Great Songs About Radio: The Not So Perfect Ten

Ten must-listen tunes about the joy of radio

No media form inspires as many songs as radio. The most obvious reason is the fact they may be played on radio stations (of course). There is the intimate nature that radio has, especially the ability to picture the scene in your mind. This is cheapened or nullified on screen. Hence my preference towards radio commentary over television commentary for live football matches. For the General Election, radio instead of television any day.

Our latest Not So Perfect Ten is inspired by any form of radio. Broadcast radio, CB, and amateur radio.

  1. The Nightfly, Donald Fagen (1982);
  2. W.O.L.D, Harry Chapin Carpenter (1974);
  3. Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me), Reunion (1974)/Tracey Ullman (1983);
  4. You Turn Me On I’m a Radio, Joni Mitchell (1972);
  5. On The Radio, Donna Summer (1979);
  6. I Love My Radio (Midnight Radio), Taffy (1985);
  7. On Your Radio, Joe Jackson (1979);
  8. I’m Into C.B., The Fall (1982);
  9. Transmission, Joy Division (1979);
  10. Radio Ga Ga, Queen (1984).

1. The Nightfly, Donald Fagen (1982)

What an album to start your solo career with. In my honest opinion, Donald Fagen’s album, The Nightfly, is one of the most lyrically and technically sound albums of the early 1980s. On release, it was tested in HiFi shops with the first track, I.G.Y. a favourite number for testing music centres.

The title track sees Fagen musing about the solitary life of a radio station DJ on the graveyard shift. Which, on the album cover, shows the fellow beside the turntable smoking a Chesterfield King cigarette (as quoted in the lyrics). With ‘jazz and conversation’ on WJAZ, it is a most atmospheric track. It is fantastic by any means, but overshadowed by the other seven tracks on the album which are magnificent.

2. W.O.L.D, Harry Chapin (1974)

Whereas Mr. Fagen’s impression of DJ-ing is the solitary cat-like figure, Harry Chapin’s is a treatise of how life as a DJ can be short lived. Age is described as one barrier to his professional career, with self-deprecating reference to his age. For example, his lack of hair, spare tyre, and the fact he feels 16 in spite of being 45.

The narrative is fantastic, and has the easy-going direct nature of a good radio programme. It is also a good insight on how waking up at stupid o’clock can affect family life.

3.Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me), Reunion (1974)/Tracey Ullman (1983)

How many artistes? How many record labels? You have got to admire Joey Levine for committing this tune to vinyl. Owing to his million miles an hour vocal delivery, it is the last song you would like to sing on karaoke (well, maybe second only to The Lone Ranger by Quantum Jump which is a top tune).

Joey Levine, from the 1960s to 1970s was a key player in the genre of Bubblegum Music. He was also involved in the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus and Ohio Express. The latter group’s biggest hit was Yummy Yummy Yummy from 1968.

There is also a superb cover of Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me) by Tracey Ullman. Her version is the equal of Reunion’s original and fits in the 1960s imagery of her singing career. It appeared on her first album You Tore My Heart in 17 Places. 1984’s follow-up album was You Caught Me Out. Again, all tracks were cover versions, but her cover of Sunglasses was the first song to be played on Hull’s Viking Radio.

4.You Turn Me On I’m a Radio, Joni Mitchell (1972)

Taking an equally reflective view like Harry Chapin, Joni Mitchell’s tune has a healthy dose of radio-related terms, though with a twist. The way it is written, she segues the romance of radio with a love song. It works very well, but the reasoning for this song’s release was strictly commercial.

With her label wanting her to be more than a one-hit wonder, she was cajoled to write another hit song that would guarantee some airplay. Not least the spondulicks that Asylum records wanted at the time. In the end, it was her first major chart success in the Canadian singles chart.

The track also appears on her 1972 album, For The Roses. The B-side of her single, Urge For Going, probably inspired the title of Half Man Half Biscuit’s last album, Urge For Offal.

5.On The Radio, Donna Summer (1979)

There is a slightly melancholy nature to the start of this song but Donna comes out in a flourish. Our lonely listener sends a letter to the DJ. It is an old flame who she had separated from ‘last June’. She eagerly awaits his return and is happy to find he still loves her.

It stands up well today, thanks to Giorgio Moroder’s pristine production as well as the late Donna Summer’s vocals. It reached the Top Ten of the singles charts in the USA, Canada and Norway. In the UK, it peaked at 32 (some record buyers must have had cloth ears in November of ’79, I suppose). Martine McCutcheon’s cover version peaked at Number Seven in the UK singles chart in 2001.

