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The Real Summer Of ‘69

93 KHJ Los Angeles Once Upon A Time In HollywoodIf you look at pop music’s arc, there’s general consensus that things were trending down in 1969.

Asked to describe it in terms of his theory of Top 40 cycles, veteran programmer Guy Zapoleon sees it as a year of “extremes leading into the doldrums [of] the early ‘70s. Top 40 radio was in a quandary. [Legendary Top 40] KHJ [Los Angeles] became so bubblegum … so I listened to [R&B] KGFJ mostly that year but still played KHJ contests and won a car.”

Rich Appel, host of the syndicated “That Thing with Rich Appel,” thinks of it as the year when Top 40 no longer could no longer play the best of everything. After the late summer/early fall of ’68, when the birth of progressive rock spurred the format to acknowledge Cream, Deep Purple, Steppenwolf, Big Brother & the Holding Company w/Janis Joplin, Iron Butterfly, Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, and the Chambers Brothers, “the format noticeably pulled back and left that to FM.”

When Woodstock rolled around that summer, Appel notes, there were only three current top 40 hits performed there — “Green River” by CCR, “Marrakesh Express” by Crosby, Stills & Nash, and “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat & Tears. “The hottest song that week was by an act that couldn’t possibly perform there, and was strictly AM Top 40, the Archies.”

The rift between rock and pop, as veteran rock writer (and Ross On Radio editor) Ken Barnes notes, had been developing for a few years but was “cast in much sharper relief with the advent of bubblegum, and as acid rock, garage rock, freakbeat, and psychedelia irrevocably hardened into downer rock.” Barnes drove cross-country that summer with AM radio and remembers the music as “dangerously thin.”

Even a very young Sean could tell. By the summer of 1969, I’d been listening to current pop and R&B music for two years. I heard the hits coming out of the counselors’ radios at day camp that year. I certainly didn’t hear them with the same discernment as my colleagues quoted here. But after two years when almost everything on the radio was good to me — even “This Guy’s in Love With You” and other hits that definitely weren’t for little kids — I remember not enjoying things as much by 1969.

Bubblegum wasn’t a problem for me. Not as somebody in the target demo, and not now. What I couldn’t articulate, but likely sensed even then, was how some hit music was becoming ponderous. I can now describe “In the Year 2525” as dreary and dystopian (in a way that goes beyond lyrically describing dystopia). At the time, I just found it off-putting. But Barnes remembers it as a low point as well.

There was also a clue in another inescapable hit, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the Fifth Dimension. I knew, because of multiple radio hits, that there was a musical called Hair. I knew about hippies and the cultural upheaval of the era. But I didn’t quite understand how the latter propelled the former, in part because of the way Hair came to me on the radio, delivered by the Cowsills (“Hair”), Oliver (“Good Morning Starshine”), Three Dog Night (“Easy to Be Hard”), and Fifth Dimension.

To be clear, I love Three Dog Night, the Fifth Dimension, and the Cowsills. Even Oliver would’ve been neutral for me, if “Jean” hadn’t been on the way. “Pop act” is a compliment, not a pejorative, in “Ross On Radio” world. But it’s still telling that what pop radio wanted at the time wasn’t, in the parlance of 1969, “heavy,” but for acts they could relate to to co-opt hippiedom into “soft rock.” Of course, there were a lot of rock bands with truer hippie credentials that were fake-heavy, too. “In the Year 2525” was definingly fake-heavy to me. But clearly somebody loved that song, and if you still do, hang on a minute. I’m on a journey of acceptance.

Even before Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the late ‘60s, including “Boss Radio” KHJ and the music it played, I had come to realize that some people heard the music of 1969 in a very different way. That was because Appel’s annual “WOW! 100” countdown often prominently featured songs from the first half of the year (the time frame in Tarantino’s film) as listeners’ most-voted songs.

Among some of the countdown’s biggest songs over the years are these early 1969 hits:

In one sense, “Nothing But a Heartache,” one of my favorite R&B scorchers of all time, has nothing to do with “Will You Be Staying After Sunday.” I found the latter unbearable for a while, but I know how many ROR readers love it. Now it just seems like a lost Spanky & Our Gang hit, but for me it was another kind of “fake-heavy,” as sunshine pop decayed into something more MOR’ish, a trend that would continue through the early ‘70s before calcifying into “Playground in My Mind.” (By contrast, “Morning Girl” is sort of sunshine pop’s last big moment before MOR takes over.)

