The Real Summer Of ‘69
If 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:
- Orpheus, “Can’t Find the Time” (has made the countdown 10 times);
- Flirtations, “Nothing But a Heartache” (10x and several No. 1 placings);
- Magic Lanterns. “Shame Shame” (10x)
- Peppermint Rainbow, “Will You Be Staying After Sunday” (10x)
- New Colony Six, “Things I’d Like to Say” (10x)
- Neon Philharmonic, “Morning Girl” (9x)
- J.J. Jackson, “But It’s Alright” (8x)
- Joe Jeffrey Group, “My Pledge of Love” (7x)
- Elvis Presley, “If I Can Dream” (6x)
- Spiral Starecase, “More Today Than Yesterday” (5x)
- Clique, “Sugar on Sunday” (5x)
- Grass Roots, “I’d Wait a Million Years” (5x)
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.