by Michael Goldberg
Monday October 8, 2001
Two decades on, "The Unheard Music" is still the music you need to hear.
It's not that nothing changes. When it comes to commercial radio, things change. They get worse and worse and worse.
When I first learned that Clear Channel, which owns over 1200 radio stations, among them more than half of the popular music stations in the U.S., had sent out a list of 150 "lyrically questionable" songs to program directors at their stations in the wake of the terrorist attacks, I thought of a song by X called "The Unheard Music."
"Some smooth chords/ On the car radio," Exene Cervenka and John Doe sang. "No hard chords/ On the car radio. ... We're locked out of the public eye."
I love that song, which appeared on X's 1980 album, Los Angeles. I love the whole album, including the cover a crude black-and-white photo of an "X" in flames and the words, underlined and printed in red: "LOS ANGELES."
Feigned Slacker Indifference
That song can be interpreted in many ways. On the surface, it's simply about recording artists who can't get their music played on the radio. But I also hear an outsider talking about an entire culture and, remember, the song was written before Indie Nation rose during the '80s that was/is excluded from the mainstream, and is more often than not excluded from the formal history of our times.
Take Flipper. The messy slow-core San Francisco band inspired Kurt Cobain and probably many other '80s and '90s indie rockers, not only with their music (their first album, Generic, first released on vinyl in 1981, is another masterpiece) but also with their "never mind" attitude, which predated the feigned slacker indifference of grunge by nearly a decade.
Flipper's recordings didn't get written about in the mainstream music press when they were first released (I managed to get them into the San Francisco Chronicle in the early '80s, I'm proud to say). They didn't get on commercial radio. Yet for a time Flipper played to hundreds of fans in San Francisco clubs. Today, like X, like the Blasters, like Bikini Kill, they are among legions of bands who affected people but are not part of the formal written "history" of popular music and, more importantly, are still not played on the radio.
Tune in one of those '80s rock stations, and you won't hear "The Unheard Music." You won't hear "The Way of the World" or "Sex Bomb" or "Six Pack." What you will hear is a kind of top-40 version of '80s rock some of the songs that were popular during the '80s, played again and again and again.
Never On Any List
As I was writing this, I got the new Le Tigre album, Feminist Sweepstakes, in the mail. You can bet that if any promo copies were sent to Clear Channel stations, they're already in the sell bins (you know, the box that gets filled with CDs that someone takes to the used-CD shop).
Le Tigre comprise former Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna, Johanna Fateman and new member JD Samson. The group, along with Chris Stamey, produced the album; and it seems that they continue to address the challenge of making great music, music that you can dance to and sing along to, that also says something. Thus in the lead-off track, "LT Tour Theme," they ask "Won't you dance some more?" while four tracks later they hit heavy: "Ten short years of progressive change, 50 fuckin' years of calling us names. Can we trade Title 9 for an end to hate crime? RU-486 if we suck your fuckin' dick?"
What is so funny about that Clear Channel list is that it includes songs by John Lennon and Cat Stevens and Ozzy Ozbourne, not X or Hüsker Dü or The Replacements or Le Tigre. Some of the greatest artists since the beginning of rock 'n' roll half a century ago didn't have to be put on the Clear Channel list, because they'd already been eliminated. They never got a shot. Their music was never played on commercial radio. It was, and it remains, the unheard music.