I like “Sugar on Sunday” and “Things I’d Like to Say” a lot more, but they’re “heavy MOR” in their way, too — both songs by one-time garage bands that could sing ‘em pretty as well. I even hear a thru-line for “My Pledge of Love,” “Nothing But a Heartache,” and even the two huge Foundations hits of the time, “Baby, Now That I Found You” and “Build Me Up Buttercup,” as R&B songs with pop filters — the latter three coming out of the British pop scene. In the end, many of the songs that Appel’s listeners singled out represented some sort of grappling with the era’s ball of confusion, social and musical, and somehow still coming up with a great 2:46 single from time to time.

Now I’m further rethinking 1969 because of Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood. If one is allowed to have any quibbles with Reservoir Dogs, I always wished that the movie’s “K-Billy” radio station had been a screaming ‘70s top 40 — the station worthy of the music — rather than Steven Wright’s deadpan college radio tribute. Radio and TV of the time usually did a bad job of re-creating radio; at least Reservoir Dogs had ironic intent in doing so. But Once Upon a Time … is the make-good, a major motion picture built around airchecks.

Once Upon a Time gives KHJ its moment as well. For many, it’s the greatest AM rocker of all-time. It is almost certainly the key station in radio programming history, because Bill Drake’s streamlining of the Top 40 format is reflected in every subsequent streamlining that came after it for the next 20 years. With the passage of time, and the lack of a WLS Chicago-type powerhouse signal that spread it beyond locals and industry people, KHJ’s footprint has been obscured, unless you’re a radio person or a former local of a certain age. You only wonder if some of those viewers now being introduced to it will think of it as another K-Billy-type creation.

I wondered if Tarantino overstated KHJ’s influence in 1969. Was it really still the station that everybody listened to, even as music changed? But KILT Houston PD and ratings historian Chris Huff notes that KHJ was very much still No. 1 in 1969, landing the last 10 share the market would see until KIIS in 1984, even after losing PD Ron Jacobs. It wasn’t until 1970 when KHJ stumbled. Then it was No. 1 a number of times between 1971-74, although by the end it was with a 7-share, not double digits.

Tarantino cherry-picks the entire Boss Radio era for music. There are many 1968 nuggets, possibly because that’s what he found on the KHJ airchecks he had access to. There are several Paul Revere & the Raiders songs — undoubtedly because of the connection between Raiders producer Terry Melcher and Charles Manson and Sharon Tate, but also proving that what’s great about “Hungry” is what’s great about AM top 40 of the era. Toward the end, there is one song cue, involving a 1967 semi-hit bigger in L.A. than elsewhere, that is devastatingly effective in a “What A Wonderful World” way.

Once Upon a Time inspired me to create a Spotify playlist called “It’s 1969 in Boss Angeles,” featuring both hits and gems from the KHJ Boss 30 between Feb.-Aug. ’69; the six months covered in the film. When Bryan Adams, musical chronicler of the “Summer of ’69,” put together a covers album a few years ago, he chose only one song from the era, “Lay Lady Lay,” but I found a lot more to share.

When you don’t burden winter/spring ’69 with representing pop’s downward spiral, it becomes the season of “Time of the Season,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Everyday People,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Sweet Caroline,” “It’s Your Thing,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Get Back,” “Galveston,” and “The Boxer” — a pretty good list of enduring crowd-pleasers (which, for most people, also include “Sugar Sugar” and “Buttercup”).

It proves that time and cherry-picking can restore luster to any previously tarnished golden year. Fast-forward to the doldrums of 1980-82 and I can come up with an absolutely terrific playlist by allowing “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde or “Controversy” by Prince (or dozens of others) to be more than the almost-hits that they were at the time, and by not including “Through the Years” by Kenny Rogers.   

