My Five Favorite "Radio" Songs

by Michael Channing

Radio, like cartoons and video games, has been an important part of my life since I was old enough to flip a power switch. These days, the radio in my car is really just the speaker I plug my iPod into, but the concept of Radio is still a demigod in my personal pantheon. Here are my five favorite prophets of Radio, with their sermons on the dial.

5. "Radio Ga Ga" by Queen

Radio Gaga thanks Metropolis

Remember the days when you could find magic at every point on the dial, worlds of mystery and thrilling tales of adventure? The whole family gathered around the set for the conclusion to last week's suspenseful cliffhanger. Everyone had a decoder ring, all the men wore hats, nobody cursed, and comic books were one thin dime. Remember those days? Me neither, but I miss them. I miss them with every fiber of my imagination, and my imagination is cut from 10,000 thread count Narnian cloth.

There's no magic on my radio anymore. There's just recycled beats and voices saying simple things. Tune into any talk show, and you already know all the host's opinions within seconds of hearing him speak. The airwaves are clogged with mediocre bands that all sound alike, songs that flow unnoticed into each other, and commercials for male enhancement.

But some of us still love you, Radio. Some folks are keeping the vacuum tubes aglow and watching with our ears.

4. "Mohammed's Radio" by Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon sings Mohammed's Radio

My mom had a little boom box when I was a kid, and we'd sit at the kitchen table and record songs and play them back immediately. To me, this was magic. Music came out of the air, into this box with a broken antenna, and we captured it on cassette. Forever and for free. We plucked the song right out of the air with magnets. How can you not marvel at that? I recorded a lot of songs in my youth. Sometimes, because I would mash record when I meant to mash play, I ended up with fragments that blended into other songs, and those songs became one. Rod Stewart's "Infatuation" flowed into "Ghostbusters," and that made sense to me, because Rod said something about a shark, and sharks are scary just like ghosts. I once knew a guy who DJ'ed at a radio station and I called to make a request. I had a recording of him sending that song out to me, and it was amazing. That song flowed out of the ether just for me. Except, anybody else with a radio could have heard it, too.

Radio is like the soothing voice of God. For all the slings and arrows you suffer from all sides, during all the economic insecurities and political bickerings, anyone can tune in and hear the sweet and soulful sound of heaven. Don't it make you want to rock and roll all night long?

3. "Radio Radio" by Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello holds up a Radio Radio

Oh, the insipid, toothless thing radio has become. In its effort to please everyone, it has nothing exciting to say. Certainly nothing dangerous. Oh, there are some songs about sex, and some that sure do sound angry, but we as a society are far past being shocked by the mention of sex, and all that rage is really just self-pity. So why all the simple-minded tunes lilting weakly through the air like mentally challenged butterflies? Because it's what people want, baby. That's the golden rule of supply and demand. Radio gives 'em what they want. But what if, the other Elvis asks, we want it because that's all there is? Keep us happy, keep us calm, keep us anesthetized. Let us dance and screw and scream, and we'll gladly pay for the illusion of comfort. The country is besieged by infidels? Must be true because the radio said so. Buy more? Complain less? Sure thing, Radio. Anything you advise. Just keep the hit parade goose-stepping on.

2. "Radio Nowhere" by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce and Clarence play with their hearts

It was dark and I was crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains on my way to Bob's house in Clarksville. I'd already exhausted the few tapes I owned, and I needed something to drown out the rattle and shake of my '87 Chevette. So I turned on the radio. The mountains blocked out signals like Shaq going one-on-one with Hervé Villechaize, and most of the dial was dead. The ghostly crackle of voices gave me hope that as soon as I crossed the border, I'd be in contact with the world again. Unfortunately, the world that came crashing down around my ears was full of reptilian talk show hosts and evangelists. I just wanted to hear some rhythm, but I all I got was hate and judgment. Those voices vomited blame all over me, and I retaliated. I screamed a blue streak from Knoxville to Nashville, where the lizard talk gave way to pop-country shit-kick, and I screamed louder. I like to believe that's how Pantera was born.

But back to the Springsteen song. "Is there anybody alive out there?" it asks, and I'm sure it's referring to the rising trend of radio stations that have no on-air personalities and are really nothing but iPods set to random. I do hate it when DJs talk over songs, but radio needs DJs. The world will never know another Wolfman Jack or Adrian Cronauer, but we need people behind the music. Let DJs hand-pick the songs they play then tell us why they love them and why we need that music in our lives. But, for the love of all that is holy, don't let a commercial for Fingerbang Motors overlap even one nano-second of the extended outro of "Cheap Sunglasses."

1. "The Spirit of Radio" by Rush

Rush Spirit of Radio

This song celebrates the greatness of radio. Radio greets you in the morning and rides with you to work. Does it pick its nose and wipe boogers on the dash or spill its coffee on the upholstery? Of course not. Radio is a much better carpool companion than that, even if it won't let you ride in the HOV lane.

Oh, but radio doesn't come free. It's got something to ask, something to sell. "HEY, LISTEN TO THIS," Radio shouts above the roar of the open window, "FINGERBANG MOTORS IS HAVING A PRICE BLOWOUT! COME ON DOWN AND GET BLOWN!" No, Radio. Just no. "HOW ARE YOU SET FOR LIFE INSURANCE?" What? Is something wrong with the car? "WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE A LONGER LASTING ERECTION?" Hey, come on, we just drove past a school.

But then it plays "Radar Love," and you're best friends again.

By acknowledging the great and terrible aspects of radio within its verses, this song is the sum of all the others on this list, but that's not why it's my favorite. Near the end of "The Spirit of Radio," Geddy Lee sings, "Concert hall--" and then there's the sound effect of a huge cheering audience. The two times I saw Rush live, both with Bob, right at that point in the performance of the song, the house lights came up, and we the audience roared right on cue. We were performing with the group. For a few blissful seconds, we were members of our favorite band.

Honorable Mention: "Radio Sucks" by Mother Superior

The guys of Mother Superior

I've heard this song exactly once. And all I remember is that one line of the chorus, "Radio Sucks!" So why have I carried it in my heart for over a decade? Because it was performed by Mother Superior. Who's that? Well, they're the band that stands behind Henry Rollins and rocks harder than Gibraltar while he screams for two straight hours. Or they were anyway. Rollins doesn't do music anymore. He's concentrating on all the other things he does: writing, spoken word, documentaries, voice work, and... puppetry? Maybe puppetry. He should take over as both Waldorf and Statler and just punch people with the puppets on his fists. Anyway, I got to see Rollins as musical front man just one time. His backing band was Mother Superior, and they also opened as well. So before they played two hours of Rollins music, they kicked out the jams for at least forty-five minutes with their own material. And part of that set was "Radio Sucks." It was a fantastic concert, a riotously good time, and I left with my soul full of noise, my glasses broken, and my body relatively unbruised.

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