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 its 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 who were 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, in his 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” hearkens 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 might 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 often griped about the venality of the music industry 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 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 And 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”
The perpetually apoplectic political rappers in 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.” “Damn, gimme rap / No band, I want some X-Clan,” Chuck D. demands on “How To Kill A Radio Consultant,” which blames 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 he calls 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. Ice Cube, “Turn Off The Radio”
Where Chuck D. saw radio’s ignorance of hip-hop as the result of suit-wearing Uncle Toms dictating programming from their cushy suburbs, Ice Cube takes a predictably more militant stance in this track released the year before “How To Kill A Radio Consultant.” It’s willful ignorance, Cube argues, saying, “Reality, that’s what they’re running from.” Instead of making music that people on the streets can relate to, black artists have been reduced to an “R&B love triangle,” playing the same safe, palatable slow jams that black musicians have been supplying white audiences with for the better part of a century. But Cube isn’t having any of that Nat King Cole shit: “If you’re out there kicking it with the brothers / You don’t care about lovers / You wanna hear a young nigga on the mic going buck-wild.” Still, both Cube and Chuck D. reach the same conclusion—for these sins, someone’s got to die—but Cube’s call to put a “DJ face down in the river” is vehemently “not a threat, but a promise.” In the meantime, Cube offers a familiar solution: “Turn off that motherfucking radio.”
9. 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—initially 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.
10. They Might Be Giants, “Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal”
Many of They Might Be Giants’ earlier songs were bouncy nonsense, complicated, allusive metaphors, or both. But very occasionally, they sang clearly and specifically about the business of being a band, as on “Rhythm Section Want Ad” from their self-titled debut and “Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal,” from the Purple Toupee EP and later the B-sides-and-rarities collection Miscellaneous T. The latter tells the drippingly cynical story of a DJ demanding payola in exchange for radio play of the narrator’s music. The narrator duly ponies up, but the DJ disappears with his money, leaving the narrator to mix his metaphors in the frustrated chorus: “I thought you said ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch your record’ / And I thought you said we had a deal.” But the song isn’t just bitter about one corrupt con-artist; it sighs over the state of the entire industry, as the DJ promises that fame and repeat plays go hand-in-hand, since as long as music gets enough airtime, no one ever cares—or apparently notices—whether it’s actually good. Which is why anyone trying to get their music out should “think long-term investment,” and pay off every grabby bastard with a sound board and a transmitter to his name.
11. R.E.M., “Radio Song”
R.E.M.’s flirtations with guest rappers haven’t turned out that well, though “Radio Song,” from Out Of Time, fares far better than “The Outsiders,” featuring Q-Tip. On this jokey little number, Stipe and co. are joined by KRS-One in a jocular complaint about the state of the dial. “The world is collapsing around our ears,” it begins, before getting even more direct: “It’s that same, same song—the DJ sucks!—makes me sad.” It would’ve been a fun trifle without KRS-One’s over-the-top verse at the end, which implies that somehow radio has ruined the next generation. (“Now our children grow up prisoners / all their life, radio listeners!”) Unlike some other songs from Out Of Time, it hasn’t aged well.
12. The Smiths, “Panic”
It’s easy to assume that Morrissey wrote the lyrics to “Panic” in a fit of anger at club DJs who wouldn’t play his band’s songs, but it was actually inspired by a very specific radio DJ named Steve Wright. The story goes that Moz and Johnny Marr heard Wright read the news about the Chernobyl disaster, then follow it with a Wham! track. The key line, of course, could apply to both clubs and mainstream radio: “The music that the constantly play / it says nothing to me about my life.”
13. Ramones, “We Want The Airwaves”
In 1980, the Ramones issued a mild rebuke of mainstream radio in the form of the nostalgic, Phil Spector-produced “Do You Remember Rock ’N’ Roll Radio?” At that point, the band still had hopes of becoming chart-topping superstars—but within months, bitterness and frustration had set in. The following year, the struggling punk vets released “We Want The Airwaves,” and the lean, bleak song bears not a whiff of warm-fuzzy nostalgia. Instead, a stung Joey Ramone sings: “Where’s your guts and will to survive? / Don’t you wanna keep rock ’n’ roll music alive? / Mr. Programmer, I got my hammer / and I’m gonna smash my, smash my radio.” Is it any wonder that Pleasant Dreams, the disc “Airwaves” appears on, also features the Joey-penned track “This Business Is Killing Me”?
14. The Kinks, “Around The Dial”
Something must have been in the air—or messing up the airwaves—as the ’70s turned into the ’80s. This track, which kicked off the Kinks’ 1981 album Give The People What They Want, finds Ray Davies and company lamenting the unexplained disappearance of a favorite DJ and the sorry state of corporate-run radio. But the band is sending out its own mixed signals. The music sounds like an attempt to keep up with arena-era Who and the new punk sounds, but the protest lyrics are in essence another Kinksian lament for the irretrievable past, angried up a bit to serve the spirit of the day.
