to nothing but Howard Stern 24/7, there’s a place for that, as there is for the sports fanatic.

For the hour I spent in my vehicle today, here’s where I bounced around:  I started with Buffett, then moved over to the Hits station that played the latest from Fall Out Boy; after getting my son out of the car, I moved over to Octane, where Tesla was doing “Little Suzi” before dropping down the dial to First Wave (the 80s British synth pop era) and hearing the Human League. When I got home, I’d worked my way through the alternative stations, which had told me that one of my favorites in Florence and the Machine were about to play, before getting “back to the beach” on Radio Margaritaville. Tell me you could find that wide a range in terrestrial radio.

After once thinking that there was nothing better than terrestrial radio for as long as I did, I can now confidently say that there is no way I would ever think about not having SiriusXM in my vehicle or on my computer. The reasons listed previously should be enough, but there is also the ability to make up your own playlists (called MySiriusXM) that puts the cherry on top of the sundae. There are some questions about its compensation methods to the artists (something that I might get into sometime), but there’s more enjoyment than you’ll ever get out of terrestrial radio through the SiriusXM satellites circling our planet.

N.W.A.: The More Things Change…

In the mid- to late-1980s, I was working in the radio industry as the music director at an Album Oriented Rock (AOR) station in North Carolina. While the music we played was the opposite of what was occurring on the Top 40 or Urban stations (I would have said polar opposite, but we weren’t country music), we were still aware of the rumbles of change that thundered across the musical spectrum. I actually got behind two bands in my time there – one was Faith No More with their song “Epic” and the other was the band that term – thundered – was the best way to explain:  the phenomenon that was the rap group N.W.A.

N.W.A. – the seminal rap group that featured Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Lorenzo ‘”MC Ren” Patterson and Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby – exploded on the scene in 1988 with their debut album Straight Outta Compton. The album contained explicit descriptions from the group about life in the inner city (in this case, the Los Angeles subdivision known as Compton) and, in particular, the trials and tribulations that faced black men (and, as a sidelight, the black community) at that time. With the movie of the same name opening up today, it is easy to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The year was 1988 when N.W.A. came out and it gave voice to millions that had never had even a face to that time. Previous rap music, although occasionally containing a strong message (in fact, “The Message” from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was one of the first rap songs about how difficult life was in the inner city), was more about the party in most cases (“Rapper’s Delight” from the Sugarhill Gang or “Fight For Your Right” from the Beastie Boys) or a cover tune (“Walk This Way” from Run DMC). It also owed more to old school R&B and disco than any other musical format, with base tracks from songs like Chic’s “Good Times” or perhaps Parliament/Funkadelic providing the bottom layer that rappers would lay their tracks over.

With N.W.A., all bets were off. Their guttural bass notes came at the listener like a thunderbolt and guitars and other sound effects were utilized to bring the city to life on the tracks. But what was the major difference was the lyrics. Not content to simply talk about the activities at a party or the sexual conquests that the MC had the previous evening, N.W.A. broadcasted straight from the street and what the residents of the inner city faced throughout their daily lives:  harassment from law enforcement, drug usage and addiction, rampant crime and other less-than enjoyable aspects of living in the inner city.

The advent of N.W.A. brought about the “gangsta” rap style that covered the remainder of the 1980s and stretched into the early 2000s. Although the group that was N.W.A. didn’t make it deep (the band broke up in 1991 and reunited for a short time in 1998), Young and Jackson would go on to long careers in music (Young is now a billionaire after founding Beats by Dre) and/or acting (Jackson is well-sought as a performer in both film and television). Wright would unfortunately pass from AIDS in 1995 and Patterson and Carraby carried on in music, without the same impact as their days with N.W.A.

With the movie coming out today, there is a focus placed once again on N.W.A. and the music that they delivered. As someone who had been around the block even then, I knew that the message that N.W.A. was delivering was dead on, shining a spotlight on a situation that isn’t talked about at formal dinner parties. What is starkly evident from listening back to such artists as N.W.A. today is that there isn’t much different between the situation then and now.

When Eazy-E, Dre and Ice laid down the raps about being harassed by law enforcement for simply being in a certain area and a certain color, those situation still are a part of the headlines today. Crack cocaine usage ravaged the inner city during the times of N.W.A.; today, it is heroin, alcohol and crack that take their toll. Education isn’t any better today than then, it may in fact be worse. Housing continues to be an issue and many believe the only path to “getting out” of the inner city is through athletics or music. And this is only scratching the surface of the situation.

The solutions to these issues aren’t easy and, in many cases, cost money that seemingly isn’t there anymore (according to politicians). When an inner-city kid has the same access to educational materials as someone at the best suburban school, we’ll have made progress. Housing could be improved, but the lack of land still would require the high-rise apartment complexes that are prominent in Chicago and New York. Drug usage and the actions of law enforcement are perhaps the most difficult in that no amount of money would change the situation; the only thing that will change those things are attitudes regarding drug criminalization and training of future police officers.

If you’re heading to the movieplex this weekend to see Straight Outta Compton this weekend, marvel at how these young men brought a cultural situation into the glaring light of the world. Then lament how we haven’t been able to change anything since N.W.A. first rapped about these situations. The more things change, the more they stay the same…