Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Column: Where have all the oldies gone?

It's hello Nicki, goodbye Dusty.

I can only imagine what Boston radio listeners thought last week when they turned on Oldies 103 with the full expectation of hearing “Brandy” by Looking Glass and instead heard the opening rap of “Starships” by Nicki Minaj. They probably figured the funky sugar cubes they ingested at that Iron Butterfly concert in 1968 were finally catching up with them, like those health class movies always said they would.

Of course what actually happened was that 103.3 had become AMP 103, a Top 40/dance pop station. I was surprised at how upsetting I found this development, even if Oldies 103 didn’t have the most startlingly original programming — they tended to play the same 10 oldies over and over again, and eight of them were “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac. It also wasn’t really an oldies station, at least not anymore — because if “My Life” by Billy Joel was now an oldie, what does that make ME?

But I did, and do, remember when the station debuted in 1987 and played songs from 1955-1969. Having grown up with New York’s classic CBS FM — thanks to my father, whose first record was Chuck Berry’s “School Days” and who always instilled in us the importance of a saxophone solo and a good guitar riff — I found the new WODS comforting during my early college years. Even if I was the only one in the dorm who knew who the Five Satins were. (Hint: Not a bowling team, probably.)

It didn’t take long for the station to add the ’70s into the mix, and eventually the ’80s. The ’50s songs, meanwhile, disappeared the same way “Music of Your Life” faded out when I was a kid, leaving my poor grandfather to listen exclusively to ball games. His only other option was to risk hearing Kool and the Gang staking out Frank Sinatra’s former airwaves and consequently having to smash his transistor radio with a rock.

I couldn’t quite relate, though, until last week, when Katy Perry weaseled her nondescript little voice into Dusty Springfield’s former territory on 103.3. (The running joke among my kids, ages 10 and 13, is that I tend to ask wincingly “Who IS this?” every time a Katy Perry song comes on the air, as if my brain refuses to store her musical DNA no matter how many times it has the misfortune of passing through there.)

It’s not like I was an everyday listener, but there was something reassuring about flipping on Oldies 103 at a backyard cookout and hearing “These Eyes,” “Sister Golden Hair,” “The Loco-Motion” and all the rest. (Not to mention honest-to-goodness real rock ’n’ roll from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Credence.) If the bass is turned up loud enough on AMP 103, on the other hand, I get the impression it could short-circuit the barbecue-goers’ nervous systems, leaving them flopping around the pool like deranged salmon.

I should mention I’m not completely repulsed by the AMP 103 playlist, Katy Perry aside — my daughter and I recently came up with a list of common-ground songs, and it had Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, that girl who sings about calling me maybe and even some Nicki Minaj. (Yes, I’ve been known to find myself singing “jump in my hoop-de-hoop-de-hoop, I own that” while doing dishes. I didn’t say I was proud of it.) But didn’t we get enough of that on KISS 108, 104.5 XLO, MIX 104.1 — the former WBCN! — and all the rest?

Now the Boston oldies crowd is left with 105.7 WROR, but their promos are starting to tout music from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s “and even a little bit of the ’90s” — which means they’re probably getting ready to jettison the ’60s like a bad batch of patchouli oil.

Fortunately these days there are other options, like satellite, HD and Internet radio (where Oldies 103 lives on) and the omnipresent iPod app. In honor of WODS, I embraced my oldification and downloaded one called the “True Oldies Channel” so I could listen to some Guess Who, Tommy James and Three Dog Night — the whole time thinking that they don’t make ’em, or at least play ’em, like that anymore.

Not that I’ve given up on everyday radio. There’s always the ball games.

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