Inventory: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, 10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined by Saxophone, and 100 More Obsessively Specific Pop-Culture Lists
By The A.V. Club
Paperback, 256 pages
List price: $18
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This list contains language some might find offensive.
AVClub.com — the arts-and-entertainment section of The Onion — just released a book of slightly skewed pop-culture lists called Inventory: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, 10 Songs Nearly Ruined By Saxophone, And 100 More Obsessively Specific Pop-Culture Lists. Since Weekend Edition was kind enough to interview Managing Editor Josh Modell about the book, we thought we'd create an exclusive, radio-themed list for NPR.org.
1. Elvis Costello And The Attractions, 'Radio, Radio'
Elvis Costello was too much a square peg for anyone to categorize as punk or new wave when he first started recording in the late '70s. It would make sense for him to be grateful for any sort of airplay, but the snarling 1978 single "Radio, Radio" makes good on its lyrical promise to bite the hand that feeds him by criticizing the commercialization, homogenization, and play-it-safe policies of the recording industry and their radio partners. "You either shut up or get cut out," Costello sings, and while that might not have endeared him to his label or radio stations, it scored him plenty of cred among those similarly fed up. (The song took on added infamy when Costello unexpectedly launched into it after starting a different song during a 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live.)
2. Stiff Little Fingers, 'You Can't Say Crap On The Radio'
According to journalist Gordon Ogilvie's liner notes for All The Best, "You Can't Say Crap On The Radio" was based on a DJ's "horrified reaction" during a Metro Radio interview, when singer Jake Burns let that relatively tame profanity fly. Standards may have loosened since the early '80s — and thanks to Howard Stern and his ilk, nowadays you could probably take a crap on the radio without losing your sponsors — but the sentiment is still the same: You can't say "shit" on the radio, but the DJ "can play shite all day." Ultimately, which is worse?
3. Neil Young, 'Payola Blues'
One of only a handful of originals on 1983's Everybody's Rockin' — Young's confounding rockabilly album, recorded in the midst of his "up yours, Geffen" phase — "Payola Blues" harkens back to the (supposedly) bygone era when the only way to get your song on commercial radio was to bribe the DJ. Lyrically, it fits right in with the album's ersatz '50s theme, even including a shout out to Mr. Payola himself, Alan Freed. But coming as it did during Young's infamous "unrepresentative" era, when no one could figure out why he was messing around with Vocoders and one-off bands like The Shocking Pinks instead of making the next Harvest, he may as well be talking about himself when he sings, "I never hear my record on the radio"—though it probably would have taken a lot more than "three thousand" or a "new Mercedes-Benz" to make this one a hit.
4. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, 'The Last DJ'
Tom Petty has griped about the venality of the music industry often in interviews and boardrooms alike, but he took his fight to the public with "The Last DJ," an angry rocker about the way the voices and choices of individual human beings are being driven off the airwaves in favor of corporate-selected playlists and pre-recorded jocks. Petty spits: "As we celebrate mediocrity / All the boys upstairs want to see / How much you'll pay / For what you used to get for free." It may seem disingenuous for a major-label millionaire to complain about showbiz profiteering, but it's hard to question Petty's conviction here. The man is pissed.
5. Rush, 'The Spirit Of Radio'
Rush's salute to the Toronto progressive rock station CFNY begins with a string of happy thoughts, as Geddy Lee sings about how "the magic music makes your morning mood" and he offers evocative images of invisible airwaves crackling with life and bright antennas bristling with energy. But the vision darkens by the end, as Lee starts raging against the machine-tooled music and "endless compromises" that are ruining radio (at least circa 1980). The song ends with a pithy Rush rewrite of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sounds Of Silence," as Lee sings, "For the words of the prophets / Are written on the studio wall / And concert halls / Echo with the sounds ... of salesmen." Ooooh ... salesmen!
6. Dead Prez, 'Turn Off The Radio'
Perpetually apoplectic political rappers Dead Prez feel so strongly about the sad state of the airwaves that they've titled three mix tapes after their incendiary 2002 track "Turn Off The Radio." Opening with a war whoop and lively percussion, the duo rips into commercial radio as "propaganda, mind controlling, putting it on is like putting on a blindfold." The chorus admonishes free-thinking revolutionaries to reject the materialistic pap propagated by greedy stations and "Turn off the radio / Turn off that bullshit." Gosh, guys, how do you really feel?
7. Public Enemy, 'How To Kill A Radio Consultant'
Back when hip-hop was still considered too dangerous for drive time, almost every rapper had a beef with the radio and the way it ignored rappers in favor of pop-oriented R&B and "new jack swing." (See also: Ice Cube's "Turn Off The Radio," released the year before.) "Damn, gimme rap / No band, I want some X-Clan," Chuck D. demands, blaming the lack of real hip-hop on the airwaves on whatever "sucker in a suit" is programming for a neighborhood he doesn't even live in, then calling for that dude's head. Of course, eventually said sucker must have developed a survival instinct (or more likely, a business sense), because these days you'd be hard-pressed not to "hear a rhyme" on the radio. (It could always use more Eric B., however.)
8. Steely Dan, 'FM'
Steely Dan's title track to FM — a justly forgotten, Robert Altman-inspired 1978 comedy that tries to pass off Foreigner, Foghat, and REO Speedwagon as paragons of rock rebellion — at first sounds like an extension of that movie's middle-of-the-road sounds. But, as usual with The Dan, there's bite beneath the smooth licks and fussed-over production. FM always plays "somebody else's favorite song" and mostly serves as the soundtrack to disposable seductions. "The girls don't seem to care what's on, as long as it plays 'til dawn," sings Donald Fagen. Rock doesn't rock so much as just hang in the air, like cheap weed or stale cologne.