Left Of The Dial

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 9, 2010
 
Passin’ through and it’s late, the station started to fade
Picked another one up in the very next state… I’ll try to find you, Left of the dial’
Left of the Dial – The Replacements, 1985
 

THINGS have changed since Paul Westerberg sketched that classic picture of trying to tune into a friend’s new band on the American alternative/college radio stations, tucked away on the left of the dial.

It still holds true about stations fading out on you and the need for constant re-tuning to pick up something worth listening to.

Actually scratch that, they don’t seem to fade out as such, more magically retune to a default setting which is guaranteed to be playing John ‘Cougar’ ‘Soddin’ Mellencamp. Altogether now: ‘Little ditty, about Jack and Diane…’

Sod the fact that Jack has long since left Diane with four kids in the trailer park and even a last-ditch attempt to save their relationship on Jerry Springer ended with Jack facing charges of assault and the eldest child being recognised as the ring leader of a cow-tipping ring. They still play that song everywhere you bloody go in a perpetual medley with The Black-Eyed chuffin’ Peas.

No, let’s not get this party started. Let’s play something people might actually want to listen to as they hit the open road in sweltering heat…

Sorry, but these are the sort of things which get to you when you drive 6,000 miles in five weeks around the USA in a little white Pontiac, playing the twin games of seeing if the temperature gauge tops 100 degrees Centigrade again today and desperately trying to find something worth listening to on FM radio.

Left of the dial these days seems to bring you just two things – God-fearing bible-bashers, paranoid their listeners will rush over to the dark side (that’s the Devil, not AM radio) if they don’t mention Jesus at least once every 10 seconds, or right-wing talk shows raging against Obama and calling for him to be impeached, either for having the cheek to win an election or just because it’s too damn hot.

Occasionally you’ll get right-wing God-fearing talk show hosts going on about Jesus and Obama, but best not to hang around on those channels long enough to find out how close they got to comparing the President with the Devil.

Apart from that, your choices are local sports phone-ins (wildly entertaining in a ‘are they really having a half-hour debate about the third-string wide receiver at the local high school?’ sort of way), national sports phone-ins (much the same, but debates about the third-string wide receiver of the Cincinnati Bengals. Or Lebron James. Or Brett Favre) or, eventually, some music.

Music radio comes in three distinct categories – country, rock and pop. Wait long enough and all three of them will eventually play Jack and Diane and you are pretty sure to get Don’t Stop Believing thrown in as well.

The country stations are not just kept to the South, although down there it is hard to find anything else (unless it is country rock), but crop up all over the place and ram the dial from left to right.

Occasionally they will pull in unsuspecting listeners with something that’s only vaguely country, but it won’t be long before someone’s warbling about their lost love running away with their pick-up truck on the same day their dog died by throwing itself off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Actually, that’s a bit harsh from someone a bit partial to the odd bit of country (more the alt-country, American variety than the populist Grand Old Opry stuff) and did stumble across two little gems which will always bring back good memories of the trip – check out Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer by Billy Currington and Drinkin’ Bone by Tracy Byrd (which we first stumbled on performed by a drunk Canadian at a karaoke in Banff). You may notice a link…

The rock stations differ only in their interpretation of the term ‘rock’. Some opt for anything with a guitar which is not necessarily, but not totally excluding, country. Others opt for the heavier, metal-based form of the genre, although even they get dragged back to more mainstream fodder – presumably to please the advertisers. All of them will, before too long, play Journey and that bleedin’ Mellencamp bloke.

Which leaves us with the pop stations. Like their rock brethren, they do have the excellent habit of running about 45 minutes of consecutive music together each hour before a big lump of adverts. Sadly, most of the music will be shit.

The odd station will veer more towards the vintage market and throw you the occasional bone of a good tune to get you interested and ensure you stick with them for the next few miles in the hope of another one.

Instead, you will get anodyne rubbish, mixed in with the hourly ritual of Don’t Stop Believing, Jack and Diane and those really, really annoying Black-Eyed Peas. At least they come up with recognisable intros. “I’ll change that tune in…”

All this ended up with two outcomes – enough time listening to ESPN Radio formed firm opinions on the Cincinnati Bengals third-choice wide receiver, Lebron James, Brett Favre (shouldn’t have come back Brett) and whether the Tampa Bay Rays can stay the distance in the AL East title race (Go Sox).

Secondly, it meant that by New York honed back into view, I knew what was going on in the charts, could sing along to not one but two Katy Perry tracks (much to Phoebe’s amusement) and had even downloaded a couple of tracks making waves in the ‘hit parade’ (Eminem and B.o.B if anyone is interested).

But amidst all of this, every so often the spirit of Paul Westerberg was summoned and something more akin to his words would spring from the speakers as the radio sifted through the left of the dial.

First of them came climbing towards the highest point on the staggeringly gorgeous Blue Ridge Parkway – a 450-odd mile ribbon of sinuous, breathtaking road through Virginia and North Carolina (which we would have got to it this in this entry but for getting sidetracked by the rant about American radio).

Given the gradient, the succession of sweeping curves, the onset of rain and clouds as the road shot up (even with the temperature gauge way up in the 90s) and the steep drop off to the left, perhaps playing with the radio dial should have been replaced by fully concentrating on the road.

But it was worth it for that unmistakable, slightly distorted rhythmic opening, the first thumps of Bill Berry’s snare and straight into Michael Stipe’s very personal murmur, all sounding like it was recorded in somebody’s basement.

Never has Radio Free Europe sounded so good as, cranked right up, the Pontiac careered (as much as you can do with a 45mph speed limit) around the last few upward bends and pulled into the car park at the viewpoint.

Those already there were torn between watching the, supposedly, glorious view disappear as the clouds rolled in to engulf everything or the strange-looking bloke sat drumming (badly) on the steering wheel of his hire car and singing along to whatever was blaring from his stereo.

After taking in what was left of the view and used the facilities, not only was it sheeting down with rain and the cloud cutting visibility to mere yards, but all that was coming from that station was a despondent hiss – never to be heard from again on the, very careful, way down the other side of the hill, back to glorious sunshine and, probably, Don’t Stop Believing.

Refusing to stop believing produced, just once more, my reward while heading south down the interstate through Alabama from Athens, Georgia to Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Fed up with the completely humourless, know-it-all host of a sports phone-in centred on the football rivalry between Alabama and Auburn Universities, the dial was turned full left in search of something worth listening to.

And, somehow, heading south on the I-85, up popped the Cocteau Twins, followed by The Cure, followed by… actually, can’t quite remember. But Auburn University college radio had somehow transported me back to the late 1980s with their Old Time Lunchtimes – akin to a re-run of a vintage Annie Nightingale Request Show from a Sunday night in my teens, without the letters (written in purple) from lovelorn goths.

Which is why, pulling into a service stop to stock up on cold drinks, The Sex Pistols were blaring out of my car, Pretty Vacant attracting the sort of looks it hasn’t engendered since 1977.

With high anticipation and having scurried back to the car, starting the engine only found… distortion and the eerily familiar sound of a radio station going out of range.

Sadly, pulling out onto the interstate, Johnny Lydon’s sneer was replaced by the inevitable…

‘Little ditty about Jack and Diane, two American kids growin’ up in the heartland…’

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