So no matter how distressing I found radio in 2018, I’ve always known that somebody will write the musical brief for that year. I can do it now and be absolutely sincere: Drake; Kendrick Lamar; Cardi B; Halsey; Maren Morris with Zedd, and without (“Rich”); Khalid; the resurgence of pop/punk, old and new; Latin crossover beyond “Despacito”; “Sicko Mode”; “This Is America.” And unlike 1980-81 when “Controversy” got nowhere near most CHR stations, this was mostly music that made it to CHR radio.

In a seven-month stretch of 2018, Ariana Grande went from another female rhythmic pop artist to a prolific star who changed the way that music reached listeners and radio. Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” was the song that most demonstrated the power of Spotify’s Rap Caviar in putting Hip-Hop front and center for any self-respecting 14-year-old for the first time in a decade-and-a-half.

And now it’s easy to connect CHR’s 2018 struggle to digest Rap Caviar — slowly figuring out which streaming story would be “Sicko Mode” and which would be a two-week spike — to its triage issues with the swirling psychedelia of 1968. Much of what radio played last year was pop music that took its timbre and tempo (or lack thereof) from Hip-Hop and trivialized it into “trap pop.” It was, well, fake-heavy. But the net effect was genuinely sludgy.

Pop music rebounded in 1971 (many say). Or 1974 (I say, although many disagree). But for most, the downward spiral broke at some point (at the latest by 1984, L.A. CHR’s next 10-share year). So far in 2019, three things have happened. Ariana Grande’s blueprint for pushing more hits through the pipeline faster has been adapted by Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, and the Jonas Brothers, thus forcing radio into speeding up to keep up, at least a little. “Old Town Road” gave radio the friendliest, funniest, most accessible streaming story it could hope for. And with “Sucker,” Swift, and Shawn Mendes, top 40 has been able to do the same thing that it was able to do with bubblegum in 1969-70, turn its attention to the pop music it understands until it figures out what to do next.

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  1. kfodor says

    Hey, Sean: How true this is. And, like you, I have NEVER minded pop music. The Cowsills are friends of mine today…I saw them at a show earlier this year and their harmonies are just as good as they ever were. And, former PD John Sebastian is a friend of mine and I am completely backing his new “WOW Factor” format idea to bring the baby boomers back into the advertising fold. The late Ron Jacobs was a programming mentor of mine…when I got my first programming job, I e-mailed him asking for advice, he responded with ten PAGES of material and laid out the entire Boss Radio strategy to me. KHJ was one hell of a radio station. If I could bring it back,,,I’d sure be willing to try.

    1. Sean Ross says

      Thanks, Kevin. I often think about what that station would sound like. Particularly, I wonder where you’d find new talent for it.

  2. says

    As discussed, Tarantino’s “Once Upon” LA radio film trivia:
    Los Angeles Radio newscaster Francesca Cappucci anchored news during the week and hosted a public affairs interview show on Sunday nights for KIQQ-FM in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. After leaving KIQQ she had a career as an actress.

    1. Sean Ross says

      If it’s not already clear, I loved the music and radio element of “Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood,” including how, near the end, Tarantino works in an easter egg reference to L.A. radio vet Francesca Capucci by naming a character after her.

  3. StogieGuy says

    Sean, thanks for such an informative and evocative look at a year that was one of the first where I remember being a pop music and radio geek. Our family spent much of November 1969 in California and this is when my dad’s insistence on tuning in KHJ in the car resulted in my being blown away by it. Prior to this, my gold standard was WABC (heard either when traveling to see family in New England or at night). KHJ changed that. And they even had a guy named Charlie Tuna, just like in those Star Kist ads – only this guy sounded legit! Those days, as a little kid, sewed the seeds of a lifetime love of radio – even if I’ve gone on to make a living in more stable and lucrative waters. Still, I just have to see this Tarantino film.

    And your playlist looks a lot like my 1960s playlist in my iPhone – only more well rounded. Can’t wait to play it.

    1. Sean Ross says

      For a lot of radio people who grew up in NYC, I think WABC was a starter station. Then you learned there was somebody who played different and better songs, and played WABC’s 14 songs sooner. For me it was CKLW, but I’m sure KHJ would’ve had the same impact. Interesting to see how they were flying through songs in 1969.