6.I Love My Radio (Midnight Radio), Taffy (1985)

Ah, the mid to late 1980s: such an eclectic period for music: goth, electronic, Stock Aitken and Waterman, Italo Disco and House. Quite a good era. In 1985 and 1986, I Love My Radio (Midnight Radio) troubled continental nightclubs with its singalong chorus. Yet, if you look beyond the cheesiness, it is an Italo House response to The Nightfly. The theme is similar: a DJ on the graveyard slot.

In the UK, it appeared on Now! That’s What I Call Music Volume Nine and as a single in 1987. Being as few radio stations broadcasted after midnight at the time (BBC Radio One used to finish for 1am in ’87), ‘Midnight Radio’ was substituted for ‘Dee Jay’s Radio’.  The UK version peaked at Number Six. Taffy was born in New York in 1963 as Katherine Quaye.

7.On Your Radio, Joe Jackson (1979)

Joe Jackson’s first two albums, Look Sharp!, and I’m The Man, are great works. The opening track of his second album, On Your Radio, does not refer to broadcasting. It refers to the fact you could only listen to him on the radio instead of trying to following him around.

In other words, it’s a two fingers job at stalkers and supposed super fans. Over four minutes, he says ‘get off my back’ or similar words to those effect. One cannot fault the driving beat and Graham Maby’s bass.

8.I’m Into C.B., The Fall (1982)

Never mind the saccharine delights of some of the entries on our Not So Perfect Ten, this pulls some serious punches in the lyrics department. Yes, it’s the mighty Mark E. Smith in this 1982 release on the album Hex Enduction Hour. In this composition, M.E.S tells us about this fellow who gained an interest in Citizens’ Band radio. Given the time he wrote the piece, C.B. radio was still illegal in the UK till the end of 1981. Hence the end of the song seeing our C.B. fanatic being thrown in jail.

At a slight tangent, C.B was legalised in the UK in November 1981, with the 27 MHz band allocated to Citizens’ Band. Plus there is reference to other Fall songs in the lyrics, particularly New Face in Hell.

9.Transmission, Joy Division (1979)

For our penultimate entry is our second act from Greater Manchester. One of Joy Division’s best known songs is best remembered for its driving intro and insurgent closing lines. It is the only song of our selection that lacks a chorus and middle eight in the traditional sense.

Need we say more about Ian Curtis’ vocals. They make the song, they represent the energy of the piece alongside Hooky’s bass work. Not least Martin Hannett’s production. It is a piece that is best played loud. Like the works of our final entry, whose early releases actually said ‘play loud’ on the record label itself.

10.Radio Ga Ga, Queen (1984)

How else do we close this Not So Perfect Ten? With this classic, Queen’s love letter to a medium that has brought us much joy. Radio GaGa, epitomises our relationship with Marconi’s invention. The production is superb with the promo video fitting in perfectly.

The song states how radio brought the world to us, became a transformational force. It also states how the music video could debase the media. Plus how we may be the poorer for it if the medium disappeared.

Believe me, we will be all the poorer without radio. DAB, DAB+, FM, Ham Radio, Shortwave, you name it. With the exception of live theatre, there is no media form that can touch people better than radio. Its immediacy and the feeling of your favourite song being played can never be rivalled.

Any more worthwhile additions?

Feel free to comment on the ten selections or add some more to the list.

S.V., 01 October 2016

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3 thoughts on “Great Songs About Radio: The Not So Perfect Ten

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  1. Any list of songs about radio is incomplete without the totally brilliant WXJL Tonight off The Human League’s second album Travelogue. I’m also quite partial to On My Radio by the Selecter, not in the same league though (no pun intended) as WXJL…

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  2. Turn Your Radio On…Ray Stevens (1971)
    Radio, Radio…..Elvis Costello (1978)
    H.A.P.P.Y. Radio…..Edwin Starr (1979)
    Radio Head…Talking Heads (1987)
    Radio Waves…..Roger Walters (1987)
    Transistor Radio…..Benny Hill (1961)

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    1. Hi Dave,

      Some crackers here. Also, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s version of ‘Radio Waves’ (on the excellent ‘Dazzle Ships’ LP); ‘Radio Africa’ by Latin Quarter.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

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