15. Dead Kennedys, “Triumph Of The Swill”
“Ever wonder why commercial radio’s so bad?” Jello Biafra howls on Dead Kennedys’ 1986 song “Triumph Of The Swill.” He supplies his own answer: “It’s ’cause someone upstairs wants it that way.” It’s no surprise that hardcore’s biggest conspiracy theorist would rail against the radio (and some specific targets, including Sammy Hagar and, uh, Bing Crosby). What is surprising, though, is Biafra’s next line, in which the snotty iconoclast seems to implicitly endorse two of rock’s messiahs: “If The Doors or John Lennon were getting started now,” he sings, “the industry wouldn’t sign them in a million years.” Of course, the next Doors (Alice In Chains) and the next John Lennon (Kurt Cobain) came along just a couple years after Biafra wrote “Triumph.” And they did—for better or worse for the artists involved—get plastered all over the airwaves.
16. Down By Law, “Nothing Good On The Radio”
Dave Smalley, former frontman of the legendary punk bands Dag Nasty and All, has never seemed remotely careerist when it comes to playing music—so when he bitches about the insipidness of DJ playlists on Down By Law’s “Nothing Good On The Radio,” it’s clearly coming from the perspective of a music geek, not a wannabe rock star. After singing “You spin that dial looking for The Clash / and all you hear is worthless trash,” Smalley lists some of his most hated hitmakers—including Backstreet Boys, Matchbox 20, 2Pac, and Jewel—then declares, “Everything on the dial sounds the same!” With all due respect to Smalley, if he thinks 2Pac and Jewel sound the same, he might want to get his speakers checked.
17. NOFX, “Please Play This Song On The Radio”
The shittiness of pop radio (and how bands turn themselves to shit in order to get airtime) was a running gag among punk bands throughout the ’90s, which not coincidentally was a time when punk bands suddenly started selling millions of records to 8-year-olds. The truth, of course, was that B-level bands like the jokey SoCal outfit NOFX simply weren’t good enough to be played next to Green Day. But the band’s “fuck you” anti-radio anthem “Please Play This Song On The Radio” is still a likeably cantankerous round-up of all the easy tricks bands use to make themselves more pop-friendly. The song is “not too short, not too long,” and “it’s got backup vocals in just the right places.” It’s catchy, mindless, and “almost every verse ends in a rhyme.” “Please Play This Song On The Radio” has all the makings of an actual radio hit until NOFX self-sabotages in the final verse by dropping an F-bomb and flipping the bird to the government. “So, Mr. DJ, I hope you already made your segue, or the FCC is gonna take a shit right on your head.”
18. Bruce Springsteen, “Radio Nowhere”
The advent of satellite radio meant that more people could listen to the same thing. It also meant a homogenization of the airwaves and a succession of blandly empty DJs who probably wouldn’t pass a Turing test. Bruce Springsteen has some issues with this. In “Radio Nowhere,” off the album Magic, the Boss decries the lack of human connection in modern technology. It’s doubtful Springsteen himself is in danger of getting pushed off the air, but that doesn’t make the song any less sincere. “I just wanna hear some rhythm” starts out as a demand, but ends as a cry of desperation in the wilderness.
19. Shellac, “The End of Radio”
Given that Steve Albini once compared the music industry to a trench full of excrement, it’s not surprising he takes a dim view of the corporatization of the airwaves. But the force of the attack lodged by his abrasive power trio, Shellac, is still staggering. A sought-after producer for his ability to record live instruments with unmatched fidelity, Albini has said there is nothing more beautiful than the unaltered sound of a drum kit in an empty room, which is how “The End of Radio” begins. The skittering, arhythmic snare is joined by a thudding quarter-note riff that lands with the impact of a dinosaur’s feet, and then by Albini’s strangled voice, which cobbles together a distress call out of audio detritus. Recycling studio banter (“Is this thing on?) and commercial slogans (“Can you hear me now?”), Albini pieces together linguistic fragments like an archaeologist trying to assemble a pot from scattered shards. The song’s steadily mounting tension turns the optimism of the Modern Lovers’ AM paean “Roadrunner” inside-out, and converts the prerecorded peril of the Emergency Broadcast Network test into an urgent cry for help. “If this had been a real emergency…. THIS IS A REAL GOD DAMN EMERGENCY!” As an added bonus, the song’s 9-and-a-half minute length makes it anathema for commercial radio but perfect for college DJs who need to grab a smoke.
20. The Clash, “Capital Radio One”
Although they now seem like the most radio-friendly of British punk bands, there was a time when even the Clash couldn’t get on the air, largely because Britain’s only officially sanctioned music station refused to play any punk at all. Enter “Capital Radio One,” a boisterous and deliberately crude attack on musical conformity. Welcoming listeners to “the Dr. Goebbels Show,” Joe Strummer takes aim at program director Aidan Day, who “picks all the records they play to keep you in your place all day.” After initial copies of the Capital Radio E.P. started fetching high prices, the band rerecorded the song, bringing up the sound and adding a fake-out intro with chiming acoustic guitars, as well as an outro in which Strummer muses, “We’ll never get on the radio like this.”
21. Sondre Lerche, “Heartbeat Radio”
Intermingling romantic disappointment and musical monotony, Lerche’s twee ditty surveys a barren landscape where personal expression has been replaced by endless repetition. In a landscape where local disc jockeys have been replaced by prerecorded personalities beamed in from other locales, there’s no one minding the store. “What’s the deal with the static?” Lerche sings. “Did the DJ drown in a sea of reverb and compression?” He finds himself off the playlist in his personal life as well, wondering “what comes after heavy rotation.” With its bouncy acoustic guitar and orchestral accents, “Heartbeat Radio” serves as a palliative to the bloodless pop the song decries — that is, if anyone’s listening.