      1. StogieGuy says

        Lived in the Washington area back then, so we had WPGC, WEAM and -in my area – WEEL. By comparison, WABC was a treat with the jingles and awesome jocks. That said, the music was rarely noteworthy. Lots more R&B in the DC market (which I always loved). So, when I first heard KHJ, I was blown away because It had the best elements of both, yet sounded Fresh.

  4. Chuck Ingersoll says

    Your thoughts are, well, well thought out. Though, my teenage self would gently disagree. It was not until 1975 that Top 40 radio lost me, though I began to noticed the “thinness” around 1973 at times. When I’d here my hometown guy Clint Holmes followed by Wayne Newton, let’s just say that was not ideal for pumping up the jams. But once disco arrived, that’s when the music fell off the cliff for me. I think, even in my relative youth, I could see Top 40 radio trying to figure out what to do about AOR and harder rock, but as I listened to those stations (along with MOR and soul and jazz and pretty much everything except country and polka), I stuck with them because I enjoyed the jocks as well. But the stations like WOWO that played chicken rock, even as a 13-year old I knew they were squaresville. Once, while working at an MOR station, our older morning team introed a new rather soft Jethro Tull song with, “Here’s Jethro Tull. Haven’t heard from him in awhile….”

    1. Sean Ross says

      I agree with you about 1975, although maybe, like 1969, it’s better if you just overlook the extreme dross: “Feelings,” “I’m Sorry,” “Before The Next Teardrop Falls,” “The Last Farewell,” etc. As with the bubblegum of 1969, “Rocky,” “Run Joey Run,” “Shame Shame Shame,” “Black Superman,” and the stuff that was merely goofy doesn’t bother me as much.

      I’m surprised when I still hear today that people still dislike disco. But I heard “Makin’ It” by David Naughton today and I understand feeling that way about that song, or “Goodnight Tonight,” or “The Main Event/Fight.” If you’re in the “loved soul, hate disco” camp, I still regard “Best Of My Love” and “Got To Be Real,” etc., as uptempo soul that just happened to be danceable.

  5. chrisbubb says

    If I’m not mistaken, 1969 was the year WKYC in Cleveland attempted a short-lived album rock format called “Heavy 11.” This was Cleveland’s 50,000-watt clear-channel NBC affiliate which had just failed (vs. WIXY and CKLW) at Top 40 as “Power Radio” (since it was still obligated to carry NBC news and other network programs). An intriguing format choice, but it didn’t last and before long the station had reverted to its previous full service MOR sound and become “3WE” WWWE.

    Were there any other AM stations that attempted to counter Top 40’s softening by doing progressive/AOR as a full-time format? I know WAAM in my hometown market of Ann Arbor had a nighttime progressive-rock show in the late ’60s (the station was block programmed with MOR and Top 40 at other times).

    1. Sean Ross says

      There were definitely AOR stations on AM. I remember WAYE Baltimore being AOR into the late ’70s, but I think of them more as also ran AMs, not sure who of WKYC magnitude did it outright. For heritage CHRs, it was more likely to be something like the album cut experiment of 1971 era where you could hear wacky stuff at night that never made the top 30. Or a station like John Garabedian’s WMEX Boston that aggressively found album cuts and stayed away from certain types of bubblegum of the era.

      1. irv says

        WSAN (1470) in Allentown – not far from you – was AOR at least from the early to mid-70’s. I left the Lehigh Valley in 1976 and don’t know how long the format stayed on the station after that.

        There certainly was a lot of dreck on Top 40 after 1972. But the later 70’s – with the infusion of rock from the Eagles, Foreigner, Bob Seger, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac etc. – actually made listening to Top 40 AM tenable again (even with the disco).

  6. borderblaster says

    It seems to my ears at the time that 1970 was a pivotal year for my top 40 listening. The breakup of The Beatles and Diana Ross leaving the Supremes signaled an end to that era. Add CKLW’s mandatory Can-Con which replaced the Motown and Soul with folksy Canadian singer-songwriter shmaltz and things sounded just a bit different. When I listen to an old American Top 40 from some years in the 1970s, I wonder what in the heck we were thinking. True, a lot of the rock had moved to FM but I didn’t have access to a Progressive/AOR station in my town, unless WRIF drifted in when the band conditions were right. I didn’t mind the disco—my tastes have always run a little more rhythmic and I could only take so much head-banging metal, even when I was in the AOR demo. Never liked the laid-back AOR presentation as much as the top 40 jocks.

    As it happens, I watched “Once Upon A Time” this evening and I found the addition of the KHJ airchecks to be a great touch.

    1. Sean Ross says

      Crazy to think but “Which Way You Going Billy” and “Snowbird” were both pre-Cancon, and both undeniable. That was just what the era sounded like anywhere. Interesting but I grew up with DC101, then WMMR/WYSP/WIOQ and WPLJ/WNEW available, and I just never thought to listen to them. What I missed was having an R&B station that quite came in where I was in Central NJ.

  7. slipcue says

    Great piece about 1969/KHJ!!

    I’m a couple of years younger, I think – but I certainly remember the songs of that summer (and was winning 45’s from the local radio station I would end up running for 14 years later!)

    Keep up the great work – and keep pushing for tempo (and maybe, if it’s not too much to ask, melody?)! 🙂

    1. Sean Ross says

      Definitely looking for not just tempo, but hooks and melodies. I was 6-1/2 that year. I find that guys who like bubblegum and aren’t ashamed to admit it tend to be within about six months of me age-wise.

  8. andy r says

    The influence of Boss Radio 93 KHJ went beyond the shores of North America and could be heard on Australian radio.
    In the late 1960s, dominant AM Top 40 stations in Australia were bigger than life – cliché talking DJs, commercial loads of up to 18 minutes per hour, long news bulletins and even live descriptions of horse races!
    Astute Australian programmers grasped the key factors behind the success of Boss Radio.
    Plus, they understood the potential of the large number of Baby Boomers who were in their teenage years during the late 1960s.
    They also sensed a growing pride of being Australian.
    A different sounding Top 40 radio emerged to reflect the times.
    There was “more music” per hour, the delivery of the announcers was tighter and a distinctive Australian accent and tone was noticeable.
    But it was the insights of Bill Drake and the executional excellence of Ron Jacobs that inspired this sound.
    The approach has proven to be universal and durable as it still underpins the strategy of many Top 40 stations today.

    1. Sean Ross says

      Thanks for your thoughts, Andy. I want to hear more Australian radio from the early ’70s–not just because it was a great leap forward from a programming standpoint but also because the music looks fascinating, especially all the country songs that crossed over there, but not here.

  9. stu wright says

    One of the best songs of 1969-late spring-early summer, “Love (Can Make You Happy”)…one hit wonder, Mercy, it went # 2 Billboard and I think # 1 Cashbox…I remember playing it as a 16 year old high school kid doing radio in the summer of 69 (WSIB, 1490, Beaufort, SC)*..great slow dance song, for the older crowd, and still one of my all time favorites. *Beaufort, SC, where much of “The Big Chill” “The Prince Of Tides” and some of “Forest Gump” was filmed…The house where The Prince of Tides was made is for sale if you have an extra few million lying around…anyway I thought I had the big time. 16 doing afternoons on a 500 watt blow torch…working for I think a quarter an hour over minimum wage at times running 22 minutes of spots an hour…

    1. Sean Ross says

      Stu – This has been part of my education process on 1969. I always thought Mercy was sappy, not happy. But like Peppermint Rainbow, it’s a song people treasure. And I definitely didn’t have anybody to slow dance with at age 6-1/2. And I definitely can’t dispute the good taste of the guy who kept “Lady Soul” by the Temptations as an oldie well into the 2010s.

    2. Sean Ross says

      Stu – This has been part of my education process on 1969. I always thought Mercy was sappy, not happy. But like Peppermint Rainbow, it’s a song people treasure. And I definitely didn’t have anybody to slow dance with at age 6-1/2. Also, I can’t dispute the good taste of the guy who kept “Lady Soul” by the Temptations as an oldie well into the 2010s.

  10. stu wright says

    Thanks for responding…Yes the song by Peppermint Rainbow (We must be talking about'”Will You Be Staying After Sunday”) is a great tune and would in some kind of rotation on a greatest hits station if I was programming one…(The Mama’s and Papas were back up on the song I am told)….Have a good Tuesday and maybe a better Tuesday Afternoon listening to the Moody Blues…and yes “Lady Soul” is still a Carolina’s Beach song….

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